- A Ciceronian Sunburn: A Tudor Dialogue on Humanistic Rhetoric and Civic Poetics
In this vigorously argued book, Edward Armstrong sets out to examine the role of poetry within late Tudor humanist conversations on learning. To this end, he reviews the arguments (whether discursively expounded or poetically enacted) that were marshalled for and against the pedagogical credentials of poetic discourse as a philosophically inscribed inquiry into the realm of human affairs. These debates revolved around a set of interlocking issues: what does learning consist of? How effective are the forms it takes, and to what ends should it be used? How these questions were answered, Armstrong argues, depended on the varying ways in which the rhetorical arts were defined in the sixteenth century. His own view of this topic is firmly predicated on the all-but-axiomatic belief of this period that rhetoric [End Page 119] and poetics were closely allied, if not interchangeable; he sees them as sharing a common field of inquiry (human morals and actions), set of methods (probabilistic reasoning) and objectives (the promotion of moral discipline and civil society), and preference for certain generic forms (dialogue or 'civil conversation'). Given the centrality of this still widely endorsed commonplace to the book's thesis, though, one might expect this to be subjected to more careful inspection, especially since it becomes apparent in the course of the discussion that the relationships between the rhetorician, poet, and philosopher were too complex and unstable to permit any generalized conflation of their positions.
For Armstrong, the fundamental issue at stake in the controversy over the propaedeutic function of poetry is the extent to which the poetic-rhetorical arts were conceived of as involving a process of making or 'inventing' knowledge, rather than simply repackaging what is already known. His decision to take Sidney's Defence of Poetry as his starting point is unsurprising, for the sixteenth century produced no more powerful manifesto for poetry's ability to teach, delight, and move men towards 'virtuous action'. Sidney, of course, famously proclaims the poet's pre-eminent status as a 'maker', arguing that unlike practitioners of the other arts, he is not restricted to a state of imitative dependency on nature, but, 'guided only by the vigour of his own invention', creates 'forms such as never were in nature'. Indeed, in his paragone between the poet, historian, and philosopher, Sidney audaciously asserts that the philosopher's claim to ownership of truth is trumped by the poet on account of the superiority of his particular brand of 'delightful teaching'. The poet may justly be titled 'the right popular philosopher', argues Sidney, for instead of relying on the 'bare rule[s]', 'obscure definitions', and 'thorny arguments' that are the stockin trade of the philosopher who 'scorns to delight', he wraps up wisdom in the 'feigned images of poesy' whose broad sensory and affective appeal 'entices' his readers into the path of virtue 'ere themselves be aware'. It is this which makes the poet better qualified to elicit the 'well-doing and not well-knowing only' which Sidney, in common with many humanists, regards as the ultimate end of all learning. Where the philosopher's goal is to search out abstract, scientifically demonstrable truths (gnosis), the poet's fictions do not aspire to any higher truth than probability – he 'nothing affirms' – and are contingent on an array of situational factors. Hence the wisdom embodied in such poetic narratives is profoundly resistant to being extracted or codified, and can be 'known' or reproduced only through rhetorical action (praxis). It is these competing claims about what constitutes truth or learning that this book locates at the heart of humanist debates. [End Page 120]
Importantly, Armstrong treats these debates as but one instalment in a protracted conversation on the pedagogical credentials of the poetico-rhetorical arts that reaches back to classical antiquity, and forward to current disputes over rhetoric's status as an academic discipline. (The significance of such disputes may be partially lost on British...