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Book Review and Summary of Classical Rhetoric & Its Christian & Secular Tradition by George Kennedy

Updated on March 20, 2012


George Kennedy’s Classical Rhetoricis a good look at what most forms of rhetoric today stem from and how it is used. This book shows a broad view of rhetoric’s history through ancient times all the way to today. Kennedy shows his knowledge of past civilizations by pointing to all of the classical uses of rhetoric from which we draw a lot of our uses of rhetoric today. This wealth of knowledge and information presented in this book shows the transitions made in rhetoric usage throughout the years up until present day. This book is valuable to a teacher of writing because it allows them to see the history behind the art that they teach. Throughout the book, Kennedy emphasizes that classical rhetoric “was transmitted to the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the modern period, adapted to the needs of each era, but repeatedly drawing new inspiration from the major classical sources” (1). This major idea is important for any person wanting to teach rhetoric in any form as it shows where you will draw a lot of your ideas from.


Kennedy begins by defining exactly what he believes rhetoric is. He states that every speaker or writer has “some kind of purpose and rhetoric includes the ways of accomplishing, or attempting to accomplish, that purpose within a given culture.” (2). He then goes on to state that Greeks broke rhetoric down into two main groups, which are primary rhetoric andsecondary rhetoric. The main difference between these two ideas is that primary rhetoric has a purpose to persuade the listener and secondary rhetoric has no purpose to persuade and is generally not an oral use of rhetoric. Rhetoric is then broken down by the Greeks even further, into three major groups known as technical, sophistic, and philosophical rhetoric. In technical rhetoric the focus is set on the composition of the work. Kennedy discusses the uses that this idea had in the courtrooms, so much so that the art form was originally taught for a fee and later it was written down and sold to anyone who needed help with its techniques. Next, he discusses sophistic rhetoric, which he states “emphasizes the speaker rather than the speech or audience and is responsible for the image of the ideal orator leading society” (14). Gorgias, an orator of Greek society, used sophistry greatly. He created his speeches into well crafted prose to give the effect of arrangement and order. Logical ordering was an important part of Gorgias’s speeches. The third type of Greek rhetoric was philosophical rhetoric. Philosophical rhetoric “tended to deemphasize the speaker and to stress the validity of the message and the effect on an audience.” (14-15). In Plato’s Gorgias , Plato uses Dialectic or “a faculty of discovering available arguments to answer proposed questions” (58). He grills Gorgias and his followers on their definition of rhetoric. Gorgias being a sophistic rhetorician disagrees and has differing points from Plato.

Kennedy then shifts the book from Greek views on rhetoric to Roman. He starts with the rhetorician Hermagoras who wrote a handbook on rhetoric. Hermagoras “defined the task of the orator as ‘to treat the proposed political question as persuasively as possible’” (99). Cicero’s work On Invention is discussed next. Cicero thought that, in rhetoric, there were several major parts: Invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. His work focuses mainly on the topic of invention. The next work Kennedy discusses is Rhetoric for Herrenius,which elaborates on the four points not elaborated on in the work by Cicero which were arrangement, style, memory, and delivery.

In chapter six of his book Kennedy begins the discussion on literary rhetoric, as opposed to the oral rhetoric that dominated Greco-Roman society. He begins by discussing Demitrius’s On Style which is a handbook that discusses the different types of writing; plain, grand, elegant, and forceful. The rest of the chapter discusses several different forms of writing in the Roman world.

Chapter seven talks mostly of the way speech is used powerfully throughout the bible and throughout the Judeo-Christian world. “In its purest form, Judeo-Christian rhetoric shows some similarity to philosophical rhetoric” (138). He talks about the importance of speech throughout the Old Testament and shows the different forms of speech used throughout. He shows how the apostles used rhetoric, not of classical descent, but of a more Judeo-Christian descent, which is more reminiscent of philosophical rhetoric because “it claims to be the simple enunciation of truth, uncontaminated by adornment, flattery, or sophistic argumentation” (138).

In chapters eight and nine he discusses the use of Greek and Latin rhetoric throughout the middle ages. The chapters before this set up the backdrop for these chapters. Giving insight onto how the specific techniques and disciplines were taught in the universities and grammar schools in the middle ages. He also discusses how the classical rhetoric helped form the new states and empires in the middle ages.

In the final three chapters he discusses the application of classical rhetoric throughout the Renaissance, the neoclassical movement, and in the twentieth century. During the Renaissance there was a rise of Dialectic, which was similar to the criticisms against rhetoric that Plato was a large part of in the classical world. The neoclassical movement was a refinement of the techniques of the classical rhetoric, with “departure from the philosophical and civic assumptions of classical rhetoric.”(259). Kennedy also talks about the use of rhetoric in philosophic ideals by Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Vico, Hume, and Kant. In his final chapter he discusses the use of rhetoric today, and its “shift from the practical to the theoretical, and from focus primarily on public address to a wide variety of oral and written genres of discourse.” (290). He shows some of the significant movements in “new” rhetoric and how it is affecting us today.


The first six chapters of the book were very strong and were necessary to know to set up the scene for the rest of the book. These were the most interesting sections because it showed where our usage, and most usage of rhetoric, today, stems from. The breakdown of rhetoric into the two main groups in the beginning sets up an interesting, and helpful, idea for the rest of the book. The anti-rhetoric movement instigated by Plato was very interesting to read about because you would never think of someone opposing writing or speaking. Sometimes Plato's arguments or “Dialectic” with Gorgias were somewhat frustrating, however, it was still an interesting argument. Kennedy showed strongly throughout the book how rhetoric is used to persuade, orally through discourse, or literally through written works. The beginning of chapter seven is particularly interesting. The use of speech as a way of persuasion and a tool of power throughout the Old Testament goes back onto the classical ideas of rhetorical speaking being very powerful. Towards the end of the book there seems to be a shift of the use of rhetoric as a primarily discourse, to the use of rhetoric in writing. He seems to hint at a decline in rhetoric because we are shifting away from complex discourse and dialogue to written word in literature.

Some possible pitfalls of the book are the lack of rhetorical developments in the “current” age. It seems as if he sees a decline in the usage and development of rhetoric in these years except for uses in literature. Other downfalls of this book are the toughness of reading. Some chapters in this book could have used a summary of what he had just tried to point out, instead it is confusing and some parts require a second or very close reading. This book is not a guide to rhetoric or writing, it is simply a look at the history and uses of classical rhetoric. The book was very front heavy with a bulk of the important information being in the first six chapters and a lack of information throughout the end of the book. There also seemed to be lack of information on a religious standpoint. There was a lot of useful information on religion and rhetoric, but beings as “Christian & Secular” are in the title, one would think there would be more discussion on the religious backdrop of rhetoric. Only one entire chapter is dedicated to the use Judeo-Christian rhetoric, whereas it seems as if it could be more than a few chapters.

All in all I think this book can contribute a lot to the field of rhetoric. It gives a very good and complete history of the beginnings of technical rhetoric, from Greco-Roman origins to the uses in Judeo-Christian writings and preaching all the way to today's societies and our uses of rhetoric. This is a good broad overview of the history of rhetoric in a single book. Even though some things could be expanded on or better explained, this is a well rounded book and has a good deep look at the origins and uses of rhetoric. If you are looking for a book that simply explains every detail of rhetoric to you, this is not the book you want. This book, however, is a very detailed look at the history and applications of classical rhetoric throughout history and currently.


Kennedy, George. Classical Rhetoric & Its Christian & Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times. Chapel Hill, NC, USA: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.


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