History of Rhetoric: Classical to Renaissance
ENGL 6/7505 - Spring 2009
R 6:00-9:00 • Peck Hall 385

Dr. James Comas
PH 385 • 898-2606
Office hours: TR 10:00-12:00


. . . our questions will have nothing more to name but the texture of the text, reading and writing, mastery and play, the paradoxes of supplementarity,
and the graphic relations between the living and the dead . . . .
J. Derrida, "Plato's Pharmacy"

Scope and Structure of this Class

Traditionally, "history of rhetoric" courses are taught as a survey of the rhetorical canon, beginning with the Sophists and Plato and progressing chronologically to our present era (a period often portrayed as a time of great enlightenment). I would like to try something a bit different in this class, something that will help us focus attention on our own situation as intellectuals who, looking back over our shoulders, gaze upon the vista of an imposing past. Instead of stomping through the rhetorical canon, we will examine how contemporary scholars in composition and literataure have engaged key works of this canon; or more precisely, we will examine how these scholars have felt compelled to engage these works. Why, for example, did Roland Barthes, Terry Eagleton, and others turn to ancient rhetoric when they sought to establish a foundation for the critical study of literature? Similarly, why did Susan Jarrett and other compositionists look back to the Sophists in order to develop an intellectual foundation grounded in contemporary feminism? In this class, then, we will be examining, in the words of Jacques Derrida, "the graphic relations between the living and the dead."

We will begin by examining the contemporary uses of the term rhetoric by scholars in literature, composition, and cultural studies. But we will soon find that any study of contemporary theory must be attentive to the enormous influence of the classical tradition. Thus in addition to the fundamental question that will shape our inquiry, I have structured the course to enable us to consider the influence of the classical tradition of rhetoric, in particular, the ways in which rhetoric was conceptualized in ancient Greece:

What led the ancient Greeks to talk about certain uses of language as "rhetorical"? We will find that the concept of rhetoric emerges in Western thought within a context of radical political change, including fundamental issues of justice and democracy.

We will also find that, within this tradition, rhetoric is conceptualized in opposition to philosophy; thus, our second area of study will be this relationship of rhetoric and philosophy, tracing it from Plato's invention of philosophy to modern applications of rhetorical approaches to traditional philosophical problems.

Another opposition that has influenced modern rhetorical theory is that between rhetoric and literature: Does literature have a rhetorical dimension? Our third area of study will take up this issue by reading a famous debate on the question and then by surveying various rhetoric-based literary theories.

Our final area of inquiry will be the use of rhetorical theory in the teaching of writing. In many ways, this final inquiry will pull together the issues and ideas that we will find in the three preceding inquiries:

These issues are brought together by the question of writing, a question that I will pose broadly: "What are we doing when we write?" This question will lead us to consider the possibility that the question of writing is, essentially, a question of community; and the question of community is, ultimately, an ethical question of how we relate ourselves to that which is Other.


In the following list of required and recommended books, you will see that the ISBNs are linked to Amazon.com, where you'll find used copies at reasonable prices.


For the last several years, historical surveys of rhetoric typically have relied on Bruce Herzberg & Patricia Bizzell's anthology, The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present (2000). In spite of the convenience of having most of the prinamy readings between the covers of a single book, I decided against this "tome" option largely because it is, of necessity, too tidy a representation of history.

Readings from Classical Rhetoric, ed. Patricia P. Matsen, Philip Rollinson, & Marion Sousa (Southern Illinois UP, 1990). ISBN: 0-312-10106-6

This book is available via the Reserve Desk at Walker Library, and is available online.

Plato, Gorgias, trans. James H. Nichols (Cornell UP, 1998). ISBN 9780801485275

Although good translations of both the Gorigias and the Phaedrus are included in the Readings from Classical Rhetoric anthology, Nichols's translations are, in my judgment, the best of the many fine English translations; and used copies are quite inexpensive. You may, however, use other translations for our class; in fact, it is always informative to compare translations. Walker Library does not hold Nichols's translations (but I plan to donate copies at the beginning of the semester).

Plato, Phaedrus, trans. James H. Nichols (Cornell UP, 1998). ISBN: 9780801485329

Aristotle, On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse, trans. George A. Kennedy (Oxford UP, 2006). ISBN: 0195305094.

The Readings from Classical Rhetoric anthology only contains selections from Aristotle's Rhetoric, so we will be using the Kennedy translation, which is now regarded as the standard. In addition, Kennedy's volume contains his translation of Gorgias' Helen, which we will be reading during our first week. Walker library holds a copy of the first edition (1991); I have submitted a request that they purchase the 2nd rev. edition (2006).

Readings in Medieval Rhetoric, ed. Joseph M. Miller, Michael H. Prosser, & Thomas W. Benson (Indiana UP, 1974). ISBN: 025334879X

This book, the only anthology of medieval rhetoric in English translation, is out of print. But Amazon has several used copies; so I decdided to use it. Walker Library holds a copy that will be available via reserve.

Renaissance Debates on Rhetoric, ed. Wayne A. Rebhorn (Cornell UP, 2000). ISBN: 9780801482069

A much needed anthology that presents rhetorical theories of the European Renaissance within their philosophical, political, educational, and literary contexts. It will be available via the Walker Library reserve.


Conley's and Kennedy's studies are two of the three recent historical overviews of Western rhetoric in English. The third is Brian Vickers's In Defence of Rhetoric, which is a more detailed and critical study (not to mention more expensive). I strongly recommend that every student of rhetoric own Conley's book and that every student interested in ancient rhetoric and its reception own, in addition, Kennedy's book. Vickers's book will be available via Walker reserve.

Thomas M. Conley, Rhetoric in the European Tradition (U of Chicago P, 1990). ISBN: 9780226114897

Conley's book provides a solid basis for the study of the history of Western rhetoric; also, it is the most readable of the histories of rhetoric.

George A. Kennedy, Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times, 2nd rev. ed. (U of North Carolina P, 1999). ISBN: 9780807847695

Kennedy's book treats the history of rhetoric as a sequence of receptions of the classical thought.


Last update: 28-Dec-08

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Dr. James N. Comas (James.Comas@mtsu.edu)
Middle Tennessee State University
English Dept., Box 70
Murfreesboro, TN 37132

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