Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

Paeans of praise are being heaped on US President Barack Obama for being able to speak well in public, while commentators trace his skill back to the rules of rhetoric invented by Aristotle and Cicero. Plato would be spitting.

The main difference between our orators and the ancient Greek rhetor in democratic Athens is that the ancient rhetor had no political power whatsoever.

He was trying to persuade an Assembly of citizens (males over 18) to do what he wanted, but it was they who made the final decision whether to act on his advice or not. In our system, an Obama or Brown can speak well or badly, intelligibly or incomprehensibly, it will still be (s)he who makes the decisions and not the listeners.

Ancient rhetoric, then, unlike the modern, was absolutely central to the democratic process.

It was central in another sense. No radical democracy where citizens made all the decisions could work unless everyone was able to make their contribution in the Assembly. But not everyone was a natural speaker. That was why the rules of rhetoric were developed and taught in democratic Athens. …

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