March 24, 2020
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“Don’t be fooled by its plain appearance. Adam and Eve chose this fruit over paradise.”
Today’s challenge in “Rhetoric in Antiquity” is the encomium, a speech of praise, and the students are having fun with the task of extolling the virtues of Professor Serfass’s favorite fruit, the apple.
“I love its color, its sheen, its crunch.”
“Like a pioneer, the hearty apple thrives on diversity. Pies, sauces, cakes, wines—whatever we desire, the apple accommodates us.”
It’s only the third week of classes, but the students are already finding the lectern less lonely. They know the drill. Come prepared, because Associate Professor of Classics Adam Serfass will cheerfully call on six or seven young rhetoricians to stand and . . . argue, expound, evoke, condemn, lyricize, plead, convince. From around the seminar table, their classmates will applaud, then critique.
By now they’ve all developed the habit of listening for devices embedded in the flow of speech that give it a compelling edge. They’ll point to the tried-and-true tricolon, a group of three, as in “its color, its sheen, its crunch.” They’ll identify (and correctly pronounce) homoioteleuton, wherein two or more words share a similar ending— “delicious, nutritious, ubiquitous.” They’ll comment on voice modulation and unexpected lines of reasoning.
Serfass will call attention to one student’s rhapsodic phrasing—“the sensuousness of the Red Delicious, which sets the eater’s soul ablaze”—to discuss the “grand style,” and muse on when the “simple” and “middle” styles are more appropriate. He’ll note that another speaker has deftly established his ethos (credibility or authority) by citing Johnny Appleseed’s real name, John Chapman, and will remind the class that Aristotle also lists pathos (an appeal to emotion) and above all logos (logical reasoning) as modes of persuasion.
He’ll advise yet another student to deploy pauses for the sake of impact when he uses accumulatio, the pouring on of adjectives or attributes. And he’ll recognize the moments of linguistic music that emerge—“the perfect apple . . . sliced or diced, stewed or spiced”—while warning against excessively lush diction.
“Rhetoric in Antiquity” is unlike any course most Kenyon students ever encounter. Serfass created it six years ago in part because he was dismayed by students’ poor oral-presentation skills. But he wasn’t interested in a “public speaking” course per se. His larger goals were to introduce the rich tradition of rhetoric in classical civilization and show how that tradition remains relevant. The course clearly has value for literary study. Speeches figure in works by authors ranging from Homer and Shakespeare to Dickens and Joyce.
The “performative” element of the course can be daunting. Serfass devotes the first weeks to a “boot camp” in rhetoric, in which students—following the educational path of Greek and Roman boys—put theory into practice by taking on exercises like the encomium. Then the class moves on to “declamations,” speeches responding to thorny legal scenarios. The students also closely analyze famous speeches. They read Athenian funeral orations as well as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, courtroom speeches by Cicero as well as Clarence Darrow and Johnnie Cochran, Thucydides on the Peloponnesian War and Margaret Thatcher on the Falklands.
What’s striking is how questions of technique lead to fundamental insights about the effective use of language generally. Following Aristotle, the West’s first theorist of rhetoric and audience psychology, Serfass emphasizes the value of artfully combining ordinary and heightened speech—“defamiliarizing the familiar.” In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, for example, Martin Luther King Jr. used phrases like “the fierce urgency of now” and (evoking Shakespeare) “this sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent.”
In the same vein, Serfass discusses the uncanny power of metaphors. “Metaphor is a great way to take the ordinary and open a window onto the unordinary,” he says. King compared America’s failures to a bounced check, warned against the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism,” and envisioned a “symphony of brotherhood.” By vividly juxtaposing two elements, Serfass says, a metaphor can “create something more real in the mind of the listener.” What makes a good metaphor? “You want that instant click, something that jumps into someone’s head.”
In a sense, “Rhetoric in Antiquity” is really about cultivating linguistic acumen, the habit of grasping—and using, with nimbleness and care—language’s endless possibilities. And so the course addresses, head on, the question of whether rhetoric matters in a relentlessly colloquial world.
“If you open your mouth to speak,” says Serfass, “you are using rhetoric in some way, whether you know it or not. There’s no escaping rhetoric.”