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

By Wayne A. Rebhorn | Go to book overview

2 Rulers and Rebels

At approximately the same period in the Renaissance, the 1580s, both Jacques Amyot and George Puttenham recount the same striking anecdote about the minor Hellenistic philosopher Hegesias of Cyrene in order to dramatize the power of eloquence. Amyot's version appears in his Projet de l'Eloquence royale and comes in the midst of a series of allusions to stories from Greece and Rome, all of which celebrate the orator and his skill. Amyot begins that series by recounting how Cicero completely transformed the hatred of the Roman populace for Lucius Otho by means of a harangue and how Antony, during the wars of Marius and Sulla, saved himself from death by charming his murderers with his speech. At this point, Amyot turns from examples of eloquence fending off death and summons up the quite different tale of Hegesias. By way of transition he remarks: "There is nothing so hard which is not annealed and softened [destrempé & amolli] by eloquence" (9), and this observation leads him--almost as if he were responding to his own imagery of softening and dissolution--to declare that if eloquence would desire us to sacrifice our lives, "it would not be in us to refuse" (10). After such an assertion one might expect a story about how some valiant general convinced his followers to make the ultimate sacrifice of their lives in some noble cause. Instead, Amyot documents the supreme power of rhetoric over human life in a quite different way:

Witness the auditors of the philosopher Hegesias, who, unfolding his eloquence in order to recount and put before their eyes all the miseries

-80-

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