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MLN 119.1 Supplement (2004) S56-S65

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Rhetoric, the Measure of All Things

Jean Dietz Moss
The Catholic University of America

The saying, usually attributed to Protagoras, that "man is the measure of all things," or in the more accurate translation from the Greek by Kathleen Freeman: "Of all things the measure is Man, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not," has been enthusiastically echoed by many modern rhetoricians who claim that rhetoric is epistemic and that all discourse is rhetorical. 1 They transmute Protagoras only slightly to the effect that "Rhetoric is the measure of all things." Modern rhetoricians are not the first to make this claim. Lorenzo Valla could be said to have embraced that view, but recent rhetorical scholarship has taken little note of his pioneering efforts in this regard.

Salvatore Camporeale has written perspicuously and convincingly on the meaning of Valla's reforms of philosophy and theology that relate to my topic. 2 In this brief essay I plan to describe the sense in which the import of my title encapsulates those reforms and the sense in which it does not, taking my cue from Camporeale's insights. I shall focus my attention on Valla's views of rhetoric and dialectic, its companion art of probable reasoning.

Rhetoric in the period of Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457) was undergoing restoration to the position of importance it had had in the age of [End Page S56] Augustus, and Valla was an impassioned architect of that restoration. In the earlier renaissance of the twelfth century, rhetoric had been relegated to a lesser place in the pantheon of the arts and sciences, while its "Trivial" sister dialectic was elevated to the supreme position as the chief instrument of speculative investigation. Their sibling, grammar, however, held her own as the gateway to knowledge. Valla, through his Elegantiae linguae latinae and Repastinatio dialecticae et philosophiae, overturned the hierarchy of the trivium. He enhanced the importance of grammar, deprived dialectic of its position as the superior tool of philosophy, and granted to rhetoric that place of honor. Camporeale points out in his magisterial Lorenzo Valla, Umanesimo e Teologia, that Valla protested the fracture between rhetoric and dialectic evident in the scholastics' conception of the trivium. Valla preferred the view of Quintilian, who not only found rapport between these arts, but spoke of the inclusion of dialectic in rhetoric. 3 Such a notion was lost to the schoolmen who had followed Boethius. Quintilian's treatise being no longer available to counsel a different direction, the schoolmen had made of dialectic "the method of methods," meant to be used by elite scholars who applied it to perplexing questions in philosophy and theology. 4 Study of Aristotle's rhetoric, they thought, was of slight interest, except as it related to the margins of logic and to moral persuasion. Valla, instead, offered a humanized logic to anyone engaged in thinking and discoursing about any subject. Moreover, since this thinking and discoursing takes place in a social and political context, it falls under the rhetorical art. Camporeale states the problem Valla faced as follows:

In fact, the development of medieval 'metaphysics' and of 'dialectics' had reached a level where theoretical reflection was concentrated on the human being as a 'logical category' rather than on the development and contingencies of the history of human beings. Scholastic methods of argumentation were centered around abstractions that differed from the structural forms of speech that occurred in the on-going relationships among men. 5 [End Page S57]

As Camporeale makes clear, rhetoric is key to understanding Valla and for appreciating his contribution to the academic content of the studia humanitatis. It was Valla who saw the relevance of the newly recovered first-century treatise on education by the Roman rhetor Quintilian to his own fifteenth-century world. Quintilian's ideal orator, "the good man speaking well," would be trained to use the best language that the study of grammar and great literature could yield, and, through the study of rhetoric, his words and...


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