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Mere Rhetoric

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history.

Aug 24, 2016

Epideictic Rhetoric


Intro and rebroadcast note



Today we’ll be talking about epideictic rhetoric because it’s probably my favorite of the three branches of Aristotelian rhetoric and it’s my birthday. It being my birthday actually has a lot to do with epideictic rhetoric because birthday speeches are one of the classic examples of epideictic rhetoric, the others being wedding toasts, eulogies, and Independence Day orations, except I think the people who came up with that last one probably lived a century ago because I have never attended an Independence Day oration, unless you count the one Bill Pullman gives in the movie Independence Day and that was probably not what they had in mind. But then again, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a birthday speech either.


The point I think I was making is that epideictic rhetoric is very old and very important. It’s likely older than either political or legal rhetoric, and might have grown out of the same TV-less fascination with sitting around hearing someone talk that makes human beings revere storytellers. Because it has a long history, epideictic rhetoric also has a long history of being studied. Manuals on how to give speeches date back to the 4th and 5th century bc and Greeks continued to be fascinated by epideictic rhetoric. It is one of the three branches of rhetoric that Aristotle describes in the Art of Rhetoric along with the judicial and deliberative. But while judicial rhetoric obviously concerns itself with obtaining justice and deliberative rhetoric obtains laws or political action, it’s less clear what the goal of epideictic rhetoric is. Judicial rhetoric can keep you out of jail or paying a fine; deliberative rhetoric can stop a tax or send you into war with Sparta; epideictic rhetoric—makes a happy day happier and a sad one sadder? It turns out that epideictic rhetoric actually does a great deal of work, but a subtler way than judicial or deliberative rhetoric. It’s sneaky, but lets break it down into three things you need to know about Epideictic rhetoric


The first thing you need to know is that Epideictic rhetoric, according to Aristotle, deals with praise and blame. So all of those special occasion pieces, like wedding toasts and obituaries, point out the good qualities of the people getting married or buried. They talk about the virtues of the people of the hour. For Aristotle, these virtues were well classified: of course, it’s Aristotle so it’s well classified. He mentions “justice, courage, self-control, magnificence, magnanimity, liberality, gentleness, practical and speculative wisdom" or "reason." You can imagine an obituary that pointed out how brave and gentle the deceased was, or a wedding toast that honored the good reason in choosing this particular spouse. This is the “praise” side of epideictic rhetoric, which is easy to imagine because we see it relatively often. Well, hopefully the people writing the wedding toasts and obituaries point out the good qualities instead of blame, although you could imagine occasions that didn’t sugar-coat everything. Blame speeches are a little more difficult to conjure up, but Guy Fawkes Day springs to mind, as do the journalistic obituaries for dictators and other villains. These blame speeches, for Aristotle, will focus on the opposites of those virtues, so instead of talking about bravery and gentleness of the departed, a blame-based obituary would talk about a tyrant’s cowardice and cruelty. So the first key thing to remember about epideictic rhetoric is that it engages with praise and blame according to some criteria, some list of virtues that are deemed important by that community.


That leads to the second key element about epideictic rhetoric. The praise and blame that people bring up are dependent on the community in which those people live. So to go back to the example of writing an obituary, if you lived in a community where gentleness was not considered a virtue, but, on the contrary, being feared was the most important attribute, you might say, “He was a cold-hearted, calculating tyrant” with utmost praise and affection. When we in our society hear that phrase, we recoil and feel the figure is being blamed, but another culture might interpret that phrase as praise. So one of the jobs of the rhetor is to understand what is praise- or blame-worthy in the community. Chaim Perleman and Lucie Olbrecht-Tyteca have said, “The speaker engaged in epidictic discourse is very close to being an educator ” and must do the work of “promoting values shared in the community” (52). The community determines what is blamed and praised, but also what is praised and blamed tells you something about the community. So if “He was a cold-hearted, calculating tyrant” is considered praise in a community, you know a lot about what it’s like to live there. You know you want to clear out of there. But epideictic rhetoric both reflects and creates a community. Celeste Michelle Condit describes this process when she says that one of the key things epideictic does is “shape and share communities” (289). Sometimes the epideictic rhetoric is the first time that common attitudes and beliefs have been put into words, and if the articulation of those beliefs resonate with the audience, it defines that community. Jeffrey Walker describes this as a lyrical enthymeme. An enthymeme does this [shave and a hair cut knock] It’s hard not to finish it, isn’t it? In your mind you’re filling in the blanks—provided you’re familiar with the whole pattern [shave and a hair cut—two bits]. You could only know the whole pattern if you were part of the culture that made this pattern so common. Imagine the same thing happening in an epideictic speech. I say “Brooklyn,” you say “whaaat?” and I say “He was a cold-hearted, calculating tyrant” and you say “boo.” The audience fills in the gaps. In fact, if the audience doesn’t, Condit sees this as a good sign that you aren’t part of the community. This works in parts as well as over all. The speaker gets to decide which parts of the community to highlight and which parts to downplay. If someone praises something that only 80% of the community agrees with, the remaining 20% are, according to Condit, “likely to [feel] a sense of alienation from the community “ (290). So while almost everyone in our community agrees that being “a cold-hearted, calculating tyrant” is a bad thing, if the speaker then goes on and says, “and he didn’t like dogs—he liked cats!” then everyone in the audience who likes cats is going to start thinking, “Wait, what’s wrong with liking cats? I like cats. Should I not be liking cats? Do only cold-hearted, calculating tyrants like cats? Argh! I’m terrible, I don’t belong here, what am I doing?” So epideictic rhetoric will sometimes reflect the values of an audience, but sometimes it will create an audience, by alienating some members of the community.


So if the first point is that epideictic rhetoric praises and blames and the second point is that epideictic rhetoric will shape and share our communities, the last thing to remember about epideictic rhetoric is that it’s actually everywhere. At this point you might be saying, “wait a tick, didn’t you just say that Independence Day orations and birthday speeches are really rare?” Yes, but epideictic rhetoric doesn’t always have to be a formal speech. Remember the characteristics we mentioned—praise and blame and reflect the society’s values. Now think about everything that does that. A movie like Independence Day might do that. It praises the courage of Will Smith’s character and Jeff Goldbaum’s quirky intellectual obsession while criticizing cowardly politicians and naïve hippies. If you’re an American, the movie seems to argue, these are the values that you’ll admire. If you don’t admire those values, the movie can be alienating. Movies, song lyrics, TV shows, museums, even art and architecture can be epideictic, establishing what is praiseworthy and what is blameworthy. A lot of literature, in a broad sense, can be read as epideictic. The idea that the arts presents to an audience stories that we can either praise or blame creates a rhetorical background for the rhetoric of poetics. Scholars from Wayne Booth to Jeffery Walker have noted the way that literature creates an argument for our societies, teaching us values. Being assigned certain “great works” can be a way of indoctrinating young people to the values and attitudes of a community, as can being told that a book or movie is a “classic.” When epideictic rhetoric can be found everywhere, we recognize that we are always being persuaded to attitudes and values, even if not to specific actions.


So while today I might not be getting a birthday speech at my party, I will probably have a conversation with someone about achieving my birthday goal of reading all of Shakespeare’s plays (which are persuading me to espouse certain values), and we’ll listen to the French circus music I like (which may alienate those who don’t appreciate a swing accordion) and when someone wishes me a happy birthday, they will wish me the things we as a community have agreed will bring me happiness.