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The Rhetorical Tradition: An Introduction

Lecturer: Matthew Sharpe

Originally Taught: Evening Sem 1 2016

“Rhetoric is the greatest barrier between us and our ancestors,’ C.S. Lewis once observed: “In rhetoric, more than anything else, the continuity of the Western tradition was older than all Latin literature; it descends from the Greeks …” 

A recent piece on rhetoric by Matthew Sharpe.

Philosophy has always existed in a close but antagonistic relationship with rhetoric, from the Platonic dialogues forward.  Isocrates the rhetorician's school was contemporary with Plato's academy, and rhetorical schools continued to operate throughout antiquity.  Beginning with Plato and Xenophon, many of the greatest and most influential thinkers have been highly rhetorically accomplished: we need think only of Nietzsche. The Greek and Roman rhetorical texts, preserved through the middle ages, remained a central part of humanistic conceptions of education into the 19th century, and lay at the heart of the Italian and European Renaissance. 

Yet the rhetorical tradition and its wealth of educational resources is rarely taught today, outside of some locales in the United States.  And our understanding of its ancient parameters, including the ars memoria and the remarkable canon of invention, is very partial: restricted at most to delivery, style, and arrangement.  Yet to learn the rhetorical arts as they are laid out in the great texts on rhetorical education of a Quintilian or a Cicero was to cultivate one's memory, imagination and character, as well as the ability to speak and write.  These texts reflect an incredibly sophisticated, multidimensional understanding of the different dimensions of language as a medium of communication, persuasion, and aesthetic appreciation.  Nearly all of the classical principles of arrangement and figures of style still hold power today.  By studying the "topics" studied under the header of "invention" which span at once into poetics and philosophical dialectics, we open up a huge stockpile of argumentative and persuasive techniques which operate as much in the speeches of Homer's characters as those of Shakespeare.  This canon is also a window back upon the classical philosophical legacy: notably the centuries-old tradition of ethical thought and the first articulations of philosophical psychology.

This course will offer an introduction to this extraordinary educational heritage, beginning (in lecture 1) with

  • a consideration of the relationship between rhetoric and philosophy (Plato's critique in the Gorgias then its qualification in the Phaedrus and Cicero's De Oratore), 
  • a preliminary definition of rhetoric and an enumeration of some basic distinctions (the three species of rhetoric: judicial, deliberative, epideictic; & the three modes of persuasion: ethos, pathos, logos),
  • and an overview of the history of rhetorical education beginning with the sophists. 

Each subsequent class will have a theoretical and practical component. 

On the one hand, we will look in each of lectures 2 through 6 at each of the "canons" of rhetoric, in the order set out in the Roman texts:

  • first, in lectures 2 and 3, "invention": the remarkably encyclopaedic resources, drawing directly on classical philosophical thought, which were developed to enable speakers to "discover" arguments for and against any given idea; and then the "commonplaces" so important in renaissance texts;
  • second, in lecture 4, arrangement (how to order a persuasive speech, and the 6 parts thereof);
  • third, style (figures of thought and figures of speech) and points of delivery: in lecture 5);
  • finally, the art of memory (in lecture 6).

On the other hand, to illustrate these theoretical principles, we will analyse a series of great speeches-from Thucydides' Pericles to Martin Luther King's Lincoln Memorial address- and great written texts which reflect the rhetorical canons--for instance, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Henry V, and Montaigne's and Bacon's Essays.