In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Rhetoric

  • Introduction
  • Historical Background
  • Specific Overviews of Renaissance Rhetoric
  • Bibliographical Tools and Guides
  • Renaissance Humanism
  • Spanish World
  • Logic, Method, and Rhetoric

Renaissance and Reformation Rhetoric
John Monfasani
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0183


In various guises rhetoric, the art of persuasion, has played an important role in Western education and culture since Antiquity. Corax and Tisiasare are said to have written the first manuals for the new democratic regimes of 5th-century-BCE Syracuse, but it was Sophists who popularized the art throughout Greece. Plato (b. 427–d. 347 BCE) despised what he deemed the beguiling trickery of the Sophists, but his pupil Aristotle (b. 384–d. 322 BCE) decided that rhetoric was too valuable an art to be left to the Sophists. So he wrote one of the most intellectually sophisticated of all Rhetorics. By the 3rd century BCE, rhetoricians, not philosophers, had become the main purveyors of higher education to the Greeks. The Romans embraced Greek rhetoric and rhetorical education. Church Fathers such as Augustine and Cyprian pursued careers as rhetoricians before becoming Church leaders. But the greatest figure in Latin rhetoric was the orator and political figure Cicero (b. 106–d. 43 BCE), whose orations set the standard for Latin rhetorical performance and whose manuals, the De Inventione and the Rhetorica ad Herennium (written by an anonymous contemporary but attributed to Cicero), remained the most widely studied classical texts through the Renaissance. Only the Institutio Oratoria of Quintilian (b. c. 35–d. c. 100) would rival these two “Ciceronian” works. Classical rhetoric divided into five parts: two main parts, argumentation and stylistics, and three lesser parts, disposition, delivery, and memory. It operated in three spheres: juridical oratory (genus iudiciale), political oratory (genus deliberativum), and social oratory (genus demonstrativum). The disappearance of republics eliminated any salience for political rhetoric, but juridical rhetoric and social rhetoric retained their value to the end of Antiquity. In the Middle Ages, rhetoric played second fiddle first to grammar in the scheme of the seven liberal arts, and then to the scientific culture of scholasticism in the medieval universities. But the Middle Ages did have its Rhetorics, namely, a series of artes that exploited for their own purposes different aspects of classical rhetoric. These were the art of writing letters (ars dictaminis), the art of public speaking (ars arengandi), the art of preaching (ars praedicandi), and the art of poetry (ars poetria). The humanists of the Italian Renaissance proposed to restore classical Latin, and along with it, the full classical art of rhetoric. They were generally successful in the former, but achieved only mixed results in the latter. Already by the later 15th century, the Dutch humanist Rudolph Agricola (b. 1444–d. 1485) was proposing to move rhetorical argumentation to logic, thus leaving to rhetoric only stylistics, as in the medieval tradition. The conflict between those who wanted the full classical art and those who would reduce it to stylistics was never resolved in the Renaissance.

Historical Background

Six surveys that put the Renaissance in a broad historical context are useful. Conley 1990 and Kennedy 1999 are similar in that they provide coherent historical narratives but distinct in that each was written by a recognized master of the topic whose particular opinions on any given text or author are worth knowing. Fumaroli 1999 is a rich anthology with important articles, while Ueding 1992–2007 can be viewed as a vastly expanded anthology with up-to-date authoritative articles on a wide range of topics. Kristeller 1979 concentrates on the relationship of rhetoric to philosophy, which in a way is the topic of Vickers 1988, in which the author defends rhetoric from the criticism of philosophers and others.

  • Conley, Thomas M. Rhetoric in the European Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

    Consistently lively and insightful from the 5th century BCE to the 20th century.

  • Fumaroli, Marc, ed. Histoire de la rhétorique dans l’Europe moderne 1450–1950. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1999.

    The articles by various scholars treat rhetoric from Antiquity to the 20th century. Those on the Renaissance are competently done.

  • Kennedy, George A. Classical Rhetoric & Its Christian and Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times. 2d ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

    Long a master of the field, Kennedy has written a magisterial history with special concentration on the period from Antiquity to the 18th century.

  • Kristeller, Paul. O. Renaissance Thought and Its Sources. Edited by Michael Mooney. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.

    The last section (“Part Five: Philosophy and Rhetoric from Antiquity to the Renaissance”), pp. 211–259, contains the views of the greatest historian of the Renaissance of the 20th century on a subject he knew intimately, the relationship of rhetoric and philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance.

  • Ueding, Gert, ed. Historisches Wörterbuch der Rhetorik, 10 vols. Tübingen, Germany: Niemeyer, 1992–2007.

    An invaluable resource for the whole history of rhetoric, with authoritative, detailed, up-to-date entries, a good number of which relative to Renaissance rhetoric will be cited below.

  • Vickers, Brian. In Defense of Rhetoric. Oxford: Clarendon, 1988.

    A spirited and learned defense of the value of rhetoric down through the ages, answering Plato’s criticisms and carrying the story down to the role of rhetoric in the modern novel.

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