Descartes and the Resilience of Rhetoric: Varieties of Cartesian Rhetorical Theory

By Thomas M. Carr Jr. | Go to book overview

1
Introduction

I thirsted for the broader rivers of
eloquence most ardently. But as
they make one crave more knowl-
edge rather than quench one's
thirst, they could not satisfy me in
the least.

Latiora eloquentiae flumina cupi-
dissime sitiebam. Neque vero his,
quae scilicet sciendi sitim dant pot-
ius quam sedant, ullo modo satiatus
.

Descartes, Dedication of his thesis for his law degree

Descartes' earliest texts attest to his frustration with eloquence. The recently discovered dedication of the theses he defended at age twenty for his law degree at Poitiers in 1616 indicts the rhetoric he had studied with the Jesuits for its failure to satisfy his thirst for knowledge.

This distaste for formal rhetoric -- one might even say Descartes'hostility toward it -- is now a commonplace in the study of the European rhetorical tradition. In fact, Cartesianism has become a touchstone for those who seek to renew the ancient art in various guises. Chaïm Perelman's efforts to revitalize argumentation as a "new rhetoric" were designed to overcome the discredit Descartes' emphasis on self-evidence cast on the probable, the traditional domain of rhetoric.1 Contemporary advocates of Vico, who hope to reunite philosophy and rhetoric, amplify Vico's contrast between the sterile geometric method of the Cartesians and the creative power of the imagination that grasps truth as metaphor rather than as clear and distinct ideas.2 Decon-

-1-

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