Rhetoric: a modest reading list

Rhetoric: a modest reading list

One of the greatest pleasures in writing my introduction to rhetoric, You Talkin' To Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama, was the research. For many centuries rhetoric – alongside grammar and logic in the trivium – was one third of an education. Here's a vast, neglected field of knowledge that goes to the centre of how civilisation works, has attracted some of the great minds of the last couple of millennia, and yet also contains some bizarre and fascinating byways. A day in the British Library reading up on it was bliss.

Ever since Aristotle identified rhetoric as a techne – that is to say, a practical skill that can be taught and analysed – a vast body of work has grown up around the subject: books of theory and practical manuals, or “handbooks”, alike.

My book gives an overview – but for anyone interested in reading further here’s a selection of ten of the more important and/or interesting works in the field.

1. Rhetoric, by Aristotle, 4th century BC

Aristotle was the Newton of rhetoric, and here is his Principia. It’s an eccentrically arranged book, and some of the in-jokes will strike the modern reader as bizarre (look out for the one about the sparrow shitting on an orator’s head). It put in place the enduring triads of rhetoric: identifying the three appeals, ethos, pathos and logos; and the distinction between deliberative, judicial and epideictic oratory. This is where it all began – and Aristotle’s tone of wan pragmatism makes clear that the study of persuasion is, in effect, the study of human nature itself.

2. Ad Herennium, 90s BC

Long believed to be by Cicero (it was thought to be his “second rhetoric”), Ad Herennium was the most influential rhetoric handbook in the West through the middle ages and beyond. It’s very likely Shakespeare would have studied it. As well as being full of commonsense advice across the board, and setting out the standard structure of an argument, it contains the first thoroughgoing treatment of the ancient loci method of memory-training. If you want to build your own memory palace – a method endorsed by Sherlock Holmes, Tony Judt and Hannibal Lecter – this is the place to start.

3. The Catiline Orations, by Cicero, 63 BC

Cicero was not only the outstanding Roman theorist of oratory, he was without peer as a practitioner. His works about oratory, De Inventione and De Oratore, are landmarks. But to break up the run of handbooks here I think it would be nice to include, as it were, a shot of him in action. His invective against Catiline, the leader of a conspiracy whom Cicero successfully drove into exile, find the great man bringing his A-game. “How long, O Catiline, will you abuse our patience? And for how long will that madness of yours mock us?” That’s epiplexis as it was meant to be used. That sharp tongue eventually got Cicero in trouble. Mark Antony had him killed – and, legend has it, Antony’s wife Fulvia took his severed head and stuck her hairpins through his tongue.

4. Institutes of Oratory, by Quintilian, c 95 AD

An extensive, very clear, and sometimes crisply amusing work, Quintilian looks back to Cicero and, before him, Aristotle. His book’s a splendid summation of Roman ideas about rhetoric, culled from long experience as a teacher (he was tutor to the grand-nephews of the Emperor Domitian, among other claims to fame). Like Cicero before him, Quintilian sees education in oratory as being intimately bound up with civic virtue. There’s a very nifty hypertext version of at

5. The Arte of English Poesie, by George Puttenham, 1589

“Utterance also and language is given by nature to man for perswasion of others, and aide of them selues [...] the Poets were also from the beginning the best perswaders and their eloquence the first Rethoricke of the world.” Puttenham’s treatise – long held to be the yardstick for Elizabethan courtly verse – makes clear the overlap between rhetoric and poetics. Its real payload for rhetoric scholars is Book Three, where he discusses the figures and gives them all eccentric English names, redubbing zeugma “the Single Supply”, epizeuxis “Cuckowspell”, synecdoche “Quicke Conceit” and mycterismus, wonderfully, “the Fleering Frumpe”. That Puttenham, far from having been an urbane courtier, was recently exposed as a serial sex pest, beater-up of vicars and dodger of alimony somehow makes it all the jollier.

6. Chirologia/Chironomia, by John Bulwer, 1644

Of the five canons of rhetoric – Invention, Arrangement, Style, Memory, Delivery – many of the classic handbooks skim over the last one. This deals with more or less nothing but, offering a systematic consideration of hand-gestures – from the shaken fist or the blown kiss to higa, or what we now call “flipping the bird” – and the question of how they are most effectively and decorously used in oratory. You may find a copy hard to track down, but it’s fascinating. Best of all are the extensive woodcut illustrations. It’s a standing tragedy that Bulwer died before he was to complete the follow-up Cephalelogia/Cephalenomia, which was to have been an exhaustive consideration of head gestures.

7. A Rhetoric of Motives, by Kenneth Burke, 1950

Perhaps the outstanding twentieth century scholar of rhetoric, Burke picks up the torch from Aristotle by embedding his account of the workings of rhetoric in social relations. Here, again, is rhetoric as the study of human behaviour. He talks about the way that persuasion develops through a process of identification, and so provides not just a formal but a social account of the orator’s art. In so doing he made a place for the ancient rhetorical tradition amid the new social and linguistic disciplines that threatened to displace it.

8. What I Saw at the Revolution, by Peggy Noonan, 1990

A former speechwriter to President Reagan, Peggy Noonan lets you know what it’s like to be the person in charge of what political apparatchiks dismissively call “the rah rah”. Noonan’s account of how a modern political speech is put together – it’s a “fondue pot”, she says, where everyone gets a fork – is invaluable, and her winningly nutty personality is a treat too. Her first glimpse of President Reagan, she reports, was a foot in a cordovan loafer, seen through an open door: “But not a big foot, not formidable, maybe even a little... frail. I imagined cradling it in my arms, protecting it from unsmooth roads.”

9. Winning Arguments, by Jay Heinrichs, 2007

If you want to get a sense of what a rhetorical handbook would look like in the 21st century, Jay Heinrichs’s is a fine recent example. Heinrichs is an American rhetoric scholar and journalist who maintains a lively rhetoric blog at Winning arguments wears its classicism lightly, and is full of slangy examples, imperative chapter headings (“Control the Mood”; “Make Them Identify With Your Choice”) and perky sidebars called things like “Persuasion Alert”. It explains and also – in the age of self-help and business communications – exemplifies the rhetorical quality of decorum.

10. A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms (second edition), by Richard A Lanham, 1991

This is the invaluable reference – the book no student of rhetoric should be without. As well as being as close to encyclopaedic a guide to the figures as exists in one volume, it’s a work of extraordinary wit and brio and good sense. Plus, funny jokes. I doubt it will ever be bettered, and nor will any other work of reference – with the arguable exception of William Donaldson’s Brewer’s Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics – be read with such enjoyment.

-- Sam Leith (17/04/2012)

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