THE OXFORD HANDBOOK OF RHETORICAL STUDIES

Edited by Michael J. MacDonald

OUP (2017) h/b 819pp £97 (ISBN 9780199731596)

Do not be misled by the title: this book requires at least two hands and will not help you to spot a chiasmus. Rather it is a monumental survey of the impact rhetoric has had since the invention of the term (possibly by Plato, whose Gorgias contains the earliest surviving use of the word) up to the present day. The contention of the editor is that rhetoric, which he defines ‘(nebulously enough) as the art of effective composition and persuasion in speech, writing and other media’ (p. 5) and was once relegated to the cabinet of curiosities, is enjoying a renaissance both in practice and in research interest. Thus the essays from the sixty contributors range in subject-matter from the predictable (‘The Development of Greek Rhetoric’) to the outré (‘Rhetoric and Digital Media’), on the way taking in, among many other domains, architecture, science, feminism, psychoanalysis and the environment. 

To impart a navigable structure to the handbook, M. has divided it, by era, into six sections, in several cases with an introductory chapter of orientation—Ancient Greek, Ancient Roman (these first two comprising some 3/8 of the whole), Mediaeval, Renaissance, Early Modern and Enlightenment, and (the longest) Modern and Contemporary. The chapters within each section in many cases pick up a particular thread which runs across several or even all the nominated eras; the law, politics, historiography, education, philosophy, poetics, theatre, visual arts, and so on; M. explores each of these themes in his introduction. In each section, however, and above all in the final one, there are also essays which seem specific to their time. An essay can therefore be read in isolation (and has its own bibliography), or as part of an era, or as a knot on a thread. The handbook also provides a Timeline of major works of rhetorical relevance, including those which do not fall within the official eras; a Glossary of rhetorical terms in Greek (transliterated), Latin and English; and an index.

The merits and demerits of the Handbook in large measure follow from the design itself. First of all, there are what could be considered sins of omission: the eras are comprehensive but not exhaustive, the geographical scope restricted to western Europe and America, and the more outlandish topics prone to suggest others (where is the rhetoric of advertising?). But in such a cornucopia, these are cavils. Then there is the problem of consistency. ‘Rhetorical Studies’ is a protean phrase which morphs from ‘the study of rhetoric itself’ to, among other things, ‘the study of the study of rhetoric’ or ‘the study of the application of rhetoric’. This does not in itself matter, but add to it the scope each contributor was given to tackle his or her topic as he or she chose, and the continuity of the threads can become tangled. For example, ‘Rhetoric and Pedagogy’ (a title in each of the Greek, Roman and Renaissance sections) in the Greek and Renaissance sections looks at how pupils studied, whereas in the Roman section it offers a (welcome but very different) analysis of Roman attitudes to rhetoric and of Cicero’s treatises in particular. 

Nevertheless, the lack of co-ordination allows the personal voice of the contributor to sound out. This produces variety and liveliness, opinions to agree and disagree with and enlightening perspectives—for instance, that ancient Athenian rhetoric tended to be socially divisive, while Roman rhetoric tended to be socially cohesive. Another problem of the format is that it gives disproportionate weight to less mainstream topics—within the ancient Roman section, ‘Rhetoric and Fiction’ receives 10 pages, the same as ‘Rhetoric and the Law’. Thus, as in the latter case, where an essay must cover centuries of theory and practice, there is little room for the detailed discussion of individual authors. Again, this has its positive side—the sweep of cinema-scope is what is missing when concentrating on single texts, and in this Handbook it complements such close-ups as are accommodated, for example of Aristophanes and Augustine. Furthermore some of the most significant long-term developments took place in just those less conspicuous corners: fiction, i.e. the novel, was a very direct descendant from declamation, that is, from the training exercises to which novice orators were subjected. One final bone one might pick: when you read the essays sequentially, you encounter a degree of repetition or overlap between them—for this reason it is worth tackling those on Plato (Gorgias, Phaedrus) and Aristotle (Rhetoric) at the outset, as these provide some of the most important conceptual background. This is, however, the price paid for detachability: the Handbook really does make it possible to locate a specific area of interest in a single essay and then radiate out from it. 

In short, the Handbook cannot be all things to all readers but it surely will be many things to many. M.’s introduction is wise and helpful, aware of the inevitable drawbacks in the approach taken and making realistic claims for the value of the undertaking. The pedant can find sport in misprints (notably in the Glossary, e.g. ‘procthesis’ for proecthesis, or ‘raciocinatio’ for ratiocinatio, but also in some of the Greek transliteration, e.g. ‘producer of persuasion’ [peithous apa demiourgos, whatever apa  is supposed to be; cf. Gorgias 453a], p. 4; and macrons passim). More significantly, the cost and the large proportion of the Handbook devoted to non-classical rhetoric might make it an extravagance for a classicist’s private bookshelves. But it will be emphatically worth incorporating, or seeking out, in a library—not least for the ramifications in rhetorical studies that the Handbook reveals.

Christopher Tanfield

We welcome your comments; please send via our social media.
Back to Reading Room