English 8170:

Historical Foundations of Rhetoric and Composition


The word rhetoric is difficult to define succinctly because it has meant many different things at different times. Today, in non-academic settings, rhetoric means style without substance. In academic settings rhetoric usually means 1) political speeches 2) composition; 3) empty language; 4) the subtle use of language to disguise, obscure, or exaggerate meaning. And yet, for roughly two thousand years, from the 5th century BCE until the Enlightenment, rhetoric provided the structure and the goal of education because it taught people how to be effective public speakers and the purpose of all education was to train people for public life. The study of rhetoric's diminution as well as its subsequent expansion during the 20th century is a fascinating enterprise, to say nothing of rhetoric's turn toward the digital in this century. A sweeping historical survey, however, is not what we are about here. We will look at the texts which form rhetoric's "foundation", a debatable concept which we will explore as we go along, with an eye toward understanding how the discipline of rhetoric understands itself today, where many of the topics it entertains come from, and where its skeletons are buried.



Historical Foundations of Rhetoric is a course in the early development of rhetoric in the Western tradition. If you are successful in this class you will have learned what Plato and Aristotle, as well as a number of their predecessors and successors, had to say on the subject of public discourse in the context of their culture and how their work influences today's understandings of rhetoric.


Examination Policy

There will be a final, take home exam. We will work out the questions in advance during class.


Regular attendance is required. You are also expected to turn in your reading journal entries on time. Because there is so much to read in this class, falling behind on your entries will significantly disadvantage you. You will turn in your reading journal entries under the "Workspace" tab on the menu above. You create an account to do so by filling out the survey. After you have filled out the survey, you can login on the "Workspace" page


This syllabus represents only a plan; deviation may be necessary. Changes will be reflected in this electronic syllabus, especially on the calendar pages. Check the site on a regular basis and remember always to hit refresh, to ensure that you are reading the most current version.