5 Parts Of The Classical Essay Topics

Welcome back to our series on Classical Rhetoric. Today we’re kicking off a five-part segment on the Five Canons of Rhetoric. As you remember from our brief introduction to classical rhetoric, the Five Canons of Rhetoric constitute a system and guide on crafting powerful speeches and writing. It’s also a template by which to judge effective rhetoric. The Five Canons were brought together and organized by the Roman orator Cicero, in his treatise, De Inventione, written around 50 BC. 150 years later in 95 AD, the Roman rhetorician Quintilian explored the Five Canons in more depth in his landmark 12-volume textbook on rhetoric, Institutio Oratoria. His textbook, and consequently the Five Canons of Rhetoric, went on to become the backbone of rhetorical education well into the medieval period.

Enough with the history. What are the Five Canons of Rhetoric? Glad you asked.

The Five Canons of Rhetoric are:

  • inventio (invention): The process of developing and refining your arguments.
  • dispositio (arrangement): The process of arranging and organizing your arguments for maximum impact.
  • elocutio (style): The process of determining how you present your arguments using figures of speech and other rhetorical techniques.
  • memoria (memory): The process of learning and memorizing your speech so you can deliver it without the use of notes. Memory-work not only consisted of memorizing the words of a specific speech, but also storing up famous quotes, literary references, and other facts that could be used in impromptu speeches.
  • actio (delivery): The process of practicing how you deliver your speech using gestures, pronunciation, and tone of voice.

If you’ve taken a public speaking class, you were probably taught a version of The Five Canons. They also form the foundation of many composition courses.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be taking a look at each of the Five Canons separately and exploring how we use them in everyday situations to be more effective communicators. Ready, to get started? Let’s kick things off by talking about the first Canon of Rhetoric: Invention.

What Is Invention?

Invention, according to Aristotle, involves “discovering the best available means of persuasion.” It may sound simple, but Invention is possibly the most difficult phase in crafting a speech or piece of writing as it lays the groundwork for all the other phases; you must start from nothing to build the framework of your piece. During the Invention Phase, the goal is to brainstorm ideas on what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it in order to maximize persuasion. Any good orator or writer will tell you they probably spend more time in the Invention step than they do any of the others.

Take Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Yeah, the man is polarizing and a lightning rod for controversy, but lawyers and jurists across the political spectrum recognize him as one of the best legal writers in the history of the Supreme Court. He’s able to take complex issues and arguments and distill them into short, powerful, and often witty sentences and paragraphs. Even if you don’t agree with the outcome of his opinions, you’re often left thinking, “Damn, that was a really good argument!”

What’s the secret to Justice Scalia’s rhetorical ability? Spending lots and lots of time in the Invention Phase. In an interview about his writing process, Scalia explained that he goes through “a lengthy germination process” for ideas before he puts pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Scalia brainstorms in his car while driving home from work and at the gym while exercising. This germination process lasts anywhere from a few days to even a few weeks. But the time invested in simply thinking and brainstorming pays off when he finally gets down to writing. I find this to be the case in my own life as well; my best posts are those which I allow to percolate in my brain for a long time, months, even years. I’m kicking around ideas when I’m brushing my teeth and taking a walk. When I finally sit down to write, the ideas come tumbling out, already nicely aged and seasoned.

Things to Consider in the Invention Phase

So what sorts of things should you be thinking about during the Invention Phase? Without some direction and guidance, brainstorming can often be fruitless and frustrating. Pondering the following elements can increase the effectiveness of your Invention sessions.

Your audience. One of the key factors in crafting a persuasive piece of rhetoric is tailoring your message to your specific audience. Find out to the best of your ability the overall demographics and cultural background of your audience. What does your audience fear? What are their desires? What are their needs? This information will help you decide what sorts of facts to incorporate into your rhetoric as well as help you determine which means of persuasion would be the most effective to employ.

Your evidence. When planning your speech or writing, collect any and every type of evidence you can find. Evidence could be facts, statistics, laws, and individual testimonies. It’s always good to have a nice blend, but remember different audiences are persuaded by different types of evidence. Some people need cold, hard facts and statistics in order to be persuaded. Others find the testimony of peers or a reputable authority to be more convincing. Part of getting to know your audience is figuring out what kinds of evidence they will find most credible and compelling.

The means of persuasion. You remember the three means of persuasion, right? Pathos, logos, and ethos? This is the time when you want to determine which of the three persuasive appeals you’ll use in your speech. Ideally, you’d have a nice mixture of all three, but again, different audiences will be better persuaded by different appeals.  Using pathos (appeal to emotion) to convince a room full of scientists that you have discovered cold fusion probably won’t get you very far. A focus on logos would work much better. Again, it’s all about suiting your rhetoric to your audience.

Timing. People are receptive to certain ideas at different times depending on context. People often advise couples not to go to bed angry, to work out their problems before hitting the sack. But at night we’re tired and cranky; our defenses are down. Trying to convey your side of things at this time frequently results in a small issue blowing up into something much bigger. On the other hand, a good night’s sleep often helps put things in perspective. You’ll likely find your spouse more willing to hear you out in the morning. As it is in marriage, so it is with everything in life; the importance of timing cannot be underestimated. Present a cost-cutting idea at work the same day five of everyone’s favorite employees were laid off, and you’ll get a icy, hostile reception. Present it six months later and people will actually listen.

Another aspect of timing is the duration of your speech or writing. In some instances a long, well-developed, and nuanced speech is appropriate;  other times, a shorter, and more forceful presentation will be more effective. Again, it often depends on your audience and the context of your speech.

Abraham Lincoln was a master of timing. His Gettysburg Address is one of the most famous speeches in history. Many people don’t know that Lincoln actually wasn’t the keynote speaker that day; rather, that honor fell to renowned orator, Edward Everett. Everett delivered a two hour speech that displayed some of the finest skill in oration and rhetoric; he held the audience in rapt attention. Lincoln took to the stand and delivered his address in less than five minutes. While the contemporary audience was not overly impressed, Everett knew he had been witness to greatness. He wrote Lincoln, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” And of course, 150 years later, no one quotes Everett or even remembers he spoke at Gettysburg, but everyone remembers Lincoln and are familiar with his words. Timing matters.

Format of argument. So you have a vague idea of what you’re supposed to write or talk about. The hard part is taking that vague idea and organizing it into a concrete theme or thesis. Without some guidance on how to do this, a man can rack his brain for hours and not get anywhere. Fortunately for us, the ancient rhetoricians left us some nifty little cheat sheets on developing the format and theme for our arguments, which is where we turn next.

Ancient Helps for the Invention Phase

Stasis.Stasis is a procedure designed to help a rhetorician develop and clarify the main points of his argument. Stasis consists of four types of questions a speaker asks himself. They are:

  1. Questions of fact: What is it exactly that I’m talking about? Is it a person? An idea? A problem? Does it really exist? What’s the source of the problem? Are there facts to support the truth of this opinion?
  2. Questions of definition: What’s the best way to define this idea/object/action? What are the different parts? Can it be grouped with similar ideas/objects/actions?
  3. Questions of quality: Is it good or bad? Is it right or wrong? Is it frivolous or important?
  4. Questions of procedure/jurisdiction: Is this the right venue to discuss this topic? What actions do I want my reader/listener to take?

These questions may sound completely elementary, but trust me, when you’re struggling to get your mind around an idea for a speech or writing theme, stasis has an almost magical way of focusing your thinking and helping you develop your argument. Don’t skip out on it.

Topoi (Topics of Invention). Topoi, or topics,  consist of a set of categories that are designed to help a writer or speaker find relationships among ideas, which in turn helps organize his thoughts into a solid argument. Aristotle organized the different rhetorical topics in his treatise The Art of Rhetoric. He divided the topics into two large categories: common and special. We’ll focus on common topics as they’re more general and applicable to every day rhetorical situations. (If you’d like more info on special topics see here.) Below, I’ve listed a few of the common topics that are especially helpful in forming arguments.

I am going to say the word “rhetoric.” I want you to pause for a moment, close your eyes, and then record your first impression of the word. As moderns, we often think of a sound bite, the speech of a slick politician, or even of outright lies. The word has been corrupted from its original usage. Aristotle defined rhetoric as “finding the available means of persuasion.” We are getting warmer, but, as Christians, we cannot take Aristotle’s definition wholesale. After all, Britney Spears, Madonna, and Lady Gaga are all very persuasive.

Classical thinkers made a distinction between sophists—speakers of questionable character who tried to convince people of foolishness—and rhetoricians—speakers of good character who tried to convince people of wisdom. As classical, Christian home educators, we want to define rhetoric as “the use of knowledge and understanding to perceive wisdom, pursue virtue, and proclaim truth.”

This year, at our parent practicums, we will focus on reclaiming the original sense of rhetoric, which involved three aptitudes:

  • an appreciation of the true, the good, and the beautiful,
  • the devleopment of a virtuous character, and 
  • an ability to speak eloquently and persuasively.

The classical world focused on rhetoric training for individuals who would be citizen-leaders, either in the Athenian democracy or the Roman Senate. All citizens were expected to be able to speak well on issues of the day. Consider the Apostle Paul speaking to the Athenians in Acts 17. Scripture tells us that the Greek citizens were outside in the marketplace, discussing the latest, greatest ideas. Paul entered the crowd to tell them of the latest, greatest idea—the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In Classical Conversations, we focus on instruction in rhetoric for the same reasons. I do not know what jobs my Challenge students or my own children will pursue after graduation, but I do know that they have all been called to serve as citizen leaders in our republic, and they have all been called to be ministers of the Gospel. I want them to execute these important services well, so I want them to think wisely, to act virtuously, and to persuade others of the truth.

As parents, how do we begin the important task of preparing them to be rhetoricians? Our first task is to cultivate wide readers. If students do not read widely, they will not have anything to say. Reading widely means being acquainted with the classics of literature and history as well as the current events of the day. Students in the Challenge program get practice with both.

Many writers and speakers report that their most difficult task is figuring out what to say. Classical speakers and writers had a handy toolbox called the five common topics that they used to tackle any subject. The topics train students to ask questions about the subject of their speech or essay in order to have something to say. Classical educators teach the five common topics in depth during the dialectic stage so that when students are ready to apply their ideas in the rhetoric stage, they will be well prepared.

The five common topics are definition, comparison, relationship, circumstance, and authority. During the dialectic stage, classical students practice using the five common topics over and over again to think about history, literature, current events, and science. This process should give them an abundance of ideas related to a topic. Then, when they reach the rhetoric stage, they will have more than enough to say.

The Five Common Topics






To precisely define the terms of the issue

What is x? What are its parts?

What is a civil war? What makes the American Civil War distinctive from other civil wars in history?


To compare terms within the issue

How is x like y? How are they different?

How were Grant and Lee similar? Different?


To determine the relationship between terms in the issue

Did x cause y? What were the effects? Did y simply come before x but not cause it?

What were the causes of the Civil War?


To determine whether the issue is possible or probable

To determine whether actions elsewhere contributed to the action

Is x possible? Is it probable? What else was going on at the same time?

Was it possible to avoid the Civil War? Was it probable that the North and South could resolve their issues without going to war? What else was going on in the world at the same time? Did this impact the Civil War?


To determine what witnesses and experts say about the issue in order to lend support to an argument

What do witnesses say about x? What do experts say about x?

What did speakers, writers, and leaders in the 1860s say about the Civil War? What do historians say about it now?

Next, students need training in the five canons of rhetoric. They will apply these lessons to the creation of essays, debates, lectures, and speeches. Notice that the first canon, invention, is exactly what your students have practiced doing with the five common topics. The dialectic stage prepares them beautifully for the study of rhetoric.

The Five Canons of Rhetoric



Gathering ideas



Outlining, planning, and arranging thoughts in a logical and organized manner



Using rhetorical devices and language that will be most persuasive in appealing to the audience



Memorizing the speech



Delivering the speech with the appropriate gestures and voice

Christian families will most readily recognize these habits of mind if they consider a sermon. The pastor first chooses a passage of Scripture to teach. He then gathers examples that will resonate with his audience and authoritative material from early Church Fathers and commentary (inventio—invention). Throughout the week, he arranges his points into a logical and organized sermon (dispositio—arrangement). Next, he considers the best style for conveying his sermon to the congregation (elocutio—style). Then, he memorizes the speech (memoria—memory) and delivers it (pronuntiato—delivery). A pastor does not memorize his sermon in order to be theatrical, but in order to deliver it in a way that compels the audience to pay attention and be changed by what they hear.

Rhetoric students can follow the same process when writing a research paper about World War II, composing a persuasive essay about Jane Eyre, or delivering an art lecture. They should be logical and persuasive as they call their audience to think or to live differently. These are no longer the book reports or factual history reports produced by the grammar student, which simply summarize the actions of the World War II battles or describe the plot of the novel. Instead, they are elegant and persuasive arguments. The essay on World War II might argue that the Allies would not have won the war without the D-Day tactics or that the use of the atomic bomb was both necessary and just. The persuasive essay on Jane Eyre might compare and contrast Jane’s ethics with those of modern readers and evaluate which standards lead to a better society.

In the classical world, training in rhetoric was considered essential for all citizens because it was preparation both for self-government and for leadership of others. While we do not know the specific jobs to which our students will be called, we can be confident that they will all be called to participate in the government of our republic and to share the gospel of Christ. Rhetoric prepares them to do both well.

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