Rhetoric requires understanding a fundamental division between what is communicated through language and how this is communicated.

Aristotle phrased this as the difference between logos (the logical content of a speech) and lexis (the style and delivery of a speech). Roman authors such as Quintilian would make the same distinction by dividing consideration of things or substance, res, from consideration of verbal expression, verba.

In the Renaissance, Erasmus of Rotterdam reiterated this foundational dichotomy for rhetorical analysis by titling his most famous textbook "On the Abundance of Verbal Expression and Ideas" (De copia verborum ac rerum). This division has been one that has been codified within rhetorical pedagogy, reinforced, for example, by students being required in the Renaissance (according to Juan Luis Vives) to keep notebooks divided into form and content.

Within rhetorical pedagogy it was the practice of imitation that most required students to analyze form and content. They were asked to observe a model closely and then to copy the form but supply new content; or to copy the content but supply a new form. Such imitations occurred on every level of speech and language, and forced students to assess what exactly a given form did to bring about a given meaning or effect (see Imitation).

The divide between form and content is always an artificial and conditional one, since ultimately attempting to make this division reveals the fundamentally indivisible nature of verbal expression and ideas. For example, when students were asked to perform translations as rhetorical exercises, they analyzed their compositions in terms of approximations, since it is impossible to completely capture the meaning and effect of a thought expressed in any terms other than its original words.

This division is based on a view of language as something more than simply a mechanistic device for transcribing or delivering thought. With the sophists of ancient Greece rhetoricians have shared a profound respect for how language affects not just audiences, but thought processes.

Within the Forest of Rhetoric the close proximity between what is said and how this is said can be observed in the continuity between topics of invention (concerned with what is said) and figures of speech (ways of speaking). The figures (often disregarded as superficial concerns) turn out to be microcosms of the more substantive topics of invention (concerned with what someone says). For example, a figure of speech such as "synecdoche" (in which a part represents a whole, such as referring to one's car as one's "wheels") turns out to be microcosm of the topic of invention Division, which includes looking at how parts relate to wholes.

One way to understand the overlapping nature of logos and lexis, res and verba, invention and style, is through the word "ornament." To our modern sensibilities this suggests a superficial, inessential decoration--something that might be pleasing but which is not truly necessary. The etymology of this word is ornare, a Latin verb meaning "to equip." The ornaments of war, for example, are weapons and soldiers. The ornaments of rhetoric are not extraneous; they are the equipment required to achieve the intended meaning or effect.

Thus, rhetoricians divided form and content not to place content above form, but to highlight the interdependence of language and meaning, argument and ornament, thought and its expression. It means that linguistic forms are not merely instrumental, but fundamental—not only to persuasion, but to thought itself.

This division is highly problematic, since thought and ideas (res) have been prioritized over language (verba) since at least the time of Plato in the west. Indeed, language is a fundamentally social and contingent creature, subject to change and development in ways that metaphysical absolutes are not. For rhetoricians to insist that words and their expression are on par with the ideals and ideas of abstract philosophy has put rhetoric at odds with religion, philosophy, and science at times.

Nevertheless, rhetoric requires attending to the contingencies and contexts of specific moments in time and the dynamics of human belief and interaction within those settings. This rhetorical orientation to social and temporal conditions can be understood better with respect to three encompassing terms within rhetoric that are fundamental to the rhetorical view of the world: kairos, audience, and decorum.

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Gideon O. Burton, Brigham Young University
Please cite "Silva Rhetoricae" (