This chapter opens with the following questions: When was rhetoric invented, and by whom? What values do we endorse when we begin rhetoric’s history there? How do we decide when academic traditions ‘start’ or ‘begin’?
The first section of the chapter addresses the conventionally-told early history of rhetoric in Ancient Greece. The purpose of starting here is to draw attention to the incorrect assumptions that tend to stick to this story. The second section discusses “the sophists,” who were allegedly some of the first Greek practitioners of rhetoric. It also covers “the encomium,” a kind of sophistic speech that seeks to rescue a person or topic from defamation.
Watching the video clips embedded in the chapters may add to the projected “read time” listed in the headers. Please also note that the audio recording for this chapter covers the same tested content as is presented in the chapter below.
- Donovan, Brian R. “The Encomium of Helen by Gorgias of Leontini.” Gorgias’ Encomium of Helen, 1999, https://faculty.bemidjistate.edu/bdonovan/helen.html.
- Jarratt, Susan, and Rory Ong. “Aspasia: Rhetoric, Gender, and Colonial Ideology.” Reclaiming Rhetorica: Women in the Rhetorical Tradition 1995 (1995): 9-24.
Part 1: Why Ancient Greece?
In the last lecture, we introduced the term “rhetoric” by drawing on Greek terminology. Beginning rhetoric’s history in ancient Greece is a common choice, but it is not rhetoric’s only starting point. We could, for instance, “start” our history of rhetoric in 1914 with the invention of “speech communication” in American universities. (That is also how we came to have Communication Studies Departments at universities around the country). Alternatively, we could also begin in China, Egypt, South America, or Mesopotamia. In these places, documented evidence that persuasion was a studied and practiced art existed even before the Greek invention of the word “rhetoric.” As Carol L. Lipson and Roberta A. Binkley argue, when we think about rhetoric as the art of persuasion, it may take many different forms depending upon the original cultural context we start from.
The classical rhetorical system has built within it an understanding that ethos and pathos are central factors in the success of a text (along with logos), and that ethos and pathos must be appropriately suited for the particular audience. It’s not much of a stretch to look at rhetoric as contextualized culturally, with practices and values and norms differing in different cultural settings. Indeed, in the field of rhetoric and composition, the term alternative rhetorics is being used to describe rhetorical approaches in particular cultures that differ from the dominant paradigm.
Where we choose to start rhetoric’s history is important for other reasons. Greece is sometimes treated as the “first” democracy or as the birthplace of philosophy. This chapter starts in ancient Greece because I would like to challenge some of those common assumptions. Ancient Greece presents ideas about democracy and philosophy that are very different than those that are common today. Additionally, we will learn how the ancient Greek invention of rhetoric teaches us about communication problems and social inequalities that mirror the distress in our own political culture.
This chapter is also critical of the ancient Greeks because they only recognized the personhood of adult, property-owning men. These people alone were allowed to participate in democratic governance, which means that it was not a truly egalitarian democracy, which presumes the equality of all stakeholders or participants. Ancient Greece generally (and ancient Athens specifically) excluded foreign-born non-citizens, women, and enslaved or indentured persons from participating in the political life of the city-state (or polis). Ultimately, if we start the history of rhetoric with ancient Greece, then we also need to think about how the deep social inequalities of that society are reflections of related problems in the present-day United States.
The Invention of “Rhetoric”
The previous chapter discussed how “rhetoric” combines the words “rhetor” and “techne,” each of which describes a kind of speaker and their technique or art. According to rhetorical scholar Edward Schiappa, Plato invents the word “rhetoric.” Apparently, Plato also invented many words in his dialogues that are difficult to locate elsewhere in the Greek historical record, such as “eristic” (or point-scoring debates) and “anti-logic” (or debating both sides of an issue).
But why does Plato invent the word rhetoric? What was his purpose in giving a name to “the art of the speaker”? Who would have counted as a “rhetor” or “speaker” for Plato and his contemporaries? Who did the word “rhetoric” exclude?
One answer is that Plato invents the word rhetoric to describe a kind of teaching that was common when he and his teacher, Socrates, lived. According to Plato, rhetorical teaching was administered by a group of people called “the sophists”. Plato was deeply skeptical of the sophists, and so he used the word rhetoric to describe speech that was dangerous and disingenuous. “The sophists” were teachers of speech and argument who would train “ordinary” citizens in the art of persuasion. The sophists were like early professors, each with their own schools and following of students. Much like today, the sophists advertised themselves as individuals who offered tools for upward mobility. By learning to speak well in public, a person could win court cases or steer public opinion. Plato and Socrates believed these teachers and their rhetorical teachings were dangerous because they promised anyone the ability to make compelling arguments in courts and the assembly without a clear sense of the values that should guide this kind of speech. However, as Plato also argues, the sophists primarily catered to people who could afford them. This means that “ordinary” must be put in scare quotes because the people who benefitted from the sophists’ instruction were in all likelihood wealthy aristocrats.
Plato attacks the sophists a lot. In the dialogue entitled the Sophist, he describes the sophists, or rhetoric teachers, as “paid hunters of rich men” who have expertise in no particular subject but claim expertise in all subjects. In Gorgias, Plato says that rhetoric is not a true art but a “knack” of creating artificial appearances or illusions with speech. That’s also where Plato allegedly invents the word rhetoric, where Plato calls sophists out – primarily the sophist Gorgias – for being opportunistic liars and charlatans.
Rhetoric, according to Plato, is dangerous because it is a way of producing a “fake” reality. He argues that it is not a true art form, but a “knack” or aptitude for creating a misleading illusion. He says that it is less like medicine than “cookery.” If rhetoric were a true art, it would heal the political body of the polis. But because it is just “cookery,” rhetoric often sounds, looks, tastes, and smells good while in fact worsening the health of its listeners.
A strange twist in this story is that no sophist ever used the word “rhetoric” to describe their public speaking lessons. It is a word invented by Plato to call the sophist out for unethical teaching. For that reason, it is not clear that Plato is an entirely credible source on the sophists – or rhetoric. Why? Because Plato’s act of pejorative naming used rhetoric to persuade people that the sophists could not be trusted. Although he dismisses rhetoric, his comparison to “cookery” is an example of rhetoric, employing persuasion to make a point. In that way, Plato is more than a philosopher; he is also a kind of sophist. He stands apart because he writes about the sophists as persuasive object lessons about the dangerous effects of rhetoric.
That is one way the Greek context reflects contemporary communication problems: Just as Plato blamed the sophists for the problems of the ancient Athenian polis, bad or disingenuous rhetoric is often blamed for creating “fake news,” conspiracy theories, and disinformation. This book is about reading and practicing rhetoric. It also widens the scope of what rhetoric can be, beyond spoken persuasion. It is about the uses and function of rhetoric as a practical strategy of persuasion, much like the sophists taught. However, it is also about knowing rhetoric when we see it. In the case described above, this means understanding that Plato uses certain persuasive techniques to criticize the sophists, an ancient Greek group of professional persuaders.
Athenian Democracy ≠ Contemporary Democracy
Ancient Greek democracy was also very different from the structure of representation in a present-day democratic republic. Our structures of government do not look at all like Athenian democratic institutions. Before democracy in Athens, the government was based on family ties. By 450 BCE, early Athenian leaders Kleisthenes and Ephialtes had instituted two political reforms in Athens, the “hallmarks” of its democracy. However, these reforms also indicate just how different this democracy was relative to a present-day American context.
- The lottery reforms of Kleisthenes. Kliesthenes’ reforms eliminated the aristocratic, family-based government and replaced it with a representative democracy based on wealth and land ownership. High offices were entrusted by lot — random selection followed by a vote — only to citizens perceived as fit. In addition to excluding women, enslaved persons, and those who did not own property in the Athenian polis, the government retained policies of ostracism, whereby selected individuals perceived to be too dangerous for the political life of the city-state were exiled for approximately ten years.
- The court reforms of Ephialtes. Ephialtes’ court reforms reduced the role of court magistrates and replaced them with common courts where decisions were rendered by juries chosen from the citizenry. The consequence of this second set of reforms (Ephialtes) was that any citizen could bring a suit against any other, and except for sacrilege or homicide, would be decided by an Athenian jury. But, in this new court system, citizens always represented themselves and had to argue their own cases. There were no lawyers in the modern sense. Additionally, juries consisted of 200+ members, and deliberations were considerably more public than they are today.
In the assembly and the courts, the ability to be eloquent was very desirable. That’s “why” rhetoric, the art of the speaker, may have been both desirable and dangerous. Among the many things that the Sophists claimed to teach, public speaking was the most sought after.
Social Inequalities in Ancient Greece
Perhaps the most prominent parallel between ancient Greece and today are deep social inequalities. This was especially true because the reforms mentioned in the previous section didn’t eliminate status or the privilege of inherited family wealth. Democracy just created a situation whereby these privileges could be neutralized by the influence a speaker might possess. It is no small irony that, because the sophists charged such large fees, mostly the wealthy could afford the instruction. Beyond wealth inequalities in ancient Greece, there is evidence that Athenian culture was not an ideal democracy where all people were equal and “the people” made decisions in common. This is also why Greece holds a mirror up to our own problems: it shows us how problems with our own rhetorical culture may be tied to entrenched social inequalities.
- Indenture and Enslavement. One often-unacknowledged aspect of ancient Greek history concerns ancient Greek practices of slavery (doulíā), which is part of rhetorical terms like epideictic. The peoples of ancient Syracuse are, for example, the reputed originators of epideictic or commemorative speech that brings persuasion “before the eyes.” In its earliest recorded form, epideictic was a mode of secret sign-language communication among the enslaved peoples of Syracuse. It was necessary for the people of Syracuse to communicate in secret because the tyrannical rulers of Syracuse, Hieron and Gelon, had prohibited people from speaking aloud. Epideictic, in other words, originates as a language made up of physical gestures, but then, much later, curiously appears as a name for an important genre in Aristotle’s Rhetoric.
- Denial of Citizenship to Women. As rhetorical scholar Jane Sutton notes, patriarchal governance in the ancient polis coerced women into contradictory and repressive roles. They were also systematically excluded from the history of philosophy and the teaching of rhetoric. Misogyny was also perpetuated by the belief that women “cannot be controlled or possessed.” Helen of Troy, for instance, was often depicted as a seductress or else denied that she possessed agency at all. Greek men also openly appropriated women’s intellectual contributions. In their article on Aspasia the sophist, Jarratt and Ong argue that Plato “insinuated … that women would gain their status primarily from association with well-born men.” He also “chose a form that typically referred to women only … as reproducers of warriors.” Plato also argued that his dialogues are a kind of “maieutics,” or midwifery, which was Aspasia’s own avowed profession. Plato “appropriates reproduction for the male philosopher,” denying Aspasia (and potentially other women sophists) credit by claiming her inventions as his own.
- Colonialism and Xenophobia. Ancient Athenians were reportedly suspicious of outside influence and were hostile to foreign-born non-citizens. Susan Jarratt and Rory Ong also describe Ancient greek xenophobia as the rejection of foreigners from the Athenian polis. Foreignness was a way to exclude people from participation in ancient Athens for another reason: some non-citizens were suspected of being spies. For example, Aristotle, who was not born in Athens, fled into exile to the isle of Lesbos because he was suspected to be a Macedonian spy. This was also the case with the sophists, who most often taught outside of the city limits.
Foreigners had no more than a distant relationship to any country because they were wanderers … Athenians … were situated on the land that had created them.”
One reason why we should be skeptical of the idea that ancient Athens was an “ideal” democracy was that there is significant evidence that shows that the members of its society were far from “equals.” As is also true in the contemporary United States, ancient Athens had deep problems related to inclusion. Only citizens — that is, wealthy, land-owning men — had the ability to participate in government. Often, those who did not have that status had their ideas and labor stolen from them. It was not an ideal democracy because it privileged those who had already accumulated wealth, power, and property.
Ultimately, we shouldn’t believe that Athens was the city-state (or polis) in Greece that presents an “ideal” model of democracy because philosophers literally took ideas from people who had lesser status. All people who lived in the polis were not equals. Instead, Greek culture embraced regressive ideas about who did not count as a ‘person’ based on status, gender, land, and ownership.
Part 2: Sophistic Knowledge and the Encomium
This section goes into greater detail about the sophists. Who were they? What did they teach? What kinds of persuasion are they famous for?
The sophists emerged in Ancient Greece as teachers of general wisdom and were most valued because of their ability to teach public speaking. They emerged out of a culture of competition and valued poetry as a key way to keep a common record of important historical events.
Before the sophists, poets like Pindar had stood at the sidelines of athletic contests exalting the sons of aristocrats and praising heroic deeds and ideals. The poet was an observer to such competitions. However, the Sophists, like other athletes, musicians, and dramatists in their era, thought of themselves as competitors. They sought to achieve victories by overpowering adversaries with their words. With this change from observation to participation in place, to be an orator meant both to accept and issue symbolic challenges. It also meant to engage in the production and critique of rhetoric, a kind of verbal combat in which no point of view remained unopposed for long. It meant that a prevalent argument was prevalent not because of its historical status or its compelling logic but because it had been tested by and withstood the attacks of the opposing side(s). Importantly, one of the criticisms of the sophists is that a “both sides” style of teaching is not a good way to impart virtue or ethics to students or listeners.
The sophists also lived in an oral culture and at a time of emergent literate culture. Oral cultures refer to cultures that spread knowledge primarily by way of the spoken word and whose techniques of communication and memory are centered upon the delivering of speeches used for (for instance) trials, commemoration, legislation, and the recording of history.
(1) Orality describes a mode of information transmission that primarily occurs through speech. It has the following characteristics:
- Orality is Low-fidelity. This means that information is passed around like a game of “telephone.” As information is passed around from person to person, the transmitted knowledge is not identical to the source.
- Orality is a means of Information Storage and Transmission: Mnemonic devices, meter, and rhyme are ways of recording and remembering information. Poetry is not just a way of making speech eloquent; it was a functional way of ensuring that the past carried forward into the future.
- Orality is a Social Function of Memory: telling history is an entertainment event, and public speaking is a shared public ritual. Ancient Greek plays, like Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Antigone, had a similar function of entertainment and were consistently organized around the “chorus,” an audience to the play that was also a participant to the play, which would act as a kind of moral conscience, spelling out the ‘lesson’ for the attending audience.
(2) Literacy describes a mode of information transmission that primarily occurs through writing. It has the following characteristics:
- Literacy is High-Fidelity. This means that the transmission of knowledge became significantly more consistent from one telling to another because literacy enables the copying of one text repeatedly. For example, Homeric epics like the Iliad and the Odyssey begin in an oral culture, where they were much more variable, changing between different tellings. With literate culture, these stories became “rigidified” in form and content and more consistent in their different ‘parts.’
- Literacy makes possible the inscription of laws: writing allows for the codification of a common code that is now generally enforceable. It also makes mercantile relationships and the inscription of fixed laws possible using ledgers and established legal codes.
- Literacy increases social emphasis upon logos or ‘the word’ as a fixed and unchanging object: “logos” literally means both ‘the word’ and ‘reasoning,’ which writing allows audiences to inspect, review and consider over a longer stretch of time than just the performance. When Socrates writes about literacy in the Phaedrus, he is critical of it because it means that words suddenly have a life beyond their authors and that the “dead letter” may be picked up and examined by people who have no understanding of the word and how it is tailored to the soul of the listener. This may also be related to the fact that the sophists distributed handbooks of their teachings, meaning that any literate person might be able to make strong arguments without necessarily considering the weight or consequences of their arguments. Plato also argues against writing in general because it makes memory unnecessary; it will install “forgetting,” he says, because it makes the soul lazy, reducing its need for recollection. Given that we are at the beginning of a digital era ourselves, you might be able to think of similar criticism about “millennial” or “zoomer” online culture today.
Resemblance: The Sophist’s Epistemology
The word “epistemology” refers to “the study of knowledge.” Split into its Greek roots, epistemology combines episteme (knowledge) + logos (reason or logic). When we talk about epistemology today, it most often means “how we know what we know.” The scientific method is an example of epistemology: it is a way of knowing what we know about the surrounding natural world. When we say “the sophist’s epistemology,” we are asking the following question: what did the sophists know, and how did they know it?
Generally speaking, the ancient Greeks gathered knowledge in a very different way from how we think of it today. They relied on a foundational concept of resemblance, in which a fundamental association between dissimilar objects revealed something true about the world. One example is how the ancient Greeks associated walnuts with healing the human head. The walnut resembles the brain with a hard exterior and a folded interior and resembles the cerebrum’s appearance. For the sophists, the visual resemblance between objects in the natural world dictated an important or essential connection between them.
Another example of resemblance is how the ancient Greeks associated the lives of animals, humans, and the Gods. The actions of humans mirrored actions that occurred among the gods; other times, animals displayed characteristics that resembled the characteristics of men. The quality of metis, or cunning intelligence, was a kind of knowledge gotten from resemblance. Metis was a trait displayed by animals like octopi and foxes, who were capable of making traps and laying in hiding until the right moment. That was metis: an ability to look beyond the situation or envision the opportune moment before it happened. But a person, animal, or god could also use their metis to blend into the background or wait until just the right moment arrived. Among the gods, metis allowed the gods always to be outmaneuvering one another, inventing strategies to get the best of their opponents.
As rhetoric, metis allowed people to seize the right moment through the gift of foresight. As important as what to say was when to say it and to anticipate the moment at which speech was both appropriate and effective. This foresight might dictate when to speak or when not to speak, disguising oneself with words like an octopus changes their appearance. This intelligent foresight amounts to “knowledge” in Greek thought because it was possessed by animals, humans, and the gods. The way these worlds mirror one another offers an example of how the Greeks thought in deeply rhetorical terms, namely, by transforming resemblances into apparent knowledge of the world.
Plato’s definition of rhetoric in Gorgias is an object lesson in Greek resemblance. To define what rhetoric is, Plato has use resemblances. In other words, he has to compare the art of rhetoric to other arts that either are — or are not — similar to it. According to Plato, there are four “true” arts of bodily health and four “lesser” arts considered to be their counterfeit reflections. Rhetoric is one of the allegedly “lesser” arts. All of the arts “resemble” one another to the extent that they improve health or create a false impression of health. The different categories also reflect each other because in each case, Plato’s argument builds from arts that are for the individual body to arts that are for a collective body-politic:
- Gymnastics, which improves the health of the (individual) body.
- Medicine, which improves health by rehabilitating the (individual) body.
- Legislation, which improves the health of the (collective) body-politic.
- Justice, which improves health by rehabilitating the (collective) body-politic.
The lesser arts are about appearances rather than truth. He calls rhetoric a ‘knack,’ not even a true art, and states that it “flatters” and “impersonates” the art of justice. These lesser arts give the human body and the body-politic what it desires, but not what it needs to survive.
- Cosmetics, which creates the illusion of (individual) bodily health.
- Cookery, which makes food to (individual) taste, but not for rehabilitation.
- Sophistry, which creates the illusion of legislative competence for the (collective) body-politic.
- Rhetoric, which creates the illusion of serving justice for the (collective) body-politic.
These four arts are the mirror image of the first four. They resemble each other because they are all “corrupt” in related ways. Plato ends his criticism by referencing the resemblance between “cookery” and “rhetoric”: Why should we mistrust the sophist? “What I say rhetoric is, then – you’ve heard it. It corresponds to cookery, doing in the soul what cookery does in the body.” The reason to dismiss rhetoric is that it resembles cookery: it tastes good but won’t make you well.
The sophists also developed their own methods for knowledge-making through what we would call a “switch-sides” debate. According to the sophist Protagoras, one could only truly know an argument if they could argue both sides of the case. For that reason, the sophistic instruction called the dissoi logoi, or “opposed reason,” is typically attributed to Protagoras. The dissoi logoi claims the ability to “make the weaker argument [into] the stronger [one]” and is grounded in the presumption of humankind’s total ignorance of what happens in the celestial or heavenly realm. According to Protagoras, “one cannot know the gods.” The examples provided in the dissoi logoi include “the good and the bad,” asking questions like “are they the same or not?” and “on proper and shameful taste,” asking the question, “can the same thing be [in good taste] and [also] shameful?” This attention to “both-side-ism” is also one way that the Greek context strongly resembles our own; it is one of the reasons that the philosopher Plato provides for strongly disliking the sophists and for his belief that they have nothing to offer except for lies and illusions.
The Encomium of Helen
The Encomium of Helen, written by the sophist Gorgias, offers one way to understand the sophists’ way of understanding rhetoric to create or constitute social reality. Sometimes, the sophists’ creation of a shared fantasy is described as a “deception” because the speaker misleads the audience into believing false information. Other scholars have claimed that what the sophists did was not “deception,” but rather that they “[placed] all possible representations of reality on equal epistemological footing,” creating the opportunity to compare different kinds of knowledge.
Why did it ever occur to Gorgias that Helen was in need of a speech in which she would be “rescued”? As described in the video above, this belief stemmed from the common and misogynistic belief among the ancient Greeks that Helen had caused the Trojan war. Many attributed the start of the war specifically to the fact that Helen, wife to Menelaus, had been taken by Paris of Troy immediately after the Trojans and Greeks had signed a peace treaty. It is a suspicious rumor for many reasons. When the Greeks went to war, in other words, it was not the war-making Menelaus – or even Helen’s kidnapper, Paris — who are most often held responsible. Instead, the Greeks conferred blame on the kidnapped Helen. The encomium of Helen is the sophist Gorgias’s spoken challenge to this common story. He writes the following:
“either by will of fate and decision of the gods and vote of Necessity did she [Helen] do what she did,
or by force reduced
or by words seduced
or by love possessed.”
In other words, Helen “left” Greece because the gods made it so, because she was forced to, because Paris seduced her, or because the madness of love possessed her. Of course, if the Encomium of Helen “rescues” Helen from this blame, it’s important to note that it does so in a way that is itself deeply misogynistic because it reduces her freedom or agency. By Gorgias’ account, Helen is passive and cannot assume responsibility for a path she could not have chosen. Helen is redeemed, in his eyes, because she can be made a non-agent; she cannot be responsible for her actions because her only option was to acquiesce to more powerful forces.
According to Gorgias’s reasoning, if the speech can rescue Helen, it also illustrates how speech (and rhetoric) can create a shared social reality, moving people toward a new common sense.
Sacred incantations sung with words are bearers of pleasure and banishers of pain, for, merging with opinion in the soul, the power of the incantation is wont to beguile it and persuade it and alter it by witchcraft. There are have been discovered two arts of witchcraft and magic: one consists of errors of soul and the other of deceptions of opinion. All who have and do persuade people of things do so by molding a false argument.
To understand that persuasion, when added to speech, is wont also to impress the soul as it wishes, one must study: first, the words of astronomers who, substituting opinion for opinion, taking away one but creating another, make what is incredible and unclear seem true to the eyes of opinion; then, second, logically necessary debates in which a single speech, written with art but not spoken with truth, bends a great crowd and persuades, and third, the verbal disputes of philosophers in which the swiftness of thought is also shown making the belief in an opinion subject to easy change. The effect of speech upon the condition of the soul is comparable to the power of drugs over the nature of bodies. For just as different drugs dispel different secretions from the body, and some bring an end to disease and others to life, so also in the case of speeches, some distress, others delight, some cause fear, others make the hearers bold, and some drug and bewitch the soul with a kind of evil persuasion.
The final segments of the speech unify the audience with Helen by drawing a parallel between their supposed intoxication with Gorgias’ speech. ‘Being persuaded by speech’ is made ‘unfortunate,’ a decision imposed rather than chosen. If persuaded by Gorgias’ own claim to non-truth, the audience must accede to the claim that Helen herself was constructed falsely, or misconstrued, in Homer’s familiar narrative.
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