Thomas Conley’s Rhetoric in the European Tradition

I’m not sure if this book can be adequately summarized here. I’ll try, though.

Conley’s book, which is from 1990, would still make a good overview text for a class in the history of rhetoric. It’s small and focused on a cyclical version of events and the most influential authors of each period, but it also attempts to be comprehensive. I particularly like it as it is not repetitive – a minor sin that a lot of histories commit.

The classical period of rhetoric is grouped into four camps, all with a distinct approach: Gorgian sophists, who taught all comers a speaker-focused approach without regard to what they chose to do with what they learned; Protagoras/Isocrates, who push for moralistic consensus in an educated, civil discourse; Plato, who holds up dialectic as the road to truth; and Aristotle, who classifies a neutral art that shifts according to circumstance. (John Poulakos’s Sophistical Rhetoric in Classical Greece has a similiar though more conventional Sophists-Isocrates-Plato-Aristotle quartet.)

Conley’s is as good a model as any of the Greeks. Isocrates “wins” this four-sided debate, the Romans take up his educational approach, and the rest of history, if I’m reading Conley right, is the reappearance of the other three approaches in various disguises. Chapter 1, covering the Greeks, thus lays the foundation for the rest of the book, which then proceeds to demonstrate this cyclic structure through an impressive barrage of dead white guys.

Another key point that bears mentioning is that this reoccurence of classical ideas is not always disguised. Cicero in particular becomes the standard fallback point, acknowledged or not, for rhetorical theory for most of Western history (with Aristotle being an popular option in the last 200 years or so). Conley makes clear that rhetorics don’t spring from the earth fully formed by great men. They are dependent not only on classical tradition but on their historical contexts. Thus Campbell, with his ‘scientific’ rhetoric, is dependent on Cicero and Isocrates, with their old concern for making productive members of society, whether they be citizens or mere gentlemen, just as much as the Industrial Revolution and any new philosophical concerns.

Inassuch, the differences between a lot of these systems narrows considerably with Conley’s approach. Burke, in particular, is less imposing if he is contrasted against Protagoras/Isocrates, and the “new Ciceronianism” that the book concludes on, after a discussion of Habermas, is but a modern version of Cicero’s idealistic response to a dark political era.

I am interested in the sophists as quite a few composition folk like to mention them as an example of teaching rhetoric to all comers as a kind of democratic emaniciation – the main theme of Friere’s work. This clashes, alas, with my concept of the sophists as not being nearly as high-minded as some would think them – I put them on par with ITT or some other technical diploma mill, locales/individuals motivated chiefly by profit. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing – witnessed by many students I’ve seen that think they can write well simply because they got A’s in English in high school. The sophists may have been great rhetors, but did they teach well? And did they teach the right things? This is where Isocrates comes in, slapping on a much-needed public service sticker to a wild and crazy subject.

If it is not clear, I really like this book.

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