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The Five Canons

Page history last edited by Nicole Barnes 14 years, 7 months ago

The Five Canons

compiled by Nicole Barnes


The Five Canons are the principles that comprise the art of rhetoric. While the Canons were defined by the Romans, they are defining concepts implied in Aristotle’s Rhetoric[1]. The Five Canons serve as pedagogical as well as analytical rhetorical tools; they can be used to both compose (and teach composition of) a speech and analyze a speech.[2]

Aristotle’s On Rhetoric instructs his students as to the relationship between rhetoric and dialectic.[3] While rhetoric and dialectic were competing disciplines rhetoric would often be reduced to style because both disciplines taught invention and arrangement. Memory and delivery receive less attention in a world of written rhetoric,[4] although delivery is again important in a world of the Internet.



Aristotle’s discussion of what he comes to define as dianoia (thought) is an answer to Plato’s arguments against rhetoric; the opening line of his On Rhetoric, “Rhetoric is an antistophos (counterpart) to dialectic,” is an introduction to his students as to the relationship between rhetoric and dialectic[6]. He concludes that dialectic serves as what comes to be known as invention; it is the process by which one finds worthy arguments.

Invention requires investigation into audience, evidence, topics, and timing. The rhetor must consider his audience’s needs, beliefs, and desires in order to build a persuasive case. The audience also determines the types of evidence the audience will find persuasive, what topics they are most likely to listen to, and when the topic is approachable[7] (think about the climate in NYC on September 12, 2001, and how that affected what Bush could say at that time).

The two earliest surviving works speaking about invention are Cicero’s On Invention and the Rhetorica ad Herennium. The two works discuss overlapping topics and are at points identical, and therefore seem to derive from the same Greek source or sources.[8] Cicero’s discussion of invention focuses on the arts and sciences as sources, while Aristotle’s dianoia focuses on public opinion.[9] Aristolean invention means the “invention and awareness of the persuasive,”[10] and refers to both the construction of a speech and the act of persuasion in the speech, or the movement from the topic to a new conclusion.[11][12]




Arrangement is the assembling of the argument: structure, order, and organization. The main question surrounding arrangement is whether it’s advisable to state the strongest argument first or last.[14] Aristotle’s discussion of style and arrangement, and the roots of their inclusion as canons, are in Book 3 of On Rhetoric, which may have been originally a separate work.[15]

Even Plato agreed that arrangement is a key component of persuasive rhetoric: in the Phaedrus, Socrates discusses arrangement metaphorically through a discussion of nature and living beings; rhetoric should have a body and component parts (264C)[16]

Aristotelian arrangement includes four parts: introduction (prooemion)[17], thesis (prosthesis), proof (pisteis), and conclusion (epilogos). Aristotle asserts that, since the audience decides if the argument is reasonable, the arrangement of the argument should mirror the thought process of the audience.[18]


“Style is crucial in the process of textual composition, since it is responsible for the manifestation of the text as text. It is style that bring the text into linguistic existence.”[20] Classical theory divides style into two parts: word choice and composition (phrases, clauses, sentences).[21] Aristotle’s Rhetoric discusses the importance of finding an appropriate style in Book 3 chapters 2-12. He discusses both the prose and poetic styles and distinguishes an intermediate style that is often appropriate for speeches:[22]also known as high or grand style, middle style, and low or plain style.[23] In the discussion of word choice, he emphasizes clarity and logical proof over the style of the sophists.[24] The study of composition emphasizes observing grammar rules and also stresses clarity.[25]

Aristotle’s student Theophrastus wrote a treatise, On Lexis, that takes his teachings and created virtues of style.[26] Aristotle’s Rhetoric also discusses virtue’s opposites, and recommends the rhetor avoid frigid language of unfamiliar words and unbelievable metaphors.[27] Rhetoric also has an in depth discussion of proper use of metaphor in Book III chapters 4 and 10.


Memory as a canon is the ability to memorize and remember speeches.[29] The Romans divided memory into two classifications: natural memory and artificial memory[30]. Aristotle stresses in On Memory and Reminiscence the importance of visual cues and memory; he argues that memory needs a visual image to function. He goes on to discuss how memories are tied together; one memory leads to another through association: the basis for artificial memory.[31]

Early mnemonic devices utilized to aid in memorization involved imagining images that suggested words or thoughts.[32][33] Strategies included envisioning the room the speech will be delivered in while memorizing the speech, and tying each section of the speech to a different part of that room. The speaker could then look around the room to help him remember different parts of the speech.[34]

Plato’s argument against written speeches in the Phaedrus is concerned with memory. Plato believes that once speeches are memorized from a written text that memory is no longer important, because the person reciting can always refer to the text when in doubt as to a part of the speech. Learning a speech from a written text creates a reliance on physical memory instead of an intellectual memory.[35]


Aristotle defines delivery in Book 3 of Rhetoric as “a matter of how the voice should be used in expressing each emotion,… how the pitch accents should be entoned… and what rhythms should be expressed…”[37] He believed that delivery, while important, is a vulgar subject; in Rhetoric he describes delivery as having “the greatest force”.[38] Cicero stresses the importance of delivery in several works, including De oratore, Brutus, and Orator, and claims that Demosthenes, a contemporary of Aristotle, called delivery the first, second, and third most important aspect of a speech.[39]

Cicero’s discussion of delivery links tone to musical chords and delivery to emotion.[40] The Rhetorica ad Herennium was influence by a lost work by Theophrastus, On Delivery, and states the most important aspects of voice delivery as volume, stability, and flexibility: gestures should accompany tones, and included are descriptions of how to use gestures during delivery.[41]

[1] Rhetoric discusses invention, arrangement, style, and delivery; Aristotle’s discussion of memory is found in On Memory and Reminiscence

[2] Sloane, Thomas. Encyclopedia of Rhetoric. New York: Oxford U Press, 2001, p 217.

[3] Aristotle. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. Trans. George A Kennedy. Second ed. New York, NY: Oxford U Press, 2007.

[4] "The Five Canons". Ed. Silvae Rhetorica.  Brigham Young U. 9/23 2009. <http://rhetoric.byu.edu/canons/Canons.htm>.

[5] Aristotle’s Topica goes hand in hand with invention: his discussion of topics, either general or specific, provides the areas available to prove via rhetoric. For more on the Topics, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-rhetoric/index.html#7.4s: Sloane, 779-782: The crux of Aristotle’s discussion of invention is chapter 23 of book 2 of Rhetoric.

[6] Supra note 3, p 28.

[7] Cline, Andrew. "Rhetorica: A Rhetoric Primer".  2006.  Missouri St U. 9/23 2009. <http://rhetorica.net/textbook/invention.htm>.

[8] Supra note 2, p 102.

[9] Ibid 389

[10] Ibid 391

[11] Ibid 391

[12] For more on invention, see Leff, Michael C. “The Topics of Argumentative Invention in Latin Rhetorical Theory from Cicero to Boethius” Rhetorica. Spring 1983, Vol. 1, No. 1, Pages 23–44.

[13] The Roman tradition of arrangement is the model for the 5 paragraph essay taught at middle- and high-schools. Its parts include introduction (exordium), division (partitio), background (narratio), confirmation (conformatio), refutation (refutatio) and conclusion (peroratio).

[14]Supra note 2, p 111.

[15] Supra note 3, p 27.

[16] Supra note 2, p 41.

[17] Aristotle believes the introduction has two functions: keep the audience’s attention and make the audience disposed to listen to your argument. (Supra note 3, p 234.)

[18] Supra note 2, p 41.

[19] For more on style see Demetrius’s On Style http://classicpersuasion.org/pw/demetrius/index.htm, Sara Newman’s Aristotle and Style (Edwin Mellen Press, 2005)

[20] Ibid p 745.

[21] Supra note 2, p 112.

[22] Supra note 3, p 197.

[23] Supra note 4

[24] Supra note 3, p 198.

[25] Ibid p 206.

[26] Supra note 2, p 745-6. The first virtue is latinitas, or purity/correctness of language: the second perspicuitas, or clarity: third enargeia, evidence: fourth aptum, or propriety/appropriateness: and fifth ornatus, or ornament. The vices are the virtues’ opposites.

[27] Supra note 3, p 202.

[28]Rhetorica ad Herennium (full text), Book IV is a well explicated account of memory as a canon; for Aristotle’s discussion of rhetoric, see OnMemoryandReminiscence

[29] Memory is obviously less important in a world of Teleprompters and the Internet than in a pre-literate world.

[30] Supra note 2, p 483.

[31] ibid, p 485.

[32] Ibid p 113.

[33] Cicero’s Rhetorica ad Herennium is the first known reference to mneumonic devices

[34] Supra note 4

[35] Supra note 2, p 485.

[36] The Greeks believed that in order to be a good rhetor one must be a good person, and therefore delivery is directly tied to morality. Supra note 7.

[37] Supra note 3, p 195.

[38] Ibid p 195. Aristotle’s discussion of delivery in Rhetoric: “But since the whole business of rhetoric is with opinion, one should pay attention to delivery, not because it is right, but because it is necessary, since true justice seeks nothing more in a speech than neither to offend not to entertain, with the result that everything except demonstration is incidental; but, nevertheless, [delivery] has great power, as has been said, because of the corruption of the audience” (Kennedy 195-196).

[39] Supra note 2, p 217. De oratore GoogleBook,

[40] Ibid p 218.

[41] Ibid  p 217. Flexibility is divided into three tones: conversation, debate, and amplification.


Comments (1)

bwang8@student.gsu.edu said

at 1:27 pm on Nov 21, 2011

Dr. Pullman, this is a great place to learn.

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