I was first introduced to classical rhetoric in a seminar by Lawrence Greene at the University of Southern California. I have been teaching a similar seminar since the mid 1990’s, first at Cal State L.A. and then later at Cal Poly Pomona. This fall, I am about to teach it again. The seminar is called “History of Rhetoric,” but in my hands it is mostly about ancient Greek and Roman works.
My students are mostly high school language arts teachers and prospective composition teachers, so my approach is very practical. Classical rhetoric is not esoteric or arcane. The strategies are designed to help students become more effective speakers and writers. They are mostly simple, but powerful, rules of thumb.
The course will have five basic sections:
- Plato versus the Sophists
- Aristotle’s Response
- A Postmodern Turn
- Roman Rhetorical Insights
- Beyond Classical Rhetoric
Plato versus the Sophists
We start with two sophistic texts. First, “Dissoi Logoi” (two arguments), a text associated with Protagoras that demonstrates that any outcome has at least two sides. For example, it notes that death is bad for the deceased, but good for the undertaker. This sort of rhetorical practice is what caused sophists to be accused of “arguing both sides of the question” and so having no principles. However, this sort of thinking is excellent for students to engage in. We can ask of any policy decision, “Who does this benefit and who does it hurt?” It is a rare policy that benefits everyone equally. Thinking about all the possible consequences broadens both the discussion and the mind.
The second text is the “Encomium of Helen” by Gorgias. Gorgias is trying to demonstrate that he is such a good rhetorician that he can defend even Helen of Troy. He argues that Helen went to Troy because she was either fated to do so by fortune or the gods, abducted by force, persuaded by speech, or conquered by love. This is an example of the rhetorical strategy of division. Gorgias offers four causes for her behavior, none of them leaving Helen any agency, and then proceeds to show that whichever one it was, she was helpless before it, and so blameless. The trick here is to get the audience to accept the premise that there are only four possible causes.
The most doubtful argument here is that Helen was helpless before persuasive speech. Gorgias argues that speech is like a powerful lord or a drug. He further argues that because it is impossible to know everything about the past, present, and future, we are all forced to rely on opinion rather than truth to make decisions, and opinion is necessarily unreliable and subject to persuasion.
There are some big ideas about truth, epistemology, and the role of rhetoric in these two texts. These are the very ideas that Plato will attack in dialogues such as the Gorgias and the Phaedrus. In the Gorgias, Socrates argues that rhetoric persuades to belief rather than knowledge. Gorgias readily agrees, believing, as I noted above, that there is no other way it could be. In the Phaedrus, Socrates comes around to imagining that a form of rhetoric that was about leading the soul to truth using words might be acceptable.
The Rhetoric is essentially Aristotle’s response to Plato’s arguments in the Gorgias. He says that rhetoric is an art because some people are better speakers than others and we can study why. He famously defines rhetoric as “the art of finding the available means of persuasion.” And he finds a role for rhetoric that is not about deception. He says, “The duty of rhetoric is to deal with such matters as we deliberate upon without arts or systems to guide us, in the hearing of persons who cannot take in at a glance a complicated argument, or follow a long chain of reasoning” (Book 1, Part 2).
Aristotle’s three “appeals,” ethos, pathos, and logos, allow us to think about the complex interactions and relationships between the speaker, the audience, and the arguments in more clarity and depth than in Plato’s analysis. Plato is more interested in rhetoric’s deficiencies, while Aristotle is more interested in why we need rhetoric and how to use it.
The Postmodern Turn
At this point in the course, I usually take what I call a “postmodern turn.” We read “Plato’s Pharmacy” by Jaques Derrida, an essay that takes one word that appears twice in the Phaedrus, “pharmakon,” and attempts to read the entire dialogue through that lens. “Pharmakon,” depending on context, can mean either remedy or poison. Derrida argues that writing itself is a pharmakon, and that the Phaedrus is really about the dangers of literacy. Because we have already studied the Phaedrus in detail, students feel capable of responding to Derrida’s reading. At the end of this part of the course, they know the Phaedrus even better and they are also much more comfortable reading Derrida.
Then we move to Rereading the Sophists by Susan Jarratt. Jarratt argues that Plato and Aristotle conducted a smear campaign against the sophists, who were actually more democratic and egalitarian than they were. After all, Aristotle grew up in the court of Phillip of Macedon and was tutor to Alexander the Great. Most sophists were arguing that lineage didn’t matter, what you needed to be an effective leader was speaking ability, which they could teach you, for a price. (By the way, by that definition, all English teachers are sophists. Don’t we say that we can make our students more successful with our teaching, and don’t we get paid for it?)
This time I am also trying out John Mucklebauer’s The Future of Invention: Rhetoric, Postmodernism, and the Problem of Change. The purpose of this section of the course is to engage classical concepts from a point of view closer to our own time.
Roman Rhetorical Insights
Now we come to the Roman part of the course. I used to assign translations of Cicero and Quintilian, but this time I am relying on the summaries and outlines in James Murphy’s A Synoptic History of Classical Rhetoric, which also has apparatus to help with Aristotle. Probably the most classroom friendly concepts from the Romans are the six-part speech and stasis theory. (I have linked to posts about those concepts in the previous sentence.)
Beyond Classical Rhetoric
If we have time, we will get into Renaissance rhetoric briefly, mostly with Peter Ramus, a controversial figure who had an outsized influence on how classical rhetoric came down to us. And if we have a few moments more, we might get into George Campbell, whose Philosophy of Rhetoric, published in 1776, had a big influence on rhetoric as it developed in American schools. But classical rhetoric is the heart of this course. By the time they have finished, the students will be well-prepared for deploying concepts from classical rhetoric in their classrooms and for taking the next course, “Modern Rhetoric.”
Update: I forgot to mention one feature of this course. Each student will choose from a list of journal articles and prepare 15-minute presentation. (Download the guidelines here.) Many of the articles for this course are included in this collection:
Connors, Robert J., Lisa S. Ede, and Andrea Lunsford. eds. Classical Rhetoric and Modern Discourse. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984. Print.
However, one of my colleagues pointed out to me that my reading list left out rhetorical traditions outside of Greek and Roman, and that comparisons with other rhetorical traditions would make for interesting research projects. For this reason, I have added the following articles:
Halldén, Philip. “What Is Arab Islamic Rhetoric? Rethinking the History of Muslim Oratory Art and Homiletics.” International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 37, No. 1, 2005, pp. 19-38.
Liu, Yameng. “To Capture the Essence of Chinese Rhetoric: An Anatomy of a Paradigm in Comparative Rhetoric.” Rhetoric Review, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1996, pp. 318-335.
Mao, LuMing. “Introduction: Searching for the Way: Between the Whats and Wheres of Chinese Rhetoric.” College English, Vol. 72, No. 4, Special Topic: Studying Chinese Rhetoric in the Twenty-First Century, 2010, pp. 329-349.
These articles all make comparisons with the classical tradition and raise questions about how scholars working within that tradition have misunderstood other traditions. Each also includes more sources to explore and paths for possible new research.