BMCR 2001.03.09

The Beginnings of Rhetorical Theory in Classical Greece

, The beginnings of rhetorical theory in classical Greece. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. x, 230 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0300075901

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I would surmise that more than a few readers can share my recollection of reading George A. Kennedy’s histories of classical rhetoric in graduate school in the late 70s and early 80s and naively, perhaps willfully so, assuming that the “story” of ancient rhetoric he tells in his The Art of Persuasion in Ancient Greece, The Art of Rhetoric in the Roman World, and the magisterial Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times might well be the last and certainly the best expression of that story. So it is a mixture of admiration and slight regret to witness Edward Schiappa’s exceptionally capable dismantling of the fundamental assumptions that underlie his colleague’s treatment. This small volume is, I believe, a very important book, not only because it completely changes the history of the origins of rhetorical theory, but also because it sets forth a methodology that should engender a rigorous debate in the humanities, particularly a humanities in the wake of such disturbances as the Alan Sokol debacle, a humanities that needs to look much harder at its methodologies. Schiappa offers a levelheaded approach that incorporates healthy portions of poststructuralist theory along with what we call rational interpretation.

After setting forth, in seventeen theses, a succinct version of what he calls the Standard Account of the Origins of Rhetorical Theory, he very carefully discloses the fundamental assumptions of his own methodology. These assumptions are organized under three “key beliefs” ( belief is an interesting word choice here). The first belief is that the history of classical rhetoric (or of anything else for that matter) should be grounded in the ipsissima verba, the original words of the theorists themselves, instead of attributions by later classical writers. The second key belief invokes the academic muses of Kuhn and Foucault to argue for the importance of attending to the technical vocabulary of disciplinary developments and in historicizing those developments so as not to impose the paradigmatic view of a later development upon the earlier. Finally, the third key belief is that classical Greece was undergoing a shift from an oral to a written culture, and the development of rhetoric in the fifth and fourth centuries was greatly affected by that change. After this clear exposition of the Standard Account and his own critical or methodological assumptions, the argument proceeds in three major movements or sections. The first section, which includes this chapter on methodology, continues with four more chapters critiquing each of the seventeen assumptions in the standard account. The next two sections extend the implications of this rewritten history. Section two, for example, provides a reappraisal of Gorgias’ work, and the last section provides a reassessment of Isocrates, Aristotle, and the translation of the terms rhe=toreia and rhe=toreuein.

Section one will be the most influential, I think, and will receive the most attention because it is here that he rewrites the generally accepted early history of that discipline. The first step in rewriting the standard account is to look closely at the word rhe=torike= itself. In his adherence to the ipsissima verba, he concludes that the word simply did not exist in the fifth century at all, and in fact was most likely coined by Plato in his Gorgias. Buttressed by the fact that there is no evidence of the term rhe=torike= before the Gorgias, Schiappa agrees with Thomas Cole that the word “bears every indication of a Platonic invention” (15). Now, of course, it might be posited that the date of the word is of little significance, but the argument here is that naming a discipline reorients the thinking about and within that discipline. My argument is that the coining of rhe=torike= was a watershed event in the history of conceptualized Rhetoric in ancient Greece. Specifically, prior to the coining of rhe=torike=, the verbal arts were understood as less differentiated and more holistic in scope than they were in the fourth century; the teaching and training associated with logos do not draw a sharp line between the goals of seeking success and seeking truth as is the case once Rhetoric and Philosophy were defined as distinct disciplines (23). This distinction that creates the binary rhetoric/philosophy as roughly equivalent to success/truth is of course the centerpiece of Plato’s Gorgias and one that is generally taken as gospel by English and communication studies texts currently.

The final chapters of Part I are organized by Kennedy’s terms “technical,” “sophistic,” and “philosophical” rhetoric. What Schiappa does is to argue that Kennedy’s neat categories will not hold, but in so doing he makes some provocative statements along the way. In the chapter on technical rhetoric, he attends to two matters: one, the methodologically informed reconsideration of the origins of rhetorical theory and two the story of Corax and Tisias. Toward the first, he invokes Eric Havelock’s thesis regarding the importance of the orality-to-literacy evolution of the sixth through fourth centuries in Greece. Schiappa argues that the dearth of prose writing before the fourth century and that the instability of what would become key terms undermined the historical possibility of a coherent presocratic school of rhetorical theory. Using a schema from Thomas Kuhn, Schiappa argues that we should understand the development of a discipline in an three-stage evolutionary process: a pre-history, a proper history, and a post-history. Rhetorical theory, therefore, in the fifth century is in a pre-history (pre-disciplinary) stage, and none of the assumptions about a “theory of rhetoric” being consolidated prior to the fourth century could be historically accurate.

Given this context, Schiappa’s deconstruction of the Corax and Tisias stories as they have been passed down seems inevitable. He begins by invoking the principle of ipsissima verba and asserts that Corax probably refers to no one and, in fact, may be a nickname for Tisias, who may also be an invention of Plato and Aristotle. Tisias is mentioned first in the Phaedrus, and Corax is not mentioned at all in Plato, but twice in Aristotle. However, even if, Schiappa avers, we allow for a Tisias there is no evidence or even reason to assume he created a prose text on rhetoric or the parts of an oration or on the theory of to eikos (probability). Rather, it may be concluded that Tisias (aka Corax) may be the name attached to an orally transmitted anecdote on the strong man / weak man defense that winds up in Aristotle’s Rhetoric with attribution to Corax.

The final two chapters of Part I can be discussed together without too much violence to the arguments. These chapters, “‘Sophistic Rhetoric’ Reconsidered” and “‘Philosophical Rhetoric’ Reconsidered,” take up the issue that was made so convincing by Kennedy and that still appears in modern critical theory, that the fifth-century Sophists invented rhetoric and were dedicated to success above truth and were anti-philosophical or anti-systematic in their epistemology as opposed to the Philosophers of the fourth century, who opposed the mere rhetorical gimmickry of the Sophists and were dedicated to truth above success and were systematic in their approaches. These two chapters demonstrate the great difficulty, first of all, in generalizing about the Sophists or defining the group. They are quite a heterogeneous group, not falling in line on material taught, money obtained, or ideological view. However, what they do have in common is that they made speeches and taught others to make speeches, but not rhetorical theory per se. Yet in a closer analysis of Protagoras and Gorgias, Schiappa revisits their supposedly radical relativistic positions and finds that when the detailed meanings of logos and the Greek verb “to be” are considered, that it seems certain Sophists are writing and exploring an incipient rhetorical theory.

This section is particularly good because, in part, Schiappa has already published one book on the subject, Protagoras and Logos: A Study in Greek Philosophy and Rhetoric, and came under some fire for his interpretative method, trying to be reasonable about that which transcends reason, or more historical during a time when history is mere story. Schiappa tempered by the critical fire defends his method and his interpretation of the Sophists even better in these pages. I shall represent his arguments with two slightly lengthy quotations. On writing history, he says:

The claim that the Sophists were all champions of democracy, for example, runs counter to my beliefs about who “counts” as Sophists, what “all” means, and how I understand “democracy.” Unless I revise those beliefs, I will reject the statement as false, just as I would reject as false the statement “JFK died in 1881.” Doing so does not make me a traditionalist, positivist, objectivist, foundationalist who labors under the delusion that I have access to objective and uninterpreted facts. It means that I can acknowledge the contingency, rhetoricity, and constructedness of those claims I treat as fact yet still believe them to be useful until persuaded to do otherwise (60-61).

Finally, on the issue of sophism as transcending Western thinking, he says:

Sophistic Rhetoric also has been invoked as a means for transcending certain philosophical dualism that poststructuralist and postmodernist critiques have called into question. Aside from the obvious reply that these contemporary critiques make such a “Sophistic” turn superfluous, it is arguably the case that the notion of Sophistic Rhetoric reproduced such binary thinking. Even if some scholars have succeeded in reversing the verdict in the case of Plato v. Sophists, they have not transcended the dualities implicit in the conflict (63).

Schiappa’s method is to engage the development of philosophy not as a Hegelian with some great master scheme, but rather as a historian who understands the importance of performance and particularly of performance in disciplines not yet developed. This method becomes most apparent in the next section on Gorgias.

In Part II of this text, Schiappa provides a rereading of three of the most discussed and most debated issues in the case of the Sophist Gorgias, that is, his style and his two texts the Encomium of Helen and On Nature (On Not Being). This section provides a very clear example of the implications of the theoretical position and key beliefs mapped out in the first chapter. Much of the interpretation of Gorgias that Schiappa challenges seems to rely on a historical context requiring an earlier development of the discipline of rhetoric than the textual history will support. Therefore, the argument that Gorgias’ style is excessive, showy, pretentious, or precious compared to what turn out to be much later prose styles is invalid. On the contrary, Gorgias, Schiappa argues, is developing a genre of prose writing at the time of the transition from orality to literacy, a time still dominated for performance purposes by the epic; therefore, it would seem that Gorgias attempts to forge in prose what Homer did in epic verse, and thus his style, which may seem excessive or incantatory, must be seen as an effect of his performative purposes. This line of reasoning leads Schiappa to conclude that Gorgias really should be read as something of a prose rhapsode. After defending Gorgias’ style, Schiappa demonstrates that his theorizing about logos in Helen reveals him to be a serious thinker. The performative aspects in the text then become clear as examples of his theoretical assertions about the power of logos. (Thus, logos made Helen do it.) More forcefully, however, Schiappa reveals that the anachronistic or Idealistic mode of interpretation of Gorgias as pure Rhetoric versus Plato/Aristotle as pure Philosophy creates blinders to understanding Gorgias’ texts, particularly On Not Being. As Schiappa repeatedly says, the disciplines of Rhetoric and Philosophy were not developed in the fifth century as disciplines and, Gorgias should be read as a philosopher in the general sense, exploring and engaging in philosophical issues. Schiappa concludes that Gorgias’ contributions to the development of rhetoric are quite significant: the performative, affective style, the development of the prose encomium, the apagogic method, and some theorizing about the nature of logos and about Being in his text On Nature.

The last section in many ways seems the slimmest, although each section is about the same actual length. The issues raised in Part III are so rich that one gets the sense that Schiappa has only begun to unpack the implications. It is here that Schiappa actually takes up the period of the fourth century as the period of disciplinary solidification, as it were. In one chapter, he addresses two terms for rhetoricity and rhetoricians, rhe=toreia and rhe=toreuein. Based upon the claims established earlier in the text, these terms must be reconfigured as oratory and orators, a much more narrow meaning that follows quite nicely from the position that the discipline of rhetoric was late in developing. The next two chapters are devoted to Isocrates and Aristotle respectively and again using the deconstructed Philosophy / Rhetoric binary, Schiappa reads Isocrates as a philosopher of logos and Aristotle as a politically motivated rhetorician. As Schiappa reads Isocrates’ own account of his school’s mission statement, as it were, it appears clear why Plato opposed his project—it was competition. “Isocrates’ vision of philosophia can be summarized as follows: philosophy provides training for the psyche just a gymnastics provides training for the body. The goal of Isocrates’ schooling, logo=n paideia, is to produce leaders of high moral worth to provide counsel and advice on matters of civic importance” (174). Schiappa concludes this section by aligning Isocrates’ teachings with Contemporary Pragmatists such as Richard Rorty. The last chapter, written with David M. Timmerman, is a provocative reading of Aristotle’s Rhetoric as a more politically motivated text than has been supposed. In particular, Schiappa claims that Aristotle’s treatment of the epideictic actually collapsed three formally distinct genres, enko=mion, panegyrikos logos, and eptaphios logos, into one by de-emphasizing the social and political contexts whose differences constituted the differences among the genres. Finally, he offers three reasons for Aristotle’s decision, philosophical, ideological, and epistemological.

I will conclude this review very briefly by reiterating my introduction. This is a very important book, not only as a model of good sense in the world of hermeneutics, or as a model of good writing but as an important corrective to past histories of philosophy and the discipline of rhetoric.