Rhetoric: Ancient and Medieval

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Rhetoric: Ancient and Medieval

Despite some recent controversy, rhetoric may be seen, from its ancient Greek-language origin, to be the systematic preceptive training that orators or public speakers have sought or received, from the fourth century b.c.e. onward. Signifying less a set of "ideas" than a preceptive practice, the Greek word rhetoric, later adopted into Latin (despite the equivalence of the phrase [ artificiosa] eloquentia ), always refers to the Graeco-Roman preceptive tradition, which remained foundational from the time of Aristotle (38422 b.c.e.) to that of Hobbes (15881679), Vico (16681744) and even Nietszche (18441900). It is only in recent times that the term has come to serve in a pejorative sense as a substitute for "truth."

Graeco-Roman Origins

This Graeco-Roman tradition had its origins in certain specific situations that required extraordinary and popularized skills in public address. One such tradition of origin is associated with the names of Tisias and Corax (who may be one or two persons, or a figment of later theorizers and historiographers of rhetoric), who are supposed to have "invented" and "published" in now lost manuals, an art of legal pleading upon the fall of the "tyrants" who ruled in Sicily (until 467 b.c.e.) apparently enabling ordinary, propertied people to make court claims for the restitution of lands confiscated under the preceding tyrannies. True or not, this judicial emphasis became progressively crucial and the earliest extant Latin manuals (Cicero's De inventione and the pseudo-Ciceronian Rhetorica ad Herennium, both written in the Roman Republic during the first quarter of the last century b.c.e., have a courtroom context and background, and the training they offered, though apparently popular, was seen by some to be subversive of Roman ways. Although a perceived dependence upon Greek technical manuals stimulated this opposition, it was nevertheless such a dependence that produced the classic shape of Roman rhetoric.

Invention (inventio ) is the devising of matter, true or plausible, that would make the (legal) case convincing. Arrangement (dispositio ) is the ordering and distribution of the matter, making clear the place to which everything is to be assigned. Style (elocutio ) is the adaptation of suitable words and sentences to the matter devised. Memory (memoria ) is the firm retention in the mind of the matter, words, and arrangement. Delivery (pronuntiatio ) is the graceful regulation of voice, countenance, and gesture.

The pseudo-Ciceronian Rhetorica ad Herennium from which the above quotation comes, provides instruction in all these divisions of the art, though in a slightly different order to the enumeration here. This training, although it was later to be further adapted to Roman political and court contexts in the last century of the Roman Republic (principally by Marcus Tullius Cicero, 10643 b.c.e., though others were similarly skilled, went back to the Greek preceptive texts of Aristotle (c. 330 b.c.e., his On Rhetoric being the earliest complete rhetorical "manual" to have survived the pseudo-Aristotelian Rhetoric [dedicated] to Alexander, the Rhetorica ad Alexandrum ), Isocrates (436338 b.c.e.), and above all Hermagoras of Temnos (middle of the second century b.c.e.), whose lost texts much influenced later developments.

Aristotle and His Successors

Aristotle set the tone of later ideas with his concept of the three major audiences (already found in Isocrates as three kinds of oratory, judicial, political / deliberative or "epideictic"the audience is either a judge dealing with actions in the past [court cases] or the future [deliberative assemblies], or a spectator [listening to a speech in praise or blame of something/someone but not required to make a judgment]). Aristotle's discussion of emotion and characteranalyzing the feelings in an audience and the expectations the audience may have of the speaker (pathos and ethos respectively) and the strong links with argumentation (dialectic)all in book IIwere decisive for the future of the subject, as was book III on style, arrangement, and the parts of the speech. Thus "rhetoric" began its career by being forced into the straitjacket of the art or skill or preceptive system for finding what may be persuasive in any communications situation, as distinct from the direct "magic" of word power, stressed for example by Gorgias (fifth century b.c.e.), an early member of a group that came to be called "sophists," that is, professional purveyors of "wisdom" and techniques that might lead to success in the world. A "stylistic" tendency had its outcome in the debate between protagonists of the "Asian" ("ornate") and "Attic" ("restrained," but originally assuming conscious imitation of Athenian writers of the fifth and fourth centuries b.c.e.) styles in Roman antiquity, in the emphasis upon style in the works of Dionysius of Halicarnassus (who lived at Rome in the last years of the era before Christ), Longinus (possibly Cassius Longinus, a rhetorican of the third century a.d.), and Hermogenes (second century c.e., known as perhaps the most important Greek rhetorician of the Roman Empire). Aristotle himself assumed that the user of rhetoric would be a "good person," thus linking rhetoric with "virtue," a link that had its origins, perhaps, in Isocrates' emphasis upon the orator's moral qualities and wide-ranging skills and knowledge. It was a link that remained strong, in Cicero, Augustine, and even in Alcuin's De rhetorica et virtutibus (730804 c.e.) Rhetoric (copia dicendi ac summum eloquentiae studium "abundance of speech and the most elaborate study of eloquence" according to the terms used in Cicero's De inventione 1.1) was capable of good or evil, and although the initial incentive toward civilized modes of living must have been implanted by a uniquely eloquent individual, there came a time when masters of eloquence paid insufficient attention to philosophy with the consequence that the state suffered (all this to be found in the proem to the De inventione ). In later times the term "rhetores" was often reserved for those who used eloquence for shallow and selfish ends.

Roman Imperial Rhetoric

In the Roman Empire (31 b.c.e. to c. 476 c.e.), rhetoric reached its full development as a technical system useful for lawyers and advocates (most eloquently and grandly put in the twelve-book Institutes of Oratory by the Spanish orator Quintilian who lived in the first century c.e.) in court situations, especially the centumviral courts (concerned in the main with civil law, particularly inheritance), which spawned a set of manuals that formed a large part of what has come to be known as "the minor Latin rhetoricians." Rhetoric was most eloquently and grandly described in the twelve-book Institutes of Oratory by the Spanish orator and advocate Quintilian who lived in the first century c.e. The art also served as a civilized code of shared behavior supposed to unite the elite court, curial (that is, related to the town councils of the Roman Empire), civil service, and rural aristocratic class of the empire with their rulers in pursuit of common cultural goals and parameters; as a code of ornate, ceremonial praise and blame in prose for the articulation of official values of the imperial autocracy (panegyric) and the proper celebration of important moments in elite life (see Menander Rhetor for the epideictic writings of Menander of Laodicea c.300 c.e.) and as a code of poetic and prose expression suited to the elaboration of elite perspectives on life, politics, and art. The best surviving late antique rhetor/orator is Libanius of Antioch (314c.394), for whom some 51 declamations, 96 progymnasmata (see below), 64 orations, and 1600 letters have survived.

Christianity broke into this interlocking, mutually reinforcing complex in the course of the fourth century c.e. by stressing the dichotomy "truth versus ornate expression" and emphasizing new techniques of communicationsermons and homilies, together with a training in argumentation useful for the doctrinal polemics that characterized early Christian history. Although ultimately destined to absorb and make over much of the classical rhetorical and hermeneutic tradition (Copeland), Christianity initially set itself against the elite preceptive communications system and (St.) Augustine himself (354430) in his celebrated Confessions enshrined for later generations the difficult process of transition from this elite classical preceptive tradition to the new language of Christian discourse: "humble speech" (sermo humilis ). Augustine focused on imitation of the supposed language of Christ speaking to ordinary people, and taking as a universal model biblical passages replete with moral and behavioral worth fitted to Christian doctrines and beliefs, and full of eloquence of an adapted sort.

Medieval Transitions

The Venerable Bede in England (672/73735) brought this approach to a kind of fruition by pointing out in his treatise De schematibus et tropibus ("Concerning figures and tropes") that the Bible revealed all the stylistic tricks inculcated by the Latin rhetorical preceptive tradition (under the heading of style or elocution, see Miller, Prosser, and Benson, pp. 96122). However, although intellectual life in the western European Middle Ages (c. 5001500) was committed rather more than that of pre-Christian antiquity to notions of revealed truth, it relied heavily upon the Graeco-Roman rhetorical preceptive tradition to organize its communicative needs and its perceptive grids. The Augustinian, imitative and the Ciceronian preceptive tradition were in balance until the twelfth century, when the habit of lecturing on the De inventione and Ad Herennium (begun, at least as far as the former treatise was concerned, in at least the third century c.e.) returned to favor and dominated communications systems, even invading theological discourse and ideas, where the distinction between "literal" and "allegorical" interpretations of a text permitted the carriage of multiple meanings, thus pluralizing "truth" in favor of what Abelard called the multiloquium (or "omnicompetent multifacettedness") of language. From the period between c. 1020 and c. 1215 c.e. some twenty-two commentaries on the De Inventione and the Rhetorica ad Herennium have survived to the present in manuscripts, compiled usually as reportages of lecture series delivered in cities with teaching cathedrals or court and monastic schools. These texts, catering to situations that demanded intensified persuasive discourse (for example the so-called Investitures Controversy of the eleventh century or the intensified study of Roman law or the processes of argumentation in theology and university "arts-faculty" disputations / controversy), produced a series of new departures adapted to expanding government and church administrations and aspirations from c. 1000 onward. It is interesting, for example, that although neither Greek nor Roman antiquity produced any preceptive manuals devoted to letter and document composition, in the later period "formularies" have survived such as the model letter collection of the sixth-century Italian Cassiodorus, the late eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries spawned an important series of classically influenced treatises (on dictamen or "composition") setting out the modes of address and persuasion between potential letter writers and receivers in medieval diplomatic, administrative and intellectual contextswhere the letter was the major carrier of news, ideas, information, and polite discourse of a less-than-treatise worthy nature. In England at least these treatises expanded into regular "business courses" (Camargo, 1995), and the treatise-form was eventually adopted by a wide range of communication arts, including the arts of memory and public address.

The same can be said for the pressing need of the revivalist international (Latin-using) church of the thirteenth century felt to communicate its elaborate salvational doctrines against heresy, apostasy, witchcraft (maleficium ), heathenism, Islam, Judaism, secularism, impiety and various forms of lay piety, particularly that of women. This emphasis produced a vast range of sermons and preaching manuals (the ars predicandi or "art of preaching" and the art of "praying" or ars precandi ), which matched a somewhat smaller profusion of manuals (c.11751250) imitating the ancient ars poetica of Horace (a text commented upon with interest in the twelfth century) and designed to inculcate a maximum of prose and poetic flexibility in the ornate Latin discourse of the day.

Late Medieval Transformation

These perceptive packages continued to have an impact until the Renaissance of the fifteenth century and were joined from the time of Dante (12651321) onward by a less uniform but still extensive set of commentaries and notes on and from the De Inventione and Ad Herennium, in both Latin and, especially, in Italy, in the vernacular. This complex of texts had a profound influence on the shape of major literary works of the period (Jean de Meung's Romance of the Rose, Dante's Divine Comedy, the works of Chaucer) and on modes of elite historical writing, though the formal instruction of the universities (from the thirteenth century onward) concentrated only on the theoretical structure of the classical rhetorical system (using a text such as the early sixth-century Italian Boethius's On the different topics ), and on the provision of a training in dictamen, the ars poetriae, and the ars predicandi. Italian culture from the time of Petrarch on added force and precision to the classical rhetorical inheritance, enriching the texts favored by the Middle Ages with works less in vogue during the former period (the mature rhetorical texts of Cicero, and his letterswhich became key texts in Renaissance rhetorictogether with the works of Hermogenes and the full text of Quintilian's Institutes of Oratory), thus inculcating a more thorough-going recovery of classical Latin (and Greek) modes of expression and vocabulary, together with doctrines neglectedor practiced differentlyin the Middle Ages (such as numerus or the system of prose rhythm discussed in many of Cicero's mature rhetorical works). In this respect the medieval West finally drew nearer to the Byzantine world of Eastern Europe and western Asia, where classical Greek rhetorical influences maintained their hold and there was less of a parallel to the rupture caused in the west by the so-called fall of the (western) Roman Empire. In Byzantium, the emphasis evident in the "preliminary" compositional exercises or progymnasmata (Greek; in Latin praeexercitamina ) found among the works of Hermogenes (this portion only translated into Latin and therefore available to the Latin Middle Ages) and Aphthonius of Antioch (fourth century c.e.remained dominant. Judicial rhetoric was dominated by the classical emphasis upon stasis -theory (that is, a classification of the 'issues' an advocate might encounter in the law courts), whilst epideictic and deliberative rhetorical theory and practice gradually gained strength. The whole complex of Byzantine rhetoric proved influential even upon the Islamic world of the Arabs during the Middle Ages, and from the ninth-century onward, a commentary tradition emerged, based upon the so-called Apthonian-Hermogenic corpus of rhetorical works. As in the West, a tension was evident between a striving for effect that might have struck some as "obscure" and an emphasis upon a simplicity open even to the ill-educated. The wide oral and theoretical range of Byzantine rhetorical studies and practice is illustrated by the works of Michael Psellus (1018c. 1072). In contrast with the West, Byzantium emphasized rhetoric more than dialectic (argumentation) and made less of rhetorical techniques for scriptural exegesis or interpretation.

In both antique and medieval times, Greek and Latin rhetorical ideas, despite the patriarchal conventions that underlay contemporary gender ideas, spread to select women: in the medieval period (H)rotsvit of Gandersheim (tenth century), Heloise (twelfth century), and Christine de Pisan (writing in the French court vernacular but understanding and using Italian and Latin) made notable contributions to the literary genres of their day. Like the female mystics (for example Marguerite Porete, burnt in Paris for heresy in 1310), they did not contribute to the technographic rhetorical teaching literature, but they did absorb much of the contemporary rhetorical culture. Ancient examples include such figures as Aspasia, the mistress of Pericles of Athens (whose famous "funeral speech" in the later fifth century b.c.e. some suppose she wrote), and Hypatia of Alexandria (fourth century c.e.).

See also Christianity ; Logic ; Power ; Rhetoric: Overview .


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John Ward