A History of Renaissance Rhetoric 1380-1620

By Schaeffer, John D. | Style, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

A History of Renaissance Rhetoric 1380-1620


Schaeffer, John D., Style


Peter Mack. A History of Renaissance Rhetoric 1380-1620. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. 335 pp. $150 cloth.

Peter Mack's A History of Renaissance Rhetoric 1380-1620 presents a detailed account of the rhetorics published during the mentioned dates. Mack states his method immediately: "My main focus will be on a host of individual thinkers and their works" (1). His purpose is to give students "a reasonably full idea of the new doctrines of Renaissance rhetoric, even where these were not widely taken up later" (3). Mack outlines four major themes of his history: 1) the consequences of greater knowledge of ancient literature and the classical world; 2) the place of rhetoric in education; 3) the impact of ideas from dialectic (logic) on rhetoric and vice versa; 4) the adaptation of the tenets of classical rhetoric to a changed world. His summaries let the authors speak for themselves. This is not a critical history.

Mack establishes some preliminary definitions and parameters. He briefly surveys the diffusion and reception of classical rhetoric in general (13-32) and in Italy in particular (33-55). After recounting the stories of the recovery of classical rhetorical texts, Mack proceeds to summarize the texts of Quatrocento Italian rhetoricians. The major theme of this section is how these writers accommodated newly-discovered Aristotelian rhetoric to the existing framework of Roman rhetoric. In this section, and throughout the book, Mack refers to the research of Lawrence Green and James J. Murphy whose Renaissance Rhetoric Short Title Catalogue 1460-1 700 provided the data on publication, diffusion, and popularity of hundreds of Renaissance rhetoric texts. Mack usually repeats their findings and infers the extent of the texts' popularity, geographical provenance, and durability.

After concluding with the early Italian rhetoricians, Mack proceeds to the major figures, beginning with Rudolf Agricola. Mack credits Agricola with introducing dialectic, or logic, into the study of rhetoric. Mack summarizes De inventione dialectica and notes the subdivisions and claims of each of its three books. He takes at face value Agricola' s conflation of the topics and the categories as a source for invention. This uncritical approach will recur in his treatment of Ramus.

Before proceeding to Ramus, however, Mack summarizes the contributions of Erasmus , certainly the most influential of Renaissance rhetoricians. Mack points out that Erasmus revived the classical focus on audience. He further praises Erasmus's Adagia as aiming not only to improve students' writing but also their lives. Next Mack turns to Erasmus's De copia which he summarizes succinctly and praises for its adaptability to a progressively ambitious curriculum. Mack discusses Erasmus's Parabolae as an effective defense of metaphor and other comparisons, as well as an introduction to elocutio. Mack then turns to the De conscribendis epistolis, which he argues was one of the most influential of rhetorical treatises. Finally, Mack gives a spirited if brief analysis of the comparatively neglected Ecclesiastes. On the whole, Mack's account of Erasmus is a high point of his book.

From Erasmus, Mack turns to the rhetorical writings of Philip Melancthon. Melancthon was a tireless Protestant reformer who, in 15 19 published De rhetorica libri tres, in 1528 a logic text book, and then in 1547 another rhetoric text book, Elementa rhetorices libri duo, that Mack calls one of the most influential of the century (107). Mack points out that, from the beginning, Melancthon saw rhetoric and dialectic as mutually dependent. Dialectic "teaches things nakedly, while rhetoric adds style as a sort of clothing" (112). Melancthon also added a fourth genre to the three traditional types of discourse: the didascalie genre which aimed at teaching. Melancthon departed from his predecessors by organizing his treatment of invention according to the genre of the discourse rather than according to the parts of the oration.

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