Mere Rhetoric

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, movements and people who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren and today we get to continue on in our theme of the villains of rhetoric. Today though, instead of just focusing on one person like Raymus or Hobbes. We get to talk about three and the reason why we get to talk about three is because a fantastic book that Wayne A. Rebhorn wrote. It's called “Renaissance Debates on Rhetoric.” This is a great volume. It's a compilation of a lot of short pieces by a lot of different authors during the renaissance, starting pretty early and going pretty late. You can see the way that they respond to each other and how they respond to voices that you don't even really see in the book that are just sort of out there. Like, people say this or people say that.

But today we're going to be talking about distinct criticisms of rhetoric. The first is from Agrippa. Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa who was German as you might suspect and he was a captain in the army of Maximillian the 1st so that gives you sort of a time frame. This is very early 16th century. He was maybe a magician. He worked in sort of occult philosophy and kabala and all sorts of stuff like that. And he even defended a witch legally. So definitely a free thinker. 

Now this criticism he makes against rhetoric is on the uncertainty and vanity of the arts and sciences. This may be sarcastic, we're not entirely sure. But it's definitely bringing up some interesting points against rhetoric. 

He says mostly that rhetoric is very sneaky. He says, "The entire discipline of rhetoric from start to finish is nothing other than the art of flattery, adulation, and some might say more audaciously, lying.” Well you don't get any more critical of a criticism of rhetoric than to just say this is straight up lying. But even if it isn't lying, it's pretty terrible. He says, "in short, it appears that rhetoric is nothing other than the art of persuading and moving the emotions." Okay, that sounds like the sort of thing that anybody would be okay with. But then it gets worse -"Seizing the spirits of the thoughtless by subtle eloquence, exquisite deception and cunning appearance of probability, leading them into the prison of error while perverting the sense of the truth." Okay so that sounds like pretty strong criticism against rhetoric.

Another voice that Rebhorn highlights in this compilation of the debates in the renaissance comes from John Jewell. John Jewell may not have been an accused witch, in fact he was sort of a spokesperson for the Church of England. A sort of a balance between the extremes of Protestantism in Europe and Catholicism. He publicly spoke against the Porters of Rome during the mid-16th century and sort of had a reputation of being a great preacher, being very eloquent. But just like with Agrippa, Jewell may or may not be sarcastic in his criticisms against rhetoric. We don't really know for sure, especially because he was such an eloquent preacher. 

But in the oration against rhetoric, he points out that the entire pursuit of eloquence I say, “which so many Greek and Latin writers enrich, I openly proclaim here there offers neither dignity nor benefit and is entirely idle, empty, futile, and trifling." So instead of saying that it's something that's evil and really big and bad, Jewell here says that rhetoric is just that stupid. It just takes a lot of time and doesn't really do anything. 

He says, "If something is clear and distinct, it has enough support in itself and does not need the allurement of polished speech. If it is obscure and unattractive, it will not be discovered despite all the glamour and flood of words. In other words, truth needs no ally and error deserves none."

Further on in his oration against rhetoric, he makes the claim that there's something seditious about rhetoric which is a claim that you will hear a lot during this time that rhetoricians are kind of sneaky and evil. An example that he pulls up is the Demosthenes who is definitely sort of a big bad wolf in a lot of the Renaissance views of rhetoric. He says, "who among us has not heard of the lamentable plundering of that greatest and most ancient of cities, Athens which was nevertheless leveled to the ground and almost completely uprooted and destroyed thanks to the eloquent tongue of Demosthenes?"

He says, "for when I have shown how states have been overturned by the most eloquent men and great empires converted into wasteland, all the things that you've heard so far which are very serious, will be thought to be nothing. It seems to me that whoever first introduced eloquence into human affairs gave the worst advice possible. Eloquence is really the one responsible for all of these faults he says."

So even though at the beginning he says it's just a waste of time and it’s idle and foolishness, he seems to be crediting the fall of the Greek empire to rhetoric and rhetoricians. He goes on to talk about how Demosthenes was such a bad person personally that he has sort of this sear of treason. He says, “why did the greatest orator, Desmothenes lose his mind, his reason, his very self when he stood before Phillip? What is the meaning of all this trepidation, power, hesitation, confusion and shaking? If the case is good, why are they afraid? If it is bad, why do they take it on?” This criticism against rhetoric, that it's something sneaky, he says is actually just endemic to the idea of rhetoric itself. He says that when you are an orator, you're always trying to make people think that you're not really an orator. That you didn't stay up all night working on it.

This is something we still have sort of today. The idea that somebody's trying too hard on writing a speech or being persuasive. That somehow everything should just sort come in a flash of light- probably inspiration of something that's going to be naturally good. He points out that tailors, medicine peddlers, and bods seek crowds into light, showing their merchandise openly and freely in public. Only the orator does not dare to parade his skill, but behaves in such a way that just when he was making the maximum use of the art of his tongue, he seems then to be the farthest away from the art and utterly inarticulate as if he had learned nothing. 

This is a really interesting point. We kind of have an idea that if somebody is demonstrating that they worked hard to make something persuasive that sort of makes it lose all of its power. Now both of these speakers that we talked about were maybe probably just being sarcastic and not really meaning what they said because they were such great writers.

The next two may legitimately have problems with rhetoric as it is. Francesco Patrizi was from Dalmatia -- sort of the area that we now think of as Croatia. And he was an Italian philosopher. He was very platonic and as we talked about in other places, Plato was not super excited about the idea of obedience to these strict rules like Aristotle. Instead, he believed sort of in this divine revelation.

So he creates a dialogue between two people where he uses this dialogue to sort of put himself in conversation and speak against rhetoric. He says in this dialogue that the orator always strives for victory but, "he doesn't care about justice or duty." Things that are really important if you're a big plan of Plato. "Further, he says if an orator would never undertake to defend anything other than a just case, and would always prosecute unjust ones, would he always be acting justly in so doing? Just as on the contrary one who always undertook to prosecute a just case and defend an unjust one would be wrong. But if there is fan orator who defended cases that went beyond both justice and injustice and prosecuted similar cases, he'd be sometimes good and sometimes bad. Finally, Patrizi comes to the conclusion that an orator is a man between good and evil. And because of this middle position, he will act equally to defend and to prosecute a just man and an unjust man. Because of this he points out that he is motivated only by the sake of winning. Glory and gain are dear to him says Patrizi, than justice is. 

He even goes as far as to say that the orator can't be valued, that he is feared, that he is violent and the descendant of tyrants because he doesn't care about justice -- only about getting his way. It's a pretty damning [?] criticism of rhetoric.

The final villain in this team is Michel de Montaigne who is probably best known for writing essays, tons of them. He kind of invented the genre of the essay. He too is critical about rhetoric, mostly because he believes in honesty above all else and being self relavatory. Much like some of these other critics, he believes that rhetoric is a little bit tricky and often immoral. He says that rhetoric is a "tool invented to manipulate and stir up a mob in an unruly populous. A tool that is employed only in six states, like medicine in states such as those of Athens, Rhodes, and Rome where the crowd of the ignorant where all people had power over all things.”

That might not sound so bad to us who live in a democracy, but really he saw that rhetoric was something that only existed where people were fighting. In fact he goes as far as to say that eloquence flourished most at Rome when affairs were in the worst condition and were disturbed by the storm of civil wars. 

This criticism against rhetoric says that when do we need rhetoric? When do we need a lot of people asking persuasive arguments? Well when there's a lot of unease. Where we don't know what the right answer is and we have sort of a battle.

If we were all agreed, if we were unified, there wouldn't need for rhetoric. This is an argument that you can still kind of see today when people talk about politics. If we just all have some unity or patriotism, or we're behind our leaders, then we wouldn’t have all this contentious discussion.

 So these critics of rhetoric, Agrippa, Jewell, Montaigne, and Patrizi, all bring up arguments that we still her today against rhetoric. But there are plenty more who are defending rhetoric during this same time. The renaissance was a rich time for rhetoric and even though we don't really talk about it, or we think of renaissance rhetoric as just being classical rhetoric warmed over. It was really dynamic and a lot of the arguments they were making were specific to their particular cultures and respective countries.

I highly recommend you check out the book. “Renaissance Debates on Rhetoric” by Wayne A. Redhorn. 

It provides a lot of different perspective and a lot of different texts about something that we don't even really think about very often. The renaissance and its relationship to modern rhetoric. But you don't have to take my word for it.


Direct download: Mere_Rhetoric_-_Renaissance_1.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 12:00pm CDT