The West, Part II

Response to:

  • Abbot, “Rhetoric & Writing in the Renaissance”
  • Blair, selections from Lectures on Rhetoric & Belles Lettres
  • Locke, selections from An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
  • Smith, Lectures on Rhetoric & Belles Lettres, 2-20
  • Whately, selections from Elements of Rhetoric
  • Wilson, The Arte of Rhetoric, Book One

“Brian Vickers suggests that the Renaissance “reintegrated” the study of rhetoric after the “fragmentation” of the art following the fall of Rome.Perhaps it is not too much to hope that histories such as this one might further the reintegration of rhetoric into the twentieth-century curriculum, helping to restore rhetoric to its historical mission of teaching writing and speaking and, ultimately, eloquence” (Abbott 172; my emphasis).

I enjoyed reading Abbott’s article, and it was fascinating to learn about the complexity of writing education in English grammar schools during the Renaissance. Abbott seemed distanced from presenting an argument about Reniassance writing instruction and the piece read as primarily informative, but the author’s final statement left me curious and a little upset. In just one statement, the author revealed his desire for a history that recenters rhetorical instruction on eloquence. I view this as taking a step backward instead of forward, “reintegrating” the mission of rhetorical education on a classical rhetorical concept simply because it was practiced in the Renaissance, grounded by the Romans before then, a centering on western rhetorical influence—not because it truly benefits students—but merely because it embodies a desire for rhetoric. What does it mean to desire rhetoric to be founded on the principles of eloquence? What consequences might that have for students in our classrooms today?

These sort of questions make me wonder, what sort of history of rhetoric do I desire? As I read the pieces for this week, it became apparent that my vision for a history of rhetoric was clearly different from the values and attitudes presented through this week’s writers. A common thread between all articles this week was that rhetoric is envisioned through the teaching of written discourse, an eloquence subservient to more noble or intellectual goals (i.e., science). I find this interesting because, even when I attempt to explain the field of writing studies to my peers in the hard and social sciences, they seem reluctant to accept writing as a worthy area of study in itself.

In this week’s readings, the context of writing was also relegated to the classroom; the authors seemed to emphasize writing as a preparatory endeavor. While specific attention wasn’t placed on writing tools, there was a brief discussion in Abbott about the need for tools to follow protocol or procedure in order for the writing process to happen. Here’s Richard Brinsley in Ludus Literarius: or, The Grammar Schoole…(1612), setting forth a set of provisions for the act of writing:

  1. The schollar should be set to write, when he enters into his Accidence; so eury day to spend an hour in writing, or very neere.
  2. There must be special care, that every one who is to write, haue all the necessaries belonging thereunto; as penne, inke, paper, rular, plummet, ruling-pen, penknife, &c.
  3. The like care must be, that their inke be thin, blacke, cleere; which will not run abroad, nor blot: their paper good; that is, such as is white, smooth, and will bear inke, & also that it be made in a book. Their writing books would be kept faire, strait ruled, & each to haue a blotting paper to keep their books from soyling, or marring under their hands.
  4. Cause euery one of them to make his own pen; otherwise the making, and mending of pens, will be a very great hindrance, oth to the masters and to the schollars. besides that, when they are away from their Masters (if they have not a good pen made before) they wil write naught; because they know not how to make their pens themselves.

This section speaks to the situatedness of writing tools. Our tools matter, and the practicality of this excerpt encourages me to wonder when tools moved from merely practical or mundane to complex and richly embedded in our writing process. If we are to accept a theory-practice binary for a moment, when did we begin theorizing about those tools (rather, what was the exigency of theorizing about writing tools), if it wasn’t during the Renaissance? In the Phaedrus, Plato famously presents an argument against writing, and though that argument was about more than just about writing tools, it was doing the work of theorizing about tools; and, I find it interesting that tool theorizing wasn’t one of the many ancient rhetorical influences fetishized in English grammar schools.

The teaching of reading and writing in the Reniassance period were vital, but the mission of learning them was to serve the means of a different goal. In other words, writing was subservient to intellectual goals. According to Blair in Lectures on Rhetoric & Belles Lettres:

“The graces of composition have been employed to disguise or to supply the want of matter; and the temporary applause of the ignorant has been courted, instead of the lasting approbation of the discerning. But such imposture can never maintain its ground for long. Knowledge and science must furnish the materials that form the body and substance of any valuable composition. Rhetoric serves to add the polish; and we know that none but firm and solid bodies can be polished well” (3).

To me, this is case in point why eloquence should never be desired in a rhetorical education: it relegates rhetoric as a means to achieve a different, more “noble” and “valuable” end: knowledge and science. “Knowledge” doesn’t seem to have room for rhetoric, and even within rhetoric, there are distinctions about who can and can’t do that subservient work of eloquence.

Blair presents his treatise in the form of lectures, but I do not know if those lectures were meant to be performed or simply studied and read. But when did the lecture begin to take hold for rhetorical education? I noted that it was a common practice for delivery in English grammar schools during the renaissance. Does it maybe have its roots in St. Augustine, his influence in the mission of the church where religious texts would be read (delivered) to audiences? Of all the influences that the church has provided to rhetorical education, the lecture, thankfully, seems to be the least violent—though the lecture is of course not to be desired by anyone who has a want to actually learn something.

The structure of Blair’s treatise is also interesting, and I’m curious if the order of these lectures has any rhetorical significance. For example, is taste the most important because it comes first? If Blair was transparent about his organizational choices, I missed it. “NO INNATE PRINCIPLES IN THE MIND.” Thank you, John Locke…sort of. He presents this argument by appealing to a privileged audience who hold the opposite of this statement to be true, and his rhetorical moves in appealing to his audience are careful if not appalling (i.e., the section on children and idiots). While I can see the Aristotelian influence of Locke’s strategy – that is, providing hierarchies and even numbers to identify his major claims and evidence – it does make the document easy to read, or rather where to not read.

Not surprisingly, these hierarchies appear to have far-ranging influence on perceptions of who can and can’t be recognized as doing intellectual work. Blair provides a colonial, hierarchical view of rhetoric:

“In the language even of rude uncultivated tribes, we can trace some attention to the grace and force of those expressions which they used, when they sought to persuade or affect. They were early sensible of a beauty in discourse, and endeavored to give it certain decorations, which experience had taught them it was capable of receiving, long before the study of those decorations was formed into a regular art” (2).

And in one statement, Blair sets forth the discipline’s history – one that recognizes rhetoric as a pervasive and common cultural practice among indigenous people – solely for the purpose of constructing a normalized, western-centric, and prescribed formula for writing based on the ideas of well-born white men; a discipline that ignores the rich, deeply complex rhetorical practices of indigenous people to construct an imagined version of its own history.

My desire for rhetoric is to learn from all voices of history, allowing those voices to resonate, in turn giving way to inclusive work that challenges hierarchies, work that understands rhetoric as making in diverse contexts and communities. It also involves a careful, thorough consideration of the tools of this making.

class notes