Brief recap: earlier, I offered several contentions regarding Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Rhetoric. First, Booth seems to me to be considerably more interested in the motives of the rhetor and the content of the rhetoric than in the character of the rhetor and the style of the rhetoric. Second, concerning motives, Booth feels very strongly that the rhetor have capital-g Good ethical reasons for using the rhetoric she chooses, and that said rhetoric be used in a capital-g Good way; the alternative to that use being what Booth calls “Rhetrickery: The whole range of shoddy, dishonest communicative arts producing misunderstanding — along with other harmful results” (11). For Booth, the ethics of rhetoric reside not in what you are but in what you do. Which makes it strange that Booth chooses a quotation from Quintilian — who famously borrowed the formulation of the ideal orator as “a good man speaking well” from Cato the Elder, and had a deep and abiding concern with the character of the rhetor — as an epigraph for the chapter in his book centrally concerned with ethics. (Acknowledgment: I admit it’s a little unfair of me to describe Booth as completely unconcerned with character, when he writes on page 99 of “The neglect of ethos, of character” — but I think the being/doing split is, for the most part, applicable.)
So: on to today’s topics. The second half of Booth’s definition of “Rhetrickery” — “The arts of making the worse seem the better cause” (11) — is familiar from Aristotle’s characterization of the rhetor Protagoras (and also from Aristophanes and Milton), and that fact, taken in conjunction with the aforementioned reference to Quintilian and the other references to Greek and Roman rhetoricians throughout Booth’s book, ought to indicate to us how much of a debt the book owes to antiquity. I know this is obvious to those of us in the field, but the book itself seems to be aimed at a lay audience, and besides which, I’m going to use that debt to antiquity as a foundation for what I say, as well.
I’m wondering if it’s possible that the Romans — especially Quintilian, but there’s a little of it in Cicero — were so concerned with the character of the rhetor because they’d seen (first in Sulla, and then in the Caesars) the perilous effects of concentrated power in a way that the Greeks, with their radical democracy, had seen very little of. (Consider that Demosthenes, a Greek whose rhetoric was deeply concerned with issues of character, was speaking directly about issues of power and domination.) Quintilian, who came to Rome in the entourage of the emperor who directly succeeded the scandalously depraved and brutal autocrat Nero, asserts that “Children have to be moral in order to be orators” and repeatedly re-emphasizes the importance of learning “not only what is eloquent, but, still more, what is morally good.” (I can’t find what I did with the cite for those two quotations, but I remember they’re early in the Insitutio, like within the first two books — anybody recall where?) Michael Winterbottom, in “Quintilian and the Vir Bonus” (Journal of Roman Studies 54 : 90-97) offers some possible reasons for Quintilian’s concerns with character in his discussion of Quintilian’s relationship to the delatores. The delatores were professional accusers who brought suit against other citizens for maiestas, or treason (the definition of which had been expanded, by Quintilian’s time, to include any talk against the emperor), and then stood to gain a significant portion of the estate of the accused, should the accused be convicted. (I’m thinking here of Booth’s consistent use of recent examples of “rhetrickery”, and the Swift Boat Veterans thing comes immediately to mind.) According to Winterbottom, “the outstanding fact about first-century oratory is that the only orators to achieve any prominence or influence by means of their oratory are the delatores” (90), and we see in relief Quintilian’s necessity for the moral orator in the characteristics Winterbottom describes as common to many of the delatores: “contempt for rhetorical rules, violence of language, increasing political influence, moral failings of the first order” (94). This was perhaps amplified by the problems brought about by rhetoric’s atrophy in the declamation rooms, whereby Quintilian had to work against the common conviction “that rhetoric was a mere knack, [. . .] a matter of ingenium schooled only by practice” (Winterbottom 96). Ultimately, in Winterbottom’s words, “Quintilian was [. . .] led to a moralistic view of the function of rhetoric by what he saw going on around him. He found himself disgusted by the way rhetoric was being misapplied” (96). Hence Quintilian’s focus on character, and his ideal of the rhetor as a morally good man, who speaks well so that he might better guide the state’s affairs.
Unfortunately, there are some problems with this.