Paeans of praise are being heaped on US President Barack Obama for being able to speak well in public, while commentators trace his skill back to the rules of rhetoric invented by Aristotle and Cicero. Plato would be spitting.

The main difference between our orators and the ancient Greek rhêtor in democratic Athens is that the ancient rhêtor had no political power whatsoever. He was trying to persuade an Assembly of citizens (males over 18) to do what he wanted, but it was they who made the final decision whether to act on his advice or not. In our system, an Obama or Brown can speak well or badly, intelligibly or incomprehensibly, it will still be (s)he who makes the decisions and not the listeners. Ancient rhetoric, then, unlike the modern, was absolutely central to the democratic process.

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It was central in another sense. No radical democracy where citizens made all the decisions could work unless everyone was able to make their contribution in the Assembly. But not everyone was a natural speaker. That was why the rules of rhetoric were developed and taught in democratic Athens. Further, they empowered any citizen not just to participate effectively in the Assembly, but also to learn to distinguish the good arguments from the bad, the false from the true.

And, even more critically, the right from the wrong. This was the source of Plato’s objections. Any fool could learn to speak persuasively, he argued. The big issue was, what was he being persuasive about? A rhêtor who could persuade citizens to do what was bad for them was a disaster. Platonic examples conjure up images of a rhêtor convinced that a horse was a donkey persuading the Assembly to send the cavalry into battle on a troop of donkeys, and small boys being persuaded to condemn a doctor because he gave them medicines they did not like.

Plato was, as usual, right. The silky rhêtor was not a figure to be taken at his word. Neither should Obama, nor Brown nor Cameron nor Mandela, nor any of the rest of them. Reflect that the 20th century’s most effective rhêtor was possibly Hitler — an absurd figure to us, but not to those who listened to him. He knew exactly what they wanted to hear. 

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated