The case of ‘Rhetoric vs. Criticism’: poetic speech on trial

Hannah Porter

Gentlemen (and women) of the jury, why this proem? I am of course well aware of your renowned knowledge with regard to the matter in hand, so I beg your friendship and indulgence in this, my investigation of rhetoric and criticism. Listen carefully, for I intend to prove to you today that those two subjects are both one and the same thing, and yet also independent of one another in their symbiotic relationship of reliance and inspiration. You may wonder how such a broad topic can be diverted into more accessible tributaries, and I believe the following answer should suffice. I put it to you that we follow the steady course of rhetoric as it flows through certain kinds of Greek literature (namely that of an epic, comic or tragic nature) and, in turn, examine the response of both the literary authors themselves and their critics, those most revered individuals: Gorgias, Plato and Aristotle. Indeed, I hope that even the name ‘Aristotle’ is enough for you to judge my work the best kind of investigation.

I shall therefore start with a brief examination of Homer, for indeed, has there ever been a more appropriate starting-point? His epics both contain rhetoric and are the subject of criticism and, in turn, both these devices may be described in terms of the other. A definition of each word is therefore a necessity, it would seem. Next we come to Aristophanes, the comic whose work skilfully combines amusement with rhetoric, for who can be more interested in persuading a crowd than the man who petulantly re-wrote an entire play for the sake of competition1 ? Then the ‘best’ of all tragedians2 – pace Aeschylus3 – must be addressed inasmuch as such a verbally-limited investigation will allow. For not only does Euripides’ soft rope playfully corrode the dry stone of popular ‘truths’, but he too presents dis-cord-ant criticisms of his own characters and plot-lines4. Both Sappho and Gorgias have attempted a defence of history’s “most notorious adulteress”5 (whom I presume needs no further clarification), yet I would argue that Euripides’ treatment of her appears the most intellectually critical of the rhetoric used in her defence. This brings us back to the differentiation between ‘criticism’ and ‘rhetoric’, a subject that, you will be pleased to hear, I am about to broach.

“The two terms ‘rhetoric’ and ‘literary criticism’ undoubtedly share one common feature: they are difficult to define exactly and satisfactorily”6. Well this is a most unsatisfactory explanation, do you not think, gentlemen? Rather, I agree with the esteemed Aristotle, that the persuaded speaker, the persuasive speech, and the persuadable audience are the three main components of ‘rhetoric’7. So if we are to consider the broader idea that “rhetoric is communication”8, we must say that it is one of a persuasive nature. ‘Criticism’ should be easier to define, for surely it is any judgment which adds to your understanding in order to “develop and refine literary taste”9? Although these definitions offer easier interpretation than the Lesbian poet, they are not without their difficulties. For, where are we to draw the line? Does rhetoric inspire criticism, or does criticism rely on rhetoric for its success? Which came first, the critical chicken or rhetorical egg? Or could literature devoid of either have ever existed? Alas I fear that too many words create poverty. Allow me to elucidate further by explaining why and how the following poets use rhetoric, and how this relates to criticism.

Homer, I call you to the dock first. I put it to you that your work, as pioneering poetry, relies heavily on the use of rhetoric and is therefore the subject of both internal and external criticism. By Zeus! There is so much to choose from, and yet I must keep it brief. To begin with then… the beginning of all things! Aristotle himself quotes the opening lines of Homer as good examples of proems in forensic oratory; certainly, I can confirm that the opening lines ‘sing’ and ‘tell’ of ‘wrath’ and ‘man’10. Throwing more fuel onto the fire, I would suggest that it is both Achilles’ ‘wrath’ and the ‘man’, Odysseus, who also provide instances of rhetoric within the epic narrative. When Homer differentiates between Menelaus’ “few…/but exceedingly lucid [words]” and Odysseus’ “great voice…/[with words] drifting down like the winter snows”11, he clearly contrasts the plain and high style that came to be later identified and refined12. Indeed, it is this level of eloquence that gives Odysseus his epithetical ‘cunning’, for would a plain-speaker have fared as well in the deception of Polyphemus? I suggest not.

This being said, gentlemen, I have little doubt that Homer intended at least some minor form of criticism by implying that different voices are best suited to different characters. Menelaus’ powerful brevity seems apt for demanding (with few words) a war that would have a monumental impact, and so does Odysseus’ powerful and siren-like speech suit his purpose in seducing and influencing those around him. Perhaps then, Plato, you should have also considered Homer (alongside Tisias and Gorgias) in your estimations of those who can make “small things seem great and great things small”13?

The emphasis our bard places upon ‘delivery’ suddenly puts it on equal footing with its sibling elements, ‘matter’ and ‘wording’14, so that the series of entreaties made towards the wrathful Achilles in Book 9 rely as much on the various speakers’ abilities as their content. Odysseus’ rhetoric, although articulate, is perhaps a case of too many opinions sinking the boat, being so overloaded with reasons for Achilles to rejoin the battle that it completely fails in its objective15. The wrathful protagonist answers each plea with a kind of ironic rhetoric as he tries to persuade the listeners that he must decline. I would suggest that what is of special interest to us, gentlemen, is the outright aversion demonstrated towards Odysseus’16 tactics when Achilles states “I detest that man, who / hides one thing in the depths of his heart, and speaks forth another”17. Could it have been made any plainer? It may be that Homer is openly criticizing the speech made, but perhaps it seems most likely that he encourages his readers to come to their own conclusions. Even Phoenix’s tearful pleas and Ajax’s attempt at negative psychology18 do not elicit a reaction from Achilles that comes anywhere near the disgust he shows towards Odysseus19.

The case I am trying to make, unaccustomed as I am to public speaking, is this: that the work of the great bard is, firstly, one of the earliest and most useful examples of rhetoric (if Quintilian is anything to go by20) and, secondly, that he expresses critical views of rhetoric. If my listeners agree with this, then it follows that the rhetoric in Homer influences criticism by being both its subject, and strengthening its arguments.

With this agreed, please make your nostos, Father, and we shall press on quickly. Aristophanes, would you like to take a stand next and defend the rhetoric in your plays? Or perhaps if you are off in Cloud Cuckoo Land, I should take up the case for you? Now, is it not true that you have previously stated that “even comedy knows something /about truth and justice” and that truth should be spoken even if it is deemed “unpalatable”21? Is it not also correct to say that you were very conscious that as a public figure you were an “intellectual [with] a social responsibility”22? Then how do you answer to a charge that much of the rhetoric in your plays is false, dishonest and unjust23?

Your critics might call this proof that you are as fraudulent as your plays, but on the contrary, I believe it is not that straightforward. Let us begin with that infamous agon: surely it ought to be one of the most persuasive scenes in all of comedy, for it is a competition of rhetoric set within a play that itself is in a performative (and rhetorical) competition with others. What is more interesting is the strong case that Euripides (we shall address him in more detail later) puts forward for ‘Persuasion’ and Dionysus’ rejection of this technique, although one could argue that Aeschylus won because of this very craft. Euripides presents ‘Persuasion’ as “[having] no temple… save in words”, whilst Dionysus complains that the “mere empty words without /sense”24 are too light compared to the weighty words of Aeschylus. Then, in their last trial, the younger tragedian tries to dazzle the judge with eloquence like: “mistrust what you now trust”25, which we can take either as a comment on the judges of such plays and their lack of judicial standards26, or (and I much prefer this way, gentlemen) as internal criticism of rhetoric itself27. Plato, you too are in agreement (for once), having stated on several occasions how much like the theatre, you fear democracy has become28. How about your shifting Cloudsthen Aristophanes? Another play between Right and Wrong arguments? Never rains but it pours…

Do you really suggest that we encourage our children to learn the Wrongful argument on the grounds that “[it] can always win its case even when justice is against it”29? I doubt it, listeners, for he is a good man. It is clear to me that Aristophanes mostly intends for his work to be taken with a great bucket of salt (or perhaps a little bottle of oil), and that his true intention is to “make people into better citizens”30 through his poetry. Indeed, I believe it to be true that he “accuses rhetoric of undermining justice and the laws that hold a political community together”31.

Do you not think the Great-Pretender quite clever with this kind of criticism, gentlemen? How it is at once both open and hidden? His rhetoric on one level induces the audience to find humour in making the wrong choices, even showing them the rewards of deceitfulness32, and yet on another, it encourages them to judge this use of rhetoric for themselves and take note of the implicit criticism behind the words. So, in a different light to Homer perhaps, we can see Aristophanes openly using his performative rhetoric to criticise the device itself. He does not allude to it, but openly states the utility and comparative futility of rhetoric, notably in judicial circumstances.

Further than this the Father of Comedy’s naming of Socrates as Father of Thinkery in theClouds, is an action considered strange and slanderous by critics both ancient and modern33. Aristophanes seemingly criticises Socrates for his belief in rhetoric, when the man himself would appear to also criticise and disregard rhetoric, and indeed is seen in your work, Plato, to blame Gorgias for the very same crime. You may think me to be missing the point of my original investigation here, but on the contrary, I believe it is important to illustrate the link between literature and its critics. For surely the case is a wheel and it turns around? How does the poets’ rhetoric influence the criticism that they both portray and receive? And how far does this criticism of rhetoric stretch? For Aristophanes criticises not only the technique itself, but those who practice it, who, in their turn, criticise this criticism, thus demonstrating the symbiotic nature of the two terms. Come down from the clouds now, good poet, you have served your sentence in the dock.

Euripides, put aside your rags and walking stick and step up here, if you please. Or perhaps you would prefer a lift ex machina? How do you answer to the charge of an excessive addiction to rhetoric in your plays? Guilty? By Hercules, I hope so. But please do not misunderstand me, gentlemen, this is not meant as an insult, but rather as an establishment of fact. For we must accept, as our good friend Ms Hall has done, that “audience[s] had become accustomed to seeing startling displays”34 both in the law courts and on stage. Therefore I would consider it unusual if the combination of tragedy’s performative context and a sophistically-interested playwright did not lead to a great concentration in rhetoric and its respective criticism. In addition, we must not forget the substantial claim made by Quintilian of your usefulness as a most reliable source of oratorical teaching35.

This being well, I propose we examine two of the Master’s most rhetorical plays: the Hecubaand the Helen. One of these expresses criticism of the relative power of rhetoric, and the other, tackles both the Protagorian ideal that there are two sides to every coin and the claims of Gorgias (and Sappho), that rhetoric can make even that womaniser defendable.

The Hecuba first then. Like Homer, Euripides presents a series three petitions, but unlike the Bard, the speeches are all made by the same person, but beseeching different people. You may ask what difference this makes, and it is this: that Homer focuses on the relative delivery of each different character, whereas Euripides examines the bare bones of a single speaker and reflects upon the circumstances in which they deliver their speech. I shall illustrate this with a few examples, gentlemen. Firstly, consider the appeal made to Odysseus, where the viability of rhetoric is questioned when even the speech of a model rhetor is shown to fail through no fault of her own36. Mr Kastely would like to suggest that this is because “[Odysseus’] loyalty is single… [so] he is not corrupt or cynical, merely limited”37, indeed this seems agreeable, since the Greek’s allegiance is to his country and army, not the enslaved female enemy. Perhaps it is also a nod towards the mind of the audience that Plato advocates as being so important38, especially given that, as discussed above, Odysseus is no stranger to great feats of rhetoric. For if he and Hecuba are moulded of the same clay (this being indicated by the eloquence of their speeches), then does it not follow that they ought to also be masters of the whole skill, and not be taken in by the wiles of the other? I suggest that, just as Odysseus is unmoved by Hecuba’s speech, she in her turn is impassive to his answering logic.

You will remember that the first of the two appeals to Agamemnon fails somewhat also, though this may be explained by his cowardice and the notion that “those in power are not free but are, in fact, the most deeply enslaved”39. Once again, I do not find this too objectionable, but would like to highlight Hecuba’s outcry that humans never bother to learn completely about “Persuasion, the only real mistress of mankind”40. You might consider this to be self-critical, with Hecuba’s desperation making her think she could perhaps have improved her speech and her chances, however, I see it as criticism of Agamemnon. Indeed, she seems to imply that if the King were to make more eloquent speeches, he would have been able to persuade the army of her reasoning, without the appearance of protecting Cassandra (his main fear)41.

The success of Hecuba’s last petition, gentlemen, is an interesting criticism on rhetoric, for not only does it contain Socratic elements but it is also futile in a sense, since at this point Hecuba still faces life-enslavement and has lost all her loved ones. This being said, it is a critical triumph for logical rhetoric, gentlemen, since the reliance on power fails Polymestor42 and in revealing his weakness, “the transparency of his deceit undermines his case”43. This is something that Plato’s Socrates advises against44; it is improbable that the weak, but audacious Hecuba managed to get the better of the stronger but cowardly Polymestor45.

What about Euripides’ Helen, then? A comment on “the limits of human knowledge and the gap between reality and appearance”46, or an expansion on the Protagorian theory that “if one were clever at speaking one could have a competition between two arguments in every case”47? Perhaps both at once. The Helen concerns the difference between the phantom and the real thing and thus you could argue a case of sophistic relativism; ‘truth’ is whatever seems the most right to the most people. The rhetoric used here is not a spoken one (although there are persuasive elements in the play), but one of plot; two Helens exist so long as Menelaus and the other characters believe there to be.

The difference here between Euripides’ and Gorgias’ (and indeed Sappho’s) approach to the ‘Helen’ topic, is one of purpose. Sappho uses Helen as a personal excuse for her unquenchable amorous feelings48, whilst Gorgias sees Helen as a subject useful in demonstrating how deceit may so easily be achieved in rhetorical speech49. Euripides’ motives appear somewhat altered; he uses Helen as the stage from which he projects the dangers of unquestioned popular opinions (a form of rhetoric perhaps). The play is a series of critical anti-anagnorises, resulting in undue pain and suffering caused to Helen, Menelaus, those who fought in the Trojan War, and even Theoclymenos.

What say you, gentlemen? That Euripides has a critical approach to the rhetorical is certainly true, but what of his rhetorical influence on criticism? He clearly sees rhetoric as a subject in need of criticism; how it becomes worthless in the hands of those without power, or in a world ruled not by justice, but by force50. He realises that every argument can be opposed and seems to criticise his readers for taking everything (like Helen) at first glance. When you go to buy wool, are you careful not to get shorn?

So judges, where does all of this leave us?  Does rhetoric influence criticism? Undoubtedly. So if we add to our earlier definitions that “every form of logos, verse or prose, is a form of persuasion, and is to be judged by its effectiveness for this purpose”51 then surely any persuasive literature I have presented to you have already been judged by the poet in terms of their value? So if Homer presents different styles of rhetoric; if Aristophanes gives examples of persuasion being misused or misjudged; and if Euripides explores the ineffectualness of rhetoric, it follows that each of them is also being critical. Insofar as you are required to have a certain level of intellect to understand my speech, so too these poets need to be critical if their rhetoric is to make sense and be persuasive. For is it not true that he who governs his home, governs his life? For any kind of performative literature to be effective, the foundation of critical rhetoric must be laid. Although they may be described as different terms, I hope you will agree, gentlemen, that my examinations have shown ‘rhetoric’ and ‘criticism’ as so intimately forced together, that they are made family.

So look not for the difference between the Greek and Trojan nations, but see them as the men they are; both are at war, and yet, in essence, both are the autochthonous. So let us, be as Dikaiopolis, and ask that peace be made between the two factions.

Your thanks are deserved, gentlemen, for allowing my intrusion upon your valuable time. Judge this to the best of your abilities, and do not force a second-attempt, as I am an honest, but humble, woman, and no Aristophanes. My thanks – valete.


















Primary Sources:

Aristophanes. ‘The Archarnians’, in Lysistrata and Other Plays. Sommerstein, A. H. (ed. & trans.) (2002) London: Penguin Books

Aristophanes. ‘The Clouds’, in Lysistrata and Other Plays. Sommerstein, A. H. (ed. & trans.) (2002) London: Penguin Books

Aristophanes. ‘The Frogs’, in The Wasps, The Poet and the Women, The Frogs. Barrett, D. (ed. & trans.) (1964) London: Penguin Books

Aristophanes. ‘The Poet and the Women’, in The Wasps, The Poet and the Women, The Frogs. Barrett, D. (ed. & trans.) (1964) London: Penguin Books.

Aristophanes. ‘The Wasps’, in The Wasps, The Poet and the Women, The Frogs. Barrett, D. (ed. & trans.) (1964) London: Penguin Books

Aristotle. ‘Poetics’, in Classical Literary Criticism. Dorsch, T. S. (ed. & trans.) (1965) London: Penguin Books

Aristotle. Rhetoric. Lawson-Tancred, H. (ed. & trans.) (2005) London: Penguin Classics

Euripides. ‘Antiope Fragment 189’, in Selected Fragmentary Plays: Alexandros (together with Palamedes and Sisyphus), Oedipus, Andromeda, Antiope, Hypsipyle, Archelaus. Collard, C., Cropp, M. J. & Gibert, J. (eds.) (2004) Wiltshire: Aris & Phillips Ltd.

Euripides. Helen. Allan, W. (ed. & intro.) (2008) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Euripides. Medea and Other Plays. Hall, E. (intro. & trans.) & Morwood, J. (trans.) (1997) Oxford: Oxford University Press

Homer. Iliad. Lattimore, R. (ed. & trans.) (1951) London: University of Chicago

Homer. Odyssey. Lattimore, R. (ed. & trans.) (1965) London: Harper Collins

The Oxford Classical Dictionary (2003) Hornblower, S. & Spawforth, A. (eds.) (3rd ed. rev.) Oxford; Oxford University Press

Plato. Phaedrus. Rowe, C. (ed. & trans.) (2005) London: Penguin Classics

Quintilian. Institutio Oratorio. Edgeworth Butler, H. (ed. & trans.) (1920) London: William Heinemann

Sappho. ‘Fragment 16’, in Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments of Sappho. Duffy, C. A. (intro.) & Poochigian, A. (trans.)(2009) London: Penguin Classics

Secondary Sources:

Classen, C. J. (1995) ‘Rhetoric and Literary Criticism: Their Nature and Their Functions in Antiquity’, Mnemosyne, Vol. 48, No. 5 (Nov.), pp, 513-35

Conacher, D. J. (1967) Euripidean Drama. Myth, Theme and Structure. Toronto: University of Toronto

Dover, K. J. (1992) Aristophanic Comedy. California: University of California.

Ford, A. (2002) The Origins of Criticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Grube, G. M. A. (1965) The Greek and Roman Critics. London: Methuen & Co Ltd

Kastely, J. L. (1993) ‘Violence and Rhetoric in Euripides’s Hecuba’, PMLA, Vol. 108, No. 5 (Oct.), pp. 1036-49

Nichols, M. P. (1987) ‘Aristotle’s Defense of Rhetoric’, The Journal of Politics, Vol. 49, No. 3 (Aug.), pp. 657-77

Russell, D. A.  (1967) ‘Rhetoric and Criticism’, Greece & Rome, Vol. 14, No. 2. (Oct.), pp. 130-44

Shaffer, D. (1998) ‘The Shadow of Helen: The Status of the Visual Image in Gorgias’sEncomium to Helen’, Rhetorica: A Journal of the History of Rhetoric, Vol. 16, No. 3 (Summer), pp. 243-57

1 Aristophanes, Clouds 518-63.

2 Aristotle, Poetics 1453a.

3Aristophanes, Frogs. Aeschylus is named the ‘best’ tragedian.

4 Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria 10.1.67-8. Euripides is the most useful tragic poet in oratory education. ‘The soft rope can corrode dry stone’, a Greek gnome which suggests persuasion can change even strong opinions.

5 Ford, 2002: 175.

6 Classen, 1995: 513.

7 Aristotle, Rhetoric 2.1.

8 Nichols, 1987: 664.

9 Classen, 1995: 516. See also OCD, 2003.

10 Homer, Iliad 1.1; Odyssey 1.1.

11 Ibid,. 3.213-14 and 221-2 (respectively).

12 Grube, 1965.

13 Plato, Phaedrus 267a

14 Grube, 1965.

15 Homer, Iliad 9.225-306. Odysseus employs no fewer than seven techniques: praise; Peleus’ presumed fatherly advice words; the return of an untouched Briseus; the choice of war-spoils; the chance to marry Agamemnon’s daughter and become a son-in-law with a substantial dowry of seven citadels; the chance to save the other Greek warriors from further battle; and the glory to be gained from killing Hector.

16 Or possibly Agamemnon’s.

17 Homer, Iliad 9.312-13.

18 Ibid., 9.

19 Or Agamemnon.

20 Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria 10.1.46ff.

21 Aristophanes. Acharnians 500-1 and 502.

22 Sommerstein, 2002: xxi. See also Barrett, 1964.

23 Aristophanes, Wasps, Clouds, Frogs. This will be explained further below.

24 Aristophanes, Frogs 1392 and 1396.

25 Ibid., 1444.

26 Ford, 2002: 280-1, “the influence of critical skill was haphazard, and one could not predict whether the plan for a comedy, for example, would go to the funniest or the wisest play”.

27 This kind of rhetorical criticism can also be seen in Wasps, where Procleon complains about the variety of persuasive techniques which sting judges and litigants (Wasps 562ff.).

28 Plato, Republic 6.492b5-ci and Laws 3.700c1-4.

29 Aristophanes, Clouds 115.

30 Aristophanes, Frogs 1008-9.

31 Nichols, 1987: 658.

32 Aristophanes, Clouds 1171-82.

33 Plato, Apology and Republic; Dover, 1972.

34 Hall, 1997: xxxiv.

35 See above.

36 Conacher, 1967; Euripides, Hecuba 296-7: the Chorus attest to the power of Hecuba’s speech.

37 Kastely, 1993: 1037.

38 Plato, Phaedrus 271d.

39 Kastely, 1993: 1043

40 Euripides, Hecuba 816.

41 Ibid., 854-5.

42 Ibid., 1243-5.

43 Kastely, 1993: 1044.

44 Plato, Phaedrus 273b-c.

45 A similar case can be seen in what remains of the Cretans, (fr.472e) for here too Pasiphae seems to defend herself by admitting to a crime. The exaggerated rhetoric in her speech is a good example of Euripides’ criticism of the over-complicated style, since it becomes so flowery as to be judged humourous.

46 Allan, 2008: 47

47 Euripides, Antiope fr. 189.

48 Sappho, fr, 16 (Lobel).

49 Ford, 2002; Shaffer, 1998.

50 Kastely, 1993.

51 Russell, 1967: 132.

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