What Is Enlightenment Rhetoric?

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The expression "Enlightenment rhetoric" refers to the study and practice of rhetoric from the mid-seventeenth century to the early part of the nineteenth century.

Influential rhetorical works from this period include George Campbell's "Philosophy of Rhetoric," first published in 1776, and Hugh Blair's "Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres," first published in 1783. George Campbell, who lived from 1719 to 1796, was a Scottish minister, theologian, and philosopher of rhetoric. Hugh Blair, who lived from 1718 to 1800, was a Scottish minister, teacher, editor, and rhetorician. Campbell and Blair are just two of the many important figures associated with the Scottish Enlightenment.

As Winifred Bryan Horner notes in the "Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition," Scottish rhetoric in the 18th century "was broadly influential, especially in the formation of the North American composition course as well as in the development of 19th- and 20th-century rhetorical theory and pedagogy."

18th-Century Era of Enlightenment Rhetoric

Essays written on rhetoric and style in the 1700s include "Of Eloquence" by Oliver Goldsmith and "Of Simplicity and Refinement in Writing" by David Hume. "On Conciseness of Style in Writing and Conversation" by Vicesimus Knox and "Samuel Johnson on the Bugbear Style" were also produced during this era.

Periods of Western Rhetoric

Western rhetoric can be divided into distinct categories: classical rhetoric, medieval rhetoric, Renaissance rhetoric, 19th-century rhetoric, and new rhetoric(s).

Bacon and Locke

Thomas P. Miller, "Eighteenth-Century Rhetoric"

"British advocates of enlightenment grudgingly accepted that while logic could inform the reason, rhetoric was necessary to rouse the will to action. As propounded in [Francis] Bacon's 'Advancement of Learning' (1605), this model of the mental faculties established the general frame of reference for efforts to define rhetoric according to the workings of the individual consciousness...Like such successors as [John] Locke, Bacon was a practicing rhetor active in the politics of his time, and his practical experience led him to recognize that rhetoric was an inevitable part of civic life. Although Locke's 'Essay Concerning Human Understanding' (1690) criticized rhetoric for exploiting the artifices of language to promote factional divisions, Locke himself had lectured on rhetoric at Oxford in 1663, responding to the popular interest in the powers of persuasion that has overcome philosophical reservations about rhetoric in periods of political change."

Overview of Rhetoric in the Enlightenment

Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg, "The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings From Classic Times to the Present"

"Toward the end of the 17th century, traditional rhetoric came to be closely associated with the genres of history, poetry, and literary criticism, the so-called belles lettres — a connection that persisted well into the 19th century."

"Before the end of the 17th century, however, traditional rhetoric came under attack by adherents of the new science, who claimed that rhetoric obscured the truth by encouraging the use of ornamented rather than plain, direct language...The call for a plain style, taken up by church leaders and influential writers, made perspicuity, or clarity, a watchword in discussions of ideal style during the ensuing centuries."

"An even more profound and direct influence on rhetoric at the beginning of the 17th century was Francis Bacon's theory of psychology...It was not until the middle of the 18th century, however, that a complete psychological or epistemological theory of rhetoric arose, one that focused on appealing to the mental faculties in order to persuade...the elocution movement, which focused on delivery, began early in the 18th century and lasted through the 19th."

Lord Chesterfield on the Art of Speaking

Lord Chesterfield (Philip Dormer Stanhope), letter to his son

"Let us return to oratory, or the art of speaking well; which should never be entirely out of your thoughts, since it is so useful in every part of life, and so absolutely necessary in most. A man can make no figure without it, in parliament, in the church, or in the law; and even in common conversation, a man that has acquired an easy and habitual eloquence, who speaks properly and accurately, will have a great advantage over those who speak incorrectly and inelegantly."

"The business of oratory, as I have told you before, is to persuade people; and you easily feel, that to please people is a great step towards persuading them. You must then, consequently, be sensible how advantageous it is for a man, who speaks in public, whether it be in parliament, in the pulpit, or at the bar (that is, in the courts of law), to please his hearers so much as to gain their attention; which he can never do without the help of oratory. It is not enough to speak the language he speaks in, in its utmost purity, and according to the rules of grammar, but he must speak it elegantly, that is, he must choose the best and most expressive words, and put them in the best order. He should likewise adorn what he says by proper metaphors, similes, and other figures of rhetoric; and he should enliven it, if he can, by quick and sprightly turns of wit."

Philosophy of Rhetoric

Jeffrey M. Suderman, "Orthodoxy and Enlightenment: George Campbell in the Eighteenth Century"

"Modern rhetoricians agree that [George Campbell's] 'Philosophy of Rhetoric' pointed the way to the 'new country,' in which the study of human nature would become the foundation of the oratorical arts. A leading historian of British rhetoric has called this work the most important rhetorical text to emerge from the 18th century, and a considerable number of dissertations and articles in specialized journals have eked out the details of Campbell's contribution to modern rhetorical theory."

Alexander Broadie, "The Scottish Enlightenment Reader"

"One cannot go far into rhetoric without encountering the concept of a faculty of the mind, for in any rhetorical exercise the faculties of intellect, imagination, emotion (or passion), and will are exercised. It is therefore natural that George Campbell attends to them in 'The Philosophy of Rhetoric.' These four faculties are appropriately ordered in the above way in rhetorical studies, for the orator first has an idea, whose location is the intellect. By an act of imagination, the idea is then expressed in suitable words. These words produce a response in the form of an emotion in the audience, and the emotion inclines the audience to will the acts that the orator has in mind for them."

Arthur E. Walzer, "George Campbell: Rhetoric in the Age of Enlightenment"

"While scholars have attended to the 18th-century influences on Campbell's work, Campbell's debt to the ancient rhetoricians has received less attention. Campbell learned a great deal from the rhetorical tradition and is very much a product of it. Quintilian's 'Institutes of Oratory' is the most comprehensive embodiment of classical rhetoric ever written, and Campbell apparently regarded this work with a respect that bordered on reverence. Although the 'Philosophy of Rhetoric' is often presented as paradigmatic of a 'new' rhetoric, Campbell did not intend to challenge Quintilian. Quite the contrary: he sees his work as confirmation of Quintilian's view, believing that the psychological insights of 18th-century empiricism would only deepen our appreciation for the classical rhetorical tradition."

Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres

James A. Herrick, "The History and Theory of Rhetoric"

"[Hugh] Blair defines style as 'the peculiar manner in which a man expresses his conceptions, by means of language.' Thus, style is for Blair a very broad category of concern. Moreover, style is related to one's 'manner of thinking.' Thus, 'when we are examining an author's composition, it is, in many cases, extremely difficult to separate the style from the sentiment.' Blair was apparently of the opinion, then, that one's style — one's manner of linguistic expression — provided evidence of how one thought."

"Practical matters..are at the heart of the study of style for Blair. Rhetoric seeks to make a point persuasively. Thus, rhetorical style must attract an audience and present a case clearly."

"Of perspicuity, or clarity, Blair writes that there is no concern more central to style. After all, if clarity is lacking in a message, all is lost. Claiming that your subject is difficult is no excuse for lack of clarity, according to Blair: if you can't explain a difficult subject clearly, you probably don't understand it...Much of Blair's counsel to his young readers includes such reminders as 'any words, which do not add some importance to the meaning of a sentence, always spoil it.'"

Winifred Bryan Horner, "Eighteenth-Century Rhetoric"

"Blair's 'Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres' was adopted at Brown in 1783, at Yale in 1785, at Harvard in 1788, and by the end of the century was the standard text at most American colleges...Blair's concept of taste, an important doctrine of the 18th century, was adopted worldwide in the English-speaking countries. Taste was considered an inborn quality that could be improved through cultivation and study. This concept found a ready acceptance, particularly in the provinces of Scotland and North America, where improvement became a basic tenet, and beauty and good were closely connected. The study of English literature spread as rhetoric turned from a generative to an interpretive study. Finally, rhetoric and criticism became synonymous, and both became sciences with English literature as the observable physical data."


Bacon, Francis. "Advancement of Learning." Paperback, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, September 11, 2017.

Bizzell, Patricia. "The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings From Classic Times to the Present." Bruce Herzberg, Second Printing Edition, Bedford/St. Martin's, February 1990.

Blair, Hugh. "Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres," Paperback, BiblioBazaar, July 10, 2009.

Broadie, Alexander. "The Scottish Enlightenment Reader." Canongate Classic, Paperback, Canongate UK, June 1, 1999.

Campbell, George. "The Philosophy of Rhetoric," Paperback, University of Michigan Library, January 1, 1838.

Goldsmith, Oliver. "The Bee: A Collection of Essays." Kindle Edition, HardPress, July 10, 2018.

Herrick, James A. "The History and Theory of Rhetoric." 6th Edition, Routledge, September 28, 2017.

Hume, David. "Essay XX: of Simplicity and Refinement in Writing." Online Library of Liberty, 2019.

Johnson, Samuel. "The Works of Samuel Johnson, LL. D.: An essay on the life and genius of Samuel Johnson." G. Dearborn, 1837.

Knox, Vicesimus. "Knox's Essays, Volume 22." J.F. Dove, 1827.

Sloane, Thomas O. (Editor). "Encyclopedia of Rhetoric." v. 1, Oxford University Press, August 2, 2001.

Stanhope, Philip Dormer Earl of Chesterfield. "Letters to His Son: On the Fine Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman." Volume 2, M. W. Dunne, 1901.

Suderman, Jeffrey M. "Orthodoxy and Enlightenment: George Campbell in the Eighteenth Century." McGill-Queen's Studies in the Hist of Id, 1st Edition, McGill-Queen's University Press, October 16, 2001.

Various. "Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition." Theresa Jarnagin Enos (Editor), 1st Edition, Routledge, March 19, 2010.

Various. "Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition: Communication from Ancient Times to the Information Age." Theresa Jarnagin Enos (Editor), 1st Edition, Routledge, March 19, 2010.

Walzer, Arthur E. "George Campbell: Rhetoric in the Age of Enlightenment." Rhetoric in the Modern Era, Southern Illinois University Press, October 10, 2002.

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