by Jim | September 8th, 2009
Corbett, Edward J. Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. New York: Oxford, 1971. Pp.653. Reviewed by James L. Smyrl, Ph.D.
Edward Corbett offers an insightful look at classical rhetoric which begins in the 5th century B.C. and concludes in the 19th century. Rather than merely presenting a compilation of historical dates and biographical sketches, Corbett goes into great detail of how each rhetorical element developed and how each was utilized in various forms of speeches. Although this work is a historical sketch, Corbett does not believe the tenants offered in the field of rhetoric are outdated. He rather demonstrates that ancient rhetorical patterns are helpful and even necessary for persuasive speeches today. It is this argumentative discourse that defined rhetoric throughout history.
The final section of this work is perhaps the most helpful in gaining an understanding of the pure history of rhetoric. Corbett traces, beginning with Corax, the history of rhetoric, noting the major contributions to the field by primary rhetoricians. He accomplishes much by demonstrating the influence of one rhetorician on another as well as demonstrating the influence of one rhetorical system on another. Rarely are these types of links so definitively expressed as they are by Corbett.
Corbett’s definition of rhetoric is, “the art or the discipline that deals with the use of discourse, either spoken or written, to inform or persuade or move an audience, whether that audience is made up of a single person or a group of persons” (3). Although he includes the individual conversation in his definition of rhetoric, Corbett also concedes that the majority of classical rhetoric was employed in formal monologues where one person spoke to a group of people with the purpose of persuading them to action or belief. The author presents multiple definitions for leading rhetoricians in order to fully express the scope of the subject. He seems to refer throughout the work to Aristotle’s emphasis that rhetoric is “the faculty of discovering all the available means of persuasion in any given situation.” The key to all definitions, with many nuances included is that rhetoric is fundamentally the art and science of persuasion.
Corbett presents a brief analysis of the etymology of the word rhetoric. He notes originally rhetoric was simply something connected with speaking. During the middle ages the idea of rhetoric shifted to letter writing, but it was after the invention of printing in the fifteenth century that rhetoric was broadly applied to written material. Other authors have noted this same shift in rhetorical history, however, like Corbett, most authors conclude that rhetoric, at its core, is fundamentally related to persuasive speech.
The five parts of a discourse are detailed. First, Inventio focused on the discovery of a system or method for finding arguments. Aristotle noted three modes of persuasion. First, the rational appeal was the speaker appealing to the audience’s reason or understanding. Second, the emotional appeal understood that, although man should be persuaded alone by reason, often he is swayed by his passions and emotions rather than reason. The key to the emotional appeal is that the speaker must know his audience well enough to know which emotional appeals would work in persuading them. Third, the ethical appeal stemmed from the character of the speaker and the speech. If the audience did not respect or trust the speaker, there was little need to go any further, for his audience would not yield to his appeals.
The second part of discourse was dispositio, which was the arrangement or order of the parts of a speech or written material. Aristotle limited the parts of speech to the statement of the case and the proof of the case, but later rhetoricians included introduction, exposition of the case, outline of points, proof of the case, refutation of the opposing arguments, and conclusion. Third, elocutio for the classical rhetorician meant style. Quintilian noted three styles: plain was for instructing; middle for moving; and high for charming. Fourth was memoria, which was concerned with memorizing the speech. Fifth was pronuntiatio, which focused on delivery of the speech.
Corbett moves next to the three kinds of persuasive discourse. First was the deliberative discourse in which one deliberated about public affairs. Second was the forensic oratory, also known as legal or judicial oratory. Third was the epideictic oratory which was more concerned with pleasing the audience than with persuading the audience. This kind of discourse was used in ceremonial events and the like. He notes several contributors to each of these kinds of persuasive discourse.
An excellent section is provided on formulating a thesis. He notes that the theme of the message must be stated in the form of a propositional statement. The thesis, according to Corbett, is a declarative sentence which asserts or denies something about the subject. He notes that the effort to define the thesis in a single declarative sentence will allow the speaker to know if he can handle the subject.
The author moves into a more detailed section on the aforementioned modes of persuasion. He details the appeal to reason noting multiple methods of the definition including synonyms and syllogism. Several helpful charts and examples are provided in this section. He also details several fallacies of reasoning that are helpful for the speaker to determine the effectiveness of his argument.
The second mode of persuasion is the ethical appeal. He notes that in order to affect the will of a person, that person must first trust the integrity of the one persuading. Several readings are provided in this section that demonstrates the effectiveness of this mode of persuasion. The third mode of persuasion is the emotional appeal. He reiterates the warning of the dangers of this appeal before moving into a section that details its benefits. He notes, “Since it is our will ultimately that moves us to action and since the emotions have a powerful influence on the will, many of our actions are prompted by the stimulus of our emotions” (99). He notes that our will does not have direct control of our emotions, therefore it is perilous for the speaker to announce to the audience that he will play on their emotions. Also, the speaker must get at the emotions indirectly. He notes that emotions are aroused when one contemplates the situation or circumstances that stir the emotions. He follows this section with multiple readings allowing the reader to see examples of the use of each method mentioned.
Corbett offers a particularly helpful section on the arrangement of material. His section on the introduction establishes the goal of informing the audience of the speech’s subject matter. He notes multiple methods by which this can be accomplished. The benefit to the expositor is that he is allowed to see that there are several options for accomplishing the goal of the introduction, which allows for variety.
The third part of classical rhetoric that is examined in this work is style. He notes, “The threefold implication of lexis indicates that the Greek rhetoricians conceived of style as that part of rhetoric in which we take the thoughts collected by invention and put them into words for the speaking out in delivery” (413). Corbett states that all the major classical rhetoricians taught that there was an inseparable link between matter and form. Three ways were taught by classical rhetoricians for acquiring versatility in style: study of principles, practice in writing, and imitation of the practice of others.
In relation to style, Corbett examines the value of the choice of diction in persuasion. Three primary components are noted. Purity is achieved by selecting the right words and arranging them well. Propriety is the appropriateness of the language, which is largely determined by the audience and subject matter. Precision is word choice that is void of any irrelevant notions, but communicates only what is intended to say. He notes that words are imprecise when they do not express exactly what is intended, express an idea but not fully, and express something more than what was intended.
His final section under the style heading is fundamentally for written rhetoric. This section would seem out of place if not for Corbett’s earlier disclaimer that one of the best ways for a speaker to enhance his style is to improve his ability to communicate in writing. It is also noteworthy that the written emphasis of rhetoric did not emerge until the fifteenth century, but Corbett places heavy weight on its value in the study of classical rhetoric.
A section detailing the value of figures of speech is also included. He notes that figures of speech help the speaker to communicate more effectively to his audience. He notes that a figure of speech is one that is artfully varied from common usage. Following some other brief definitions, Corbett details multiple figures of speech and provides helpful examples of each in order to help the reader grasp the value of each.
Corbett offers an insightful work on the history of classical rhetoric, but does so in such a way that perpetuates the ancient art for modern use. This work reads not so much like a history book as it does like a methodology for continuing the practice of classical rhetoric. His organization of each section is well established with clear definitions, major proponents, and examples of each mode of rhetoric. Corbett accomplishes his goal of demonstrating the continuing value of classical rhetoric.