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  • Print publication year: 2003
  • Online publication date: September 2009

4 - Rhetoric – ‘not the Words, but the Acts’



One of the clearest indications of the humanist education of those authors concerned with the New World was that their treatises promoting the colonial designs were composed according to the conventions of classical rhetoric. They were, that is, instances of classical oratory. Of the five disciplines in the humanist curriculum, rhetoric held a central position. The art of rhetoric was defined variously by classical and humanist authorities but always as an act of persuasion. Humanist culture, sometimes referred to as rhetorical culture, placed great emphasis upon the contingency of knowledge. In such an environment, in which knowledge was a matter of plausibility rather than certainty, the ability to persuade was crucial to social and political action. In the studia humanitatis the active life of the citizen was represented as vital to the health of the political community. Speech, in particular, was believed in its various forms, including writing and printing, to be one of the most important means through which to pursue action.

Classical rhetoricians and their Renaissance imitators distinguished three genera, or kinds, of rhetoric; the forensic, epideictic and deliberative. Each genus was distinguished by a context, a function and an end. The context of forensic rhetoric was the law court; its function was accusation and defence and its end, justice. Epideictic, or occasional, oratory, had its genesis in the funeral oration; its functions were praise and blame, and its ends fortune and virtue.