I mentioned in September that I was teaching a graduate seminar in classical rhetoric last semester. I gave it the subtitle “rhetoric under empire” because I tried to craft a syllabus that foregrounded the relations of power and materiality that seem too often absent from classical rhetoric as it’s taught in rhetoric and composition studies. Certainly, there’s some attention paid to Corbett’s closed fist and open hand (ratio and elocutio), or as the image I stole from the Internet to publicize the course and now can’t source would have it, the fasces and the flowers.
The course went extraordinarily well and did everything I wanted to, and the students even seemed to like it. Folks in rhetoric and composition sometimes tend to think of classical rhetoric as dry, dull, deadly boring stuff, and that’s mostly the fault of the way it’s too often taught, I think. There’s an impulse I’ve seen to abstract and to theorize and to alienate from context: to take Aristotle and ask what we can use from his Rhetoric in the composition classroom and wind up with a lot of FYC essays pointing out instances of ethos, logos, and pathos in Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”; or to ask undergraduates to identify rhetorical figures from the Ad Herennium and De Inventione in political speeches from the last election and wind up with a lot of etceterative taxonomies that offer scant sense of possible implications.
As admirable a volume as Bizzell and Herzberg’s Rhetorical Tradition is (and it is massively, wonderfully admirable: I’ve spent many hours lost in its pages), I think it’s partly to blame. The primary texts included in the volume can be categorized—with a few exceptions—as almost entirely rhetorical theory, and with that as one of our most well- and widely-known sources, of course it’s going to influence how we teach. So when I taught Cicero, I taught bits of the De Inventione and the De Oratore and the Brutus and Orator, but all in the context of his early speech in front of the dictator Sulla, all in the context of his bawdy and misogynistic oration for Caelius in conjunction with the love poems of Caelius’s rival Catullus, all in the context of his rhetorical judo with the Pro Ligario before Caesar as both judge and plaintiff. So, too, with Isocrates and the function of rhetoric during wartime and the debates over how literate the Spartans might have been; so, too, with Aristotle and Alexander and the paranoia and xenophobia; so, too, with those who enthuse about Quintilian without considering the imperial terror of Domitian and the indictment by Tacitus of “gain-getting rhetoric” — epideictic rhetoric as truly economic — when there was no space left for rhetoric as forensic or deliberative. To me, that sort of rhetoric understood in its material and social context is exciting and fresh and alive, not abstracted or theoretical or irrelevant: when you read his letter to Atticus, to Caelius, to his wife Terentia, there comes an entirely different human sense of who Cicero was that gives extraordinary vitality to his rhetoric.
It makes me think there’s risk in studying rhetoric, in that abstracting it into an object of scholarly exchange can lead to seeing only how it operates at that abstracted and theoretical level and missing completely the level of material and experiential consequence. So that’s why my classical_rhetoric_syllabus looked the way it did, and that’s why I’ll continue to teach it that way: it’s in a way the same thing I try to do in my emphasis on the economics of writing study; to look at the value of and motivation for the rhetorical labor we perform and the intellectual and affective capital we produce and distribute and experience and re-produce and re-value.