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

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

7
Conclusion Attention and Cartesian Rhetoric

Two controversies in the 1690s helped solidify a narrow view that still persists of Cartesian rhetoric. In 1687 Charles Perrault brought the smoldering quarrel of the ancients and moderns into the open with his poem Le Szècle de Louis le Grand, which celebrates the artistic superiority of the Sun King's reign. The third dialogue ( 1690) of his Parallèle des anciens et des modernes is devoted to the demonstration of his contemporaries' excellence in eloquence. He establishes proper method leading to clarity as the essential quality of fine eloquence, whether the goal is to instruct, to please, or to persuade.1 The true method, imperfectly known to the Romans and Greeks, but exemplified in the theory and practice of Descartes, assures the moderns' triumph.2 Perrault's heirs were to include Fontenelle and the poet Antoine Houdar de La Motte. According to Fontenelle,

The geometric spirit is not so linked to geometry that it cannot be extracted and transported to other fields of knowledge. A work of ethics, politics, criticism, and perhaps even eloquence, will be more beautiful, all things being equal, if it is drawn with the hand of a geometer.

L'esprit géométrique n'est pas si attaché à la géométrie, qu'il n'en puisse ètre tiré, et transporté à d'autres connaissances. Un ouvrage de morale, de politique, de critique, peut-être même d'éloquence, en sera plus beau, toutes choses d'ailleurs égales, s'il est fait de main de géomètre.3

La Motte, in turn, sought to extend geometry to poetry and theater because he saw method as a universal requirement in all genres: "I believe...that method is necessary in all kinds of

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