Decorum (L. “propriety”) – To prepon.

As a rhetorical concept, the idea advanced in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, and developed by Cicero, Quintilian and others, that style should suit subject, audience, speaker and occasion. No idea was more carefully worked out in rhetorical theory nor more universally acclaimed; everyone writing about rhetoric touches on it in one way or another. And from Horace – really from Aristotle – onward it forms a major theme of literary criticism as well. (For a detailed discussion and list of citations, see D’Alton, Roman Literary Theory and Criticism, pp. 116ff.)

In spite of its obviousness, and venerability, the idea of decorum could use some rethinking. We might notice, for example, that decorum as a stylistic criterion finally locates itself entirely in the beholder and not the speech or text. No textual pattern per se is decorous or not. The final criterion for excess, indecorum, is the stylistic self-consciousness induced by the text or social situation. We know decorum is present when we don’t notice it, and vice versa. Decorum is a gestalt established in the perceiving intelligence. Thus the need for it, and the criteria for it, can attain universal agreement and allegiance, and yet the concept itself remain without specifiable content.

The number of stylistic and behavioral variables such a judgment must take into account leave the rules which are said to inform it far behind. It becomes an intuitive judgment of the sort a modern phenomenologist might examine, dependent on deep patterns of what Michael Polanyi would call “tacit knowledge.” It thus becomes – and clearly was for classical education – not only a rhetorical criterion but a general test of basic acculturation. To know how to establish the “decorum” of a particular occasion meant that you had, as a child or a foreigner might, learned to find your footing in that culture. I’ve taken the phrase “find your footing” from Clifford Geertz, a cultural anthropologist who locates the center of anthropology in something not too different from classical decorum.

From the perspective of postmodern thought, one can also see more clearly that decorum is a creative as well as a pious concept, that it creates the social reality which it reflects. Decorum, not to put too fine an edge on it, amounts to a pious fraud, the “social trick” par excellence. We create, with maximum self-consciousness and according to precise rules, an intricate structure of stylistic forces balanced carefully as to perceiver and perceived, and then agree to forget that we have created it and to pretend that it is nature itself we are engaging with. Rhetorical theory has spent endless time discussing how to adjust utterance to this preexistent social reality without reflecting on how that reality has been constituted by the idea of decorum. Like the human visual system, rhetorical decorum is a bag of tricks which constitutes for us a world that it then presents as “just out there” awaiting our passive reception.

Further, one might even think of decorum as the origin of, and basis for, what we usually call “common sense” or “reasonability.” Richard Harvey Brown has “reformulated” reason along these lines in a brilliant essay, “Reason as Rhetorical: On Relations among Epistemology, Discourse, and Practice,” where he argues for a “reason” which seems to me isomorphic with the “decorum” of classical rhetoric.

With decorum, as so often in current thought, the basic ideas of classical rhetoric have found new life and further development in disciplines other than the study of formal rhetoric.

-Richard A. Lanham, A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms