The Present State of Scholarship in the History of Rhetoric: A Twenty-First Century Guide

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And a good deal of mystery does surround the man or the prodigy. Only a kind of force of nature could have produced such a glorious linguistic cacophony, we suppose: those speeches from so many different characters, for and against so many proposals, touching everything from the finer points of law to the bawdiness of public houses, and modelling everyone from Kings and courtiers to publicans and fools ….

Yet behind the music of Bach lies profound technique and much mathematics; and behind the graceful surfaces of renaissance canvases we find forms of sacred geometry. Like all the boys of the Elizabethan age lucky enough to receive even a primary education, the bard had been immersed from a young age in what is today an almost-wholly lost educational tradition. This tradition lay at the heart of the early modern European renaissance of which the Shakespeare plays are one crowning monument. It is the tradition of rhetoric: the art of how to speak and to write, as well as—which will be my point—a good deal more besides.

Rhetoric is the greatest barrier between us and our ancestors. If the Middle Ages had erred in their devotion to that art, the renaissance, far from curing, confirmed the error. In rhetoric, more than in anything else, the continuity of the old European tradition was embodied. First, there are the great speeches of ancient orators and speech-writers: Lysias, Demosthenes, Iscorates, Cicero, and others, recorded from an early time in acknowledgment of their art.

The Present State of Scholarship in the History of Rhetoric: A Twenty-First Century Guide

These are philosophical writings devoted to understanding and defending the role and nobility of the arts of speaking against all detractors. I can only imagine the faces of even a third-year class if we asked them to produce, for assessment, specimens of these fourteen genres today—specifying for good measure that they should use no less than say thirty of the over forty figures of speech anaphora, isocolon, metaphor, simile, epistrophe, hyperphora … the manuals delineate.

It was just as if the rhetorical tradition had been wanting to train students capable, if not of writing, then of appreciating analytically all the different styles, arts and devices of a master poet-dramatist like William Shakespeare. The role of rhetoric was pedagogical, or rather persuasive: to teach, but also always to move—and if need be, to please or delight. Cicero presents rhetoric as a kind of political angel, sent to help philosophy and the other sciences present the fruits of their learning for the delectation and sustenance of the wider world.

The framing sense of language in the rhetorical tradition is one that we all have a working knowledge of, but which has been sometimes been lost in less encompassing, specialised methodologies to study language. Language is a vehicle of communication and persuasion. Each linguistic act can be and is in the handbooks analysed from the perspectives of who is speaking, to whom, when and where, in what natural language, about what subject, with what goals.

Each linguistic act, if it is to be rhetorically successful, will need to be crafted to whom you are speaking, about what, on what occasion, and with what ends in mind. The words we use will convey our ideas, and make claims to truth, soundness or rightness.

But as the rhetorical tradition also examined in incredible detail, these words are also sensible things: they also carry voice and, even when read silently, a virtual sound. Each natural language, as a sensible medium, harbors within it potentials to become itself an object of aesthetic enjoyment, and:. As Cicero used to advertise, the great orator will thus be a service not only to himself, but potentially to his friends, and to any cause or institution his mind and morals direct him towards.

Begin with his natural gifts, and then narrate some of the circumstances of his life: wealth or poverty, schooling, work. Then, moving outwards in, you might pick one or more of his bodily graces and achievements sporting victories, for instance, or likes and loves. Then there are the attributes of his character. If it is his courage you want to stress and justice and courage are the virtues best for amplification , think of cases when he aimed at some difficult or lofty goal; compare him to better known, more celebrated heroes; stress how neither peril could dissuade nor setback lead him to abandon what he saw as best for his family, spouse, friends, community, or cause ….

Dress your words with some appropriate stylistic amplification. Then deliver them with some affection, pathos and panache. Even the stones will be moved.

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The rhetorical tradition in Western education widely died out in the 19th century. Aristotle defined the art of rhetoric as the faculty of finding in any given case the available means of persuasion. As this definition astutely indicates, one who wants to persuade needs skills that are essentially heuristic, an art of finding. Rhetoric starts with the conclusion, the position it wants to convince others to take, for which it must find supporting reasons. In this it contrasts with logic.

Logic lets premises lead to whatever conclusion they lead to. Rhetoric knows its conclusions in advance, and clings to them.

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This heuristic nature of rhetorics is what makes it open to charges of opportunism. With its end in view, it will use any means, moral or immoral, that work to achieve that end. Aristotle notes that the practice of rhetoric grows at first from a natural abil- ity.

Most people attempt to support or assess or attack one or another opinion verbally or to defend or attack other persons verbally, and through hit-and- miss experience many eventually develop a certain knack for highly effective procedures. Presumably such was the case from the beginning of humankind in all cultures. Rhetoric remained pretty much in this relatively unreflective state in the West until the effective interiorization of alphabetic writing among the ancient Greeks by the fifth century B. Like Plato, Aristotle felt the new drive to the more abstract, logically sequential thought and undertook to investigate and state in abstract scientific form, among other things, how successful speakers in his milieu gained their ends and why.

The result was the book we know as his Art of Rhetoric. In Popes words, Aristotle methodized what had previously been a natural rhetoric into a consciously reflective, analytic art. Of course, as Pope had perhaps not been entirely aware, developing nature into an art changes nature a bit. Reflection always entails creation. Like all developments deeply embedded in human existence, the new art of rhetoric faced into the past as well as into the future. On the one hand, its development into a scientized art depended on the minds having interior- ized writing, which was the wave of the future leading quickly not only to ab- stractly organized science but also to the foundation of empires.

But on the other hand, the subject matter of rhetoric among the ancient Greeks belonged to the past: in Aristotle and elsewhere rhetoric was in fact concerned not with written discourse primarily but with oral discourse, the earlier mode of ver- bal expression, of course still very much alive. Rhe-to-r in Greek means orator, public speaker, and techne- rhe-torike-, or, more simply, rhe-torike-, means public speaking.

To Aristotles world, teaching students rhetoric meant teaching them to become orators. Deflection of rhetoric from oral performance to written argumentation as such, vaguely incipient at best in Aristotle, would occur only very slowly and imperceptibly over the centuries. Yet it must be remembered that the oral speeches were already being shaped by the chirographic milieu to post-oral thought forms.

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  • The mental processes of academically educated Greeks in Platos day and later, as Eric Havelock has shown in The Greek Con- cept of Justice, differed considerably from those of Homers age, and these pro- cesses, though grounded in literacy, showed clearly not only in written treatises such as The Art of Rhetoric but also in the oral performance of literates. Its long-standing commitment to orality over the centuries, a commitment not consciously designed or even adverted to, suggests that the deepest roots of rhetoric are archaic, though now covered by a centuries-old tangle of academic and other cultural growth.

    Rhetoric plays an important part in the growth of consciousness that marks human psychic and cultural history and that is accel- erated vastly as verbal discourse is technologized through writing, then print, and now electronics and as thought processes are transformed while greater and greater stores of knowledge are accumulated. In its overall effect, rhetoric raises consciousness, as Gilbert Durand has shown in Les Structures anthro- pologiques de limaginaire, moving thought from the older, more purely im- aging stages toward the greater abstractions of logic.

    Rhetorical antitheses are negotiable: yes, more or less; no, more or less.

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    It is, or it isnt. The patterns whereby consciousness grows out of the unconscious of course differ from culture to cultureindeed, such patterns in the last analysis may constitute the most basic differences between cultures. And rhetoric is, of course, not the only factor that determines and registers the patterns of growth. But certainly in the West rhetoric is a central determinant and indicator.

    In other parts of the world, rhetoric was managed differently. In Polarity and Analogy, G. Lloyd has shown how ancient Greek thought generally specialized in differences polarities as against likenesses analogies more than any of the many other cultures that he examines from across the globe.

    Greek rhetoric, specifically, certainly specialized in antitheses, and out of this specialization, as I. Bochenski has shown in A History of Formal Logic, grew the logic that underlay Greek analytic thinking and that underlies modern science and the changes in human life that science has wrought. In Communication and Cul- ture in Ancient India and China, where of course rhetoric was practiced, as it has been everywhere, Robert T. Oliver reports no interest in formalized rhetoric comparable to that of ancient Greece. Formal logic came into being also in In- dia, as Bochenski points outperhaps independently of the Greek invention but some five hundred years later than in Greece.

    The centrality of rhetoric in the West is tied in largely with its conspicu- ous academic and para-academic presence. But academic rhetoric has led no eremitical existence. From the ancient Greeks to the present, the teaching of rhetoric has affected and been affected by political and other institutions, phil- osophical theories themselves often partly rhetorical in origin , educational practices and aims, the growth of science, and much else. From patristic times and earlier, rhetoric has also much affected and been much affected by the Judeo-Christian ethosa fact more taken for granted than discussed by historians of rhetoric.

    Judeo-Christian teaching sets up a kind of rhetorical situation between human beings and God. Job argued with God. He argued with utter reverenceobserved decorum, as a later rhetoric would put itbut unabashedly, for the relationship of each human being to God in faith is personal and personally interactive.

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    Christian teaching regard- ing the Incarnation intensified the interaction. The Word or Son is the communication of the FatherSon in- asmuch as he is Word, and Word inasmuch as he is Son eo verbum quo filius, as the succinct Latin logion puts it , and he came as a human being to announce the Good News, the Gospel, the kerygma. Human speaking and persuasion are of the essence of Christianity, though Christian faith as such transcends the human action with which it meshes. Moreover, the Word, the Son, brings human beings to the Father, and Christians plead rhetorically with the Father through him, with him, and in him.

    The Holy Spirit, who enables the faithful to pray, is identified by Jesus as the Parakle-tos, the advocate, one who pleads anothers case as in court.

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    In this prophetic milieu, it is little wonder that the liturgy of the Christian Church, Eastern and Western, is shot through with highly self-conscious rhetoric: the hundreds of opening prayers at Mass in the Latin Liturgy, for example, and comparable prayers in other liturgies, Protestant as well as Catholic, are rhetorical showpieces, as are also countless homilies. As the studies in this book make abundantly clear, rhetoric as an academic subject persisted, with varied fortunes and intensities, from classical antiquity through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and intervening centuries down to the present.

    Drilled into students in the earlier years of the curriculum, rhetoric inevitably extended itself with greater or lesser force far beyond the classroom, for rhetorical skills were supposed to be applied everywhere: in law and poli- tics, in public celebrations marked by the florid oratory that into the present century bears the mark of academic rhetorical oratorical training, in preach- ing, in medicine before the present century, physician-patient relationships often depended more upon vocal exchange promoting trust than on precisely targeted pharmaceuticals , in letter-writing and in poetry and fiction novelists such as Hawthorne and Melville clearly show speechifying tendencies in their prose , and in general, through all affective human relations. The persistent presence of rhetoric as a recognized force in Western culture can be seen in the number of major intellectual figures known today chiefly for their work in a variety of other subjects who at one time or another taught rhet- oric or wrote about it. In the recent English-speaking world alone, one finds, for example, the scientist Joseph Priestley, the economist Adam Smith, the political scientist and diplomat and sixth president of the United States of America John Quincy Adams, who became professor of rhetoric and belles-lettres at Harvard after being in the Unites States Senate, the physician James Rush, the litterateur Thomas De Quincey, and the engineer cum physical scientist cum philosopher Herbert Spencerall noted, along with others, in the present book.

    Perhaps partly because of the very pervasiveness of rhetoric, the history of rhetoric has only begun to shape up effectively in recent times. Early histories of the subject, even as late as John Quincy Adamss brief account, could not achieve the distance required for historical effectiveness. In recent times rhetoric has become more vigorous and more protean than ever before. The modern world has found new ways of exercising the persua- sion that used to be practiced chiefly through verbal performance. Ivans, Jr.