When you hear the word rhetoric, what do you think of? Maybe images come to mind of an emotional TV ad, political propaganda, or a lawyer arguing in court. But as classical, Christian educators, rhetoric takes on a whole different meaning. In her book The Conversation, Leigh Bortins defines rhetoric as “the use of knowledge and understanding to perceive wisdom, pursue virtue, and proclaim truth.” In other words, true rhetoric involves the expression of truth, goodness, and beauty through speech or writing.
The Five Canons of Rhetoric Explained
The skill of rhetoric is just as important today as it was when ancient orators like Cicero, Demosthenes, and Quintilian gave their great speeches. It’s a skill necessary to practice to become a great communicator, which is why our Classical Conversations® Challenge programs have students practice these tools consistently in community with others.
The skill of rhetoric is best practiced by understanding what are commonly known as the Five Canons of Rhetoric. These canons, or stages, give students of rhetoric clear direction in crafting their speech, essay, lecture, presentation, or other work of rhetoric so that it appeals to their intended audience and persuades them toward truth, goodness, and beauty. This post serves as a guide for you to reference whenever you or your student have a question about the Five Canons of Rhetoric. If it helps, bookmark this page to quickly reference it later. But for now, let’s talk about the Five Canons of Rhetoric!
Guiding Question: What should I say?
Action: Discover ideas, research, and plan.
The first of the Five Canons of Rhetoric is invention. This is the stage when a student decides what to say before sitting down to write their speech or essay. Put simply, invention is the brainstorming, research, and planning stage of rhetoric.
To brainstorm ideas and narrow in on a specific topic, a student might use a technique like mind mapping, freewriting, or having conversations with others to generate ideas. After selecting a topic, they might conduct research online or in a library to understand what others have said about that topic. The canon of invention may also include planning as a student creates a rough outline, although the bulk of organizing thoughts, ideas, and research comes in the next stage, arrangement.
In each of the Five Canons of Rhetoric, audience matters. In invention, a student must not only select a topic appropriate for their audience, but also research sources that will appeal to that audience.
Guiding Question: In what order should I say it?
Action: Arrange ideas in a logical and organized manner.
In arrangement, a student takes ideas from the invention stage and organizes them in a logical manner. As a popular example, arrangement may involve creating a formal outline for a speech, lecture, or essay. However, arrangement is necessary even when creating something like a poster board for a science fair.
Audience is just as important in arrangement as in invention. For instance, many pastors begin their sermons with a joke rather than jumping straight into a Scripture lesson. This is an intentional choice made in the arrangement stage to grab the congregation’s attention immediately and to connect with them emotionally.
Many students think they can ignore the arrangement stage. After all, they can just figure out in what order they will say things when it comes time to say it, right? Wrong. Arrangement is just as important as any of the other canons of rhetoric. Spending time in arrangement will give a student clear direction for what to say when it comes time to say it. It also ensures a logical flow to an argument so that the audience will be able to follow along when reading the essay or hearing the speech.
Read: “What Are the Five Core Habits of Grammar?”
Guiding Question: How should I say it?
Action: Express ideas in the style that is most persuasive in appealing to the audience.
Elocution is just a fancy classical term for “style.” This is the stage when a student decides how to say what they want to say about their topic. Again, their audience is crucial, and will inform decisions as to whether their work should be spoken or written, formal or informal, source-dense or experience-based. It’s also in elocution where a student may compose stylistic devices such as metaphors, similes, and parallelism to include in their work. However, it’s important not to overuse fancy stylistic devices. This will only confuse the audience, since the argument will get lost in all the extra fluff. As a student should always prioritize clarity over decoration.
The danger for student rhetoricians is that they may mistake ornamentation for appropriateness and neglect clarity.”
– Leigh Bortins, The Conversation
Guiding Question: How should memory inform my presentation?
Action: Add memorable features to your essay or speech. Commit ideas to memory.
In ancient times, great orators took the canon of memory literally by actually memorizing their speeches. Although students today may certainly need to memorize their work of rhetoric depending on the situation and audience, there are several other ways to incorporate memory when crafting their speech, lecture, or essay.
The first is to draw upon what they already know about their subject to establish context and to find common ground with their audience. Second, a student should craft their speech or essay in a way that will make it memorable. This may involve including humorous personal experiences or to structure their argument into three main points (like a five-paragraph essay). Finally, a student may choose to memorize their speech or presentation rather than reading it or using notecards. Doing so can help them focus on making good eye contact and using hand gestures to connect with their audience, which are both elements of the next canon, delivery.
Read: “What Are the Five Common Topics of Dialectic?”
Guiding Question: How should I present this truth in speech and action?
Action: Deliver ideas in oral or written form.
The last of the Five Canons of Rhetoric is delivery. Delivery is most recognizable in speeches, presentations, and lectures. It involves careful consideration of when to make eye contact, when to use hand gestures, and when to smile. Delivery also involves attire. For example, students in our Challenge B program argue a case before judges in Mock Trial. During a presentation, it would be inappropriate and distracting if a student wore a t-shirt and sweatpants instead of business casual.
Rhetorical skills are the final tools needed that give students the ability to study and learn anything they set their minds to. Almost any skilled person you encounter must have these tools to be successful in his/her field.”
– Leigh Bortins, Echo in Celebration
Practicing the Five Canons of Rhetoric
To become effective communicators in today’s world, it’s critical that students practice the Five Canons of Rhetoric. That’s why our high school level Challenge programs focus so heavily on having students practice the Five Canons of Rhetoric through discussions, presentations, and debates with their peers in community as well as through writing persuasive papers on their own. Through these exercises, Challenge students develop the abilities to think logically and present their ideas clearly, two essential skills for all areas of life.
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