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Renaissance Debates on Rhetoric & Rhetoric, Rhetoricians, and Poetics. (Reviews).

Wayne A. Rebhorn, ed. Renaissance Debates on Rhetoric

Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000. x + 322 pp. $19.95. ISBN: 0-8014-8206-2.

Marijke Spies. Rhetoric, Rhetoricians, and Poetics

Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1999. 169 pp. FF 39.50. ISBN: 90-5356-400-4.

What is the status of rhetoric in the early modern period? The sense of the question is hard to grasp because rhetoric is not just one thing. For a start, the name embraces (1) a number of memory-based approaches to the task of discourse, (2) whatever is not dialectic and sometimes what is, (2) the classical techne surpassed by the natural eloquence of the vernaculars, (4) the study of figurative language, and even (4), as in Castiglione, an aesthetics of self-formation of the kind that Michel Foucault studied in his later writings. More basically, rhetoric defines a certain kind of culture, a specifically discursive form of life and even an anthropology, but one which is, nevertheless, historically determined and finite in ways we still do not fully understand. Rhetoric in the Renaissance is an endgame. It constitutes the matrix for an array of conceptual and material changes -- the development of new forms of rationality, subjectivity and commerce, among other things -- that will eventually define its obsol escence. The idleness of rhetoric in a culture of money is worth some study. We need to continue to examine why rhetoric as a form of life inspired the Church, the Court, and the School to seek more rigorous and effective methods for the regulation discourse. Recall Hobbes, who said that the trouble with democracy is that it depends on rhetoric -- or is it that the trouble with rhetoric is that it presupposes democracy?

Meanwhile along about the fourteenth or early fifteenth century, on top of its function as a paideia for preachers, poets, and administrators, rhetoric is reinstituted as a topic of intellectually sophisticated praise or blame. Wayne Rebhorn's anthology of Renaissance writings on rhetoric gives us a useful compendium of this tradition of rhetoric about rhetoric, starting with Petrarch's "Letter to Tommaso de Messina" and concluding with Jean-Francois le Grand's La Rhetorique francoise (1658), a very French exhortation in behalf of the natural superiority of French language and literature. To take up the theme of eloquence becomes, as it was for Cicero, a medium or occasion for eloquent philosophizing, polemicizing, display, self-reflection, and self-assertion. A question circulating through many of these writings is: How do we stand with respect to Cicero, Quintillian, Aristotle, Plato, or any of the texts, models, systems, dialectics, and rhetorics now available to us from antiquity? Granted that Cicero's gr and style may have once had some use, says Erasmus, it now lacks an appropriate theater, since the law is mainly paperwork, and political matters are decided by two or three illiterates behind closed doors. But even in its own day Cicero's elegance was out of place: "Life was sober then, and so was speech. Indeed, in the age when Cicero lived, there were men who still breathed that old-fashioned severity, men such as Cato of Utica, Brutus, and Asinius Pollio, who would have wished for greater severity, less theatricality, and more masculinity in Cicero's eloquence" (Ciceronianus). But rhetoric is not just style, says Philip Melancthon. It is ground-level practical reasoning, or prudence for short ("The Declamation of Philip Melancthon That the Arts of Speech are Necessary for Every Kind of Intellectural Pursuit"). To be rhetorical is to know how to act rightly, and quickly, as events often demand. As Hans Blumenberg would later put it, rhetoric is rationality within the limits of insufficient reason. (Hans Bl umenberg, "An Anthropological Approach to the Contemporary Significance of Rhetoric," After Philosophy: End or Transformation. Ed. Kenneth Baynes, James Bohman, and Thomas McCarthy ([Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987], 447.)

Renaissance Debates on Rhetoric will be useful for people like me who teach introductory courses on ancient, medieval, and early modern rhetoric, and who need an economical way to include a wide range of Renaissance material. Besides selections from Erasmus and Melancthon, there are important excerpts from Rudolph Agricola and Peter Ramus. A number of items are here in English for the first time, among them selections from Sperone Speroni's Dialogia della rettorica (1546), Jacques Amyot Projet de l'eloquence royale (1570-80), composed for Henry III of France, and Nicholas Caussin's De eloquentia sacra et humana, whose third edition (1631) amounted to more than a thousand pages. Thomas Wilson, George Puttenham, Henry Peacham, and Francis Bacon are well represented. However, the volume is basically a sampler. Selections throughout are very short, and in reading through the whole one realizes that the inventory of things to be said about rhetoric is not inexhaustible. But no matter: the meaning of a commonplace is in its application. Accordingly Rebhorn provides a valuable introduction that raises the crucial question of how the situation of rhetoric and of discourse generally is to be investigated in the early modern period, particularly in view of changes in European political culture during this rime -- "the increasing centralization of the state, the growth of absolutism, and all the upheavals caused by the Reformation" (5). He also has an interesting suggestion about rhetoric as a mode of upward social mobility -- from "the cart to the school, and from thence to the court," as George Puttenham puts it.

Rhetoric, Rhetoricians, and Poets is a collection of the writings of Marijke Spies, a distinguished scholar at the Vrije Universteit in Amsterdam who specializes in early modern Dutch literature. The volume honors her retirement in 1999 by gathering a dozen of her essays on a variety of subjects, among the more interesting of which concern the impact of Julius Caesar Scaliger's tenure as a professor at the University of Leyden. There are also important studies of the situation of rhetoric and poetry against the background of political and religious conflicts in the Netherlands during the seventeenth century, particularly the role played by a group of writers known as De Eglentier, who following the Protestant rebellion in Amsterdam in 1578 were determined to produce a genuinely rhetorical and liberal republic based on humanist ideals: "According to de Eglentier, the traditional chambers of rhetoric had to reorganize themselves as 'general vernacular schools.' Schools, that is, for the general education of the people. The people? Well, at least the established middle class of merchants, businessmen, shopkeepers and skilled craftsman -- people who did not attend Latin schools, but received their professional training in the 'French' commercial schools, or in practical apprenticeships -- were now seen as requiring an education aimed an cultivating an awareness of social responsibility as well as communicative skills. In other words, an education which was traditionally provided by the Latin schools for members of the ruling class" (62). Outside of art history the Dutch tend to have a low profile in Renaissance research -- certainly in English departments -- but Marijke Spies shows that Amsterdam gives us a unique window on the development of modernity in European culture.
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Author:Bruns, Gerald L.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2002
Words:1157
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