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Reviews Rhetoric, Prudence, and Skepticism in the Renaissance, by Victoria Kahn; 243 pp. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985, $29.50. Kahn's book is one of the most interesting to issue from the current movement to evaluate literary texts in terms of their rhetorical strategies. The quality of her study comes from a greater than usual attention to the classical and Renaissance theoretical grounding of rhetoric, an attention balanced by a command of modern ideas about rhetoric and philosophy. The three detailed studies of Erasmus, Montaigne, and Hobbes are preceded by an introduction that clarifies the importance of the relationship between rhetoric, dieories of reading, and ethical and metaphysical issues as well as by two chapters of historical background. The chapter on humanist rhetoric reviews the Aristotelian position on the orator's responsibility for developing the faculty of judgment, or prudence, and shows that Aristotle's position with regard to rhetoric cannot be fully appreciated without reference to the Nicomachean Ethics. Having thus shown a link between the Ciceronian position (sometimes considered to be the more socially committed) and the Aristotelian one (seemingly more purely technical when read in isolation from the Ethics), Kahn devotes a chapter to a convincing description of the contrast between the civic rhetoric of the Italian Quattrocento, with its greater emphasis on the possibility of reaching a workable agreement through prudent deliberation, and the most skeptical views of die later, Northern Renaissance with its more cognitive orientation. With this background, Kahn is able to show, in greater detail, the various responses of the three figures of the Northern Renaissance whose work she studies. Her reading of Erasmus's Praise ofFolly demonstrates the way in which prudence permits both a recognition of the validity of the skeptical, paradoxical position, and a means of dealing widi it by calling on the judgment of the reader: "the analogy of decorum and folly is not structured according to the medieval analogy of cause and effect . . . but as an apparent likeness, the perception and evaluation of which depends on the reader" (p. 113). Montaigne's position, analyzed principally with reference to the "Apology for Raymond Sebond" and the essays "On Practice" and "On Experience," is based 334 Reviews335 on a "skeptical epistemology of taste" by which the value of reading and experience never coheres into a product or final result but is always part ofthe process ofjudgment engaged in by an unstable and changing self. Hobbes, on the other hand, is shown to attempt to halt this shifting by expelling rhetoric in favor of science, an attempt that fails, in Kahn's view, precisely because of the need for prudential rhetoric to enable the reader to deal with a text like Leviathan. Thus rhetoric remains central to Hobbes's work. In situating her book in modern critical and philosophical terms, Kahn opts for "reconstruction" rather than deconstruction. Her awareness of the issues involved in the deconstructive emphasis on cognitive problems is acute, but it does not prevent her, happily, from engaging in the reenactment of the later humanists' own, different problematics. In doing so, Kahn brings refreshing insights even into passages (e.g., Montaigne's description of his accident in "On Experience") that have received extensive treatment by other critics. Furthermore , Kahn frequently suggests applications of her findings to other important figures in Renaissance philosophy, notably Machiavelli and Descartes. Although her section on Hobbes might have been strengthened by longer consideration of Ramist rhetorical theory (and the historical work on rhetoric of such scholars as Howell and Ong), it is certainly good that Kahn has emphasized close readings ofher principal figures. In short, Kahn's book is a lively, informative , and solid contribution both to Renaissance studies and to the dialogue between rhetoric and philosophy. Dartmouth CollegeJohn D. Lyons "Germinal" and Zola's Political and Religious Thought (Purdue University Monographs in Romance Languages, vol. 14), by Philip Walker; xii & 157 pp. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1984, $24.00 paper. This concise study by a seasoned nineteenth-century scholar seeks out die philosophical underpinnings of Zola's Germinal. Through his investigation of Zola's conflicting needs for both scientific and religious truth, Walker successfully demonstrates that Germinal is at once a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 334-335
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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