The Beginnings of PR: The Rise of Rhetoric and Persuasion

How can you persuade an audience without a platform on which to stand?

Prior to Draco, laws were given orally in a public setting. (Ancient Civilisations)

Democracy in Ancient Greece set the stage for persuasion, as rulers of this time understood that free societies are founded upon open dialogue. The ability to express oneself freely not only determined rules and behavior for individuals, but it also governed the interaction of the entire community.

While persuasion and democracy are not wholly western ideals, contemporary western civilization, however, looks to Ancient Greece and Rome for direction. The stage on which the free exchange of ideas and persuasion would flourish grew out of a practical need to govern Athens.

To establish order, ancient Athenians commissioned Draco, considered the wisest among them, to set up a system of law that addressed criminal acts, or codification. He essentially created statutes that addressed criminal offenses, which benefitted Athenians for one main reason. As opposed to the arbitrary often capricious decisions made by aristocrats to address criminal behavior, a law of the land was established!

Solon, Draco’s successor, built upon these laws and essentially created a democratic system, a system that would allow all citizens to participate in governance and one that would be used in governments in Ancient Rome and much later in contemporary England and America.

…Blah, blah, blah—what is all this history about?

This history sets the platform for not only democracy but also the stage for rhetoric and persuasion. By the time of Pericles’s reign, democracy had been in full effect, which meant every man, from the poorest to the wealthiest, participated in government, and could do so without fear of reprisal!

More significantly, democracy created the need for powerful orators and debaters who could deliver speeches to people numbering as little as five hundred to two thousand! For this reason, highly-skilled, trained public speakers needed to address legislative assembly were in demand.

This history also set the stage for the art of speaking or writing effectively for the purpose of persuasion. This history set the stage for rhetoric!

Where could you, as a novice speaker, go for training?

In Athens, those entering the arena of public debate often sought out the guidance of sophists. This group of specialized teachers and lecturers basically taught rhetoric but from a practical standpoint.

Basing their beliefs on founding father Gorgias’ ideals, these teachers focused on getting their disciples to learn to speak effectively and persuasively in the political arena. Those who studied under sophists learned to understand all sides of the argument, hence point-of-view becomes an important part of debate and part of persuasion. Sophists wanted students to understand that winning the debate was of real import not necessarily coming to truthful conclusions.

But they were not the only ones shaping rhetorical philosophy either…. Three big names in philosophy come to the forefront of this new and exciting profession. These three philosophers take rhetoric up a notch by examining methods of delivery and the ethics of oration.

The Death of Socrates (1787) by Jacques-Louis David (Wikipedia Commons)
  • Socrates believed that ultimately all learning is derived through searching for the truth. Through the widely known Socratic Method, students were taught to think and express themselves through cross examination, or through questioning. Through the elenchus (cross examination), student and lecturer tested a particular point-of-view, proposal or definition.
  • Plato, Socrates’ disciple, had similar beliefs to Socrates, but he really believed that getting to the truth of the matter was the ultimate goal of debate. In fact, of all the thinkers of this time, Plato admonished the sophists for their beliefs that the purpose of debate was persuasion, even at the expense of truth.
Marble bust of Aristotle, which is a replica of the original Greek bronze bust by Lysippos from 330 BC. (Wikipedia Commons)

However, persuasion was pretty much set up through the rhetorical appeals of….

  • Aristotle. Aristotle, a student of Plato, taught his students that three rhetorical appeals are at the foundation of rhetoric and persuasion. By employing…
  • ethos, an audience is swayed to a position through establishing credibility or trust with the audience,
  • logos, an audience is swayed to a particular point-of-view through rational, logical thought,
  • pathos, an audience is swayed through emotional appeal.

And what did this do for modern-day public relations (PR)?

For contemporary PR, Aristotle established the model for speeches one might encounter:

  • Speeches that are concerned with establishing facts or assigning guilt, or innocence.
  • Speeches that are concerned with moral values of right or wrong and/or praise or admonishment.
  • Speeches that are concerned with future actions, much of what is seen in political debate.

…For modern-day PR, the sophists, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle established a framework from which two-way relationships develop in the public arena.


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