The Emperor of Men's Minds: Literature and the Renaissance Discourse of Rhetoric

By Wayne A. Rebhorn | Go to book overview

Introduction

Les maximes de la politique & les mysteres de la religion changent entierement les regles de la Rhetorique, & l'ancienne Rhetorique n'a rien de semblable à la moderne. (The maxims of politics and the mysteries of religion change the rules of rhetoric entirely, and ancient rhetoric has no similarity to its modern counterpart.)

-- Le Grand, Discours

It would be an understatement to say that rhetoric was important to the Renaissance. From the early Italian humanists down to John Milton, rhetoric was considered an essential part of education, necessary equipment for the well-rounded individual, and it consistently held a place of honor both at the university and as the culminating stage of pre-university training at schools and colleges. Having displaced logic or dialectic from the preeminent position that subject enjoyed in late medieval culture, rhetoric was hailed as the queen of the sciences; despite attacks from hostile critics, debates over correct styles, and the more radical "reformation" recommended for it by the Ramists, it retained its central place in the culture throughout the Renaissance. As an indication of that centrality, James J. Murphy has calculated that more than a thousand treatises, handbooks, commentaries, and the like--texts written in virtually all the languages of western Europe--were produced on the subject in the period.1 Indeed, this flood of material may actually have been greater than Murphy suggests, for if one considers that significant rehearsals of rhetorical notions and materials can also be found in works not normally considered rhetorics--such as literature and writings on politics and religion--then the scope of Renaissance rhetoric is truly

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1
James J. Murphy, "One Thousand Neglected Authors," in Renaissance Eloquence, 20-36. See also Murphy useful bibliography in Renaissance Rhetoric, ed. James J. Murphy with Kevin P. Roddy ( New York: Garland, 1981).

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