The Definition of Metonymy in Ancient Greece

By Arata, Luigi | Style, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

The Definition of Metonymy in Ancient Greece


Arata, Luigi, Style


Examining here the definitions of metonymy in the ancient Greek rhetorical tradition will involve, first, a brief review of ancient Greek rhetoric, in particular its main representatives, its main arguments, purposes, and methods, and its basic concepts. Second, it will require the interpretation of the two most important traditional definitions of this particular trope; and, third, it will include discussion of what ancient Greek rhetors explicitly called metonymy, giving examples (i.e., in manuals on elocutio) or interpreting literary phenomena (i.e., in commentaries on this or that ancient Greek text). This discussion of the different ancient Greek concepts of metonymy will emerge as being important both for an understanding of the roots of the concept and for a delineation of the issues involved in defining the literary use of metonymy. In fact, it will bring to light, for both the linguist and the literary critic, a significant chapter in the definition of metonymy. (1)

1. Ancient Greek Rhetoric

In the ancient Greek world, speeches were important as vehicles of influence and persuasion in both law-courts and deliberative assemblies, as they are depicted in Homeric poems (e.g., in the Iliad, where heroes often speak) and in later tragic and historical literature. (2) Consequently, ancient Greeks were concerned with the problem of how speeches were best made: this is why ancient rhetoric was defined as the art of persuasion and concerned above all the techniques for effective public speaking, being the product of a systematic reflection on what worked and why in a persuasive speech.

Accordingly, the birth of rhetoric in ancient Greece was connected to the development of the ancient city (the polis) and of democracy: (3) in fact, public debates and political disputes forced all citizens to know how to defend their theses and to demolish those of their enemies. Thus, in the late fifth and fourth centuries BCE, an entire generation of philosophers, called the Sophists, focused their attention on persuasion and started to teach people how to make an effective, that is, influential, speech: according to Plutarch, one of them, Gorgias of Leontini, thought that "rhetoric is the art of speaking, which has its force in being the 'author' (i.e., the cause) of persuasion in political speeches concerning all arguments and which creates conviction, not teaching" (Plebe 32-33). This means that they designed rhetoric to teach a practical skill, rather than anything else. (4) Up until the Hellenistic period, rhetorical handbooks were still unsystematic: the first important integrated system was that of Hermagoras, which dates from the second century BCE and which was then borrowed by the Romans, in particular by Cicero (in his own treatise entitled On Invention and in the anonymous Rhetoric to Herennius, which was attributed to him) in the first century BCE and Quintilian (in his Education in Oratory, which dates from the first century CE). The Greek theorists living in the second century CE, one of whom was the famous Hermogenes, were highly innovative: hence the earlier Greek works on rhetoric were considered obsolete and therefore became lost. All we know about them was preserved indirectly, especially through Roman sources.

Consequently, the preserved image of ancient rhetoric seems to be extremely uniform. Despite differences among the theories in Greek rhetoric, we can speak of a relatively common ground among them, so that even different figures of speech such as metalepsis, synecdoche, periphrasis, and so forth were defined through the same concepts. Ancient rhetoric focused on at least five subjects: (1) invention, which concerned identifying the best arguments for, and against, a thesis; (2) the arrangement of the arguments, since an effective organization of speech was thought to be necessary to draw the audience's attention and to create an emotional reaction; (3) delivery, to which also (4) memory was connected; and, above all, (5) expression (in Latin, elocutio). …

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