An Introduction to the History of Classical Rhetoric

I find it fascinating to read the development of rhetorical practices from the time of, say, Homer to the time of, say, Basil the Great or St. Augustine.

This period gives us the pre-historic Greeks, like Odysseus; the philosophical Greeks of the Pre-Socratic period, like the Sophists; the Socratic/Platonic response to the Sophists; Aristotle; the Stoics and Epicureans and other minor schools that preceded Christ, the Romans who adopted the Greek traditions and created both schools and handbooks to teach it; and the Christian response to the Roman practices adopted and adapted from the Greeks.

You cover pretty much the whole spectrum of possible approaches to rhetoric in that 15oo year span, which is one of the great benefits of a classical education.

Lately I’ve been quite intrigued by the handbook tradition. It developed in Rome after they were converted to the Greek conviction that you master an art when you come to know its nature and align yourself to the nature of the thing you want to do.

The Greeks were speculators and the Romans were practical people, or so goes the bromide, and it is not without validity.

The Greeks thought about the nature of language and rhetoric. But they thought about it in action. Thus, Aristotle’s Rhetoric is the seminal work in what became the handbook tradition.

The Romans had no Aristotle, Cicero being perhaps their best attempt. But they had plenty of public speakers. In fact, if you wanted to matter in Rome, you pretty much had to master the art of speaking.

As a result, the Romans adopted and developed the handbook tradition and we have benefited enormously as a result.

From what I can tell, the purpose of a handbook was to lay out first principles and basic practices for a given art. Thus, Dionysius of Thrax wrote a grammar handbook that was the first to lay out the eight parts of speech.

During the first century BC, Rome was in a state of continual turmoil at the top. Generals had begun to pay their own armies, which freed them from the Senate and put them in conflict with each other.

From 135 BC to 31 BC, they experienced a continual stream of revolutions and civil wars, finally ending when Augustus Caesar defeated Marc Antony and established what we now call the Roman Empire.

I mention this because I want to talk about a rhetoric handbook and because rhetoric handbook are effected by politics. It was during this 100 year period that the perhaps best works of rhetoric were developed by Roman teachers (the exception is Quintilian).

The rhetoric handbook I want to talk about is called Ad Herrenium, De Ratione Dicendi, or To Herrenius, On the Theory of Public Speaking.

Nobody knows who wrote it, though for a long time it was thought to be a work of Cicero. While it is written to Herrenius, it is a popular book and was intended to be used by anybody who wanted to speak in public.

While it’s debt to the Greeks is obvious by its very existence, nevertheless its populist tone is revealed on the first page, where he scoffs at unidentified “Greek writers” who, “from fear of appearing to know too little, have gone in quest of notions irrelevant to the art, in order that the art might seem more difficult to understand.”

And yet, he is on to something, for it is not uncommon for teachers and theorists, especially those who are quite impressed that they have begun to study an art but have not yet mastered it, to want that art to appear mysterious and difficult.

“I, on the other hand,” he continues, “have treated those topics which seemed pertinent to the theory of public speaking.”

Totally irrelevant aside: I love this Latin word that seems to mean “seemed to be”: sumpsimus. We have to Anglicize that word somehow.

He further demonstrates his populism with this hollow claim: “I have not been moved by hope of gain or desire for glory, as the rest have been, in undertaking to write, but have done so in order that, by my painstaking work, I may gratify your wish.”

OK, let’s get on with it then, shall we?

“I shall now begin my subject, as soon as I have given you this one injunction: Theory without continuous practice in speaking is of little avail; from this you may understand that the precepts of theory here offered ought to be applied in practice.”

From this point forward, he offers some quite sound advice on pubic speaking, much of which I have applied to writing.

Having identified three kinds of causes (epideictic or ceremonial, deliberative, and judicial), he explains that a speaker needs to master five faculties to successfully deliver any public speech: Invention (coming up with something to say), Arrangement (ordering your thoughts), Elocution (adapting expression to the matter), Memory, and Delivery (“the graceful regulation of voice, countenance, and gesture”).

We master these faculties through three means: theory (rules and method (certam viam)), imitation, and practice.

He then lays out the parts of a speech and explains that each of the parts has its own invention. Then he explains how to invent an introduction.

Which is why I started writing this blog and is the point at which I must pause with this note.

I started public speaking very young and was generally well-received when I did it. However, my talent was raw and undisciplined. Some people consider these handbooks to be overly formal and even restrictive. I agree, if they are studied without practice and imitation.

But it was not until I studied classical rhetoric that I came to understand how to speak and found the tools by which I could bring the art under control.

This is the theory. It is essential. It is not enough. But it is essential.

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