Mere Rhetoric

Welcome to MR, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. Today or rather, the day I wrote this, I got some bad news, so to make up for it, I get to talk about Jeffrey Walker, who is one of my favorite people ever, and I get to talk about one of my favorite books, too, his Genuine Teachers of This Art, subtitled Rhetorical Education in Antiquity.


Basically Walker’s arguing that rhetoric as a field is, at its very core, pedagogical. It’s not just practice of rhetoric or analysis of rhetoric, but that both of these really come into being through the teaching of rhetoric. As he says “by defining ‘the art of the rhetor” as the art of producing a rhetor, one puts the other definitions into relation. The pedagogical project sets the agenda for the critical-rheoretic one and determines the appropriate objects of study… Its pedagogical enterprise is what ultimately makes rhetoric rhetoric and not just a version of something else” (2-3).


Walker’s title comes from a line from Cicero’s dialogs on the orator. Antonius describes Isocrates’ subsequent rhetoric teachers as the “genuine teachers of this art” and Isocrates does feature heavily in how we think about rhetoric and the teaching of rhetoric.


At the center of this text, Walker does the incredible work of reverse engineering the techne or art of rhetoric that Isocrates may have written. We think Isocrates wrote such a treatise. Zosimus’s Life of Isocrates in the the fifth century wrote “It is said that Isocrates also wrote an art of rhetoric bu in the course of time it was lost” (qtd. 57) Cicero, too, and Quintilian, seem to take it for granted that Isocrates had a complete rhetoric treatise. We might, Walker points out, not impose our own publishing tradition on what this would look like. Isocrates’ treatise on rhetoric would be, like Aritotle’s probably was “a  ‘teacher’s manual’ or ‘toolbox’ containing an organized and thus memorizable and searchable, collection of ‘the things that can be taught’ and a stock of explanations and examples” (84).


Combining shorter pieces of Isocrates’ with cited fragments and other sources’ admiration, parody and allusion, Walker reconstructs what this lost document might look like. He suggests that by looking at, say, the legal arguments of Isocrates, you can see evidence of a “rudimentary stasis system”: did they do it? how bad was it? was it legal or right? if it was right was that because of advantage, honor or justice? Of course there’s a bunch of stylistic rules some of which seem uniquely suited to Greek language and culture. And, of course, imitation is paramount. Over all, it seems that Isocrates’ pedagogical philosophy “assumes an ideal student of ready which who can take the imprint of the stylistic models set before him and can quickly come to imitate and absorb them” (153).


One of the key pedagogical assignments, then, is declamation. We don’t think of performance and acting as part of rhetorical discovery, but back in Isocrates’ day,speaking was extremely important, and the old debate practice of speaking your opponents’ words was a key pedagocial practice. Not just your opponent, but just “others” with whom you may or may not agree, sort of playing a part and trying on an argument. Think of it a little as if you were doing mock trial back in high school and some peopel are given the role of defense counsil and some are prosecution and some are witnesses: you have the facts of the case, but then you play the role the best you can within that structure. It’s invention, but also acting and it can be an effective pedagogical tool. As Walker puts it “the student was(is) freed from the pressure to discover the ‘correct answer’” (198) and “because the the student is playing a role, his or her youthful ego is not at stake, and it is possible to both play with the lines or argument and to reflect on them as well” (199).


If you have a question about some of the verbs and pronouns used in those last quotes, it’s because Walker doesn’t just study this stuff--he teaches it. Since his whole argument is that rhetoric is about being a teacher, he doesn’t shy away from describing how contemporary first year composition can embrace “rhetoric [as] an art of cultivating a productive, performative capacity” and unabashedly declares that “Rhetorical scholarship that made no consequential difference to what rhetors/writers do, or to how rhetors/writers are trained, would have little point. Perhaps that is obvious. Yet it is easy to forget” (288). Man, I get chills reading those words. I should take a moment here to say that if you use rhetorical methods from the ancients, like closely imitating exemplors or trying on other arguments, why not shoot a line at Mere I’d love to hear about it and maybe we could do an episode just on the history and benefit of, say, imitation or declamation.


Okay, here’s the last word from Dr. Walker, though “Ancient rhetorical education appealed to the desired that brought the motivated student to it and that persists today: the desire expressed by Isocrates’ students to say admirable things; or Plato’s Phaedrus’ remark that he would rather be eloquent like Lysias than rich; or Plato’s Hippocrates’ wish to learn to speak  ‘awesomely’ like Protagoras … Rhetoric, as a paideia, was a ‘sweet garden’ where the young could experience and enact such things as theater, as game, and in so doing could cultivate their dunamis for wise and eloquent speech, thought and writing in practical situations as well as develop an attachment to a dream paradigm of democratic civic life” (293-4)



Direct download: 16-03-24_-_Mere_Rhetoric_-_Genuine_Teachers.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 12:00pm CDT