Revising History & Creating Genealogies

When studying history we should account for the authorship coming from the winners of a conflict. When claiming rhetoric as modern we create an ancestry or lineage to where we connect to the source – because it gives us legitimacy somehow. But is this really necessary?

As a woman studying classical rhetoric it can be a bit exhausting or trying. So scholars like Meyers dig deep to look at the use of women and representation of women in classical rhetoric. Of the women used as argument in Cicero’s Phillipicae and Antony’s rebuttal Meyers observes:

“Cicero used rhetoric while Antony primarily employed military force. Both men’s actions in the public realm implicated the private sphere of the domus and women’s roles in that sphere. While it is easy to say that the private always influences the public, it cannot be argued cleanly that at the end of the republic, women directly influenced the governmental politics of their husbands or that women regularly had a voice in public spaces”(339).


As she writes, it cannot be argued cleanly. There isn’t much written down on it and it painfully echos the idea that women contribute through their men. Behind every good man stand a woman and that sort of thing. And then the argument that through a kind of persuasion or manipulation women had power and influence. Meyers supposes, “What can be and has been demonstrated is that women more likely influenced their fathers, uncles, brothers, and male cousins. The males tied to the women’s family names and that women’s power was more in the realms of property and commerce with their spouses’ clientes and amid than in government and law…” I am torn between loving her take on rhetoric and finding it semantically not-quite-reassuring. Women didn’t get equal representation and their lived experience versus representations as present in the Phillipics shows really, as Meyer culminates the, “use, excuse and misuse of feminine references” (349). I guess what I think on feminist views of classical rhetoric is that it might be trying too hard. They were sexist. Women were misrepresented. It is not so different from today. Luckily, women can wear and successfully use rhetorical pants too even if they were made for man; arguably we have more wiggle room to make said ‘pants’ work to our favor. Ultimately, while it’s not what I see myself pursuing, I do appreciate that scholars would take the time to study what was really happening with women in Cicero’s time – and not just take Cicero’s word for it.

What I do find myself being interested in is the sort of genealogy of rhetoric in academia that Corbett writes about. This because I am often fascinated at the prioritizing of ancient rhetoric in modern times. Especially because when you do look at the lineage there is a huge gap. The renaissance decided it was important and resurrected it. What might my English 101 course at WSU look like today if that had not been the case?

Corbett writes of, “a heavy oral residue in Tudor prose style throughout most of the sixteenth century,” (289) and sees parallels to the development of print with what is happening in technology and information today. We are way past oral residue but in fact moving back in to a more oral-centered way of communicating – and least in some cases and places.

And in terms of metaphor, open hand, closed fist makes me think of Star Trek Tarmock and also interesting insight into the genealogy of rhetoric.

“The closed fist symbolized the tight, spare, compressed discourse of the philosopher; the open hand symbolized the relaxed, expansive, ingratiating discourse of the orator. …The open hand might be said to characterize the kind of persuasive discourse that seeks to carry its point by reasoned, sustained, conciliatory discussion of the issues. The closed fist might signify the kind of persuasive activity that seeks to carry its points by non-rationale, non-sequential, often on-verbal, frequently provocative means” (288).

Evolution of rhetoric do seem to come full circle; or history repeats itself.

“I have been tracing out the contrasts between an older mode of discourse which was verbal, sequential, logical, monolinguist, and ingratiating and a newer style of communication which is often non-verbal, fragmentary, coercive interlocutory, and alienating. …If rhetoric is, as Aristotle defined it, ‘adiscovery of all the available means of persuasion,’ let us be prepared to open and close the hand as the occasion demands. Then maybe the hand-me-down from the dim past can lend a hand-up to us poor mortals in this humming present.” (295).