2 Rhetorical History: Interview with Two Old Dead Greek Guys

Lynn Meade

Greek building

Character may almost be called
the most effective means of persuasion.

Any textbook on public speaking seems incomplete without shoutouts to the old dead Greek founders of the discipline. As a student, I felt like the history of rhetoric was irrelevant. I thought the historical information was placed in the book to give me words and dates to memorize.

Through the years, I’ve begun to look at these rhetoricians differently. I now see them as the bringers of interesting philosophical debates. Debates that are still argued today. To help you see this larger debate, I decided to take a different approach to this chapter. Imagine if you will, that I am a journalist sitting down at a coffee shop interviewing a couple of these famous rhetors. Read my interviews and decide which school of thought best fits what you believe and think about the function of speech. Reflect on the larger philosophical debate about society, education, and what it is to be a good citizen.

The Setting

In the early days of the Greek democratic city-states, citizens used speeches to defend themselves in court and to discuss public policy. Since a person’s future often rested on the outcome of these speeches, it was very important that people learn to speak well.  Itinerant speech trainers known as Sophists would travel around teaching citizens.  These Sophists were teachers for hire and there was not a manual they went by nor was there any consistency in what they taught.  A few of the students from this sophist movement went on to create schools with more consistency, with a larger curriculum, and eventually with written texts.  The schools of Isocrates, Plato, and Aristotle were the seedbed of today’s rhetoric.

Statue of Isocrates

Coffee with Isocrates

Now it’s time to grab a cup of coffee and sit down with the man who has been called the father of eloquence and the master of all rhetoricians, Isocrates.

Isocrates, thanks for coming out today to talk with me. Could you tell me a little about your early training?

Yes, I came from a family that had enough money to make sure I received training. The sophists were a group of itinerate teachers who would train young statesmen on how to be good citizens. They emphasized moral character and taught us how to give a good speech. I studied with Gordias, Prodicus, and Socrates.

Sophists have a few good ideas. For example, Gorgias felt strongly that a passive audience could be moved by language and Protagoras made some good points about training people to think about both sides of an argument.

For someone who was trained by sophists, I’ve heard you wrote some scathing things about them. Would you like to talk about that?

Sophists, what can I say about those guys? I put out a pamphlet about them called Against the Sophists. Did you know the name means “wisdom bearer?” For people who are supposed to share wisdom, they sure do spread lies.  They deceive us with lies and they promise that their students will be happy and knowledgeable because of the knowledge that they teach, but they are making promises that they can’t fulfill. I’m with Plato when he said they “are paid hunters after the young and wealthy” and “purgers of souls.”

At the core, we are just philosophically different. I think that the sophists are using language to make the worse seem better. They love to show off in public assemblies and hold contests against each other for the sake of gaining praise. They make a public spectacle and in doing so they hurt their own cause. Most of the time, people despise them.

That is some strong talk.

You know it is. They think they are masters, but they revile and abuse each other. They use words like weapons– to abuse.  What sophists sell is pure folly, one has to only look at how cheaply they sell their trade for. They teach lies and they don’t even charge a good price for it.

Is that why you started a new school, to contrast the sophists?

Yes. My new model is to establish a permanent academy of rhetoric at the Lyceum in Athens. There I can work with small groups of students, teach them a variety of subjects, and prepare them for public life. As the only teacher in my school, I can make sure they get a well-rounded and quality education. Unlike the sophists, I have stringent admission requirements, and I have high expectations for my students.

So, an academy of rhetoric sounds interesting.  Just to be clear, what do you mean by rhetoric?

Rhetoric is the worker of persuasion. It is that outward feeling and inward thought of not merely expression, but reason, feeling, and imagination.  It is the thing that raises us above animals and enables us to live a civilized life.  It helps us to talk to others about areas of dispute and helps us to seek light for ourselves on things that are unknown. 

It sounds like you have an elevated belief about what speech can do.

Yes. None of the things which are done with intelligence take place without the help of speech. Both our thoughts and our actions are guided by speech. And it is that understanding that is employed by those who have the most wisdom.

Well, I heard that the Roman Statesman, Cicero * is a big fan of your school.  He has been quoted as saying Isocrates’s school is “like a Trojan horse where nothing but leaders come forth.” What do you say to that? 

I am certainly proud of my students and the things they have been able to accomplish.  My success comes in part from the selection process. I only pick students who already have a natural aptitude and are good debaters. I then take these students and I emphasize ability, practice, and training.

What is your philosophy of education?

Students need to be well educated in a variety of subjects to be good citizens.  We are one of the first programs to promote a liberal arts education teaching them not just oratory but composition, history, citizenship, culture, and morality. We are training our students for public life so they can address practical problems.

I’ve heard you have a tailored approach to teaching.

Since I have small classes of 4 to 5 students–never more than nine.  I can get to know my students and their strengths and weaknesses. For some students, I use the spur approach to spur them along and for others I use the bridle approach and pull them back. I may need to check the one’s exuberance and boldness of style and for another I need to press them towards more exuberance.

What are some of your other approaches to teaching?

Well, here in Athens, we have a lot of public speakers, so I encourage my students to wander around and observe speakers in public forums. I encourage them to learn through imitation.

I’ve heard kairos is important for you. Can you explain to me kairos?

Yes. Kairos is Greek for the “right time.”  It is one of the most important characteristics of effective rhetorical discourse. When working with my students, there is a big emphasis on kairos or adapting to the timing and the needs of the occasion. Kairos is about more than just time, it also includes place, demands of the culture, the situation, and the nature of the audience.

Archers are familiar with kairos because it is used in archery. Kairos is reading the signs to know the moment to release the arrow so it will hit the target with sufficient force.  I feel very strongly about teaching kairos. I want my students to compose and deliver speeches on various subjects and to know how to adapt those subjects to the audience, location, and occasion.

I’ve heard you use your skills as a speechwriter?

Yes, in the early days. I wrote speeches for others to give in the law courts. The craft is called logography and I took it up when my family’s wealth was lost due to the Peloponnesian  War. While it was a lucrative profession, I tend to downplay it because some think it is disingenuous to have others write their speeches for them.

Speaking of criticism. Some have criticized you because you write speeches and you teach speech, but you don’t make public speeches.

 Nature has placed me at a disadvantage. I wasn’t born with a strong enough voice to deal with the mob. I don’t have the strength to take the abuse. I don’t have the strength, but my students do.

It might help to add an illustration here. Are you familiar with a whetstone–that rock that is used to sharpen a sword of ax? Well, a whetstone cannot cut things by itself, but it can make other things sharp enough so that they can do so. I like to think that I am the stone used to sharpen my students.

Thank you so much Isocrates this has been very informative.  Have a great day. 




Let’s Talk About How Isocrates’ Ideas Relate to Today

  • Isocrates believed someone had to have a natural talent for oratory before they could be taught. What do you think about this notion–is it a knack or an art?
  • Isocrates was criticized for writing other people’s speeches. This practice still takes place today as politicians have professional speech writers. Is it ethical to use another’s words and present them as your own?
  • One of Isocrates’ teaching methods was to have students practice speaking by imitation.  Do you think this a helpful practice, why or why not?
  • The school Isocrates began was the first step in moving towards what would become a liberal arts education. What are the pros and cons of a liberal arts education?



Statue of Aristotle

Coffee with Aristotle

Let’s grab another cup of coffee and sit down with one of Isocrates’ rivals.  This man was nicknamed the “man who knows everything” and he literally wrote the book on rhetoric. Without further ado, let’s talk to the man himself, Aristotle.

Aristotle, thanks so much for meeting with me. It was a little hard to find you here in hiding. Would you like to tell me a little about that? 

Yes, my student, Alexander became a great man and a strong warrior.  They have nicknamed him “Alexander the Great.”  While on a conquest in Babylon, he died of a mysterious illness. Shortly after that, a huge anti-Macedonian wave swept. I decided to flee and see how the whole thing plays out.  Since my mother has an estate at Chalcis, it made sense to hang out here for a while.

In this climate, laying low is a good idea. You know what they did to Socrates right? Hemlock? Poison?  I refuse to allow the Athenians to sin twice against philosophy.

Sounds like quite a story, let’s back up to find out how you got here. It is my understanding that as a young man, you went to the Academy. 

At age 17, I moved from my hometown in Stagira to Athens to enroll in Plato’s Academy. It was a wonderful place of learning. Plato and I grew to be good friends in my time there.  After I finished my studies, I began to teach there. I think I was at the Academy for a total of 20 years. After Plato passed, I decided to move on and further develop my ideas of philosophy, science, and rhetoric.

So tell me about your relationship with Alexander?

Sure. I was hired by King Philip II of Macedon to tutor to his 13-year-old son, Alexander.  In exchange, Philip agreed to rebuild my hometown of Stageira, to free the slaves, and pardon the exiles. I tutored Alexander and many of his friends throughout their early teen years. I taught them medicine, philosophy, morals, religion, logic, and art.

When Alexander began his conquests, he took an annotated copy of the Iliad which I gave him along on his campaigns. That man loved Homer. Many people knew him as a fierce warrior, but I knew him as the foremost ambassador of Athenian culture to the world.

Eventually, you moved on and started your own school, is this correct? 

Yeah, not long after Alexander conquered Athens, I began a school. As a nonresident in Athens, I couldn’t exactly own property, so I rented space at the gymnasium– the Lyceum and I set up a school. There I taught students knowledge, philosophy, and rhetoric. It is important to me to make the lectures open to the public and free of charge.

I’ve heard they call your pupils by an unusual name, Peripatetics? 

Funny name, huh? Yes. Peripatetics are people who walk about. I like to take my students outside when I am teaching. We walk around from place to place as we learn our lessons.  Because of that, some people refer to my school as the Peripatos.

Tell me about how your library fits with the larger philosophy of rhetoric.

 I have been able to amass collections from all over. This collection is what I believe to be one of the world’s first great libraries. In addition to things I have gathered, I have added my own writings. This library is a great place where students can gain knowledge and learn to become well-rounded people and well-informed orators.

So, I’ve heard you differ from Isocrates in believing that rhetoric can be learned?

Yes, of course. Isocrates believed you were born with the knack to speak, and he only takes students who have the knack and the money. I differ with that and believe that it is not a knack, but an art.  An art I freely teach to those who want to come listen. Like other arts, rhetoric can be learned.

I guess it makes sense then you would write your students a textbook on how to master that art. 

Yes, it is called Rhetoric. It lays out my formulas for the structure of persuasion and for sound arguments.

So, let’s start with the title, Rhetoric. How do you define rhetoric and what do you think its purpose is?

Rhetoric is the process of discovering the available means of persuasion. First and foremost, rhetoric is about allowing truth to prevail.  Rhetoric gives people the ability connect ideas and experiences. It allows us to teach others.

Another important function of rhetoric is that it gives us a means to defend ourselves. It bridges public and private and allows us to discuss political life.

You talk about that in your book. Could you lay out your major ideas? 

I am happy to highlight a few things for you. I agree with Isocrates that at the heart of rhetoric is an understanding of occasions and audiences. When we break down rhetoric, it comes in three main types, each one deals with a different aspect of time, audience, and occasion. Forensic speech takes place in the courtroom and deals the timing of things that have already happened. We must decide if someone is innocent or guilty given the evidence–it is the rhetoric of accusation and defense. Deliberative speech takes place in the legislative session and is primarily concerned with the future. In other words, if we pass this law, how will it affect our citizens in the future? The last type of speech, epideictic, deals with how we celebrate the present.  Celebrating holidays, victories, and shared values. It is the rhetoric of praise or blame.

Speaking of praise and blame, what do you think of the playwright Aristophanes making fun of rhetoricians in his play, The Clouds? Have you seen it? This comedy features a fictionalized sophist named Socrates who operates the Thinkery. A rich man sends his son, who has build up a huge gambling debt, to the Thinkery to learn how to turn inferior arguments into superior arguments so he can talk his way out of his debt in court. 

Oh yeah, Aristophanes was funny saying rhetoricians are like the clouds that can take any shape they please to get what they want. I wrote about this in my book, Rhetoric. The problem is that we allow judges to decide the law on case-by-case basis. People have to use forensic rhetoric to convince the judge of their innocence. It is like measuring something with a crooked ruler.  We created a system where people have to use excessive “cloudy” rhetoric because our ill-defined laws leave so much up to the whims of judges who can be bribed or persuaded. If we invested more time in the nobler task of deliberative rhetoric, we would have more well-defined laws. That would mean that there was less of a need for the type of rhetoric that Aristophanes so easily pokes fun of.

In your book, you talk about what is most essential to rhetoric–the proofs.

Yes, there are three main proofs or reasons to believe.  The first and most authoritative is called ethos and it has to do with the credibility. People are more likely persuaded by a speaker they find possesses practical intelligence, a virtuous character, and goodwill.  We believe good people more fully and more readily than others; this is true no matter what the topic is.

Next an audience is persuaded through pathos, an appeal to their emotions.  A speaker proves their point by passion, for example righteous anger. They might use emotion, or they might rouse emotion in the audience. That emotion is what fuels listeners to modify judgments.

In my opinion, the most important proof is that of reason, logos. People are persuaded by facts, data, and reasoning. A rhetorician might prove his case through the cogency of his reasoning. These three–ethos, pathos, logos are inseparable. You can reason with passion and that passion reveals your character.

Would you say the highest purpose is politics?

Not really. I believe that the final purpose for human existence is to pursue happiness. This happiness comes from developing arete (personal excellence) and by maintaining a virtuous life. I part with my friend Plato who thinks that virtue is wrapped up in knowledge. Instead, I believe that virtue is about finding balance–not too much and not too little. Rhetoric is a big part of finding that balance.

This has been very insightful, thank you so much for your time. 


Let’s Talk About How Aristotle’s Ideas Relate Today

  • Aristotle believed rhetoric was a skill that could be taught. He created a very detailed manual (Rhetoric) about how to learn to be a good orator. What do you think, are good orators born or made?
  • Aristotle believed one of the primary purposes of rhetoric was to let truth prevail. What other purposes for rhetoric can you think of?
  • The peripedics were students who walked around. Some professions are going to walking meetings. What are the advantages of a moving classroom?
  • Aristotle suggests laws are poorly defined, and judges can be persuaded.  He reasons that this is the reason that people must use over the top rhetoric in the courtroom. Would you say this is still an issue? What might be a better way?
  • Aristotle says if we spent more time talking about how to make good laws, we would spend less time defending ourselves in court. What are your thoughts on this?
  • Aristotle suggests ethos, pathos, logos are inseparable. Can you think of examples where you might exclude one of them?
  • What is the meaning of life? The Greeks spent considerable time writing about this. Aristotle suggests it is to pursue well being and find balance. How does this compare with your own ideas? How is this tied to rhetoric?



From this letter, you can easily see there were competing ways of thinking about rhetoric, how it should be taught, and what its role was in society. To better understand a different view of rhetoric, let’s look at Aristotle.

Among the ancient manuscripts that have been uncovered is a letter from Isocrates to Alexander the Great. In this letter, Isocrates tells why he would be a better teacher for him instead of Aristotle. It is a great example of the larger debate between the major teachers and schools of thought.

To Alexander: 

I know very well that you are surrounded by men who slander me as being mentally decrepit and a babbler through old age. Just read this letter and you will see it is written with the ordinary vigor which I possessed as a young man. 

Here is my advice to you. It is certainly all right to be a friend of mankind in general and particularly to be on good terms politically with Athens. Further-more, it is certainly good to study philosophy. But, to begin with the latter point, by philosophy I mean what I call philosophy, not what is professed by contemptible sophists such as Aristotle, a worthy follower of other sophists like Plato whom I have been fighting from the very beginning of my activities.

In other words, take philosophy to be what sensible men think it to be, not what fools make it out to be. As to the former points: you associate with the
wrong kind of Athenians, some bearing ill-will, some lacking common sense-it wouldn’t be surprising if they had evil designs, and I am afraid you will come to grief if you let them in on your plans. Those whom you admit to your company should be level-headed people who know how to take care of their affairs, men of experience.

Here is my own program of education. We should learn to speak – viz. the kind of speeches which can be used in practical everyday affairs and those which will enable us to deliberate about public affairs. If you will pursue this kind of philosophy, you will be able to form a sound opinion about the future, you will be able to give proper orders to your subjects, you will be able to judge correctly what is good and just and what is not so, and you will know how to reward and punish.

Compare this program of education with what the sophists from the Academy have to offer. They will teach you to quibble and split hairs concerning problems of no practical value whatsoever. They will never enable you to cope with the actualities of daily life and politics. They will teach you to disdain opinion (common sense) in spite of the fact that common sense assumptions are the only basis for ordinary human affairs and they are sufficient to judge the course of future events. Instead of common sense opinions, they will make you chase after a phantom which they call true and precise knowledge, as distinct from mere opinion. Even if they could reach their ideal of precise and exact knowledge – it would be a knowledge of things entirely useless. Do not be deceived by their extravagant notions of goodness and justice or their opposites. These are just ordinary human notions not so very difficult to understand, and you need them only to help you to meet out rewards and punishments.

Sober up, therefore, give up your present studies under Aristotle and others of his ilk, and study the way I told you to. Only in this way can you hope to
become another Philip (Alexander’s dad) in due time.



Try this: Read this letter again making a list of all the insults Isocrates offers about Aristotle and sophists.

Try this: Read this out loud in your best political sarcasm voice.





Ethos: Persuasion that comes from source credibility

Kairos –the timing and the occasion

Logos: Persuasion that comes from logical appeals.

Lyceum–The temple of Apollo used by Isocrates, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle as a place to meet students and teach them about philosophy and rhetoric.

Pathos: Persuasion that comes from emotional appeals.

Peripatetics–people who walk about while learning. The name for Aristotle’s followers

Sophist--itinerate teachers who trained people in public speaking. Means “wisdom bearing”

Here are two videos that anchor what we have just learned about Aristotle and Isocrates. Watch them as a helpful review.





Try Out a Greek Debate

Grab and friend and ask them to help you practice your rhetoric by having a debate. Work through this issue that Pericles and Protagoras spent a whole day discussing.

 “In an athletic contest, a man had been accidentally hit and killed with a javelin. Was his death to be attributed to the javelin, to the man who threw it, or to the authorities responsible for the conduct of the games?”

*Yes, I realize that Cicero was 106-46 BCE and Isocrates was 438-338 BCE, I just really wanted to include that quote.

Please share your feedback, suggestions, corrections, and ideas.

I want to hear from you. 

Do you have an activity to include?
Did you notice a typo that I should correct?
Are you planning to use this as a resource and do you want me to know about it?
Do you want to tell me something that really helped you?

Click here to share your feedback. 



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Rapp, C. (2010) Aristotle’s Rhetoric.  The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy/ Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2010/entries/aristotle-rhetoric/

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Senteniaeantiquae. (2018). Meme police: A collection of things Aristotle did not say. https://sententiaeantiquae.com/original-projects-and-translations/memes

Tierney, M. (1942). Aristotle and Alexander the Great. Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, 31(122), 221-228. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30098049

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