BMCR 2001.03.16

Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity

, Rhetoric and poetics in antiquity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 1 online resource (xii, 396 pages). ISBN 1423738799 $60.00.

Jeffrey Walker’s book Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity pursues two separate, but related, projects. The first, represented by the book’s first 4 chapters, a little more than one third of the total length, is a revisionary history of rhetoric in antiquity and of its modern conception, an unfortunately limited conception Walker argues. The second part of the book, consisting of an additional 7 chapters, rehabilitates “rhetoric” as a positive term in the evaluation of ancient poetic practice, with exemplification primarily from the archaic lyric poets, Theognis, Pindar, Alcaeus, Sappho, and Solon. More than any discussion with which I am familiar Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity succeeds in looking beyond the familiar dichotomy of its title to see and explain the hendiadys that ancient philosophers, critics, and poets perceived “rhetoric and poetics” to be. Not intended primarily for a specialist audience of classicists, the book makes a worthy read for anyone interested particularly in the pedagogic value and power of rhetoric, both ancient and modern.

Walker’s history of rhetoric begins as a pre-history, in a world before “rhetoric” or “poetry” as we know them existed. The effective eloquence that the aoidos and the basileus share as a gift from the Muses at the beginning of Hesiod’s Theogony is set out in the first chapter as a paradigm for the entire project. Walker’s survey of the changing ways in which rhetoric was conceived and taught covers the Classical, Hellenistic, and Roman periods, particularly the Second Sophistic, discusses Augustine as a bridge between ancient and medieval rhetoric, and finally singles out Sidney’s Defense of Poetry as a representative moment in the transmission of an atrophied version of ancient rhetoric to the modern world. While Walker shows his impressive and sure command of this vast range of ancient material, always in the background is what he deems the rhetorically impoverished poetics of modernity, in which poetry no longer attempts to win converts to controversial positions, but speaks only to an “insider” group of the like-minded. Walker’s book explains not only the origins of this dominant poetics of today, but also what might have existed in its place had there prevailed another, more capacious view of both poetry and rhetoric that was current in antiquity.

The primary proponent of that enlarged rhetoric was Isocrates, and Isocrates is the guiding spirit of both parts of Walker’s enterprise, along with Cicero, his intellectual peer on the Roman side. Active in the period in which the terms poiesis and rhetorike were emerging and being differentiated, Isocrates propagated an ideal of paideia that centered on “rhetoric” as an all-encompassing logon techne. He was holding out against a prevailing view of rhetoric, associated with the professional class of “sophists,” that valued only basic, utilitarian instruction in techniques of civic speechmaking. If the public of Isocrates’ day viewed rhetoric as a matter of learning a few tricks to help win a court case and if there were plenty of teachers to satisfy the public’s appetite, a large cast from Plato and Aristotle through to Cicero, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Aelius Aristides, and any number of other figures major and minor discussed by Walker held a contrary view. On this view rhetoric, even or especially judicial oratory, had to be situated within a larger, ethically rigorous and philosophically focused education. Thus Walker is in good company when he argues that it is a distortion to define rhetoric primarily in terms of pragmatic oratory, as is commonly done in standard histories of rhetoric. For him rhetoric is “epideictic” at its heart. Reversing the standard genealogy in which epideictic descends through “literaturized” genres from a prior practical rhetoric, Walker finds that rhetoric in fact descends from the poetic tradition and that epideictic rhetoric, whether in verse or in prose, is primary and pragmatic rhetoric secondary. Thus rhetoric’s true home is in panegyric, in declamation, in poetry, and in “literature,” not in the courtroom and the council chamber or assembly.

This is the centerpiece of the argument and the exposition is very convincing. It makes an important contribution, and equally important consequences follow from it. Once rhetoric has been divorced from any essential connection to the practical work of the law courts and democratic assemblies, we must re-evaluate our received notions of a rhetorical decline. Walker argues that it is not necessary to view the later periods in which rhetoric flourished — later, that is, than Periklean or Demosthenic Athens, or late-Republican Rome — as in any sense decadent. For Walker, the Second Sophistic represents not the death of rhetoric but, at least potentially, its apotheosis: in a climate of relative political stability new “sophists” like Aelius Aristides could use their prestigious skills to address issues of importance and exert influence through epideictic rhetoric, which remained “a medium of ideological suasion and contestation” (118). Of course the Greeks and Romans themselves were fond of diagnosing rhetorical decline, but Walker argues that even these texts (most notably Tacitus’ Dialogus de oratoribus) never claim that all rhetoric has declined, but focus primarily on the same limited subset of rhetoric, namely dikanic or symbouleutic speechmaking. On Walker’s view when one considers the turbulent political climate in which, for instance, Cicero’s courtroom speeches made him famous, it is possible to say that the decline of this sort of rhetoric was perhaps a good thing. Walker concludes his history with some thoughts about the relationship of rhetoric to democracy, to which I will return.

Throughout this history Walker shows how fully Quintilian, Hermogenes of Tarsus, Pseudo-Longinus, and other rhetoricians took poetry as within their purview, drawing on the poets not only to illustrate stylistic refinements, but also for models of proper argumentation and persuasive power. This and other premises bridge Walker’s discussions of the history of rhetoric and of the practice of rhetorical poetics: that rhetoric and poetry were not always differentiated as they are today; that they at the least share a common ancestor; and that “epideictic,” whether in prose or in verse, is the true essence of rhetoric. The bulk of the second part of the book then takes the form of readings of certain archaic poems as rhetorical speech-acts, in the form of what Walker and the rhetoricians would call “enthymemes.” Walker takes pains adequately to define this term because of its importance to his argument. The first attestations of enthymeme as a technical term in rhetoric are in Aristotle and Isocrates, who maintain that enthymemes are central to rhetoric and to poetry but do not define the term. Walker believes that modern views of enthymeme as a variety of truncated or informal syllogism make unbelievable what the sources say about the rhetorical and poetic importance of enthymemes; he attributes this distortion primarily to a misreading of Aristotle’s Rhetoric. In seeking his own definition Walker takes a very broad view of enthymema and related words in technical and non-technical contexts, tracing “Aristotelian” and “non- Aristotelian” usages. I will simply quote his own summary: “An ‘enthymeme’ is, on one hand, a complex, quasi-syllogistic structure of inference and affect that constitutes the substance and persuasive force of an argument as perceived by an audience. On the other hand, an ‘enthymeme’ will typically and perhaps most forcefully appear in discourse as an emphatic, structural/stylistic turn that caps an exetasis, gives the inferential/affective substance a particular realization with a particular salience within a particular discursive moment, and thereby shapes its audience’s perception of (and responses to) just what ‘the argument’ is” (184, emphasis in original). Much follows upon this concept of enthymeme as a type of affective argumentation or artistic persuasion, and Walker finds enthymemes central to poetic practice, particularly in lyric. Here again definition is key, and for Walker lyric is defined not by metrical form, or performative context, or by romantic notions of the expression of personal subjectivity. Rather, lyric fundamentally mimes “a single ‘speech’ within a particular occasion” (155); it is a kind of poetic ur-genre (he cites Aristot. Poet. ch. 4); and, simply put, it is “epideictic argument in verse” (250). To quote again: “From the point of view of rhetorical poetics, ‘lyric’ as the song/verse equivalent of (and archaic prototype for) an epideictic ‘speech’ can be understood, on one hand, as the most protean of all poetic modes and, on the other hand, as the closest link between the poetic and oratorical traditions in antiquity” (168). Walker admits that it is not common to think of lyric poems as attempts at persuasion, but he contends that as “enthymemes” they may be fundamentally persuasive while lacking the appearance of formal argumentation.

If archaic lyric poems can be seen as a type of argumentation, it follows that they hope to have an effect on an audience. As a speech-act in a situation a lyric addresses an audience, and it does so, according to Walker, particularly to call them to acts of judgment through enthymematic argumentation. In discussing Theognis, Pindar, Alcaeus, Sappho, and Solon Walker focuses both on situating the poems in their original performative context and on gauging and explaining their ability to impact broader communities. I’ll note just two examples. Walker reads Sappho frag. 31 as an implicit argument that those women in the poet’s audience could cultivate the kind of impressiveness of speech and manner displayed by the “you” addressed in the poem, and that the men should respect such accomplished women and enjoy their company. The poetry of Solon (for instance, frag. 4) represents the ideal of this “rhetorical poetics,” in that his elegies are most capable of speaking not only to the poet’s group of like-minded reformers but to the whole polis, making what Walker calls “an explicit, amplified enthymematic argumentation that could escape (to a considerable degree) the limitations of ‘insider’ discourse” (267). This contrasts with the political poems of Theognis and Alcaeus (and, incidentally, Hellenistic epigram), which seem to Walker by contrast more dependent on shared assumptions between the poet and his audience and so more limited in their impact.

By way of a conclusion Walker outlines, in admittedly impressionistic fashion, the “fate of poetry,” or how through complex forces that crystallized in the grammatical tradition of ancient education a poem came to be seen not as a “rhetorical encounter” (154), but as an aesthetic object. The audience for poetry, mainly schoolboys, was taught to memorize, gloss, and allegorize rather than respond to poetry’s arguments by forming ethical judgments. “Form” and “content” parted company, with “rhetoric” being associated strictly with form. This was the view that, as Walker’s contends, largely produced modern notions of rhetoric and poetry, of poetry in particular. This Walker deems unfortunate: for him not only has poetry lost something in failing to embrace argumentation and persuasion in the service of ideological contestation, but literary education too has lost a powerful justification in giving up, or at least being diverted from, its ethical component.

I believe Walker’s book will interest teachers of classics, even if they shy away from “rhetoric” per se. They might find themselves forced to rethink what they mean by that term. To my mind, the historical narrative of the changing meaning of rhetoric is the most impressive and useful part of this book (others may find more for themselves in the readings of archaic lyric). I can, for instance, immediately see that Walker’s thesis will affect the way I discuss ancient educational practice and such phenomena as declamation in my own courses on Greek and Roman literature. Where specifically Walker struck me as most compelling was in his contention that there is an important relationship between rhetoric and democracy or justice, but that it is not the received one. The standard histories of rhetoric would have it that rhetoric is a democratic phenomenon, or that it at least requires a political system open to contestation in the courts and assemblies. Thus under Hellenistic monarchies or the Roman empire rhetoric goes into decline. Walker’s book, by contrast, approaches democracy as a “rhetorical” phenomenon. For him lyric rhetoric (and here epideictic prose is analogous to lyric) in its “maximal” form serves as a condition for or an embodiment of democracy, through modeling contestation, persuasion, and judgment, even where prevailing political conditions, as in archaic Greece or imperial Rome, cannot even imagine true democracy.

In summary, with this book, which is thoroughly researched and relatively unmarred with production errors, Walker argues for an expanded, non-traditional conception of what “rhetoric” meant and can still mean, and he marshals the ample support of ancient authorities from Hesiod to late antiquity and beyond to make his case.