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Epistle as Literature: rhetorical profile

A Literary Study, Part Two—


Rhetorical Profile of the Letter

Opening: a sense of immediacy
Closing: a sense of resonance and completion

If we briefly compare the basic features of a private letter with those of an official letter, what emerges is a common rhetorical profile with form becoming clearly delineated, yet perfectly symmetrical and precisely antithetical. All letters (even the literary epistle) assume a greeting and a closing.

Often the opening and closing are written as formulaic conventions, yet the greeting must always be associated with a sense of immediacy, and the closing with a sense of resonance and completion. In the case of the personal letter, the greeting must involve a sense of the intimate and of private privilege. The tone is one of expectation and shared confidences. Accordingly, in III John, Gaius is addressed:

Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth (2).

A similar tone can be found in many of Pliny’s letters to the Emperor Trajan:

When I was seriously ill last year, Sir, and in some danger of my life, I called in a medical therapist whose care and attentiveness I cannot adequately reward without the help of your kind interest in the man. I pray you therefore to grant him Roman citizenship. (X.v.1)

Certainly, not all letters of state would have adhered to such a personal familiar setting, but what is especially important here is the manner in which Pliny casts his appeal. The request is an official and appropriate one, but the tone decidedly resembles that of private correspondence. However, also present is the official request. Deference is made to the status of the emperor much as would have been made to the status of a friend, yet Pliny is quite careful not to cross over the boundaries between warmth and undue familiarity. The communication here exceeds that of the conventional and the perfunctory, yet even in a short business letter, the greeting attempts to mimic a veiled sense of intimacy, or at least, to provide a compelling sense of responsibility.

In the private letter, the opening often may reference an expectation of shared confidences; the official letter, if circumstances do not allow some modified reference of common ground, will appeal to duty in place of friendship. Although neither duty nor responsibility is specifically mentioned in the following papyrus letter, the references are present nonetheless:

Horus to the most honoured Apion greeting. Regarding Lampon the mouse-catcher, I paid him on your account 8 drachmae as earnest money to catch mice in Toka. You will kindly send me this sum. I have also lent 8 drachmae to Dionysius, president of Nemerae, and he has not sent them back; this is to inform you. Goodbye. Pauni 24. (108)

Horus could not have requested repayment for the earnest money without a compelling sense of responsibility or duty. In fact, because the request is deeply grounded in honor, he can almost forgo politeness and demand what is due to him: “You will kindly send me this sum.” While the private letter relies on friendship and intimacy, antithetically the official letter invokes authoritative hierarchy and duty.


GALATIANS— personal letter and official pronouncement



Interestingly, Galatians likewise opens with a sense of compelling immediacy, yet the words wield an unmistakable reference to a status bestowed by God—

Paul, an apostle, (not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead;)

Such a pronouncement, of course, would have to influence the rhetorical setting for whatever discussion may follow, and in the case of Galatians, the notion of shared intimacy is not referenced until much later in the epistle:

Ye know how through infirmity of the flesh I preached the gospel unto you at the first. (4:13).

References to personal health certainly invoke an expectation of shared confidence and friendship. Accordingly, at this juncture of Galatians, the tone changes from official pronouncement to private correspondence. Yet, the interplay between official pronouncement and intimacy repeatedly emerges through out the entire letter.

In fact, Galatians could easily be adumbrated around the authoritative tone of one holding the office of an apostle, and the pastoral tone of one who had brought the gospel to the Galatians. In this sense, Galatians shares the characteristics both of an official edict and of a personal letter. Such blending may seem surprising, yet given the close interplay between the personal letter with its expectation of shared confidence and the official letter with its expectation of compelling duty, the two are not really that far apart. In fact, the rhetorical setting of the private letter enlarges the puissance of the official edict, and when the two can be blended, the effect becomes even more telling.

Epistolary Structure—closing words



Further, just as the opening of the letter is clearly delineated by opening formulae, so is the closure likewise engraved by marked epistolary structure. Yet, as in the greeting, the closing seeks to secure the personal tone. In the private letter, the resonance, of course, follows such self-contained notions as regretful parting and reminders of intimate satiety: even we cannot go further.

The official letter also conveys a sense of finality, but here the resonance is that of a final injunction: this is always true, and there is nothing left to add. The last lines of Pliny’s letter to Tiro illustrates a skilled interlacing of gentleness with admonitory criticism:

You are quite free from this fault I know, but I cannot help sounding as if I were proffering advice when I meant to congratulate you on the way in which you preserve the distinctions of class and rank; once those are thrown into confusion and destroyed, nothing is more unequal than the resultant equality. (IX.5)

Perhaps as important as the adroit skill tempering his criticism is the ending which Pliny offers, suggesting that what has advised is itself based on a universal principle. Certainly, the combining of the self-contained universal with the reminiscences of a friendship separated by distance becomes quite compelling. In fact, this dual appeal to intimacy and to responsibility seems to be characteristic of Pliny as a writer. In another of his letters, we find his criticism again couched in a similar manner:


Someone was reproving his son for spending rather too much buying horses and dogs. When the young man had left us I said to his father, “Well, have you never done anything your father could complain about? Or rather, don’t you still sometimes do things which you sons could criticize as severely if he suddenly became father and you his son? Surely everyone is liable to make mistakes and everyone his own foibles” I took warning myself from this instance of undue severity, and am writing to you as one friend to another so that you, too, may never be too harsh an strict with your son. Remember that he is a boy and you have been a boy yourself, and use your rights as a father without forgetting that you are only human and so is your son. (IX.12)

In this letter the closing specifically mentions friendship and appeals to what should be understood as a universal: the imperfections within all of us.

The blending of the personal and the official surface in Paul’s letters as well. In one of his most private letters, Paul closes his appeal to Philemon by referencing notions of duty and friendship, and as in the case of Pliny, any direct criticism is left unsaid:

I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it: albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides. (19)

Unlike Pliny, though, the wording here is much more direct and especially so since these very words are handwritten by Paul himself.  A similar closing occurs in Galatians:

Ye see how large a letter I have written unto you with mine own hand (6:11).

There is more at work here than merely signature, or even authenticity. Admittedly, the personal handwriting carries with it a sense of imprimatur, but in these cases of Paul, the imprimatur is that of evoking a rhetorical sense of presence.

Ostensibly, the letter seeks to bridge the geographical distance between writer and recipient as Cicero states,

Or what could give me greater pleasure, failing a têt-à-tête talk with you, than either to writer to you, or to read a letters of yours? (Epistulae ad Familiares 12,30, 1).

A personal signature would bridge that gap even more so. Accordingly, the explanation given by Julius Victor illustrates what was a common practice in the ancient Greco-Roman world:

The openings and conclusions of letters should conform with the degree of friendship (you share with the recipient) or with his rank, and should be according to customary practice. One ought to answer letters by having at one’s fingertips the very letters to which one would reply lest one forgot to what it was that he was replying. As a rule, the ancients wrote in their own hands to those closest to them, or at least frequently appended a post-script. (8-12)

Especially important here is that Julius Victor discusses both private and official letters almost as having no discernable differences. Even so, one needed to follow the customary standards and not confuse rank with friendship even when epistolary convention might allow a handwritten note or personal signature.

In an pure official edict, of course, the appeal to friendship would necessarily be absent. After all, the edict by its nature must assume a different rhetorical stance, maintaining, in fact, a distance of rank between writer and audience. An emperor writing a decree to the populace must frame his words as an emperor; a tone of familiarity would not only be regarded as inappropriate, but would probably achieve only a sense of contempt.

The dignity of the office demands that familiarity be eschewed just as the dignity of friendship demands that friendship be genuine. Of course, the distance between ruler and ruled might be tempered by some reference to an empowered graciousness or benevolence, but beyond that, the reality lies in a real difference in status. We may want our rulers to notice us, but we do not want our rulers to be like us. Illustrative of the rhetorical interplay of distance and position can be seen in this excerpt taken from an official letter issued by the Emperor Hadrian:

But for my own part I have much pleasure in enunciating a principle which allows me to interpret more liberally the rather strict rule established by emperors before me. For although those who were thus acknowledged in the period of military service are not legitimate heirs of their fathers, nevertheless I decide that they also are able to claim possession of the property through that clause of the edict which give this right to kinsmen by birth. This bounty of mine it will be your duty to make known both to my soldiers and to the veterans, not to enable me to take credit in their eyes, but in order that they may use this privilege, should they be ignorant of it. (Select Papyri II, 89-90).

The formal tone of the letter immediately sets up a sense of distance between Hadrian and his intended audience. Although the letter is addressed to Rammius, a praefect, the contents are clearly intended for a wider distribution. In addition, the epistolary prescript records that the letter had been publicly displayed. Especially important is the way the edict closes by specifically delineating both duty and graciousness: “This bounty of mine it will be your duty to make well known. . . .” The resonance here, of course, closely resembles that found in a personal letter. Rather than a regretful reminder, there is a final injunction, and in place of the intimacy of a friendship, there is the bestowing of favors from one in power.

Certainly, not every edict would have read as this one does. Most edicts and orders, in fact, were perfunctory announcements carrying some official imprimatur. Fundamentally, the aim was purely informative rather than persuasive. Even so, Demetrius complains about the careless style characteristic of many official letters:

While (letters) ought to be written as skillfully as possible, they are in fact composed indifferently by those who undertake such services for men in public office (Epistolary, 5).

Nevertheless, whenever possible the official letter followed a more communicative style at approaching the tone (and even the wording) of the private correspondence.  In this sense, the epistles of the New Testament are no different.

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