To know God and to make Him known.

What Is Rhetoric?

I am going to say the word “rhetoric.” I want you to pause for a moment, close your eyes, and then record your first impression of the word. As moderns, we often think of a sound bite, the speech of a slick politician, or even of outright lies. The word has been corrupted from its original usage. Aristotle defined rhetoric as “finding the available means of persuasion.” We are getting warmer, but, as Christians, we cannot take Aristotle’s definition wholesale. After all, Britney Spears, Madonna, and Lady Gaga are all very persuasive.

Classical thinkers made a distinction between sophists—speakers of questionable character who tried to convince people of foolishness—and rhetoricians—speakers of good character who tried to convince people of wisdom. As classical, Christian home educators, we want to define rhetoric as “the use of knowledge and understanding to perceive wisdom, pursue virtue, and proclaim truth.”

This year, at our parent practicums, we will focus on reclaiming the original sense of rhetoric, which involved three aptitudes:

  • an appreciation of the true, the good, and the beautiful,
  • the devleopment of a virtuous character, and 
  • an ability to speak eloquently and persuasively.

The classical world focused on rhetoric training for individuals who would be citizen-leaders, either in the Athenian democracy or the Roman Senate. All citizens were expected to be able to speak well on issues of the day. Consider the Apostle Paul speaking to the Athenians in Acts 17. Scripture tells us that the Greek citizens were outside in the marketplace, discussing the latest, greatest ideas. Paul entered the crowd to tell them of the latest, greatest idea—the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In Classical Conversations, we focus on instruction in rhetoric for the same reasons. I do not know what jobs my Challenge students or my own children will pursue after graduation, but I do know that they have all been called to serve as citizen leaders in our republic, and they have all been called to be ministers of the Gospel. I want them to execute these important services well, so I want them to think wisely, to act virtuously, and to persuade others of the truth.

As parents, how do we begin the important task of preparing them to be rhetoricians? Our first task is to cultivate wide readers. If students do not read widely, they will not have anything to say. Reading widely means being acquainted with the classics of literature and history as well as the current events of the day. Students in the Challenge program get practice with both.

Many writers and speakers report that their most difficult task is figuring out what to say. Classical speakers and writers had a handy toolbox called the five common topics that they used to tackle any subject. The topics train students to ask questions about the subject of their speech or essay in order to have something to say. Classical educators teach the five common topics in depth during the dialectic stage so that when students are ready to apply their ideas in the rhetoric stage, they will be well prepared.

The five common topics are definition, comparison, relationship, circumstance, and authority. During the dialectic stage, classical students practice using the five common topics over and over again to think about history, literature, current events, and science. This process should give them an abundance of ideas related to a topic. Then, when they reach the rhetoric stage, they will have more than enough to say.

The Five Common Topics






To precisely define the terms of the issue

What is x? What are its parts?

What is a civil war? What makes the American Civil War distinctive from other civil wars in history?


To compare terms within the issue

How is x like y? How are they different?

How were Grant and Lee similar? Different?


To determine the relationship between terms in the issue

Did x cause y? What were the effects? Did y simply come before x but not cause it?

What were the causes of the Civil War?


To determine whether the issue is possible or probable

To determine whether actions elsewhere contributed to the action

Is x possible? Is it probable? What else was going on at the same time?

Was it possible to avoid the Civil War? Was it probable that the North and South could resolve their issues without going to war? What else was going on in the world at the same time? Did this impact the Civil War?


To determine what witnesses and experts say about the issue in order to lend support to an argument

What do witnesses say about x? What do experts say about x?

What did speakers, writers, and leaders in the 1860s say about the Civil War? What do historians say about it now?


Next, students need training in the five canons of rhetoric. They will apply these lessons to the creation of essays, debates, lectures, and speeches. Notice that the first canon, invention, is exactly what your students have practiced doing with the five common topics. The dialectic stage prepares them beautifully for the study of rhetoric.

The Five Canons of Rhetoric



Gathering ideas



Outlining, planning, and arranging thoughts in a logical and organized manner



Using rhetorical devices and language that will be most persuasive in appealing to the audience



Memorizing the speech



Delivering the speech with the appropriate gestures and voice


Christian families will most readily recognize these habits of mind if they consider a sermon. The pastor first chooses a passage of Scripture to teach. He then gathers examples that will resonate with his audience and authoritative material from early Church Fathers and commentary (inventio—invention). Throughout the week, he arranges his points into a logical and organized sermon (dispositio—arrangement). Next, he considers the best style for conveying his sermon to the congregation (elocutio—style). Then, he memorizes the speech (memoria—memory) and delivers it (pronuntiato—delivery). A pastor does not memorize his sermon in order to be theatrical, but in order to deliver it in a way that compels the audience to pay attention and be changed by what they hear.

Rhetoric students can follow the same process when writing a research paper about World War II, composing a persuasive essay about Jane Eyre, or delivering an art lecture. They should be logical and persuasive as they call their audience to think or to live differently. These are no longer the book reports or factual history reports produced by the grammar student, which simply summarize the actions of the World War II battles or describe the plot of the novel. Instead, they are elegant and persuasive arguments. The essay on World War II might argue that the Allies would not have won the war without the D-Day tactics or that the use of the atomic bomb was both necessary and just. The persuasive essay on Jane Eyre might compare and contrast Jane’s ethics with those of modern readers and evaluate which standards lead to a better society.

In the classical world, training in rhetoric was considered essential for all citizens because it was preparation both for self-government and for leadership of others. While we do not know the specific jobs to which our students will be called, we can be confident that they will all be called to participate in the government of our republic and to share the gospel of Christ. Rhetoric prepares them to do both well.

CATEGORIES: Articles, Classical Christian Education, Dialectic Stage (ages 12 to 14), Rhetoric Stage (ages 14 to 18)

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