Skip to Content


Winning words

19 November 2011

10:00 AM

19 November 2011

10:00 AM

You Talkin’ to Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama Sam Leith

Profile Books, pp.296, 14.99

If you want to see what an ambivalent attitude we have towards rhetoric, you have only to look at the speeches of Barack Obama. Before Obama became President, when he was out on the stump, there was no holding him back rhetorically: he soared, he swooped, he lifted his eyes to the hills and found all kinds of inspiring imagery there.

But the moment he took office something strange happened. All that silver-tongued stuff dropped away and instead he started sounding as if two trucks had collided in his mouth. The message was plain: rhetoric is for the posters, for the promissory notes. When it comes to actually doing the job, there’s no place for it.

However, as Sam Leith shows in this elegant, concise and frequently very funny book, there’s nothing new about regarding rhetoric with suspicion. Plato certainly did, reckoning it was the tool of demagogues and liars. Not that this made the slightest difference — in ancient Athens, almost everyone apart from him was at it. First, they would set out the stall of their argument (ethos), then they would drive it forward (logos), making sure to engage the emotions of the audience as they did so (pathos).

This wasn’t just classical windbaggery: if you didn’t know how to talk, or to persuade, in ancient Athens, then you were always going to find yourself in the kitchen at toga parties. Between 1400 and 1700, around 200 books on rhetoric were published in England. And between 1700 and now? This, I suspect, may well be it.

One of the reasons why the study of rhetoric has fallen out of fashion, Leith believes, is because it’s been stigmatised by its association with the classics. It’s also been shouldered aside by the likes of linguistics, psychology and literary criticism. Yet rhetoric, he insists — pleads even (big pathos, building to peroration)

gathers in the folds of its robe everything that makes us human. To be fascinated by rhetoric is to be fascinated by people, and to understand rhetoric is in large part to understand your fellow man.

What’s more, effective rhetoric need not be fancy rhetoric. And nor do you have to sound like a treaclier version of Paul Robeson to put it across most effectively. Abraham Lincoln had a high, squeaky voice as well as a strong Kentucky accent, but he didn’t do badly with the Gettysburg Address.

Here is the ultimate proof that great oratory need not necessarily be orotund (alliteration, in case you hadn’t noticed). Although the Gettysburg Address is only about 250 words long and contains no proper nouns or descriptive passages, it is ‘probably the single most influential piece of rhetoric in American history’. Andwhether by accident or design, it alsofollows exactly the shape of a classic Attic funeral oration.

While having a good memory clearly helps if you’re going to be an impressive public speaker, you shouldn’t be so wedded to your speech that you can’t allow room for a bit of extemporising. Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech wouldn’t have had a dream in it at all if he hadn’t decided to include it at the last moment:

All of a sudden this thing came to me that I’d used many times before, that thing about ‘I have a dream’ — and I just felt I wanted to use it here.

In rhetoric, a little light plagiarism, far from being frowned on, is practically de rigueur. In the case of Martin Luther King, his ‘dream’ speech harked directly back to the Gettysburg Address — they even share the same opening words. Barack Obama in turn helped himself to large chunks of King’s visionary language, then topped it off with a touch of Lincolnian folksiness.

Now, it’s quite possible that you will disagree with every word of You Talkin’ To Me?, especially with Leith’s contention that rhetoric is all around us, whether we know it or not. You may even choose to accompany your retort with a derogatory gesture — a single raised finger, perhaps, or a fist slammed against a table-top.

That’s fine, go ahead. But just be aware that you’re doing it too. Being rhetorical, that is. Indeed, this particular mode of expression, involving the combination of an insult with an appropriate gesture, was known in the 16th century by the wonderful phrase, the Fleering Frumpe. Alliterative too, of course.

Show comments