Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

'The Wildernesse of Tropes and Figures': Figuring Rhetoric in Leveller Pamphlets

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

'The Wildernesse of Tropes and Figures': Figuring Rhetoric in Leveller Pamphlets

Article excerpt

The Leveller writings of the 1640s are directed at immediate political circumstances and agitate for specific political ends. They do so in a wide range of styles, some of them highly colourful and accomplished. The Leveller leaders themselves had very different educational backgrounds and formative literary influences. Yet almost throughout their writings there is a constant theme of hostility to rhetoric - a consistency which is not always to be found in Leveller thinking on apparently more central political topics such as the desirable extent of the franchise.

The Levellers' own writings were part of the ferment of propaganda which spilled from the presses during the civil war period. Political urgency and polarisation heightened people's fears about the use of language and argument, and exerted a potentially transformative pressure on genres and their associated rhetorics.1 The fragmented nature of political discourse in post-civil-war England, combined with fundamental aspects of the Levellers' own thinking, prompted them to develop their views on knowledge, belief, and persuasion as they did. However, as I will show, the same factors also drove them to take a stance on these issues which could never quite be stabilised or made consistent with their own literary practice.


Scholars of renaissance rhetoric rightly devote much attention to the formal framework of the art of rhetoric as it had been defined and refined since antiquity, and to the enormous role which rhetoric played in grammar-school as well as university education.2 We can, then, be fairly confident of the Leveller writers, various as their educational backgrounds were, having had some direct contact with the classical pedagogical tradition of rhetoric.3 That does not mean, though, that the word 'rhetoric' was always used in its technical sense. 'Rhetoricall' appears as a pejorative term in Leveller writing alongside 'scholasticall', 'sophisticall', 'syllogisticall', 'glosses', 'long set speeches', and so on. Almost anything that smacks of scholarliness can thus be bracketed with rhetoric. The Levellers critique genuine elements of rhetorical theory, but they also denounce 'rhetoric' in the general sense in which we often understand the word today.

The Levellers were doing nothing new in criticizing rhetoric or its excesses. The principled objections to the aims and methods of rhetoric articulated in Plato's Gorgias and Phaedrus were impossible for later rhetoricians to ignore. Running through the rhetorical tradition, from Aristotle to the Roman and early modern rhetoricians, is a concern to adapt and defend rhetoric against Plato's critique. Two key strategies were involved in this critical defence. The first crucial problem for defenders of rhetoric was the problematic relationship between rhetoric and truth or virtue. From Aristotle onwards rhetoric was claimed as a necessary ally of truth in a less than ideal world where audiences could not be relied on to exercise pure reason; authors insisted that rhetoric could serve truth and virtue more easily than their opposites.4

Anxieties about the use of rhetorical techniques to move the passions could also be stemmed by limiting the most emotive or figurative speech to appropriate contexts, and the development of the doctrine of 'decorum' or 'aptum' was the second key response rhetoricians offered to critics. Part of the rhetorician's art was to be able to deploy different styles in the appropriate contexts. The development of the genus humile, less vulnerable to criticism than the oratorical genus grande, can be seen as a response to this problem of context and decorum.5

Thus arguments over style, in early modern as in classical writers, were not simply arguments for or against 'rhetoric', but arguments about decorum within rhetoric.6 Writers were not necessarily repudiating all rhetoric if they advocated a 'plain' style, characterised by its 'perspicuity'.7 Morris Croll demonstrated that the 'anti-Ciceronians' (Muret, Lipsius, Montaigne and Bacon in particular) espoused an 'Attic' style which they understood to be ancient, and modelled their prose on authors such as Seneca. …

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