Building an Argument: Five Canons of Rhetoric

Before we explore how to build an effective argument using the five canons of rhetoric, we better deal with ‘canon’ and ‘rhetoric’.

  • Canon: One of those annoying English words with multiple meanings: ‘a priest in a cathedral’; ‘regulation of a church council’; ‘most solemn part of the Mass’; ‘authoritative list of books’; ‘standard of judgement’, and ‘contrapuntal musical composition’ and that list is not even exhaustive or indeed, canonical.  Canon in this sense means ‘a body of principles, rules, standards, or norms’.
  • Rhetoric: Is the art of persuasion and the study of rhetoric explores the ability to inform, persuade, or motivate a particular audience.

In the Classical World (8th century BC to the 6th century AD centred on the Mediterranean Sea) from the time of Cicero oratorical  training was categorised under Five Canons of Rhetoric that would persist for centuries in religious and academic circles. Unfortunately,  due to the dictatorship of relativism that now subsists with many academic degrees, these skills have been suppressed in favour of a multiple choice test.  However, they are some of the most useful transferable skills that students, indeed anyone, can learn.  This post should be read in conjunction with ‘Aristotle and the Rhetoric Triangle’.

Five Canons of Rhetoric
Five Canons of Rhetoric


Inventio (Invention) First of Five Canons of Rhetoric

The beginning – Before you can have an argument about something, you must have something to argue about.

Now, far too many people stop here because they feel they have nothing to say.  Well, don’t start by saying something new, a great rhetorical exercise is to retell a story or event you already know well. Imitation and repetition is necessary for learning any skill, after all, no one jumps into the swimming pool unable to swim understanding that they will create and use stroke! Well, if they do, they have probably removed themselves from the gene pool (pun intended) and we don’t hear anything more about them! In the ancient academies students of rhetoric would be encourage to retell fables, before creating their own.

As only God creates ex nihilo, the rest of us, mere mortals, are stuck with what we have got! That said, sometimes, most times, politicians should stop here.  IF you don’t have a good idea, if you don’t have something worth saying, if you don’t have a point worth arguing or even developing go and bake a cake or something!


Dispositio (Disposition, or arrangement) Second of Five Canons of Rhetoric

The structure – now you have a good idea, you need to structure your argument.

Leaving to one side, for another day, that modernists hate structure, it is necessary to build a good argument. I still belong to the school thought that holds to the idea that proper structure, with some order and framing, makes an argument much easier to follow, agreeable to listen to and generally more persuasive.  At the very least, make sure you have a captivating beginning, enthralling middle and table thumping conclusion.

This stage also involves extensive research.  Not just direct research on your subject, but read around it, know the underpinning ideas or concepts, what others have said on it… if you are going to quote somebody, go to the original text, ideally in the original language.  When you think you have spent enough time on research, spend the same amount again.  .


Elocutio (style) & Pronuntiatio (presentation) Third of Five Canons of Rhetoric

Now you have and idea, content and some underlying structure, you need to think about your presentational style.

Often tutors or supervisors will obliquely refer developing to your ‘authorial voice.’ Basically, think about your writing style. Not only your technical use of grammar, punctuation and figures of speech but how you sound. Are you upbeat and cheerful, dark and foreboding, light and fast paced, grim and turgid, sexy and sarcastic – anyway, you have the idea. Also, make sure your tone is appropriate to your audience.


Memoria (memory) Forth of Five Canons of Rhetoric

Memory was central to classical rhetoric as the speaker would not use notes.

Memory, unfortunately, is not as central now as it once was. Technological advances from writing, to the printing press, then radio and television, finally to the internet and social media have somewhat diminished the need for memory.  However, whilst considering these advances it would seem like an apposite time to deal with Plato’s attitude to writing (or technological advances).

Often writers use, with no regard for context, this quote from Plato:

“for this discovery of yours [basically they are talking about writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing” (Phaedrus 275a-b)

Now this quote is used, misused or most probably just poorly interpreted, to argue for or against new technologies.


Argument 1: The Advocates of the New

The promoters of modernity will point to the passage and argue out that every advance has its cynics and sceptics.  The argument is simple: Plato was wrong.  Writing didn’t cause mental atrophy, look what it lead to… it was just the first rung on the ladder to current technological advancement.  So, if the great Plato, philosopher and founder of first institution of higher learning in the Western world, was wrong to argue against technological advancement so are you. Technology is the way forward!

Argument 2: The Opponents of the New

The antagonists of advancement, the enemies of evolution, the technological sceptics and cynics will argue even since the time of Plato it has been evident that some advances have been known to dim the mind and turn us into unquestioning dupes and dullards. The underlying, if unarticulated argument is social media, twitter, Instagram and its many other evolving forms are undermining, if not destroying social interaction, critical thinking, discursive debate and making us dependent on 140 characters or less. Soon we will just send an emoticon, an emoji or even a picture.


Actually, a picture is much nearer to what Plato was talking about. A few lines later he goes on to say:

“writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.” (Phaedrus 275d-e)


His point is: no matter how gifted the painter was, you can’t question a painting, nor how much of a genius the writer of the speech was, you can’t query a text.  So, the inherent danger with writing is not that it creates forgetfulness or stupefaction in learners, Plato is highlighting that books just contain information the real knowledge comes from within. Reading is inferior to debating, discussing or even just sitting down and taking time to speak in order to learn. Books are important but they are just one component of knowledge creation, debate, dialogue, discussion, collaboration argument and counter argument are as important for learning and complete the whole picture.


Actio (delivery) Fifth of Five Canons of Rhetoric

The final stage is delivery, in particular how to engage and enthral your audience.

When, at university, unfortunately the delivery method has often been predetermined. It could be a banal 2000 word essay on a topic you have no interest in, or a 5000 word group  or even worse the dreaded 15 minute presentation with no more than 10 PowerPoint slides! Happily that does not last forever, and you will have really opportunities to develop your rhetoric skills.  Oratory needs to be practised, just as writing needs to be revised, all forms of rhetoric needs polishing too. These skills, like those of an athlete, need to be honed.  Practice, practice and practice again. The more frequently you do it, the better you become and the more you will enjoy it.