Magazine article The Spectator

Winning Words

Magazine article The Spectator

Winning Words

Article excerpt

You Talkin' to Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama

by Sam Leith

Profile Books, £14.99, pp. 296,

ISBN 9781846683152

If you want to see what an ambivalent attitude we have towards rhetoric, you have only to look at the speeches of Barack Obama.

Before Obama became President, when he was out on the stump, there was no holding him back rhetorically: he soared, he swooped, he lifted his eyes to the hills and found all kinds of inspiring imagery there.

But the moment he took office something strange happened. All that silver-tongued stuff dropped away and instead he started sounding as if two trucks had collided in his mouth.

The message was plain: rhetoric is for the posters, for the promissory notes. When it comes to actually doing the job, there's no place for it.

However, as Sam Leith shows in this elegant, concise and frequently very funny book, there's nothing new about regarding rhetoric with suspicion. Plato certainly did, reckoning it was the tool of demagogues and liars. Not that this made the slightest difference - in ancient Athens, almost everyone apart from him was at it. First, they would set out the stall of their argument (ethos), then they would drive it forward (logos), making sure to engage the emotions of the audience as they did so (pathos).

This wasn't just classical windbaggery: if you didn't know how to talk, or to persuade, in ancient Athens, then you were always going to find yourself in the kitchen at toga parties. Between 1400 and 1700, around 200 books on rhetoric were published in England. And between 1700 and now? This, I suspect, may well be it.

One of the reasons why the study of rhetoric has fallen out of fashion, Leith believes, is because it's been stigmatised by its association with the classics. It's also been shouldered aside by the likes of linguistics, psychology and literary criticism. Yet rhetoric, he insists - pleads even (big pathos, building to peroration) gathers in the folds of its robe everything that makes us human. To be fascinated by rhetoric is to be fascinated by people, and to understand rhetoric is in large part to understand your fellow man.

What's more, effective rhetoric need not be fancy rhetoric. …

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