In the ancient city-state of Athens, Greece, public speaking was a central part of everyday life. To understand the importance Athenians placed on public speaking, specifically persuasive rhetorical speech, one must know the political context from which it arose. There are two main political reforms that occurred in Athens which served as a catalyst for the emerging need of public speaking and the study of rhetoric. They are: 1) the creation of a democratic state; and 2) a system of common courts (Conley, 1990).
Athens was one of the earliest (508-322 BCE) and most radically democratic governments in recorded history. Athenian democracy was founded on the principle that power should reside in the citizenry rather than a small group of elites. This principle was upheld through the establishment of the ekklesia, or Assembly. The Assembly referred to the regular meeting of the demos, or citizenry, to deliberate and vote on all aspects of Athenian life. Although women were considered citizens, only free men, whom were 18 or older and of Athenian descent could actively participate in the Assembly. Gender based exclusion from legislative activities was not unusual; in the US, women were ban from voting until 1920! That was less than a century ago. In spite of this omission, democratic participation was so highly valued in Athens that Assembly members were paid to attend meetings to ensure that even the poor could attend (Blackwell, 2003). Thus, once a member of the Assembly any man, regardless of class, was free to speak his mind. Freedom of speech was a hallmark of the Assembly since it was believed that without free speech no amount of deliberation would yield effective policy and law.
However, just because one could speak didn’t mean everyone would listen, individuals would have to learn the art of persuasive speaking to capture and keep the Assembly’s attention.
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In addition to the Assembly, there was a full-time governing body of Athenian democracy called the Council which consisted of 500 high officials. Fifty council members were appointed, for a one year term, from each of Athens’ ten tribes. The main responsibility of the Council was the creation of the Assembly’s agenda. Thus, the Council acted as a preliminary voting body. If a majority of the Council voted to pass a decree that decree would then be sent to the Assembly for their consideration. Being a Council member did not carry with it the same connotations as being a member of US Congress; it did not make one a politician. For many, it was simply another democratic duty Athenian citizens had to perform. Also, it was believed that only appointing individuals best suited for the job of high office would ensure that people did not apply simply to increase his status or gain privilege. Power could not be obtained simply from one’s position but rather from an individual’s ability to persuade fellow citizens to follow a proposed course of action. Thus, public speaking skills became a highly sought after skill in Athens’ radical democracy.
The creation of the Heliastic court system, or the People’s Court, was the second development that contributed to the rising importance placed on public speaking. Any male citizen could be a member of a jury as long as he was at least thirty years old and was free of any debt to the government. Jury selection was done randomly by lot and at the last minute to prevent any type of bribery or patronage. Just as in the Assembly and Council, individuals were paid for their participation on juries to open access to even the poorest citizens. During their deliberations, jury members would determine a defendant’s guilt or innocence, as well as a reasonable sentence on guilty verdicts. The People’s Court gave citizens the power to file suit against any other citizen on criminal and civil charges. Also, it gave citizens the ability to appeal rulings by the Assembly or Council they were dissatisfied with. Whether overturned or not, the People’s Court allotted Athenian citizens an unprecedented opportunity to have their voices heard. In Athens, this common court system acted as “the ultimate guarantor of democratic rule” (Blackwell, 2003).
In the Assembly, Council, and People’s Court, public speaking became the most important skill one could have. The amount of social mobility possible was unprecedented and depended, in large part, on ones’ ability to be a persuasive speaker. In Athens’, having the power to sway the public could potentially defuse the privileges of status and bloodline. Citizens could gain office, prevail in lawsuits, and aid in the adoption or rejection of a proposed decree. In order to succeed in each of these situations, all one needed to be, at least in principle, was an effective public speaker. It was in every citizen’s interest to learn the art of persuasive public speaking, thus, training to be an effective speaker was in high demand.
The Sophists were traveling public speaking teachers that believed anyone, regardless of natural ability, could benefit from speech instruction. They would trek from city to city offering their paid services which included: public performance, speech writing and instruction in argumentation and style. The Sophists believed that human knowledge could not be certain due to the subjectivity of the senses. The closest humans could come to certainty was probable knowledge, which was reached through rationale debate (Bizzell & Herzberg, 2001). Thus, they taught individuals how to argue a point from both a supporting and opposing position. A persuasive speaker would, therefore, be able to examine an issue from all areas to determine its strengths and weakness and address both.
Yet, the Sophists also believed that language could never be objective since it was too culturally symbolic and emotionally charged to promote. Thus, learning how to be a persuasive public speaker entailed learning how to manipulate language to induce one’s desired audience response. Language was simply a neutral tool that could be used to one’s advantage. Ethics, therefore, only resided in the speaker, not speech.
Some noteworthy Sophists were Corax, Gorgias and Isocrates. Corax of Sicily is believed to have been the first person to develop a techne, or rational method of practicing a craft or art, for creating rhetoric. Although Corax is widely considered the first sophist, Gorgias is thought of as the most famous.
A gifted speaker, Gorgias believed that having a command over rhetoric would enable speakers to exercise control over others. For Gorgias, speech, not divinity, determined the extent things are good and just. In his most famous speech, The Encomium of Helen, Gorgias argues that Helen of Troy was a victim of persuasion and should not be blamed for initiating the Trojan War. Although a weak speaker, Isocrates was best known for his techniques for teaching rhetoric. Isocrates attempted to set himself apart from his fellow sophists because he did not agree with many of their teachings. Isocrates believed speech teachers should cultivate wisdom, a sense of justice and a commitment to the civic good rather than just persuasive techniques. But not everyone in Ancient Greece found the sophists to be “good” speech teachers.
Plato is one of the most influential Greek philosophers of the Western world. Plato was suspicious of rhetoric because, ethically speaking, it could be used for both good and bad. His views on rhetoric are found in two dialogues, Gorgias and Phaedrus. In Gorgias, which is named after the famous sophist, Plato expresses his disdain for “false” rhetoric by likening it to flattery. “False” rhetoric was used to persuade people of probable truths by simply telling listeners what they wanted to hear.
Thus, “false” persuasive public speech could create morally deprived listeners. In Phaedrus, Plato offers an account of “good” rhetoric—rhetoric that can persuade the listener’s soul to know transcendent truth. Plato believed that the type of rhetorical speech taught by sophists was “false” rhetoric because they did not try and persuade people of transcendent truth. Not surprisingly Plato’s account of “good” rhetoric is highly philosophical and can only be spoken by philosophically minded individuals.
Aristotle, one of Plato’s students, believed that the reason rhetoric could appear “true” and “false” was because persuasive speech was a neutral tool that can be used to argue both sides of a question. In Rhetoric, Aristotle offers a wide ranging theory on speech composition. Many of Aristotle’s concepts in Rhetoric are still used in public speaking classrooms today! These include Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric and his concept of artistic proofs. First, Aristotle defines rhetoric as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion” (Aristotle, trans. 1984. Bk. I, Ch. 2). Once these means are determined, it is the speaker’s responsibility to utilize them ethically. Second, artistic proofs are constructed by speakers to make the speech more persuasive. These proofs are ethos, pathos, and logos. Ethos commonly refers to a speaker’s credibility and character. Pathos refers to use of emotional appeals to evoke specific feeling in the audience. Logos refers to the logical reasoning underlying a speaker’s claims. Used together, artistic proofs support a speech by intellectually and emotionally appealing to an audience.
From the ACA Open Knowledge On-Line Guide