Seven Liberal Arts: Rhetoric

The purpose of the liberal arts: clarification

In my post on Grammar, I stated that the liberal arts were originally intended to provide the knowledge that a person needed to participate in a free society, and I asked: “What essential skills does a free person need today? Do the original liberal arts still have something to contribute?”

I’ve decided that’s the wrong question. It puts politics ahead of ethics, and the good of society ahead of the good of the individual. One doesn’t educate children to be good citizens: one educates them to be capable of living their own lives.

The only purpose of education is to teach a student how to live his life—by developing his mind and equipping him to deal with reality. The training he needs is theoretical, i.e., conceptual. He has to be taught to think, to understand, to integrate, to prove. He has to be taught the essentials of the knowledge discovered in the past—and he has to be equipped to acquire further knowledge by his own effort. (Ayn Rand, “The Comprachicos,”in Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, quoted here)

Knowing what a proper government is and what their role in it should be is part of that general knowledge.


I had intended to write very intelligent comments on rhetoric, but life got in the way this week. So instead, some food for thought.

In modern usage, “rhetoric” often means “insincere or grandiloquent language” (per Merriam-Webster). But speaking well – speaking persuasively – is a tool. Aristotle defined it as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion” (more here). Like all tools, rhetoric can be used for ends that are good or evil.

Allegory of Rhetoric, 1561

This fascinating image of rhetoric was created as an invitation to a  1561 competition in Antwerp. The Dutch “Chambers of Rhetoric,” such as the Violierin of Antwerp, had evolved into something closer to actors than to orators. The festival the Violierin sponsored in 1561 was a 19-day competition that included plays, processions, tableaux, and poetry focused on the question: What best awakens man to the arts? (I’d be interested in hearing the answer to that one!)

Rhetoric Enthroned, 1561. Image: Wikipedia

I wouldn’t hang this on my wall as an artwork, but it’s a great springboard for discussion. Rhetoric is enthroned, flanked by Prudentia (wisdom) and Inventio (invention, discovery, plan). From the left (where there is heavenly Lux, light), Pax, Charitas, and Ratio (peace, charity, reason) are approaching. Into the darkness (Tenebrae) at the right flee Ira, Invidia, and Discordia (wrath, jealousy, discord).

Bacon on rhetoric, 1605

One of the wondrous effects of a proper liberal arts education the ability to listen to other peoples’ ideas and use them to decide what your own ideas are. In that sense, I find Francis Bacon’s take on rhetoric thought-provoking, even though he doesn’t use terms in quite the same way I do. This is from Of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning, Divine and Humanpublished in 1605.

[T]he duty and office of rhetoric is to apply reason to imagination for the better moving of the will. For we see reason is disturbed in the administration thereof by three means; by illaqueation [tangling in a snare] or sophism, which pertains to logic; by imagination or impression, which pertains to rhetoric; and by passion or affection, which pertains to morality. And as in negotiation with others, men are wrought by cunning, by importunity, and by vehemency; so in this negotiation within ourselves, men are undermined by inconsequences, solicited and importuned by impressions or observations, and transported by passions. Neither is the nature of man so unfortunately built, as that those powers and arts should have force to disturb reason, and not to establish and advance it. For the end of logic is to teach a form of argument to secure reason, and not to entrap it. The end of morality is to procure the affections to obey reason, and not to invade it. The end of rhetoric is to fill the imagination to second reason, and not to oppress it: for these abuses of arts come in but ex obliquo [indirectly], for caution. … 

Again, if the affections in themselves were pliant and obedient to reason, it were true there should be no great use of persuasions and insinuations to the will, more than of naked proposition and proofs; but in regard of the continual mutinies and seditions of the affections,

Video meliora, proboque,
Deteriora sequor,

[“I see and approve the better things, but pursue the worse” (Ovid, Metamorphoses, VII, 20]

reason would become captive and servile, if eloquence of persuasions did not practice and win the imagination from the affections’ part, and contract a confederacy between the reason and imagination against the affections; for the affections themselves carry ever an appetite to good, as reason doth. The difference is, that the affection beholdeth merely the present; reason beholdeth the future and sum of time. And therefore the present filling the imagination more, reason is commonly vanquished; but after that force of eloquence and persuasion hath made things future and remote appear as present, then upon the revolt of the imagination reason prevaileth.

Cesare Ripa on Rhetorica, 1603

At the other end of Europe from Bacon, Ripa states in his Iconologia, 1603, that Rhetoric can be represented in two ways. (Ripa’s image was adapted by La Hyre for the Allegorical Figure of Grammar illustrated in this post.)

  • A woman richly dressed and elegantly coiffed, looking happy and peaceful. In her right hand is a scepter (indicating that rhetoric spurs, restrains, and bends the minds of men), in her left a book (indicating that the art of rhetoric is not natural but learned). On a scroll are the words “Ornatus persuasio”, indicating that the task of rhetoric is to teach men to speak persuasively. (I can’t parse that a proper Latin, but perhaps it’s medieval Latin.) There is no man so rustic or savage, says Ripa, that he can’t appreciate an eloquent argument.
  • A woman with her right hand open and extended, her left closed, alluding to the words of Zeno the Philosopher which (says Ripa) I quoted elsewhere. Alas, I’m wildly curious what he means, but I don’t have time to search his 500-page book for the reference.

The best image I could find of a figure of Rhetorica created after Ripa is Gentilleschi’s Rhetoric (ca. 1650), but I have a strong aversion to women who roll their eyes in just that way. All the saints since Raphael’s time seem to do it.


  • For more representations of Rhetoric, see Personifications of Rhetoric and Allegories of Rhetoric on Wikimedia. I particularly like Cicero and Rhetoric (German 15th c.) , in which Rhetoric is planing down wood the way a good writer or speaker edits his words.
  • For more definitions of rhetoric (from Plato through modern times), see this page.
  • The Wikimedia notes on the Antwerp invitation of 1561 illustrated above also note that Jan Steen painted Rhetoricians several times: see here and here. If you don’t quite get what the fuss is about Vermeer, compare him to Steen. Their paintings have similar settings populated by similar people, but Steen’s paintings look naturalistic – a moment preserved in amber – while Vermeer’s have a timeless quality because he showed only one or two people performing actions that we can still relate to.
  • The images on the Mantegna Tarot, Series E (ca. 1465) and Series S (1470-1475) are here; for   Rhetoric, see here. These seem to have been not Tarot cards but tools for educating youngsters in the Renaissance about the humanist view of the world (more here). In that sense, it’s interesting that ten liberal arts art listed: the usual seven (grammar, rhetoric, logic, astrology, music, arithmetic, geometry) plus, in ascending order (the cards are numbered) poetry, philosophy, and theology.
  • Recommended: C. Bradley Thompson, “Liberal Education and the Quest for Truth, Freedom, and Greatness,” The Objective Standard XI:3.
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