The Language of History in the Renaissance: Rhetoric and Historical Consciousness in Florentine Humanism

The Language of History in the Renaissance: Rhetoric and Historical Consciousness in Florentine Humanism

by Nancy S. Struever
The Language of History in the Renaissance: Rhetoric and Historical Consciousness in Florentine Humanism

The Language of History in the Renaissance: Rhetoric and Historical Consciousness in Florentine Humanism

by Nancy S. Struever


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At any time, basic assumptions about language have a direct effect on the writing of history. The structure of language is related to the structure of knowledge and thus to the definition of historical reality, while linguistic competence gives insights into the relation of ideas and action.

Within the framework of these ideas, and drawing on recent work in linguistic theory, including that of the French structuralists. Professor Struever studies the major shift in attitudes toward language and history which the Renaissance represents. One of the essential innovations of Renaissance Humanism is the substitution of rhetoric for dialectic as the dominant language discipline; rhetoric gives the Humanists their cohesion as a lay intellectual elite, as well as the force and direction of their thought. The author accepts the current trend in classical studies, the rehabilitation of the Sophists which finds its source in Nietzsche and includes the work of Rostagni, Untersteiner, and Buccellato, to reinstate rhetoric as the historical vehicle of Sophistic insight.

Originally published in 1970.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691620954
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2015
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #1317
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.60(d)

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The Language of History in the Renaissance

Rhetoric and Historical Consciousness in Florentine Humanism

By Nancy S. Struever


All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06180-1



The Quarrel of Philosophy and Rhetoric

IN ORDER to write a history of the relations between rhetoric and history, it is necessary to grasp the triangular relationship of history, rhetoric, and philosophy, for the tension between philosophy and rhetoric dominates and gives shape to the rhetorical tradition; the quarrel of philosophy and rhetoric provides dynamic and direction in classical learning. This quarrel even antedates the arrival of the first teachers of rhetoric in Athens; the deep distrust of the philosophers for the rhetors is grounded in their awareness of the connection between rhetoric and the Sophists. Socrates in the Theaetetns contrasts the free philosopher, liberally educated, with the rhetorically trained advocate, "a servant ... continually disputing about a fellow-servant before his master" (172D). For Socrates the central error of both Sophists and rhetoricians is their obedience to intermediate and relative, rather than final and absolute ends. This error in turn has its source in a false ontology: the rhetors were followers of Heraclitus and Protagoras in so far as they conceived the cosmos as flux and man as the measure of all things. Socrates attacked them as part of a heterodox, a separatist movement in Greek thought. In the Gorgias Plato gives systematic expression to the Socratic exaltation of the philosopher over the rhetor: while the philosopher, he argues, is concerned with the sphere of the Eternally True which can be apprehended only through the operations of reason, the rhetors' only possible sphere of effectiveness is the realm of the probable (eikos) perceived through the senses and structured by phantasia and mimesis.

This contrast of priorities defined the debate in the history of classical philosophy long after Plato, and its radical separation of Reality and Appearance was reinforced by much of late classical and medieval theology — Neoplatonic, Gnostic, or Christian. Thus the history of rhetoric from the Socratic period to the Renaissance can be regarded as an unequal contest in which the metaphysical claims of the philosophers and theologians continually modify the rhetorical counterclaims rooted in Sophistic assumptions. The theory and structure of spoken and written discourse reflect the changing tensions between rhetorical exigencies and philosophical or theological axioms; at every crucial change in the temper of the Western intellectual tradition a new resolution of these conflicting demands alters the configurations of linguistics, literature, and pedagogy.

This quarrel of philosophy and rhetoric obviously has important repercussions in the theory and practice of history. In order to assess the effects of this tension, however, it is first necessary to establish the external analogues in the careers of rhetoric and historiography. For even on the surface the fortunes of rhetoric and history coincide: both alternate between stages where they played a vital part in a dynamic political situation and those where they were relegated to the schoolroom and the study. Thus rhetoric achieved its status as a profession in the active political and juristic atmosphere of fifth century Sicily after the fall of the tyrants; and it declined as the Greek polis decayed, forensic and judicial oratory becoming increasingly irrelevant means to the realization of public alternatives. History also flourished in Greece both during the period of vitality of the polis and during its earliest period of decline when political issues were still debated with vigor and relevance; but the hardening of the political arteries afflicted history as well.

This cycle is repeated in Rome and Renaissance Italy. Polybius, Sallust, and Tacitus; the Villanis, Bruni, and Machiavelli, are all partisans of genuine debate. There is an even more exact parallel of circumstance; the onset of serious rhetorical interest coincides in all three cases with the beginning of a still hidden but genuine political decline; the concern with rhetoric is part of a destructive self-consciousness which extends to the consciousness of the past in historiography as well as to contemporaneous political and educational roles. In fulfillment of Hegel's dictum that the owl of Minerva takes its flight at dusk, the great historians — Thucydides, Tacitus, Machiavelli — all share the bitterness of describing past ideals in the crepuscular light of the declining years of once vigorous polities which had nourished these ideals.

The main theme of this survey, however, is to show internal as well as external similarities between the career of rhetoric and that of history, and to demonstrate how these similarities reflect very basic relationships between the concept of language and the concept of history. If the tension between philosophy and rhetoric is the dynamic of the history of language theory in antiquity, the history of Greek historiography can be resolved into three dialectical stages. In the first stage, broad and undifferentiated aesthetic and philosophical purposes dominate Ionic historia. There is a second stage of "classical" definition in the fifth and fourth centuries in which both the rhetorical and historical disciplines become distinguished by a cluster of characteristics which are in part the characteristics of modern "historicism": there is a commitment to confront and to extract meaning, i.e. wide and prescriptive human significance, from the flux of events of discourse and action. In the third stage, aesthetic and metaphysical ends (philosophically or theologically defined) again dominate historiography, but in a synthesis which absorbs many of the aims and techniques of the second period. In the Roman development, the three stages again appear, but in a vastly compressed or confused order.

First, then, the problem of artistic form in historiography antedates any imposition of specifically rhetorical form; the historian's preoccupation with aesthetics is rooted in the very ground of all his investigations. Next, the development of rhetoric, as a self-conscious effort at control of aesthetic means and purposes based on the recognition of the instability of the language and action with which it deals, impinges on historiography as a movement which recognizes autonomy of expression and significance. Again style is related to the order of things, but here the primary focus is on the style and order which are human creations. When in the final period the conflict between philosophy and rhetoric grows stale, and the real opportunities for political activity dwindle, the discussion of historical method and literary style exhausts itself in the confusion of philosophical and rhetorical aims, as well as in the eccentricity of Mannerist virtuosity. In a sense the last stage endures through the Middle Ages, for history does not free itself from the difficulties of the Hellenistic Age till the Renaissance, which, like the fifth century, is a ferment of self-conscious exploration of art and epistemology.

To understand the first stage of this development one must understand how the notion of form and the metaphor of unity dominate early Greek art and history: it is necessary to describe the peculiar epistemological status of form in Greek thought as well as the inextricability of the different strands of history, philosophy, fable, and poetry in the web of pre-Socratic intellectual achievement. Here all forms of verbal discourse reflect forms of mental discourse; thus most figures of speech are based on categories of antithesis and contradiction, parallelism and analogy, dichotomy and wholeness which are fundamental to the growth of dialectic as well as stylistic. Moreover, for the Greeks all investigation presupposes the existence of a covering law, the model of a single absolute order. The primary canon of all mental structuring is unity, whether it is of Being as in Parmenides, of process and paradox as in Heraclitus, or of structure itself as in Pythagoras.

To Herodotus, unity is almost arithmetically achieved; the search for meaning and form is understood as a process of compilation. Just as history is defined as a treasury of all types of knowledge, so Herodotus' style is a compendium of all significant extant styles: the early Attic oratorical eloquence of his speeches; the heightened poetic diction of the epic and the Ionic logos for the fables; the concise lucidity of the notes (hypomnemata) of the Ionian scientists for the geographical and ethnographical fabric. A nineteenth-century formulation, the Dionysian-Apollonian paradigm of Nietzsche, illumines Herodotus' dedication to stylistic concerns as well as factual completeness; according to Nietzsche, beauty is of ultimate significance to the early Greeks as the experience of the profound, and thus Herodotus' search for artistic unity becomes an expression of the "seriousness" of his investigation. Yet unity of form and content is achieved in Herodotus' history by aggregation and juxtaposition; his historical virtues are those of inclusiveness, not of definition, his method generous, rather than autarchic.

It is the Sophists who take the crucial step in the development of the relation of what Eduard Norden calls "artistic prose" to history. The Sophistic age produced many refinements of self-awareness within rhetoric, history, tragedy, and philosophy; in part these reflect the Sophists' sharp delineation of and concentration on the sphere of the human as opposed to the metaphysical. Quite simply, the early Sophists decide to deal with the impure: to shun the ideal sphere where pure reason and perfect justice reside for the shifting and uncertain field of action and discourse. In effect, they issue a series of Self-Denying Ordinances in their axiomatic statements. These ordinances assert that only a world of flux and impurity exists, and that a mental operation cannot be divorced from this disorderly matrix. The desire for purity of thought and communication is a delusion, and even the force of logic is a form of violence (bia) mediated through the passions. Sophistic thought denies any stability except the stability of the relationships which it creates. The Sophists' tone can be that of relativism or humanism, subjectivism or individualism, pragmatism or expediency; their anthropocentricism sets up a tension never satisfactorily resolved in Greek thought; even in Plato and Aristotle one finds substantive dichotomies mechanically built up only to be mechanically bridged in a system which emphasizes one aspect of the dichotomy at the expense of the other.

Recent classical scholarship has substantially altered the traditional view of the relation of Sophistic to historiography; the tendency had been to notice only the relative, the expedient, the subjective in the Sophists and the rhetors (those who think Sophistically about discourse), and to see in rhetorical historiography only the exaltation of personal advantage or aesthetic ends over the "truth." But an increase in sophistication about the nature of history as well as the nature of Sophism has established the relationship as positive and fruitful. Using as paradigms Gorgias, who developed Sophistic language principles into a rhetorical techne, and Thucydides, who transformed contemporary linguistic insights into historical insights, it is possible to demonstrate how Gorgian rhetoric and the Sophistic ideal of political arete are more compatible with the purpose of historical investigation than Platonic philosophy and the Socratic concept of absolute justice.

First, then, the serious content, not just the perversions, of the rhetorical tradition must be defined. Gorgias' most fundamental contribution to rhetoric is his development of the relationship of the structure of language to the structure of mind. His notions of language express the Sophistic anthropocentricism which continually affirms both the creativity and the uniqueness of humanity and thus gives, in one vital respect at least, a "historicist" bent to rhetoric. This anthropocentricism has an essentially tragic tone; the "tragic" problem of knowledge — that Being itself is unknowable — underlies the development of rhetoric. A realm of pure Being can neither be known nor communicated (DK 82 B3); the operations of pure reason touch upon our opinions and wills only through the ambivalent power of discourse (logos), a power which can be both rational and demonic. The aesthetic nature of this mediating power is rooted in both the early Greek presupposition of the ultimate significance of beauty and in the Sophistic notion of the human condition: man lives in a world which reflects the chance patterns of play, a world which must be subjected to a human order of measure or beauty in order to be understood or at least accepted. The aesthetic-formal emphasis in Gorgias relies upon an appeal to the ear through measure and rhythm and balance transposed into grammatical, conceptual, and auditory techniques. Stylistic has its epistemological basis in the axiom that meaning in human experience can only be apprehended and communicated aesthetically.

Thus Gorgias, rejecting the pretensions of pure reason, holds that only the incantatory power of words can overcome subjectivism or solipsism; through measure in rhythm and sound the artists conveys measure or proportion in meaning according to patterns of thought which are primordial — the patterns of identity and antithesis — and therefore universally appealing. According to A. Rostagni, this is a Pythagorean concept which had its foundation in Pythagorean ontology; a thing is not a single pure essence but is a unity or harmony of contraries. The harmony which assigns identity is a product of the moment, the proper and fitting circumstance (kairos); for the rhetor the harmony of discourse is a result of his faculty of knowing and exploiting the kairotic, of his mastery of the appropriate (to prepon). Excellence is the product of dynamic relationships; to make a thing beautiful or unbeautiful, just or unjust, good or bad is both a human power and a sign of the insubstantiality of these attributes. Thus rhetoric is concerned with content as well as form; the rhetorical techniques of "finding" content (heuresis) deals in the probable (eikos), which has a problematic relationship to the truth (aletheia). The problematic or unstable quality of language seems exhilarating to Gorgias: he is self-consciously playful about his Praise of Helen of Troy (DK 82 B11.21), and Gorgian rhetoric has many of the characteristics of a "language game," with all the emphasis on epistemological suppleness and versatility which the word "game" implies. Rhetoric defines a field of activity with limited, not absolute ends, a field set aside by the rules which relate to the control of emotional forces which are fundamentally unpredictable and perverse.

Yet if rhetoric trains men to speak appropriately and well (to eu legein), it does this because it must fit into a social framework of specific human purposes; Plato defines rhetoric as the art of persuasion (Gorgias, 45 3A). If rhetorical psychology has its roots in the philosophy of Magna Graecia, rhetoric as the persuasive manipulation of the verisimilar begins with the Sicilian litigations of Corax and Tisias; in Athens Gorgias of Leontini perceived his educational mission as to teach the use of this demonic power of words to politically committed men who must persuade others to action or decision. Discourse (logos) through technique penetrates opinion (doxa), which directs the will. Since, according to Gorgias, men are incapable of recognizing the "pure" truth (aletheia) when they hear it spoken, the teaching of virtue is irrelevant; Gorgias tried to teach instead the means for arousing the passion for virtue. Rhetoric is psyehagogia, "leading of the soul" (Phaedrus, 271D). Gorgias compared the power of words to that of drugs which could induce either health or sickness (DK 82 B11.14); to him, rhetoric was not immoral but amoral; yet he felt the humanistic preoccupations with broad experience and learning should incline the rhetor to the right, the humanly appropriate, action. He praised the Athenians for preferring a mild equity (to praon epieikes) to a harsh justice; to Gorgias political excellence has the same inner structure as rhetorical excellence: epieikeia as well as literary decorum (to prepon) is the product of an awareness of the right moment (kairos), the accompanying circumstances (DK 82 B6). Paradoxically, some of the strongest evidence for the seriousness of the rhetors' commitment to the public values of persuasion is to be found in the attacks on Gorgias and his followers in Plato's dialogues. For example, Socrates' accusation of Callicles, that "the love of the Demos dwells in his soul" and blinds him to the absolutes, is based on the assumption that Gorgias' disciples feel they are responding to the real political exigencies of the period (Gorgias, 513C).


Excerpted from The Language of History in the Renaissance by Nancy S. Struever. Copyright © 1970 PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • Frontmatter, pg. i
  • CONTENTS, pg. ix
  • I. The Background of humanist historical language, pg. 5
  • II. Rhetoric, Poetics, and History–COLUCCIO SALUTATI, pg. 40
  • III. Rhetoric, Politics, and History–LEONARDO BRUNI, pg. 101
  • IV. Rhetoric, Ethics, and History–POGGIO BRACCIOLINI, pg. 144
  • INDEX, pg. 201

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