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Philosophy and Rhetoric 33.1 (2000) 94-96

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Book Review

Rhetoric Reclaimed: Aristotle and the Liberal Arts Tradition

Rhetoric Reclaimed: Aristotle and the Liberal Arts Tradition. Janet M. Atwill. London: Cornell University Press, 1998. Pp. xvi + 235. $35.00 hard cover.

Much like Weimar, Germany, American civil society has been buffeted for a half-century by both the lunatic right, hiding behind the mask of religious freedom, and the lunatic left, sporting "pomo" (postmodern) tribal colors in the garb of academic freedom. In an earlier age, both might be burned at the stake; today, they are granted tax-exempt status. Readers seeking contributions to the life of the mind find their harangues both unpleasant and unrewarding. This book is unfortunately no exception.

Atwill's title is deceptive. Her work is only marginally about either Aristotle or his rhetoric. She is more concerned to "reclaim" the liberal arts held hostage by the received tradition of Athenian democratic ideals. Vide:

At issue are the character of the social identities of gender, race, and class and the nature of the social ties by which we are bound. . . . (3)

Challenges to the . . . humanist paradigm . . . became the subject of . . . debates over cultural diversity, political correctness, and revisionist literary canons and historical accounts. Just what is at stake . . . is the type of subjectivity produced by the paideia of a multicultural curriculum (that subjects values, views of reality, and relationships to cultural and political authority. (12-13)

So we are in for another salvo of pomo evangelism, with the usual suspects trotted out (Stanley Fish, Jacques Derrida, Pierre Bourdieu, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, and Edward Said) all with a view to rectifying the hegemonic white male biases of E. M. Cope, and rhetoric's four B's (Baldwin, Burnet, Burkhardt, and Hans Baron).

Were Atwill offering a New Age update of Cope's commentary, her project might hold promise. Embers of such potential glow throughout the [End Page 94] book. Thus, her passing remarks on the relation of techne and theoria to Greek medicine (74-79) and to the cultural demands of what amounts to a plantation society (107-8) bear consideration. And her deconstruction of Cope's work as a managerial art grounded in associationist psychology (192-200) is especially insightful.

Where the book disappoints is its clumsiness: it is simultaneously pedantic and superficial. On the first count, the author shows wide acquaintance with the standard commentaries on classical culture, but she seems often to be adrift in an ocean of secondary sources. For example, she is more likely to discuss Kennedy's treatment of Aristotle than Aristotle himself (58). And so it goes: Wright on Empedocles (90), Crane on Cicero (31), Woods on Cope (200). Indeed, it is difficult to tell from the book if the author's command of classical Greek extends much beyond Liddell and Scott.

In addition to her overdependency on secondary sources, Atwill disregards historical contexts in pushing her quirky pomo readings to the fore. To cite only a few of these:

For Plato, expertise is equivalent to function, and function determines one's place in the hierarchical order of the state. (30)

. . . Physis (nature) or faculty equals function equals place in the social order. (141)

[For Aristotle,] private property is the means of both self-expression and self-knowledge; knowledge of the self would be impossible without the procurement of private property. The subject and object distinction, usually made in the context of epistemology, is relocated at the center of the notion of private property. (184-85)

If Protagoras, Isocrates, and Cicero were appointed deans . . . today, I doubt that they would institute a curriculum based on principles of radical democracy. (209)

Perhaps Atwill would prefer to pick her dean from among Che, Mao, Pol Pot, or Lenin. While such eccentric inferences may fit the bill for cultural studies, they flunk the test of impartiality. This is a commodification of pedantry--recycling fragments of academic publications to advocate a partisan position. But advocacy resting on innuendo, resentment, and polite sneering can never meet the standards of serious scholarship...


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