A Speechwriter’s Guide to the Greeks

At cocktail parties at speechwriters conferences, some people pretend to know Aristotle. Here's the simplest summary.

A new book, Speechwriting in Theory and Practice devotes one chapter to the Greeks and the Romans—and what they mean to you, the average speechwriter. Here's an excerpt from that chapter, which the publisher has made available in its entirety for the rest of the month of July. 


Aristotle’s treatise On Rhetoric came about after the philosophers’ attack on the teaching of rhetoric for its unethical and manipulative potential. Ethics, then, was the single prompt for the serious undertaking of rhetoric as an area of study that eventually included oratory, public speaking, and rhetorical theory. Aristotle sought to put boundaries on those public speaking practices that did not abide by ethical standards, and the system he proposed was meant to keep rhetoric an honorable and respectable practice. Since history is replete with examples of demagoguery and manipulative speaking, it is important to point out that ethics and rhetoric go hand in hand and that speechwriting must aim at the good, the honorable, and the just.

Aristotle pointed to several reasons why the art of rhetoric carries great value: Truthful rhetoric would always triumph over injustice and lies, rhetoric is essential for convincing audiences not fully versed in scientific or technical knowledge, it can show both sides of an issue in question, and it could provide the best means of defending oneself from accusations. In all, rhetoric is a public art that is flexible, allowing individuals to select the best means of persuasion in a given situation. In doing so, Aristotle outlined three primary artistic proofs the speaker could develop:

1. Logos, the selection of the suitable reasoning process for a public presentation. Here, he would suggest the use of signs, examples, the enthymeme, or probabilities to reason a case.
2. Pathos, the appeals to emotions and feelings. Here, he would develop a detailed list of emotions and their potential impact on audiences.
3. Ethos, the attributes audience members assign to a speaker in terms of credibility, believability, expertise, and overall attitude.

… in ancient Athens, oratory was crucial in both public and private life. The Athenian democracy and its political system was based on the participation of all or at least a large number of citizens. All important decisions were made by councils. Whether it was a matter of charting the course for foreign policy or of condemning a citizen to exile, a collective of citizens made the decision, and the primary means of influencing these decisions was oratory.

The assembly decided the political course and the judicial system depended on private citizens, wherefore the need for well-argued and persuasive speeches was evident. While speeches had been delivered in the courts and in the city council for centuries, Athenians did not begin to write the speeches down until the middle of the fifth century BCE. This practice of writing speeches began in the courts and then expanded to include political speeches as well as other types of oratory, such as funeral orations.2


The thriving rhetorical cultural climate in classical Greece gave rise to many speechwriters and orators, and the canon of ten Attic orators set up by Ancient scholars have made some names particularly known to posterity. On this list are some of the best speechwriters of all times, among them, Demosthenes (384–322) who came from a wealthy Athenian family, but lost his fortune and had to earn his living as a speechwriter. His earliest speeches were composed to prosecute his guardians for mismanaging his inheritance. He later became a prominent politician who addressed the assembly on various political issues himself. One of the most famous speeches On the Crown was written as a response to another of the ten Attic orators, Aeschines, who had accused him of not being worthy of receiving an honorary crown.

Another prominent logographers from the Attic canon of orators is Isocrates (436–338) who also came from a wealthy family, but after having lost his property in the Peloponnesian War, became a speechwriter in Athens. He preferred to consider himself an educator and a philosopher, and eventually, he abandoned logography and turned to writing and teaching. …


In ancient Greece, logography was a profession, and the logographers provided a service for pay by clients. As a trade, speechwriting for others carried high fees and its attraction to non-citizen residents did not exactly improve its reputation. However, their custom of charging fees in a culture governed by gift exchange was later interpreted as culturally and economically innovative. Seen in this light, the logographers’ fees transformed the value of discourse in a way that is quite consistent with their general pedagogical and social program of demystifying social knowledge and cultural value.


Read the rest of the chapter, which includes an account of speechwriting in ancient Rome. Available until the end of July. —DM

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