WORDS: Rhetoric

Article excerpt

"TONY BLAIR talks about wanting to see a black prime minister, yet ... we have to begin to doubt the seriousness of Blair's rhetoric." So spoke Simon Woolley of Operation Black Vote, as quoted by the Guardian last week. The implication, though moderately expressed, was that Mr Blair doesn't really mean what he says.

Rhetoric is a dirty word and it's getting dirtier. The Daily Telegraph's legal editor, Joshua Rozenberg, recently quoted Sir Patrick Hastings as having said as long as 50 years ago that "the days of flatulent oratory are gone". Perhaps juries are more sophisticated now, thought Mr Rozenberg, and may be "less susceptible to rhetoric and bombast". You can tell a word by the company it keeps. They go together: rhetoric-and-bombast. Rhetoric is the art of fooling the people. Its use is most often attributed to Colonel Gadaffi, Robert Mugabe and Mr Putin, who have a lot of persuading to do, and retrospectively to our own statesmen when they find they can't afford the cost of their promises, however earnestly such promises were made. ("The money to back up the rhetoric," said the Independent last week in an excellent leader about education, "is in short supply.")

The ancient Greeks, who invented the art, took it more seriously. Rhetoreia was eloquence and a rhetorikos was an orator. The Greeks, as we know, had a firm belief in the virtues of democracy, and since there was no printed matter, and election addresses were all delivered by word of mouth, rhetoric had a real part in the democratic process. Second-century Athens had two professorial chairs in the subject. …