The Fate of Rhetoric in Early Modern England (seminar)

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This was a spring 2004 semester seminar.

C. S. Lewis once remarked that "Rhetoric is the greatest barrier between us and our ancestors . . . an invisible wall." This seminar furthered the attempt to broach that wall by both surveying the scope of rhetoric in Renaissance England and undertaking a scholarly autopsy of its demise. By the end of the Renaissance, rhetoric was frequently attacked; by the 1740s Adam Smith could dismiss it as "a silly set of books." What happened between the great revival of classical rhetoric in England during the sixteenth century and the time of Smith? Why does rhetoric become positioned in opposition to philosophy and theology during the seventeenth century? How do the fortunes of rhetoric relate to the emergence of modern divisions between the disciplines of knowledge? After many years of research on the subject of rhetoric, its fate in the early modern period and its effect are still not well understood. Our return to the scene of rhetoric's demise considered two kinds of documentary evidence: the profusion of rhetorical handbooks and treatises produced during the period, and the increasingly hostile critiques of rhetoric emanating from philosophical and religious discourse. While we examined some of the more familiar rhetorical treatises of the period, we also explored the vast and largely unread mass of rhetorical discourse in the English Renaissance.

Director: John Guillory is Professor of English at New York University. He is the author of Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (1993) and Poetic Authority: Spenser, Milton and Literary History (1983), and is currently working on two books titled Literary Study in the Age of the New Class and The Prose of Modernity: Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Poetry in Early Modern England.