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Trying to View the Past as Though it Were the Present in the Past

“Historicizing” works, thoughts, or ways of thinking/living from other times and places is useful, I think, but highly problematic. Though it is likely impossible to completely understand what it was like to actually live and be in those times, having wider and deeper contextual knowledge can give hints and insights about the realities that these works represent or at least partially uncover. The role of rhetoric, speaking, orality, literacy, writing, and thought become entangled when examining even a current moment, and become much more so when attempting to understand moments across great historic and cultural difference.

The chapter by Richard Enos, “Ancient Greek Writing Instruction and Its Oral Antecedents,” gives a much deeper and more complex picture of the role of writing and oral culture(s) in ancient Greece than the story typically told about literacy in these times. I admit that I had previously assumed that writing was always prized and “owned” by only the upper classes in all societies, and found it surprising to learn that prior to that, it was used more by tradespeople and those in the working class for practical matters of business. The movement, then, from a craft-based skill to a public activity with links to cross-cultural communication, political power, and literature is truly fascinating. This chapter also discusses the way that writing was utilized to support oral culture, but by writing down prepared speeches or recording cultural stories that were formerly only passed from person to person via oral means. This was less of a surprise to me than the way that writing moved up the socioeconomic ladder – that was a total surprise.

Thinking of the transition phase within the time of the rhetoricians of fifth century Athens, this background about writing may give some insight about its somewhat disputed and ambivalent status. Plato, for instance, seems paradoxically ambivalent about whether or not writing is a good thing or not, and Aristotle himself did not write down Rhetoric as a complete work himself. Isocrates, while clearly writing his works down, was not a public speaker, nor was Aristotle. These somewhat troubled lines between orality and writing within the works and lives of these three Athenian thinkers, though not resolved, are more richly situated knowing something about the changing status of writing and oral culture at the time that they were living.

Additionally, understanding the role of women in Athens gives greater insight into what little is known about Aspasia. Though ancient Athens is often held up as an exemplar of egalitarianism and democracy, so much of that is romanticization or a generalization that does not, or did not, apply to all populations living there at that time. As Ong and Jarratt note, “the appearance and persistence of a female teacher of rhetoric in fifth-century Athens is nothing less than astounding,” thus even the mention of such a person by other (male) writers points to the likelihood or a rather noteworthy being (14). Without the historical background, one might wonder why such a potentially important person would have no remaining works, or why more was not said of her. Understanding the social and historic climate, these omissions – as well as potential untold others – make more sense. Who else’s voice is missing in the “Western tradition?” And why some voices and not others?

As Richard Enos points out in the chapter entitled “The Art of Rhetoric at Rhodes: An Eastern Rival to the Athenian Representation of Classical Rhetoric,” what we think of today as “Ancient Greek Rhetoric” is specific to schools of rhetoric or recorded rhetorical practices that existed in Athens, not in Greece as a whole. Again, though this seems obvious now, this was not something that had particularly occurred to me. While I have been very interested in finding out what else was “going on” epistemically and rhetorically at or near the same time as Plato and Aristotle, I had not previously encountered discussions of different types of rhetorical practices that were going on contemporaneously with Athenian ones. I had heard mention of Rhodes as a famous site of the teaching of rhetoric when studying Cicero, but for some reason I thought that perhaps these practices were “later” than those at Athens, rather than overlapping with them.

I especially found it interesting that the practices at Rhodes were different because of the differences in culture, where Athenian rhetoric centered more on public rhetoric as it pertained to political debate and law, rhetoric at Rhodes was more focused on cross-cultural interaction and ambassadorship. Clearly, rhetorical practices will be different depending upon the uses of rhetoric within a society, and according to the chapter, the founder of the Rhodes rhetorical tradition, “Aeschines’ orientation toward rhetoric stressed the ability to negotiate and communicate with those who did not share political orientation or cultural ties” (192). Comparing this to the rhetorical approaches of Athens, which generally focused on rhetorical practices between those with a common cultural background, makes me wonder about what, exactly, the different approaches might be or look like. Also, given the diversity of the world in which we now live and practice rhetoric, I wonder what we could learn about crossing and negotiating these divides from rhetorical traditions like the one at Rhodes.

Again – where did these strands of thinking go? They were there, they had influence, and then they were…. Ignored? Disappeared? Not copied? Not studied? I have the sense that we don’t know more than we know, and that knowing what we don’t could offer an entirely new perspective on what it means to think, live, and be within this epistemic tradition.


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