Boethius' “Overview of the Structure of Rhetoric”

Boethius. “Overview of the Structure of Rhetoric.” The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. 2nd ed. Eds. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001. 488-491. Print.


Boethius notes that rhetoric is oratory on important subject matters, which can be of three types: judicial, "seeking justice"; deliberative, "dealing with what is useful or proper"; or demonstrative "treating of the propriety, justice, or goodness of an act already performed" (488-489). Each of these three types of speeches require the orator to employ rhetoric that has five aspects: "invention, disposition, style, memory, and delivery" (489).

Boethius is careful to distinguish rhetoric from dialectic, which would require more than one orator as it is structured with questions and answers (489).

After explaining the three types of speeches and five parts of rhetoric generally, Boethius breaks down the six parts of a speech: "the introduction or exordium, the argument, the partition, the proof, the refutation, and the peroration," noting that all six parts must be present for an oration to work, and that all three types of speeches comprise these parts (489). 

Finally, Boethius explains that orators goal is to "speak well" and influence, and if the rhetoric does not persuade, the oration has failed (490-491).



One thing I notice about the “Overview of the Structure of Rhetoric” by Boethius was that he talks about the species and the genus as if all of our arguments are little life forms, little creatures we send out in the world to persuade each other.  

He says that the judicial, demonstrative, and deliberative are the three species of the genus.  I understand this is a metaphor to illustrate structure, but I still think these may be rather more similar than distinct species.  Then I think that the examples of the judicial rhetoric (or whichever) are all individuals of the species, beings that live only by comprising the five parts, as if the style or delivery were its organs.

Boethius explains the structure clearly and succinctly. I would be interested in exploring how these distinctions are actually not clear though. For example, how might a forensic speech contain elements of epideictic oratory?  How might the deliberative be a part of the epideictic?

If I were arguing that mentally ill people should not be in solitary confinement, I might tell a story about an individual.  This story would likely assign praise/blame to illustrate the effectiveness/ineffectiveness of the characters in the example.  I think what Boethius is saying is that it has to be wholly one or the other; the parts add up to the total.  

Finally, I’d like to remark on the idea of civil importance.  If my speech were considered unimportant, I would still think I’m employing the tactics of oration and rhetoric (supposing I do); however, Boethius specifically notes that civil question. This is a helpful reminder for me that I should focus my persuasive efforts on matters of civil importance…. but other questions need answering in the meantime.

RhetoricKatie Ancheta