Outlandish Fears: Defining Decorum in Renaissance Rhetoric

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caput esse artis, decere: quod tamen unum id esse, quod tradi arte non possit (the chief thing in this art is to be decorous, yet this is the one thing that cannot be taught by art)

Cicero, De oratore, 1.29.132

In the chapter on decorum from his De ratione dicendi (On Rhetoric), published in 1532, the Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives makes two claims about the subject that directly echo those expressed by Cicero in the epigraph to this essay. First, Vives opens with the bald assertion that decorum is the central concern of rhetoric, going on to define it in traditional terms as the business of suiting one's words to the circumstances in which one speaks, and of paying attention to the audience, the time and place, the nature of the subject, and one's own character. Vives then makes his second claim: decorum cannot really be taught; essentially a matter of discretion (prudentia) that involves all of life, it simply cannot be contained within the general rules or precepts of rhetoric (174). This assertion does not prevent Vives from trying to teach decorum, however, and he winds up writing the longest chapter in his rhetoric book as he reviews a host of specific verbal behaviors in specific situations, commenting as h e does so on what he feels makes each example decorous or indecorous. His examples may seem a hodgepodge initially, but upon analysis they reveal at least one regularity in their consistent concern that, whatever the subject may be and whatever the circumstances the speaker encounters, his words must always reveal that he is a figure of decorum himself Thus, Vives says one's style should reflect one's place in the social hierarchy, one's "gradus dignitatis" (176), that of a prince, for instance, being especially magnificent (177). (1) He recommends the use of classical allusions because they are signs of erudition and fit for talking with people from the city (175), and although he concedes that a clear and simple speech is appropriate when talking with the uneducated, he still prefers language that is "flowing and ornate" (178). Revealingly, at one point Vives says that although the speaker is permitted to use rustic words occasionally, he should avoid doing so "rusticane" (183: in a rustic manner), and alth ough he may denounce vice with "spurcis verbis" (186: filthy language), he should takes pains to ensure that such low words do not make his style seem base (186: "sordent sententiae"). Vives concludes his lengthy discussion by saying that if the speaker chooses the right words, he will show that he himself is decorous, in other words, that he has the character of a "good and... prudent man" (191). Thus, the one constant in Vives's discussion of decorum is his insistence that the speaker must always strive to make his ethos or character seem decorous; he must constantly engage in what the social psychologist Erving Goffman has called "face-work," the careful management of his social image and position (5-45).

Vives's examples clearly reveal what many scholars have long said about classical and Renaissance notions of decorum, namely that they almost always have an important social, not just a rhetorical or aesthetic dimension. (2) Scholars have not analyzed in any detail the specific social meaning the term has in specific texts, however, nor have they noted the way that decorum is frequently seen as the essential feature of the speaker's ethos or character, as it is for Vives in the examples given above. (3) In this perspective, the maintenance of decorum is really the maintenance of one's social distinctiveness, a process in which the speaker, presenting himself through language that is erudite, artful, urban, and urbane, identifies himself as a member of the social elite, those who are figuratively at the top or the center of the social order, while preserving an essential distance from "low" or marginal groups--the base and the rustic, for instance--in contrast with whom he consciously defines himself. …