Reasonings About Philodemus’ Rhetorica

Rhetoric is the prince of lies. –  Heraclitus

The following reasonings are based on the seven books that comprise Rhetorica by Philodemus, with translation and commentary by Dr. Harry M. Hubbell, which was published in 1920. Rhetorica is not a work of logic or rhetoric per se, but a series of arguments regarding the role and uses of rhetoric. The only reference to logic deals with how the relation between true and false is not the same as between two probabilities, and how it is false inference to apply laws of science to politics. There is also a reference to the canon in the declaration that “experience is our only guide to forecast the future“.

Book I contains an introduction and very general outline of the work, but only fragments of this book remain. It concludes saying:

Those Epicureans are to be censured who assume that sophistic is not an art, and thus run counter to the teachings of Epicurus, Metrodorus and Hermarchus, as we shall show later. Such Epicureans are almost guilty of parricide.

From the onset, we find Philodemus arguing in favor of what he perceived as orthodoxy and claiming legitimacy by tracing his ideas back to the four founders, and even saying that his opponents are nearly killing their parents. It was clear that love and respect for the sages who founded our tradition was deep-seated in the early communities of Epicureans.

Defining an Art

It was also clear that whether or not sophists were considered artists was a serious matter, and that we need to clarify the meaning of art (tekne) and of an artist.

Book II discusses whether rhetoric is an art. Epicureans argued that rhetoric was an art whose end was to persuade in a rhetorical speech, arguing that “in art anyone can excel over a trained person, but not in an exact science (or very rarely)“. An art, therefore, has an end, a purpose, it seeks an achievement.

The philosopher persuades by force of logic, Phyrne by her beauty.

If rhetoric has no method it is not an art … for the essence of art is to accomplish the result always.

Later in Section II, Philodemus defines art saying that it:

  • results from observation
  • accomplishes a result that can’t be attained if one has not studied it
  • is done regularly and not by conjecture (guess, speculation)

This applies to grammar and music. Philodemus argued vehemently that politics is not an art. Art (technique) requires transmission and is acquired through observation and experience.

As in music and grammar so in rhetoric there is a transmission of knowledge from teacher to pupil, and the training is not without method.

In the process of defining tekne, as opposed to our modern conception of art, we sought the help of our friend Brian, who says:

The word “art” is better translated “technique” (in Greek it is “techne”). It almost means “profession”. It was important for a few reasons: one is that the layman effort is sufficient for most tasks … Philodemus does not disparage “techne”, but in fact wishes to separate some jobs that he said really have no “techne” at all.

“SCIENCE/experience” is the “layman” or “amateur” effort, learned by actual contact whereas “ART/techne/profession” is the learned and schooled effort, learned by rules and technical training, not learned by actual contact. The idea is that “some arts can be accomplished partially and reasonably well by those who have not studied the principles of the art” should be read as “the practical exception that proves the rule.”

In the modern interpretation of art, we can observe that it’s distinct from science by being subjective (and concerned with aesthetics), whereas science is objective. Scientific facts may or may not have aesthetic value, they they work effectively and invariably. Rhetors may convince the majority of people of some truth (or lie), and still be considered great artists, or thought to have great technique. When doctors cure only the majority, but not all patients, they are not called great artists or technicians.

Epicurus divided rhetoric between two parts: sophistic (art of writing speeches and delivering orations) and practical. Forensic and deliberative oratory is a separate art, presumably because the techniques and aims are different.

According to Rhetorica, someone within the school was disputing Epicurus’ view that sophistic was an art. Philodemus’ interlocutors argue that rhetoric is not an art on the assumption that an art must have method and a transmission of definite knowledge; they also classify politics as an art, which Philodemus argues against.

To sum up: we call arts those that have a certain character possessed by grammar and sculpture; we deny that are art those that lack this character and are characterized by observation, ergo sophistic is an art and politics is not.

Sophistic rhetoric is an art of epideixis and of the arrangement of speeches, written and extemporaneous.

Notice that sophists have a method. Traditionally, a speech writer would compose a proemium (introduction), narration, demonstration, exception, and summary. There is also a process of learning and transmission by observation, a clear aim (either to convince others or to deliver a speech involving praise or indictment) and its effects must not be the result of conjecture. Therefore, it meets the above mentioned requirements for an art.

Against Obscurity

Book IV argues against obscurity and flowery language, and in favor of words always being used in their proper meaning. As far as style (which can be overused by rhetors), Epicurus argued in favor of only the natural style.

Obscurity is of two kinds: intentional and unintentional. It is intentional when one has nothing to say and conceals the poverty of his thought by obscure language that he may seem to say something useful. Connected with this is the use of many digressions, poetic images, recondite allusions and archaic language. Solecisms prevent the hearer from understanding many things. ONLY THE TRUE PHILOSOPHER IS FREE FROM THESE FAULTS.

Unintentional obscurity arises from not mastering the subject, but also from believing that words are in harmony with things. Along the same lines, we find elsewhere: “in a picture all is light and shadow; a painting cannot produce a living being.” The word or image is confused for the thing that is meant. Words are oftentimes not concise or do not refer clearly to things that are meant.

Obscurity can also arise from not knowing how to express ourselves (using improper grammar, etc.), from too frequent use of hyperbata, or from the use of too much rhyme while paying little attention to meaning.

One should use ordinary expressions appropriately, and not express oneself inaccurately, nor vaguely, nor use expressions with double meaning.

Rhetors are criticized for not having scientific or specific rules for use of metaphor, for using them more frequently than even poets, and for how they ridicule a metaphor without explaining why it’s faulty. It is said that sophistical training does not prevent faulty speech, and the first section ends saying that the “study of technical rhetoric has never advanced anyone“.

An overview of this portion reveals an insistence on clear, concise, simple and plain speech, which is highly valued. Language is expected to be scientific and precise so that it may serve as an effective tool for communication.

The Amorality and Other Limitations of Rhetoric

We shall next consider the statement that every art is invented for some useful purpose, but rhetoric tends to deceive.

Section II is said to be the most important part of On Rhetoric. The true value of rhetoric is put into perspective, the author insisting that it is not superior to philosophy. We learn that the difference between dialectic and grammar is that dialectic teaches how to argue, grammar teaches how to read. To the traditional field of rhetorics (forensic, deliberative, encomiastic), Demetrius adds a fourth: obtaining favor with all. The book then goes on to discuss the limitations of rhetoric.

They have a system for making themselves appear dignified and noble, and for misleading their audiences. This system is not needed by any other artist, certainly not by the philosopher. The fact is, each profession has its own peculiar delivery.

The argument here is that someone who knows about rhetoric may know little of the subject being discussed, even if he can weave a persuasive argument. Only the professionals and experts in any given field have true authority to speak on it. This includes politics, the field that was most likely to employ rhetors in antiquity. This is still true in our day, in fact. The vast majority of US politicians have a background in law, and in fact the legal professions are the contemporary version of the professions that used to employ rhetors in antiquity.

If rhetoric can discover the possible arguments in questions relating to medicine, music, etc. the rhetoricians are immediately put into rivalry with the experts in each of these professions … Each profession has its own facts and principles, and is along competent to argue about them.

I assert that the sophists can, at least as far as their technical treatises are concerned, discover not the slightest argument pertaining to politics.

Even when the expertise of rhetoric is recognized, another limitation (this time, moral) is found in the art of praise: ‘the praise of brute beasts does no good’. The ability to praise things unworthy of praise is not praiseworthy, and doesn’t change their nature. A rhetor who does not know philosophy, can’t discern between good and bad, and ends up praising bad things and encouraging vice. Elsewhere in the text, it is said that rhetoric is “responsible for great mischief and does not bring success in actual law cases“.

Their claim that rhetoric is the mother of all the arts and sciences is a vain pretense … it is based on deceit, and therefore harmful.

Book V continues the diatribe against rhetors and on how rhetoric is harmful because it is based on deceit, arguing that it’s also useless in public life. Philodemus’ critique of rhetors reminds us of his critique of flatterers. He even asserts that “rhetors must flatter all their lives“. Rhetors are accused of saying there’s no morality except public opinion. On the other hand, philosophy provides everything necessary for a happy life; and philosophers gain the friendship of public men by helping them out of their troubles, not by flattering them.

Those who are troubled with the itch make it worse by scratching … so with those who suffer from sycophants (flatterers).

The accusation of flattery is tied to the audience that rhetors cater to. It is impossible to be loyal to everyone at once. Philodemus argues that “mobs change and repent quickly” and are fickle, whereas philosophers are content to assist a few people. These arguments are tied to the deep-seated belief among Epicureans that one can’t be happy by making others happy.

We see the frequent accusation that this art is amoral, ergo incomplete without philosophy. It becomes clear that one of the arguments put forth is that philosophy must help us to judge the ethical uses of rhetoric and of speech. The purpose or effect of the speech is of great importance in these consideration.

(Rhetoric) does not indicate what use is to be made of the powers it gives.

Speeches of this sort are no disgrace, if the object of forensic oratory be to set forth the facts, and not to show one’s power.

Aside from the ethical issues, Philodemus argues that one can’t enjoy the power and wealth that come with rhetoric because of the toils that come with them. For instance, he says philosophers “by their life and conversation, benefit their followers, however the mobs envy rhetors“.  He also cites the general distrust that exists within the culture against professional speakers in courts (lawyers, in modern language) and how judges are more likely to trust simple people.

Every good and honest man who confines his interest to philosophy alone, and disregards the nonsense of lawyers can face boldly all such troubles.

… It is worth our while to consider what sort of a life those have lived who have spent it all in prosecution and defense.

… Persuasion creates distrust in philosophy.

At times while reading Philodemus, one wants to ask whether he’s being too hard on rhetors. We must keep in perspective how important rhetoric was to the other schools of philosophy, and its corrupting effects. It seems that Philodemus’ intention was to contrast this use of rhetoric against the therapeutic and medicinal ethics proposed by the Epicurean school. Rhetoric does not bring happiness. On the other hand philosophy, he reminds us, shows us how to limit our desires, and it is better than rhetoric which helps us to satisfy them: in other words, people oftentimes use rhetoric not only for immoral purposes, but also to run after vain and empty desires like fame and a political career. True philosophy also encourages us to seek a profession that leads to happiness, whereas “rhetoric is unsuitable for one who aims at quiet happiness” and produces “strange reasons to study politics“.

Philosophers Must Obey the Law

Some laws (just and unjust) are natural and never change, others vary by locality and condition. Rhetorica argues that it is better to obey all the laws and adapt to society. Otherwise, if a philosopher doesn’t think he can live well under the conditions created by a particular regulation, he may vote with his feet and leave the country.

(We should obey the laws) with pleasure and not under compulsion; steadily and not in an uncertain fashion.

The ancients apparently didn’t have a word for activism, but clearly rhetoric would serve the purposes of a modern activist. It’s not that philosophy does not contribute to the work of activists, but for the sake of ataraxia we must make sure that we live lawful lives. Living under the rule of tyranny would likely impede ataraxia. Hence the two choices given to the philosopher.

On the Proper Use of Rhetoric

We agree that a good delivery lends dignity to the speaker, secures the attention of the audience and sways their emotions.

Rhetorica makes us ask ourselves questions about the most ethical use of words and of communication, not just the most effective. There are several ways in which words can be harmful: they can be either deceitful (hence the Epicurean insistence on parrhesia, or frankness) or they can be insulting, hurtful and demoralizing (hence the insistence on suavity, or mild and kind manners).

Book VII concludes that one must pursue that which produces a painless life. Epicurean therapy uses treatments that consist on reasonings and evidence-based, carefully-built arguments. Therefore, although rhetors are willing to sell false views to common people, we must assume that rhetoric can and should be employed in the service of philosophy and to heal the soul via true and wholesome arguments.

Further Reading:

Read Philodemus De Rhetorica, translation and commentary by Dr. Harry M Hubbell (PDF)

Reasonings About Philodemus’ On Frank Speech, Parts I, II and III

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