BMCR 2002.08.11

La Rhétorique dans l’Antiquité

, La rhétorique dans l'Antiquité. Le Livre de poche, 553. Références Antiquité,. Paris: LGF, 2000. 351 p. ; 18 cm.. ISBN 2253905534 FF 46.00 (pb).

This handy little paperback, which appeared in the series “références,” appears to be meant as an introduction to ancient rhetoric for students and general readers (although it does not expressly say so). It should be said from the outset that it fulfills its job admirably, giving a comprehensible, concise, yet never simplistic overview of ancient rhetorical practice and theory from the Homeric age to the imperial period in just 250 pages. P. has organized his material into 6 chronological chapters and 6 “excursuses” that dwell on interesting details and problems.

After a brief introduction defining rhetoric and an entertaining excursus documenting the fashionability of titles such as “the rhetoric of …,” the first chapter discusses “rhetoric before rhetoric,” especially in the Homeric epics. P. rightly emphasizes the importance of speeches in Homer, and cautions against reading these texts with the hindsight of a full-blown rhetorical theory. One only wishes P. had not used the Budé-translations which prettify the Homeric texts in an atrocious manner.

Chapter 2 examines “the sophistic revolution.” For P., it is the sophists who are responsible for transforming oratory into an autonomous discipline. Another excursus explains (convincingly, in my opinion) why P. is skeptical about Schiappa’s and Cole’s theory that rhetoric was “invented” by Plato. After the careful analysis of speeches in the Homeric epics, the few lines on rhetoric in Attic drama (p. 34) are somewhat disappointing, however. Chapter 3 shows that P. is careful to set rhetoric and oratory in their proper social, political, and historical contexts: in a brief description of the political and juridical system of classical Athens, he shows why these circumstances were so favorable for the development of different types of speeches, such as pleadings in the lawcourts, political addresses in the assembly, funeral speeches for the public rites, speeches held during embassies or before battles. P. goes on to analyze the first transmitted attempts at systematizing the teaching of rhetoric (the Rhetoric for Alexander and Aristotle) as well as the debate between philosophy and rhetoric, especially the attacks on it in Plato’s dialogues (P. seems quite certain that the Menexenus should be read as a satirical parody of the epitaphios, but does not really argue this point).

Chapter 4 discusses the technical progress that rhetoric made in the Hellenistic period (or the “Hellenistic globalization,” as P. has it). Readers get a clear picture of the ways in which rhetorical handbooks organized their material: the three categories of speeches, the characters of style, the five parts of rhetoric, stasis-theory, figures and tropes, etc. Again, P. emphasizes the social setting of oratory: he stresses that during the Hellenistic period, there were as many important occasions for political speeches as before; the title of an excursus neatly summarizes: “Greek eloquence did not die at Chaeronea.”

With chapter 5, the book’s focus changes to Rome. When P. describes the practice of oratory in Rome prior to the wholesale acceptance of Greek models, he may be a bit too willing to believe later Roman propaganda about taciturn dignitaries who eschewed words and relied on their impressive authority alone for persuasion. I missed a clear comment on the fact that we have so little real knowledge about early Roman rhetoric because the texts themselves are irrecoverably lost and everyone who later writes about it has his own axe to grind, be it personal (like Cicero), cultural (like Plutarch), or ideological (like Livy). The chapter culminates in an extended and clear analysis of Cicero’s towering importance for rhetorical theory and oratorical practice, with a brief hint of his influence in Western literature from the Middle Ages to the modern times (p. 161).

P. is an expert on imperial rhetoric, so it comes as no surprise that this period receives a lengthy treatment. While I share his interest in this topic, I found this a bit excessive (the chapter on the imperial period is as long as those on 4th-century Athens and the Roman republic combined). However, one should take into consideration that in this chapter, P. treats a number of important topics that are not restricted to imperial rhetoric, e. g., a brief description of literary criticism (Dionysius of Halicarnassus and the anonymous On the Sublime), a detailed summary of the rhetorical handbooks of Quintilian and Hermogenes, and an analysis of the educational system (which I think belongs in chapter 4). P. vigorously denies that rhetoric was in decline after the end of the republic: even in the empire, rhetoric had important political and social functions to fulfill; yet he admits that epideictic gradually became the most important branch of oratory (in my view, more should have been said about the way in which the rhetorical handbooks now focus almost exclusively on declamations and fictitious pleas). There is an interesting, if necessarily brief, treatment of the connection between rhetoric and literature, where readers get at least glimpses of the ways in which authors such as Ovid or Maximus of Tyre can be said to be “rhetorical.”

After a brief survey of the afterlife of ancient rhetoric in Western thought, the book offers a very useful overview of the system of ancient rhetoric, complete with references to the ancient authorities on such topics as characters of style, types of tropes, or parts of speech. There are chronological tables, a very carefully selected and helpful bibliography (which is remarkably free of national bias) and four indexes (names, terms, Greek, and Latin words). The book is well produced with hardly any misprints, and it is very reasonably priced.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of this book, at least to my mind, was P.’s unrelenting defense of rhetoric, which for him is neither just a clever and unscrupulous way of manipulating people nor a complicated and useless amalgam of bizarre rules that stifle inspiration. Time and again, P. takes sides against the philosophic criticism of rhetoric; as he claims repeatedly, when a society opts for rhetoric (instead of raw power) as a means of political debate, this will inevitably foster some freedom of speech and openness in decisions (esp. p. 265-6). In this, P. takes sides with modern thinkers such as Jürgen Habermas (p. 56) or Chaïm Perelman (p. 275).

It is outside the scope of this review to make an extended comparison between P.’s book and George A. Kennedy’s A New History of Classical Rhetoric, which is quite similar in scope, length, and intended audience, but a few comments may be in order. Generally speaking, Kennedy is better at offering close and careful readings of the ancient texts, and he provides more information of a professional nature that might be interesting for students of the classics; P. is more accessible to readers without prior knowledge of the field, his book is more user-friendly, and he provides more information on the historical and cultural background. If I had to teach a course on ancient rhetoric to undergraduates, I would probably choose P.’s volume (linguistic considerations aside). But there should be enough space for two books on this subject, and I would recommend an English translation of this work.

To sum up: except for the few quibbles mentioned above, the author is to be congratulated on this accomplishment. He has written an exemplary introduction that gives a vivid and clear picture of the field. Unlike many other introductions of this kind, P. does not hide the fact that there are areas where scholars disagree. His book is accessible to undergraduates, yet it also provides suggestions for further study. For everyone who is new to this field, it is an excellent starting point.