We Will Fight Them with the Speeches; Rhetoric Is a Way to Make Words More Persuasive

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

We Will Fight Them with the Speeches; Rhetoric Is a Way to Make Words More Persuasive


Byline: Boris Johnson

You Talking To Me? Rhetoric From Obama To Aristotle

by Sam Leith

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I was mooching through Islington in North London recently when I bumped into the superbright, blonde arts correspondent of a Leftie newspaper. 'Aha,' she said, spotting the unread book under my arm, 'I see that you've got Sam Leith's book. I've reviewed it.' I sensed an opportunity to save time.

'Oh really? What did you think?' 'Well, I gave it a good review, but I have to admit I don't think he dealt with the Gorgias issue.' I looked suitably knowing. She referred, as I need hardly remind you, to Gorgias of Leontini (485-380 BC), the famous sophist and rhetorician. Gorgias is heavily criticised by Plato for using rhetoric to bamboozle his opponents and make the weaker argument the stronger.

According to Gorgias, you don't need to know the details of the case you are making. You don't even need to understand what you are saying. All you need is rhetorical skill - the repertoire of verbal tricks to lull and persuade your audience.

And according to my friend in Islington, it was this baleful quality of rhetoric that Leith had failed to bring out. Indeed, she seemed suddenly gripped by a Platonic hostility to rhetoric and rhetoricians.

'We all know that rhetoric is' - she paused, groping for words, and then almost spat - 'the spawn of the devil!' She stopped. We goggled at each other. She clutched her throat as she realised what she had said. 'Omigod,' she gasped, 'hyperbole!' Or she might have said auxesis, or amplificato, or any of the other abundant Greek or Latin rhetorical terms for overegging it a bit.

In her bid to make her point, she had reached instinctively for the very vice that she claimed to despise - and now that I have read Leith's book through, I would say that she has completely (if unconsciously) vindicated it.

Since the beginning of Western civilisation, humanity has spotted the potential for rhetoric to do harm as well as good. The semi-mythical founder of the art was a wily Sicilian lawyer called Corax, which means crow.

In The Clouds, the comedy by Aristophanes, there is a struggle between the followers of the Superior and Inferior Arguments, in which it turns out that those who support the Inferior Argument have naturally secured all the positions of power in Athens.

In the annals of human folly, almost all acts of carnage are preceded by some brilliant speech, from Pope Urban II's sermon at Clermont - in which he preached the First Crusade - to the lunatic and mesmerising orations of Adolf Hitler, which seemed to send a great and cultivated people more or less round the bend. …

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