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The Seven Days of Rhetoric & Peter Ramus' Dialectic

CYBER-HISTORY: Applied Heuretics; Section 2, Part 2

Barthes’ Seven Days of Rhetoric

Heuretics, the logic of invention, is intended to work as a supplement to hermeneutics, the logic of interpretation. Invention is one of the five traditional components of rhetoric (the others being arrangement, style, delivery, and memory). The role granted to invention has continuously shifted in relation to the other components of rhetoric, so to understand the importance of rhetorical invention, its decay, and how our current project should seek to rejuvenate it, we should track the interplay of these five components by following the complexities of their historical development, a journey that Roland Barthes structured as a sequence of seven days (Barthes 1988, 16). Barthes’ seven day journey of rhetoric is particularly relevant here because his attempt to narrate this history was motivated by his desire to better understand the contemporary task of developing a new semiotics of writing starting from a thorough understanding of the classical practice of literary language (ibid, 11).

According to Barthes’ narrative, rhetoric was born in 485 BCE, when the aristocracy of Syracuse was forced out of the city by a popular insurrection and went to Gelo, the ruler of neighboring Gela, for help. Gelo reinstated the local aristocrats and maintained control of Syracuse by effecting large population movements between cities under his reign to shift demographics. This led to disputes over property rights, and a new kind of litigation was created wherein a party to the dispute needed to convince a large peoples’ jury of their claim to property through eloquent oratory. Corax is credited with formatting this new litigious genre by proposing a proper order of the elements of the oratory, or dispositio (ibid, 16). Day two of the journey of rhetoric began with the Technai of Gorgias, an instruction manual in rhetoric recounting figures and style, or elocutio (ibid). Day three is Plato’s response to Gorgias with dialectic, identifying the logography of the sophists (a system of rules and techniques that could be applied to any discourse whether true or false) as bad discourse, distinct from psychagogy, the formation of souls by speech through attaining truth (ibid, 18-9).

Barthes’ fourth day of rhetoric is a long one. It begins with Aristotle’s separate articulation of rhetoric, a techne of discourse for ordering ideas in the realm of probability, and poetics as a techne for ordering discursive images (ibid, 19-22). Also in day four are the Latin rhetoricians Cicero, whose Rhetorica featured digests of Aristotelian rhetoric and topics, and extensive treatment of oratory, and Quintilian, whose De institutione oratoria treats the pedagogy of the rhetor (ibid, 22-5). Day four closes with the decay of Aristotle’s distinction of rhetoric and poetics with rhetoric placed in a transcendent position as both a theory of writing and a thesaurus of literary forms (ibid, 27). Barthes uses five points of transition to close day four: first, Ovid and Horace (Ars Poetica) postulated a close relation between poetry and oratory; Dionysius of Halicarnassus (De compositione verborum) abandoned the enthymeme for the movement of sentences, a notion of style based on word order and rhythm rather than logic; Plutarch (Moralia), who conflated aesthetics and morals in the teaching of poetry; Peri Hypsous’ On the Sublime, which presented a transcendental rhetoric as style itself; and Tacitus (The Dialogue of the Orators), who politicized eloquence after Domitian silenced the Forum, and eloquence was seen as decadent and came to signify literature (ibid).

Day five encompasses the neo-rhetoric that prevailed in the Greco-Roman world in the second to fourth centuries. This period witnessed the rise of the declamatio in pedagogy, a regulated form of improvisation on a theme that saw reduced focus on dispositio and a decorative notion of language (ibid, 28-9). Without dispositio, language became fragmented, the most important element being descriptio, the description of places/persons (ibid, 29). The sixth day features the ascendance of agonistic instruction with a focus on disputation firmly in place by the eighth century (ibid, 30). Ironically, in this era where schools depended on success through rivalries, and successfully defeating his master in debate could grant a student the opportunity to form a new school, individual agency in written discourse was curtailed. To produce new text, ancient texts were used or managed: a scriptor copied them, the compilator added material from other extant sources, the commentator augmented the text to make it intelligible, and the auctor presented ideas from other authorities. In this system, the writer is only a transmitter or combiner of ancient texts (ibid, 30-1). Day six also features Cassiodorus and his development of the Septennium, separating the Trivium of the secrets of speech: grammatica, dialectica, rhetorica, from the Quadrivium of the secrets of nature: musica, arithmetica, geometria, astronomia (ibid, 32). At various times, different parts of the Trivium were allowed to dominate the others: from the fifth to seventh centuries it was rhetoric, from the eighth to tenth centuries it was grammar, and from the eleventh to fifteenth centuries logic was dominant. In the universities of Paris of the twelfth century, disputatio reigned supreme, and logica absorbed grammatica, a move supported by Cicero’s Topics and the struggles to simplify Aristotle’s New Logic and make it adjacent to existing intellectual traditions (ibid, 38-9).

Barthes’ journey ends with a dramatic flourish when, on the seventh day, rhetoric dies (ibid, 42). Rhetoric’s death knell was sounded in 1550 by the translation and commentary of Aristotle’s Poetics into Latin, and in the 1630s when the Poetics was used to support the French Classicist notion of verisimilitude as the proper code of literary creation and a high value placed on evidence (facts, ideas, sentiments), seen as self-sufficient and using language as a mediating instrument (ibid, 42-3). The coup-de-grace was provided by the Ratio Studiorum, a study plan written in 1586 that established the model of Jesuit education; by 1739, there were 669 Jesuit schools using this model (ibid, 44; Dietz Moss & Wallace 2003, 118). In an ironic historical twist, rhetoric lost its links with substance precisely through Renaissance reforms that placed rhetoric in a dominant position, eliminating logic from the curriculum and distancing students from disputation (ibid, 25-6). However, Barthes seems to lose the trail sometime after sundown on the seventh day, and the death of rhetoric remains obscure. He finds evidence of rhetorical treatises as late as that of M. J. Vuillaume in 1938, and observes that classes on rhetoric had only recently disappeared at the time of his writing its journey in 1970 (Barthes 1988, 46). Our interest in following rhetoric on its journey also wanes at nightfall, and instead of trying to shore-up Barthes’ figural death, we can fight the ambiguities of this figure with an actual death—that of Peter Ramus during the St. Barthalomew’s Day Massacre in 1572, when he was dismembered and his work to respond to critics of his version of dialectic would cease, leaving the continued spread and influence of his notion of method to the vagaries of time.

Ramus and the conflation of dialectic, method, and reason

Is the death of rhetoric linked to an absence in the realm of method? Put another way, is Barthes’ search for a new rhetoric tied up with the need for a reexamination of the relationship between rhetoric and method? It is here that Ramus becomes our guide. In 1543 Peter Ramus wrote Aristotelicae animadversiones (Remarks on Aristotle), wherein he criticized Aristotle’s Organon and called those who follow it ‘bad’ philosophers or dialecticians, and contrasted them with ‘good’ dialecticians who follow nature (Ong 2004, 173). Ramus made the case that Aristotle’s logic should be scrapped in favor of one clear dialectic to rule all of discourse, an idea first put forth in his Dialecticae partitiones (The Structure of Dialectic) (ibid, 175). His art of dialectic had two parts: invention and judgment (ibid, 182). Invention, for Ramus, was finding middle terms to link the subject and predicate of a question, and all speech was considered to be made up of questions or their resolution, and these middle terms were stored in topics or places (ibid). This very simple explanation of invention does not explain how the answers it provides become discourse rather than a series of disconnected statements (ibid, 183). The classical way to bridge the gap between discrete statements and composed discourse was provided by the division of discourse into invention and judgment (ibid). Invention involved a visual notion of knowledge, wherein one uncovers material by finding and looking at arguments (ibid). Judgment traditionally implied an aural metaphor in the voice of the judge pronouncing the sentence, and would later be replaced by the more visual act of disposition or arrangement (ibid, 184).

Ramus rendered discourse as finding and arranging relevant material from topics stored in the mind or in texts, downplaying the production of new material. This finding and arranging was performed to answer questions put forth in either explicit or implicit debate, beginning from a problem or point of aporia, analyzing the viewpoints of the opponent and working toward their refutation. This process of debate was considered a ‘real’ dialectic, the method encountered in medieval universities, with which students would interact in daily exercise (ibid, 61-2). This dialectical debate involved a certain degree of bad faith in the assumption that the argument involved two relatively balanced probabilities, either of which equally probable, rendering the dialectical method used in the debate as a honed system of reason capable of elucidating truths that might otherwise remain hidden. In practice however, one side of this dialectical debate was usually greatly favored and the other discredited from the outset; the process of debate therefore revealed little new truth. Ramus’ treatment also leaves unanswered the question of how is one to proceed, and by what method, if the aporia remains after repeated debate. What if the problem or aporia continues to exist, despite several sustained attempts to construct a solution through making a better argument or a more efficient explanation, or attempts to construct a better, more encompassing theory? It seems one would need recourse to another method to resolve the problem.

While the issue of continued aporia and the need for a method beyond dialectical debate might seem easily resolved by merely trying something slightly different with discourse, it is complicated by the totalizing trajectory created by Peter of Spain and Peter Ramus’ logical dialectic. When Peter of Spain’s Summulae logicales was put into use as the principal pamphlet on dialectic in European schools, its opening definition tangled the threads of possible inquiry for centuries. Again, the famous definition of dialectic that opens the Summulae reads: ‘Dialectic is the art of arts and the science of sciences, possessing the way to the principles of all curriculum subjects’. Peter’s definition of dialectic was the final stitch binding discourse to interpretation and invention to arrangement, yielding an inadequate account of the creative processes at work in the production of discourse. However much Peter’s totalizing definition of dialectic obscured the practical processes of invention, the enigma of creative intellection had been longstanding. Aristotle’s treatise on discourse, the Topics, features seven books to treat the loci or places where discursive materials are stored, and only part of the eighth book deals with taxis or dispositio, or what is done with the contents of the loci to produce discourse (ibid, 114). Later, in the first century BCE, Cicero failed to write on dispositio after he too distinguished it from the topics. Rudolph Agricola writing on dialectical invention in the fifteenth century further simplified the process of invention by reducing the myriad categories to simple loci or places understood as orderly diagrammatic receptacles, and also failed to write about dispositio (ibid, 114, 119-21). This simplified inventio in Agricola’s De inventione dialectica would inspire nearly every subsequent attempt to deviate from Aristotle’s Organon in the early sixteenth century (ibid, 124). The tradition of discourse as the proper use of categories was related to a three part dialectic built around simple terms, propositions, and argumentation (ibid, 115). By Ramus’ day, dialectic had been pared down to two nebulous parts, inventio and dispositio, one of which had always been neglected. He saw amongst his primary goals the need to provide this missing second part, a way of arranging the products of invention, the things found through in-venio/εύρίσκω: visually coming-upon something (ibid, 114-16). In this long series of maneuvers, logic was made practical, and had itself become a kind of rhetoric, an observation supported by the fact that formal logic had practically ceased to exist as an autonomous field of study in the sixteenth century.

Slowly, all of discourse was being amalgamated into a unified dialectic that was simple and easy to teach. Method would not escape this expansion of logical dialectic once Melanchthon introduced method into one of his popular dialectical manuals with a definition that is dangerously close to that of dialectic: ‘’Method is an acquired habit establishing a way by means of reason’’ (ibid ,158-9). More importantly, Melanchthon also equates dialectic with teaching when in his Erotemata dialectices he wrote: ‘’Dialectic,’ we are told, ‘is the art or way of teaching correctly, in order, and lucidly’’ (ibid, 159). Ramus would later take this equation further in writing that dialectic ‘is teaching (doctrina) by the very fact that it is an art (ars), but it is further the art or teaching of teaching. In this view, all wisdom itself (sapientia) is nothing if it is not dialectic, which teaches (docet) the various causes’ (ibid, 161). Thus, the dialectic outlined for the classroom by Ramus is understood to be knowledge itself, encompassing all rigorous and/or logical reason and expression. Dialectic propagated in this way leaves little room for alternatives or for the opportunity of another discourse to re-examine continued aporiae.

Setting the stage for the

Neo-Scholastics: the Summulae Logicales

of Petrus Hispanus and Meno's Paradox

HEURETICS: The Logic of



  • Barthes, R. 1988. ‘The Old Rhetoric: an aide memoire.’ In: The Semiotic Challenge, Richard Howard trans. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc.: New York.

  • Dietz Moss, J. & W. A. Wallace. 2003. Rhetoric and Dialectic in the Time of Galileo. Catholic University Press: Washington D.C..

  • Ong, W. 2004. Ramus: Method and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.

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