Rhetoric Rehabilitated?

Stephen Fry devoted the first in his new series of Fry’s English Delight (which I’ve never listened to before) to the rehabilitation of rhetoric. (It can be heard here, via the BBC, at least for those, I suspect, only in the UK).

Rhetoric, says Fry, has had a bad press of late, having become a synonym for empty and deceitful verbiage; he hankers back to an earlier age (the classical world, Shakespeare) when rhetoric was much more admired.

I find I’m inclined to take issue with the idea that rhetoric was ever admired at any time – or at least not thought to be full of empty and deceitful verbiage. It’s certainly true in the classical world that rhetoric was taught – indeed, might be considered the single most important subject in young man’s syllabus as he made his in the world. This is reflection of the much more public life anyone of consequence in the ancient world lived: if you were of good family in the ancient world, the chances are you’d be involved somehow in politics, in the law, and your ability to speak would be of very great consequence. Writers too – since they must speak what they wrote – were versed in rhetoric. But that many thinking people thought rhetoric was a power for good I somewhat doubt: Plato, for instance, has nothing good to say about rhetoric, precisely because of its role as a distraction from reason; Aristophanes plays with its fundamentally deceptive and topsy-turvy nature; and the Romans seemed to spend a lot of the republican period banning sophists from Italy on account of their dark arts (I’m sure there’s a famous story about this somewhere in Livy).

From the literary point of view, there’s long been a belief that rhetoric was the ruin of ancient literature. That it first ruined Greek literature (post-Euripides, although some like to include Euripides among rhetoric’s victims), and then Latin literature after Virgil (though some like to see Virgil as the very perfection of rhetoric).

Coincidentally, I’ve just started reading a book – Raby’s A History of Secular Latin Poetry in the Middle Ages – which, though on the face of it having nothing to do with the subject, seems to have as its main concern the baleful influence which rhetoric exercised on ancient literature, which has never since been removed. There is an interesting tension posed between poetry and rhetoric, for they borrow each other’s tricks; and a problem, which is that if Raby appreciates a writer, he will claim his genius has overcome rhetoric (seen through its wiles and used it for his own purposes), whereas if he doesn’t think much of a writer, he’ll claim it is mere rote-learned bombast, platitudinous exercises learned in the schools (e.g. Lucan).

One thing I’d never considered before though is the origin of rhyming poetry. The ancient’s never rhymed (or hardly ever), but medieval Latin is full of it. How did it come about? A connection is made with a traditional feature of rhetoric, homeoteleuton, where words with the same endings are put close together to achieve a pleasing effect. In a degenerate society, people then – one presumes – prefer this amusing frippery of rhyme to sublimity and austere genius, with probably some influence also coming from religious chanting. It all makes sense (and I suppose should therefore, as an idea, be treated with a high degree of suspicion).

(Fry has on some experts too – although one did say people were put off rhetoric by its “Latinate” terms, which made me wonder how much they knew about it – and it’s certainly true, people should be trained to spot rhetoric. But then again, since literary criticism is – in Obooki’s opinion – almost entirely rhetorical, maybe this isn’t such a good idea).


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