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French rhetoric

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description: Rhetoric was part of the curriculum in Jesuit and, to a lesser extent, Oratorian colleges until the French Revolution. For Jesuits, right from the foundation of the Society in France, rhetoric was an ...
Rhetoric was part of the curriculum in Jesuit and, to a lesser extent, Oratorian colleges until the French Revolution. For Jesuits, right from the foundation of the Society in France, rhetoric was an integral part of the training of young men toward taking up leadership positions in the Church and in State institutions, as Marc Fumaroli has shown it in his foundational Âge de l'éloquence (1980). The Oratorians, by contrast, reserved it a lesser place, in part due to the stress they placed on modern language acquisition and a more sensualist philosophy (like Bernard Lamy's La Rhétorique ou l'Art de parler (1675), which is an excellent example of their approach). Nonetheless, in the 18th Century, rhetoric was the structure and crown of secondary education, with works such as Rollin's Treatise of Studies achieving a wide and enduring fame across the Continent.[67] Later, with Nicolas Boileau and François de Malherbe, rhetoric is the instrument of the clarity of the comment and speech ; the literature that ensues from it is named "Sublime". The main representative remains Rivarol.

The French Revolution, however, turned this around. Philosophers such as Condorcet, who drafted the French revolutionary chart for a people's education under the rule of reason, dismissed rhetoric as an instrument of oppression in the hands of clerics in particular. The Revolution went as far as to suppress the Bar, arguing that forensic rhetoric did disservice to a rational system of justice, by allowing fallacies and emotions to come into play. Nonetheless, as later historians of the 19th century were keen to explain, the Revolution was a high moment of eloquence and rhetorical prowess, although set against a background of rejecting rhetoric.

Under the First Empire and its wide-ranging educational reforms, imposed on or imitated across the Continent, rhetoric regained little ground. In fact, instructions to the newly founded Polytechnic School, tasked with training the scientific and technical elites, made it clear that written reporting was to supersede oral reporting. Rhetoric reentered secondary curriculum in fits and starts, but never regained the prominence it had enjoyed under the ancien régime, although the penultimate year of secondary education was known as the Class of Rhetoric. When manuals were redrafted in the mid-century, in particular after the 1848 Revolution to formulate a national curriculum, care was taken to distance their approach to rhetoric from that of the Church, which was seen as an agent of conservatism and reactionary politics.

By the end of the 1870s, a major change had taken place: philosophy of the rationalist or eclectic kind, generally Kantian, had taken over rhetoric as the true end stage of secondary education (the so-called Class of Philosophy bridged secondary and university education). Rhetoric was then relegated to the study of literary figures of speech, a discipline later on taught as Stylistics within the French literature curriculum. More decisively, in 1890, a new standard written exercise superseded the rhetorical exercises of speech writing, letter writing and narration. The new genre, called dissertation, had been invented in 1866, for the purpose of rational argument in the philosophy class. Typically, in a dissertation, a question is asked, such as: "Is history a sign of humanity's freedom?" The structure of a dissertation consists in an introduction that elucidates the basic definitions involved in the question as set, followed by an argument or thesis, a counter-argument or antithesis, and a resolving argument or synthesis that is not a compromise between the former but the production of a new argument, ending with a conclusion that does not sum up the points but opens onto a new problem. Hegelianism influenced the dissertation design. It remains today the standard of writing in French humanities.

By the beginning of the 20th century, rhetoric was fast losing the remains of its former importance, and eventually was taken out of the school curriculum altogether at the time of the Separation of State and Churches (1905). Part of the argument was that rhetoric remained the last element of irrationality, driven by religious arguments, in what was perceived as inimical to Republican education. The move, initiated in 1789, found its resolution in 1902 when rhetoric was expunged from all curricula. At the same time, Aristotelian rhetoric, owing to a revival of Thomistic philosophy initiated by Rome, regained ground in what was left of Catholic education in France, in particular at the prestigious Faculty of Theology of Paris, now a private entity. Yet, rhetoric vanished substantially from the French scene, educational or intellectual, for some 60 years..

In the early 1960s a change began to take place, as the word rhetoric and the body of knowledge it covers began to be used again, in a modest and almost secret manner. The new linguistic turn, through the rise of semiotics as well as of structural linguistics, brought to the fore a new interest in figures of speech as signs, the metaphor in particular (in the works of Roman Jakobson, Groupe µ, Michel Charles, Gérard Genette) while famed Structuralist Roland Barthes, a classicist by training, perceived how some basic elements of rhetoric could be of use in the study of narratives, fashion and ideology. Knowledge of rhetoric was so dim in the early 1970s that his short memoir on rhetoric was seen as highly innovative. Basic as it was, it did help rhetoric regain some currency in avant-garde circles. Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, his contemporary, makes references to rhetoric, in particular to the Pre-Socratics. Philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote on Voice.

At the same time, more profound work was taking place that eventually gave rise to the French school of rhetoric as it exists today.[68]

This rhetorical revival took place on two fronts.[69] First, in 17th-century French studies, the mainstay of French literary education, awareness grew that rhetoric was necessary to push the limits of knowledge further, and also to provide an antidote to Structuralism and its denial of historicism in culture. This was the pioneering work of Marc Fumaroli who, building on the work of classicist and Neo-Latinist Alain Michel and French scholars such as Roger Zuber, published his famed Age de l'Eloquence (1980), was one of the founders of the International Society for the History of Rhetoric and was eventually elevated to a chair in rhetoric at the prestigious College de France. He is the editor in chief of a monumental History of Rhetoric in Modern Europe.[70] His disciples form the second generation,[71] with rhetoricians such as Françoise Waquet and Delphine Denis, both of the Sorbonne, or Philippe-Joseph Salazar (fr:Philippe-Joseph Salazar on the French Wikipedia), until recently at Derrida's College international de philosophie, laureate of the Harry Oppenheimer prize and whose recent book on Hyperpolitique has attracted the French media's attention on a "re-appropriation of the means of production of persuasion".[72]

Second, in the area of Classical studies, in the wake of Alain Michel, Latin scholars fostered a renewal in Cicero studies. They broke away from a pure literary reading of his orations, in an attempt to embed Cicero in European ethics. Meanwhile, among Greek scholars, the literary historian and philologist Jacques Bompaire, the philologist and philosopher E. Dupréel, and later the literature historian Jacqueline de Romilly pioneered new studies in the Sophists and the Second Sophistic. The second generation of Classicists, often trained in philosophy as well (following Heidegger and Derrida, mainly), built on their work, with authors such as Marcel Detienne (now at Johns Hopkins), Nicole Loraux, Medievalist and logician Alain De Libera (Geneva),[73] Ciceronian scholar Carlos Lévy (Sorbonne, Paris) and Barbara Cassin (Collége international de philosophie, Paris).[74] Sociologist of science Bruno Latour and economist Romain Laufer may also be considered part of, or close to this group. Also French philosophers specialized in Arabic commentaries on Aristotle's Rhetoric.[75]

Links between the two strands—literary and philosophical—of the French school of rhetoric are strong and collaborative, and bear witness to the revival of rhetoric in France.[76] A recent issue of Philosophy & Rhetoric presents current writing in the field.[77]

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