Nov 5, 2015
Rhetoric Before and Beyond the Greeks
I’m Mary Hedengren, Samantha and Morgan are in the booth and this is Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. But what does that even mean?
When we talk about the rhetorical tradition on this podcast, we actually don’t mean the rhetorical tradition. We mean the tradition of a very small group of people living mostly in one city in one corner of the Mediterranean. We mean Athenian rhetorical tradition, which, no doubt, has had a long and extensive influence in Western culture from the Romans to the Victorians to this podcast. But while many views of rhetoric focus on the Athenian theories, rhetoric has a far larger reach. After all, what could be more universal than using words to convince other people, to make them better understand you, to create a connection? If we define rhetoric, as Burke does, as “the use of words by human agents to form attitudes or induce actions in other human agents”—why everyone does that! There have been so many human agents on the world, all over the world, and how have they thought about forming attitudes or actions with words?
This is one of the questions that Carol D. Lipson and Roberta A Brinkley seek to answer in their edited anthology Rhetoric Before and Beyond the Greeks. The book looks at 3 major regions, as well as a few “bonus” sections, to find alternative views of rhetoric in the ancient world. The three main areas are Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Chinese rhetoric.
William W Hallo does a quick survey of ancient Mesopotamia and finds rhetorical genres like diatribes and proverbs and disputations as rich ground for a foundation of rhetoric, not to mention the value of looking at epic poetry like Gilgamesh for examples of the kind of rhetoric that sets up such poetic words. Think of the Exordia that calls all the people around to listen to a tale and promises them the relative merits of doing so. Roberta Brinkley, too, looks at the Mesopotamian epics as an early rhetorical hotbed. She focuses on how the epic of Inanna illustrates the rhetorical choices of “the earliest known writer” Enheduanna, who lived in 2300 BC. Let me say that again, 2300 BC. I’m not sure what the Greeks were doing at that time, but they probably weren’t writing what Brinkley calls “rhetorically complex sophistical compositions [that] challenge the traditional canon of rhetoric and thereby many of the origins stores and foundational assumptions of the humanities” (49). And yet, Binkly points out, when did you hear of Enhuduanna? Paul Hoskisson and Grant M. Boswell turn from religious hymns for a goddess to another key genre: shameless self promotion, as Sennacherib “the great king, the powerful king, the king of all there is” sets up some columns to set up how great he is. As Hoskisson and Boswell point out “Assyrian kingship was performative in that Assyrian kings continuously legitimized their claim to the throne” (75).y
The next section shifts to the West to the Egyptian rhetorical tradition.
Carol S. Lipson argue that “It all comes down to Maat” in ancient Egyptian rhetoric, where Maat is “what is right” sort of justice and morality and the order of the “sun, moon and stars” a “balanced state of creation” (81). Egyptian letters concern themselves with moves that perform “maat” Deborah Sweeny meanwhile examines the legal texts of ancient Egypt for examples of persuasion and eloquence. Just as legal tradition spurred the development of rhetoric in ancient Greece, Sweeney sees similar developments in the legal texts of Egypt.
Chinese rhetoric may seem the epitome of exotic compared to Athenian rhetoric, but the Chinese had a richly developed pattern for discussing rhetoric. George Q Xu describes the confusion principles of rhetoric which ranks different kinds of speech, with “clever talk” taking the lowest rung (122) Arabella lyon, meanwhile, describes the value of silence in confusion rhetoric As she says “Confucian silences go beyond a reticence to speak, a willingness to act and a refusal of eloquence” the “silence workds by not saying what should be obsious, what should be self-discovered and that which alienated” (138). Yameng Liu Xunzi and Han Feizi’s rhetorical criticism, arguing hat “instead of a mere byproduct of philosophical inquiries, classical Chinese rhetoric was a discipline/practice in its own right” (161) as different schools of thought competed with each other.
After Mesopatamia, Egypt and China are investigated, there’s a sort of catch-all of many alternative traditions. David Metzger writes about the rhetoric of the frist five books of the Hebrew Bible, and James W Watts and C Jan Swearingen look at ancient near eastern texts. Meanwhile Richard Leo Enos actually deals with Greek rhetoric, but a different type of Greek—the rhetoric of Rhodes. Rhodes was a far more diverse city-state than Athens. As Enos says “the orientation of rhetoric at Rhodes was not internal but external. That is, the emphasis on rhetoric was directed toward facilitating communication with other peoples (184) Such a perspective emphasized a cross-cultral epideictic rhetoric, inclusive and found on declamation” (194). Going over my notes in this text, I see I’ve written “ooh, I’m all psyched now,” and I admit that I am again—there’s a lot more the Greek rhetoric than just one city-state stuck in a hundred-year period. That’s what the whole book is arguing—there’s a whole world of rhetoric out there and we ought to do something to explore it.
There are some questions of omission you could have about this volume: for example, why talk about ancient China but not India? It’s hard to anthologize anything without leaving something out and especially a topic as ambitious as everything-not-ancient-Greek. Don’t worry, Lipson and Brinkley came out with a sequel to this book five years later called Ancient Non-Greek Rhetoric. And, yep, it continues to expand the view of what is rhetoric, collecting works about the ancient near-east, Japan, India and pre-Roman Ireland. It’s a pretty exciting and wide ranging text itself and you know what? It’s not done yet! Studying the rhetorical traditions of people wherever they use language can yield fresh insights into what rhetoric is and how it works. Kind of makes you want to get out there and open up rhetoric to something beyond just 5h century BC Athens, up to the whole world. If you want to open this podcast up to some particular types of rhetoric, go ahead and email us at firstname.lastname@example.org because there’s a lot of rhetoric out there and we just have to tackle it one week at a time.