Definitions, Explanations, and Defenses of Style: Classical to 19th c.

In working on my first paper a bit today, I decided to turn to the rhetorical tradition for a bit of context.  Here are some of the more important thoughts I’ve gleaned.  Some of these are useful and will be integrated into my paper; others are just plain entertaining.  I always get a kick out of reading Thomas Wilson, and I don’t care who knows it!  Either way, I thought some of my colleagues in 5365 might find them useful.

All page numbers refer to Bizzell and Herzberg, The Rhetorical Tradition (1990).

Aristotle, Rhetoric, Book III   (Lee Honeycutt’s hypertext version)

Chapter I: “As to the place of style: the right thing in speaking really is that we should fight our case with no help beyong the bare facts; and yet the arts of language cannot help having a small but real importance, whatever it is we have to expound to others.”

“Even now most uneducated people think that poetical language makes the finest discourses. That is not true: the language of prose is distinct from that of poetry. […] It is therefore ridiculous to imitate a poetical manner which the poets themselves have dropped; and it is now plain that we have not to treat in detail the whole question of style, but may confine ourselves to that part of it which concerns our present subject, rhetoric. The other — the poetical — part of it has been discussed in the treatise on the Art of Poetry.
Chapter II: “We may, then, start from the observations there made, including the definition of style. Style to be good must be clear, as is proved by the fact that speech which fails to convey a plain meaning will fail to do just what speech has to do. It must also be appropriate, avoiding both meanness and undue elevation; poetical language is certainly free from meanness, but it is not appropriate to prose. Clearness is secured by using the words (nouns and verbs alike) that are current and ordinary. Freedom from meanness, and positive adornment too, are secured by using the other words mentioned in the Art of Poetry. Such variation from what is usual makes the language appear more stately.

“We can now see that a writer must disguise his art and give the impression of speaking naturally and not artificially. Naturalness is persuasive, artificiality is the contrary; for our hearers are prejudiced and think we have some design against them, as if we were mixing their wines for them.

Cicero, Of Oratory, Book I

Chapter XI: “..the good speakers bring, as their peculiar possession, a style that is harmonious, graceful, and marked by a certain artistry and polish.”   (later) “a style that is dignified and graceful and in conformity with the general modes of thought and judgment.”

Chapter XIV: “yet if anyone should wish by speaking to put these same arts in their full light, it is to oratorical skill that he must run for help” … “it is nearer the truth to say that neither can anyone be eloquent upon a subject that is unknown to him, nor, if he knows it perfectly and yet does not know how to shape and polish his style, can he speak fluently even upon that which he does know”

Rhetorica ad Herennium

Book IV, Chapter VIII: “There are, then, three kinds of style, called types, to which discourse, if faultless, confines itself: the first we call the Grand; the second, the Middle, the third, the Simple.  The Grand type consists of a smooth and ornate arrangement of impressive words. The Middle type consists of words of a lower, yet not of the lowest and most colloquial, class of words. The Simple type is brought down even to the most current idiom of standard speech.

“But in striving to attain these styles, we must avoid falling into faulty styles closely akin to them. For instance, bordering on the Grand style, which is in itself praiseworthy, there is a style to be avoided. To call this the Swollen style will prove correct.”  (further descriptors: “turgid, inflated, archaic, clumsy, diction more impressive than the theme demands)

“Those setting out to attain the Middle style, if unsuccessful, stray from the course and arrive at an adjacent type, which we call the Slack because it is without sinews and joints; accordingly I may call it the Drifting, since it drifts to and fro, and cannot get under way with resolution and virility.” (further descriptors: “doesn’t encompass thought in a well-rounded period)

“Those who cannot skillfully employ that elegant simplicity of diction discussed above, arrive at a dry and bloodless kind of style which may aptly be called the Meager.” (further descriptors: “mean, trifling, not correct)

Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Book IV

“He, therefore, who strives in speaking, to convince of what is good, since he is concerned with the threefold aim, viz., instructing, pleasing, and persuading, should pray and labor, as we have said above, to make himself understood, enjoyed, and persuasive.  And when he accomplishes this rightly and fitly, he is not unworthily called eloquent, even though the agreement of his hearer does not follow him. (400)

“Thus it is that we use even the ornament of the moderate style not ostentatiously, but wisely, not content with its own purpose, namely, merely to please the audience, but rather striving for this, to help them even thereby to the good toward which our persuasion aims” (411)

Erasmus, Copia: Foundations of the Abundant Style

“As the proverb says, ‘Not every man has the means to visit the city of Corinth.’  We find that a good many mortal men who make great efforts to achieve this godlike power of speech fall instead into mere glibness, which is both silly and offensive. They pile up a meaningless heap of words and expressions without any discrimination, and thus obscure the subject they are talking about, as well as belaboring the ears of their unfortunate audience.” (502)

“…if we are not instructed in these techniques, we shall often be found unintelligible, harsh, or even totally unable to express ourselves.” (506)

Ramus, Arguments In Rhetoric Against Quintilian

“I shall not object to your opinion that moral virtue is undoubtedly useful and suitable for the use of all arts, but in no way shall I admit that any art is a moral virtue” (568)

Dismissal: “those two parts, style and delivery, are the only true parts of the art of rhetoric.” (568)

Wilson, The Arte of Rhetorique

“Now an eloquent man beyng smally learned, can do muche more good in perswading, by shift of wordes, and mete placyng of matter: then a greate learned clerke shalbe able with great store of learnyng, wantyng wordes to set furth his meanyng.” (616)

“Foure partes belongyng to Elocucion.

    1. Plainnesse.
    2. Aptenesse.
    3. Composicion.
    4. Exornacion.

Plainnesse: “Emong al other lessons, this should first be learned, that we never affect any strange ynkehorne termes, but so speake as is commonly received, neither sekyng to be over fine, nor yet livyng over carelesse, usyng our speache as most men do, and ordryng our wittes, as the fewest have doen.”

Aptnesse: “Suche are thought apt wordes, that properly agre unto that thyng, whiche thei signifie, and plainly expresse the nature of thesame. Therefore thei that have regard of their estimacion, do warely speake, and with choyse, utter woordes moste apte for their purpose.”

Composicion: “Composicion therefore, is an apte joynyng together of wordes in such order ,that neither the ear shal espie any jerre, nor yet any man shalbe dulled with overlong drawing out of a sentence, nor yet muche confounded with myngelyng of clauses, such as are nedelesse, beyng heaped together without reason, and used without nomber.”

Exornation: “Exornation is a gorgiousse beautifiynge of the tongue with borowed wordes, and chaung of sentence or speache, with muche varietie.  Firste therfore (as Tullie saythe) an Oration is made to seme ryghte excellente by the kinde selfe, by the colour and juice of speache.”

Bacon, Novum Organum

LIX: “For Men believe that their reason governs words; but it is also true that words react on the understanding; and this it is that has rendered philosophy and the sciences sophistical and inactive. Now words, being commonly framed and applied according to the capacity of the vulgar, follow those lines of division which are most obvious to the vulgar understanding.  And whenever an understanding of greater acuteness or a more diligent observation would alter those lines to suit the true divisions of nature, words stand in the way and resist the change.” (632)

Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

Book III, Chapter IX: “the very nature of words makes it almost unavoidable for many of them to be doubtful and uncertain in their significations.

“The chief end of language in communication being to be understood, words serve not so well for that end, neither in civil nor philosophical discourse, when any word does not excite in the hearer the same idea which it stands for in the mind of the speaker.”

Chapter X: “He that hath words of any language, without distinct ideas in his mind to which he applies them, does, so far as he uses them in discourse, only make a noise without any sense or signification […] for all such words, however put into discourse, according to the right construction of grammatical rules, or the harmony of well-turned periods, do yet amount to nothing but bare sounds, and nothing else.”

“He that has complex ideas, without particular names for them, would be in no better case than a bookseller, who had in his warehouse volumes that lay there unbound, and without titles […] so is fain often to use twenty words, to express what another man signifies in one.”

Campbell, The Philosophy of Rhetoric

Book I, Chapter I: “In speaking there is always some end proposed, or some effect which the speaker intends to produce on the hearer. The word eloquence in its greatest latitude denotes, ‘That art or talent by which the discourse is adapted to its end.'”  (recognizing carefully that Campbell often uses the terms eloquence and rhetoric interchangeably)

Blair, Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres

Lecture 1: “To speak or to write perspicuously and agreeably with purity, with grace and strength, are attainments of the utmost consequence to all who purpose, either by speech or writing, to address the public. For without being master of those attainments, no man can do justice to his own conceptions; but how rich soever he may be in knowledge and in good sense, will be able to avail himself less of those treasures, than such as possess not half his store, but who can display what they possess with more propriety.” (799)

Day, The Art of Discourse

“There is a pleasure in expressing thoughts that have sprung into being from one’s own creative intellect; of embodying them in appropriate forms of language.” (872)

“Style is that part of rhetoric which treats of the expression of thought in language”


2 thoughts on “Definitions, Explanations, and Defenses of Style: Classical to 19th c.

  1. Where would you say we fall into rhetoric today? posthumanism? What exactly does that mean? Are there elements in the economics of attention and technical communication and rhetoric that we see today? There is the art of discourse, certainly, and a tie to organization, style, and Roman appeals to goodness. What impact does technology play?

  2. I’ll definitely have to take those questions up sometime in the next weeks–I’m mostly lucky you didn’t get me thinking about posthumanism BEFORE that draft was due. Otherwise, I may never have written it!

    I wonder, though. How posthuman can rhetoric really be? Persuasion–even broadly defined–is ultimately focused to a person. We can have technological rhetorics (especially since rhetoric itself is a technology), but can we have a rhetoric that gets at describing how technology itself is ‘persuaded’? If we stick with a Burkean motion/action frame (as I am wont to do), I’m not sure that we can–I’m not sure how useful posthumanism is here. But I’ve not done much reading in that theoretical domain, either…

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