According to the doxa, rhetoric flourished in France under absolutism, enjoyed a fire-andbrimstone revival during the Revolution, and gradually disappeared in the nineteenth century, until it was reduced to the few figures of style school children still learned in the twentieth century. Actually, after 1700, interwoven rhetorical and anti-rhetorical strands shape a field that expands and contracts, with occasional eclipses. Rhetoric – with competing definitions as an art of persuasion and/or ornate speech – survived in academic programs until the late nineteenth century. Latin rhetoric thrived in the Jesuits’ schools, whose curriculum remained faithful to the Ratio studiorum, until their expulsion (1764); elsewhere, it was gradually restricted to French and its emphasis shifted from oratory to techniques of writing and reading, reminiscent of the Hellenistic progymnasmata (preparatory exercises), until the 1890s, when literary history and dissertation displaced it. Rhetoric resurfaced in the twentieth century, especially in the 1960s–1970s: its taxonomies appealed to the structuralists; its history was reassessed; it was also recast as a theory of communication. It has since inspired dynamic and innovative research.
In the Ancien Régime, rhetoric ruled the social usages of language, having major cultural and political stakes (Fumaroli 1980). The classics, notably Aristotle and Cicero, were obligatory references: school manuals mostly repeated one another, though they occasionally reflected theoretical inflections in contemporary treatises. At the same time in the seventeenth century (in the wake of Ramus’s attacks), distrust of rhetoric’s argumentative efficacy (e.g., Descartes, echoed by Locke in England) added to the traditional censure of rhetorical persuasion as unethical. The apparent futility of constantly reorganizing the taxonomy of figures and tropes in the face of the evidence of spontaneous linguistic creation embarrassed rhetoricians even earlier than Dumarsais’s Traité des tropes (1730). A collection of texts arguing for and against rhetoric, all of which relied on Augustine, illustrates the crisis of rhetoric at the time (Bouhours, Réflexions sur l’eloquence, 1700).
Following upon Port-Royal’s Grammar (1660) and Logic (1662), Bernard Lamy based his Rhétorique – or Art de parler – (1675–1715) on Cartesian notions of speech as the expression of thought. Moving away from the oratorical tradition, he views persuasion as the rule governing all exchanges (including conversation, which played a major role in rhetorical thought throughout the eighteenth century), and defines rhetoric as a theory of human interaction.
Under the absolutist monarchy, oratory’s traditional division into three genres – deliberative (for political assemblies), forensic (in the courts), and epideictic – that still prevailed in epistolary manuals around 1700 evolved into a mode of hyperbolic praise (monarchic propaganda) counterbalanced by a close association between pulpit and forensic oratory.
Ostensibly scorning rhetoric, the Encyclopédistes nonetheless retained many rhetorical notions, often under other headings (e.g., grammar). The orators of the French Revolution gave rise to many a myth about political eloquence. True, an enduring difficulty was overcome: Tacitus had linked eloquence with democracy – even in Louis XIV’s time, warnings against flattering the vanity of the great had become a cliché (Fénelon, Dialogues de l’éloquence, 1718). With only reconstructed speeches at our disposal, and little information on the actual oratorical practice of Danton or Robespierre in the revolutionary assemblies, however, the traditional view that they combined very traditional forms of eloquence (most of them were rhetorically trained) with momentous contents that roused their audiences cannot be substantiated. Yet, the Revolution left the somewhat fantasized but enduring image of an oratorical (and not only political) climax (Principato 1999).
The nineteenth century presents a sequence of revival and rejection of rhetoric, leading to the disappearance of the “classe de rhétorique,” which traditionally led to the literary degrees (Douay-Soublin 1999). Through this process, primacy shifted from the pseudoorality of speeches to the written word. The displacement of rhetorical exercises by the dissertation française, which appeared in the 1860s, signaled a new eclipse in the history of rhetoric. By then Academic rhetoric (in the context of both the French Academy and the university) had come to prominence.
Works like Paulhan (1941) and what Queneau (1947) and OULIPO (OUvroir de LIttérature POtentielle) owe to the progymnasmata signal rhetoric’s lingering presence in twentieth-century culture. But the past four decades have seen the reassessment of rhetoric’s role in the cultural history of western Europe. With linguistics as a “scientific guarantor,” especially for the structuralists (Jakobson’s metaphor/metonymy polar opposition; Hjelmslev’s connotation), figures and tropes became a prime focus (Genette 1966–1972). According to Foucault (1966), they played an important role in the neo-classical episteme.
The year 1970 is emblematic. Recherches rhétoriques shows the adaptability and fecundity of rhetoric’s interpretive grid (from classical oratory to detective stories). Genette’s “La Rhétorique restreinte” popularized a vision of rhetoric’s gradual shrinkage – that subsequent research has revised significantly – but all aspects of rhetoric were (re)opened to scrutiny: figures (Groupe µ 1970), argumentation (Perelman 1977), the rhetorical components in early modern texts (Kibedi-Varga 1970), and the philosophical aspect of rhetoric (in language – Ricoeur 1975; through readings of Nietzsche by deconstructionists – de Man 1979).
The International Society for the History of Rhetoric (established 1977) has provided a context for reassessing the history and role of rhetoric worldwide. Rhetoric is reclaiming its legitimacy in France – a chair of “rhetoric and society (sixteenth and seventeenth centuries)” was created at the Collège de France (1986) – and rhetoric studies continue to develop, often in connection with new areas of scholarship (e.g., postcolonial, gender studies, etc.), through conferences – “Actuality of rhetoric” (1997), “Public speech” (2001), “Argumentation and political discourse” (2001), “Queer: writing difference?” (2005).
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