Epideictic Rhetoric and the Literature Classroom?

A couple of years ago, when I was solidifying the focus on my dissertation, several topics wandered through my head. One of those topics, which I wish to expand upon through further research, came about as I was preparing a paper for the 2012 Rhetoric Society of America conference. The paper, “Epideictic Rhetoric, Athletes, and Veterans: A National Discourse,” focused on the rhetoric surrounding Pat Tillman’s death in 2004 and Ted Williams’s passing in 2002 in relation to a post-9/11 American existence. In preparing for that presentation, I was also in the process of reading James Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie (1964), Alice Walker’s Meridian (1976), and other novels.  As I read these novels, which mostly focus on the Civil Rights movement, I began to notice the ways that epidiectic rhetoric worked during funeral scenes or sermons. This is nothing unusual within African American literature or literature in general; however, it made me view these scenes in relation to classical rhetoric and the three genres of discourse that Aristotle presents in Rhetoric: deliberative, judicial, and epideictic. 

For Aristotle and other classical rhetoricians, rhetoric works to influence the audience to the speaker’s position. As such the genres work, in various ways, to persuade the audience. Forbes I. Hill explains these genres by saying, “Now it is evident that audiences can be divided into spectators or decision makers about either past or future, and from this division, it follows deductively that there must be three kinds of speeches with appropriate locales, ends, and means” (69-70). With that in mind, each genre focuses on a specific teleological period, outcome, and topic. Epideictic rhetoric occurs, typically, after a person has died. Think of this as a eulogy. One of the most well-known literary examples is Marc Antony’s speech after the murder of Caesar in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Since epideictic rhetoric occurs typically after a death, you would assume it’s focus is on the deceased. That is partly right because the genre does either praise or blame the deceased. However, the genre focuses more on the living than the dead, and as such, it centers on the present whereas deliberative focuses on the future and judicial focuses on the past. Chaim Perelman points out that “[t]he orator’s aim in the epideictic genre is not to just gain a passive adherence from his audience but to provoke the action wished for or, at least, to awaken a disposition so to act” (1388). Marc Antony does this when he begins his speech by eulogizing Caesar then provoking the audience to riot.

I’m going to focus, specifically on epideictic rhetoric for this post, and I will mention, briefly, examples of deliberative and judicial rhetoric that could be explored in a similar manner. A couple of weeks ago, I reread Blues for Mister Charlie and started to think about the ways I could incorporate Aristotle’s genres into the literature classroom. Most notably, I thought about ways to discuss the improtance of epideictic rhetoric in persuading an audience to action. Meridian, Richard Henry’s father and a minister, does this in Baldwin’s play when he speaks about his son at the end of act two. Like Marc Antony, Meridian uses his speech to comment on the current situation facing the African American community in the play.

After commenting on the past, Meridian states, But it is not the past which makes our hearts so heavy. It is the present” (77). Meridian moves from a discussion of oppression to questioning the present situation and why the Lord allows it to happen. Ultimately, though, he speaks to spur the mourners to action and to convince them that they must love another to ameliorate these problems caused by racism. He asks,

I will not abandon the land–this strange land, which is my home. But can I ask the children forever to sustain the cruelty inflicted on them by those who have been their masters, and who are now, in very truth, their kinfolk, their brothers, and their sisters, and their parents? What hope is there for a people who deny their deeds and disown their kinsmen and who do so in the name of purity and love, in the name of Jesus Christ? (77)

The theme of unity runs throughout Merdian’s speech, and considering his role in the community as a Civil Rights’ activist, his speech at his son’s funeral works to galvanize and already motivated community.

There are a couple of other examples of epideictic rhetoric worth mentioning here. One occurs when Invisible Man speaks to a crowd gathered in the streets after the death of Todd Clifton in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Invisible Man sparks the crowd and they riot. Likewise, Ned Douglass speech by the river in Ernest Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) can be seen as an epideictic oration. Even though Ned gives the speech, he is basically providing his own eulogy because he knows that he will eventually die.  Ned’s black nationalist speech encourages Miss Jane, and the community, awakening within them  a consciousness that they did not have previously. These are only two examples. These are the examples I would share with students; then, I would require them to find examples in literature and share their examples with the class.

In conclusion, even though I am not discussing deliberative and judicial rhetoric in this post, Blues for Mister Charlie contains a great example of judicial rhetoric in act three during the courtroom scene. As well, Gaines’s A Lesson before Dying provides a good example of judicial rhetoric when Jefferson’s “defense attorney” relates his client’s mental capabilities. Think about Jefferson, his diary could possibly be viewed in line with epideictic rhetoric. Regarding deliberative rhetoric, I have had a hard time thinking of examples. The main example I can think of is from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin  (1852)and the discussion of the Fugitive Slave Act.

Like I said, this post is not extensive, but I hope it provides a foundation for further exploration on this topic and leads to you possibly using an activity like this in your own classroom. What examples would you use? Let me know in the comments below.

Baldwin, James. Blues for Mister Charlie. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.
Hill, Forbes I. “Aristotle’s Rhetorical Theory. With a Synopis of Aristotle’s Rhetoric.” A Synoptic History of Classical Rhetoric. Eds. James J. Murphy and Richard A. Katula. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2003. 59-126.
Perelman, Chaim. The New Rhetoric: A Theory of Practical Reasoning. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. 2nd Edition. Eds. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford-St. Martin’s, 2001.  1384-1409.

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