On Method, Disciplinary Longevity, and Rhetorical Curriculum, Part One: Rhetoric as Behavior that Makes Arguments and Shows Character
by Isaac Richards
One of the unique characteristics of rhetoric is its longevity as a discipline. This is both a strength and a point of critique. On the one hand, research about how Aristotle’s theories hold up through hundreds of years and myriad technological advances illuminates much about seemingly intransient realities regarding language and communication. On the other hand, a common critique of the discipline is its “marriage” to its disciplinary tradition; this is problematic because concepts such as kairos or pathos may not be accurate or relevant concepts for modern communicative practices, or they may obscure new concepts and inhibit disciplinary advancements (Kennerly 1). Naturally, both are true. In some ways, rhetoric’s history is useful for advancing communication theory and practice. In other ways, the classical legacy is outmoded.
Related to this conversation is another debate, which regards the role of method in rhetorical criticism. The practice of rhetorical criticism has undergone a major shift in recent years. Jasinski, surveying the metacriticism literature on rhetorical studies in 2001, articulates what he sees as a major shift away from method-based rhetorical criticism towards what he calls “conceptually oriented criticism” (256). He writes: “This emerging pattern of interconnected trends—decline of method and development of conceptually-oriented criticism—may be one of the most significant recent developments in rhetorical studies” (254).
This trend in contemporary rhetorical criticism connects to questions about disciplinary longevity because, for a large portion of rhetorical criticism’s history, the classical methodologies constituted and defined critical practice. Taking up the oft-repeated critique of classical rhetoric’s antiquated relevance, McGee denounced the common critical practices of the 1970s on the grounds that they simply measured speeches against the prescriptive advice of popular authoritative writers like Cicero (Lee and Blood 219-220). Lee and Blood summarize the result of this approach: “Under this old regime, a speech was determined as eloquent and effective based on the application of classical theories. So, if the speaker was found to follow the advice of Aristotle, then the speech much have been both worthy and successful” (220). This is obviously an instance where disciplinary longevity mitigated the advancement of rhetorical criticism.
McGee’s critique of methods that are based on classical rhetorical theory is apt for scholars, but it is problematic for students. Lee and Blood point out that the prescriptive or “pragmatic model of criticism” is the one that comes most naturally to students, who bring to criticism a predisposition to view communication as pragmatic: “a storehouse of strategies, and tired and true techniques” and “methods of analysis” (215-216). Though it comes naturally, Lee and Blood articulate a danger with this approach: “that conventional wisdom and tradition, typically determined in concert with entrenched interests and institutions, become equated with truth” (216). Lee and Blood’s implication is that conventional rhetorical methods, tied to classical rhetorical theory, constrain student critics even as they come naturally. This is certainly a concern, but Grey articulates a problem with Lee and Blood’s argument: students trying to engage in criticism without a clear-defined method are “provided greater freedom—yet, in most cases—this freedom comes with increased responsibility” (341). For student critics, criticism without method is “increasingly complex and at times problematic” (Grey 342). Rather than being mitigated by a method, “the critic’s only limitation is his or her own ability, knowledge base, and imagination” (Grey 346). But students may potentially be more limited by ability, knowledge, and imagination than they would be if given a helpful model to follow. To perform conceptually-oriented criticism, “The critic must understand history at both a literal and an intellectual level”—a capacity that many student critics may not yet have (Grey 344).
My argument occurs at this intersection between the debates of method and disciplinary longevity. I demonstrate, through a literature review and sample analysis, that one of the continuing instrumentalities of classical rhetorical theory is the extent to which it can facilitate student learning of rhetorical criticism through methodological analyses. In other words, one stance on the method/longevity conversation is to point out that while conceptually oriented criticism affords more freedom and innovation to the critic, it is more difficult to learn and conduct; thus, advanced methods of criticism are better left to future scholars, graduate students, and professional academics, while method-based criticism remains immensely useful for teaching undergraduates or young rhetoricians.
At the same time, this essay has another point to make, namely that not all classical rhetorical theories are reductive and simplistic. The humanist rhetorical tradition—from Isocrates to Erasmus—provides a sophisticated philosophical framework through which to analyze oratory, that avoids many of the narrow pitfalls identified by Lee and Blood. One method, that may be termed a behavioral rhetorical analysis, inquires not after the exigencies or effects in the vacuum of a rhetorical situation, but instead queries: what can this rhetor’s speech illuminate about the character of the rhetor? Behavioral rhetorical analysis avoids the audience-centric “effective or not” evaluations of 1970s Aristotelian methods. Rather, it provides a philosophical framework for teaching rhetorical analysis to student critics while simultaneously affording them liberty in their interpretations.
I present this argument through a two-piece series, composed of two separate essays in this journal. This essay initiates my thesis by surveying the humanist rhetorical philosophy from Isocrates to Erasmus. The counterpart essay, forthcoming in the subsequent volume of Queen City Writers, completes my thesis by presenting an in-depth behavioral rhetorical analysis of C.S. Lewis’s Sermon “Learning in Wartime.” In other words, this essay presents the theoretical background, and the second essay demonstrates the analytical case study. I present the first half of my argument in this essay by surveying the humanist rhetorical philosophy from Isocrates to Erasmus by answering four key questions: What is rhetoric? How broad is the domain of rhetoric? What are the fundamentals of rhetoric? And why study rhetoric? The answers to those questions coalesce into a humanist rhetorical philosophy, namely that rhetoric is behavior that makes arguments and shows character. Clarity on this philosophy is important because it can then be used by students as a lens and method for rhetorical criticism of a rhetor’s behavior and character, as will be demonstrated later in part two of this essay series.
Humanist Rhetorical Philosophy from Isocrates to Erasmus
To understand the humanist rhetorical philosophy, it is helpful to answer the following questions: What is rhetoric? How broad is the domain of rhetoric? What are the fundamentals of rhetoric? And why study rhetoric? Answers to these questions are disputed; there are many different philosophies of rhetoric and multiple rhetorical traditions. The most prominent are the sophistic, Platonic, Aristotelian, and humanist traditions. Of these, the humanist tradition—pioneered by Isocrates, championed by Cicero, and embraced by the Renaissance humanists—is the most durable and impactful, especially in academia. The humanist tradition is also the most worthy of attention and analysis as a philosophy and method that can inform rhetorical criticism pedagogy.
To discover how humanists would answer the four questions about rhetoric, one must: first, experientially identify the precepts of rhetoric by practicing rhetorical exercises such as those in the progymnasmata; and second, theoretically identify the precepts of rhetoric by reading the philosophical treatises of the humanist legacy. Thus, one discovers the philosophical underpinnings of rhetoric by learning both experientially and theoretically. This paper synthesizes insights from the rhetorical exercises and theoretical dissertations of the humanist curriculum in order to describe what rhetoric is, how broad its domain is, what its fundamentals are, and why it should be studied. The result is a philosophy that is useful as both theory and method.
First, what is rhetoric? Aristotle’s famous definition is: “Rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion” (24). However, Aristotle’s sentence reveals its immediate flaws. For Aristotle, rhetoric was only means or techniques for persuading uneducated audiences. Thus, rhetoric was an amoral art, used for good or evil. Plato had an even simpler definition. In his dialogue Gorgias, Plato describes rhetoric with one word: “cookery” (22). Plato sees rhetoric as speech that is often manipulative and false. As a philosopher, he is more interested in defining and studying truth than rhetoric. In contrast, the sophists teach rhetoric as pure persuasion. The sophists are not concerned with truth, but with winning. Thus, a satisfactory definition of rhetoric cannot be derived from the philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, or the sophists. Their definitions are too narrow and too derogatory. For Isocrates, Cicero, and the humanists, the best definition is: rhetoric is behavior that makes arguments and shows character. However, this explicit definition is found nowhere in rhetorical texts from the Greco-Roman or Renaissance tradition. Rather, similarities identified by comparing works like De Oratore, On Duties, Antidosis, The Book of the Courtier, Ciceronianus, The Arte of Rhetorique and On Copia, make clear this profound explanation.
To start, consider the first half of the definition: rhetoric is behavior. Quintilian’s definition, not novel but rather a concise version of what is presented in Isocrates’ Antidosis, is clear about the connection between rhetoric and behavior; he writes, “no man, unless he be good, can ever be an orator” (347). This idea is unexpected and revolutionary. One must be a good man to speak well? In stark contrast, the sophists exclaim that anyone can be a rhetor if they will pay for lessons, and once mastered, oratory will help them achieve their goals, virtuous or immoral. Even Plato divides being a good person from being a good speaker and prioritizes philosophy over rhetoric. Isocrates then, is the first rhetorician to unite in one rhetoric, philosophy, and ethics. However, Isocrates’ view is not alone. Desiderius Erasmus, summarizing the declarations of Greco-Roman rhetoricians approximately one thousand years later writes, “one cannot be a good orator who is not also a good man” (Ciceronianus 45).
The second half of the humanist definition of rhetoric is: rhetoric shows character. Isocrates reasons that, “discourse which is true and lawful and just is the outward image of a good and faithful soul” (50). In other words, pretense in rhetoric is impossible. Good speaking is evidence of good character. Students writing a prosopopoeia will recognize this; even constructing speech for fictional characters reveals their nature. Erasmus agrees: “Nor will the speech of anyone seem charming which is not in accord with his character” (Ciceronianus 129). Thus, one’s rhetoric, one’s behavior, and one’s character are the same. Speech and behavior illuminate inner thoughts and beliefs. Trends of speaking and behavior over time become character. Speech betrays the inmost reality of human beings, just as Erasmus declares, “Your language will live, breathe, persuade, convince, and fully express your self” (Ciceronianus 123).
Christiansen synthesizes this evidence well. She describes how “text is fundamentally behavior” (73, emphasis added). She also elaborates that “not only are texts performances, but they are also arguments” (82, emphasis added). She concludes that, “People become the characters of the arguments they believe and enact” (91, emphasis added). Thus, Christiansen connects all three elements of the humanist definition; rhetoric is behavior that makes arguments and shows character.
When using this definition, the domain of rhetoric becomes very broad. In the words of Kenneth Burke, “Wherever there is persuasion, there is rhetoric. And wherever there is ‘meaning,’ there is persuasion” (172). Christiansen explains, “Rhetoric, then, applies to anything meaningful” (87). Christiansen clarifies that this vast domain of “anything meaningful” certainly includes “reading, writing, and speaking activities” (72), “all discourse” (81), “nonfiction and fiction alike” (95), and any other situation where there is a “speaker… using a medium (signs) to comment on a subject… in a certain manner (behavior) in order to elicit a response from an audience” (87). Students of the progymnasmata recognize this vastness as they write fictional legal arguments with their professor as a secondary audience and see rhetoric at play across genre boundaries. Thus, rhetoric is not one particular medium. It cannot be limited to communication, verbal communication, or, as Aristotle would have it, verbal political speech only in the public arena. Rather, whether something is rhetoric or not is defined by the effect it has—if it influences or persuades—not by what it actually is. As scholars Bizzell and Herzberg admit in their anthology, this view of rhetoric, “seems to encompass almost everything” (991).
Having established that rhetoric is behavior that makes arguments and shows character, and that rhetoric thus applies to most everything, the fundamentals of rhetoric must now be described. The Book of the Courtier is helpful here. In his book, Castiglione’s characters debate the nature of “a perfect courtier” (51). By searching for such an ideal, they find themselves declaring things as “universal rule” or as absolutes for excellence (67). These universal absolutes rest on the premise that all excellence and all art—including rhetoric—are “skillful imitations of nature” (Castiglione 98). Cicero agrees, saying that people should “above all follow the road that leads to agreeing with and preserving nature” (On Duties 39). Cicero adds, “If we follow [nature] as our guide we will never go astray” (On Duties 39). Castiglione’s dialogue concludes that all art is imitation of nature because nature exemplifies propriety and appropriateness (77), moderation (61, 68), practice (63), due proportion (61), decorum (67), harmony (76), beauty (55, 77, 86), logic (76), and good judgment (63, 66, 77, 91). These are universal standards found in nature that produce perfection in any medium: warfare (62), horse-racing (63), writing (71), speaking (77), music (95), painting (97), sculpture (99), etc. Castiglione’s search for the ideal courtier in so many facets inevitably produces standards for perfection that apply to any action. Thus, propriety and appropriateness, moderation, due proportion, practice, decorum, harmony, beauty, logic, and good judgment become the fundamentals of rhetoric, and by extension, behavior. These fundamentals conform to natural laws. As Erasmus declares, “It is the height of art to represent things as they are” (Ciceronianus 60). These fundamentals are found in many humanist texts but are best listed and explained in Thomas Wilson’s Arte of Rhetorique.
As listed earlier, the first of these fundamentals is what Erasmus calls “true propriety” (Ciceronianus 58) and what Wilson calls “aptnesse” (185). Such appropriateness is derived “partly from the subject, partly from the character of the speaker and the listener, partly from… circumstances” (Ciceronianus 58). Moderation is another fundamental, related to practice. As Wilson says, “before arte was inuented, eloquence was vsed, and through practise made perfect, the which in all things is a soueraigne meane, most highly to excell” (5). This sovereign mean is moderation, balance between two extremes. In Cicero’s final work On Duties he calls it “due measure in all things” (37). This is developed through practice, for “training improves the pliable nature” (Ciceronianus 76). Students of this curriculum experienced this rigorous practice as they imitated, analyzed, memorized, translated, transformed, and revised texts.
To appropriateness, moderation, and practice is added due proportion or “finely proportioned” qualities (Castiglione 61). Due proportion is relative to context, so “what in Latin may be called decorum” or “seemliness” becomes crucial (On Duties 37). In rhetoric, decorum is “apt words and picked sentences” (Wilson 7). One way to determine proportionality, or recognize what is decorous, is to strive for harmony. For example, Wilson declares, “SUch are thought apt wordes, that properly agree vnto that thing which they signifie, and plalinly expresse the nature of the same” (190). Thus, internal harmony, or harmony between content and style, is pursued in order to accomplish imitation of natural law: “the nature of the same” (Wilson 190).
Due proportion, decorum, and harmony result in beauty, for by “beautifying of his cause, the Rhetorician is alwaies knowne” (Wilson 27). And for every oration, the artful “beautifieth the same” (Wilson 132). Logic is a form of beautiful reasoning corresponding to harmony, and both beauty and logic rely on good judgment. Wilson emphasizes judgment, asserting that the rhetorician “will not be bound to any precise rules… but such onely as by reason he shall thinke best to vse” (181). Erasmus also extols “singular judgment” (Ciceronianus 117). Good judgment includes learning from good authors, as in Erasmus’ famous metaphor: “And so the student, like the industrious bee, will fly about through all the authors’ gardens and light on every small flower of rhetoric, everywhere collecting some honey that he may carry off to his own hive” (On Copia 90). Erasmus even sums up his work On Copia with the conclusion, “a rhetor who is not foolish… will judge the proper measure of copia” (On Copia 106). Judgment was also the defining mark of the rhetorical curriculum; judgment was required in every phase of the process: writing, analyzing, translating, transforming, and improving texts, and even defending choices.
These then are the fundamentals of rhetoric: propriety and appropriateness, moderation, due proportion, practice, decorum, harmony, beauty, logic, and good judgment. These are universal standards of excellence because they imitate nature. They apply to all art and behavior. Notice also how these fundamentals provide evaluative criteria for the rhetorical critic. As opposed to a traditional Aristotelian rhetorical analysis that measures a speech against its deployment of classical prescriptive proofs and tactics, these criteria transcend pragmatics. Propriety, decorum, and beauty are subjective, open to interpretation, and thus afford latitude to student critics as they evaluate communication acts. Yet, at the same time, there are ways to trace the presence of these qualities. One who possesses them all possesses sprezzatura, defined as grace, nonchalance, or ease (Castiglione 67). This is the mark of true artistry, since “excellence is the real source from which grace springs” (Castiglione 46). As Cicero says, “The sole distinction will surely be that the good speakers bring, as their peculiar possession, a style that is harmonious, graceful, and marked by a certain artistry and polish” (On Duties 39). When one can perform an art so well that it looks easy, they have mastered the fundamentals. This sprezzatura is the unfakable code of excellence; it is not pretense. In contrast, “affectation” or pretending to be a master at something, “is deplorable” and impossible (Castiglione 80) since “pretence [sic] can never endure” (On Duties 79). To perfect thought, speech, action, rhetoric, and art to the point of sprezzatura, is to perfect the human—and this is the reason for studying rhetoric.
Understanding what rhetoric is, how broad its domain is, and what its fundamentals are, reveal a profound reason to study rhetoric. Since rhetoric is behavior, studying rhetoric can improve behavior. Since rhetoric shows character, studying rhetoric can improve character. And, since the fundamentals of rhetoric are the natural unfakable universal principles of excellence in all things, then studying rhetoric can improve one’s performance in all other endeavors. By teaching the principles of propriety and appropriateness, moderation, due proportion, practice, decorum, harmony, beauty, logic, and good judgment, rhetoric hones the fundamentals of all art and all action. Studying rhetoric “develops metacognitive awareness about the principles of good judgment so that one can learn to exercise control over one’s own behavior, turning it into ‘art’—excellence” (Christiansen 95). And, since “[s]uch excellence is by nature ethical,” studying rhetoric ultimately teaches one how to live, and how to live well (Christiansen 96).
This reason to study rhetoric is perfectly harmonious with the humanist worldview. The humanists believed: that humans were composed of thought, speech, and action; that there are absolute truths built into nature; that laws of morality are built into nature; and that the significance of life consists in living according to these eternal and moral truths. Thus, ethical living, moral virtue, and being righteous, gives life significance. Perfecting rhetoric, or thought, speech, behavior, action, and character leads to complete self-fulfillment. The master rhetorician become fully human, achieves mastery of self, and has mastered the art of living, as a person of love. To become this person, to achieve this mastery, is the primary reason to study rhetoric.
Even for those who do not espouse the ancient humanist worldview, the metacognitive awareness of judgment nurtured by the humanist rhetorical philosophy has a useful pedagogical application: the training of student rhetorical critics. Freed from the constraints of Aristotelian pragmatics, the humanist philosophy provides philosophical standards of evaluation for a critic that are subjective but traceable. Isocrates and the other classical and Renaissance theorists moved beyond prescriptive rhetorics to principles and fundamentals that in some ways illuminate more about the character of the speaker than about the quality of the argument. This innovative theoretical foundation is useful as a lens and method for behavioral rhetorical analysis, as will be modeled in my next essay in the subsequent volume of Queen City Writers.
This essay explained that, of the many rhetorical schools of thought, the humanist philosophy—pioneered by Isocrates, championed by Cicero, and embraced by the Renaissance humanists—has profound implications for the discipline of rhetoric. Rhetoric, according to the humanist definition, is behavior that makes arguments and shows character. This makes the domain of rhetoric incredibly broad, encompassing all thought, speech, and action. Based on this philosophy, a primary reason to study rhetoric is to learn how to behave virtuously and ethically. The fundamentals of rhetoric are the same standards of excellence for all art and action: propriety and appropriateness, moderation, due proportion, practice, decorum, harmony, beauty, logic, and good judgment. These standards provide evaluation criteria that are both subjective in nature but traceable in a text or artifact. Most importantly, these standards and evaluation criteria are ideal pedagogical tools for students learning to conduct rhetorical analyses.
My primary objective in this two-essay piece is to demonstrate the pedagogical utility of classical methods of rhetorical analysis for budding rhetorical critics. I suggest that the behavioral analysis to be modeled in part two has all the instructional and replicable benefits of classical methods but avoids the mitigating constraints of Aristotelian pragmatic criticism. Thus, this argument takes up major controversies in rhetorical studies about disciplinary longevity and the status of theory and method in contemporary criticism. While the antiquity of rhetorical studies can sometimes hamper advancements in communication theory, classical theories can continue to inform rhetorical pedagogy and criticism. I have advanced this thesis in this essay by demonstrating that not all classical theories are simplistic and reductive; the humanist rhetorical philosophy affords a sophisticated theory of rhetoric while providing clear criteria for evaluation that can be translated into a step-by-step method. Therefore, as I will ultimately demonstrate in the next essay, it is particularly useful for student critics who are preparing to enter the freedom and difficulty of the conceptual criticism realm.
Aristotle. The Rhetoric and the Poetics. Translated by Roberts W. Rhys, and Bywater, Ingram. Random House, Inc, 1984, pp. 24.
Bizzell, Patricia and Herzberg, Bruce. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present, Bedford/St. Martin’s, Boston, 2001, pp. 991.
Burke, Kenneth. Rhetoric of Motives. University of California Press, 1950, pp. 172.
Castiglione, Baldesar. The Book of the Courtier. Translated by Bull, George. Penguin Books, 2003, pp. 51-101.
Christiansen, Nancy. “The Double Master Frame and Other Lessons from Classical Education.” Intertexts: Reading Pedagogy in College Writing Classrooms. Edited by Marguerite Helmers. Mahwah, N. J.: Erlbaum, 2003, pp. 71-96.
Cicero. De Oratore: Books I and II. Translated by Sutton, E. W. and Rackham, H. Loeb Classical Library, 1948, pp. 7-39.
Cicero. On Duties. Edited by Griffin, M. T. and Atkins, E. M. Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 37-62.
Erasmus, Desiderius. Ciceronianus Or A Dialogue On The Best Style of Speaking. Translated by Scott, Izoa. Teachers College, Columbia University, 1908, pp. 58-129.
Erasmus, Desiderius. On Copia of Words and Ideas. Translated by King, Donald B. and Rix, H. David. Marquette University Press, 2005, pp. 90-106.
Grey, Stephanie Houston. “Conceptually-Oriented Criticism.” Rhetorical Criticism: Perspectives in Action, edited by Jim A. Kuypers, Lexington Books, 2009, pp. 341-346.
Isocrates. “Antidosis.” The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical times to the Present, edited by Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg, Bedford/St. Martin’s, Boston, 2001, pp. 50.
Jasinski, James. “The Status of Theory and Method in Rhetorical Criticism.” Western Journal of Communication, vol. 65, no. 3, 2001, pp. 249-270.
Kennerly, Michele. “Introduction: Term Limits.” A New Handbook of Rhetoric: Inverting the Classical Vocabulary, edited by Michele Kennerly, Penn State University Press, 2021, pp. 1-17.
Lee, Ronald and Blood, Adam. “Ideographic Criticism.” Rhetorical Criticism: Perspectives in Action second edition, edited by Jim A. Kuypers. Rowman and Littlefield, 2016, pp. 215-225.
Lewis, C. S. “Learning in War-time.” C.S. Lewis: Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces, edited by Lesley Walmsley, HarperCollins, London, 2000.
Plato. “Gorgias.” Plato: Middle Dialogues, Forgotten Books, 2008, pp. 22.
Quintilian. “Institutes of Oratory.” The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical times to the Present, edited by Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg, Bedford/St. Martin’s, Boston, 2001, pp. 347.
Wilson, Thomas. The Arte of Rhetorique. Edited by Mair, G. H. Benediction Classics, 2010, pp. 5-190.
Isaac Richards is an undergraduate student at Brigham Young University. He is majoring in
Communications with an emphasis in Public Relations, a minor in English, and a minor in
Professional Writing and Rhetoric. His work has appeared in three other undergraduate
publications: The Dangling Modifier, Americana, and Progressions. He is also the first-place winner of the 2020 #CFACExperience Essay Contest and was awarded the 2022 Phi Kappa Phi Outstanding Student Award for the BYU College of Fine Arts and Communications. His current research interests are focused on rhetorical history, theory, and criticism.
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