The Modern Period

Francis Bacon

“Francis Bacon” by Drebbel. Public domain.

Dominated by the rationalism instituted by Descartes and Ramus, modern rhetoric continued to promote the importance of science and philosophy over rhetoric. Francis Bacon (1561–1626) was a prominent figure of the modern period. He was concerned with the lack of scholarly progress during the Middle Ages and sought to promote a revival of secular knowledge through an empirical examination of the world. His definition of rhetoric suggests his effort to bring the power of language under rational control, “. . . the duty of rhetoric is to apply Reason to Imagination for the better moving of the will.”[1] Bacon, then, advanced the scientific approach to the study of rhetoric that would support the three trends of modern rhetorical thought.

The three trends in rhetoric that characterized the modern period are—epistemological, belletristic, and elocutionist. Epistemology is the study of the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge. Epistemological thinkers, such as Bacon, sought to change classical approaches in terms of modern developments in psychology. They attempted to understand rhetoric in relation to the psychological process and contributed to the development of a rhetoric premised on human nature.

The Epistemological Tradition

George Campbell (1719–1796) and Richard Whately (1758–1859) exemplify the best of the epistemological tradition. Campbell authored The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1776). He drew on Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian as well as faculty psychology and empiricism (experience of the senses) of his times. Faculty psychology attempted to explain human behavior in terms of the five faculties of the mind—understanding, memory, imagination, passion, and will—and Campbell’s definition of rhetoric was directed to these faculties. Campbell distinguished three types of evidence—mathematical axioms, derived through reasoning; consciousness, or the result of sensory stimulation; and common sense, an intuitive sense shared by virtually all humans.[2]

As one may bring himself to believe almost anything he is inclined to believe, it makes all the difference whether we begin or end with the inquiry, “What is truth?” – Richard Whately

Richard Whately published Elements of Rhetoric in 1828. His view of rhetoric was similar to Campbell’s in its dependence on psychology, but he shifted from Campbell by making argumentation the focus of the art of rhetoric. He is also known for his analysis of presumption [of innocence] and burden of proof, which paved the way for modern argumentation and debate practices. The epistemologists combined their knowledge of classical rhetoric and contemporary psychology to create rhetorics based on an understanding of human nature. By doing this, they introduced audience- centered approaches to rhetoric and pioneered the way for contemporary investigations with audience analysis.

The Belles Lettres Movement

Hugh Blair

“Hugh Blair” by John Kay. Public domain.

The second direction rhetoric took in the modern period is known as the belles lettre movement; the term, in French, literally means “fine or beautiful letters.” This is a departure from both the rationalists and elocutionists because this form of literature valued the aesthetic qualities of writing rather than any informative value it may have. The scope of what was considered to be rhetoric broadened to include all of the fine arts of the period, poetry, music, drama, gardening and architecture, along with oral discourse, writing and criticism.

Hugh Blair is best known for his advocacy of the belletristic movement. He was a Presbyterian preacher and occupied the Chair of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres at the University of Edinburgh. He had a number of publications, but his most well-known was the Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, which was based on his lectures. Lectures is important because it drew on the works of Cicero and Quintilian and combined them with the modern works of Addison and Burke to become one of the first whole language guides. Blair’s theories were founded in the belief that the principles of rhetoric evolve from the principles of nature.

Gentleness corrects whatever is offensive in our manner. – Hugh Blair

The Elocutionary Movement

Thomas Sheridan

“Thomas Sheridan” by Roger Ingpen. Public domain.

The elocutionary movement, the third rhetorical trend of the modern period, reached its height in the mid- eighteenth century. Before the Elocutionary Movement most scholars of rhetoric quickly assimilated the Latin elocutio (style) with the English word elocution. However, by the eighteenth century scholars more accurately began to regard elocution as the Latin pronunciato (delivery). This change in association gave rise to the Elocutionary Movement, a movement that focused primarily on delivery. Although there are many theorists associated with the Elocutionary Movement, the most widely publicized is Thomas Sheridan. Sheridan was an Irish actor and educator of elocution. He wanted to reform the educational system of Britain to correct the serious neglect of rhetorical delivery-elocution. This belief not only involved the voice, but also incorporated the entire person with facial expressions, gesture, posture and movement.

He steps on stage and draws the sword of rhetoric, and when he is through, someone is lying wounded and thousands of others are either angry or consoled. – Pete Hamill

However, the elocutionists of this period regarded themselves as rhetoricians and their work as rhetoric. There were a number of reasons why the movement flourished. During the eighteenth and nineteenth century an increasing number of professions required the skill of public speaking. As a result, a needed change from style to delivery developed in response to the poor delivery styles of contemporary preachers, lawyers, and other public figures.


“Cicero” by Tobiasnordmark. Public domain.

Foss et al.[3] explain that like the epistemologists, the elocutionists were concerned about contributing to a more scientific understanding of the human being and believed that their observations on voice and gesture—characteristics unique to humans—constituted such contribution. The elocutionists also sought to determine the effects of delivery on the various faculties of the mind, thus continuing the link with modern psychology.

The practices the elocutionists promoted eventually led to their demise. Toward the end of their success the public began to see rhetoric as empty, insincere speaking that hid beneath the mask of sophistication. It declined as a subject matter of study and of teaching. As college curriculum became more diverse and specialized, new departments were formed that did not include rhetoric as a multidisciplinary art; rather, instruction was generally limited to departments of English—until a major shift again occurred in the development of rhetoric in the United States in 1910. In 1914 a new association, the Speech Communication Association, was formed in the United States by a small group of public speaking teachers who wanted to restore the rich qualities and scope that were once attributed to rhetoric. Today, this organization is called the National Communication Association.

  1. Dick, H.C., ed. (1955). Selected Writings of Francis Bacon. New York: Modern Library. p.100).
  2. Foss, S.K.; Foss, K.A.; Trapp, R. (1991). Contemporary Perspectives on Rhetoric. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
  3. Foss et al. 1991