The arte of rhetorique, for the vse of all suche as are studious of eloquence

Born in Lincolnshire in 1525, Thomas Wilson studied at Eton and King’s College in Cambridge, where he was greatly influenced by the humanistic teachings of Sir John Cheke and became friends with Roger Ascham. The three shared a disdain for the excessive Latinism in English oration and prose and sought simplicity. Wilson’s scholarship centered on the trivium, three of the medieval seven sciences that were foundational: grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

Published in 1553, The Arte of Rhetorique, followed Wilson’s The Rule of Reason, conteyning the Arte of Logike. Both books set out to teach “in the vulgar tongue.” In former, Wilson focuses on oration and aims “to set forthe the preceptes of eloquence, and to shew what observation the wise have used is handleing of their matters, that the unlearned seeing the practice of other, may …learn by their neighbours devise.” The Arte of Rhetorique was widely popular in Tudor times. The ninth edition was printed in 1585, after which readership faded away. The pedagogy is unappealing by modern standards. 

The first of the three books that comprise The Arte of Rhetorique deals with basics. Wilson’s message is simple: the orator must teach, delight, and persuade. He describes five important considerations to make a “perfecte Orator” and the seven parts in every oration. Lessons emphasize the importance of plainness, order, and directness. They include illustrative orations, some of which—while excellent—overwhelm with length the point of the intended lesson. The second book delves into disposition (the “orderly placyng of thinges, declaryng where everry argument shalbe sette, and in what manner every shalbe applied”) of each part of an oration. 

The third book is more aligned with modern interests. Wilson begins by railing, “Some seke so farre outlandishe Englishe, that thei forget altogether their mothers language …if some of their mothers were alive, thei were not able to tell what thei say …thei will pouder their talk with oversea language.” Examples abound—many from ancient authors—of the use of tropes and other rhetorical devices. A discussion of mirth includes ample example jokes, most of which now fall flat. 

Wilson fled overseas during Mary’s reign, became involved in Papal Court intrigue and escaped execution, and returned to England in 1560. In that year, a second, revised edition of The Arte of Rhetorique was published. Wilson then engaged in State business, rising to become Secretary of State in 1579, two years before he died. 

Chrzanowski 1553w *

STC 25799

Title List

1479–1550 | 1551–1580 | 1583–1608 | 1609–1675