Know thyself.

Delphic Oracle

You are here

The Human Word: Prologue



The Human Word, Raymond D. DiLorenzo


            As its subtitle indicates, this book, in the first of its two major parts, treats types of thinking, first developed by select authors in the ancient Greco-Roman world, about rhetoric––that is, verbal suasion or psychagogy. (The term, meaning the verbal guidance of soul, is Plato’s.) Homer, Aeschylus, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Virgil have fashioned the types of rhetorical thinking this book examines and, to be candid, promotes as beneficial and necessary today. To avoid confusion for the reader in the pages to come, the word “rhetoric” will usually mean thought about verbal psychagogy and all related to it, which, as we will see, includes the basic concerns of human welfare. A second, more restricted sense is the art of managing language for the purpose of psychagogy in any verbal form whatsoever, written or spoken, as, for example, in the rhetoric of the memorandum, love letter, lyric poem, novel, lecture, public speech, or conversations of all sorts. These will be the two primary senses of the word in this book.

             There are other senses of the word also. That rhetoric means only civic oratory (public speaking) or the art of oratory is common today and was so also in antiquity. But this very narrow sense of the word will be of only minor importance, and the introductory remarks below will show the reader why. Of course, rhetoric can also mean self-serving or partisan speech, often involving verbal duplicity and fraud. These pejorative senses of the word were very common both in antiquity and in modern times. 

            Considered overall, the book presents a basic claim: that the rhetorical thinking of these ancient writers, though not in all respects the same, differed in two essential ways from the thinking of most other writers in the ancient rhetorical tradition and nearly all in the contemporary world of scholarly academics and educators. First, their thinking differed in that for the ills of life caused by strife, delusion, and deceit, all of them sought a reality-based verbal remedy, often called truth or wisdom or justice or right when recognized and spoken. Some (Homer, Aeschylus, and Vergil) sought the remedy through their life and work as poets. Others (Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero) did likewise by participating in a way of life and speech they, with various understandings, called philosophy. Second, in spite of the complicity of speech in the ills of life, these writers showed an exceptionally keen valuation of human language owing to what in human nature came to be called psyche or soul––what made human beings distinctive among all other beings in the world in using and responding to speech.

            In the contemporary world, rhetorical thinking of the ancient types treated here is nearly moribund because a real, common wisdom or truth upon which to draw is discounted as culture-bound and thus cannot be common at all, and because psyche (usually “soul” in English) is thought of as a fiction for brain function, thus not as the non-material source and ontological basis of humanity that functions as the internal governor of human life and that, because non-material, suggests also what our relation to higher “divine” beings may be, and what consequences regarding our relations to such divinity may follow. As a result, the types of rhetorical thinking treated here are strangers in the land of contemporary higher learning. The wisdom sought here combines many academic disciplines (as they are conceived today), is identifiable with no one of them, and moves thought about language and its effects on human behavior in a metaphysical and theological direction rejected by the physical and social sciences and many contemporary understandings of philosophy. In fact, both contemporary paradigms of academic thought and many of the persistent realities of human nature and history are powerfully antagonistic to the types of ancient rhetorical thought this book presents.

            But there is one field of bright flowers in this rough contemporary landscape. There does exist today a great deal of academic scholarship about ancient rhetoric as a legitimate field of historical study, even if it is dismissed in the end as a curious intellectual tradition of little (economic) value. This historical scholarship, although sometimes nearly lifeless, has made it possible to revive phoenix-like from the ashes of irrelevance and dismissal a new and deeper understanding of the great, if limited, hope ancient rhetoric offers. Such revival is the chief reason for this book.  These matters will be again discussed later in this prologue and elsewhere in this book.

            What follows is some introductory information about the subject of the book, rhetoric (taken in its two primary senses); the parts of the book; some of the important tenets connected to its basic claim; its form or genre as an essay (and not a history); and a fuller statement of why it was written––that is, the hope represented by the rhetorical thinking this book examines.


The Subject Matter and Parts of the Book

            Aristotle (according to Diogenes) claimed that Empedocles, a Sicilian poet-philosopher, discovered rhetoric. Aristotle also claimed (in the report of Cicero) that the first manuals to conceive of and present rhetoric as a set of techniques to manage language to make it suasive and effective were developed also in Sicily by Corax and Tisias, Syracusans of the fifth century BCE, apparently as practical help for litigants in regaining property confiscated by a tyrannical regime. So began a cultural tradition of preceptive rhetorical teaching, including the writing of technical manuals and model speeches and school exercises. The tradition would extend far beyond the fall of Rome, conventionally put at 476 CE. The ancients did not write a history of rhetoric, but some moved in that direction. Aristotle collected the manuals written before him, and, much later, in his Brutus and Orator, Cicero introduced a general sense of historical development in his rhetorical thinking about the kinds of style in the speeches of past and present orators. Later still, Quintilian (c. 35 – 90’s CE) tried to summarize both the technical developments of rhetoric in oratory and its cultural significance in his Institutes of Oratory. But around the same time, Tacitus (c. 56 – c. 118 CE), a Roman historian and rhetorician (theorist of rhetoric), claimed in his Dialogue on Oratory that in his time, under the imperial rule of the Caesars, the great tradition of political eloquence that flourished in the past and especially in the time of Cicero (d. 43 BCE) was in decline; Caesarian rule did not permit its flourishing.

            Tacitus may have been right about public political discourse (Latin oratio); but notwithstanding the Caesars, some important rhetorical thinking was done. In the years called the Second Sophistic by L. Flavius Philostratos, a Greek rhetorician—the first sophistic having occurred in the time of Socrates and Plato—there was considerable literary activity by rhetors (here meaning writers conscious of the suasive power of words) in the eastern empire. His Lives of the Sophists was a kind of catalogue of noteworthy rhetors. The Caesars, residing in the West, even established chairs of rhetorical study. There was also continued interest in technical aspects of oratorical expression, very evident in the many extant preceptive manuals and their emphasis upon declamatory rhetorical exercises, called controversiae and suasoriae.

            Moreover, the power of verbal psychagogy in forms of discourse other than public oratory began to attract more and more attention. One of the earliest and greatest works of the so-called Second Sophistic was a treatise called On the Sublime produced by an unknown Greek writer. Much more ambitious than the usual preceptive school manual, this work attempted to understand in any genre of writings, including poetry and history, what in given instances of a discourse gives it an extraordinary psychagogic power he considered much greater than mere oratorical persuasion. There will be a fuller discussion of this important work when in Part II the whole matter of style is taken up.

            Rhetorical thinking about psychagogy and certain allied verbal techniques also underwent development in the Latin poetry of Ovid, Horace, and especially Vergil. All these poets were well schooled in the rhetorical arts taught in contemporary schools. In his Art of Love (Ars Amatoria) and The Remedies of Love (Remedia Amoris), Ovid deliberately imitated, parodied, and cultivated what Plato in his Gorgias condemned in the language of the early Greek sophists: the powerful psychagogy of verbal flattery and vituperation without regard for the rationally established truth or the pieties of religion. In his famous Letter to the Pisones, called Ars poetica, Horace recognized verbal psychagogy as the power of what he called the “sweetness” of a poem. And in his Aeneid Vergil, one of the select authors discussed in this book, developed one of the greatest poetic analyses from the classical world of the impediments in the structure of reality and human nature to responsible verbal psychagogy of any sort.

            Besides moving in the channel of poetry, rhetorical thinking in imperial times also developed in personal, private forms of discourse jointly called sermo in Latin (the contrasting forms of public oratory were, as mentioned, collectively called oratio). The best example of such rhetorical thinking about sermo is the Moral Letters of Seneca the Younger, one of the greatest rhetorician-philosophers of the ancient world, although much neglected today. These fictional letters present his thoughts about verbal psychagogy in personal counsel as well as about its appropriate verbal techniques. For Seneca, philosophy itself was such sermonic discourse.  

            Although the writing of technical rhetorical manuals continued in late imperial times, something of the ancient philosophical character of rhetorical thinking was also perceptible in an occasional work, for example, the commentary of Marius Victorinus, a contemporary of Augustine of Hippo (d. 430), on Cicero’s Two Books on Rhetorical Invention (De inventione). The esoteric mythologizing of Martianus Capella in his Marriage of Mercury and Philology was taken by some to express a version of Ciceronian rhetorical thinking. Then too, some years earlier, Macrobius, a neoplatonic thinker and man of letters, perpetuated something of the mythic side of Cicero’s rhetorical thinking in his Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, which was the sixth and last book of Cicero’s famous dialogue De re publica, itself conceived by Cicero as a counterpart to Plato’s Republic. Not to be overlooked, Boethius in his Consolation of Philosophy re-expressed, if rather clumsily, something of the Platonic understanding of the rhetorical character of philosophy, which will be discussed later.

            The story of the transformations of ancient rhetorical thinking in the Middle Ages goes well beyond the present subject. In the twilight years of classical antiquity, rhetorical thinking about verbal psychagogy, such as was found in Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, was being slowly transformed by Christian thinkers such as Gregory Nazianzus, St. Basil, Augustine, Lactantius, Gregory the Great, and others in the light of biblical writings, the development of religious penance, and the necessities of liturgical preaching. But I should also mention that Boethius, Macrobius, and Martianus would influence such later Christian rhetoricians as John of Salisbury (in his Metalogicon), Brunetto Latini, and the poet Dante, who was apparently taught rhetoric by Brunetto. Dante seems to have rediscovered in his Convivio a sense of the ethical and political seriousness of ancient rhetorical thinking and linked it to his reworking of the Sicilian and Provençal tradition of amatory lyric.

              The ancient rhetorical tradition was both long and complex, and I will not try here to summarize its teachings as Quintilian did. Nor will I try to describe it here as many contemporary historians have. One fine historian, for example, following the usual scholarly paradigm for understanding the history of ancient rhetoric, sees in its overall course three strands of development: the preceptive (technical manuals), the sophistic (both the first and the second), and the philosophical, this last being the class to which belong several of the ancient writers I consider in this book. And all this is fine, as far as it goes.

            But the history of ancient rhetoric is not the history of ancient rhetorical thinking, which is the prime subject matter of this book. That history has yet to be written. If full justice to it were to be done, it would have to include more than the usual ancient rhetorical treatises whose teachings about expression are described and interpreted according to the social and political contexts of their authors. It would have to bring into consideration several things that modern historians of rhetoric neglect: the overall sense of the realities, much of them given mythic and symbolic expression in poetry, to which ancient rhetorical thinking responded; its deep involvement with philosophy as a way of life; its sense of the human psyche in the cosmos, and, only afterwards, the sorts of extensions of such thinking into practical arts of expression as may be found in a preceptive manual.

            What that sense of reality included, which constitutes the core of all ancient rhetorical thinking about verbal psychagogy, may be briefly and tentatively sketched here. It included, as I see it, the experience of and subsequent reflection on the many forms of strife (Greek eris; Latin discordia), deception (Greek apate), and delusion (Greek ate) in existence.  These experiences were the warp and woof of Homer’s epics, Iliad and Odyssey. They were also given mythic genealogical expression by the poet Hesiod as baneful children of Nux (Night). We may without much distortion say that, in such genealogical mythologizing, Eris clearly symbolizes or personifies human conflict, from personal quarrels to wars between peoples. Apate, deception or deceit, referred, again by personification, to a deliberate evil done to others, while Ate, delusion or folly, referred to an evil suffered because of others or the constitution of the real world. Later writers imagined that the goddess Eris brought on a personal quarrel among goddesses, leading to the so-called Judgment of Paris, then to the Trojan War, and its many subsequent tragedies. Thus, the epic poems and the dramatic tragedies associated with the great Trojan War—all of them involving experiences of Eris, Apate, and Ate—are the imaginative symbolic background of rhetorical thinking.

            As such poetry attested, speech (oral or written) was complicit in the evils of life. So complicit was speech that in fact it seemed no more than the hapless and malleable instrument of those who were hubristic and malicious. But still more important than the complicity of speech in the evil of the world was the recognition of the potentially transformative power of human words for the better and truer, usually newly recognized only after meditation on tragedy and, it sometimes seemed, only with the aid of inspiration by some benevolent divinities. This potential of divinely aided words could, so some ancients thought, lead toward new hope in whatever it is in humankind (the ancient rhetorician-philosophers called it psyche [in Greek psuche or in Latin animus or in English “soul”]) that responds to words and that could lead to a truer and better sense of the reality of the world and human life in it.

            The ancients meditated on the causes of eris, apate and ate in several different contexts, most of them showing tragic or harmful patterns. They appeared among gods and men (the epic poets Homer, Hesiod, and Virgil), among the constituents of all things (the physicists Heraclitus and Empedocles), among the bodily constituents of man (the physicians Hippocrates and Galen), among the powers of human psyche relative to the being of all things and to their representations in words (the ontologists and psychologists Parmenides, Gorgias, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero), among cities and countries (the historians Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, and Tacitus), among individuals (the poets of dramatic tragedy like Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides), and within individuals (Epictetus and Seneca). Each in his way also perceived that their resolution (and the possible avoidance of harm or catastrophe) may follow a sort of comedic pattern which could be described, and each contributed in his thinking something that increased understanding of how concord or harmony (the opposite of strife) and enlightenment (the opposite of deception-delusion) could be assisted by human speech, which is the inner significance of the rhetorical tradition of the classical world. The texts of these thinkers and writers, taken as meditations on the causes and the remedies by words of strife, deception, and delusion in their different concerns, constitute the proper matter of ancient rhetorical thinking and its still unwritten history.

            This book, however, is not an attempt to provide that history. It offers a much shorter and select version of ancient rhetorical thinking by concentrating on only a few of these ancient writers, those I have named above. In the pages to follow I will often call their rhetorical thinking responsible, to distinguish it from irresponsible forms, like that advocated by Gorgias of Leontini, one of the greatest of Greek rhetors (those who use suasive language) and rhetoricians (those who reflect on such language). Gorgias plays the heavy in this book. (I am also aware that he may not be as deserving of this role as I think he is and for reasons I will make explicit.) He is taken to represent much of what is irresponsible and culpable in the uses of the power of the human word. But “responsible” and “irresponsible” are my words, capacious surrogates used to include certain poets among the authors of responsible rhetorical thinking. Homer, Aeschylus, and Virgil did not write about rhetoric in any explicit sense, but these poets knew much about the deceptions and delusions of the human psyche and the forms of human strife in which speech was complicit and for which responsible suasive speech (their own poems) stands implicitly as indications of possible remedies. And what these poets knew and embodied in their fictions is, I believe, in great part still true of us and the world we live in. 

            Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero did write explicitly about rhetoric. They would likely have called their rhetorical thinking philosophic, not responsible. But what they meant by “philosophic” was not in all respects the same and, for almost everyone today, needs a good deal of clarification. One point of clarification is essential. The ancients did not think of philosophy as it is usually presented in the lecture halls of modern universities. Moreover, they were not overly enchanted, as modern thought is, by the example of the experimental methods and mathematical reasoning used in the physical sciences, if only because such procedures in the physical sciences had not yet been fully developed. Even so, ancient philosophy was less a set rational doctrines than ways of living; and, let it be noted, these ways of living necessarily involved forms of rhetorical (verbally psychagogic) discourse that proceeded from some fundamental outlook on man in the world that the so-called philosophical dogmas helped to rationally delineate. (Modern academic conceptions of philosophy and of its ancient history totally ignore the deep involvement of rhetoric [responsible verbal psychagogy] with philosophy. Perhaps it would be better to say that philosophy was deeply engaged with rhetorical thought.) Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, although they differed in many things, shared the belief that rhetorical thinking and expression had to be philosophic to be responsibly psychagogic. Such psychagogy was less a matter of verbal and rational techniques used effectively than the communication of a transformative outlook requiring a new and truer way of living (as well as writing and speaking!) in the world. Showing the different ways philosophical thinking is involved with rhetorical thinking is a necessary task in a reconsideration of these three ancient philosophic rhetorician-philosophers. In this book, what the eyes of the Greek goddess Peitho (whose name means “suasion”) see symbolizes the rhetorical thinking, irrespective of their differences, of these ancient figures, the poets included. Discussion of them is the matter of Part I.

            Part II of this book treats the traditional arts of rhetorical expression with a view to providing the contemporary reader a version of them that reflects much more of the select ancient types of rhetorical thinking than do preceptive manuals, both ancient and modern. Given the unusual and often misunderstood sort of thinking these arts did, a few remarks about Part II may here be helpful. There is much in it about writing (little about speaking). But it is not a textbook for teaching composition in writing or speaking. Some or all of it may well be put to pedagogic use. However, the presentation of the process of writing is intended to be only a way of enabling the reader to engage practical rhetorical thinking imaginatively and concretely, not just to learn some abstract conceptions about it. Writing fixes the flow of speech and gives its airy sonic substance visible shape in letters. Thus, writing makes easier an examination of the processes of mind (including imagination) engaged within discourse that is psychagogic. Even so, it is all too easy to examine techniques of writing (or speaking, for that matter) without connecting them to the imaginative, cognitive, social, and—let us not be timid to admit—the spiritual and religious dynamics of verbal psychagogy. In fact, such disconnection is typical of the Western rhetorical tradition itself both in the rhetorical handbooks of the classical world, where the art of rhetoric was conceived, and in those of the contemporary world, where its techniques are more or less still the substance of most college textbooks of composition. In such handbooks, rhetoric has been reduced to a mere set of “effective” logical and verbal rules abstracted from the interconnectedness of words and things and people—of human psyche engaged with and responsive to the world, to self, and to others. The rhetorical handbooks of schools, both past and present, contain only the dry bones of the tradition.

            All three rhetoricians I have selected also gave some explicit consideration to practical matters of expression. The traditional five “parts” of rhetoric that became established in late Hellenistic times––invention, organization, style, memory and delivery––are, as Cicero noted, five distinguishable arts involved in suasive oral communication (see Brutus). But when these arts are detached from responsible rhetorical thinking, they still retain a practical teachability and a psychagogic power that have from the first proved very seductive. Today the so-called five parts of rhetoric have suffered reduction to practical tricks in the management of words, at best to a method of debating anything pro and con, for the sake of effectiveness, which is not to be identified with the responsible suasion that Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero as well as Homer, Aeschylus, and Vergil sought to develop in their different ways. Nevertheless, the old archetypes set in motion a dynamic toward realizing a more authentic and more responsible practical version of the traditional rhetorical arts of expression.  This task, in Part II, is symbolized by Peitho’s lips, if I may put it so––how and what she speaks.


Some Important Tenets

            The fullness and worth of responsible rhetorical thinking, which is broader than the traditional art of rhetoric and should inform all suasive or psychagogic discourse, whatever form it may take, not just public oratory, have seldom been represented adequately; not even, I must add, by my chief classical models, who mostly thought of the rhetoric of public oratory. In fact, certain revisions and extensions of ancient rhetorical thought and expression are attempted in this book.  Two of them deserve mention here. One concerns the so-called topics of invention, the other the role of imagination in the figures and tropes of style. But these revisions flow from what ancient rhetorical thinking really was.

            And what it really was is a major tenet of this book: the usually unrecognized verbal correlative or intrinsic constituent of the ancient conception of philosophy as a way of living, for individuals or for peoples, that consists basically in the verbal therapy or care of psyche (soul). Even some modern historical scholarship about rhetoric entirely dismisses such conceptions, misled by the customary depreciations of rhetoric voiced by philosophers, who, however, are rejecting in these depreciations only the empty pandering by rhetors and rhetoricians to what conventionally passes for truth and true goodness. At the moment, however, it is important to mention several allied matters about the rhetorical thinking done by the ancient writers selected here.

            For the explicitly recognizable rhetoricians among them, the defining object of concern was verbal suasion or, to use Plato’s term, psychagogy, which, as I have noted, means the guidance of psyche. For him the major questions, which remain major today, were how and where psyche should be guided by words. Responsible and irresponsible psychagogy here indicate, although vaguely for now, necessary ethical and cognitive distinctions among verbal forms of suasion. Those distinctions will be clarified in the course of the book. (Suasion, I should add here, is the less common but, in most contexts, the term more apt than persuasion. Persuasion and dissuasion are etymologically perfective in meaning and will be restricted to contexts that refer to fully accomplished suasion.)  The thinking of each of the ancient rhetoricians examined here revolves around the issue of responsible rhetoric or verbal psychagogy. But there are significant matters that surround and occasion this issue of responsible rhetoric.

             One of the recurrent tenets of this book is that it is almost always tragic experience involving strife, deception, and delusion that occasions the need for thinking about responsible psychagogy and suasive expression. The works of Homer, Aeschylus, and Virgil are richly significant for rhetorical thinking because they represent poetically the tragic catastrophes that strife, deceit, and delusion may cause. Such is the implicit imaginative background of all explicit rhetorical thinking. These poets reveal the persistent obstacles to responsible verbal psychagogy. The sad truth is that actual tragedy remains what usually makes some modification—through the use of words, of understanding, attitude, intent, or actions—appear desirable in others or in self. Otherwise, no modification will usually be tolerated. Still, rhetorical thinking and its allied arts of practical expression represent a possible alternative, one that is not tragic but comedic, in the sense of promising real hope for a good outcome. Rhetorical thinking and expression are essentially comedic, not tragic, in character.

            If the verbal suasion of self may seems an odd thing, we should recall that we commonly talk to ourselves in order to change our attitudes or actions, though the developed habit of doing so is as rare today as it was in the past. Its closest contemporary analogues are kinds of penitential examen urged within Christianity and Judaism, the religions I know best. Contemporary forms of psychotherapy may also develop the personal habit of self-reflection needed for personal changes of heart or behavior, though such reflection will, of course, have nothing to do with religious repentance. But ancient rhetorical thinking, inseparable from the self-reflexive imperatives of philosophical thinking, required self-knowledge, which meant knowledge of psyche, often within a cosmic and religious outlook.  The rhetor had to be in some perceptible way a witness to or an example of the new outlook. In the final analysis this outlook is the primary agent of verbal psychagogy. Much of its power comes from perception of the speaker or writer. He, the exemplar, not just his words, is psychagogic.

            But the greater concerns of rhetorical thinking, once the self is oriented anew, involve others in negotiating the many forms of strife in life and in exposing, as one can, the many delusions and deceptions in the world. This sort of thinking often leads to consideration of the many genres of personal and public writing and speaking; for instance, the love letter or the public lecture, or the many kinds of personal counsel.  Most often in antiquity it led to considering forms of public oratory and to issues about the institutions of education and politics. So it was in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. Such institutions are essentially rhetorical ones, carrying on a kind of thinking that extends responsible verbal psychagogy from one or a few individuals to the many that constitute some social group or even a political community. But the core of all such thinking, no matter the genre of discourse or the institutions concerned, is always the psychagogic power of words or, as the case may be, their lack of power. Institutions and laws are the alternatives to the limitations of verbal psychagogy, spoken and written.

            Some readers may suppose that responsible verbal suasion or psychagogy remains a way of exercising personal control of others. The desire to control bedevils the entire rhetorical tradition whether ancient, medieval, or modern. In his City of God, composed in the early fifth century CE, Augustine of Hippo, an expertly trained orator and rhetorician before his conversion to Christianity, called it the libido dominandi, the lust to master, which could be seen at its worst in political and religious propaganda that usually masks the bloodshed and coercion of tyranny. The truth, as I see it, with much help from Augustine and Plato, is that no one masters responsible rhetoric. One reason, perhaps the greatest one, is that the scrutiny of one’s own psyche is inextricably involved in its exercise. Far from being a way of getting other people to think as we do and so to manage them, rhetorical thinking is a matter of energizing, by a “vision” of the real goods of human psyche in the world, the deep core of freedom in both self and others, despite all that may overlay and suppress it. And much does: the seemingly intractable perversities of human behavior and intent as well as many questionable socio-political arrangements. They are all very suasive, often because, being so pervasive and environmental, they are unperceived. But suasion, however powerful, is still not force. Alas, police and armies remain necessary in the actual world. Matters that may require the regrettable use of force fall within the scope of rhetorical thinking and expression. Recognizing and treating them when necessary are difficult issues in responsible psychagogy. Coercion from the law, the police, or the army is not founded on the psychagogic power of words. Force substitutes for words when they cannot do their suasive work. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but the sword is often the only alternative to the failures of the pen. Simply recognizing such matters as these should make clear to readers that the concepts of rhetorical thinking and expression described in this book go well beyond what “rhetoric” usually means in a college curriculum of today, namely, an advanced form of literacy. In fact, this book presumes literacy, however advanced. It aims at making accessible a kind of mental and verbal competence along with a kind of knowledge and imaginative vision that colleges do not really teach at all—to their discredit, in my opinion. 

            Another important tenet to note here is that responsible (that is, philosophic) rhetorical thinking does not involve matters of cogent rational proof only, as scientific philosophic thought does. Here there arises the issue about the nature of philosophy in the ancient world, best perceived, as it will become clear, in the differences between and among Plato, Aristotle and Cicero. And this issue affects several other tenets developed in this book, especially about the interdependence of rational argument and figuration in rhetorical discourse of whatever sort. That interdependence was, again as will be shown later, something Longinus perceived. In their education many people today have become acquainted with the kinds of ratiocinative thinking called philosophy by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Such philosophy did often aim at establishing general rational truths deservedly called science (Greek: episteme). (The contemporary meaning of science clearly differs. It refers chiefly to the empirical and experimental treatment of material reality in its quantifiability, as in physics, chemistry, or biology. Contemporary social sciences are called sciences because they try to adapt empirical quantitative techniques to human behavior.) Nevertheless, among ancient classical thinkers philosophy had still another and broader meaning. It meant desire for or friendliness to wisdom (Greek sophia)––sapience, if I may try to rehabilitate this word in English, a sapience about living well and happily in a world characterized by much strife, delusion, and deception.  This sapience did not exclude scientific knowledge, but it did not depend on it, however broad or ultimate or first some form of such knowledge may be.

            But almost no one today by his or her education comes to learn that within this sapiential, amatory, and less exclusively scientific form of philosophy, rhetorical thinking of the kinds I call responsible emerged in the ancient world. In contemporary usage outside the universities, rhetoric usually means irresponsible, highly emotional, biased speech, if not verbal chicanery or duplicity; it is also called spin, self-serving talk, or, at best, market-driven speech aiming to sell, where effectiveness, not some real good, is the prime criterion. Within the university, ancient rhetoric is studied in various departments, but rhetoric usually means skill in writing or speaking and seems to be thought of either as an advanced form of literacy or at best a minor psychological and political concern of the social sciences. Rhetorical thinking as discussed in this book has no standing among university departments of knowledge and appears inconceivable today as a major goal of education at all levels. A way of thinking called pragmatism, a diluted form of which many Americans today find attractive and which informs much educational practice in universities and in the lower schools, is built on the primacy of effectiveness, not on the discovery of the true or truly good, and turns educational goals more and more toward economic activity. But all this, however justifiable it may in part be, is the very opposite of the broad sapiential sense of philosophy in the ancient world. And even there, rhetoric was criticized for being dangerous because its psychagogic powers were not always allied to real knowledge (philosophical science) and thus tended to become the servants of the lust to control and dominate. We will confront such issues in the chapters that follow this prologue.

            Establishing the points or tenets of a rational argument as well as possible, sometimes even by a scientific demonstration, may on occasion be necessary. But it is neither always necessary nor always possible in given cases. And even when it is adequately provided, rational science of whatever kind is not always sufficient to make discourse responsibly psychagogic. That may require something more, a force in discourse that affects the living springs of personal or corporate desire and imagination, activating and energizing them, even redirecting them if necessary. In short, responsible psychagogy not only provides the rationally true but also engages psychic desire or love, the love both for needed goods of self and for the goods of others, perhaps to the point of self-sacrifice. In other words, it may consist of appeals not only to human reason but also to what has been called the human will, however its freedom may be performed for good or ill before its mature (rhetorically informed) exercise. Verbal psychagogy may also have to deal with matters of religious belief, for religious beliefs affect thinking and acting. Religion is a matter that, in fact, often becomes the central issue of rhetorical thinking. This too is a matter shunned in contemporary academic circles.

            Thus, responsible rhetorical thinking considers verbal psychagogy aiming not only to illumine and liberate the mind by knowledge, including theological knowledge at times. It also aims by the right uses of imagination to affect desires or loves and to empower psyche through hope, sometimes, as in the best sorts of poetry, by the probative resources of imaginative mind without recourse to forms of rational science. In any case, hope is the powerhouse of what used to be called the human free will, something much in doubt today. In another metaphor, hope is the heart, if not the mind, of responsible psychagogy.

            What once gave the tradition flesh and life, and can do so again, is the need for, and reality of, verbally suasive interaction, a way of being among others in the world, involving care for words and things and others according to a communicable vision of the welfare of human life. Suasive interaction, I must stress, should not be taken to mean some peaceable verbal exchange among reasonable people. That happens, but not very often. The ancients conceived of verbal suasion as the human alternative to what usually happens, the recourse to force or deceit. But even when force is eschewed, verbal suasion can involve an intense psychic struggle for all involved, including the speaker. The reason? Unresolved issues of emotional investment and personal, even cultural or racial, identity are usually at stake. Many times, consequently, it can devolve, if not into violence, then into inveterate hostility, quarreling, or hatred––lengthy, tedious, and unproductive. It may end in a hardening of opposed thoughts and feelings. Verbal suasion in fact often fails. That’s the sorry truth. A happier truth is that it can do what violence cannot: alter mind and heart.

            An important tenet of this second part of the book is that for suasion to occur––and here as almost always in this book I mean responsible (or philosophic) suasion––rhetoric, traditionally defined as the verbal art of persuasion, had to be part of something greater than the mental faculty or the set of practical verbal and logical techniques that even some of the best (the philosophic) ancient thinkers thought the art was. The verbal and logical techniques of the art had to be guided by a sense of actuality––by some knowledge, perhaps even ontologically justifiable knowledge, of the actualities of life and of the world involved in the process of verbal suasion. But this knowledge includes all that impedes as well as all that promotes responsible persuasion. Such rhetorical knowledge, as a matter of fact, cannot be prepackaged. It is still developing. Thoughtful history and poetry assist that development. But such knowledge is not all that is needed. Also important, maybe preeminently important, is an imaginative, visionary factor in psychagogy, since hope depends on the visionary. A description both of the kinds of thinking leading to such knowledge and vision and of the verbal arts that are inseparable from them is another expression of my aim.


An Interpretative Essay

            I call this book an essay. It is an interpretative one, and not a history.  It is moreover an interpretative essay about the rhetorical thinking of only some of the classical rhetoricians (theorists of rhetoric)––the best ones, in my opinion. An essay implies that however long a book it may be, it is only an attempt to treat the subject as well as its author can within the genre. In one sense, then, the genre of this book is limited; in another, because the boundaries of an essay are looser than those of a history can be, the essay permits me a certain personal freedom to select and engage my classical authors, reconsider them, to adduce related matters, even, perhaps, to suggest revisions of their thought-provoking legacy in ways, of course, that I trust are justifiable. The presence of poets in this book is one sign of the latitude permissible in an essay.

            However, to speak of types of rhetorical thinking may not really be the most accurate formulation of the subject matter of this essay. More accurate still may be to speak of a way of life, about a way of being with others in the actual world. And, apropos of this point, one of the somewhat hidden tropes of this book is that life, a process of moving through all sorts of strife and delusion both in private and, very often, in public demands a kind of thinking like that involved in writing a responsibly suasive text. Both require rethinking and re-expression that may be hard. The text is finished only when life is finished.

            An essay is also, ineluctably, personal. I was academically trained as a medievalist and became by necessity something of an amateur classicist. The encounters of Christianity with non-Christian cultures, especially with the extant texts and traditions of thought from the classical world, stimulate much of the expression of high culture in the Middle Ages. This phenomenon first turned me many years ago to the study of the classical rhetorical tradition when I was exploring how it was used, criticized, and transformed in the Christian literature of late Latin Antiquity and the Middle Ages. My studies became focused on Augustine, Dante, and Chaucer, all of whom leave the prescriptions of rhetorical manualists far behind them in their highly original uses of the ancient tradition. (This is a subject yet to be treated adequately in contemporary medieval studies.) Thus, I enjoy something of an outsider’s perspective on the classical as well as the modern rhetorical traditions, all of which eschew not only Christianity and Judaism but also much that was important to the ancient philosophic theorists of rhetoric this book is about.


Beyond Ancient Rhetorical Thought

            Why this book is focused on certain classical theorists should become clearer in the course of the book. But a summary sense of the reason why may be provided here. The gist of it is that their rhetorical thinking, when responding to the need to be responsible––that is, philosophic––implied a view of the human being in the world as an agent capable of rational and imaginative speech and of morally conscious, free actions taken in the light of suasive discourse. This implication took a while to develop during the ancient world, and the development continued in the Middle Ages. To the ancient authors discussed in this book, what this implication means, when it is reduced to the essential factor, is that that there is in human beings something they called psyche or, more commonly, soul in English. Plato, Aristotle and Cicero do not share the same understanding of psyche. But they agreed that psyche summarized the human capacity, enlivened by desire (eros in Greek; amor in Latin) for the better and truer, to generate suasive speech and to be moved by suasive speech. This was the great hope. The speakers and addressees of such discourse had to have psyche if verbal suasion was not to be reduced either to deterministic forms of what today is called psychological conditioning or to the tyrannical will to power in private and public life.

            Medieval and renaissance rhetorical thinking largely accommodated the classical rhetorical view of language and man to the biblical view of God, who is in fact represented both as a suasive speaker with a love of his creation and as the fundamental personal reality sought in human eros. Psyche became his image in man. Modern rhetorical thinking largely rejects such classical and biblical views in favor of scientific or so-called postmodern views of mankind and the world. Scholarship on rhetoric has flourished in the last fifty years in certain sectors of many modern multiversities: departments of speech and communication, some English departments (especially of poststructuralist leanings), classical languages, and medieval and renaissance studies. There are now lots of books entitled The Rhetoric of (This or That or Somebody). And, just as for everything else, numerous queries about rhetoric can be googled or yahooed. However, another of the chief tenets of this book is that the paradigms of most modern rhetorical scholarship, in many crucial ways similar to those of the sophistic rhetorical movement in the classical world, have significant limitations, no matter the contemporary discipline in which rhetoric is studied. The greatest of the sophists in fact attempted to do what poststructuralists do in newer ways: they subordinate human judgment to larger deterministic forces of language and culture. Neurobiology today is rashly taken by many to do away entirely with psyche and the measure of freedom that was said to inhere in it. All this tends to demote man, his actions, thinking, and speech, to determined effects within various biological, physical, linguistic, or cultural systems that operate impersonally or conventionally. In short, there is no place for psyche and psychagogy or philosophy as they were conceived in the ancient world within contemporary rhetorical thinking. They seem outmoded.

            To my mind, and I am not alone here, modern rhetorical theories have proven unable to cope with the troubles of strife and deception in our times, and for a simple reason: none allows that there is a vantage point beyond the conflict or that there exists a real common ground, a common actuality to appeal to. Medieval Christian forms of rhetorical thinking, all ultimately theological, cannot be directly used as archetypes by us because even when we today are religious in outlook, we are not all Christians, and seldom are we responsibly rhetorical in our religious thinking, no matter the religion, Christian or not. The fact is that without rhetorical thinking, most religiously committed theologizing cannot escape its own boundaries or plausibly argue that all others fall within it or in a friendly association with it. We again lack what the classical tradition first developed, however imperfectly: some viable sense of a common purchase of the real upon us all, including a sense of a common humanity or humanism, to use the nowadays very unfashionable word. Such humanism is not a package of prefabricated ideas already fully worked out. It is the seemingly endless project of rhetorical thinking. Hence this book begins at the beginning of such thinking, the classical world. To travel the road through that world will be a journey long enough. But the road beyond it is very long indeed and increasing daily.

            But this brings me to a point that helps explain in a preliminary way both the hope within the best of ancient rhetorical thinking and the intention for which this book is a vehicle. The hope is to acquire what the Greek tragedian Aeschylus called the eyes and (in my addition to him) the lips of Peitho––the goddess of Suasion or Persuasion (Romans called her Suada). As I have indicated in several ways, what she sees is a new desirable possibility, based in the actuality and nature of human psyche in the world, for an enlargement and enrichment of our common humanity and way of life. The augmentation and enrichment of humanity and life are, in fact, the perennial tasks of rhetorical thinking. Its most visionary and extensive forms of exercise are political and religious. But there are humbler forms, lots of them––, too many to be counted––, as, for example, when a man and a woman, usually after some harm has been done, talk out their “issues,” as it is often put. Self-improvement, marriage, and parenting are rhetorical exercises. But in whatever form of exercise rhetorical thinking appears, the argument here is that within it several things are always interacting: rhetorical knowledge derived from meditated tragic experience, which is either personally suffered or mimetically considered in thoughtful history and poetry. Intellective imagination, rational argument, and hard work with words––all are needed to produce the several features of discourse that make it responsibly and suasively communicable. In short, Peitho’s lips must be made to articulate well what Peitho sees.

            Rhetorical thinking may well take on larger tasks in the contemporary intellectual world by making evident its disposition in regard to the problems of being, knowing, and speaking, or those of economic, psychological, sexual, linguistic, and socio-cultural determinisms, all of which have been circulating today in several scientific and poststructuralist forms. However, these very ivory-tower problems, though important, are not in fact central. Rhetorical thinking does not depend upon resolution to any of them, though it may have to contend with them, as the ancient tradition shows. It depends, as already suggested, upon the possible resolutions by means of words to strife, delusion, and deception suggested by tragic experience. Within the innermost being of human psyche, such experience arouses eros for what is true and good or, at the least, what may be truer and better. Harmful or catastrophic experience is paradoxically not always tragic. It only becomes comic, however, when the beholders or survivors of tragedy, unable to undo harm and suffering, find in them occasion for new insight, new composure, and the suggestions of new hope.

            Even though this book may help to make ancient rhetorical thinking better known, the ineluctable and discouraging fact is that each generation has to relearn what it involves through the educational institutions of the culture. Responsible rhetorical thinking cannot be inherited. Educational reform is, however, too large a topic to be treated here. I admit, nevertheless, to suggesting often and without subtlety that unless rhetorical thinking, which subtends the arts of the mortal human word (the Greeks called it logos), becomes a goal of instruction in contemporary culture through our educational institutions at all levels, from grade school to university, the hope for the betterment of life that such thinking fosters, as well as for cooperation with contemporary science and the religions of the divine word, all of which badly need a new consciousness of and respect for rhetorical thinking, has little or no chance of being realized. Teaching the uses of language solely in the context of self-expression, which is the agenda of contemporary education, is to foster romanticist egoism in thinking. Rhetorical thinking inclines one to a verbal altruism (usually called decorum or propriety in classical rhetoric but in Christian rhetoric charity through the Spirit). It is not an easily acquired mode of thinking and expression. Aside from lack of institutional support, the forms of egoism and factionalism that work against rhetorical thinking are strong and aggressive.    

             This book aims to enable its readers to participate in the tradition of the best ancient theorists of rhetorical thinking and, perhaps, even to enrich their venerable legacy in new ways. Once a book is written and published, its readers may give it new life and put it to uses no author can anticipate. So this book has been designed to address individuals of a certain sort, those who have a little of the autodidact in them: adults, whatever their professions, university students, whatever their fields of interest. It is for those who are already literate and old enough to have sensed in the contemporary world the influence of the terrible goddesses Eris, Apate, and Ate. They will have gained some sense of life’s actual and potential tragedies; from the ashes of which, however obscurely, there may arise some longing and hope for the better. By longing and by hope does rhetorical thinking and expression, like the phoenix, gain wings again.

View the prologue as .pdf
View the prologue as .pdf