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ISHR mourns the death of George Kennedy

George Kennedy

George KennedyISHR mourns the death of George Kennedy, who died July 28, 2022 at the age of 94.  He was a giant in the history of ancient rhetoric, and a former President of ISHR (1983-85). 

His scholarship was prodigious. Next year will mark the 60th anniversary of the publication of his first great work, The Art of Persuasion in Greece (1963), but he went on from there to publish many more comprehensive works: Quintilian (1969), The Art of Rhetoric in the Roman World, 300 B.C.-A.D. 300 (1972), Greek Rhetoric under Christian Emperors (1983), New Testament Interpretation through Rhetorical Criticism (1984), A New History of Classical Rhetoric (1993), Comparative Rhetoric : An Historical and Cross-Cultural Introduction (1998), and Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times (1999).

He also did great service as a translator: Aristotle, On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse (1992),Two Greek Rhetorical Treatises from the Roman Empire (Anonymous Seguerianus and Apsines of Gadara) with Mervin Dilts (1997), Progymnasmata: Greek Textbooks of Prose Composition and Rhetoric (2003), Invention and Method: Two Rhetorical Treatises from the Hermogenic Corpus (2005).           

As well as having been editor of The American Journal of Philology, he edited The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, vol. 1 (1989).

Terry Papillon, Professor of Classical Rhetoric and Dean at the University of the South offers these thoughts on Professor Kennedy as a teacher and mentor:

As important and influential as Kennedy’s scholarship was, his influence on teaching future scholars was just as great a gift to the field. I am proud to consider myself among one of those who learned from him as a graduate student.

Professor Kennedy was a master of the classroom, working as a teacher much as he worked as a scholar. That is, the scholar and the teacher revealed the same mind, meticulous, detailed, and organized. His syllabi were carefully constructed to introduce the major ideas and bibliography of the topic. Even so, he encouraged his students to explore the topic beyond the set plan, in courses as broad as a Quintilian seminar, a study of New Testament rhetoric, an introduction to the corpus of Aristotle, and even a seminar on Helen in Greek literature.

His mentorship of his dissertation students was equally remarkable for its clarity and efficiency, again much like his scholarship. I remember working with him on a proposal for a dissertation on Isocrates and finding published work that did pretty much exactly what I wanted to do. I brought the references to him in his office. He pushed his chair back, looked at them, said "oh dear," and then immediately started to talk about other ideas he had in his quiver of dissertation topics that he thought might work for me. We switched to Demosthenes and the Aristocratea immediately (particularly because I had studied Demosthenes earlier in my graduate time so I could do the shift smoothly). Toward the end of that dissertation, he again guided an ambitious but naive young graduate student nervous about “finishing on time” by suggesting that a chapter in the outline of the dissertation might not be as crucial as first thought. I left the chapter behind, finished in time, and to this day do not recall what the content of the chapter was. That is, Professor Kennedy was able to understand his mentees and guide them in things small and, as in these cases, things that seemed large to an incipient scholar, even if Professor Kennedy wisely knew that these were not quite the catastrophic situations that I might have thought. I finished that dissertation, turned it into a book, and then I found my way back to Isocrates later. Professor Kennedy’s support at those crucial moments in my career was immeasurable. As Cecil Wooten – another student, and later colleague of Kennedy’s – said on news of his passing: “When I think of George, I often think of the comparison in Cicero of Isocrates to a rhetorical Trojan horse from which poured rhetoricians and orators (De Oratore 2.94.1).  George lives on in the influence that he exerted on all of us.”

Kennedy used to point out frequently that Aristotle meant his work to be developed and changed by his students and he felt the same about his own work. Kennedy’s goal was to develop students to become scholars who would move his work forward even if it meant his work was left behind.

Those of us who know Kennedy’s work through personal interaction with him, and those that only read his publications, understand that leaving his work behind is not possible; our own work is not possible without his. The field of rhetoric is far better for his contributions, on the page, in the classroom, and under his mentorship.

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