Rhetoric and Renaissance

The elevation of rhetoric in the Renaissance has a deep connection with the long-running distinction between the “active” and “contemplative” lives (vita activa and vita contemplativa). In Italy especially, the turn toward the values of the Roman Republic, with its emphasis on public political life spurred greater interest in rhetoric, because rhetoric, the classical art of persuasion, was of great utility in political life.

Recall that Aristotle defined politics as the life of rational deliberation about the just and the unjust (Politics 1253a8-15), and said that both ethics and rhetoric were aimed at practical matters which admitted of no strict logical certainty (Rhetoric 1354-1358; Nicomachean Ethics 1113a1). Rhetoric aims at moving the passions toward the practical goal of ethical goodness more than at moving the intellect toward the speculative goal of rational apprehension of the essences or forms of things. As Charles Nauert writes,

Whereas the scholastic education of the Middle Ages, which exalted logic above all the other liberal arts, seemed suited to the needs of men seeking the absolute certainty required in theology and natural science, it did not seem very attractive to young men who saw their future in making the debatable, merely probable determinations required in government or the law courts. The humanistic arts of grammar (that is, clear and correct writing and speaking) and rhetoric (that is, persuasive argument and the making of practical decisions on the basis of probability) seemed far more useful for young men of the politically dominant class.:”(Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe, second edition [Cambridge University Press, 2006], pg. 14)”:

Note this explanation of the importance of rhetoric in the Renaissance – it assumes a whole different view of man’s nature and goals than the intellectualist orientation:

…Underlying this exaltation of moral philosophy and rhetoric (the true core subjects of humanistic educational theory, even if repetitive drilling on the details of grammar and Ciceronian style constituted the daily reality of the classroom) is a widely held view of human nature: that human beings are primarily creatures of passion, not of intellect; that the goal of human life is to act in a real world of flesh and blood, not to disdain the material world and seek fulfilment in contemplation of a purely spiritual reality; that God must be approached through love and grace and not primarily (or not at all) through rationalistic argumentation.:”(Ibid., pg. 204.)”:

Throughout the Middle Ages, man was held to be a tripartite being: body, reason, and will. The will was an important part of his makeup, but not the most important part. But in the later Middle Ages, there was a growing trend called voluntarism, found in several diverse movements, to emphasize the will as the most important part of man. In philosophy there were the Nominalists (keeping in mind the difficult connotations of that word). In theology it took the form of an increasing emphasis on divine predestination (also following Augustine). In popular piety there was the Devotio Moderna. In terms of the Renaissance, this emphasis was promoted by Petrarch, who followed St. Augustine in holding that a man is his will. For Augustine, man’s life is characterized by what he loves, and love is fundamentally related to the will.

Petrarch (1304-1374) took up this theme in terms of the Ancient categories of Virtue and Vice relative to man’s place in the world and his ultimate end. Whereas Augustine believed that the will could not be divided – it was either good or evil – Petrarch held that the will could be divided: sometimes it could want the good, other times it could want evil. Petrarch held that “It is better to will the good than to know the truth.” Charles Trinkaus puts it this way: “with Augustine as his mentor and model [Petrarch] was able to feel his way towards a new vision of Christianity adjusted to the new needs of his own time and re-synthesized with classical moral thought and the teachings of ancient rhetoric and poetic (three branches of ancient culture that were in essential harmony with each other).”:”(Charles Trinkaus, In Our Image and Likeness: Humanity and Divinity in Italian Humanist Thought Vol. 1 [The University of Chicago Press, 1970], pg. 18.)”:

In this light, Petrarch’s popularizer, Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406), wrote the following on logic vs. rhetoric (reason vs. will):

[…] So much for logic, which acts on the intellect with compelling force by means of reasoning. Now let us pass on to Rhetoric which accompanies logic, but acts upon the will. Both of these aim at the same goal but by different ways. The one enlightens the mind to an intellectual conviction; the other brings it into a willing attitude, or, to put it in another way, the one proves in order to teach; the other persuades in order to guide.

I know not how to carry on this discussion more effectively than by using the words of Saint Aurelius Augustine. In the fourth book of his de doctrina christiana he solves the problem as follows:

“The art of rhetoric may be used to persuade both to truth and to falsehood, and who dare say that the truth (in the person of its defenders) ought to stand unarmed against falsehood so that those who are trying to persuade men to falsehood shall know how to make their audience friendly and interested and receptive from the start, while the champions of truth shall not know how to do this? Shall the former present falsehood tersely, clearly and plausibly while the latter set forth the truth so that it is tedious to hear, difficult to understand and unattractive to believe? Are the former to oppose truth with fallacious arguments and false assertions, while the latter are unable to defend the truth or to refute falsehood? Shall the former stir the minds of their hearers to error, terrify, sadden, rouse and exhort in glowing speech, while the latter are cold, slow and languid in the defense of truth? Who is such a fool as to call this wisdom? Since, then, the art of eloquence standing between the two can persuade powerfully to either good or evil, why is no preparation made by good men to fight for the truth when evil men are using this art in the service of wrong or error to gain their own vain and wicked ends?”

Such are the words of the holy father Augustine. And now, then! Does it really seem to you that this famous doctor is forbidding to Christians and to those entering upon the way of God the study of rhetoric, although it is the heritage of Cicero, the special weapon of the heathen, their sword and spear?:”(Cited from Ephraim Emerton, Humanism and Tyranny: Studies in the Italian Trecento [Gloucester, Ma, 1964], pp. 358-59.)”:


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