Handbook of Classical Rhetoric in the Hellenistic Period : 330 B.C.-A.D. 400

By Stanley E. Porter | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7
THE EPISTLE

Jeffrey T. Reed

Issaquah, Washington, USA


I. INTRODUCTION

Episdes1 and rhetorical speeches were two of the most significant genres of communication during the classical and Hellenistic eras. Despite their importance, they served somewhat different purposes. Rhetorical speeches were primarily intended for the law courts and public arena,2 typically with the audience in full view of the speaker and with some persuasive goal in mind. Letters primarily served the task of bridging spatial distance separating communicants, originating in administrative practices but soon finding a place in personal correspondence. The resulting multi-functional nature of letters begs the question whether rhetorical practices were employed in letter writing—a debate taken up by the Ciceronians and humanists during the medieval era.3 The very flexibility of the epistolary genre allowed for the possibility of rhetorical influence. But did this actually occur, either in theory or in practice? The following study suggests ways in which rhetoric was and was not employed in letter writing, citing evidence from the rhetorical and epistolary theorists4 and actual letters. The various “species” as well as three of the five categories of rhetorical practice (inventio, dispositio, elocutio) provide a

1 No semantic distinction between “epistle” and “letter” is intended in this study.
Greek terminology made no such distinction; so M. L. Stirewalt, Studies in Ancient
Greek Epistolography
(SBLRBS, 27; Adanta: Scholars Press, 1993), p. 87.

2 D.J. Ochs, “Cicero's Rhetorical Theory”, in A Synoptic Histoiy of Classical Rhetoric
(ed. J.J. Murphy; Davis, CA: Hermagoras Press, 1983), p. 96.

3 J. R. Henderson, “Erasmus on the Art of Letter-Writing”, in Renaissance Elo-
quence: Studies in the Theory and Practice of Renaissance Rhetoric
(Berkeley, CA: University
of California Press, 1983), pp. 331–55.

4 By “epistolary theorist” I include the authors of the epistolary handbooks as
well as those learned letter writers who make less systematic (sometimes casual)
comments about letter writing.

-171-

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