Peter Jones

Ancient lessons in oracy

[Getty Images]

It is encouraging to see Sir Keir Starmer taking a leaf out of the ancients’ book by putting oracy (from Latin orator) on the curriculum. Indeed, on the ancient curriculum, there was little else of such importance.

State education did not exist. It was an entirely private operation, designed to supply the elite with the skills necessary to win arguments in political and legal forums. (They alone had the time for such an activity; our ‘school’ derives from scholê, the Greek for ‘leisure’). It began with the young relentlessly analysing language in minute technical detail, e.g. dividing words into syllables, pronouncing, spelling and parsing them, learning grammatical terms, parts of speech, metrical analysis and all the time reading passages aloud and reciting them off by heart, perfecting pronunciation and usage.

The young then paid professional teachers of rhetoric (also known as ‘sophists’) to instruct them in finding arguments for supporting any case they had in mind, and to express those arguments in the most inventive ways possible, drawing on e.g. mythical and historical examples, philosophy and much else.

But it was not just a matter of words. As Aristotle later pointed out in his definitive Art of Rhetoric, it was also a matter of character and human empathy: the successful orator was a man not only perceived by his audience to be trustworthy, but also one who understood his audience’s frame of mind, i.e. what they needed to hear, at that particular time, if they were to be persuaded of his case.

This all proved very popular and very controversial. Greek tragedies stirred up audiences with mythical heroes exploiting these newfangled ways of justifying themselves; so did Aristophanes’ comedy Clouds, depicting Socrates as a sophist, corrupting the young with perverse ways of arguing. Romans regarded the Greeks flogging these wares in Rome with some suspicion.

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