Mar 30, 2016
Hermogenes of Tarsus
Welcome to MR, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren and today is a rebroadcast of an old episode, thanks to the Humanities Media Project here at the University of Texas. Hope you enjoy!
Hermogenes of Tarsus was a bit of a boy genius: he wrote many important rhetorical treatises (of which we only have sections) before he was 23 years old. And when Hermogenes was fifteen years old, in 176 AD, something remarkable happened. The philosopher emperor of the Roman empire, Marcus Aurelius himself, came to listen to him speak. This is all the more impressive because Hermogenes was of Tarsus, which, if you know your ancient geography well you’ll note is pretty far east from Rome. Marcus Aurelius heard him declaim and speak extemporaneously. “You see before you, Emporer,” Hermogenes reported said, “An orator who still needs an attendant to take him to school, an orator who still looks to come of age.” The emporer was duly impressed with the boy’s rhetorical powers and showered him with gifts and prizes
From such auspicious beginnings, things quickly went downhill fast for poor Hermogenses. While still young he lost his brilliant mind. It’s impossible to know for certain what led to Hermogenes’ deterioration. Some propose that it was a psychological breakdown from the stress of being such a shooting star, and certainly that sounds reasonable—once you’d declaimed for the emporer of the world, where do you go from there? Others suggest that there was a physiological reason, like meningitis from a bout of infectious disease or early onset dementia. Ancients as well as moderns were fascinated with how someone who showed so much promise could so quickly become the butt of cruel jokes. Antiochus the sophist once mocked approach of the once-brilliant Hermogenes: “Lo, here is one who was an old man among boys and now among the old is a but a boy.” Byzantine texts, who loved a local rhetorical hero, speculated that when he died that his heart was huge and…hairy. Do you remember that JK Rowling story about the hairy heart? Every time I think of Hermogenes I think of that. But let’s talk about his ideas instead of whether his heart could be hairy.
We actually know surprisingly little of Hermogenes’ works. We know a lot of rumor about how great he was, but of the five treatise under his name, only one and a half are likely to be genuinely his work. The one is called “On Types of Style” and in it Hermogenes describes seven types of style: Clarity, Grandeur, Beauty, Rapidity, Character, Sincerity and Force. Some of you who are familiar with your Roman or medeval rhetoric are maybe scratching your heads here—seven? Seven types of style? What ever happened to high, medium and low? And what the heck is “character?” These are legitimate questions. Remember two things: first this is the period of the Second Sophistic, when there’s a heightened interest in rhetoric and in Greek rhetoric in specific, so that means that people are looking for something a little more off the beaten path. Rhetoric plus. Instead of just aping Cicero, Hermogenes comes up with these seven categories that are more specific and less immediately associated with rhetorical situation. It’s like a more byzantine approach to style. And yes, that’s a Greek empire pun.
The other thing to remember about Hermogenes’ style guide is that he was probably a teenager when he wrote it. And a celebrated prodigy at that, so that just accelerates the cocky self-assuredness. Remember those kids in high school who insisted that they were smarter than all of the teachers and were pretty certain that they could be president—if they wanted to descend to politics? Yeah, Hermogenes was probably that kid.
Wow, it’s hard not to talk about Hermogenes the person instead of his ideas. He’s just an interesting guy. Okay, so these 7 kinds of style.
Clarity comes first because clarity is most critical. But don’t think that just because clarity is important that it’s simple. Oh no, clarity consists of two parts—purity, which is sentence-level clarity, and distinctness, which is about big-picture organization. So you need to have each sentence clear as well as the organization over all.
The next style point is grandeur. Oh, don’t wory, grandeur, too, has sub parts—six of them, arranged in 3 groups: solemnity and brilliance come first. Solemnity is using abstract statements about elevated topics. “Justice comes to all.” “Honor never tarnishes” “Love is a many-splendored thing.” Solemn statements are short, bold and unqualified. Brilliance takes those abstracts down to specifics, and becomes longer: “It’s good when two friends meet around the board of fellowship.” They may sound similar because they are pretty close.
The third part of grandeur is amplification. It’s not just talking a lot, but expanding the topic to make it seem “bigger” than it would be if discussed in casual conversation. Nuff said.
The last chunk of grandeur comprises three parts: aperity, vehemence and florescence. In short, sudden strong emotion. Asperity for shart criticism, vehemence for distaine and florescence to ease back off a bit and sugar coat the strong feelings.
Having done with grandeur, Hermogenes points out that beauty is also useful, although, surprisingly, he doesn’t break this category down too much.
The next type of style is rapidity—quick short sentence, rapid replied, sudden turns of thought in antithesis. “Am I happy? No. You disappoint me. No, you destroy me.” That sort of thing.
The fifth style is that mysterious character. Strangely this is pretty muh what Aristotle calls ethos. You migh have to think a little abstractly about how character can be a style, but Hermogenes insists that this type of what we might classify as argument I actually a style. Okay. He’s the genius, not me. The subcategories of character are simplicity, sweetness, subtlety and modesty, which do sound a little more like something you can create in style.
Finally, Hermogenes recommends to us Sincerity. The speaker must let his audience know that he is “one plain-dealing man addressing another in whose judgement he has perfect confidence.” The idea is to create the illusion that the speaker is talking more or less extemporaneously. They can’t appear to be written into the speech or that ruins the whole effect. Imagine how different you feel when someone in the heat of a speech says, “Oh, I can’t stand it!” versus when you see written in the notes “Oh. I can’t stand it [with vehemence.]”
The last style is actually just the correct balance of all six of these types of style. By using these types of styles well, the speaker has force with his audience. He sums up “the ai of clarity is that the audience should understand what is said, whereas Grandeur is designed to impress them with what is said. Beutyf is designed to give pleasure. Speed to avoid boredome, ethods helps to win over the audience by allying them with the speaker’s customs and character and verity persuades them he is speaking the truth. Finally, Gravity sitrs up the audience and they are carried away by the completeness of the performance, not only to accept what they have heard, but to act upon it.”
If you’re curious about whether Hermogenes in thoughtfully preparing such a philsphy of style was adroit in it, the sad fact is that nothing in “On Style” suggests the boy rhetor who capitvated the emporer Marcus Aerlious. Translater Cecil W. Wooten says succinctly “he is a brilliant critic of style whose own style is really quite atrocious” (xvii)
In the same way that young Hermogenes took the basic divisions of style and expanded them, he did a very similar thing with the stases. We’ll talk more about the stases in a later podcast, but briefly, they’re a way of categorizing what it is you’re arguing about. Are you in conflict with your interlocutor about whether global warming exists or are you just debating what’s the correct policy to decrease warming emissions? In the stases of HermaGORAS ( who is not to be confused with our current hairy-hearted hero) and others throughout the classical world, there were four different stases: fact, definition, quality and procedure. Hundreds of years later, in the second sophistic, HermoGENES has expanded on these four. How much? Okay, fact, definition and procedure get to stay pretty much the same, but quality? Oh, quality gets blown up. Now instead of 4 stases we get—13. Yep, 13.
Hermogenes makes a big deal on whether an argument actually has issue—whether it can be argued about. Because, after all, he himself points out that “It is not the function of rhetoric to investigate what is really and universal just, honorable, etc.” but real, public issues. To have issue he set some requirements.
As the scholar Malcolm Heath has pointed out, this stuff was important for ancient rhetoric: “At the heart of ancient rhetoric in its mature form was a body of theory […] which sought to classify the different kinds of dispute […] and to develop effective strategies for handling each kind” (Heath). But classifying stases kind of lost its luster after the Renaissance. Heath’s translation and interest came as a result of work done by Kennedy (1983) and Russell (1983) opened up interest in Hermogenes again.
I think we’re primed for an increase in interest in the work Hermogenes, the boy wonder. I have to admit, though, the story of his life is especially touching to me. I can’t help but speculate what the young man would have achieved in his future if he had been able to continue to work and produce texts. Would he have expanded on other categories of ancient rhetoric? Would he have refined his definitions? It makes me remember the juvenile work of Cicero or Isocrates and wonder whether we’d honor them so highly if those were the only treatises we had from them. We’ll never know what Hermogenes could have become, what contributions he could have made in the second sophistic period, because his career was so tragically cut short before he could refine and develop his ideas.