De-canonizing ancient rhetoric

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Robert N. Gaines

My subject is the canon of ancient rhetoric, sometimes known as the classical tradition of rhetoric or even more simply as classical rhetoric. The sense of 'canon' that occupies me in this regard is hardly ambiguous to anyone in the rhetorical discipline, but it bears specification--at least in a preliminary way--if only because it is often unquestioned on account of its familiarity. Accordingly, let me quote a brief account of "canon" by Frank Kermode (78):

[P]eople who use the word "canon" usually have in mind quite practical issues. They may, for example, be stating that there is for students of literature a list of books or authors certified by tradition or by an institution as worthy of intensive study and required reading for all who may aspire to professional standing within the institution. Or they may be disputing the constitution of the canon, or even the right of the institution to certify it.

Consistent with this account, I understand the canon of ancient rhetoric is a list of major books pertinent to rhetorical theory by certain authors from the ancient times. Further, within the rhetorical discipline, a mastery of this list is frequently expected of students and generally presupposed of professionals. And finally, the list is the subject of controversy, not least on account of its constitution and authority.

My purpose in addressing this subject is to extend the controversy that surrounds it. However before I attend explicitly to this purpose, I think it is important--even necessary--to point out that the current dispute over the ancient rhetorical canon is not an issue that arose or even could have arisen until relatively recently. In ancient times the words kanôn in Greek and canon in Latin were never used with reference to a list of rhetoric books such as we understand as constituting the ancient canon. Rather, in connection with ancient rhetoric we find only rhetorical performers described as canons. For example, Dionysius of Halicarnassus describes Thucydides as a kanôn or model of the elaborate style (Dem. 1), and he assigns a similar places to Lysias and Isocrates in regard to the plain and middle styles respectively (Dem. 2; cf. Cole 33). Such imitative or exemplary canons are separated by form and function from the ancient rhetorical canon we contemplate today. For, neither do they furnish a list of theoretical rhetorics, nor do they construct a field of inquiry authorized for disciplinary study.

In form at least, we find a precursor of our disciplinary concept in the Christian doctrine of an ecclesiastical canon. Beginning in the fourth century C.E., there are uses of the Greek kanôn and Latin canon which refer to the list of books accepted by the Church as genuine and inspired (on the earliest uses of kanôn and canon in the ecclesiastical sense, see Barr 50 n. 2 and Schoeck 99). Here, surely, we have a limited catalogue of books imbued with institutional authority. But just as surely, the function of the ecclesiastical canon may be distinguished from function of our disciplinary canon. The former is normative--it specifies a group of texts that in some way or other must be obeyed. The latter is constitutive--it establishes an institutional sphere of authorized instruction and inquiry (for the distinction of canons into exemplary, normative, and constitutive types, I generally follow Halbertal 3).

Of course, it hardly takes an active imagination to conceive of our disciplinary use of canon as a kind of literary extension of the ecclesiastical sense. That it occurred, I think, is doubtless. When it occurred is by no means clear; nonetheless, the evidence available on English usage suggests that the extension dates only from the twentieth century. Although we find secular uses of canon-cognates in reference to authors as early as 1595,OED provides no evidence for use of 'canon' in reference to a list of secular authors or texts until 1885, and even that sense applies only to the authentic texts of a single author. Perhaps most significantly, up to the present day our disciplinary understanding of canon--that is, a secular list of major authors and works imbued with disciplinary authority--has not been recognized or documented in the OED.

From the foregoing, my conclusion is that specific disciplinary conceptualizations of a "canon" of ancient rhetoric almost certainly represent twentieth century innovation. Moreover, as a corollary, I further conclude that the current controversy over the canon of ancient rhetoric is a contemporary dispute waged by contemporary scholars. In light of these preliminary findings, my position in this essay may be summarized as follows. The dispute over the ancient rhetorical canon is essentially a tug-of-war between contemporary scholarly factions whose chief interests are not the comprehension of rhetoric in ancient times, but rather the exploitation or imposition of disciplinary authority. Such appropriations of the canon are problematic, because they render the canon unrepresentative and inconsistent in its conceptualization of ancient rhetoric. To redress this problem, we cannot simply construct a new canon, because that will lead to further squabbles over disciplinary authority. Rather, we must reconstitute "ancient rhetoric" as a corpus, one which contains all known texts, artifacts, and discourse venues that represent the theory, pedagogy, practice, criticism, and cultural apprehension of rhetoric in ancient times. Let me now turn to the argument on behalf of this position.

I begin with an essay entitled "A Small History of Rhetoric" by Terry Eagleton in 1981. Within this essay Eagleton proposed a brief account of ancient rhetoric (101-04) and suggested that during ancient times rhetoric offered the possibility of "political literary criticism" with "a 'portable' analytic method independent of any particular object" (101-02). Regarding ancient rhetoric, Eagleton had recourse to a set of authors he knew readers would recognize as authoritative: Corax, Plato, Cicero, Quintilian (101-04).

And in positing rhetoric as an unlimited mode of political criticism, he offered the first glimpse of his critique of the literary canon as a set of privileged objects that strengthen as well as reinforce the assumptions of the dominant power system (cf. Eagleton, Literary Theory, 195-96). In view of these two discursive activities, I believe Eagleton's essay offers a near epitome for the future dispute over the canon of ancient rhetoric. On the one hand he embraces the ancient rhetorical canon as an instrument of convenience to secure disciplinary credibility for his survey of critical theory in rhetoric. On the other hand, he denounces existing literary canons as perpetuators of dominant--and elitist--ideologies. In fact, Eagleton's two postures toward the canon, embracement and denunciation, would come to characterize the discussion of ancient rhetoric among all its parties for the next two decades.

Embracement of an ancient rhetorical canon was not unheard of prior to 1981. Rather it was a common, if only partly conscious practice among historians of rhetoric as early as the 1920's. For example, Baldwin's Ancient Rhetoric and Poetic limits the discussion of rhetoric to five canonical authors: Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and Pseudo-Longinus (5, 103). Rightly or wrongly, Baldwin conceived of the works of these authors as "representative" of ancient rhetoric. And the tendency to focus on a few major authors and works remains a staple in the history of rhetoric, particularly within accounts that fashion themselves as introductory (e.g., Vickers 13-52, Bizzell and Herzberg 19-363, and Murphy and Katula).

More conscious embracement may be noted in scholarship that applies the canon as a convenient delimiter for the scope of responsible inquiry. For instance, when Kathy Eden wanted to discuss hermeneutics and the ancient rhetorical tradition, her investigation was simplified considerably by defining her subject with reference to the canon, in this case, works of Isocrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, and Demetrius. Likewise, when Knoblach and Brannon wanted to debunk ancient rhetoric as a possible basis for contemporary composition theory, they happily embraced the canon in order to limit the range of an "authoritative" critique to just five works: Aristotle's Rhetoric, Cicero's De inventione and De oratore, Rhetorica ad Herennium, and Quintilian's Institutio oratoria (22-50). Some radical embracements of the canon collapse ancient rhetoric into a single representative, this as a strategy for infusing new stances with classical authority. For example, in defense of classical rhetoric as a basis for contemporary composition theory, Lundsford and Ede condense the canon into a single author, Aristotle, whose Rhetoric--after a bit of reinterpretation--turns out to be thoroughly modern in its conception and motivation (40-44). Likewise, Welch, who repudiates Aristotelian rhetoric as the prime representative of the ancient canon, rehistoricizes "classical rhetoric," installing a regendered, reraced, sophistic construction of Isocratean rhetoric precisely in its place (6-7).

Denunciation of the ancient rhetoric canon has taken a variety of forms, all of which share post-modern motivations for opposition, and each of which may be characterized as the conscious promotions of a particular ideology. Marxist denunciations of the canon attempt to subvert the ideological assumptions that ancient rhetoric was a unified, linear, intellectual development. Thus, Berlin insists that our conception of ancient rhetoric must be historicized within the economic, social, political, and cultural conditions of its production; the result, he argues, is that we are confronted with multiple ancient rhetorics, which represent differing discourse practices and political orders (116-17). Feminist denunciations of the canon have sought both to promote resistant interpretations of canonical history and to redress the omission of women and their concerns from the canon in one way or other (cf. Bizzell). A good example of a resistant reading is provided by Jarrett, who argues that the sophists--who were formerly marginalized and excluded from the canon--should be central to the narrative of ancient rhetoric. Feminist arguments to redress omissions have generally proposed inclusion of women and their interests in the canon. Here instances include Glenn's refiguring of Aspasia and Swearingen's reconstitution of Diotima as figures pertinent to ancient rhetoric. In the same connection we may place Woods' insistence that rhetorical pedagogy--long dismissed as historically unimportant--must be added to the ancient rhetorical canon. Postmodernist denunciations of the canon conceive it as a manifestation--even an instrument --of oppression; accordingly they address themselves to exposing issues of gender, race, and class frequently hidden or marginalized in institutional conceptions of ancient rhetoric. An example is Imber's recovery of the "voice" of a Roman matron, Pudentilla, from the Apology of Apuleius; here we learn that Pudentilla argued, wrote letters, and acted to secure her fortune and marry when she wished--all in opposition to the dominant cultural ideology. Finally, there has recently arisen a postcolonial denunciation of the rhetorical canon, including ancient rhetoric. The basis of the critique is that the canon privileges "imperial voices," ignores "racially and culturally marginalized voices," and generally fails to account for "rhetorical strategies through which neocolonialism establishes its hegemony" (Shome 43-44, 51). Consistent with this critique, the postcolonial denunciation aims at introduction of marginalized voices into the canon and the repositioning of canonical texts in relation to the "Other" (Hasian 24-25). For instance, Pfau has recently constructed Gorgias' "Encomium to Helen" as a "barbarian" discourse which cloaks an elitist theory of political persuasion in allegorical terms for reception by a radical democratic audience.

My complaint about the scholarly postures that embrace and denounce the canon of ancient rhetoric is simple: neither posture has the design or capacity to tell us much about rhetoric in ancient times. The scholarship of embracement either recapitulates the canon without widening or deepening its intellectual significance, or it exploits the canon to lend disciplinary authority to an interpretation or radical reduction of its contents. Similarly, the scholarship of denunciation, which imposes canonical authority on rhetorical authors and works to achieve ideological objectives, actually weakens the canon by proliferating the positions of intellectual privilege that constitute one or many conceptions of rhetoric in ancient times. The end result is an ideological hodgepodge incapable of representing, much less defining ancient rhetoric with any consistency or coherence.

Now, the standard thing to say at this juncture is that the canon of ancient rhetoric must be revised according to some new set of principles. However, I shall say no such thing. The reason is that I do not believe any new canon can resolve the problems that created our current predicament. I am led to this belief from having been persuaded that any selection of ancient rhetorical authors or works for any purpose will necessarily be shot through with ideology. Accordingly, any conceptualization of a limited canon of ancient rhetoric will necessarily privilege some authors and works and therefore invite the sort of bickering over disciplinary authority that affects and undermines the current canon.

My proposal to resolve the current dispute over ancient rhetoric is to conceive it as a corpus. In particular, I believe that we should understand by "ancient rhetoric" that body of information which contains all known texts, artifacts, and discourse venues that represent the theory, pedagogy, practice, criticism, and cultural apprehension of rhetoric in the ancient European discourse community. Let me specify this conception at least a little. By texts I mean anything written using any medium that has survived complete or in fragments or otherwise for which we have evidence in another text or artifact, including copied writing in manuscripts as well as original writing on papyrus or animal skin or wax or wood or writing on or in stone or masonry or pottery. By artifacts I mean man-made objects of aesthetic, practical, religious, or other cultural significance. And by discourse venues I mean places culturally associated with purposive communication, including rostra, legislative assembly areas, courts, theatres, temples, salons, libraries, schools, baths, festivals, and other public and private locations—permanent and occasional--associated with speaking, writing, and reading.

By representations of rhetorical theory I mean all discussions of rhetoric, its principles and precepts, as well as its practical, political, and cultural functions and consequences, including, for example, technical treatises, handbooks, epitomes, compendia, textbooks, commentaries, specimen and model speeches, letters, and literary works by rhetoricians, philosophers, and other writers. By representations of pedagogy I mean all evidence of the goals, practices, activities, outcomes, texts, and material circumstances of rhetorical education at all levels, by all sorts of educators, in all relevant discourse venues. Included here, among other things, would be technical treatises, textbooks, epitomes, letters, evidence of progymnasmatic exercises, declamations, and other student performances, signs of rhetorical education in rhetorical, philosophical, and other literary works of mature authors, depictions of educational scenes or circumstances in artifacts, and existing or reconstructable sites of instruction. By representations of rhetorical practice I mean all evidence of every form of public and private communication designed to achieve practical effects in every discourse venue, including, forensic, deliberative, ceremonial, demonstrative, philosophical, and religious discourses, biographies, essays, letters, graffiti, conversations, and other symbolic practices of cultural significance. By representations of criticism I mean all indications of an evaluative impulse directed toward rhetorical practice. This would include, for example, critical treatises, technical treatises, speeches, essays, plays, letters, graffiti, conversations, manifestations of evaluation in artifacts, and depictions of spectator attendance and conduct at rhetorical performances. By representations of cultural apprehension I mean the whole range of responses to rhetorical theory, rhetorical pedagogy, rhetorical practice, and rhetorical criticism in the discourse community. Among other things this would include constructions of rhetorical theory, pedagogy, practice, criticism, and their practitioners in literature and artifacts, public or private development of discourse venues, and even legislation regarding rhetorical practice and pedagogy.

Now, there are three properties of the corpus-conception of ancient rhetoric that I would like to make clear. First, in associating the conception with the ancient European discourse community I do not mean to privilege European culture or disprivilege any other culture. In fact, I cheerfully acknowledge the possible existence of rhetorical corpora in association with other discourse communities before and contemporary with what I have been calling ancient times in Europe. However, because culture significantly affects discourse theory, pedagogy, practice, criticism, and community apprehension in a variety of ways, I believe it is best to observe a distinction among discourse communities when defining and constructing the rhetorical corpora relevant to their unique histories. And if it is necessary to distinguish among ancient rhetorical corpora terminologically, then I am perfectly satisfied with the term "ancient European rhetoric."

Second, in proposing a corpus-conception of ancient rhetoric it is my intention to open up inquiry into the subject matter. In my view the proposed corpus-conception clearly "authorizes" a wide range of intellectual activities that have recently been positioned in opposition to the canon-conception of ancient rhetoric. For example, the recovery of women's contributions to rhetoric and the reconstitution of voices of marginalized genders, races, classes, and cultures are facilitated by inclusion in the corpus of all evidence related to theory, pedagogy, practice, criticism, and cultural apprehension of rhetoric. Much the same may be said for traditional forms of historical, theoretical, and critical inquiry, since the corpus-conception enables and encourages deeper consideration of a wider range of sources.

Third, the proposed corpus-conception hardly precludes the identification and application of sub-corpora for particular disciplinary purposes, e.g., instruction, theory development, cultural critique, or historiography; neither does it rule out a diversity of intellectual approaches in connection with such purposes. Consider, for instance, the purpose of instruction in ancient rhetorical theory. A style-centered approach to instruction might focus on works of Gorgias, Isocrates, Aristotle, Theophrastus, Cornificius, Cicero, Dionysius, Demetrius, Longinus, and Hermogenes. Likewise, an innovation-centered approach might emphasize the works of sophists, Isocrates, Plato, Aristotle, Hermagoras, Cicero, and Quintilian. These sets of materials are very different, yet both constitute plausible sub-corpora for productive disciplinary instruction. And it seems possible to conceive a large number of selections that might serve the same purpose, given the variety of intellectual approaches that might be brought to bear on instruction in ancient rhetorical theory. Now, inasmuch as similar arguments may be offered about sub-corpora generated in connection with other disciplinary purposes and intellectual approaches, I think it is clear that acceptance of a corpus-conception of ancient rhetoric need not curtail intellectual activities pursued with recourse to subsets of the corpus. In fact, the corpus-conception of ancient rhetoric can sustain and actually widen the intellectual activities formerly "authorized" by the notion of a "canon" (except only for disputes about the "canon" itself).

In all, a corpus-conception enlarges the scope of ancient rhetoric, democratizes its evidence, and supports a plurality of methods and ideological stances in its intellectual pursuit. For these reasons, I believe it offers a sound basis for the future investigation of ancient rhetoric.

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Illinois UP, 1994. 112-27.

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Bizzell, Patricia and Bruce Herzberg. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical

Times to the Present. Boston: St. Martin's, 1990.

"Canon." Def. 4. The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989.

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Brenda Deen Schildgen. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1997. 33-45.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983.

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Criticism. London: Verso Editions and NLB, 1981. 101-13.

Eden, Kathy. "Hermeneutics and the Ancient Rhetorical Tradition." Rhetorica 5 (1987): 59-86.

Glenn, Cheryl. "Sex, Lies, and Manuscript: Refiguring Aspasia in the History of

Rhetoric." College Composition and Communication 45 (1994): 180-99.

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and Authority. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1997.

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Rhetoric Review 20.1 (2001): 22-28.

Imber, Margaret. "Pudentilla's Anger: The Indirect Discourse of a Roman Matron." Rhetoric, the

Polis, and the Global Village. Selected Papers from the 1998 Thirtieth Anniversary

Rhetoric Society of America Conference. Ed. C. Jan Swearingen. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum,

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Southern Illinois UP, 1991.

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Ed. Frank McConnell. Oxford: Oxford UP. 78-96.

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of Pedagogy." Rhetoric Society Quarterly 22 (1992): 18-26.


The contemporary dispute over the ancient rhetorical canon is essentially a tug-of-war between scholarly factions whose chief interests are not the comprehension of rhetoric in ancient times, but rather the exploitation or imposition of disciplinary authority. These appropriations of the canon are problematic, because they render the canon unrepresentative and inconsistent in its conceptualization of ancient rhetoric. To redress this problem, we must reconstitute "ancient rhetoric" as a corpus, one which contains all known texts, artifacts, and discourse venues that represent the theory, pedagogy, practice, criticism, and cultural apprehension of rhetoric in ancient times.


Robert N. Gaines is Associate Professor of Communication, University of Maryland, College Park; . His research is principally concerned with the individuals and intellectual forces that shaped rhetorical theory in ancient times. He publications on ancient rhetoric have appeared in Advances in the History of Rhetoric, Hermes, Philosophy & Rhetoric, Rheinisches Museum für Philologie, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Rhetorica, Transactions of American Philological Association, and Transactions of the Canadian Society for the Study of Rhetoric. He is a past-president of the American Society for the History of Rhetoric, has served in the Council of the International Society for the History of Rhetoric, and currently serves as a member in the Board of Directors for the Rhetoric Society of America. He is Editor of Advances in the History of Rhetoric for 2002-05.

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