About Dr. T. Smith

Canadian researcher and professor of communication

The sublime tale of Zenobia and Longinus


Queen Zenobia’s Last Look upon Palmyra by Herbert Gustave Schmalz (1888). (Austriacus, 2012, from Wikimedia Commons, in public domain)

In William Smith’s 1736 English translation of Longinus’s treatise On the Sublime, the translator gives us a history of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra and the rhetorician Longinus’s role in her court.

I offer it here as an interesting example of the portrayal of women and men’s rhetoric in history.

Many elements of the story are taken from a late-Roman text called the Augustan History, and some from other sources. Some facts are disputable and fictional, while others have been confirmed, such as the presence of the philosopher Longinus at her court (See the Wikipedia article on Zenobia).

Regardless of its historical facticity, my interest here is in the story as retold by William Smith. It accompanied his translation of Longinus’s On the Sublime, a highly popular classical work of rhetorical criticism with numerous English translations and editions published during the British Enlightenment. The prominence of Longinus in English culture of the time would have given the tale a wider audience than if the story were published elsewhere.

The story portrays Zenobia as a queen and military general. The queen’s forces were loyal and defended her to the very end. Longinus the philosopher, critic, and rhetorician also played a role in Zenobia’s defense. As her teacher, advisor and communications assistant, he helped her write an eloquently defiant letter in reply to Aurelian’s demand and offer of clemency upon her surrender.

However, the story ends sadly for Zenobia and Longinus. Aurelian’s third and final attack, his siege on Palmyra, her capital city, was eventually successful. The queen and her advisor were both captured during their escape as they crossed the Euphrates river.

In Zenobia’s only indirect speech in self-defense to Aurelian, when she was condemned to death, she relied on an argument of feminine weakness to protect herself and shifted the blame to Longinus. Although this speech degrades Zenobia’s character, it plays a functional role of demonstrating how rhetoric, and the character of a rhetor, can shift according to the circumstances of their power in relation to their audience. Continue reading


Kenneth Burke on Rhetoric & Economics

Kenneth Burke wrote an essay in 1973 essay on “The Rhetorical Situation” affecting the United States at that time in history. What he says about the Gross National Product, inflation, and taxation enlighten us about the power of rhetoric in the hands of economists, legislators, accountants, and lawyers.

The term “Gross National Product” identifies our whole economic structure in sheerly monetary terms. Probably, in the next few years, you will see many indications that here, too, is an essential aspect of the Rhetorical Situation in which we find ourselves. The very profusion of sheerly monetary transactions will force us to realize the ways in which the identifying of an economy in monetary terms can be illusory. (The most obvious example is the fact that mere inflation shows up as a corresponding increase in the G.N.P.)

In the meantime, among the most influential rhetoricians of our world today are surely our experts in the manipulation of monetary terms.

Thus, accountants can show things at their worst, if it’s taxes you would avoid. Or they can show things at their best, if you would promote stock sales on the basis of reports listing profits present and prospective.

High among such masters of unsung eloquence are those legalists who, on behalf of their clients, deliberately add loopholes to tax laws, a form of inducement so quietly persuasive that invention of this sort is totally alien to the stylistic excesses of what was once caused Asiatic oratory. Indeed, it is couched in language as severe as a medical diagnosis or a laundry list; yet when the address is over, lo! an individual or even a corporation with earnings up into the millions need pay less taxes (if any!) than the lowliest of wage-earners.

But hold! Once we started to track down the foibles of legal corporations in their roles as “persons,” we’d find a whole new set of persuasive marvels opening up. So I desist.

Thus we see that an entire economic structure can be collapsed into an intellectual synechdoche and logical fallacy; that quiet yet powerful persuasion may inhere in tax laws devoid of stylistic excess; that legal corporations employ the language of personhood in ways that are not merely metaphorical. Clients and governments convince themselves of what is financially bad or good, better or worse, based on economic professionals’ selective use of data.

Thus over time and use of this rhetoric a society builds up forms of persuasion and intellectual shortcuts and facades. The situation expects or even encourages such rhetoric from its professional class.

The fact that such communication is now formulaic or obvious does not mean it lacks rhetorical intent, function, meaning and power. On the contrary, it has become even more powerful because of its invisibility and normalcy.

Kenneth Burke on “identification by innacuracy”

Alterezza (pride, arrogance)

“Alterezza” [or “pride,” by Ripa, Cesare], uploaded by October 20, 2016 by Fondo Antiguo de la Biblioteca de la Universidad. With Creative Commons license at https://flic.kr/p/MWPKH3

A passage in Kenneth Burke’s 1973 essay on “The Rhetorical Situation” sheds light on self-persuasion that occurs when we use a tool or technology that gives us the illusion that we have greater power or agency as individuals than we really do. A similar logic operates on an economic and political level:

[….] to walk faster, or run faster, one works harder. Similarly, to drive faster on a bicycle, one works harder. But when I learned to drive a car, I suddenly found myself confronting a quite different realm of motives. For I needed but press down the gas pedal the slightest bit more, and the car would pick up terrific speed, with no more work on my part.

Here was a fantastic coefficient of power. And surely, I thought, here is a fundamental moral problem. It seemed to me that we, as individuals, are easily tempted to mistake these mechanical powers for our very own.

Give a man a few dollars to spend in a supermarket, and he might spontaneously feel superior to some primitive tribesman who could make a living in a wilderness, whereas under such primitive conditions this self-adulating idiot would purely and simply starve to death.

Such thoughts concern man’s identification with his machines in ways whereby he mistakes their powers for his, and loves himself accordingly.

There is also the kind of deceptive identification whereby an individual who may be personally modest and unassuming becomes deceptively aggrandized by thoughts of his citizenship in a powerful nation. [….]

For, only too often, such identification is but the failure to distinguish between one’s country and the decisions of certain politicians who happen to be in a position to get the nation into foreign embarrassments* that are by no means causes for rejoicing. Look more closely, and you see that the embarrassment* is not really the nation’s but that of certain officials whose interests are not necessarily identical with the nation’s interests.

Our identification with these two great unwieldy leviathans–technology and the state–is central to the rhetorical situation as we now confront it.

(pp. 269-270)

Burke’s insight into rhetorical situation shows that a situation is not merely geographical, and not merely based on the target audience’s ideological assumptions, but is also based on technological and economic circumstances that (falsely, illogically) attribute greater power or importance to the audience’s self-identity.

Ultimately a human is not “of one substance with” his or her machine, or money, or the decisions of their country’s head of state.  Yet a common person often identifies themselves with their technology, money, and country in ways that are taken for granted and unexamined.

The existence of these technological, economic, and political premises must be acknowledged as assumptions in many people’s experience. They can be used (or unethically misused) by a rhetor/speaker:  they are part of the “rhetorical situaton” of a speech, an advertisement, a tweet, a conversational statement, or an email.

However, it’s worthwhile to philosophically ponder this premise. How much of our own identity is falsely based on circumstances and technologies that we can’t attribute to our own agency?  To what degree is it rational to attribute to ourselves as individual citizens the historic virtues of an entire nation or the recent decisions of its leader? How often do we judge ourselves or others by the size of a bank account? How much of the amount we earn (i.e. hourly wage), is based on economic factors rather than the inherent social and physical value of our work?

*NOTE: Burke seems to be using the word “embarrass” not merely in the contemporary meaning of “A feeling of self-consciousness, shame, or awkwardness” (Oxford Dictionary, ca. 2017) but in the older, slightly more intellectual meaning of “to perplex; to distress; to entangle” (Embarrass; Embarrassment, 1858). The term often meant a financial entanglement.


Rhetoric has enriched itself in new media — Albaladejo

  • Is rhetoric an antiquated perspective on communication now that we have new media?
  • Do we need an entirely new rhetorical theory to account for the strategies, powers and constraints of discourse in new media?

No, old rhetorics still apply as the old media of orality and writing and symbolic communication are subsumed and restructured within the new.

In addition, rhetorical theory has grown and will grow new branches that account for the expansion and adaptation of rhetorical practice into these technologized realms.

Tomas Albaladejo writes intelligently of the expansion and adaptation of rhetoric to varieties of new media:   — (paragraph breaks inserted)

The historical and systematic communicative strength of rhetoric enables it to deal with new kinds of discourse, since they keep the essential components of rhetorical discourse.

Cyber-rhetoric or the rhetoric of digital discourse (Albaladejo 2005a) could be considered one of the latest steps in the evolution of rhetoric. Digital discourse is a complex construction consisting of linguistic, visual and phonic components, which has a rhetorical foundation and manifestation as a whole.

In addition to the rhetorical shape of digital discourse, one must also take into account the rhetorical construction of all written and oral texts contained in web sites, as well as the rhetorical discourses hosted by them, as in, for example, Martin Luther King’s discourse /I have a dream/, which can be read, heard and seen on the World Wide Web.

Nevertheless, cyber-rhetoric is basically nothing other than rhetoric.

Cyber-rhetoric is rhetoric, as the rhetoric of written discourse is rhetoric, and the rhetoric of journalism and other mass media is rhetoric.

The different prefixes, adjectives and nominal complements added to the noun rhetoric are used in order to delimit an area within the wide field of rhetoric, and they must not be understood to be a way of proposing or promoting a rhetoric different from rhetoric as a comprehensive system that was historically founded and developed. They are rather a way of enriching rhetoric by stressing its plurality and suitability for the different kinds of discourse and the different means of achieving communication.

One of the characteristics of the development and evolution of rhetoric is the expansion of its area of practice and study within the field of communication, together with the fact that rhetoric has never been withdrawn from the spaces where it has previously worked.

Thus, today we can hear oral discourses, such as those delivered in courts and parliaments, but we can also read written rhetorical discourses, like editorials or leading articles in newspapers, and we can also see, hear and read digital rhetorical discourses.

Rhetoric has carried to new communicative areas the experience that it has obtained in the areas where it has formerly worked.

In this way, rhetoric has enriched itself and has provided tested and renewed tools for the practice and study of discursive and persuasive communication.

Adaptation to the needs that have arisen in the ongoing evolution of communication has always been a challenge for rhetoric, but this is the key to its usefulness.

From p. 27-28 of:

  • Albaladejo, T. (2014). Rhetoric and discourse analysis. In I. Olza, O. Loureda, & M. Casado-Velarde (Eds.), Linguistic insights: Language use in the public sphere: Methodological perspective and empirical applications (pp. 19–51). Bern; Oxford: Peter Lang.

This phrase echoes:

“rhetoric has enriched itself and has provided tested and renewed tools for the practice and study of discursive and persuasive communication” (Albaladejo, 2014, p. 27)

Rhetoric is not dying in a new media environment.

It is expanding, enriching itself and providing tested and renewed tools for both rhetorical practice and rhetorical study.

The rhetoric of titles of scholarly works in Communication and Media Studies


Books, by Raoul Luoar on Flickr with Creative Commons license 

Titles of academic works strongly influence how a discipline sees itself and how people position themselves within a discipline.

A title is very short, and must be comprehensible to its target audience, not just descriptive of a work’s intellectual content. Titles implicitly answer the question “Why is this worth reading?” by naming topics and categories that are considered to be of value.

Titles communicate the values not just of the writers, but of the audience they target or invoke. The rhetoric of academic titles in a discipline announces the values of that discipline and how it structures and categorizes its subject matter.

The rhetorical pattern

I have observed that contemporary scholars in Communications and New Media studies, when defining areas of study, often use “medium” as a high-level filter, along with an issue and/or a specific people group of communicators or recipients of communication. This may seem obvious and insignificant to many people, but its implications are worthy of examination.

For example, when asked “What are you studying?” a scholar of communication or new media would likely answer with this recipe:

“I’m studying [communication about issue X] and/or [communication by/for people in Y category] within [medium (or media) Z].

Continue reading

Portrait of Hugh Blair, rhetorician, 1718-1800

According to the plaque on this portrait, Hugh Blair, M. A., D. D,  was

  • Regius Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Edinburgh 1762-1784,
  • Joint Regius Professor of Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres, 1784-1800.

These photos of the Hugh Blair portrait by David Marsden, c. 1775, were taken in a stairwell of University of Edinburgh Old College, July 2015 when attending a conference there. It’s not in a gallery open to the public.



The University of Edinburgh Art Collection website has a better online reproduction of this work (copyrighted photo). I cannot locate a policy on their collections website regarding online sharing of personal photographs made of their collections. I am willing to share these photographic images under a Creative Commons license:

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

My photos are not the best quality reproductions, but they nevertheless enable you to appreciate the work from the point of view of a person standing on the stairs next to the object.

The loss of rhetorical education

In my previous two articles I have discussed the “Slander of rhetoric” occurring in media articles on the Internet.  A related phenomenon is the gradual erosion of rhetorical education at the postsecondary level.

I believe that the denigration of rhetoric in society is happening in part because “good rhetoric” has become so invisible and unmentionable due to the widespread loss of formal, systemic rhetorical education throughout many countries’ educational systems.

Many people don’t even know when they themselves are using rhetoric anymore, largely because they don’t know anything about its broader definitions, its history and theory.

“No, I’m not using rhetoric. I’m just writing an article.” “No, I’m not using rhetoric, I’m just managing a company” or “I’m just a mayor. Or a scientist. Or an engineer.

Um, I’m pleased to inform you that yes, you are using rhetoric, you just don’t see it because society has hidden “good rhetoric” from you by refusing to name it as “rhetoric” where it is in action in your life and profession. You haven’t been taught to recognize good rhetoric.

Let’s consider how invisible good rhetoric has become, and how its invisibility is associated with the idea that all rhetoric is bad.

  • Consider how controversial rhetoric itself has become, and how people are expected to distrust all things called “rhetoric.”
  • Consider why it is so hard to consider one’s own communication as rhetoric, and why a good politician can never survive long if they admit they are using rhetoric.
  • Consider how easily convinced people are even by false or divisive arguments if they imagine that they are merely “simple, clear communication,” and that rhetoric is entirely absent.

Continue reading