A fresh look at rhetoric adds new fuel to an old argument

Want to motivate people? You’ll end up using rhetoric. Want to influence people? You’ll end up using rhetoric. When rhetoric works, it gives a human being the power to move crowds, shift cultural mountains, in short, to change the world.

The rules of rhetoric were laid out in Ancient Greece, but the practice of rhetoric spans the history of oral communication.

It's a subject that Sam Leith, in 'You talkin' to me?: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama' covers in an entertaining and readable way. But what would he have you believe? Leon Conrad, of the Academy of Oratory takes a critical look at his work in this review.

You could say that to map out the history and legacy of rhetoric in a readable and approachable way you need the eagle’s eye viewpoint of a historical cartographer, the psychological depth of analysis of a cultural archaeologist and the technical bravura of a highly skilled artist. In ‘You Talking to Me?’ Sam Leith displays a grasp of all these skills.

It’s an overview which is sketched out in two main sections. The first section outlines the five parts or canons of rhetoric, as laid out in many of the classical manuals. It’s a useful overview of all the things you need to consider in putting a speech together. He starts with invention (inventio), which deals with basic content and the conventional rhetorical approaches to it – whether people choose to appeal primarily to emotions (pathos), logic (logos), or just rely on character and reputation (ethos). Next, he deals with arrangement (dispositio), which covers how that content is arranged, once the basic approach has been chosen, then style (elocutio), which deals with the style and patterning of language: plain speech, more formal speech and the kind of language used in high oratory are all dealt with here. These are followed by an examination of the importance placed on memory (memoria) in ancient times and the effectiveness when applied to modern oratory and public speaking and delivery (actio), in which Leith covers the importance of those essential elements of voice, gesture, timing.

The second part of Leith’s book is based on three particular types of speech making. Like the five canons of rhetoric which formed the framework for the first part, these types of speech-making, or branches of oratory, are also based on the received wisdom of classical manuals. In the first, he deals with deliberative rhetoric, the type of oratory or speechmaking which seeks to influence events in the future. In the second, he deals with judicial rhetoric. Typically seen in courtrooms both real and dramatic, this type of oratory or speechmaking seeks to resolve issues related to past events. In the last, Leith deals with epideictic rhetoric, the rhetoric of praise or blame, or as he says, typical of ‘the speeches we hear at weddings … and the language of obituaries.’

The book is fleshed out with an introduction which sketches out the topography of the topic in rough strokes and a useful glossary at the back which covers many of the main terms, although in terms of what Leith mentions in the book, it isn’t comprehensive. There are several figures mentioned in the text which are not included in the glossary (apothegmkerygma and enargia, for example). With a few exceptions, where Latin and Greek terms are used, they are explained clearly and often amusingly and the reader is sensibly referred to Lanham’s ‘Handlist of Rhetorical Terms’ for more in-depth discussion and analysis of rhetorical figures.

Master strokes are provided with interspersed sections entitled ‘Champions of Rhetoric’ in which Leith sums up the rhetorical achievements of such greats as Churchill and – in Leith’s opinion – Hitler. Without limiting himself to politicians, he includes a touching section dedicated to ‘the unknown speechwriter’, as a long-overdue tribute to the little-fêted ghost writers who have served countless civilians and politicians across the ages.

It is in the use of language that Sam Leith excels. He is a literary Picasso. He shows you what makes rhetoric work by sketching literary cartoons (an introductory opener from Marge Simpson, a humourous hypothetical court case against Yogi Bear, and a compelling epideictic analysis of a diatribe by Cartman from South Park) and rustling up literary oil paintings (examples from Demosthenes, Cicero, Lincoln, Churchill, Martin Luther King and Obama).

He makes a clear and important distinction between the hard and fast forms of traditional logic, with its arguments constructed with the accuracy and formality of technical drawings and what he terms the comparatively fuzzy logic of rhetoric, its arguments constructed in a more impressionistic style, like a Turner painting.

The work is drafted in a style which shows an in-depth knowledge of classical rhetorical techniques, but reveals a vivid contemporary snapshot of recent and present day society. Rhetorical portraits of the former MP George Galloway, Neil Hamilton, Mohammed El Fayed and Jonathan Aitken among others appear in a long gallery displayed between literary busts of classical exponents of the form including Aristotle, Cicero and Quintillian.

Leith defines rhetoric as an art of persuasion. Rhetorically, his argument is fuzzy. The definition is amplified … showing persuasion by any means possible. ‘If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, … baffle them with bullshit.’ ‘The skilled orator,’ he explains, ‘is out to … misrepresent his opponent’s case in such a way that makes it easier to attack.’ (p 98) and argues that ‘… a dozy audience will think that by damaging the apparent opposition, you’ve proved your case.’ (p 100). Following Leith’s argument uncritically, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking that effective orators are, by definition, at best spineless, at worst, coldly manipulative. It is a short-termist approach which may well succeed in bringing round a dozy audience … at some point, however, there is bound to be a wake-up call and a realisation they’ve been duped. Whether the audience members admire the orator’s skill or harbour deep resentment and enmity towards them is a question that hangs in the balance. Either way, it is hardly likely to be a positive outcome for anyone involved – apart from seeing it as a lesson learned the hard way. The orator will have lost face – or if not face, then certainly trust. Hopes will have been rendered worthless. Persuasion at any cost? Leith would have you believe so. In this, he mistakenly labels rhetoric as sophistry and seems to elevate the latter over the former.

For instance, Leith’s treatment of Jonathan Aitken’s attempt at discrediting his accusers is worth looking at in detail. Aitken’s sophistry is given two paragraphs of body text and cited as an example of an effective instance of refuting a claim, but the fact that it ended up being perjury when he was found out to be lying is relegated to a mere 2-line footnote.

As another example, in an extreme – and I have to admit daringly brilliant – move, Leith positions the devil as first among the champions of rhetoric mentioned above that he features throughout the book. But it is the theoretical interpolations from Cicero that he inserts to illustrate the devil’s arguments that make the section work. And in a supreme rhetorical flourish, even the devil has to argue he is ‘good’ – and therein lies the rub.

Advancing his argument through a variety of ways, the devil is ultimately unable to bend rhetoric entirely to his will – although he does a damned good job of trying – leaving Leith a predictable choice of ending on an open-ended rhetorical question which is powerful enough to incite debate – and that’s not necessarily such a bad thing.

While his use of language is masterful, Leith’s approach smacks of the theorist rather than the practitioner – the politically savvy journalist rather than the impassioned rhetor – the knowledgeable art critic rather than the artist. His writing is broad-ranging and entertaining. Not having heard him speak in real life, to get an idea of his delivery, I went online and found a video he’d made which he’d recorded a voice over for. In it, his prose is succinct and compelling, but his voice quality has a sense of high ribcage breathing which would explain his tendency to restrict himself to medium and high pitch centres in his voice use, robbing him of gravitas and would also explain his habit of breaking long thought phrases into shorter chunks, often pausing across the sense of phrases, in Blair-esque fashion, probably due to poor breath control. This said, it would be unfair to judge him on the basis of a recorded script, rather than a live speech, which involves constant reaction and response to the mood of the audience – something he brings to the fore particularly well in his analysis of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech.

This approach runs through most of the work – the choice of ‘Sound Effects’ for the title of one of the chapters, leads one to expect he will deal with voice, embolalia (a useful blanket term for ums and ers and other redundancies that usually reveal more about a speaker’s nerves and lack of preparation than anything to do with their subject matter). In fact, the chapter centres on the rhythms of prose. There is no mention of voice quality or of vocal variety. The greatest speech in the world would be rendered unlistenable-to if delivered in a monotonous high squeaky or breathy, quiet voice, at the same speed, with very little variation and pitch. To be fair, Leith does bring these aspects into other sections – particularly in his analyses of the individual delivery styles of Martin Luther King and Barack Obama.

In my view, Leith is far too fuzzy in his portrayal of the age-old distinction made between sophistry (the label traditionally ascribed to the type of oratory that aims to ‘baffle with bullshit’) and oratory (a more ethical – and arguably healthier – approach which does not create a schism between the orator’s persona and their chosen subject matter). It’s a distinction that is central to Plato’s Phaedras, to Quintillian’sInstitutes of Oratory ‘It would have been better for us to be born dumb and devoid of reason than to pervert the gifts of providence [i.e. the faculty of speech / the power of eloquence] for our mutual destruction. … I am not only saying that the orator must be a good man, but that no one can be an orator unless he is a good man.’[1] It is also central to Isocrates’s Against the Sophists. Where Leith does bring the issue to the fore, he does so in the last section of the book, and again, gives short shrift to the oratory side of the argument, devoting more time to the practice of sophistry, which he seems to favour in his – I have to admit, again – highly readable analysis of Gorgias’ masterful Encomium to Helenin which Gorgias seeks to exonerate Helen from any blame in her role in bringing about the Trojan war. It’s an imbalance which occurs time and time again throughout the book.

If Leith’s book serves to inform people of the difference between sophistry and oratory – however vicariously – and the power which public speakers can harness to influence their listeners in either case, then the book will have served a purpose which is to arm people with awareness and prepare them with the information they need to withstand sophistic assaults on their senses, cultivate some cynicism and welcome the rare instances when oratory engages our hearts, minds and souls.

There is more to rhetoric than putting words together in patterns that appeal to people in order to persuade them to do something that is mainly for the speaker’s benefit – however altruistic it may sound. Hitler’s arguments and those of a snake oil salesman are not that different.  To address these issues often opens up ethical and moral minefields, but on a basic level, the distinction between sophistry and rhetoric is clear to most people. We know the difference between when someone’s speaking from the heart and when someone’s trying to con us. The trouble starts when – as in the case of Hitler, further down the line it’s not just a harmless placebo that’s being sold as an idea, but a gas chamber. 

[1] Quintillian, Institutio Oratoria, Book 12.1. Loeb Classical Library, Vol. V, p 199. Reviewer's italics.‘Mutos enim nasci et egere omni ratione satius fuisset quam providentiae munera in mutuam perniciem convertere. … Neque enim tantum id dico, eum qui sit orator virum bonum esse oportere, sed ne futurum quidem oratorem nisi virum bonum.’

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