26 The Classical Period (500 BCE-400 CE)

In the cult-classic 1989 movie, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, two air-headed teenagers use time-travel to study history for a school project. Along the way they kidnap a group of historical figures, including Socrates. During their encounter with Socrates, Ted tells Bill, “Ah, here it is, So-crates… ‘The only true wisdom is in knowing that you know nothing.’ That’s us, dude!” Unless you are able to time-travel, you will have to read about the early founders of Old School communication, such as Aspasia, Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato. It was at the Lyceum approximately 2,500 years ago that Aristotle and other rhetoricians taught public speaking and persuasion, which marks what we refer to as the Classical Period of communication study.

If you’ve taken a public-speaking class, you’ve probably learned and applied principles of public speaking developed during the Classical Period. During this time, people placed high value on the spoken word and argumentation skills, accentuated emotion and logic to persuade others, and developed guidelines for public presentations. It is largely agreed-upon that the formal study of communication began approximately 2,500 years ago in Greece and Sicily. It is here that we will begin our tour of Ancient Greece with the “fantastic four”—Aspasia of Miletus, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—who have come to be regarded as the foremother and forefathers of rhetoric and the field of Communication as a whole. Then, we’ll turn to scholars who extended the work of the fantastic four—Corax, Tisias, Cicero, Quintilian, and Pan Chao.

The argument can be made that our field primarily emphasizes the contributions of men because women were routinely excluded from education as well as other public institutions during this time. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that several women actively contributed to this period (Harris), participating in and receiving educational opportunities not afforded to most women. This begs the question, “If some women were receiving advanced education and producing work in philosophy and rhetoric themselves, then it becomes more puzzling to explain the absence of any surviving texts by them” (Bizzell & Herzberg 26). So, who can we look to as an example of a prominent female scholar during this early period?

Painting of man and woman in classical Greek clothing, seated at a table, in discussion. A man in military gear leans over the table.
The Debate of Socrates and Aspasia

Aspasia of Miletus (469 BCE) is an excellent example of an educated woman who is often credited as the “mother of rhetoric” (Glenn). Although relatively little is known about her scholarship because of her disappearance from history circa 401 BCE, Aspasia of Miletus is believed to have taught rhetoric and home economics to Socrates. Her influence extends to Plato as well who argued that belief and truth are not always interchangeable. Even Cicero used Aspasia’s lesson on induction as the centerpiece for his argumentation chapter in De Inventione (Glenn). Aspasia’s social position was that of a hetaera, or romantic companion, who was “more educated than respectable women, and [was] expected to accompany men on occasions where conversation with a woman was appreciated, but wives were not welcome” (Carlson 30). Her specialty was philosophy and politics, and she became the only female member of the elite Periclean circle. In this circle she made both friends and enemies as a result of her political savvy and public speaking ability.

Aspasia was described as one of the most educated women of her era and was determined to be treated as an equal to men (an early feminist to say the least!). She was born into privilege in Miletus, a Greek settlement on the coast of Western Turkey, and did not have many of the same restrictions as other women, working her way to prominence most often granted only to the men of her time. During this period Pericles, the Athenian ruler and Aspasia’s partner, treated Aspasia as an equal and allowed her every opportunity to engage in dialogue with the important and educated men of society. Socrates acknowledged Aspasia as having one of the best intellects in the city. With this intellect and the opportunities presented to her, Aspasia was politically progressive, influencing the works of many of the men who are most often credited with founding our field (PBS).

With Aspasia’s work influencing his education, Socrates (469-399 BCE) greatly influenced the direction of the Classical Period. Most of what we know about Socrates comes from the writings of his student Plato (429-347 BCE) who wrote about rhetoric in the form of dialogues where the main character was Socrates. This era produced much discussion regarding the best ways to write and deliver speeches, with a great deal of the debate focusing on the importance of truth and ethics in public speaking.

From these writings, the idea of the dialectic was born. While this term has been debated since its inception, Plato conceptualized it as a process of questions and answers that would lead to ultimate truth and understanding. Think for a moment about contemporary situations where people use this process. Have you ever had a discussion with a professor where he/she questioned you about your interpretation of a poem? Consider the role that a therapist takes when he/she asks you a series of questions to bring greater clarity in understanding your own thoughts, motives, and behavioral patterns. These are just two examples of dialectic at work. What others can you think of?

While Plato contributed a great deal to classical rhetorical theory he was also very critical of it. In Georgias, Plato argued that because rhetoric does not require a unique body of knowledge it is a false, rather than true, art. Similarly, Socrates was often suspicious of the kind of communication that went on in the courts because he felt it was not concerned with absolute truth. Ultimately, the legal system Socrates held in contempt delivered his fate. He was tried, convicted, and executed on charges of atheism and corrupting Athenian youth with his teachings (Kennedy). This same sentiment applies today when we think about lawyers in our courts. In the famous O.J. Simpson case in the 1990’s, Johnnie Cochran became famous for his phrase “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” This received great criticism because it didn’t really speak to the absolute truth of the facts of the case, while at the same time, this rationale was often credited as the reason O.J. Simpson was found not guilty.

Teaching and Learning Communication Then

Sophists: The Original Speech Teachers

Etching of a man with curly hair and a beard, in robes, holding a book
Libanius the sophist

Like Corax and Tisias, “Sophists were self-appointed professors of how to succeed in the civic life of the Greek states” (Kennedy 25). The word sophist comes from the root sophos meaning “wise” and is often translated to mean “craftsman.” They taught citizens how to communicate to win an argument or gain influence in the courts, as well as governmental assemblies. Sometimes, the motivation of Sophists was in conflict with other rhetoricians like Plato and Aristotle. Plato and Aristotle were committed to using communication to search for absolute truth. When Sophists taught communication in ways that sought anything less than absolute truth, it upset rhetoricians like Plato and Aristotle. Plato even went so far as to label the work of Sophists invalid because it depended upon kairos, or the situation, to determine the provisional truth of the issue under contention.

The Classical Period flourished for nearly a millennium in and around Greece as democracy gained prominence in the lives of Greek citizens. As we have stated, social problems have guided the development of communication from the earliest periods. During this time, people found themselves in the courts trying to regain family land that earlier tyrants had seized. Thus, trying to regain family land through the court system became a primary social problem that influenced the focus of those studying communication during this time. Early communication practitioners sought the best methods for speaking and persuading. Although the concept of lawyers as we know them did not yet exist at this time in ancient Greece (Scallen), people needed effective persuasive speaking skills to get their family land back. Where did they learn these skills? They learned them from early speech teachers known as Sophists. Resourceful individuals such as Corax and Tisias (400’s BCE) taught effective persuasive speaking to citizens who needed to use these skills in courts to regain land ownership (Kennedy).

Historical records suggest that these two were among the first professional communication teachers that made use of the latest findings in communication for practical purposes. They also formed the basis of what we now recognize as professional lawyers (Scallen). Another Sophist, Isocrates (436-338 BCE), felt it was more important for a speaker to adapt to the individual speaking situation rather than have a single approach designed for all speaking occasions. It is likely that your public speaking teachers explain the importance of adapting to your audience in all communication situations.

Arguably the most famous Greek scholar, Aristotle (384-322 BCE). This is because he believed rhetoric could be used to create community. As we’ve highlighted, a dialectic approach allows people to share and test ideas with one another. Aristotle entered Plato’s Academy when he was 17 and stayed on as a teacher where he taught public speaking and the art of logical discussion until Plato’s death in 347 BCE. He then opened his own school where students learned about politics, science, philosophy, and rhetoric (communication). Aristotle taught all of these subjects during his lectures in the Lyceum next to the public gymnasium, or during conversations he had with his students as he strolled along the covered walkway of the peripatos with the Athenian youth.

Aristotle defined rhetoric as the “faculty of discovering the possible means of persuasion in reference to any subject whatever” (Aristotle, trans. 15). We want to highlight two parts of this definition as particularly significant: “the possible means” and “persuasion.” “The possible means” indicates that Aristotle believed, like Isocrates, in the importance of context and audience analysis when speaking; a specific situation with a particular audience should influence how we craft our messages for each unique speaking situation.

Say you want to persuade your parents to give you a little extra cash to make it through the month. Chances are you will work through strategies for persuading them why you need the money, and why they should give it to you. You’ll likely reflect on what has worked in the past, what hasn’t worked, and what strategy you used last time. From this analysis, you construct a message that fits the occasion and audience. Now, let’s say you want to persuade your roommate to go out with you to Mexican food for dinner. You are not going to use the same message or approach to persuade your roommate as you would your parents. The same logic exists in public speaking situations. Aristotle highlighted the importance of finding the appropriate message and strategy for the audience and occasion in order to persuade. For Aristotle, rhetoric occurs when a person or group of people engage in the process of communicating for the purpose of persuading. Aristotle divided the “means of persuasion” into three parts, or three artistic proofs, necessary to persuade others: logical reason (logos), human character (ethos), and emotional appeal (pathos).

Logos is the presentation of logical, or seemingly logical, reasons that support a speaker’s position. When you construct the order of your speech and make decisions regarding what to include and exclude, you engage in logos. Ethos occurs when “The orator persuades by moral character when his speech is delivered in such a manner as to render him worthy of confidence…moral character…constitutes the most effective means of proof” (Aristotle, trans. 17). Ethos, in short, is the speakers credibility. The final proof, pathos, occurs when a speaker touches particular emotions from the audience. Aristotle explains, “the judgments we deliver are not the same when we are influenced by joy or sorrow, love or hate.” (Aristotle, trans. 17). In present day, commercials are often judged as effective or ineffective based on their use of pathos. Many times we consider commercials effective when they produce an emotional response from us such as joy, anger, or happiness.

painting of a man standing in robes in the center of an arena, with dozens of men in white robes seated in the audience
Detail from Cicero Denounces Catiline
Cicero (106-43 BCE) and Quintilian (c. 35-95 CE) deserve recognition for combining much of what was known from the Greeks and Romans into more complete theoretical ideas. Like Aristotle, Cicero saw the relationship between rhetoric and persuasion and its applicability to politics (Cicero, trans. 15). Think of politicians today. Quintilian extended this line of thinking and argued that public speaking was inherently moral. He stated that the ideal orator is “a good man speaking well” (Barilli). Is your first impression that politicians are good people speaking well? How do Aristotle’s notions of ethos, logos, and pathos factor in to your perceptions of politicians?

Cicero is most famous in the field of communication for creating what we call the five canons of rhetoric, a five-step process for developing a persuasive speech that we still use to teach public speaking today. Invention is the formulation of arguments based on logos–rational appeal or logic. Arrangement is ordering a speech in the most effective manner for a particular audience. Expression or style means “fitting the proper language to the invented matter” to enhance the enjoyment, and thus acceptability of the argument, by an audience (Cicero, trans. 21). Memory, a vital skill in the Classical Period is less of a requirement in today’s public speaking contexts because we now largely believe that memorized speeches often sound too scripted and stale. Notes, cue cards, and teleprompters are all devices that allow speakers to deliver speeches without committing them to memory. Finally, delivery is the use of nonverbal behaviors such as eye contact, gestures, and tone of voice during a presentation. If you have taken a public speaking class, have you used some or all of these to construct your presentations? If so, you can see the far reaching effects of the early developments in communication on what we teach today.

We want to round out our discussion of the Classical Period by highlighting the work of Pan Chao (c. 45 CE-115 CE). She was the first female historian in China and served as the imperial historian of the court of emperor Han Hedi. She was a strong believer in the benefits of education, and was another of the early female pioneers to argue for the education of girls and women. Writing, in Lessons for Women, on the four qualifications of womanhood (virtue, words, bearing, and work), she said that womanly words, “need be neither clever in debate nor keen in conversation,” but women should “…choose words with care; to avoid vulgar language; to speak at appropriate times; and to not weary others (with much conversation), [these] may be called the characteristics of womanly words” (Swann 86).

Even though it began 2500 years ago, the Classical Period was filled with interesting people who made great strides in the formal study of communication to help with the social problems of their day. The Classical Period laid the foundation of our field and continues to impact our modern day practice of studying and performing communication. You have likely learned concepts from the Classical Period in your public speaking classes. Next, let’s examine the Medieval Period and its further development of our field.


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