They Will Know Us by Our Horses

978-1-58731-867-2; 978-1-58731-868-9
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6" x 9", 270 pages

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They Will Know Us by Our Horses

Rhetorical Stasis and Deliberation

Shenk, Robert

Robert Shenk is both scholar and teacher of classical rhetoric. Now a member of a dying breed, he was once ignited by the late Edward Corbett (Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student) and after decades of study and research Shenk has written a masterpiece that reintroduces and defines what is known as forestasis in the field of rhetoric. The famous classical concept of rhetorical stasis has three principle components: fact, definition and quality. This was the main thrust of rhetorical invention for some 1500 years, from ancient times up through the modern era. It is, however, a forensic rhetoric in that it looks to the past. As Shenk presents stasis he relies on Cicero’s famous defense of Milo. Did Milo kill Clodius? Yes, but did Milo murder Clodius? No, he walked into an ambush and his killing was self-defense. Furthermore, his act was a good one insofar as Clodius was a bad citizen and the republic benefited from his death. The three aspects of rhetorical stasis, seen in this example, lead one to the heart of the issue at hand. But rhetorical stasis can be used for more than seeing the past for what it is. One can effectively use it to envision the future one wishes to achieve.

Shenk notes that Aristotle equips his doctrine of rhetoric with a forward-looking dimension, often overlooked or ignored by scholars. There is stasis, but also forestasis, which amounts to a way not only of “getting to the point” of an event, but of a manner of forming decisions. The ancient rhetoricians, says Shenk, all discussed deliberative rhetoric as well as forensic rhetoric, and even though they differed in their respective descriptions they all generally agreed on its three main elements: possibility (often including difficulty or ease of execution), expedience (also called utility or benefit, even profit), and honor (or morality in general depending on the conversation). One places these elements into play when considering the viability of a proposal: “Is it possible? Is it beneficial? Is it honorable?” This pertains to deliberative rhetoric, or arguments that touch upon the future. It is not just grasping things that have been, but also understanding the core of that which is to come through formulating our decisions to act. 

Laying the foundations for this broader view of stasis that, while depending on the ancient rhetoricians, includes a forward-posed heuristic that can, Shenk argues, reinvigorate the concept of rhetorical stasis and expand its theoretical reach. His intention is to show how rhetorical invention (discovery of the argument) is meant to look both directions. Rhetoric that properly presents what has passed can also be employed to identify the best next move. Or, as Shakespeare reminds us in Prince Hal’s decision to participate in the robbery at Gadshill, “Yea, but ‘tis like that they will know us by our horses, by our habits, and by every other appointment to be ourselves.” 

In addition to examples drawn from his naval background, Shenk references Homer, Shakespeare and Milton in demonstrating forestasis to be a widely useful parallel to traditional stasis. Shenk argues that both deserve to be widely taught as prime, complementary modern techniques of invention. Doing so would make stasis more relevant and lead students, especially, to discover the crux of any matter that requires deliberative action. This is an essential and yet largely missing element of contemporary education. This ancient method, Shenk asserts, is a habit that although rhetorical leads to actual discoveries that in turn yield real outcomes, both abstract and practical.