St. Augustine in His Study

Disciplinary Roots

Most scholars in our discipline begin the formal, recorded history of the discipline of communication with the study of rhetoric in Ancient Greece. Clearly, however, many ancient cultures developed systems and theories of communication. Some of the earliest surviving works from ancient civilizations read like primers for communication – including the Egyptian manuscript, the Precepts of Ptah-hotep:

“If you are a leader of peace, listen to the discourse of the petitioner. Be not abrupt with him; that would trouble him. Say not to him: ‘You have already recounted this.’ Indulgence will encourage him to accomplish the object of his coming. As for being abrupt with the complainant…the way to obtain a clear explanation is to listen with kindness.”

Other scholars, from diverse disciplines, trace the concept of communication to earliest human interaction, to artistic representations on cave walls, and to the development of early counting systems.

If you trace the systematic study and modern discipline of communication to its earliest recorded “roots” you wind up in Ancient Greece, with the study of rhetoric. Even as we start in Ancient Greece we must realize that the Greeks did not invent, on their own, the formal study of rhetoric or philosophy or even mathematics. The work done in the Middle East and Africa greatly influenced the entire Mediterranean region.

It is difficult to fathom what life must have been like in a largely oral society – this does not mean that the Ancients were overly fond of oral communication. It means that written texts were scarce, few people could read and write, and most decisions were made publicly after much oral argument. Stories and histories were communicated orally. Statues, architecture, art, poems, and stories functioned as much as aids for memory as they did for expressing artistic desire. If a man could not argue well, with both logic and conviction, he would not get very far politically or personally.

Thus, if you were a male baby born to parents with some wealth, you were sent to learn how to communicate from a very young age. During the fifth century, BC, a class of teachers known as Sophists were eager and available to deliver instruction in rhetoric. The first written work that we’re aware of was written by Corax and/or his student Tisias, the earliest known “speech writer.” Just as politicians today rely on paid writers for their speeches and addresses, Tisias was known to write out arguments for his clients to use in the courts of law. The study of rhetoric, for many ambitious men, could be a means to success, privilege, position, wealth, power.

Also during this time period, rhetoricians and philosophers advocated study and skill in rhetoric as a means for discovering truth. They advocated the skilled use of rhetoric as essential for ordering and clarifying arguments.

In the very early days, sophists were both teachers and philosophers. Some of the best known include Isocrates and Protagoras (yes, Protagoras of the Theorem). They advocated teaching rhetoric as a means to developing human excellence in their pupils. This was a radical idea – that one could learn to be virtuous and excellent, to embody arete, by virtue of learning and practice rather than through fate or the privilege of a noble birth. Today we tend to think of sophists negatively (we get the word sophomore and sophomoric from the same root, and sophomore literally means “wise fool”), although most were generally well regarded in their time.

Plato, however, was not very kind to the sophists. Plato said that rhetoric was not an art, that the sophists were not helping their students or audiences to be more virtuous, only that they flattered their audiences with what they wanted to hear. Plato suggested that the true rhetoric, the true art, was linked to the dialectic, or Socratic questioning.

Aristotle, one of Plato’s students, went on to write the earliest extended definition of rhetoric that survives today, The Art of Rhetoric. For Aristotle, rhetoric is parallel to and necessary to the art of dialectic in order to discover truth. One might rely on the dialectic to uncover a theoretical truth, but one must rely on rhetoric tAristotleo uncover a practical truth (such as in a court of law or in a deliberative assembly). Aristotle also identified three kinds of rhetorical proofs, including ethos (character and credibility of a communicator), pathos (use of emotional appeals), and logos (use of logic and reasoning). He identified three types or genres of rhetoric – the forensic (determining the truth of what happened in the past), the deliberative (determining what the best course of action should be in the future), and the epideictic (delivering praise or blame, demonstrating beauty and skill in the present).

One must be mindful that however noble the aspriations of the ancients, the laws, educational system, and attitudes systematically excluded and exploited women and foreigners.

Following in the footsteps of the Greeks, the ancient Romans also considered rhetoric of vital importance, especially in the early days of the Republic. Two of the most well-known Roman rhetoricians were Cicero and Quintilian. During this time period, the Rhetorica ad Herennium was written (though not extensively used until the Middle Ages) and is sometimes attributed to Cicero. Cicero’s works were widely read and used in instruction, and he made many contributions to theories of style and eloquence. Quintilian had a very successful career in the public eye as an orator, and his five canons of rhetoric (building upon Aristotle’s foundation) are taught to this day:

  • Inventio (the process that leads to development of ideas and arguments)
  • Dispositio (arrangement of ideas and arguments)
  • Elocutio (style) and Pronuntiatio (presentation)
  • Memoria (memory)
  • Actio (delivery).

Quintilian is also known for his emphasis on the ideal orator as a virtuous, publicly minded citizen. As Rome’s republican form of government waned, so did the emphasis on rhetoric being intimately linked with good logic and sound reasoning. Quintilian (and others) decried the excessive emphasis by many teachers and scholars on delivery alone and excessive ornamentation in public speaking. This is a theme you can trace throughout Western civilization – when democracy thrives, so does the whole art of rhetoric. When democracy declines, rhetoric becomes largely limited to style and ornamentation.

During the early years of the Church, rhetoric was considered a “pagan” art by many. St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.) began his schooling in rhetoric and later incorporated much of his learning into his writings. Church leaders became convinced, via Augustine, that studying rhetoric was good for spreading the gospel message, and the study of “rhetoric” was deemed suitable study for Christians.

Following Augustine, the study of rhetoric in Europe became much more focused on the art of the sermon and on writing letters. The notion of being a good, virtuous citizen in the public square was not emphasized. The rebirth of the interest in classical rhetoric is usually credited to Erasmus (1466-1536), and most liberal arts education was focused on the trivium, consisting of logic, grammar, and rhetoric. Just when the “rebirth” of rhetoric was in full swing, another movement arose that led to the loss of the "meat” of rhetoric. Peter Ramus (1515-1572), prominent in Puritan and Protestant circles, reorganized school curriculum such that invention and disposition were determined to be dialectic, leaving rhetoric with style, delivery, and memory. As Ramist thinking spread to America and permeated Protestant education, Francis Bacon criticized the obsession with style rather than the “weight of matter, worth of subject, soundness of argument, life of invention, or depth of judgment.”

While Ramus was still influential in New England (especially at the very young Harvard College), the revolutionaries proved that rhetoric, and well trained orators, were key to having a successful government of the people, by the people, and for the people. The first endowed chair in American higher education was the Boylston Chair of Rhetoric, set up at Harvard in Massachusetts. The first holder of the chair was John Quincy Adams, who seemed to understand rhetorical skill as a form of power:

Under governments purely republican, where every citizen has a deep interest in the affairs of the nation, and, in some form of public assembly or other, has the means and opportunity of delivering his opinions, and of communicating his sentiments by speech; where government itself has no arms but those of persuasion; where prejudice has not acquired an uncontrolled ascendency, and faction is yet confined within the barriers of peace; the voice of eloquence will not be heard in vain. --John Quincy Adams, On the Occasion of His 1805 Inaugural Address as the first Boylston Chair of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard.

While Adams delivered a series of lectures designed to stir interest and skill in rhetoric, later chairs were typically churchmen who focused on homiletics (the art of giving a sermon) rather than on the wise, virtuous citizen speaking publicly.

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, American higher education embraced rhetorical study. Departments of speech sprang up across the country, especially in most of the large midwestern universities. Some theorists credit this revival of interest with the rise of mediated communication, while others believe that the explosion of students (both men and women) in universities pushed for more practical arts and disciplines that went beyond training to be either teachers or preachers. Still others point to the rise of men working in office and “white collar” environments who needed more systematic study of rhetoric and communication. In any event, some departments began as speech and theater, some others as rhetoric, some within English departments. In 1914 the National Communication Association was founded and there was a “rebirth” in rhetorical studies. Many in the discipline credit Herbert Wichelns Winan as the modern “father” of the rebirth of good rhetorical criticism. By the 1940s, the discipline was well established, and many were inspired by the new research being conducted in the social sciences. By the late 1960s many stand-alone speech departments began to change their names to more accurately reflect the many kinds of classes offered and research being conducted in the era of "communication.”

With a more “global awareness” European and North American scholars have also discovered invaluable texts and oral philosophies in non-Western cultures that add to our understanding of communication, both current and ancient. In China, for example, we have learned that Confucius had quite a lot to say about communication. Similarly, many feminist scholars and historians have pointed out that women's voices were silenced both by their times and by modern histories and anthologies of rhetoric.

Today, the study of communication extends far beyond public speaking to include communication in the workplace, in families, in the church, and in the mass media. Students of communication often find themselves drawing on research conducted in psychology, English, sociology, anthropology, and history.

The discipline embraces many approaches to understanding communication – some approach the study within a humanities perspective, focusing on historic speeches and social movements, rhetorical analysis of film, or ethical critiques of contemporary political discourse. Some approach the study of communication within a social scientific framework, focusing on the effects of advertising on children, the role of gender in how we approach negotiation, or what makes one leader more successful than another.

Communication has always been, and remains to this day, a true liberal art!

Confucius said, "The superior man has nine things which are subjects with him of thoughtful consideration. In regard to the use of his eyes, he is anxious to see clearly. In regard to the use of his ears, he is anxious to hear distinctly. In regard to his countenance, he is anxious that it should be benign. In regard to his demeanor, he is anxious that it should be respectful. In regard to his speech, he is anxious that it should be sincere. In regard to his doing of business, he is anxious that it should be reverently careful. In regard to what he doubts about, he is anxious to question others. When he is angry, he thinks of the difficulties his anger may involve him in. When he sees gain to be got, he thinks of righteousness."

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