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Rhetoric: what was all the talk about?

Aristotle s definition of rhetoric in one founding text in the rhetorical tradition.

A little case of 1616 repeatin’

A concerned friend recently told me of an article he had read in the good press suggesting that Shakespeare was no longer relevant today.

I had to agree with the good press.

To the extent that the young clearly no longer desire passionately and suffer for their passions, Shakespeare can have nothing to say to them, I mused. To the extent that we no longer in the 21st century fall prey to hatreds, practice politics, slide from comparison to envy, lust after power, sow prejudices and harvest wars, covet ambitions, suffer blindness and bet on beating chance …

To the extent that the proverbial “young people” of today do or will do none of these things (too busy on devices, I suppose, the pets), the bard can have nothing more to say to them.

As the positively confounding gravestone you can still visit at Stratford asks of the underwhelmed pilgrim, let us not “move his bones”.

Shakespeare’s gravestone and its request.

A foreign tongue….

Ironies aside, there are many things foreign, very foreign about the Shakespeare plays and poems, bequeathed us across four centuries and taught since the 19th like Holy Writ to generations of weary students.

The foreignness begins with the language: a language at once so profuse (16000 working words; as against 11000 in the contemporary Saint James Bible, and something like 3000 for most of us) yet so artful; and so dense with ideas, analogies, figures and puns that it beggars belief that the plays could ever have been popular entertainment, loved and hated by the Elizabethan mob.

In our post-romantic age, we rush to assign everything about this to “genius”. And a good deal of mystery does surround the man or the prodigy.

Only a kind of force of nature could have produced such a glorious linguistic cacophony, we suppose: those speeches from so many different characters, for and against so many proposals, touching everything from the finer points of law to the bawdiness of public houses, and modelling everyone from Kings and courtiers to publicans and fools …

The famous, mask-like woodcut of the bard’s visage from the first folio.

A foreign land

Yet behind the music of Bach lies profound technique and much mathematics; and behind the graceful surfaces of renaissance canvases we find forms of sacred geometry. Just so, the Shakespeare author was not quite working unaided, by the fire of his native wit alone, when he penned the speeches of his Hamlet, his “Harry”, his Juliet or her Romeo.

Like all the boys of the Elizabethan age lucky enough to receive even a primary education, the bard had been immersed from a young age in what is today an almost-wholly lost educational tradition. This tradition lay at the heart of the early modern European renaissance of which the Shakespeare plays are one crowning monument. It is the tradition of rhetoric: the art of how to speak and to write, as well as—which will be my point—a good deal more besides.

As C S Lewis, he of Narnia fame, once commented in words that remain true today:

Rhetoric is the greatest barrier between us and our ancestors. If the Middle Ages had erred in their devotion to that art, the renaissance, far from curing, confirmed the error. In rhetoric, more than in anything else, the continuity of the old European tradition was embodied. Older than the Church, older than Roman Law, older than all Latin literature, it descends from the age of the Greek Sophists … and penetrates far into the eighteenth century; through all these ages not the tyrant, but the darling of humanity, soavissima, as Dante says, `the sweetest of all the … sciences.‘ Nearly all our older poetry was written and read by men to whom the distinction between poetry and rhetoric, in its modern form, would have been meaningless.

When it comes to the “Swan of Avon” who “shook a lance at … ignorance”, there is method to the magic—which is not to say that every trained violinist will be a virtuoso.

Speeches, Philosophies, handbooks and exercises

The monument of the Western rhetorical tradition stands four-square on the following pillars.

First, there are the great speeches of ancient orators and speech-writers: Lysias, Demosthenes, Iscorates, Cicero, and others, recorded from an early time in acknowledgment of their art.

Second, there are texts like Cicero’s Of Oratory and (parts of) Aristotle’s Rhetoric. These are philosophical writings devoted to understanding and defending the role and nobility of the arts of speaking against all detractors.

Thind, and perhaps most impressive, there is a lineage of ‘how-to" handbooks looking back to (other parts of) Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Roman texts like Quintilian’s Institutes of Oratory. This lineage looks forward to such extraordinary renaissance masterpieces as Rudolph Agricola’s Of Dialectical Invention or Erasmus’ On the Foundations of an Abundant Style.

Rudolph Agricola a great Northern Christian Humanist.

These texts divide the art of speaking persuasively into what remain the five different tasks anyone asked to speak at a friend’s wedding, funeral or 50th today will still have to face, one by one: how to think up or “invent” things to say for subject and occasion; how to arrange what you have to say; how to adorn your offering with “figures of speech”; then how to memorise and finally deliver the thing on the night.

Texts like the Rhetorica ad Herennium, revered during the renaissance, go through each of these five “canons” in the most extraordinary detail—it is simply incredible to the newcomer—providing a wealth of examples of each to assist understanding, memory and emulation.

Finally, there are texts specifying “preliminary exercises” for the hapless students, many of which seem to have been repeated ad nauseum in the Elizabethan schools until the relevant ideas and techniques stuck.

One such text by an “Apthonius the sophist” specifies, exemplifies, and provides guidance on how the student can learn to produce discourses in no less than fourteen different genres: how to devise fables, narratives, anecdotes, maxims, refutations of opponents, songs of praise for friends, vivid descriptions of peoples and events, and more.

Shakespeare’s presumed schoolroom at Straford-on-Avon.

I can only imagine the faces of even a third-year class if we asked them to produce, for assessment, specimens of these fourteen genres today—specifying for good measure that they should use no less than (say) thirty of the over forty figures of speech (anaphora, isocolon, metaphor, simile, epistrophe, hyperphora …) the manuals delineate.

It was just as if the rhetorical tradition had been wanting to train students capable, if not of writing, then of appreciating analytically all the different styles, arts and devices of a master poet-dramatist like William Shakespeare.

Who, what, when, why …

The role of rhetoric was pedagogical, or rather persuasive: to teach, but also always to move—and if need be, to please or delight.

Cicero presents rhetoric as a kind of political angel, sent to help philosophy and the other sciences present the fruits of their learning for the delectation and sustenance of the wider world.

Marcus Tullius Cicero,

Wisdom without eloquence is of little advantage to states, while … eloquence without wisdom is often mischievous,” the Roman statesman-philosopher wrote in his youth, in a sentence which seemingly still resonated in Immanuel Kant’s time.

The framing sense of language in the rhetorical tradition is one that we all have a working knowledge of, but which has been sometimes been lost in less encompassing, specialised methodologies to study language.

Language is a vehicle of communication and persuasion. Each linguistic act can be (and is in the handbooks) analysed from the perspectives of who is speaking, to whom, when and where, in what natural language, about what subject, with what goals.

Each linguistic act, if it is to be rhetorically successful, will need to be crafted to whom you are speaking, about what, on what occasion, and with what ends in mind.

Francis Bacon on shaping your words to time place and person.

… and how

The words we use will convey our ideas, and make claims to truth, soundness or rightness. But as the rhetorical tradition also examined in incredible detail, these words are also sensible things: they also carry voice and, even when read silently, a virtual sound.

The sentences we speak and write in different languages thus each have a music, stresses and rhythms that poets most attend to, but which the West’s rhetorical books already surgically dissected.

Each natural language, as a sensible medium, harbors within it potentials to become itself an object of aesthetic enjoyment, and:

there is nothing which so naturally affects our minds as numbers and the harmony of sounds, by which we are excited, and inflamed, and soothed, and thrown into a state of languor, and often moved to cheerfulness or sorrow.

The trained rhetorician will know how to play on these aesthetic dimensions of language to serve his persuasive ends: to make people see clearly the unassuming but honourable virtues of his friend, whose 60th birthday we are celebrating; to exonerate his client, a women of the most scrupulous character and a record of faultless service; to make people sense, vividly, the grandeur of her subject, if she happens to be talking of affairs of state or “of the robe”; and more.

Martin Luther King’s Lincoln Memorial address a recent example of the power of oratory.

As Cicero used to advertise, the great orator will thus be a service not only to himself, but potentially to his friends, and to any cause or institution his mind and morals direct him towards.

Some talking points to remember

Perhaps the most remarkable “canon” amongst rhetorical lore is that of “invention”. As amazing as it seems to us, from Aristotle onwards, through Boethius in the middle ages and Agricola in modern times, rhetoricians devised lists of “topics” or “talking points” that a speaker can use if they are to speak about—in principle—anything at all.

By the time we get to Agricola in the 15th century, there are around 25 agreed, general “topics”, which the Northern humanist generously explains and illustrates by examples.

Asked to speak on a subject, the trained rhetorician who has memorised these “topics” will be able to scan his memory, knowing he can discuss: the subject’s definition, its kind, what differentiates it from other members of this genus; its different parts or properties, the whole they form or adorn; its causes, its purposes, its actions, what it acts on with what effects; its names; the opinions people have formed about it; what it may be compared to, is similar or opposed to; or when and where we might look to find it.

Agricola’s list of topics- if you’re lost for words.

Armed with these topics understood and memorised—for the West’s arts of memory were also taught in the rhetorical schools, as its fourth “canon"—no one need ever fear public speaking again.

Indeed, you will never be lost for something to say at even the dullest dinner party.

Cases, parties, anything

There were also more specific compilations of "topics”. The lawyer can avail himself of a finite, ordered list of judicial “stopping points” compiled by Cicero, Quintilian and others, in looking for arguments to defend or prosecute clients: points of conjecture, about what was done; about how what was done should be defined; into what class the action rightly falls; or calling into question the authority of the court.

And when you need to give that birthday or retirement party speech celebrating Johnny or Sarah, there are in texts like the Rhetorica ad Herennium “epideictic” or demonstrative talking points you can call upon, too.

Begin with his natural gifts, and then narrate some of the circumstances of his life: wealth or poverty, schooling, work. Then, moving outwards in, you might pick one or more of his bodily graces and achievements (sporting victories, for instance, or likes and loves).

Then there are the attributes of his character. Here, the rhetorical texts provide remarkably astute and copious lists of “talking points” under each of the cardinal virtues celebrated by the classical philosophical tradition: justice, wisdom, temperance, and courage.

Noel Pearson’s eulogy to Gough Whitlam- epideictic oratory at its best.

If it is his courage you want to stress (and justice and courage are the virtues best for amplification), think of cases when he aimed at some difficult or lofty goal; compare him to better known, more celebrated heroes; stress how neither peril could dissuade nor setback lead him to abandon what he saw as best for his family, spouse, friends, community, or cause …

Dress your words with some appropriate stylistic amplification. Then deliver them with some affection, pathos and panache. Even the stones will be moved.


The rhetorical tradition in Western education widely died out in the 19th century. That story I do not know. A reader may able to help to fill in the gaps.

Part of the tale, certainly, involves the wide subject fields once commanded by “the institutes of oratory” being slowly divided and reinvented across newer scholarly disciplines and “communications” professions: everything from marketing, management and public relations to linguistics, cultural studies, psychology and philosophical logic.

Yet many of classical rhetoric’s arts are presently lost, except to an impressive body of historical scholarship—and this despite professional humanities research presently being conducted, more than ever, in set-piece speeches and quasi-juridical written essays.

Great oratory, like Orpheus’ music, was deemed almost able to move the animals and stones.

There are many voices in our community today who ask us not to lament the passing of nearly all of the Western cultural heritage. I understand the critics’ reasons—and the appeal to topics of justice that underlie the best, in their arguments. But I have never been able to join this chorus.

The judgement is too simple and too monotone. The heritage we are being asked to forget becomes more multi-coloured and complex the more deeply it is studied. There are artistic, philosophical, religious, linguistic and political figures and exemplars within it that we would be prodigal to let go and, en passant, the cultural Left would be fool to cede to the Right.

For every Caesar there is a Tully; for every Pilate a martyr, if not a Christ; for every Paul a Montaigne; and for everyman, a Will Shakspere.

While the resources of the West’s highly sophisticated rhetorical tradition can and have always been subject to “capture” by malign and anti-democratic forces, it is also worth remembering that it is an eminently “liberal art”: “it has constantly flourished above all other arts in every free state, and especially in those which have enjoyed peace and tranquillity …”

So, alongside the mysterious Mister Shakespeare, it may be worth keeping alive a while yet, or even reviving.

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