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Ancient and modern

Boris Johnson and the art of rhetoric

15 September 2018

9:00 AM

15 September 2018

9:00 AM

Boris the rhetorician is in full voice at the moment, delighting his followers and infuriating his enemies. But is this the purpose of rhetoric?

It was the ancients who invented, or rather deduced, the rules. As the Roman professor of rhetoric Quintilian said: ‘Just as men discovered the art of medicine by observing that some things were healthy and some the reverse, so they observed that, when it came to speaking, some things were advantageous and others not. These they therefore noted for imitation or avoidance, while adding personal hints that logically followed. Experience then confirmed these observations, as a result of which people knew how to teach the subject.’


Rhetoric was developed during the 5th-4th c bc in Greece, when direct democracy flourished and citizens meeting in assembly took all the decisions. There would have been nothing democratic if simple brute force ruled and all assemblies ended in a punch-up. Rhetoric won arguments without recourse to violence. The historian Thucydides was particularly impressed by Pericles’s oratory: ‘He was never compelled to flatter the people, but, on the contrary, enjoyed so high an estimation that he could afford to anger and contradict them. Whenever he saw them dangerously over-confident, he would use a speech to make them fearful; but if they fell victims to panic, he could at once restore them to confidence… With his successors it was different. More on a level with one another, and each grasping at supremacy, they ended by committing even the conduct of state affairs to the whims of the multitude.’

Pericles’s strength as an orator was that he spoke calmly and coolly (Plutarch), understood the people’s moods and knew what needed to be done to win them all over to his point of view. And Boris? His brilliant rhetoric sends his supporters into raptures, but anyone can do that. It is his enemies that he needs to persuade.


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