“We believe that focusing primarily on distinctions between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ rhetoric has led to unfortunate oversimplifications and distortions. Consequently, our purpose in this essay is to survey the distinctions typically drawn between classical and modern rhetoric, to suggest why these distinctions are inaccurate and, most importantly, to note the compelling similarities between classical and modern rhetoric. These similarities, we believe, can helpo clarify the features essential to any dynamic theory of rhetoric.”
–Andrea A. Lunsford and Lisa Ede

Key Terms: Ethos, pathos, logos, enthymeme, paradeigma, krisis

In “On Distinctions Between Classical and Modern Rhetoric,” first published in Essays on Classical Rhetoric and Modern Discourse in 1984 and later included as a chapter in Writing Together: Collaboration in Theory and Practice, Andrea A. Lunsford and Lisa Ede set out an argument that the distinctions typically drawn between classical and modern rhetoric are inaccurate. It should be noted here that the now-dated term “classical rhetoric” seems to refer, as was then typical, to the Greco-Roman rhetorics of antiquity.

Presumed Differences

To begin, Lunsford and Ede set out the then-popularly cited distinctions between modern and “classical” rhetoric. These are the distinctions they cite.

Quoted here, classical rhetoric asserts that (Lunsford and Ede 263):

  1. Man is a rational animal living in a society marked by social cohesion and agreed-upon values.
  2. Emphasis is on logical (rational) proofs.
  3. Rhetor-audience relationship is antagonistic, characterized by manipulative, one-way communication.
  4. Goal is persuasion.

Quoted here, modern rhetoric asserts that (Lunsford and Ede 263):

  1. Man is a symbol-using animal living in a fragmented society.
  2. Emphasis is on emotional (or psychological) proofs.
  3. Rhetor-audience,relationship is cooperative, characterized by empathetic, two-way communication.
  4. Goal is communication.

However, the authors point out a contradiction in the model of “classical” rhetoric:

“The first two distinctions, which view the classical image of man as rational being and the logical proofs as supreme, discount classical rhetoric as too rationalistic. The latter two, which present the rhetor-audience relationship in classical rhetoric as antagonistic and unidirectional and its goal as persuasion (in the narrowest, most limited sense), discount classic rhetoric as too dependent upon emotional manipulation and coercion.” (Lunsford and Ede 263)

Misreading Aristotle

Lunsford and Ede attribute this contradiction in large part to misreadings of Aristotle’s Rhetoric. For one, they claim, such readings fail to consider Aristotle’s rhetoric within the context of his broader philosophy. This failing hinges on misreadings such as a passage from Rhetoric in which Aristotle discusses influencing the thinking of a judge to be a “right frame of mind,” which has been interpreted to mean emotional manipulation. However, the authors cite other philosophical writings in which Aristotle uses the same turn of phrase to represent moral rightness rather than what is convenient to his argument. This example, they assert, represents the kind of misreadings typical of Aristotelian rhetoric (264).

This initial failing is complicated by “serious, persistent misunderstandings about the nature and function of the pisteis and of the enthymeme in Aristotelian rhetoric”(264). The authors cite the work of William M. A. Grimaldi, who argues that Aristotle’s rhetoric utilizes a much more united combination of ethos, pathos, and logos than is often assumed. Lunsford and Ede write: “Rather, they interact in the enthymeme and paradeigma, the two central methods of rhetorical demonstration–the former deductive, the latter inductive. Thus Grimaldi clarifies our understanding of the enthymeme, broadening its generally accepted definition as the limited of logos to one of the two modes of inference through which rhetor and audience together move toward krisis” (265-266).

Similarities Between “Classical” and Modern Rhetoric

The authors note a similarity between the two models of rhetoric: “their shared concept of man as a language-using animal who unites reason and emotion in discourse with another” (267). A key concept here, they argue, is that language plays a key role in idea creation and holds a connection to the mind itself (267).

Quoted here are the “Similarities and Qualifying Distinctions Between Classical and Modern Rhetoric” (Lunsford and Ede 268):

  1. Both classical and modern rhetoric view man as a language-using animal who unites reason and emotion in discourse with another.Qualifying distinction:
    Aristotle addresses himself primarily to the oral use of language; ours is primarily an age of print.
  2. In both periods rhetoric provides a dynamic methodology whereby rhetor and audience may jointly have access to knowledge.Qualifying distinction:
    According to Aristotle, rhetor and audience come into a state of knowing which places them in a clearly defined relationship with the world and with each other, mediated by their language. The prevailing modernist world view compels rhetoric to operate without any such clearly articulated theory of the knower and the known.
  3. In both periods rhetoric has the potential to clarify and inform activities in numerous related fields.Qualifying distinction:
    Aristotle’s theory establishes rhetoric as an art and relates it clearly to all fields of knowledge. Despite the efforts of modern rhetoricians, we lack any systematic, generally accepted theory to inform current practice.

Indeed,¬†Lunsford and Ede claim, any attempt at creating a “theoretical framework that would relate language, action, and belief” must look past the false dichotomy between “classic” and modern rhetoric, instead building on the strengths they hold in common (271).


Lunsford, Andrea A. and Lisa Ede. “On Distinctions Between Classical and Modern Rhetoric.” Writing Together: Collaboration in Theory and Practice. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012. Print.