Speech Criticism, the Development of Standards for Rhetorical Appraisal

By Lester Thonssen; A. Craig Baird | Go to book overview

Chapter 5
THE CRITICS OF ANTIQUITY

Introduction

Establishment of a Point of View .--We have already referred to the manifest interrelation of theory, practice, and criticism. Nearly all writers on rhetorical theory are, in a very real if not a formal sense, critics of speaking. The distinction between theory and criticism is, then, hard to draw, and even the most modest attempt to review the work of the critics of orators will become fabulously detailed unless certain common-sense differentia are established.

It is necessary, therefore, that we distinguish between the critics of oratory as a subject, and the critics of orators per se; likewise, that we discriminate between the critics who appraise a general class or group of orators, and those who evaluate particular members of the class.

Plato's Analysis of Rhetoric.--Plato was one of the most discerning critics of oratory. His appraisal is, however, more directly concerned with rhetoric as a field of inquiry than it is with the particular excellences or defects of the practitioners of the art. Indeed, Plato directs his indictment against the Sophists and the orators, but behind these attacks is the studied attempt to reveal the inherent weaknesses of rhetoric as a system which trains people for active participation in public life. Because the art of rhetoric admits of separations from truth, often employs questionable techniques in order to achieve persuasion, and hence exercises an unwholesome influence upon the social group, Plato dislikes it; he evaluates it, and finds it wanting, at least in the form which it assumed during his time.

Although it is impossible to determine the absolute beginnings of criticism in any field, many significant doctrines of critical inquiry into rhetoric can be traced back to Plato. Like many of the early Greeks, he was given to philosophizing; and in the recently invented art of rhetoric he found opportunity to apply his intellectual skills. The result was the stricture against a rhetoric which concerned itself

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