The "Athenian Disease" in Early-Modern England: Rhetoric, Republicanism, and the Restoration Cures

Susanna Zinato


My paper aims at throwing light on the crucial link between rhetorical education and republicanism in mid-seventeenth-century England (1640-1660, the years of the Civil War, the regicide, Cromwell’s rule) and on the demonization suffered by rhetoric at the hands of the Establishment culture in the Restoration. Bluntly speaking, the change is from a time when the adversary is charged with practising poor rhetoric, to a time when the charge is that of practicing rhetoric tout court. What used to be given as a civilizing force, now becomes force of sedition and source of anarchy. The ‘cures’ advanced may very well be represented by the proliferation of proposals of linguistic systematization and reform, “real characters” and “universal languages” informed by plainness and ‘naturalness’, and inspired by a pre-hermeneutic ideal of discourse, in a strategy of political/cultural containment through linguistic control. However, the fight between the parties never ceases to employ rhetoric both as a message and as a code. The authoritative endorsement of the anti-rhetorical/anti-republican prejudice provided by Hobbes is contrasted with the agonic defense of the reasons of rhetoric and of civic humanism engaged by John Milton, the most powerful orator among the classical, neo-roman republicans involved in the founding of a new Athens in England.

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ISSN: 2281-3209                DOI Prefix: 10.7408

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