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Thomas Wilson (1524-1581):

Introduction to The Art of Rhetoric

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Summary: This introductory essay attempts both to place Wilson's Art of Rhetoric within the late medieval and renaissance theory of knowledge and to contrast Wilson's ideas of literature to modern and contemporary assumptions. The essay argues that Wilson's idea of rhetoric, meaning the art of eloquent and effective language, differs from modern literary thinking along three axes. First, Wilson's theory posits a close connection, indeed a fraternal relationship, between literature and philosophy, especially logic. Second, it assumes that literary discourse is deeply grounded in the praxis of political and social life, not alienated or isolated as a separate domain of experience. And third, Wilson consistently presents literary experience in terms of oral-aural performance rather than written-read text.

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The Value of  The Art of Rhetoric

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According to Peter Medine's 1993 critical edition of the book (8-9), Thomas Wilson's 1553 Art of Rhetoric (or, in its original spelling, The Arte of Rhetorique) "was one of the most successful books of its kind" in the English renaissance. It went through eight different printings between 1553 and 1585, and three different printers issued it for sale.

The fact is, however, that the book does not appeal much to modern readers. It has some of the least engaging features of a freshman English handbook and some of the more pedestrian qualities of a desk encyclopedia. Compendious, prescriptive, almost quaintly pedantic, at times it becomes as tedious in substance as its original black letter editions were repulsive in appearance.

Those weaknesses acknowledged, however, one should quickly add that they are also its strengths. The book is a thorough and systematic overview of the fundamental theory of literature as it was known, taught, and practiced by the humanists of sixteenth century Europe. Though its pace is slow, its coverage is comprehensive; its viewpoint may be narrow, but its vision is whole. A bestseller in its time, the book presents the whole framework of literary discourse and the complete terminology of literary practice as they were known and used throughout early modern Europe. Wilson's book does not, assuredly, explain what the writers of the sixteenth century were actually doing; it does, however, effectively introduce the system by which they explained and discussed their work, and it explicates the terms they used to talk and think about their endeavors.

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Differences between Wilson's Ideas and Modern Literary Theory

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Wilson's theory of literature has three marked differences from our contemporary approaches. First, it posits a close connection, indeed a fraternal relationship, between literature and philosophy, especially logic. Second, it assumes that literary discourse is deeply grounded in the praxis of political and social life, not alienated or isolated as a separate domain of experience. And third, Wilson consistently presents literary experience in terms of oral-aural performance rather than written-read text. In each of these points his ideas are radically different from our modern thinking, although they are utterly conventional for his time; virtually all of his predecessors from Aristotle and Cicero to the Italian humanists had made these same assumptions, and in his book Wilson did not intend to make an original contribution to the theory of literature but merely to compile in English a presentation of the traditional "precepts." These three differences in approach and method, however, are all the more important -- and the more difficult to appreciate -- because they are simply part of his way of viewing the world, not propositions that he feels compelled to defend or to explain. They are assumptions that he makes without consciously recognizing that there might be competing ways of interpreting things.

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1. Literature as intimately connected to philosophy, especially logic.

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Literature, Philosophy, and the Liberal Arts. Like Cicero and Aristotle, Wilson assumes that rhetorical practice (literature) is concerned with the same subject matters as philosophy, especially ethics and politics. Moreover, he assumes that literature uses the same basic method as do all the other non-mathematical human sciences, namely logic.

Rhetorical practice, therefore, differs from philosophy neither in subject nor in method but only in two comparatively small features. First, rhetoric grounds itself in situations and occasions where the questions have a more limited and immediate scope than those addressed by philosophy. And, second, rhetoric makes conscious use of artful (including the connotations of artifice and artificiality as well as technical mastery and verbal techne) language techniques, known collectively as "eloquence," to make its discourse enjoyable and persuasive for audiences lacking the interest or expertise to engage in strictly logical discussion.

To understand this idea that literature and philosophy, especially moral and political philosophy, are substantively the same, it is necessary to consider the scholastic tradition which frames and underpins most of Wilson's ideas. The Renaissance generally, and Wilson particularly, comfortably accepted the traditional scholastic taxonomy of human knowledge. Developed and elaborately codified by the scholastic philosophers as early as the 10th and 11th centuries and already accepted as conventional by the twelfth century (see., e.g., the Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor, c. 1200), the scholastic structure placed all knowledge into a scheme made up of philosophy and the seven liberal arts. Philosophy reigned as the queen of all the human sciences. It was her unique prerogative to establish the ground rules for all forms of true being and to proclaim the proper methods for all types of systematic knowledge. Insofar as it was a true science, even theology fell under the rule of philosophy and had to conform to the rules of philosophic inquiry.

Subordinate to philosophy there were the seven liberal arts, divided into two major categories. First, the four major sciences of the quadrivium were the essentially mathematical and largely speculative (i.e., theoretical) disciplines: astronomy, geometry, arithmetic, and music. Second, there were the three essentially practical and applied arts of the trivium, i.e., the language arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. All forms of systematic and rational knowledge could then be fitted into one or another of these domains, and literature (understood essentially as a system of praxis composed of practical, "how to" precepts and instructions) fell into the category of the trivium.

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The Trivium

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The Practical Language Arts: the Trivium. While the four major sciences of the quadrivium were unified by their essentially theoretical and highly mathematical subject matters, the arts of the trivium (i.e., the trivial arts) were generically related by their practical and applied nature as the arts and sciences of language. Language, it should be remembered, is assumed by the scholastic philosophers to be the quintessential expression and vehicle of reason. For their philosophy, language is the primary instrument for knowing. Heirs of the Aristotelian tradition (at least in logic), they understood the language arts to be practical and applied because only through language can men either know the truth or exercise their reason to discover additional truth. The language arts, thus, are treated by the scholastics as pragmatic and applied arts because language must be mastered and used correctly in all forms of seriously rational, philosophic, and scientific reasoning.

In sharp contrast to modern linguistics and psychology, the scholastics did NOT construe the language arts as "practical" in the sense that they have utility for the ordinary transactions of life, though they obviously understood that language has such value. Rather, for the scholastic tradition the language arts are understood as pragmatic in the sense that their proper understanding and application is necessary for all forms of philosophic discourse and scientific reasoning. The arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric are pragmatic because they must be applied, and applied rationally and correctly, in all forms of rational and scientifically intelligible discourse.

The scholastic tradition, in other words, has no interest in grammar or logic as descriptions of the ways that people actually talk or think; their approach to grammar and logic is radically different from the interests of modern linguistics or psychology. Rather, the scholastics' concern is much more like a modern computer programmer's interest in grammar, and their interest in logic is much like a modern cyberneticist's interest in logic; their desire is to make grammar and logic a formal system of discourse which obeys certain rules and conforms to certain patterns in order to establish a consistent process by which statements can be combined with other statements in predictable, controllable, and reliable patterns for generating new and presumably true statements.

Grammar, in other words, becomes the basic step towards logic, and logic becomes the basic process for moving from known and presumably true assertions to previously unknown and yet still true assertions. Rhetoric thus becomes an intimately related, fraternal art of setting forth logical discourse in ways that are not only formally true but also properly elaborated so as to become both clear and interesting

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The Basic Art of the Trivium: Grammar

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The Fundamental Language Art: Grammar. For the scholastic tradition, grammar was the first phase of logic, and as such it was the foundation for all structures of rational knowledge. Remember, the first book of Aristotle's Organon (his set of eight treatises on logic) was the "Categories," a treatise on the basic grammar of the sentence; it explains subjects and predicates and the different ways in which subjects and predicates can be reasonably combined to form rational sentences stating known truths. This was the basic text of scholastic grammar.

Because grammar taught the essential art of stating the known truth in rational (i.e., logically coherent) forms, it was the starting point for all intellectual discourse; unless a statement conformed to certain grammatical rules (i.e., contained both a subject and a predicate, used one of the ten known types of predication, etc.), then a rational person could neither judge its truth nor combine it logically with other statements to move towards new insights. Statements needed to be grammatical, in other words, not for social or even simply linguistic reasons (such as effective communication or clear expression) but for logical and scientific reasons; a grammatically incorrect assertion was illogical (not necessarily incorrect or non-communicative, but illogical), and thus it could not be tested rationally or pursued intellectually. Mastering grammar was the first step in learning how to carry out rational discourse and intellectual inquiry; grammar was the foundation for rational thinking.

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The Central Art of the Trivium: Logic

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The Central Language Art: Logic. For the scholastics, logic was the science of combining reasonable (i.e., grammatically correct) statements of known truths into patterns that would yield new and previously unknown truths -- and doing so with absolute reliability.

The scholastic tradition, however, believed that while there is only one type of truth, that one type of truth can be perceived by human beings in two significantly different ways, intuitively and dialectically (or discursively). Logic, as the science of knowing the truth, is therefore necessarily single, since truth is single. But logic takes on different characteristics when it is applied to the two different ways of knowing.

First, there is the type of knowing where the truth is perceived directly and intuitively; in this domain of knowledge, logic is strictly rational and scientific, working much as we think of symbolic logic or mathematics. In this domain, properly stated (i.e., grammatically correct) true propositions are intuitively obvious, not disputed or rationally disputable, and they can be logically combined to yield other statements that are equally indisputable. In scholastic terms, this is the logic of the strict or pure sciences, the logic of the quadrivium where logic works with almost mathematical rigor, precision, intensity, and clarity.

But then there is the other way of experiencing the truth, the discursive way where truth emerges only through dialogue. This is an area where truth certainly exists but where even properly stated propositions are subject to dispute or doubt and must be demonstrated and proven. This is the domain of the dialectical sciences, the area where reason must work discursively because even the most basic propositions are not intuitively obvious and may seem doubtful or disputable to a reasonable mind.

Milton's Raphael, telling Adam about the nature of the intellectual soul in the sixth book of Paradise Lost, explains this distinction as follows: " . . . reason is her [the intellectual soul's] being, Discursive or intuitive; discourse Is oftest yours [mankind's], the latter most is ours [the angels'], Differing but in degree, of kind the same." An obvious example of the areas where rational (i.e., grammatically correct) statements of the truth have an immediate and intuitive indisputability is geometry. The axioms of Euclid's Elements are not subject to dispute (except, as it turns, for the fifth axiom, but it wasn't until the 17th century that Saccheri identified the problem with Euclid's concept of parallel lines) because they are intuitively obvious; when the propositions of geometry are combined in correctly logical sequences, therefore, the proofs of geometry are indisputably true. So geometry is governed by the strict logic of the pure, rational sciences, and it can be understood as a model for the way that all the sciences of the scholastic quadrivium were supposed to work.

On the other hand, however, in philosophical subjects such as theology, aesthetics, politics, and ethics, even the most basic propositions of a science require demonstration and proof before they can be accepted as true. In these discursive fields of inquiry, truth has exactly the same character as it does in the intuitive fields ("Differing but in degree, of kind the same"), and thus the rules of logic are not essentially different from what they are in the strict sciences; however, in these fields the rules of logic must be applied in significantly different ways because human beings have such difficulty in perceiving the truth. Logic remains logic, but logical thought in a field such as geometry works differently from logical thought in an area such as politics or ethics. It takes on a different color and tone because it is working in a domain where logic must not merely state the truth but also dispute those who doubt or disagree and demonstrate its proofs against all possible objections.

In these discursive fields, logic must work in a dialogue between true statements and statements of objections, doubts, misunderstandings, and counter-arguments. Thus the name "dialectics" comes to be used for logical inquiry that must demonstrate the proof of each proposition by meeting and overcoming objections. Within dialectical logic, thus, and within the fields of inquiry where reason must work discursively, logic becomes largely an art of disputation and arguments, advancing and demonstrating arguments rather than simply stating the intuitively obvious. As Marlowe's Faustus says in his opening speech, "Bene disserere est finis logices," to dispute well is the end of logic.

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The Third Art of the Trivum: Rhetoric

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The Virtuoso Art: Rhetoric. Within the scholastic tradition, therefore, rhetoric is not essentially different from dialectical logic because both are arts of disputation, of advancing and proving arguments through logical discourse. Rhetoric, says Wilson, "is an art to set forth by utterance of words . . . an artificial declaration of the mind in the handling of any cause called in contention that may through reason largely be discussed." Exactly the same definition can be applied to scholastic dialectics. Moreover, at several points Wilson specifically states that literary practice requires the use of various dialectical techniques, especially the "places" or topica of dialectical invention, in order to make and prove its arguments.

From Wilson's point of view, an orator or writer must first learn to think logically, and then he must learn the precepts of eloquence to add the final, finishing touch to the perfection of the verbal arts. For Wilson and for the scholastic tradition generally, the crucial differences between dialectics and rhetoric have to do with form and situation, not substance. Rhetoric and dialectical logic are essentially the same, but they differ in their appearance or form and their situational use or occasion.

In the first place, while dialectics deals with questions having an abstract and general scope, rhetoric deals with issues which have limited and immediate interest, i.e., with concrete questions involving the problems of specific times, places, and people. For instance, says Wilson, while a dialectical philosopher would ask whether kings generally should marry at all and, if so, whether they should generally prefer to marry a virtuous woman or a noble woman, a rhetorician would address himself to questions such as whether King Edward VI should marry one of his own subjects or a foreign princess. The general question is whether and who kings should marry, but while a philosopher would seek broad and general answers, a rhetorician would use his art in the context of very specific situations and occasions and would come up with a very specific proposed course of action.

Secondly, rhetoric also differs from dialectic in its formal presentation of its discourse; dialectical philosophy presents its verbal processes with minimal ornamentation, and it refuses to develop arguments in ways that will merely "delight" an audience without making a strictly logical contribution to the discourse. Dialectics does not explain or embellish its arguments, and it does not try to please indifferent or inexpert auditors. Rhetoric, on the other hand, brings in "eloquence" to make dialectics more appealing and more comprehensible; rhetoric presents its argument with language that uses consciously "artificial" ornamentation and conscientiously developed amplifications (which are not strictly required by the logic of the argument) in order to attract the interest and to persuade the reasonable faculties of an inexpert or an initially uninterested audience.

Wilson uses the time honored distinction, traceable back to Quintillian, Cicero, and Zeno, of comparing logic to the human hand, saying that dialectics is like the closed fist -- hard, compact, threatening -- while rhetoric is the same thing but with the hand opened -- gentle, extended, and friendly.

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2. Literature as Grounded in, not Separated from, the Political and Social Processes of the Culture.

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One of the central differences between Wilson's humanist literary theories and the scholastic traditions of rhetoric and logic lay in their very different assumptions about the relationship between "eloquent" discourse and the ordinary functioning of society. The scholastic tradition, apparently, never expected its philosophy to have much of a role in social and political processes outside the university, the pulpit, the hierarchical communications within the church, and the relatively few and formal communications between the church's major officers (bishops, cardinals, etc.) and the "princes" who ruled most of Europe. The scholastic rhetoricians, therefore, conceptualized the occasions for rhetorical applications as comparatively few and highly restricted.

Renaissance humanists, however, having read their Cicero and even their Aristotle fairly carefully, saw many and manifold situations in which properly rational, philosophically scientific thinking could and should be used to influence and to improve society. Speeches arguing causes in Europe's various parliaments, letters suggesting particular policies to bishops and patrons and princes, reports selling investors on mercantile ventures in newly opened markets, treatises persuading Christians of the need for particular reforms, even intimate correspondence urging a beloved patron or an admired friend (or a worthy woman) to behave properly and to make wise decisions -- there were infinite occasions where an educated humanist could see that properly rational and eloquent arguments should be made in order for the truth to triumph within society or the church.

For humanist literary theorists such as Thomas Wilson, therefore, the real value of literature seemed to be its power to motivate socially active and politically influential people by persuading them to act in accordance with the dictates of reason. For Wilson, the central and dominant genre of literature, therefore, becomes neither the drama nor the epic but rather the oration. When he thinks of literature, it is not The Aeneid that comes first to mind, but rather the speeches of Cicero and the orations of Demosthenes. For him, this is real literature, literature that moves men and shapes society. Poetry and history, he seems to feel, are significant in their own ways; they can and do contribute in their particular ways to the process of informing people of the truth and convincing them to act virtuously. But speeches persuade men to particular actions with immediate consequences. In some sense, therefore, all other forms of discourse can be understood in terms of the oration, as more limited attempts to accomplish that which a speech attempts most fully.

A humanist such as Wilson believes, therefore, that the "precepts of eloquence" can and should be used, with appropriate adaptations, in virtually all forms of interpersonal communication. Does a lover wish to demonstrate his affection for a worthy beloved? A lyric poem in praise of a virtuous woman is a suitably small vehicle for both praising her worth and winning her love; the lover need only realize that his poem is really a miniature and limited form of a "demonstrative" (we would call it "epideictic") oration of praise and then adapt the techniques of the demonstrative orator. Does one have a bill to speak for in Parliament, a policy to push in the Privy Council, a moral point to drive home to the minds of impressionable youths? A suitable literary form is available, and rhetoric will provide the necessary techniques for developing and organizing persuasive arguments and, then, for the proper amplification and "exornation" (i.e., decoration or ornamentation) of those arguments to make them interesting and persuasive to the audience. Rhetoric, thus, becomes a complete literary theory for explaining and directing literary practice, provided only that literature be conceptualized as grounded in the genuine social and political and economic processes of real life.

Twentieth century readers and writers, of course, believe that the literary process is essentially separate from the ordinary transactions of life, and the humanists' assumption is somewhat difficult for us to grasp. It is alien to us, for instance, to think of the annual report of the Secretary of the Treasury as legitimately within the area addressed by a theory of literature. Wellek and Warren, for instance, in their highly influential Theory of Literature (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1942; rev. ed. 1956) defined the "subject matter of literary scholarship" by starting with the proposition that "literary language is first of all to be differentiated from the varied uses of every day life." And yet, in 1610 (to use merely an instance that comes readily to mind) when Lord Salisbury, Lord Treasurer of England, needed to inform the king about the state of royal finances, he wrote a literary treatise modeled explicitly on the orations of Cicero. And Salisbury's chief assistant, Sir Julius Caesar, Lord Chancellor of the Exchequer, wrote his report to Salisbury in the form of a humanist dialogue modelled on Cicero's De Oratore. Because they were heirs to the literary theory articulated by Wilson, "the varied uses of everyday life" offered precisely the situation within which literature was most genuinely literary, and poets based their particular apologia on their claims to be able to improve the normal transactions of everyday experience by making society more eloquent and individuals more virtuous.

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3. Literary Creation as Performance, Not Construction.

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Because of the belief that literature must be a participating form in active social and political intercourse, Wilson and the humanists consistently speak of literary work as an act of performance rather than as the construction of a text. They think and write of it as a transaction, not a construction. Writing (as distinct from speaking) is always treated as purely instrumental, never central, and it is most frequently ignored completely, as though all literature were spoken, not written down. Writing is simply a means of preparing for a verbal performance, or of recording a verbal performance, or even of transmitting a verbal performance, but the written text is consistently understood as NOT the literature proper but rather as merely an instrument in the creation of the literary reality, which is an actual verbal performance.

Wilson literally never refers to the "readers" of a speech or poem, always to the "auditors." He literally never addresses himself to what a person must do in "writing," always to the problems of "speaking."When he thinks of "exornation," his central concern is always with the sound of a sentence or a period, not its placement on a page or its positioning with reference to other parts of a printed or a written text. The effect which a literary experience will create is always, to him, measurable in terms of an audience construed as immediately present for a performance, even when he writes about texts with two millennia of history separating him from the original delivery.

Wilson, thus, pays little attention to notions of revision, and he has little interest in subtle effects that come from such essentially typographic qualities as line breaks and spacing between sections. These he conceptualizes and treats as pauses and as rhythmic effects in the voice. Careful literary craftsmen will see to it that forceful presentations will "appear in the vehemency of their talk," for instance, and a wise man "must labor to tell his tale, that the hearers may well know what he meaneth and understand him wholly, the which he shall with ease use if he utter his mind in plain words such as are usually received, and tell it orderly, without going about the bush."

Wilson seems, thus, extraordinarily unconcerned with the actual processes of composing and revising texts, and he seems incredibly indifferent (by modern standards) to the problems of, for instance, various states and conditions of literary documents and to the difficulties for a writer of controlling texts to guarantee a proper reading and correct interpretations based on re-reading. By focusing so heavily on performance, and especially on performance within particular occasions or situations, he essentially blinds himself to many of the central concerns of modern literary theory. His idea of literature is not that of the "well wrought urn" whose structural and architectonic features emerge to a readers consciousness after carefully thoughtful and intense readings. And he is not concerned by the problems of an essentially unstable and slippery set of significations which shift and alter with each revisiting of the text. But he also gains an extraordinary degree of simplification in his sense of how to control literary processes, how to use literary techniques to achieve particular effects, because the whole literary experience is understood within a temporal flow that moves at a pace set exclusively by the speaker and which disallows of thoughtful revisitings of the text by readers.

Nicholas Sharp
Richmond, Virginia, USA
6 November, 1997
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This account is based largely on four sources:

1.                              Howell, Wilbur Samuel. Logic and Rhetoric in England, 1500-1700. New York: Russell & Russell, 1961.

2.                              Medine, Peter E. Thomas Wilson. Boston: Twayne, 1986.

3.                              Medine, Peter E. (Ed). Thomas Wilson: The Art of Rhetoric (1560). University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1993.

4.                              Wellek, Rene and Austin Warren. Theory of Literature. rev. ed. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1956.

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