We are far less obsessed with the arts of rhetoric than the ancients, who gave them to us, were. Instea of Aristotle and Cicero’s Rhetoric with a capital R, our culture cultivates a taste for rhetoric, lowercase, meaning words without substance used for effect only. Lowercase indeed. How did we get here?
We lost the arts of rhetoric when we committed ourselves to a written culture and emerged out of the orality-dominated universe which characterised premodernity. The arts of persuasion are admittedly not lost, but rhetoric, as the ancients understood and applied it, is. The Middle Ages are key for understanding this transitional process.
The ancient world was urban, civil, rhetorical and oral. Writing existed of course, but orality had the upper hand over literacy. Fewer people knew how to write and those who did engaged in orality-dominated activities. What was written was most often recited, read, performed. Popular entertainment was oral, and so were civil activities, like governance, the delivery of speeches or running for office. A good speech secured a career, and bad verbal skills undid it – most of the times, at least.
When the Roman Empire collapsed (and God knows what a complicated, i.e. controversial statement this is), speech-making and speech-delivery went down with it (just as controversial, but it gives a rough idea). The medieval culture which followed did not put verbal persuasion back on the table. Much of the ancient art of writing and making a speech was neglected, but not altogether lost. Cicero, the ultimate authority on the matter, survived into the new (middle) age, even though the body of ancient speeches, oratorical treatises and other material was forever lost or chucked up in the attic with other ancient stuff. That’s what happens when things become culturally irrelevant. The Renaissance would revisit those rooms later on, but that’s another story.
What the middle ages salvaged from the arts of ancient rhetoric was enough to create something else. Though the blockchain was erased, the timestamp remained, which means that the medievals still remembered what rhetoric used to do. They just didn’t do it, as there was not much room for elections and urban persuasion between the monastery, the cathedral and the Germanic warrior ethos. As with many other things medieval, new forms emerged. One of them was the art of writing.
If the medieval period couldn’t revive the arts of oral persuasion, it developed tools, skills and modes of written persuasion instead. Ancient rhetoric became modern (i.e. medieval) compositional art. The Italians got there first, but then everyone else followed. This was not an accident of history. The middle ages sit right in the middle between orality and literacy. The printing press was not an accident of history either, but the accomplishment of a long process of bringing the written word to the foreground of mainstream culture. Check out Michael Clanchy’s fabulous book From Memory to Written Record for the details.
If we think of the medieval period as Europe’s commitment to literacy, then we won’t dismiss it as ‘dark’ and ignorant. Instead, we’ll see it as a struggle for new forms, new ideas, new approaches to memory, communication and the distant source of our modern media.
The medieval art of prose composition (known technically as ars dictaminis) was continued into the Renaissance (in radically updated versions), even though the time was also for checking out the attic. In the long, long run, the medieval emphasis on writing, not speech, became the norm. Save few exceptions, today we find Cicero-inspired speeches quaint and short of ridiculous. But the arts of writing are still with us, because we shed the orality embedded in ancient rhetoric and leveraged the resources of a literate culture. The new media are about to change that again, but again, that’s another story.