The Making of the English Literary Canon: From the Middle Ages to the Late Eighteenth Century

By Trevor Ross | Go to book overview

4 Value into Knowledge

The resistance to rhetoric is a feature and perhaps a function of rhetoric itself, and many of the ablest orators have on occasion renounced Parnassus "for the future," Milton angrily tells the English people in his First Defence, "know that words are subordinate to things, not things to words." 1 With the cessation of civil war, in which the utmost tyrannic energies of rhetoric seemed to have been expended, there was sounded the loudest and most persuasive appeal for its resistance, an appeal launched possibly because the apparently victorious Royalist side had profited least from the exercise of verbal power in combating revolution. "And now, when mens minds are somewhat settled," wrote Sprat, rhetoric could be reformed so as "to render our Country a Land of Experimental Knowledge." Though rhetoric could not be entirely abolished, Sprat believed, ideally "eloquence ought to be banish'd out of all civil Societies, as a thing fatal to Peace and good Manners." 2 The ascendancy of a conformist and isomorphic "plain style" during the late seventeenth century, a development commonly identified with the language projects of the Royal Society, may not have entailed as radical a denial of the figural and tropological dimensions of language as it has formerly been supposed, but it did involve an extensive rethinking of verbal power as a source and instrument of value. A new emphasis on probabilistic knowledge, involving the apparent acceptance of contingency, made for a sceptical reassessment of rhetoric's universalizing claims: "Eloquence, the Dress of our Thoughts, like the Dress of our Bodies, differs not only in several Regions, but in several Ages ... And oftentimes in That, as in Attire,

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