It was not until the Renaissance that the art of rhetoric would retain the heights it had reached in the classical period.
The Renaissance favored classical forms of rhetorical theory - particularly Latin. The Renaissance period can be seen as a severe reaction to the medieval period's emphasis on dialectical forms of scholastic endeavor. One of the key figures in the revival of the classical study of rhetoric was Erasmus. Vernacular rhetoric also began to gain in popularity during this period; this was rhetoric written in languages other than Latin and Greek, such as English. One of the best-known early English examples of this tendency was the Arte of Rhetorique by Thomas Wilson, which was penned in 1553. Wilson outlined what he considered to be the five main canons of rhetoric, after the classical definition by Aristotle: invention, disposition, memory, elocution, and utterance.
These five areas of rhetoric would come into challenge later in the 16th century by an educational tendency in Protestant and Puritan circles. According to Ong (1958), a French scholar by the name of Pierre de la Ramee would re-organize Wilson's elucidation of rhetoric by placing invention and disposition under the category of dialectic, leaving delivery, style, and memory for rhetoric. This would result in rhetoric's diminishing importance in educational curriculums.
The development of rhetoric in England in the seventeenth century would bring rhetoric into the modern era. The new rhetoricians focused on English, rather than focusing on the Latin and Greek roots, as their Renaissance forbears had. The poet John Dryden was influential in formulating a rhetorical theory that emphasized a style of speaking and writing that was suitable "to the occasion, the subject, and the persons." In his own writings, he attempted to use English words, rather than foreign and Latinate ones, wherever possible.
The evolution of modern rhetoric took place largely in France in the 19th and 20th centuries. For French Jesuits in particular, rhetoric was long considered to be one of the essential foundational aspects of education, and all young men destined for leadership positions in the church were well versed in rhetorical theory. Up until the French Revolution, rhetoric was also considered fundamental in Oratorian colleges. After the Revolution, however, the Oratorians began to focus more on the acquisition of modern languages while pursuing a more sensualist approach to rhetorical study.
The French Revolution would change the public's perception of rhetoric. Such philosophers as Condorcet would argue that rhetoric was used as a tool of oppression in the hands of clerics. Even the Bar was suppressed for a while, as it was believed that forensic rhetoric made a rational system of justice impossible, in that it allowed fallacies and emotional reactions to play a role in public discourse. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that the Revolution in France was a time of great rhetorical heights in the history of discursive engagement. Even though rhetoric was rejected, it was still deployed by many of the leading figures of the French Revolution.
Rhetoric again suffered under the First Empire - and this was not only in France, but also across the European continent. At this point in history, a focus on writing, rather than oral reporting, took precedence in educational training. While rhetoric would come and go in college curriculums, it never enjoyed the prominence it had under the previous regime. Writers penned educational manuals advising those in the educational professions to distance their teaching away from rhetoric, so as not to adapt the authoritarian methods that the Church, an agent of conservatism, had previously used.
The end of the 1870s had nearly abolished rhetoric abolished in favor of Kantian philosophy. The only time that rhetoric came in to the curriculum was in studying figures of speech, which were integrated in to the curriculum of French literature. In the 1890s, a new form of writing, known as the dissertation, began to take absolute precedence over formal rhetorical exercises, such as speech writing, narration, and the writing of letters. Dissertations were invented in philosophy class for the purpose of rational argument. In such dissertations, a question would be asked. The student would then respond with an introduction that was meant to elucidate essential definitions in the question as set, followed by a thesis, an antithesis, and finally a synthesis that produces a new argument, followed by a conclusion that does not merely sum up the points made, but opens doors on to a new problem brought up by the preceding parts. This dissertation style was influenced by the philosophy of Hegel. Today, academics in the humanities continue to use this format when writing.
In the early 20th century, there was a revival of interest in rhetoric throughout academia. Departments of speech and rhetoric came into being, and a number of international professional organizations were formed to revive and foster the study of rhetoric. It is widely believed that the revival of rhetoric is tied in with an increasing importance of language and persuasion in the 20th century, during the course of which mediation increased to a frenzy. With the advent of mass media and advertising, rhetoric as a societal tool became more and more important.
Today, researchers in rhetoric are influenced by literary theory as well as the behavioral sciences. Early in the 20th century, those working in the field of rhetoric attempted to transform it in to a social science. Some of the more notable figures from this era include Hugh Duncan, Ernst Cassirer, and Kenneth Burke, all of whom strove to integrate rhetorical strategies in to a social science perspective that took in to account human communication and behavior in a multiplicity of aspects.
Today, rhetorical theory resonates with its humanistic past. At the same time, social scientists investigating rhetoric tend to focus on theories of communication and an analysis of the mass media. Many modern rhetorical scholars - among them Sonja Foss, Roderick Hart, and Barry Brummett - try to show how rhetoric's involvement with public life make it useful for the study of all kinds of endeavor, from politics to entertainment.
The main difference between classical and modern rhetoric, then, is that the former was aligned mainly with speech, while current rhetorical analysis deals with a wider spectrum of human behavior - the spoken as well as the written word, not to mention television, films, radio, music, and the Internet. Kenneth Burke's definition of rhetoric is in many ways typical of the current conception of the discipline by researchers in the field; he considers rhetoric to be rooted in the utilization of symbols as a means of inducing cooperation among those who naturally respond to symbols (i.e. most human beings in the West.) Today, such advanced interdisciplinary fields as performance studies, design studies, and cultural studies all rely heavily on the study of rhetoric. Some of the more popular topics of current rhetoricians include the relationship between gender and rhetoric, the rhetoric of science, rhetoric in new media, the relationship of rhetoric to technology, and studies of rhetoric outside of the Western tradition.
This brings us back to the French influence. Many scholars investigating rhetoric in the United States and abroad look to the work of post-structuralist philosophers such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. Foucault's work has had an immense impact on the field through his theory of discourse, which can be applied not merely to speech, but to all aspects of the social code. The work of Derrida, in particular his theory of deconstruction, is rooted in a literary and philosophical approach to rhetoric that posits displacement and deferment as a regular occurrence in speech and writing, particularly when one is dealing with binary oppositions.
The rise of rhetorical theory in 20th century France came about as the result of the turbulence of the late 1960s - namely the student protests of 1968 that shook the foundations of French society and spurned the popularization of radical thought. Scholars began to carefully analyze language - the way it is deployed as a tool of persuasion - much like their forebears had done a century prior, after the French Revolution. Unlike the aftermath of the French Revolution, however, this led to a renewed engagement with both classical and modern theories of rhetoric, giving rise to what many would come to term "postmodern" theories of rhetoric.
The popularity of French critical theory would not reach its zenith in the United States until the 1980s and 1990s, when it was "imported" via the contemporary art world. Today, many American scholars working in rhetoric - such as Judith Butler - look to the work of French philosophers like Foucault and Derrida as influences in their continuing quest to investigate some of the more complex problems posed by rhetoric, such as deconstruction. Scholars continue to look to ancient rhetoric for inspiration, but in doing so, they are often seeking out new ways of "reading" - and hence, understanding -…