The tradition of rhetorical theory and practice in Britain is longstanding and vibrant. In the Middle Ages, Britain produced important contributions to rhetorical theory. The Venerable Bede (c. 672/73–735), for instance, provided a treatment of the stylistic aspects of discourse in his De schematibus et tropis, and Alcuin (c. 735–804), the British-born tutor of and advisor to Charlemagne, left us his Disputatio de rhetorica et de virtutibus, a dialogue in which emperor and teacher explore the theoretical underpinnings of civic discourse in the Ciceronian tradition. While the practice of public address was quite limited during the period, British rhetorics explored the persuasive elements of verse, and monastic libraries in the British Isles preserved manuscripts of some of the key rhetorical texts of late antiquity.
While the Renaissance came relatively late to Britain, it brought continental influence to the rhetorics Britain produced. Humanist texts such as Leonard Cox’s Arte or crafte of rethoryke (1530) and Thomas Wilson’s Arte of rhetorique (1553) had a decidedly Ciceronian flavor. Cox treated invention (the ancient canon of discovering ideas or developing lines of argument) by drawing upon Roman theories of the loci communes (argumentative commonplaces). Wilson offered a full-blown treatment of all five officia of Ciceronian rhetoric (invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery) and adapted them to the needs of a Tudor audience. Both of these works were heavily influenced by the theories of Philipp Melanchthon (1497–1560), the German humanist theologian, whose Institutiones rhetoricae (1521) provided a four-fold division of the art (judgment, invention, disposition, elocution) compatible with both antiquity and Protestant Christianity.
Britain also produced stylistic and Ramistic rhetorics in the sixteenth century. Richard Sherry’s Treatise of schemes and tropes (1550) and Henry Peacham’s Garden of eloquence (1577) treated expression, the stylistic aspect of rhetoric. John Jewell (Oratio contra rhetoricam, 1548), Gabriel Harvey (Rhetor, 1575; Ciceronianus, 1576), and Douglas Fenner (The Artes of Logicke and Rhetorike, 1584) all gave voice to different aspects of Ramus’s attack on Ciceronian rhetoric.
In terms of diversity and innovation, rhetoric reached its zenith in Britain during the Enlightenment. Rhetorical theories developed along five broad lines of inquiry. The first of these is the neo-classical or neo-Ciceronian. In John Holmes’ Art of rhetoric made easy (1755), John Lawson’s Lectures concerning oratory (1758), and especially John Ward’s System of oratory (1759), British writers crafted theories of rhetoric that adapted the broadly classical concerns of the orator in public controversy to the somewhat changed environment of Enlightenment Britain. These theories considered the civic goals of rhetorical discourse, the orator’s argumentative resources, and the situations or causes (legal, political, occasional, and religious) he might confront.
A second and related line of inquiry considered rhetoric as an art of criticism and conversation. This line, the belletristic, expanded rhetoric to include literature, historical writing, and even epic poetry. Concerned largely with matters of taste, style, and sublimity, belletristic rhetoric shifted attention from the production of discourse to its reception. In his Elements of criticism (1762), Henry Home, Lord Kames, offered a nearly pure form of belletristic rhetoric, while Adam Smith’s Lectures on rhetoric and belles lettres (delivered 1762–1763) and Hugh Blair’s Lectures on rhetoric and belles lettres (1783) created rhetorics that combined neo-classical and belletristic concerns.
A third line of theory might broadly be called the philosophical, for it resulted from the quest to explain persuasion in light of contemporary advances in psychology and philosophy of mind. George Campbell, in his Philosophy of rhetoric (1776), drew upon both Thomas Reid’s commonsense philosophy and David Hume’s radically different conceptions of human thought and crafted a rhetoric rooted in faculty psychology, inductive processes, and the passions and judgments of the audience. Hume himself, in his essays on eloquence, taste, and essay writing, assessed contemporary eloquence in light of the ancients and also suggested that women be included in the sphere of intelligent discourse.
Students were exposed most directly to a fourth kind of rhetoric, the lectures provided in the schools and universities. Robert Watson, George Jardine, William Greenfield, William Leechman, Archibald Arthur, and many others toiled in near obscurity but provided students with a version of rhetoric that was situated in the moral philosophy course. They taught students that rhetoric was best considered in its relationship to other moral studies, including what today would be called theology, psychology, philosophy of mind, ethics, jurisprudence, and logic. These teachers tended to make rhetoric subordinate to logic and limited to matters of style, taste, and criticism.
One final type of rhetoric, the elocutionary, focused almost exclusively on delivery of the speech. Thomas Sheridan, in his Course of lectures on elocution (1762), argued that a correct and powerful speaking voice would improve not only the speech but also the moral character of the individual and the institutions about which he spoke. Elocutionary theories tended to de-emphasize the inventional or substantive aspects of the art.
The eighteenth century also saw a dramatic increase in the quality and quantity of oratorical discourse. Preachers in the pulpits of the Scottish Kirk and the Anglican Church, advocates and barristers in the courts, and MPs in parliament made public discourse a central part of civic life, and illegal reports of political orations fed the public’s growing appetite for speech texts. Political discourse of the period is best exemplified by the epic battles between Pitt the Elder and Horatio Walpole and the speeches of Burke and Pitt the Younger on the French and American revolutions.
- Gaillet, L. L. (ed.) (1998). Scottish rhetoric and its influences. Davis, CA: Hermagoras.
- Howell, W. S. (1956). Logic and rhetoric in England, 1500–1700. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Howell, W. S. (1971). Eighteenth-century British logic and rhetoric. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Miller, T. P. (1997). The formation of college English: Rhetoric and belles lettres in the British cultural provinces. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh.
- Oliver, R. T. (1986). The influence of rhetoric in the shaping of Great Britain: From the Roman invasion to the early nineteenth century. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press.
- Potkay, A. (1994). The fate of eloquence in the age of Hume. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.