In my past two blog posts, I have examined rhetoric in public speaking and academic writing. In this post, I will examine a third component of rhetoric referencing George A. Kennedy’s Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition.

What is “literary rhetoric”? It is a tool for writers which empowers them to convince their readers about their point of view. Rhetorical language in literature informs, persuades, or motivates the reader by appealing to emotions, shared values, or logic (pathos, ethos, logos). The great classical writers used rhetoric language to convince their readers to support a character (Shakespeare was a master at this), trick readers into believing in an outcome (Melville had me at “call me Ishmael”) and/or making a declaration about the world around us. However, the modern concept of literature, belles lettres, was not used primarily until the seventeenth century in France and the eighteenth century in England after the novel and other genres began to emerge. Therefore, rhetoric was used in an oral tradition previously.

In my previous blog, “Classical Rhetoric in the Roman and Hellenistic Periods”, the main concern of the rhetoricians was in literary composition and the development of literary criticism. An increase in the style of rhetoric began in education throughout the Greek and Latin-speaking world. In this blog, we move next to the literature of ancient Greece through the lens of Kennedy’s Classical Rhetoric.

Literary Rhetoric in Greece

The first known use of literary rhetoric in Greece is found in Dionysius’ On Composition where he distinguishes several types of style, authenticity of speeches, treatment of subject matter, and the use of ethos and pathos. Dionysius does not show much interest in persuasion as he sees this as an “aesthetic, literary subject” (Classical 132). Instead, he focuses on argumentation using the sources of charm, beauty, harmony, polished (Sappho, Isocrates), and well-blended (Homer and Demosthenes).

Dionysius uses the “canon” as the standard of measure in literary rhetoric stating that Herodotus is the best “canon” of historical writing in Ionic Greek. This process of canonization of texts is evident in Greece with the acceptance of Homeric and Hesiodic poems as the classics of culture and later the classics in the library of Alexandria (132). He includes the works of Plutarch, Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Thucydides, Plato, and Xenophon.  

Where does the relationship between rhetoric and poetics begin? According to Kennedy, literary criticism in poetry can be found as early as Aristophanes’ comedy Frogs which compares the styles of Aeschylus and Euripides, and in Plato’s dialogue Ion, which deals with poetic inspiration (135).

Reading and analysis of poetry was important in Greek and Roman grammar schools. This tradition continued into the Middle Ages as is evident in Artes Poetriae. Hellenistic criticism of poetry can be found in The Art of Poetry by Horace, in classical texts from Roman and Byzantine times in the large commentaries on Homeric poems by Eustathius and on Virgil’s Aeneid (136).

Poetics and rhetoric are parallel in treatment of style, tropes, characters, sentence structure, and rhythm.

Old Testament Rhetoric

In my previous blog “The Apostles and Classical Rhetoric”, I discussed the use of rhetoric in the sermons of the Apostles found in the book of Acts. In the second part of this blog, I will examine the literary rhetoric found in the Old Testament writings.

The books of the Old Testament were written at different times, some as early as 900 B.C. and others as late as the third century, and not in the sequence that they now appear.  The Jewish philosopher Philo, the Christian bishop Augustine, and other learned Jews and Christians made use of their training in rhetoric to interpret the Old Testament. Martin Luther, during the Renaissance, did so as well. The discipline of rhetoric began to decline after this point but is now seeing a resurgence in scholarship of the concepts of classical rhetoric and techniques of modern literary criticism (137).

Literary rhetoric is evident in the first book of the Old Testament, Genesis, demonstrating the strong sense of power of speech and in particular of the authoritative speech of God as He creates the universe, and mankind. In fact, the fundamental rhetorical technique of the Old Testament is assertion of authority. God has given a law to His people, and they are convinced because of who he is, what he has done for them, how he will punish them if they transgress, and how his word is revealed to them (138). God’s authority is confirmed by miracles and bolstered by pathos in the remembrance of the past suffering of people and by their fears of future punishment or hopes of future rewards.

In the Old Testament writings, we see the Judeo-Christian rhetoric features of addressing audiences who are educated in rhetorical schools of Palestine, following Alexander’s conquest of the East. Exodus reveals another example of literary rhetoric in the fourth chapter where God has commissioned Moses to bring the children of Egypt out of Israel. This is followed by more dialogue between Moses and God in which God must act, through grace, to move the hearts of an audience. This is another proof of Judeo-Christian rhetoric of pathos, ethos, and logos developed by Aristotle.

Throughout the Old Testament, we also see oral rhetoric in the covenant speeches given in public addresses. A characteristic off the covenant speech is that whatever the specific occasion, the basic message of Judaism—the covenant with God—is incorporated in the speech (141). This rhetorical style survives as a feature of Christian preaching today, as addressed in my previous blog. This covenant speech in preaching today has the single theme of overriding importance: “God sent into the world his only begotten Son that through Him, we may have eternal life”(John 3:16).

An important form of address in the Old Testament is that of Prophecy. Old Testament prophecy is very important for Christian rhetoric. We see this prophecy of the coming Messiah in Exodus, Psalms, Proverbs, and Isaiah. These prophecies are fulfilled in the New Testament with the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In the Old Testament, we also see the literary rhetoric of epideictic represented by speeches in praise of God. The Psalms illustrate this feature and also reveal the parallelism between Hebrew poetry and the elevated language of many cultures around the world at that time. The use of imagery of this sort at first seemed obscure to Greek and Roman readers, but it became a characteristic device of Christian style (143).

Psalms is an important book in my life; I read one Psalm every day to bring me hope, comfort, peace in my soul and to strengthen my faith. The use of imagery, allegory, metaphors by the authors brings these verses to life. Psalm 23: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me…”.

The final example of literary rhetoric to examine for the purpose of this blog is found in the book of Proverbs. Kennedy states that the book of Proverbs includes a number of precepts about fine speech derived from Egyptian wisdom literature (the Instruction of Ptahhotep). Proverbs was written by Solomon, David’s son, during his reign 970-930 B.C. and contains parables and poetry. The main purpose of Proverbs is to teach wisdom through principles of life, good judgment, and perception. These are some of my favorite Proverbs:

  • “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it”(22:6)
  • “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (1:7)
  • “A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies” (31:10)
  • “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (4:23)
  • “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (27:17)

These virtues found in Proverbs are similar to the ones found in the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, in which I posted a few months back [see post].

  • “To act against one another is contrary to nature”
  • “Whatever this is that I am, it is a little flesh and breath. Throw away thy books; no longer distract thyself: it is not allowed.”
  • “Do not waste the remainder of thy life in thoughts about others, when thou dost not refer thy thoughts to some object of common utility”
  • “Reverence the faculty which produces opinion” (the cornerstone of rhetoric!!)
  • “It is no evil for things to undergo change, and no good for things to subsist in consequence of change”.

Work Cited

Kennedy, George A. (1999). Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition. London:

     UNC Press.