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Peter Ramus: Iste Primus Inimicus Mei

I have nothing good to say about Peter Ramus – it is all I can do to keep from scribbling invectives in the margins of my book every time I read his work. Though “in the Renaissance distinctions between oratory and poetry, speech and writing, talk and texts, persuasion and representation were rarely rigid” (Abbot 148), Ramus seems to do what he can to impose a rigid, static, dualistic, dichotomous, reductionist paradigm onto the world in general and rhetoric in particular. His simplistic, authoritarian argument pets my fur the wrong way every time I read it – he tops the list of dead white guys I want to dig up just so I can kick them.

Reading theorist/pedagogs such as Erasimus and Quintilian, and then reading Ramus, puts my dislike of him into stark relief. I am annoyed by the influence he was able to have upon educational systems at the university level, as well as his insistence upon the separation of rhetoric and dialectic, where rhetoric is only comprised of style and delivery, and the tropes reduced to four. This emaciation of a rich system distresses me, perhaps more than it should. Contrasted to “the rhetorical way of life” put forth by men such as Isocrates, Cicero, Quintilian and Erasmus, Ramus moves decidedly toward a place where “the perfect rhetoric would be to have no rhetoric at all,” where the public and civic functional potential of rhetoric is subsumed to the more distanced realm of dialectic and “thought becomes private, or even an antisocial enterprise” (Ong 291). I much prefer the directions taken by other rhetorical thinkers (see above) than the turn taken by Ramus, and can’t help but wonder what Western epistemology would have, could have, been without this influential interjection of reductionism at an important historic juncture.

In the spirit of imatatio, I once vented my abhorrence of Ramus in an address that refutes his argument in Arguments in Rhetoric Against Quintilian using his own rhetorical style. I will post that below to save myself the time of ranting against him further. Perhaps with deeper study I would uncover some redeeming values in the work of Ramus, but thus far, that search has been wholly unfruitful – perhaps someone with a more sympathetic view could direct my perspective in some helpful manner.


Arguments in Rhetoric Against Ramus

(In the style of Ramus, against himself)

Dedicated to J C— of Northern Kentucky University, Master of Eloquence and Composition

Most excellent graduate students, the Greeks have a wise proverb which teaches that each man should practice the art which he knows. Peter Ramus, in expressing shame for the meager results his studies produced, should have stopped there, in the second sentence of his address, rather than embarrass himself and those of us subjected to him for the next several centuries, and admitted his ignorance, lack of skill, and inability to comprehend the greater minds who came before him. Though surely there is room to criticize Aristotle, Cicero, and even Quintilian, to do so on the basis of pointing out their faulty logic is made utterly false and untenable when undertaken from a basis wholly lacking in the same quality. It is beyond the pot calling the kettle black; rather it is akin to the burnt-up stump criticizing the mighty oak for the insufficiency of the reach of its branches, and while doing so, to demand that others in the future no longer look to the oak for information about arborescence, but rather to the stunted dendroidal remains of that which was not, nor ever was, a tree-proper. Pay attention to the stump, and not the forest, demands Ramus. I am the authority, having studied the woody perennial plants and found them lacking; do not look in their direction. Ignore their luxurious shade, their far-reaching branches, the complexity of their leafy, green vegetation. Instead, look to me, the rooted remains of a felled tree, the infertile bits leftover once intellectual fecundity has moved on, the inert leavings of life, to explain the essence of treeness, the depth of which I cannot possibly comprehend.

At the outset of your address, you order the audience to “listen to me with willing and impartial minds to the extent that unwavering reason will convince, to the extent that certain conclusion will establish, finally to the extent that truth itself– which cannot be refuted or disproved — will hold firm,” and thus I did, wondering, at times, at the advisability of your approach to encourage this state of reasonableness and logic amongst your audience before bombarding them with the onslaught of your nonsense, disrespectfully framed, and wholly lacking in logic. It is not your approach that offends me, but rather the insubstantial basis for the sound and fury you release upon us, signifying a rather long-winded version of nothing. Perhaps you had a mellifluous voice to balance your malodious logic, or a harmonious delivery to obfuscate your inconsistent message, but here, these centuries later, the holes in your argument no longer hold the sway that your once-strident words commanded and the formerly-hidden nature of your motivation is exposed to reveal the egoic, amateurish, over-simplified superficiality of your rhetorical impersonation.

You begin by decrying the lack of syllogisms within these theories you attempt to condemn, and ostensibly make up for this lack of “logic” by creating syllogistically-styled word groupings to, supposedly, create an unshakable ground for your own fallacious argument. The logic proceeds as such:

  • Syllogisms are composed of three parts where the first assertion is irrefutably true.
  • The second part states a case for the particular situation.
  • Thus, the third part becomes as irrefutable as the first.

Using this convention to hide the shoddy strands of your reasoning, you attack Quintilian with the following syllogistic structure:

  • The definition of an artist which covers more than is included within the limits of the art is faulty.
  • But the definition of the artist of oratory handed down to us by Quintilian covers more than is included within the limits of the art.
  • [Therefore] Quintilian’s definition of the orator is as a result defective.

Where is the irrefutable “truth” backing this syllogism? Because you say that “the definition of an artist which covers more than is included within the limits of the art is faulty” it thus makes it so? If a sculptor creates a painting, then, it is not a painting but a sculpture? By this definition, no information that falls outside of any art or profession would be permitted to be utilized or discussed by one inside of it, so what of your dialectic? To whose use is that art permitted? And what, exactly, authorizes you to make these claims and distinctions, once and for all, despite the tacit disagreement from minds much greater than your own?

Your syllogistic structures continue, with each less convincing than the last. Just because it looks like a syllogism does not mean that it is automatically based upon logic, much less “truth.” Your next one, even less convincing than the first, states that:

  • If moral philosophy were a part of rhetoric, it would have to be expounded in some part of rhetoric.
  • But in fact Quintilian does this nowhere, nor should it be done at all.
  • And therefore it is not a part of rhetoric.

Really, Ramus? That’s all you’ve got? This is the strongest argument you have to level at Quintilian? Since we’re playing with forms that look like syllogisms, let’s try this one on for size:

  • Rhetoric is the means by which the masses are persuaded.
  • There are profound ethical implications for moving only partially informed people to take action, including but not limited to violence, death, destruction, war, torture, catastrophe, and annihilation.
  • Therefore, moral philosophy should be a part of rhetoric.

But there, right there, is, I believe, your unspoken issue with Quintilian. It has less to do with any idea he has of invention or how many tropes he categorizes. Rather, it has to do with your discomfort of being confronted with his model of the ideal orator, “the good man speaking well,” the speaker who is aware that his words have implications beyond simply his own personal gain. Where then, does that leave you, Ramus?  Quintilian asserts that “in the pursuit of oratory, not only will the learned excel the unlearned, but the more learned will excel the less learned… This ought to be acknowledged by every one, and especially by me, who allow the attainment of oratory only to the man of virtue” (395).  If Quintilian is to be believed, then you, Ramus, would not have a voice, would be no orator, and would not have the authority to bore us with your simplistic, amoral drivel that does little beyond justifying the right of mediocrity to assert itself, providing it does so loudly and with great ostentation.

Quintilian, who recognized the power of rhetoric to sway and persuade the masses, as well as the implications for human suffering and destruction as a possible ramification for the use of words with the intention to persuade, cautions those who use this formidable power to do so wisely, to be well-educated in multiple areas, and to utilize the highest moral judgment in wielding this powerful tool of human interaction. Quintilian claims that rhetoric should be undertaken by the moral man, that persuasion is only ethical when done in the spirit of moving others to act in ways which are of benefit to them and to society. He says, “the perfect orator, whom I would have, above all, to be a good man” is an ideal, but one that is not out of reach as a potential manifestation in reality (389). But for you, Ramus, this ideal is well out of reach, thus you must tear down that which you cannot possibly aspire toward, attempting to negate a truth that is beyond reason to doubt, but which would intercede in your own selfish drive and ambition.  You cannot attain it, thus you attempt to silence it, showing yourself too unworthy to sit at the feet of Quintilian, much less to throw shit upon his robes.

Instead of respecting a view that looks toward the good will, love, and positive benefit for all members of society, you instead seek to denigrate it, urging others to not even bother to read what Quintilian has written, commanding, instead, that your voice be the final and ultimate authority on this matter, dismissing all the positive potential that might come of a society filled with “good men speaking well.” You note that Quintilian “defines [the ideal orator] in similar terms as a good man skilled in speaking well [and] he identifies those virtuous qualities of character as justice, courage, self-control, prudence, likewise knowledge of the whole of philosophy and of law, a thorough acquaintance with history, and many other attributes worthy of praise” (683). These noble qualities, rather than provide states to emulate or prerequisites for using the tools of rhetoric to persuade, or as the basis from which to speak so that one might be educated about one’s topic, aware of the implications of the actions to which one seeks to move one’s audience, conscious of the moral and ethical considerations and responsibilities for doing so, you instead “assert indeed that such a definition of an orator seems to me to be useless and stupid” (683).


And stupid.

Useless and stupid are adjectives that I would reserve for one who speaks with such irresponsible fervor against another who sought to create and recreate ideals that would serve the betterment of society and the individuals in it, rather than only his own selfish ends. Can you, Ramus, make such a claim? Surely, no one has accused you of embodying qualities of justice, courage, self-control, or prudence, nor do you hold knowledge of all of philosophy and law, nor do you care about a thorough acquaintance with history.

Useless and stupid. Indeed.

You go on to make another statement of “truth” without bothering to back it up. You say that there “are two universal, general gifts bestowed by nature upon man, Reason and Speech; dialectic is the theory of the former, grammar and rhetoric of the latter” (684). Reason and speech. Two separate categories, as are dialectic and rhetoric. These two universal gifts — and only two, mind you — there are no others — are not, as you assert, two distinct, separate, and bifurcated “gifts bestowed by nature upon man,” but rather interrelated aspects of the same gift, not bestowed by nature, but by man himself, thus your entire theory falls apart before you have even begun it.

Where, pray tell, does one find speech without reason, or reason without speech? Speech itself is the product of reason, as reason itself is a product of speech. The presence of reason may be judged through its manifestation in speech, and only through speech is reason ascertainable. The madman, as he loses his reason likewise loses his ability to articulate reason through speech. Similarly, those without speech have no access to reason, and cannot form or order their thoughts in expressions of mental apprehension. Reason is constructed and created by language; without speech, there would be no reason. So while you would like to demote the study of rhetoric to one confined to “the embellishment of speech first in tropes and figures, second in dignified delivery,” I assert that, if one can disconnect the two at all, then speech and its uses comprise the higher category as being the originator of reason in the first place.

Yet, I would not do that. Fond as you are of dichotomies and binaries, believing that all subjects and objects of study can be categorized so, I, on the other hand, see this as a simplified and erroneous logic. Speech forms reason, and reason forms speech; there is not one without the other, thus to separate dialectic from rhetoric is to separate reason from speech, an impossible surgical procedure, especially for one who works with the dull mental tools that you appear to possess. With a razor-sharp intellect, one would see the distinctions between reason and speech to be only artificially separated, and any attempt to sever the two undertaken as the frivolous work of an unenlightened simpleton with the act itself — dare I say — both useless and stupid.

  • Reason and speech are inseparable.
  • Rhetoric, by your definition, is the study of speech.
  • Therefore, rhetoric is also the study of reason.

And what is this “nature” that endows these two separated gifts upon mankind? Where in “nature” do we see evidence of either reason or speech? Are not both reason and speech specific to humankind, and is it not passed from one person to the next, through the medium of language? Do we not create both reason and speech as acts of language, not by the intervention of nature, but within and through our own acts, actions, and interactions? Is not man, himself, responsible for these gifts? Do we not create and recreate them ourselves? And has it not been so since the beginning? When a child comes into the world, it is not nature, but rather culture, that “bestows the gifts” of reason and speech. If this were not the case, a child born in the wilderness with no access to other human beings would likewise have these “gifts,” and yet we see that this is not so. Rather, only humanity itself can bestow these gifts; a human being left to nature receives neither reason nor language, but instead lives, thinks, and communicates like the instinctively-driven organisms that we are underneath these self-reproducing products of culture.

Thus far, Ramus, I have only refuted the first eight paragraphs of your detestable argument. Given that you began with the strongest argument you could muster against Quintilian, I see no reason to bore my fellow and exalted classmates with your preposterous drivel any longer. Though I am reticent to encourage any further wasting of precious time upon your incongruous logic, unlike you, I would happily advocate any and all to read your theory for themselves and to draw their own conclusions, rather than summarily dismiss you on the grounds that “I said so,” which is the depth to which you make such claims regarding Quintilian. By all means — test the logic of Ramus for yourself, and see, as I have, where it is lacking. But until then, do not dismiss Quintilian, for though we may all debate the efficacy of the categorization of tropes until the proverbial cows come home, none can deny the desirability of an ethical grounding to rhetoric, of upholding the ideal of good people, speaking well, for the benefit of all beings and for the safety and sake of humanity.

The jackass, when he brays, may make a lot of noise, and may even attempt in his foolhardy excitement to drown out the voices of others. However, the noise cannot continue forever, and eventually the audience becomes wise to the “stylistic embellishments” being thrown at them, the commands issued with an authoritative voice, demanding that they obey the orders of that harsh, compelling tone. The masses have been conditioned by centuries of rhetoric to do as they are told, to obey the commands that they are given, regardless of the ethics underlying them. But they are wisening up, finally beginning to taste the fruits of the open, non-punitive education that men such as Quintilian advocated. Your demand that we, the audience, obey you is morally offensive to me, reinforcing, as it does, a dynamic where the powerless simply do as they are told, without any of the “useless and stupid” moral foundations to sully the full-scale manipulation of their lives, bodies, and happiness.

You ask at the end of your diatribe for those who listen to judge you, and thus we do, these many centuries later. You say, “it is for you to decide, O dialecticians whom I summoned at the start as judges of my debate — to decide, I repeat, what sort of dialectician you now reckon this rhetorician to be!” (697). What kind? The very worst kind, one devoid of both ethos and logos, one who merely tears down what you do not understand and that which would call your own authority into question. You must denounce the “good man speaking well,” for with that as criteria, your voice would be instantly silenced. You, Ramus, are not a good man, and you do not speak particularly well; more the pity that you ever chose to speak at all.

Work Cited:

Abbot, Don Paul. “Reading, Writing, and Rhetoric in the Renaissance.” A Short History of Writing Instruction from Ancient Greece to Contemporary America. 3rd Edition. Ed. James Murphy. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Ong, Walter. Ramus: Method, and the Decay of Dialogue. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2004.

Ramus, Peter. “Arguments in Rhetoric Against Quintilian.” The Rhetorical Tradition:

Readings from Classical Times to the Present. 2nd Ed. Ed. Patricia Bizzell and

Bruce Herzberg. New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 20


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