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Rhetoric, which was first formalized in Greece, found a practical field for expansion in its service to the republic of Rome. Under the Roman Empire, Quintilian (c. 35–c. 100 C.E.) introduced the most systematic description of rhetoric. As a teacher, he saw the rhetorician as someone whose level of education entailed an ethical responsibility. The art of speaking well implied the art of speaking virtuously.

The Christian Middle Ages was wary of rhetoric, believing that revealed truth did not need the artifices of eloquence. But the Church also recognized its utility, since rhetoric made it possible to defend the new religion against its enemies. A moderate eloquence would soon be enlisted as an instrument of propaganda, a way of spreading the truth. Saint Augustine of Hippo (354–430), a rhetorician by profession, recognized the model for this eloquence in the Bible itself. In addition, medieval hermeneutics applied the rules of rhetorical analysis when it proposed that the books of the Old Testament be read allegorically.

From the twelfth century on, rhetoric survived in law studies, preaching, and poetry. Beginning in the fourteenth century, Francesco Petrarch (1304–1374) and the humanist Renaissance restored rhetoric's gleam, which had been tarnished by medieval suspicion. But this was also the age when the anti-Ciceronianism of Petrus Ramus (1515–1572) once again called into question the integrity of rhetoric, establishing a historical break between the fields of thought and expression that lasted for centuries. Rhetoric was confined to elocutio, whereas inventio and dispositio moved to the logico-philosophical realm of dialectics.

Although that revolution had no major consequences in the short term, Descartes and later John Locke (1632–1704) rejected the legitimacy of dialectics itself, believing that what is only probable and credible has no claim to truth, which lies in the realm of reason or experience. Rhetoric could no longer make use of dialectics but was confined to elocutio. That break was not universal: The Counter-Reformation viewed rhetoric as a useful instrument of propaganda, and thus rhetoric would have its moment of glory in Jesuit teachings.

Romanticism dealt rhetoric a nearly lethal blow, reacting to a rigid formalism that had gradually set in toward the end of the ancien régime. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) and those who followed contrasted rhetoric to the freedom of a new sensibility that was in quest of a more personal and more sincere expression.

The art of rhetoric was resurrected many times in the twentieth century but always in the shadow of the Ramusian scission. On one side, philosophers such as Chaïm Perelman, in The New Rhetoric, took an interest in questions of argumentative logic and brought about a rhetorical revival in midcentury; on the other side, literary theorists and specialists in poetics confined their interest not just to elocutio but to rhetorical figures, and in the end to a few paradigmatic figures such as metaphor and metonymy. As Gérard Genette argued, the development of an increasingly limited rhetoric characterizes modern literary critical discourse.

Rhetoric and literature.

Literature is one of the language arts most directly influenced by and dependent on rhetoric. Until the eighteenth century, even poetry, as any other oral or written discourse, was directly concerned with the three divisions of rhetoric applicable to written language (inventio, dispositio, and elocutio). It would be a serious anachronism to ignore this. But beginning in the nineteenth century, poetry considered only elocutio and gradually reduced even it to the question of figures, which became the chief subject of poetic treatises. Figures were now what defined the poetic quality of a text. No longer mere ornament and flowery language, they served to shore up a truly cognitive approach and became a privileged way of apprehending the world. Hence the formalist linguist Roman Jakobson defined the poetic function of a text as the display of its materiality, its "palpable" side, and as a figurative quality essential for expressing indirectly what is not accessible through "simple" speech.

Thus every age seems to have an emblematic figure. In the Middle Ages, allegory was conceived of as the tangible manifestation of the abstract and spiritual world through personification. In the nineteenth century, the symbol became an expression of the cosmic and universal correspondences that the romantics saw as the essence of their poetics. In the twentieth century, metaphor and metonymy became the exemplary figures for a conception of the world that was either poetic and founded on analogy, or prosaic and utilitarian and founded on contiguity. This was an extreme moment in the figurative character of literary rhetoric. Ultimately, an essential figurativeness was revealed at the core of all literary expression. The text, at odds with itself, was now seen as fundamentally incapable of representing the world. Only a return to philosophical reflection may be able to temper the rhetoric of figures and subordinate it to metalinguistic reflection.

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