The goal of rhetoric during the Renaissance was the mastery of spoken or written language to affect a particular audience in an intended and predictable manner. Mastery entailed an understanding of language in its relation to human psychology, the use of formal procedures for turning theory into practice, and the education of others in both theory and practice. The focus on particular audiences, rather than a universal audience, recognized that listeners or readers could be differentiated and grouped according to their interests in a given topic or problem. Not every intention could be realized with every audience, and students were trained to judge whether it was reasonable to expect a particular audience to respond as intended to a particular use of language.
Rediscovering The Antique Tradition
Renaissance rhetoric was marked by an enthusiastic return to the major Greek and Roman treatises, combined with efforts to adapt those treatises to the changed circumstances of the early modern period. Cicero (106–43 bce) had been known during the medieval period for the mechanical prescriptions found in his De inventione and the pseudo-Ciceronian Rhetorica ad Herennium, and both treatises had been reduced to synopses and epitomes that served immediate needs. Quintilian (c. 35–c. 95 ce) had been known during the medieval period as an imitator of Cicero, based on fragmented and nearly incoherent versions of his Institutio oratoria. Aristotle (384–322 bce) had been known primarily through his logical and ethical treatises, while the names and works of many other classical writers had simply disappeared. But in the early fifteenth century, scholars recovered complete copies of Cicero’s De oratore, Orator, Brutus, many of his personal letters, and most of his speeches, leading to a major re-evaluation of the previously known works and showing the centrality of Roman rhetoric in producing a full civic and private life through discourse. A complete version of Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria was discovered in 1416, with its vision of an orator who embodied in himself all the education of his culture, and whose life from cradle to grave was devoted to and governed by rhetoric. As the Byzantine empire crumbled during the fifteenth century, many Greek scholars emigrated, bringing with them works of rhetoric unknown to Latin scholars in the west, along with works previously known only through incomplete or inadequate Latin translations, including Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Copies of these works circulated throughout western Europe as quickly as they could be transcribed, with eager scholars trading fascicles among themselves as they waited for the next installments to arrive.
These and other classical works all became available as full treatises in a surprisingly short span of time and the effect was electrifying. Where rhetoric had been seen largely as a set of linguistic procedures for intelligent composition and efficient communication, it now was seen as once having been the very heart and soul of a vibrant civilization, fostering civic life and celebrating private life. Renaissance writers, educators, and political and religious figures who wanted to reproduce that vibrancy for their own time embraced classical rhetoric as a major means toward that end. Some of the first books to come from the newly invented printing press were treatises on rhetoric, and the newly recovered classical Latin treatises were edited and published throughout Europe. The Greek treatises were edited, most were translated into Latin (often in competing versions), and some were translated into vernaculars. All of the major Greek and Latin treatises received commentaries that often were much longer than the original treatises themselves. Student textbooks and handbooks soon followed, sometimes building upon the prescriptive understandings from the medieval period, but more often ignoring the medieval works to go back directly to the newly recovered classical sources. In the first 250 years of print there were over 3,800 books on rhetoric, in over 12,300 printings, by more than 1,700 authors, produced by 3,300 publishers in 310 towns from Finland to Mexico.
The Antique Tradition And Renaissance Society And Culture
The Renaissance embrace of classical rhetoric was not without challenges, since many of the institutions of Greek or Roman civic life had little counterpart in the Renaissance, and the regional variations between southern and northern Europe were far more pronounced than those within the small city-state of Athens, or republican Rome, or even imperial Rome. Classical judicial oratory, for example, had almost no practical relation to the processes of legal adjudication in the Renaissance. Classical theory envisaged competing speakers trying to sway juries of hundreds in open gatherings, whereas Renaissance courts often had magistrates in restrictive settings. So also, the institutions that shaped classical political oratory bore no resemblance to the procedures in Renaissance monarchies and principalities, where policies were debated in camera and decisions rested with a single person. Commentators were puzzled by classical democracies and republics that seemed to vest political power in uneducated people, and even the small Italian states that offered scope for public oratory restricted the franchise to the elite. A different kind of challenge was presented by the fact that the Renaissance had its own communicative needs that had never been anticipated by classical rhetoric, notably in preaching and official letter writing (ars praedicandi and ars dictaminis). During the medieval period both of these genres had been addressed in rhetorical terms, and became major concerns in the Renaissance as increasing religious partisanship called for effective sermons (ars concionandi) and as letter writing expanded from public officialdom to a wider realm of literate private exchange (ars epistolographia).
Renaissance writers responded to these challenges in a variety of ways. Some sought to recast the activities of their own time in terms of classical rhetoric, as with the English definition of a letter as “nothing else but an Oration written, containing the mind of the Orator or writer” (Angel Day, The English secretorie, 1586), in which the understandings about a public speech intended for a large audience of strangers are extended to a private meditation intended for a single and familiar reader. Others writers sought to modernize classical rhetoric to embrace Renaissance activities, for example, by adding to the traditional three genres of judicial, political, and ceremonial rhetoric such new genres as explanation (genus enarrans), instruction (genus docens), and commentary (ratio commentandi). To the extent that classical rhetoric was focused on persuasion and effecting communal action in a civic sphere, Renaissance rhetoric represents a vast expansion to include realms of discourse well beyond persuasion, while at the same time seeking to preserve the underlying structure and understandings that made rhetoric such a force in earlier times. Both of these efforts – extension and modernization – reflected the belief that earlier authors had all been saying versions of the same thing and that their different doctrines were all consonant with one another.
Rhetoric In The Renaissance
George of Trebizond (1396–1486), a Greek émigré in Italy, contributed to the syncretic view with his Rhetoricorum libri V (1433/4, published c. 1472), which blended the Hellenistic Greek rhetorical theories of Hermogenes (second century bce) with earlier Latin theories of Cicero, the former from George’s old life in the collapsing Byzantine world, the latter from the new western world he hoped to enter. George’s syncreticism was more the artifact of a Renaissance writer than of the materials themselves, and what looks like a rehearsal of doctrines from two traditions is actually the forging of a new rhetoric for the Renaissance, couched in the language of classical doctrine. Rudolf Agricola (c. 1443– 1485) illustrates the same phenomenon in his enormously influential De inventione dialectica (1479, published 1515). During the medieval period scholars increasingly assigned to dialectic the argumentative procedures of rhetoric, and then subsumed dialectic into scholastic logic, so that argumentation theory became increasingly remote from the shifting contingencies of everyday life. Agricola largely reversed this process by instead using the extraordinarily elaborated dialectical systems to produce vast numbers of inventional strategies for rhetorical argumentation.
Rhetoric emerged as the central educational discipline in the Renaissance, studied in the simplest provincial classroom and the university lecture hall. At its most basic level, it involved widely available training in practical techniques for manipulating words, while at advanced levels it was a sophisticated exploration of language and psychology. Widespread rhetorical education provided shared understandings of how individuals should communicate, since it trained students both in how to control language and in what to expect of the language of others. Philipp Melanchthon (1497–1560), hailed as the Praeceptor Germaniae, reshaped classical doctrines for Renaissance purposes – and ultimately for Protestant purposes – in his widely circulated textbooks on rhetoric: De rhetorica libri tres (1519), Institutiones rhetoricae (1521), and Elementorum rhetorices libri duo (1529). Melanchthon’s school texts were imitated and recast for local purposes throughout Europe by Protestants and Catholics alike. One notable imitation in England was Thomas Wilson’s The arte of rhetorique (1553), but, unlike Melanchthon’s texts intended for the Latin classroom, Wilson advertised that his English text was intended for local preachers, non-Latinate courtiers, and women. In France, Petrus Ramus (1515–1572) proposed a curricular approach to the teaching of dialectic and rhetoric. Those parts of argumentation evidently shared by the two disciplines he assigned to dialectic, so that instruction in rhetoric focused only on those aspects of discourse not shared with dialectic. Pedagogical presentation was made easier by systematic reorganizations of both disciplines – by Ramus himself, starting with La dialectique (1555), and with his colleague Audomarus Talaeus (c. 1510–1562) in Institutiones oratoriae (1545). This curricular realignment had the effect in much of Europe of encouraging a split between “logic” and rhetoric, between argument and style, when in fact both Ramus and Talaeus insisted that in practice the two disciplines could only function together.
Counterbalancing these uses of formal rhetoric in the classroom were two equally influential but less formal approaches. The Renaissance inherited from late antiquity a program of exercises in composition known as the progymnasmata, and published in hundreds of editions across Europe. In the form attributed to Aphthonius (fourth century ce), the series began with proverbs and legends suitable for very young boys, and ended with declamations of legal argumentation for grown men. The progymnasmata encouraged the invention of dialogues and adoption of unusual personae and unfamiliar points of view, with the goal of flexibility and comprehensiveness in speech or writing. The educational treatises by Desiderius Erasmus (1466/69–1536) had much the same goal, and were equally widespread and influential. The most famous of these treatises was his De copia verborum et rerum (1412), which began as a short exercise for two of his students and gradually grew into a huge treatise that captured the imagination of Renaissance readers. Richness of thought was Erasmus’s goal, but the path could only be through richness of language. He provided hundreds of techniques for manipulating words and phrases that would create an unending supply of new combinations of language, thus making possible new combinations of ideas and understandings, and ultimately making mankind better able to appreciate and honor the fullness of God’s creation. Most of these techniques derived from his understanding of classical rhetoric, but it put elocutio in the service of inventio; style was the path to argumentation. At its best, Erasmus’s De copia encouraged the rhetorical ability to perceive and articulate multiple points of view, along with skepticism that any one expression or thought was adequate for the richness of creation. This multiplicity in Erasmus contrasted with the singularity needed by Ramus to systematize his curricular realignments. In subsequent centuries, and in less capable hands, this contrast played itself out as a conflict between skeptical toleration and unrelenting insistence on a single understanding.
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