The dynamic vóµos

The most extensive depiction of nomos during our discussions of Classical rhetoric seems to have been spurred by the Jarratt text, which argued the term held a space in between the concepts of mythos and logos.[1] Without disregarding Jarratt’s contributions, we may broaden our understanding of nomos and its function within contemporary rhetorical applications. The Greek noun vóµos, indicating “usage, custom, law, melody, composition,”[2] is derived from the verb véµew, which is translated, “to deal, distribute, hold, manage.”[3] Classic writers reveal an awareness of social nomos, the laws and customs managing the polis, as a key aspect of that which constitutes a good rhetor.

Aristotle argues, in On Rhetoric, “The greatest and most important of all things in an ability to persuade and give good advice is to grasp an understanding of all forms of constitution and to distinguish the customs and legal usages and advantages of each.”[4] In his description of an aristocracy, Aristotle asserts the ruling aristocrats are educated specifically in nomos, that which lies “within the legal traditions [of the city];”[5] the end result of which is the maintenance of those learned traditions.[6] Knowledge of societal laws and customs of a place, allows the rhetor functionality within this public sphere to persuade. The rhetor’s requisite understanding of nomos is further established in De Oratore, through Cicero’s characterization of the rhetorical undertaking, “the whole art of speaking lies before us, and is concerned with common usage and the custom and language of all men.”[7] For Cicero, having learned the nomos surrounding any body or public to which one might speak is necessary before one may apply such knowledge during the process of invention, in order to speak as aptly as possible.

Beyond conceptualizing the noun nomos as the civic customs of a given place, the term is further appropriated to connote action. The Greek verb form previously identified, reveals a distinct, Germanic connection to modern usage. The infinitive nehmen (the past participle of which is genommen) is directly translated: to take;[8] an emergent colloquialism, wie man’s nimmt (literally, how one took), can be translated, “depending on your point of view.”[9] This German evolution from the original Greek suggests a process of active interpretation of social cues responsible for forming nomos,[10] or, as Jarratt might characterize it, a civic, “rhetorical consciousness.”[11] From classic to contemporary rhetorical applications of nomos, we find need to understand the construction of societal values and practices if our rhetoric is to be impactful.

With an understanding of nomos, as Jarratt relays, feminists can begin to open spaces of difference within texts, rewriting classical histories.[12] However, such reconceptualizations of the past may not serve modern feminist practicalities. Instead, perhaps, historical constructions of nomos can be a reflective tool, looking toward current hegemonic realities, to better comprehend their constructive path. The challenge then, is revealed through civic engagement in current happenings which function to construct contemporary nomoi. By actively creating new spaces in the present, nomos may inform the modern feminist rhetor forward to productive aims.[13]

[1] Jarratt, S. (1998). Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

[2] “nomos”. (2008). Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Aristotle. (2007). On Rhetoric. Trans. George A. Kennedy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, I.6.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, I.7.

[7] Cicero. (1970). On Oratory and Orators. Trans. or Ed. J. S. Watson. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, I.III.

[8] “nehmen”. (1987). Webster’s New World German Dictionary Concise Edition. Indianapolis, IN: William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Dean, M. (2006). A political mythology of world order: Carl Schmitt’s nomos. Theory, Culture & Society 23, 5, 1-22 finds further support for linking nomos to nehmen.

[11] Ibid, 35.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Word Count: 500

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