Yellow banner with pen and letters

author: Milos Radakovic

The origins – where is the connection between persuasion and rhetoric?


As ancient rhetoricians believed that language was a potent force for persuasion, they insisted that their students develop copia in all spheres of their art. Copia denotes an abundant and ready supply of language in any situation that arises. Why did ancient teachers of rhetoric insist on this practice? Well, they knew that training their students in different rhetorical arts prepared them for the multitude of communicative and persuasive possibilities that exist in language.

Aristotle (384 BC–322 BC)

In order to trace back the connection between persuasion and rhetoric, Schiappa and Hamm suggest that we may find the answer if we classify and apply the word ‘rhetoric’ according to the five methods based on both classical and contemporary research. The five methods classify the domain of rhetoric accordingly:

  • Rhetoric as an instance of speech-making or oratory.
  • Rhetoric as persuasive technique.
  • Rhetoric as a tactical function of language use (i.e. rhetoricity).
  • Rhetoric as an educational agenda or program that inculcates the art or skill of the rhetor.
  • Rhetoric as a theory about human communication.[i]

As may be inferred from this, the study of persuasion originated through the study of rhetoric. The ancient Greeks were the first to advocate the importance of rhetoric, oration, persuasion, and communication for the egalitarian arrangement and functioning of deliberative democracy among and within the Greek city-states (i.e. polis). The power of suasion was perceived as critical to the welfare (i.e. human happiness – eudaimonia; and the highest end – telos – of human life, good life) of all citizens living within democracy, due to its power to induce free exchange of opinions and counterarguments within the political arena, which would guarantee arrival at a political consensus on the basis of persuasion and free choice, rather than through coercion and the civil strife – stasis – that consumed Hellas (i.e. according to Hannah Arendt – ‘To be political, to live in a polis, meant that everything was decided through words and persuasion and not through force and violence’[ii]).

The framing of the most constructive choice for society’s welfare was brought by the sophisticated discriminations in language with a particular aim to affect the political decision-making process (i.e.  ’Dicere ad persuadendum accommodate’ – ‘Speech designed to persuade’ – basic definition for rhetoric given by Cicero in his dialogue De Oratore). To that end, Aristotle was perhaps the first one to recognise rhetoric ‘as an art of communication’ that ‘was morally neutral’, and as the one ‘that could be used for either good or ill’.[iii] Plato, on the other hand, advocated in his work Gorgias that the exercise of rhetoric in popular assemblies was immoral, and that in political dialogues rhetoric tended to produce:

‘conviction without knowing’, that is, a conviction not resulting from learning (mathesis) but from persuasion alone, based on doxa, opinion; that rhetoric has no rational principle or logos, and hence no status as a techne, a systematic discipline based on science or knowledge (episteme). … Rhetoric is more violently denounced as a vicious form of flattery, kolakeja, a morally shameful, opportunistic pandering to the taste of the masses, and is decisively relegated to the category of spurious activities.[iv]

In opposition to Plato’s diatribes on rhetoric, Aristotle’s seminal work On Rhetoric stipulates that rhetoric, and persuasion as a distinct subunit of it, deserve to be acknowledged as a discipline based on science or knowledge (i.e. techne), since:

‘… ordinary people use both dialectic and rhetoric, to discuss statements and to defend themselves, either at random or through practice. This shows that the subject ‘can be handled systematically, for it is possible to inquire the reason why some speakers succeed through practice and other spontaneously; and … such an inquiry is the function of an art’.[v]

Additionally, Aristotle defined rhetoric as a ‘counterpart (antistrophos) to dialectic (i.e. formal logical discussions)’, and as ‘the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion’.[vi] Aristotle believed that the principal function of persuasion was to communicate one’s point of view, and that knowledge and wisdom could only be attained through logic and reason. In that regard, Aristotle identified three means of persuasion, which he described in the second chapter of On Rhetoric, where he said that persuasion is dependent on three facets:

  • The truth and logical validity of what is being argued.
  • The speaker’s success in conveying to the audience a perception that he or she can be trusted.
  • The emotions that a speaker is able to awaken in an audience to accept the views advanced and act in harmony with them.

Nowadays, modern rhetoricians use terms derived from Aristotle to refer to these three means of persuasion, even though these terms have acquired somewhat broader definitions:

  • ‘Logical argument is called logos;
  • The projection of the speaker’s character is called ethos;
  • Awakening the emotions of the audience is called pathos.’[vii]

What Aristotle ultimately sought was to equip political representatives with a means to interpret, to evaluate, and to act upon the arguments and opinions channelled to them by the citizenry. Aristotle was well aware that disagreement among human beings was inevitable, since our own individual perceptions of the world surrounding us are not uniform.

Additionally, since people communicate their perceptions through language, and as everybody communicates their own perception of how the world surrounding them functions, there was no means of telling whose opinion was the most accurate and the most valuable for the community. As Kenneth Burke remarked, ‘we need never deny the presence of strife, enmity, faction as a characteristic motive of rhetorical expression’. Therefore, they invented rhetoric to help them attain consensus within the community. All language use was therefore put in the service of finding the means of persuasion that would support the rhetor’s standpoint; change the thinking and behaviour of an audience; or  strengthen the existing beliefs within the audience.

As ancient rhetoricians believed that language was a potent force for persuasion, they insisted that their students develop copia in all spheres of their art. Copia denotes an abundant and ready supply of language in any situation that arises. Why did ancient teachers of rhetoric insist on this practice? Well, they knew that training their students in different rhetorical arts prepared them for the multitude of communicative and persuasive possibilities that exist in language.


[i] Worthington I (ed) (2007) A Companion to Greek Rhetoric. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing.  p 6.

[ii] Arendt H (1958) The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.  p 26-27.

[iii] Kennedy GA (2006) Aristotle on Rhetoric – A Theory of Civic Discourse, 2nd Edition New York: Oxford University Press. p x.

[iv] Sloane TO (ed) (2001) Encyclopedia of Rhetoric, New York: Oxford University Press. p 606-607.

[v] Ibid. p 608.

[vi] Kaid LL,  Holtz-Bacha C (2008) Encyclopedia of Political Communication – Volume 1&2. Thousand Oaks, CA:  Sage Publications. p 43.

[vii] Kennedy (2006) op. cit.

You may also be interested in

Theories of persuasion and psychology: the power of situations

Throughout its history, humankind has been motivated to war, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, genocide, racist hysteria, religious intolerance and extremism, mass suicide and many other forms of irrational and pathological behaviour. The problem arises as Milan Kundera defines it, when we ask that terrible anthropological question – ‘What are people capable of’?

Diplomatic Persuasion: An Under-Investigated Process

The under-investigation in diplomatic studies of processes of persuasion in explaining diplomatic outcomes needs to be addressed in the interests of better scholarly explanations and diplomatic practice. Although such processes are implicit in nearly all concepts and practice of diplomacy, neither scholars nor practitioners explicitly investigate them. Yet other related fields of study and disciplines examine persuasion and demonstrate its explanatory value.

Persuasive Communication

Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics

The author lays claim to the invention of the concept of ‘soft power’. He starts this book devoted to the subject by revisiting and honing it. He identifies the sources of U.S. ‘soft power’, then those of other major nations. Finally he examines the practical problems of how to wield ‘soft power’ through public diplomacy, and concludes with policy prescriptions.

Persuasion, the Essence of Diplomacy

This journey through persuasion in diplomacy was initiated by Professor Kappeler’s long experience in both practicing diplomacy and in training diplomats.


Persuasion in sociology of diplomacy

Dr Milan Jazbec, a practitioner and researcher in diplomacy, positions a discussion on persuasion in the sociology of diplomacy. Social context determines both diplomacy and persuasion. Dr Jazbec makes a distinction between pressure and persuasion. In a rather counter-intuitive view to dominant discourse, he argues that genuine persuasion cannot be public. As soon as it becomes public, it immediately becomes pressure.

American Negotiating Behaviour: Wheeler-Dealers, Legal Eagles, Bullies, and Preachers

Persuasion: bad practices and … others

Persuasion is a very relative concept. Like beauty, persuasion is the eye of the beholder. Admittedly, persuasion does not exist in the absence of results. One can say that persuasion can be defined as such, if and only if it is effective and reaches its goals. If we accept this prerequisite, we may find persuasion where we least expect it.

On the proper use of violence: reflections on the fall of the Soviet Union

Professor Andre Liebich approaches the potential and limits of persuasion through the analysis of the use of coercion in political life. Two concepts – persuasion and coercion – are usually seen in binary way, as Dr Vella indicates in his article Persuasion is winning over by argument; coercion is subjecting by compulsion. Prof.

Persuasion through negotiation at the Congress of Vienna 1814-1815

Dr Paul Meerts discusses persuasion in the context of the Vienna Congress (1814–1815), one of the most successful diplomatic events in history. The Vienna Congress created long-lasting peace and set the basic rules of multilateral diplomacy and protocol. Dr Meerts’s paper focuses on how the Vienna Congress addressed one of the main challenges of any negotiations: the more actors you have around the table, the less effective those negotiations are.

Reflections on Persuasion in Diplomacy by Ambassador Joseph Cassar

In our families, in our jobs, in our political dynamic at a national level, we always try to persuade others, first and foremost. Since, diplomacy is part of the global human existence, it is natural that persuasion is an essential part and an essential tool of diplomacy … as much it is in your family life, in my family life, when you try to sort out trouble within your family, between your brothers and sisters, between your children and between your grandchildren at my age.

Cornerstones of Persuasion: Inclusion and Empathy

Genuine, honest persuasion cannot be rhetoric, cannot be show, and cannot be theatrics. It has to be something that you genuinely believe in, and people sense this. I can say from my experience that whenever you try to put on a show, people can pay you lip service. Whenever, you try to impress them with fantastic words they might be impressed for a moment, but then they will call your bluff when the true test comes.

Persuading and resisting persuasion

Dr Alex Sceberras Trigona stresses that not only persuasion but also resisting persuasion is highly important for small states, which tend to be seen as the ‘diplomatic prey’ of great powers. He analyses three examples of successful persuasion from Maltese diplomatic history. First were the negotiations on Maltese neutrality, which required a lot of persuasion of two major Cold War powers and numerous regional players in the Mediterranean.

The origins – where is the connection between persuasion and rhetoric?

As ancient rhetoricians believed that language was a potent force for persuasion, they insisted that their students develop copia in all spheres of their art. Copia denotes an abundant and ready supply of language in any situation that arises. Why did ancient teachers of rhetoric insist on this practice? Well, they knew that training their students in different rhetorical arts prepared them for the multitude of communicative and persuasive possibilities that exist in language.

Framing an argument

Dr Biljana Scott’s article on framing an argument introduces the linguistic and rhetoric aspects of persuasion. The way in which we frame an issue largely determines how that issue will be understood and acted upon. By dissecting Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech of December 2010, Dr Scott illustrates the main techniques for framing an argument.

Persuasion as a social phenomenon

Aldo Matteucci explores the relevance of social context for persuasion. Since persuasion leads to change, we should look into the mechanisms of change in society. Change is a social phenomenon. Change occurs when the intentionalities of individuals transmute into ‘collective intentionalities’. In this process, enablers play a key role.

Persuasion, trust, and personal credibility

Ambassador Kishan Rana indicates the cultivation of relations and the credibility of diplomats as the basis for persuasion in diplomacy. He provides an initial taxonomy of the type of relations that diplomats should cultivate. When it comes to credibility, Ambassador Rana presents the main ways of developing and maintaining credibility in diplomatic relations. The more credible the diplomat, the more likely it is that their persuasion with local interlocutors will be successful.

Honey & Vinegar: Incentives, Sanctions & Foreign Policy

Buttressed by input from scholars, diplomats, and observers with an intimate knowledge of U.S. foreign policy, Honey and Vinegar examines "engagement"—strategies that primarily involve the use of positive incentives.

Persuasion: importance of trust, relevance for small states, and limitations of computers

Dr George Vella, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Malta, argues that persuasion is central not only to diplomacy but also to society in general. He highlights three aspects of persuasion. First is the high importance of trust for persuasion: trust creates the context in which persuasion can be used.

Persuasion as the step towards convergence in negotiations

Ambassador Victor Camilleri argues that the essence of diplomacy is a search for a point of convergence. Persuasion is one of the methods through which a point of convergence can be reached. He gives central relevance in diplomacy to the firm grasp of the essential points of negotiation, including assessment of balance of force. This article analyses persuasion in multilateral diplomacy through a case study the Maltese initiative on the ‘Common heritage of mankind’.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

Why Persuasion? Reflections after 50 years of practising, teaching and studying diplomacy

From the faraway days when representatives of fighting tribes tried to arrange for a truce, thereby risking their head, to the often derided endless discussions within present day international frameworks, the common aim of diplomacy has remained persuasion. The better a diplomat is at persuading, the more successful he will be in furthering the cause he represents.