RHT520: Classical Rhetoric in the Western Tradition - New Saint Andrews College

RHT520: Classical Rhetoric in the Western Tradition

Summer Term 2018
Instructor: Christopher Schlect


Course Description

“Words, so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become, in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.” Nathaniel Hawthorne penned this maxim in an 1848 notebook entry, a saying that demonstrates the very thing it says. Because humans combine words by nature, some deny that such combining is an art. This course takes the opposite view; it embraces a long tradition of rhetorical study grounded in the conviction that eloquence follows natural patterns that can be reduced to precepts and taught.

The course surveys this classical tradition of western rhetoric, focusing on Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian and Erasmus as luminaries within it. The survey does more than serve an antiquarian interest; it aims to continue the tradition into the present day. Students will investigate ways to implement classical rhetoric in contemporary settings, and will perform experiments on themselves to build up their own eloquence.


1. Students will read and interrogate the rhetorical treatises of Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian and Erasmus. They will identify their insights and situate them within their contexts. They will also form their own assessment of the authors’ achievements. Specifically, they will:

a. trace the historical development of classical rhetoric through these authors—from its Greek origins (featuring Aristotle), its continuation in the Roman world (exemplified in Cicero and Quintilian), and into the medieval and early modern eras (exemplified by Erasmus);
b. identify Aristotle’s influences, concerns, and the influence of his work upon later rhetorics; explain his division of rhetoric into types; differentiate his three modes of persuasion; and explain the place of enthymemes in his system;
c. outline the basic components of the Roman oratorical tradition grounded in Cicero, including the faculties an orator must possess, types of discourse, parts of a discourse, and stasis theory;
d. summarize and assess Quintilian’s vision for the ideal education, including his discussion of progymnasmata;
e. describe Erasmus’ vision for copiousness and his exercises for developing it;
f. engage timeless questions that have occupied theorists of rhetoric since its inception as an art, including the aims of rhetoric, the purview of rhetoric, ethics and rhetoric, and the relationship between rhetoric and other disciplines.

2. Students will assess the practical value of classical texts in today’s educational setting by implementing their precepts in practical rhetorical exercises. Specifically, they will:

a. devise effective strategies for adapting rhetorical exercises to contemporary instruction;
b. discuss both the possibilities and the limitations of classical rhetoric for contemporary instruction; and
c. assess the merits of selected contemporary college composition texts, comparing and contrasting them with classical texts.

3. Students will set out on a course to build up their own rhetorical effectiveness by applying theory to imitation and practice. Specifically, they will:

a. practice traditional progymnasmata and declamation exercises;
b. deploy stasis theory to invent and deliver a persuasive piece; and
c. complete a paper or develop curricular materials informed by the course material.


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