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Summary of “Rhetoric and Civic Virtue” — Janet Atwill

In “Rhetoric and Civic Virtue,” Janet Atwill revisits the concept of “civic virtue” as it was conceived in fifth and fourth-century Greek political and philosophical thought and claims that civic virtue was in fact a contested term dependent on the model of political order—harmonia or isonomia—that one philosophically adhered to.   Atwill explains that harmonia was model of political order in which citizens’s “shares” in society were based on honor or merit, while under the isonomia model, all citizens have equal shares (77).  According to Plato and Aristotle, different classes had different virtues; thus virtue is not only identified with particular class functions but also with, as Atwill explains, “the act of submitting to that function” (78). Practical wisdom (phronesis) was a virtue in Aristotle’s eyes that was particular to the ruling class only rather than the entire polis; therefore, Atwill warns of “invoking Artistotelian phronesis as the authority for a democratic notion of civic rhetoric” (80).  In Plato’s Protagoras, it seems Protagoras insisted political art should be “distributed to” all citizens, which would comply with isonomia, because while diversity of function can create economic and social order, political art creates social harmony that, in turn, makes a political order possible (81).  

Isocrates, Atwill explains, endorses harmonia in the sense that he believes citizen’s shares should be based on their honor, which can be both earned and invented.  Rhetoric, in Isocrates eyes, “as a teachable art is a kind of symbolic capital with the potential to increase one’s share of honor” (82).  Therefore, according to Isocrates, rhetorical meritocracy is possible. 

Atwill claims that understanding the contesting views between virtue and political order is evident in contemporary contexts.  She equates harmonia and isonomia to the contemporary counterparts of liberalism and civic republicanism.  Atwill concludes by asking as to continue to reflect on civic virtue and contemporary attempts to define and teach civic rhetoric.  She asks us to define civic rhetoric as “a contest between competing theories of rhetoric and democratic order” (88). She defines two competing theories concerning civic rhetoric within our own field: one that strives for theoretical coherence and disciplinary research and one that takes the more practical approach to teaching rhetoric as art.  She claims Aristotles’s Rhetoric  is “a ‘theory’ of rhetoric in the sense of an ‘account’ of practice” (89).  Atwill feels Aristotle’s main contribution to the rhetorical tradition is less theoretical and more practical.  She claims that our field’s “relative ‘poverty’ of it theories” is in fact one of our richest legacies; we should embrace our “resistance to setting fixed boundaries to the always evolving and incalculable complexity of rhetorical practice” (89).  

Atwill’s article asks us to seriously consider whether we truly want a coherent theory that “reflects” (explains, represents, etc..) our rhetorical tradition.  Should we spend our time conducting scholarship that aims to identify a coherent theory or acknowledge that our rhetorical tradition is comprised of my competing theories of rhetoric and democratic order and instead forge ahead and create a civic rhetoric that is dependent on, reflects, and is effective in our present historical, cultural context??

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