Attitudes Toward Authority in the
Teaching of Rhetoric Before 1050
George A. Kennedy
University of North Carolina
Writing about the "Survival of the Classical Traditions" in Rhetoric in the Middle Ages (89-90), J. J. Murphy said, "It would be unrealistic to assume that the classical works received unqualified acceptance, or even unqualified respect, in comparison to treatises produced during the Middle Ages. Rather, it might be more accurate to say that the ancient artes are to be seen competing for the attention of the medieval writer and speaker--competing, that is, against the lure of the 'modern' and specialized works which sprang up in various fields after about 1050--but competing with the advantage of antiquitas." As a footnote to Professor Murphy's observation I briefly explore in this chapter the attitudes toward their predecessors shown by teachers and writers in the western tradition of rhetoric before 1050.
There is a marked resistance, sometimes expressed, sometimes implied, to the authority of predecessors among rhetoricians in almost all periods. This can result, as with Isocrates and Petrus Ramus, from a personal, professional assertiveness in competition with their peers; an individual teacher claims authority for himself in understanding the subject better than others. It seems worth asking whether such a view reflects an assumption that there are natural principles of rhetoric, common to all societies, which a particular teacher has understood better than his predecessors; or an assumption that rhetoric changes with historical, social, political, and religious conditions, in which case a particular teacher is claiming a better understanding of what is effective in these new conditions. The rejection or partial revision of the authority of earlier teachers on the subject of the precepts of rhetoric is, however, to be contrasted with a wider approval of