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Wilson, Thomas (1523–1581) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

rhetoric suggests self published

Born poor in Lincolnshire, Thomas Wilson worked through Eton and Cambridge on charitable scholarship and work-study tutorials. In 1551 he published a treatise on dialectic, The Rule of Reason , dedicated to King Edward VI, and in 1553 The Arte of Rhetoric , dedicated to John Dudley, the young monarch’s lord protector. Apparently seeking patronage among a nobility hostile to Mary Tudor, Wilson fled to the Continent when she became queen in 1553. After studying civil law at Padua and Ferrara, he returned to England upon Elizabeth’s* coronation in 1558. He soon enjoyed a meteoric rise to high positions serving the Crown. In 1560 he published an augmented edition of The Arte of Rhetoric , which would undergo six more editions by 1585. Wilson was called to every session of Parliament from 1563 onward and was appointed ambassador to Portugal in 1567 and to the Netherlands in the 1570s. In 1572 he published a lengthy dialogue, A Discourse upon Usury , unfashionably condemning the widespread practice of lending money at high rates of interest. His oppositional stand cost him no royal support, for in 1577 he became secretary of the Privy Council, a post that he shared with Sir Francis Walsingham until his death in 1581.


The spectacular contrast between Wilson’s lower-class origins and his ultimate prominence at Elizabeth’s court suggests a paradigm for the Elizabethan self-made man, an exemplar of upward mobility in an age that encouraged self-advancement. It also suggests the tensions that brace his work between compliance with authority and opposition to it (see Bushnell, Rebhorn, and especially Sloan). These tensions inform Wilson’s discussion of rhetoric’s usefulness and also his selection of examples. Wilson exalts the power of rhetoric to defend legitimate authority, affirm the status quo, and empower the ruling classes. Orators persuade resistant individuals to accept their lot in the name of a conventionally sanctioned social order. At the same time, Wilson suggests the power of rhetoric to change, if not the entire order, at least one’s place within it. Verbal skills provide an entry into the commercial and bureaucratic world, permitting the user to work advantageously for, as well as against, the established institutions.

Rhetoric can also demystify the status quo, as Wilson suggests in frequent satirical anecdotes and in his repeated endorsement of skeptical insights by Socrates, Diogenes, Lucian, Erasmus, and Thomas More.* To exemplify the despised “inkhorn” style, Wilson concocts a hilarious parody of Latinate verbosity in a letter written by a Lincolnshire man, perhaps the man he would have been if he had not climbed to higher circles (189–91). Here we can discern the simultaneous self-acclamation and self-laceration of a man born into one level of society but striving to secure and defend his place in another. Few rhetoricians allow so candid a glimpse into the processes of psychic reaction formations.

Wilson, William Julius(1935–) - Sociologist, educator, writer, Early Years and Education, Influenced by Roles Models and Mentors [next] [back] Wilson, Robert Woodrow

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