6/7510 - Session 2: Rhetoric on the Eve of Modernity

Having used our first session to get acquainted with the interests and concerns that shape the contemporary study of rhetoric, we now turn to our first set of historical readings and to the basic historiographical problem of our seminar -- the question of "modernity." The historical range of our class begins with the period of time that many contemporary historians now characterize as "early modernity"; so we will want to acquire some understanding of what is meant by "early modernity" in order to consider how rhetorical theories functioned within this context. As an introduction to the study of "modernity" we will read Stephen Toulmin's "What Is the Problem about Modernity?" the opening chapter of his Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (1990). Then, we turn to the work of two intellectuals often associated with "early modernity"—Michel de Montaigne and Francis Bacon. The juxtaposition of these two thinkers is especially interesting, I think, in that both are critical of the rhetorical education of their time while devising new genres of prose that represent contrasting modes of experience: the experience of one's self (the personal essay) and the experience of the natural world (empirically-based scientific prose).

I. Introduction to the Study of "Modernity"

I've decided to use the opening chapter of Stephen Toulmin's Cosmopolis as an introduction to the problem of modernity because it provides a useful overview of influential, contemporary discussions. In addition, Toulmin offers his own theory of modernity, arguing that it should be understood as having two, competing tracks: (1) a rationalist track that privileges universality, transcendence, and theory and (2) a humanist, or pragmatic track that privileges particularity, locality, and practical experience. As you'll see, Toulmin believes that Montaigne is the progenitor of this humanist track; thus, from his perspective, Montaigne is a key figure in understanding the nature of modernity.

Required Reading


II. Montaigne: Rhetoric and the Modern Self

Montaigne's status among contemporary teachers of writing involves a curious inconsistency. On the one hand, he is regarded as the originator of a genre that occupies a prominent place in modern composition pedagogy: the informal essay. Nevertheless, Montaigne's writings on rhetoric, which constitute a critique of the rhetorical education of his time, have received little, if any attention from compositionists. Similarly, Montaigne is virtually neglected by modern historians of rhetoric. For instance, he is mentioned only three times and only in passing in Brian Vickers's magnum opus, In Defence of Rhetoric (1988). Thomas M. Conley's Rhetoric in the European Tradition (1988) ignores Montaigne altogether. Likewise, none of Montaigne's writing is included in the Bizzell and Herzberg anthology, The Rhetorical Tradition (2nd. ed. 2001). Bizzell and Herzberg do include a brief description of Montaigne's skepticism; but the description serves the purpose of providing a general intellectual backdrop and is not as an example of the emergence of humanists "who were consummate stylists but whose intellectual life seemed divorced from their political functions" (574). In our readings, we will find that Montaigne was quite critical of the rhetorical education of his time; and we will want to consider how Montaigne's criticism of rhetoric is related to the genre of the essay and to the "modern" subjectivity that manifests itself in this new genre.

Primary Works

Historical Scholarship

I selected Brake's article because it is one of only a handful of scholarly pieces on Montaigne's view of rhetoric. Brake's discussion is notable as well in that he takes into account the philosophical skepticism at the core of Montaigne's thought. The article is a somewhat expanded version of Brake's "Michael Montaigne: A Skeptic's Views on Rhetoric." Southern Speech Journal 33 (1967): 29-37.

Compagnon chairs the program in "Littérature française moderne et contemporaine: histoire, critique, théorie" at the Collège de France. He has published two books on Montaigne, Nous, Michel de Montaigne (Seuil, 1980) and Chat en poche: Montaigne et l'allégorie (Seuil, 1993), as well as a more recent book on antimodernism in 19th and 20th-century French literature, Les Antimodernes, de Joseph de Maistre à Roland Barthes (Gallimard, 2005).

Contemporary Applications

Spellmeyer's article has been influential among compositionists who believe that college composition courses should offer instruction in "personal" writing as well as training in academic discourse. I selected the article because it shows how Montaigne's notions of the personal essay remain important to contemporary teachers of composition.


III. Bacon: Rhetoric and Nature

Unlike the writings of Montaigne, the writings of Bacon have received a great amount of attention from historians of rhetoric, especially since the mid-twentieth century, largely because of the rapidly increasing demands of scientific and technical writing. We will be interested primarily to see how these kinds of demands are felt by Bacon and, of course, how he attempts to deal with them.

Historical Overview

Historical Scholarship

Vickers is Professor Emeritus of English Language and Literature at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich. He is one of the most influential historians of rhetoric (see In Defence of Rhetoric) and, in 1977, founded the International Society for the History of Rhetoric. Vickers specializes in the English Renaissance and is a prominent Bacon scholar. From his many publications on Bacon, I selected Vickers's chapter in the Cambridge Companion because it contains his most recent overview of Bacon's thinking on rhetoric; in addition, it contains a brief, critical review of contemporary scholarship on the topic of Bacon and rhetoric.

Primary Works


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Last update: 8/12/11

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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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