BMCR 1991.02.05

The Origins of Rhetoric in Ancient Greece

, The Origins of Rhetoric in Ancient Greece. Ancient Society and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991. xiv, 191 pages. ISBN 9780801840555.

Cole’s book comes from the same press and pursues a very similar constellation of inquiries as Nagy’s recent Pindar’s Homer (reviewed by R. Rosen in BMCR 2.1). The two books deserve to be read together and taken seriously as they boldly press inquiry beyond the bounds of what can be known about the Greek past in any positivist sense.

While both Nagy and Cole pursue the elusive nature of ‘oral literature’, Cole’s specific concerns in this book run close to the wind indeed. Poetry is a self-conscious creation and its history easier to trace; ‘prose’ or ‘rhetoric’ calls less attention to itself and slithers across the boundary from oral to literate with easy discretion. Cole has the sense to take the framework of his inquiry from the ancient discussions themselves: when does speech-making give rise to advice about speech-making, and when does that advice begin to take the form of classical ‘rhetoric’, i.e., a discipline devoted to gathering, enhancing, and transmitting that advice about speech-making? Cole works with admirable independence but in the wake of Havelock, whom he expressly admires, and so it will be no surprise that his argument holds that the sea change from oral to literate culture, here as elsewhere, falls around 400 B.C.E. Once again, Plato and Aristotle are the progenitors of the literate tradition; and all who go before are more or less still part of the oral culture. Indeed, Cole argues forcefully and unambiguously that it is to Plato and Aristotle that we owe not only our sense that philosophy and rhetoric must be at odds with each other, but also (and most importantly) our precise sense of the nature of rhetoric itself. In forming the cultural construction of ‘rhetoric’, these founding fathers guaranteed that later debates between philosophy and rhetoric would take the shape they imagined, with the eventual cession of rhetoric to the more ambitious claims of philosophy. That Brian Vickers and a few others still contest the field should not obscure the ultimate victory of the Platonic descent: the vir bonus peritus dicendi is not our model of wisdom; that contemporary culture so conspicuously lacks a model of wisdom is in part a result of the failure of the philosophic model and the inability of the rhetorical tradition to resuscitate itself in the wake of the damage done by the philosophers.

But if all this is true, what then of Tisias and Corax, the well-known writers of the first manuals of ‘rhetoric’? What were they about in the fifth century? Cole’s view, elegantly argued though not perhaps in a way destined to convince every reader, is that they produced not manuals of the sort we know but model speeches and samples of speeches: they are ancestors of Seneca the Elder, not of the auctor ad Herennium or Quintilian. They represent the first stage in the acquisition of self-consciousness by speech-makers: the notion that one could think about making a speech without actually making one. It then took a second stage of abstraction and reflection to go beyond providing models to providing principles and catalogues of successful devices.

The reading that Cole proposes has fascinating aspects, without question. Was the Old Oligarch perhaps not a serious politician but only the author of a kind of school exercise in ‘simply making a compendium of arguments—good, bad, and indifferent—for the attributing to Athens of certain virtues … which even an enemy would have to admire’ (p. 103)? With this kind of imagination, the Menexenus begins to make sense as a model oration in the same vein, and the debate in the Phaedrus takes on greater actuality: if comparing model speeches is what rhetorical discourse does, the Socratic/Platonic critique is even more astutely targeted than we might otherwise believe (pp. 124ff). Even the speeches of Thucydides accept this kind of rereading: “The text of Thucydides is a document available for consultation any time a model for words or a precedent for the course that events seem to be taking is required.” (p. 105). Thucydides becomes for Cole a kind of encyclopedia congruent to what Havelock made of Homer.

In all of this, Cole has much more sympathy for the sophistic and rhetorical tradition than it is customary for us to show. “Poetry and oratory can do more than make lies sound like truth. They are also means for making truth sound like the truth—the only means, on many occasions, that are available.”

In the end, the book may not prove universally, or even widely, persuasive. But it deserves to be heard carefully for two reasons. The first becomes clearer on comparison with Nagy’s work. In both cases, the authors go well beyond the limits of the positivistically knowable: their works are marked by frank speculation—controlled, cautious, and more or less attentive to counter-argument, but speculation nonetheless. And the arguments they make never go beyond a certain level of indeterminacy. It is not possible to use a book like this as a work of reference or information (as one might, say, a book on the order of battle of the Roman legions at Cannae): to read the book, and to review it, is to undertake the same inquiry, with the same indeterminacy. It is never even clear, when we pursue the nature of the literary undertaking past the fact of the text, what counts as evidence and what does not: to decide whether Pericles’ funeral oration is meant as a rhetorical model is to decide how you feel about Cole’s argument.

But these features of the argument are not weaknesses imported by the scholarly author: they are weaknesses implicit in asking these kinds of questions in the first place. If what we achieve is no more than speculation and perhaps a frame of reference within which to reread texts and meditate these issues further, that is no small achievement.

Cole’s book deserves praise for a second important reason. Though he has a thesis, and though it is in the end both unprovable and irrefutable, he is not a thesis-monger. Though brief, the work is dense and requires patience and thought—and that should not be taken as a criticism but as high praise. Cole never lectures or harangues: he knows that he is on difficult ground, making a sincere and sustained effort at making sense of fragmentary and elusive evidence that is being summoned to answer questions that cannot be answered decisively; and because of that self-consciousness, the book is a serious pleasure to read. It requires that one enter into the author’s own concerns, that one think clearly and patiently again about the conventional texts he discusses. Cole succeeds unarguably at least in defamiliarizing the old texts and making us think again about the oddness that was Greece.