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Daniel Shore, Milton and the Art of Rhetoric
by Niranjan Goswami

Shore, Daniel. Milton and the Art of Rhetoric. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012. xi + 211 pp. ISBN 978-1107021501. $89.10 cloth. 

Daniel Shore’s Milton and the Art of Rhetoric is a welcome addition to the large corpus of Milton criticism. It is encouraging that Shore takes up certain questions of rhetoric in this work though it is not the mainstay of his argument. The book’s title creates great expectations of a thorough discussion of Milton’s rhetoric with reference to the canonical rhetorical texts of the Renaissance and of antiquity but the book disappoints in this respect even though it names some of these texts by Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, Wilson, Puttenham, etc. The reasons for this failure are several, one of which is the fact that the author appears to suffer from an anxiety of influence and tends to shape his work with the criticism of Stanley Fish squarely at the back of his mind. Fish’s How Milton Works (2001) is the point of departure as Shore at the very outset divides Milton critics into two groups, worldly and other-worldly, placing himself along with most other writers in the first group and Fish solely belonging to the group of other-worldly critics (2). Shore’s proposed aim therefore is to place and interpret Milton’s works in their historical and political contexts and not to allow Milton’s faith or belief to dominate the interpretation (10). Despite this noble aim, as we shall see later, he does not quite succeed in eschewing doxographic criticism. To establish his socio-political argument Shore borrows arguments and ideas from modern and postmodern thinkers like Nietzsche, Habermas, Horkheimer, Adorno, Weber, Benjamin, and Derrida, to name a few.

This makes us ask in the first place whether we should accept such a division among Milton critics as inevitable, which is to ask how to negotiate seventeenth-century texts with religious assumptions. In Renaissance reading strategies this would not have posed a big problem as there was a smooth and overlapping transition from secular rhetoric to sacred rhetoric, without any epistemological breach between the two. The so-called anti-rhetoric was itself a rhetorical stance with faith dominating strategies of persuasion but never leading to a rejection of such rhetorical strategies. Unfortunately, to our post-modern mind and owing to our inheritance of post-Sprat scientific prejudice (vide Richard Foster Jones)[1] rhetoric has received an evil coloration and become a bad word.

In the second place, we need to ask why is Fish taken as the point of departure? Irrespective of the substantial contribution of Fish it must be said that he does not undertake a truly rhetorical analysis of Milton. Fish’s subtle study of reader response and Milton’s engineering of the same is sufficiently subjective and unique to Fish and therefore it would be a misreading of him if one imagines him championing any such thing as a persuasion of testimony in Milton over a persuasion through rhetoric. Having based his discussion to a large extent on Fish, Shore, therefore, is misled into a non-rhetorical treatment of Milton’s rhetoric. Rhetoric as understood in the Renaissance undoubtedly meant persuasive strategy but strategies from the author’s point of view, never a subtle reader’s receptive point of view. One would expect from Shore’s title that the book would look at Milton’s work from a thorough basis of Renaissance and in particular Ramist rhetoric, since Milton’s Artis Logicae was a largely Ramist work, but that does not happen. Apparently, Shore’s discussion of Ramist rhetoric, is based upon Walter J. Ong whose pioneering work on Ramus paradoxically presented a partial picture. Ramus’s division of the five parts of rhetoric into two, separating the logical components of invention and disposition from elocution and delivery (memory being ensured by methodical arrangement), did not lead to a rejection of rhetoric as Ong suggested; on the other hand the logical aspects of invention, arrangement and method came to be significantly discussed and practiced, as has been argued by Tuve, Meerhoff, Hotson and Goswami.[2] (One may overlook Shore’s not going back to Ramus and Talon, but at least Omer Talon should have been spelled correctly [instead of “Omar,” 12].)

Fish actually uses the term “testimony” in his own way, quoting Milton’s use of the word in Areopagitica, at the outset of which Milton writes: “whereof this whole discourse proposed will be a certain testimony, if not a trophy.” About Milton’s An Apology for Smectymnuus Fish writes: “It is, as Milton says (prophetically) of the Areopagitica, ‘not a Trophey,’ in the sense of being evidence of victory, but a ‘testimony,’ the verbal and visible sign of an ‘inward Sanctity’” (Fish 127). The last phrase is lifted from Of Reformation; earlier Fish had lifted the phrase “inbred goodnesse” from An Apology. The virtue of Fish’s intertextual reading of Milton is that he understands and glosses testimony correctly as “inbred goodness” or “inward sanctity,” but he does so without relating the sense of testimony as saving faith to the context of Ramist rhetoric. He finds these terms in Milton but does not arrive at them through manuals of rhetoric and thus we do not see how Fish supplants “testimony” of rhetorical manuals with his idiosyncratic use of the word. Fish’s second chapter is titled “Milton’s Aesthetic of Testimony” and apart from the title, in the chapter itself the word “testimony” finds mention hardly more than twice. Without therefore establishing the word “testimony” as terminology, Fish proceeds to discuss Milton’s privileged use of rhetoric. The word “testimony” reappears in his book again in the fourteenth chapter in connection with the politics and ethics of testimony. This idiosyncratic use of the word “testimony” makes it very clear that Fish neglects the use of the word as a technical term in Renaissance rhetoric. But in Ramist rhetoric “testimony” is taken seriously as an “inartificial argument,” i.e. an argument from outside art, an external witness or voice, a scholar’s view or a judgment not directly related to the case in hand; testimony may be human or divine. Faith or grace is also an external force and therefore a testimony; thus Milton follows Ramist logic when he considers inward sanctity, which comes from God as testimony. A close follower of Ramus, Milton in his Artis Logicae defines “testimony” in the same sense.   

Through his discussion of Paradise Lost and other Miltonic works, Fish tends to establish that the dynamic of freedom in Milton is an existential opposition between the freedom of choosing to fall and sufficiency to stand. Whenever Satan, or Eve, or Adam decides to appropriate agency, they fall. In contrast, Christ in Paradise Regained stands to obey God’s command. Shore creates a similar opposition between the agency of rhetoric and constraint or inaction as expressed by Milton in his various tracts, his refusal to appropriate agency. The discussion is neither at as ethereal a plane as that of Fish, nor fully at the level of applied rhetoric. The result is a thin discussion of readership-creation, reader-motivation through the “fit-though-few trope” (Shore’s formulation on Milton’s attitude to his audience). It is assumed that Milton manipulates his readers’ responses yet the functional elocutio of his works goes undiscussed.

The third chapter, “Becoming a Supplement,” is again an echo of Fish, chapter six: “Wanting a Supplement: The Question of Interpretation in Milton’s Early Prose.” Both Shore and Fish draw from Derrida’s notion of the “supplement” as at once addition and replacement. That would take one to the trajectory of the hermeneutics of truth and the question of interpretation. Shore handles the question well, basing his discussion on Of Prelatical Episcopacy and gradually taking into account Milton’s truth strategies in The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, An Apology, Prolusions, Areopagitica, Second Defense, The Reason of Church Government, etc. Referring to Milton’s lines in An Apology on the quality of an orator who speaks truth (“his words (by what I can expresse) like so many nimble and airy servitors trip about him at command, and in well order’d files, as he would wish, fall aptly into their own places”), Shore argues contra Fish that Milton’s “true eloquence” is rather “a superaesthetic, a rhetoric that exceeds, by virtue of having set itself apart from all other rhetorics” (77). This chapter is well-constructed and it could have further developed the discussion to include the philosophy of truth in humanists. It would be interesting to know where Milton stood in this pursuit vis-à-vis Lorenzo Valla and Peter Ramus. However, here the preservation of rhetoric has been equated with a preservation of error, basing the discussion of truth on the matrix of the Socratic quarrel between rhetoric and philosophy. According to Shore, Paradise Lost and the other late poems “preserve artifacts of error—Satanic rhetoric, false idols, instruments of demonic persuasion—exposed for what they are. In the next chapter I explore the preservation of error as a necessary moment in the progress to truth” (81).[3]  The debate could instead have been read in the context of the Platonic discussion of truth and opinion, or “doxa,” following Heidegger, since Shore indicates how Milton deviates from the Aristotelian concept of truth (79).[4]

Shore’s fourth chapter, “Why Milton Is Not an Iconoclast,” is one of his best. Here he argues that even Eikonoclastes is not an iconoclastic text (86) because Milton by way of a refutatio and sometimes a retractio ends up criticizing and even, paradoxically, taking pleasure in quoting and preserving the text criticized (in this case Eikon Basilike) (89-92). Shore prefers to call this process by the Greek rhetorical term epikrisis, and goes on to argue, what comes over as his tour de force, that “Milton’s late poems gain much of their power from the idols they preserve, through a kind of Lucretian experience that I call the ‘idolatrous sublime’” (86). It is a happy insight when Shore comments that “Milton’s conception of idol extends well beyond images and ceremonial objects to include people, actions, and ideas—in short, the fullest range of persuasive human errors” (101).

The fifth chapter is on delivery, a much neglected part of rhetoric which, particularly in a literary culture like ours, is too easily overlooked. Taking off from Milton’s rendering of the passion of an orator in Areopagitica, Shore proceeds to discuss Satan’s persuasion of Eve in Paradise Lost, and establishes trembling as an enabling gestus of an orator by referring to accounts by Lucan, Juvenal and Plutarch of Cicero’s habit of trembling in delivery of orations. The chapter is well researched and the point is reinforced with references to De Oratore, De Inventione, Orator and Quintilian. Whereas Shore’s commentary on Satan’s delivery enhances the pleasures of the Miltonic text, he seems to take Milton’s anti-rhetoric at face value. Somewhere on the way his discussion of Milton’s “idolatrous rhetoric” (106) tends to make idol, sublime, rhetoric and evil synonymous, an equation that is brought forward from the previous chapter on iconoclasm:

The empire of rhetoric establishes its shifting boundaries through two opposed operations. The first operation is at work in Satan’s “impassioned” idolatry….The second operation is evident in Satan’s attempt to fashion himself as “raised” by tasting the fruit, even as he denies his prior createdness. 


The next chapter, “Instrumental Reason and Imitatio Christi,” draws its inspiration from Adorno and Horkheimer’s concept of instrumental reason, and argues that Milton in Paradise Regained attempts to construct a new rhetoric of exemplary action. The figure of Christ in this poem, Shore argues, is constructed as a model to imitate; Christ’s rhetoric “goes beyond the instrumental use of language to encompass action as well” (127). It argues “that the figure of Christ in Paradise Regained merges rhetoric and action into the image of a rightly lived life” (125), and this discussion naturally brings in the motif of imitatio Christi, which is strengthened with references to Jeremy Taylor and other seventeenth-century accounts of the subject. The idea of collapsing theory into practice or life was surely a seventeenth-century concern, but as Shore aptly recognizes that the collapsing of a good orator into a good man was a Ciceronian idea, he could have further traced how Bacon and Ramus emphasized the need for binding theory with practice. Ramus’s oration on the union of eloquence and philosophy stands out in this regard. (The minor error in the title of Weber’s book could easily have been avoided [“Spirit if Capitalism,” 128].) In opposing mimesis to instrumental reason Shore has demonstrated how the thought of modern thinkers may on occasion be fruitfully applied to early modern texts. The trick lies in not being infatuated with jargon and demonstrating simultaneously one’s knowledge of early modern intellectual context. I appreciate such bold statements as these when Shore writes: “When, with a long withdrawing roar, value retreats into the judging subject, these models are reduced to monuments” (141); or

Descartes rather optimistically believes that from a properly conducted program of research—rooted (to adopt his arboreal metaphor) in the subjective self-certainty of the cogito and sprouting through knowledge of God and the world—there will flower a perfect system of ethics, in which knowledge directs our actions with complete certainty.                                                                                                                 (142)

The argument of the chapter closes by vindicating the reader-response theory, not by empowering the reader but by deflating him: “The status of the reader, not the content of the book, determines whether reading results in instruction or further folly” (143).

In the Epilogue or final chapter on Samson Agonistes Shore attempts to reconcile the play with the works previously discussed:

I argued that the moments in Milton’s prose that ostensibly renounce audience, agency, and interpretation are in fact elements of a larger persuasive strategy, addressed not only to an already “fit audience” but also to all those who might be made fit, with the ultimate aim of bringing into existence something like a public sphere, a society suited to the collective discernment of truth.                                                                    (146)                                                                                                                                                                  

The play proves remarkably intractable to fitting with Shore’s scheme, and therefore it is passed on as a failure of Milton’s project to create a public sphere. The traditional dilemma of critics regarding this play is by no means resolved by Shore’s intervention. He reads correctly the element of violence or threat in the play. But reading the threat or the warning in the play is not enough; the need is to explain it. Unable to derive any help from Habermas’s theory of the public sphere, Shore falls back upon formalism. This reading of Samson Agonistes, like the readings of the chapters that precede it, suggests the limits of the doxographic criticism for which belief is the central hermeneutic category, with Milton’s writings taken as expressions of belief.[5] Shore reads Samson Agonistes as a text that does not fall in line with his other texts, which express Milton’s belief. In other words here is a schism between Milton’s ideological texts, grounded in faith based on persuasive rhetoric, and a text which lacks a middle and, consequently, a doxographical content, that instead relies upon a violent act when rhetoric or dialogue is absent. Since Shore’s critique is based either upon audience-response or the engendering of a public sphere, the sacred violence of Samson Agonistes remains unexplained. This also points out the inherent weakness in attempting a master-key of interpretation that would open all Milton’s polemical as well as poetical texts at one stroke.

The question for Shore is to be or not to be like Fish. He has demonstrated that Milton can be fruitfully interpreted as a writer who takes his public engagement seriously, bending language rhetorically for the purpose; the question he asks is not how Milton works but how his work is a public engagement. These are valuable questions in themselves, but he does not ask why and how rhetoric works in Milton. While one feels like congratulating Shore for attempting to synthesize postmodern theory with Renaissance rhetoric, it seems that rhetoric as understood and practiced by writers in the Renaissance needs to be our first serious engagement and tool in dealing with these texts. We would do better to look at later theories as projections from the earlier ones; doing so the other way round would be anachronistic as well as fruitless. Shore’s book succeeds in reminding us of the centrality of rhetoric in Milton’s work and of our difficulty in its assimilation.


Niranjan Goswami
Chandernagore College

[1] The role of the new scientific movement and the view of Sprat on English prose style has been discussed by Richard Foster Jones. See particularly his “Science and English Prose Style in the Third Quarter of the Seventeenth Century,” PMLA 40 (1930): 977-1009.

[2] Rosemond Tuve, Elizabethan and Metaphysical Imagery: Renaissance Poetics and Twentieth-Century Critics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), Kees Meerhoff, Rhétorique et Poétique au XVIe Siecle en France. Du Bellay, Ramus et les autres (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1986), Howard Hotson, Commonplace Learning: Ramism and its German Ramifications, 1543-1630 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), Niranjan Goswami, Ramist Logic and its Influence on Renaissance Literary Practice: Some Studies in the Writings of Philip Sidney, Gabriel Harvey, William Temple, Abraham Fraunce and John Milton, unpublished PhD Dissertation, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, 2002.

[3] Part II of the book, that follows immediately, is given the title “Preservation of Rhetoric” which makes clear the equation between rhetoric and error in Shore’s mind.

[4] See Niranjan Goswami, “The Theory of Truth in Valla’s Repastinatio and its Legacy in the logic of Agricola and Ramus,” in La Diffusione Europea del Pensiero del Valla, Eds. Mariangela Regoliosi and Clementina Marsico (Florence: Edizioni Polistampa, 2013), 309-325.

[5] In spite of Shore’s announcement to the contrary at the beginning of his book, his criticism seems to raise questions about a new set of beliefs, and does not move away from doxographic criticism (10-11).


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Cite as:

Niranjan Goswami, "Daniel Shore, Milton and the Art of Rhetoric," Spenser Review 43.3.60 (Winter 2014). Accessed March 21st, 2018.
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