Tradition and Agency in Humanistic Rhetoric
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Philosophy and Rhetoric 36.2 (2003) 135-147



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Tradition and Agency in Humanistic Rhetoric

Michael Leff


I intend to approach the issue of tradition indirectly by first considering some problems connected with rhetorical agency. This strategy might seem awkward, if not dangerous, since it entangles two equally complex and disputed concepts. Nevertheless, I hope to show that, within the humanistic strand of rhetoric, these concepts are linked in a way that is not currently recognized but has an important bearing on our understanding of both. Specifically, I argue that the humanistic approach entails a productively ambiguous notion of agency that positions the orator both as an individual who leads an audience and as a community member shaped and constrained by the demands of the audience. This tension, I maintain, becomes intelligible when we understand how tradition can function as a mediating force between individual and collective identities, and once viewed from this angle, tradition emerges as the primary resource for rhetorical invention.

Before proceeding to this argument, I need to explain the sense in which I am using the term "humanistic," since humanism, like tradition and agency, is also a concept that carries with it a variety of different and largely unrelated meanings. Consequently, I want to be clear that I am not referring to a kind of secular religion, as in a "religion of humanity," or to the version of pragmatic philosophy developed by William James and F. S. C. Schiller, or to the ideological formation often called "liberal humanism." Instead, I have in mind a rather specific development in the history of rhetoric that begins in classical Greece with Protagoras and Isocrates, appears in Rome under the sponsorship of Cicero and Quintilian, rises to prominence again in the Renaissance "humanists," and still commands attention and respect from some contemporary rhetoricians. 1 Since Cicero was the dominating presence throughout most of the history of this development, it is often characterized as "Ciceronian humanism," and while its manifestations [End Page 135] vary considerably at different times and in different places, at least some features of the program remain constant. These include a suspicious attitude toward abstract theory not only in respect to rhetoric but also to ethics and politics; 2 a conviction that discourse, especially discourse that allows for argument on both sides of an issue, has a constitutive role to play in civic life; 3 a valorization and idealization of eloquence that entails a strong connection between eloquence and virtue; 4 and a conception of virtue that is decisively linked to political activity. 5 In what follows, I hope to demonstrate that certain views about agency and tradition also fall within this cluster of common attitudes.

Agency in humanistic rhetoric

Among contemporary rhetorical scholars, one of the most widely accepted judgments about traditional humanistic rhetoric is that it contains a strong, almost totalizing, emphasis on the agency of the rhetor. Robert Scott sums up this position in a sentence: "To take the speaker as active and the audience as passive is quite traditional" (Scott 1975, 440), and Wayne Brockreide elaborates on the point when he asserts that the perspective placing "the speaker at the center of the transaction" is

a pervasive one historically. From the practice of the sophists and the writings of Isocrates and Cicero to the thrust of many twentieth-century textbooks in public speaking, the rhetorical transaction has been seen as one in which a speaker seeks to have his way with an audience—both to achieve an immediate end and to achieve power or glory as a respected member of society. (1971, 124-25) 6

Brockriede's remarks have a political and ethical subtext that Lois McNamara Byham makes explicit: "Old rhetoric was unidirectional thereby vesting those with authority the power to impart information to inferiors," and its goal, she adds, was to manipulate and exploit (1979, 22). More recently, Dilip Gaonkar translates these observations into post-modern argot when he identifies classical rhetoric with "an ideology of human agency," which, among other things, regards the speaker as a "seat of origin rather than a point of...