Scholia Reviews ns 15 (2006) 30.

Thomas Habinek, Ancient Rhetoric and Oratory. Blackwell Introductions to the Classical World. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. Pp. xi + 132. ISBN 0-631-23515-9. UKĀ£13.99.

Segun Ige,
University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, Durban, South Africa.

In his preface to this book, Habinek promises to adopt a sociological approach (p. vi), which is a radical departure from other introductory works on rhetoric that focus mainly on the kind of theory and thematic analysis that pervaded this field before feminist studies reconfigured most disciplines.[[1]] In his words: 'Our main concern is to understand how rhetoric and oratory operated within the civic life of ancient Greece and Rome, and by implication, how they might come to operate in a revived civic culture today' (p. vi). This is quite an ambitious project, but one that is realisable at the broad, introductory level that Habinek addresses. Readers of this volume will be introduced to the major oratorical works in antiquity (p. viii).

In his first Chapter, 'Rhetoric and the State' (pp. 1-15), Habinek explores the relationship between rhetorical practice and the stability and maintenance of the state. Some of the topics tackled here include: power (pp. 1-2),[[2]] gender and the education of the orator (pp. 2-4), the connection between speech and the stability of the state (p. 6), rhetoric as an instrument of self promotion (p. 6), the notion of silencing an opposition in an oratorical duel (p. 7), feminising rhetoric (p. 7), rhetoric as an instrument for both tyrannical and anti-tyrannical purposes (pp. 10-12), formal speech as a means to maintaining hierarchical social order (pp. 12-13), the ideological context for formal speechmaking (pp. 13-14), and display rhetoric (pp. 14-15). Habinek, by implication, presents rhetoric as an interventionist tool in the maintenance of peace and the establishment of the community. Political rhetoric therefore concentrates on the public discourse of political leaders, and legal rhetoric as a mean of curbing a leader's excessive behaviour.

In Chapter 2, 'The Figure of the Orator' (pp. 16-37), Habinek looks at the lives of five orators to establish how the stability of the state is inextricably linked to the stable and sturdy character of a political orator. These orators include Pericles, Demosthenes, Alcibiades, Cicero, and Nero {via his 'ghostwriter' Seneca as recorded in the Annals of Tacitus}. In his attempt to construct the identity of the orator, he establishes that the practice of oratory is a lonely process, given its monological ethos, and that excellence in oratorical practice may sometimes be a compensation for other qualities that the orator may lack, such as noble birth, wealth, and high achievement (p. 16). Furthermore, the production of treatises and orations made the figure of the orator a beacon of oratorical education for subsequent generations (p. 17). Attached to the iconic profile of the orator is the incessant menace of death -- and in some cases these public speakers did meet violent ends(p. 17).

In chronological order Pericles comes first. Habinek presents him as an inspirational, visionary, and patriotic leader (pp. 17-19). Demosthenes redefines the Athenian identity, and articulates rhetorical intelligence through contrary reasoning (antilogiai) and promotes the assumption of 'intelligent audience' (p. 23). Lastly, he describes Demosthenes as a diplomatic genius (p. 22). Alcibiades, whose rhetorical performance contains some elements of dramatic symbolism (p. 17), comes third. According to Habinek, Alcibiades' use of dramatic techniques in his speeches established the idea of equal participation on the part of both the speaker and the listener. Cicero is the penultimate speaker in this discussion. He receives the most attention because has more surviving works than any other orator in antiquity. Through Habinek's treatment of Cicero's works, one observes a progressive development of ritualised rhetoric that puts the orator almost on the same pedestal as a modern day psychic or necromancer (p. 23). Although this characterisation sounds rather plausible, the orator would only become a fake psychic since his conjuration of these 'dead figures' is mechanistic. This kind of ritualised rhetoric enhances the character of the orator not only as a political but also as a spiritual leader. Through his further treatment of Cicero's speeches, one sees the orator as a chronicler of social history, and as a preserver of social memory. This of course relates to the implicit argument of moral decline following the social wars in the first century BC (p. 35). Habinek shows that rhetoric had lost its fervour under the principate especially under Nero, because of the way rhetoric was undermined through the diminution of the rigorous professionalism that rhetoric had earlier attained. This loss of prestige led to the collapse of the collective conscious of Roman culture in the Republican period. From Tacitus comes 'the warning, that the neglect of rhetoric and dishonouring of the orator foretell profound social and political convulsions' (p. 37).

Chapter 3, 'The Craft of Rhetoric' (pp. 38-59), is a systematic discussion of the conception and development of rhetoric as a technique of social engineering. The chapter deals with rhetoric as craft (p. 38). It includes discussion of the quest for persuasion (p. 39), the contents of rhetorical handbooks (pp. 44-50), the notion of truth (pp. 53), and epideictic rhetoric (p. 54). To establish that rhetoric was viewed as a craft, Habinek first shows that rhetoric is a teachable skill and in the process addresses the derogation associated with the term. In order to establish his claim, he looks at logography as evidence, since logographers generally wrote for others to perform. Habinek then analyses Lysias' Oration 3 by bringing out a rhetorical template that may have been inherited from Homer.[[3]] Further in this chapter, Habinek provides a guide to key ancient works on rhetoric and the categories of early rhetorical handbooks (p. 46). In addition, he promotes the idea that style is crucial to the making of an orator, using statistics from ancient and secondary sources (pp. 46, 49, 50).[[4]] Finally, he concentrates on epideictic oration (pp. 54-59) by examining Pliny's Panegyricus. In his discussion, he equates the power of the emperor to that of the orator (p. 55).

In Chapter 4, 'Rhetoric and Acculturation' (pp. 60-78), Habinek presents rhetoric as a means of socialisation and acculturation in Ancient Greece and Rome. Habinek's discussion in this chapter encompasses a number of issues, which include: types of education (pp. 60-64), pedagogical approaches to teaching rhetoric (pp. 60-61), and the transformation of self and identification of political leaning (p. 60). In addition, Habinek argues that rhetoric serves as a catalyst to the production of knowledge (p. 63) and explores the relationship between gender and rhetoric (pp. 65-67). Through his discussion of Quintilian's delivery techniques, he delineates the decorous performance boundary for rhetoric (p. 66). Lastly, there is a discussion of some aspects of Seneca's Controversies to show different approaches to declamation, and to suggest that rhetoric was a way of training the Roman gentry (pp. 69-72). Habinek's discussion of the usefulness of Classical oratory, even to the ancient world, should perhaps be encouraging to students in that it sensitises one to the importance of the Classical tradition. Through an engagement with the ancients, something new always emerges (p. 74).

In Chapter 5, 'The Afterlife of Rhetoric' (pp. 79-100), Habinek traces the impact of rhetoric on the social, political, intellectual, and spiritual life of a nation. Habinek demonstrates the importance of a rhetorical education, through the works, life, and effect Isocrates had on Greek society by training some of the best politicians and generals of his day in the art of rhetoric (p. 79). This helps not only in conceiving rhetoric as an art, but as a form of education that is encyclopaedic enough to produce a polished citizen (p. 80). His discussion dethrones Aristotle from his hegemonical role since he shows that Aristotle's rhetorical works are a systematic study of the art and not the actual application of rhetoric in civic discourse, as Aristotle himself would have contended (p. 81). This discursive track presents Aristotle and Isocrates as competing hegemonic oratorical institutions rather than as complementary icons in the foundation and development of rhetoric. Habinek later looks at the contributions of figures like Gorgias, St. Augustine, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Stephen Toulmin. The unifying concept in the chapter is that of kairos which he defines as 'making the most of the occasion' (p. 80). In the process, he emphasises how some rhetorical terms have been adopted in Christianity and have helped shape Christian theology.

Habinek's experience and mature scholarship are manifest in the production of this work. It is fairly comprehensive, but even in areas in which it chooses to be selective, the choice is judicious. It is apparent however, that the volume may have emanated from a lecture series, which explains why references are lacking in some very important sections. One also notices Habinek's overt avoidance of Greek and Latin titles, but perhaps this makes the book more user-friendly to Greekless and Latinless readers. However, Habinek starts to include these from page 40 on, which shows a degree of inconsistency. I would think that the charts and the outline should be referred to more in a book that offers a comprehensive chronological outline of the development of rhetoric. Habinek's list of further readings and his index are useful guides for a new entrant to rhetoric.[[5]] I would recommend this book to senior undergraduates and graduate students of history of rhetoric, since it assumes some level of acquaintance with Classical studies.


[[1]] See, for example, the numerous publications of George Kennedy: The Art of Persuasion in Greece (Princeton 1963); The Art of Rhetoric in the Roman World 300 BC-AD 300 (Princeton 1972); Greek Rhetoric Under Christian Emperors (Princeton 1983); A New History of Rhetoric of Classical Rhetoric (Princeton 1994).

[[2]] See Michel Foucault (ed. and tr. Colin Gordon [et al.]), Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977 (New York 1980).

[[3]] Peter Toohey, 'Epic and Rhetoric', in Ian Worthington (ed.), Persuasion (London 1994) 153-75.

[[4]] William J. Dominik, 'The Style is the Man: Seneca, Tacitus and Quintilian's Canon', in idem (ed.), Roman Eloquence: Rhetoric in Society and Literature (London 1997) 50-68.

[[5]] The book has the following additional material: a preface (pp. vi-viii), a chronological chart (pp. xi-xi), a brief outline of ancient rhetoric (pp. 101-107), notes (pp. 108-110), a section on further reading (pp. 111-20), and an annotated index (pp. 121-132).