Invention and Rhetorica ad Herenium

I’m resurrecting the blog this Halloween to think through some ideas on invention — and because having two kids means that I only have time to blog when I’m required to write short papers for my Ancient Rhetoric class (Hey guys!).

This week we’re pushing along, moving away from the Greeks and into the Romans by reading Rhetorica ad Herenium, which I’ve enthusiastically shorted to “RAH!” (exclamation point optional). RAH is essentially a handbook from 100 BC (late Antiquity, roughly 250-300 years after Isocrates and Aristotle). Along with Cicero’s De inventione (which contains several identical passages as RAH), it’s considered the first text from Rome on rhetoric. Despite this status, the book’s introduction in the Caplan translation characterizes the book as “a Greek art in Latin dress, combining a Roman spirit with Greek doctrine” (vii). I’m not entirely sure what this means since we’re only just beginning to learn about the cultural and geopolitical context for Roman rhetoric; however, it’s worth noting that the entire educational approach (enkyklios paideia, or “the rounded education”), and its formalist exercises in declamation (progymnasmata), emerged from the colonization and subsequent hellenization of Rome. According to Thomas Conley in Rhetoric in the European Tradition, ancient Roman rhetoric was learned from the Sophists and emulated Isoctates most of all, but standardized a curriculum for civic participation using enkyklios paideia and progymnasmata, essentially ancient skill-and-drill-style exercises.

The standardization of a curriculum especially in times of colonization is likely to lead any comp/rhet scholar, let alone anyone who took as few humanities classes in the last 20 years, to endless examples where language was used to limit, shape, control or contain groups based on race, class, or any other sociological category. Perhaps it was for this reason that Roman leaders initially resisted the enkyklios paideia, as it was meant to meet the “bureaucratic needs of Hellenistic governments” (Conley 31). However, learning rhetoric must have been seen as influencing cultural power as Latin speakers quickly learned that speech is what separated the Greeks from uncivilized barbarians in the hellenized world (Conley 32). In fact, RAH states from the outset that “[t]he task of the public speaker is to discuss capably those matters which law and custom have fixed for the uses of citizenship…” (5). In short, the eloquent orator — the good man speaking well — lives on via Cicero and RAH and invites citizens of Rome to join the ranks.

On one hand if the goal of the Greeks were to colonize, then the style of RAH makes perfect sense. Its didactic approach proceeds as an outline (i.e. “First, I will talk about X and Y. Of X there are three features, A, B, C. Of A, there are four subfeatures: 1, 2, and 3…”); reading it persistently requires rote recursive maneuvers and echoes some of my least favorite, domesticating moments from school. At times, it was more prudent to study my edition’s Analysis section which simply summarized these points and frequently employed tree diagrams, like the one below, to do so.

From the Analysis section of RAH

One can imagine an ancient reader studying RAH and knowing it as the only way to speak and, therefore, think. In fact, we inherit from Aristotle that invention (which RAH dedicates more than half of its space to outlining) is thought.

On the other hand, a large portion of the book covers invention for judicial causes (as opposed to epideictic or deliberative which are briefly discussed in Book III) and should be read in that context. That is, RAH acknowledges other occasions for speaking, but privileges the judicial because it argues it is the most difficult (read: bureaucratic?) of the three causes. One could imagine that the power of RAH as a handbook might empower aspiring orators (sponsored or self taught, I’m not really certain) if they could only learn how the more advanced speakers of the colony (e.g. the Sophists) wielded their oratorical power.

Of course, I realize I’m reading as what Edward Schiappa might call a “rational reconstructionist,” looking at RAH too closely “within [my] own philosophical framework” (194). But, frankly, as an introduction to ancient Roman rhetoric, how else am I to read it? If we can’t read it as rational reconstructionists, of what use is the treatise to contemporary audiences? I’m finding this to be a pattern in my ancient rhetoric course, as it is my one and only primer for ancient rhetoric.

My sense, though, is that while using postcolonial theory or even simply good-old-fashioned historical reconstruction to unravel the complex relationship between the Greeks and Romans would be fruitful, it’s beyond the scope of this post. Rather, because RAH reminds me so vividly of prescriptive pedagogies, I think it’s an interesting challenge to consider the degree to which it is actually still like contemporary writing pedagogies. As RAH tells us more than once, invention is “the most important and the most difficult” of the canons (59). I agree — and I’d argue so does the field. We still have hundreds of contemporary composition handbooks to help students invent (They Say/I Say, for example) and many of our writing programs still prescribe, even when we obscure the prescription as “heuristic.” And, of course, we have multiple debates from our scholarship that posit prescriptive approaches against more subjective ones (Bartholomae v Elbow, Connors v Berlin, Flower v Bizzell, and more recently, Miller v Sirc). For the remainder of this post, then, I’d like to briefly consider the degree to which RAH’s methods of invention are compatible with contemporary perspectives.

Although RAH is laid out linearly, I imagine aspects of its use weren’t all that different from contemporary handbooks, in didactic and autodidactic situations alike. By didactic I mean a teacher probably helped explain certain theories and structures, modeled them frequently, and led the student through the exercises, with frequent guided practice (as with the traditional 14 progymnasmata). By autodidactic, I mean a learner maybe memorized the book’s precepts and perhaps practiced sections alone or with a peer (this probably more true in later periods when texts circulated more readily). In fact, Book I states that its canons are best learned through “three means: Theory, Imitation, and Practice” (7-9) — an approach inherited from Protagoras. What separates RAH from contemporary handbooks, however is the former’s centrality to the curriculum. That is, implicit in RAH’s three means is the notion that learners will imitate and practice the structures though constant speaking and listening. How many of us who require handbooks put them at the center of our courses (assuming we even use them)?

While RAH is arranged linearly, the approach obscures the sophistic influence that many feminist scholars (Crowley, Vitanza, Jarrett, etc.) have embraced so far in our ancient rhetoric course. That is, RAH actually reinforces a core value of composition: the idea that truth is slippery. We require a discourse that avoids “confus[ing] language with reality” (Crowley 328) — even if that discourse must be rigid, as is the case with something like legalese. We need such rhetoric, as Berlin argued in the first Octolog, because we frequently disagree on reality. Whether the speaker is a lawyer or historian, rhetoric leads to closure, as a “stay against chaos” (33). This is why arguments require disagreeing parties to enter into a structure that provides a stasis — “the basic issue in dispute resulting from the positions taken by adversaries in a debate” (Conley 32). Stasis is the starting point in argumentation and RAH’s treatment of invention is essentially a theory of stasis in such discourse. Speakers sort this out via the Division, Proof, and Refutation stages of invention and come to some kind of closure, “for when we have submitted our arguments and destroyed those of the opposition, we have, of course, completely fulfilled the speaker’s function” (33).

Violence aside, the contemporary pressure to invent is a similar pressure: to produce a text under a particular timeline, to win, and to move on. A rhetorical occasion, especially when it comes to the composition classroom, has a start and an end that is dictated largely by the exigence (and ghosts) of print genres. I am most comfortable with RAH when I reflect on my own teaching of business writing (WRT 307), for example. Although the course is rooted in rhetoric via audience, it’s accountable for a genre-based pedagogy. Students need to leave the class having learned short forms (memos, letters) and longer forms (instructions and reports). Although I try not to teach the class in this way, those genres lend themselves to more objective structures than, say, the academic essay. In other words, RAH is not altogether different from the superstructures listed in Anderson’s Technical Communication. In fact, its suggestions for deliberative causes echo the kinds of guidelines my students follow when writing a feasibility report. That said, more experienced, practiced writers invent by being immersed in what Collin Brooke calls (via LeFevre and Bawarshi) ecologies.

As Brooke argues in Lingua Fracta, “The question ‘how do I start?’ that dominates pedagogical considerations of invention is more precisely a question of getting to the right answer (“How do I write something that will meet with the approval of my evaluator?”)” (85). For this reason he envisions a “proairetic invention,” which is a more generative approach to invention that respects endless renewal of new media because it resists closure. This blog, as an example of new media, is endless by definition. And with it I am drawing from whatever is available in my current ecology, which, as a maturing graduate student will change significantly from now until, well, forever. Having just read Brooke last week, I use my current ecology to make meaning of RAH, which I also read last week. If I read Bartholomae, I would be writing a different blog post.

Another example of a different approach to invention can be found in Jeff Rice’s “The 1963 Hip-Hop Machine: Hip-Hop Pedagogy As Composition,” where Rice brings juxtaposition to bear on sonic and alphabetic texts. Experimental arrangements of samples from more or less arbitrary texts can still yield interesting and productive meaning by way of syntheses. By reaching into whatever is available, composers can place these texts up against each other in order to look at patterns and relationships. This method helps address the common problem of invention for the novice and professional writer alike — just to get something to talk about and mess with. I’m paraphrasing Rice liberally here, but the point is that these more experimental, open approaches can be quite useful when writers can’t seem to get more prescriptive, dominant voices out of their heads.

Personally, when it comes to academic writing, I find Rice and Brooke’s approach to invention more in line with my own practices than I do RAH’s. Part of the reason for this is that invention is different in the 21st century not so much because we no longer require stasis or structures for our civic discourse (clearly we do!), but that the available means (information and modes/media) has grown and continues to grow exponentially. At the same time, I don’t fully discount the value of its approach in particular and specific scenarios. Stasis theory is important to civic discourse and argumentation. We need a stay against chaos. The question RAH reminds me of is not only when, but how to use more prescriptive, genre-based approaches to composition over the more experimental, open, endless maneuvers suggested by Brooke and Rice.

Questions for discussion:

  • How might we use elements of RAH in our classrooms? When is it appropriate to provide linear, didactic approaches versus more experimental ones?
  • RAH argues that invention is the most important canon and the most difficult part of rhetoric.” Why could we imagine this to be true in 100 BC and is it still the case today?
  • How is RAH relevant? Why should contemporary scholars and writing instructors read it beyond simply history for its own sake? If we were to image updating the arrangement of the treatise from a print text to a hypertext, how might that help us see its affordances?
  • Handbooks are central to an autodidactic pedagogy. But how do its users interpret, practice, and otherwise engage them effectively? How do our own students use handbooks, other than to copy and apply formatting (like MLA)? Can we embrace proairetic invention and hip-hop pedagogy as long as we have handbooks? How might we use them in the classroom in ways the Romans used RAH?