Rhetoric
 
	 

The most practical of the trivial arts in antiquity and well into the early modern period was rhetoric, 
the art of speaking, or as it has been well described by George Kennedy, one of the foremost students 
of ancient rhetoric, “the art of persuasion.” 

In 5th-century Athens, the sophists made comfortable livings teaching Athenian citizens how to defend 
themselves in court against their increasingly litigious neighbors and to make “the worse cause appear 
the better.”  Socrates, the pesky philosopher who refused to take money for his pedagogical efforts, was 
an exception to this rule.  In one of his most famous comedies, “The Clouds,” Aristophanes pokes fun at 
a father who sends his son off to learn the art of public persuasion at Socrates’ school, only to discover 
his son willing to use his new found expertise on his parent.  

The demand for the services of the rhetor, the professional teacher of rhetoric, continued unabated during the Roman Empire and well into the early modern period. Augustine’s parents sent him to school to study rhetoric, with the hope that he would become a professional civil servant.
Augustine was so good at his studies that he went on to became a professor of rhetoric, which was itself a well paid position, and then used his rhetorical skills to good advantage as priest and bishop after his conversion to Christianity. Rhetorical study continued to be pursued throughout the Middle Ages and enjoyed a flowering revival in the Renaissance. To judge from the eloquence of British politicians like Winston Churchill and Tony Blair in the 20th century, the importance of rhetorical preparation for a life of public service still continues to be acknowledged in some places of the English speaking world. In the United States, where the claims of tradition are not so strong as they have been in Europe and where the practical necessity of wresting a living from the soil was perhaps more urgent, the value of the liberal arts, including rhetorical study, has been less obvious. Of his trivial education, Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, declared: “I often look back upon the four years I spent...in learning the Latin and Greek languages.... I should wish the memory of those years blotted out of my mind forever.” (Meyer Reinhold, Classica Americana [Detroit, 1984], p. 131.) There were notable exceptions to this rule, like John Quincy Adams, who was supposed to have spent two hours a day for ten months reading the complete works of Cicero in Latin and referred to six bronze busts of ancient heroes in his house as his household gods. By the time Andrew Jackson became president, just a few years later, however, it had become quite chic to celebrate "the unlettered man of the West, the nursling of the wilds," and to praise those like the President, who were “little versed in books, unconnected by science with the tradition of the past.” There were eight men in Jackson's cabinet who had never been to college. (See Caroline Winterer. The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780–1910 [Baltimore, 2002], p. 46.)
Abraham Lincoln also never went to college but his abilities with the English language are legendary. The fact that he could write the superbly eloquent Gettysburg Address as quickly as it seems that he did testifies to his ability to absorb the diction and phrasing and gravity of those books that he read so carefully and thoroughly as a young man, despite his lack of formal rhetorical training.
The nation needed a president to speak solemn words at a time of grave national crisis and Lincoln knew well how to meet that need. His famous Second Inaugural Address depends heavily on the phraseology of the King James Version of the Bible.
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan -- to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” The speech also relies heavily on classical rhetorical devices such as tricolon. Not every president since Lincoln has been so rhetorically adept. In recent decades it has become common political wisdom to suggest that a candidate for the highest office in the land had better not sound too “smart.” One reason, it has been suggested, for Bill Clinton’s remarkable political success, was his ability to move effortlessly from the colloquial English of his native Arkansas, as needed, to the standard American accent that one most often hears on network TV and the halls of power in Washington. It is not uncommon, even today, for candidates for higher office to dismiss someone’s superior command of the English language as a mere matter of “verbage,” a recently coined neologism that makes facility with words sound a little like “garbage.”
It is true, of course, that rhetoric can be used deceptively and for base purposes and it is altogether appropriate that we question whether people really mean what they are saying or whether a gifted speaker is practicing demagogery. Adolf Hitler, after all, was just as eloquent and persuasive as Franklin Roosevelt. At the same time, there is no doubt that a leader’s ability to speak clearly to his or her followers, to move them, to inspire them, or to rebuke them, is one of the important qualifications in any line of work, including the presidency. There is probably no greater power the president has than his “bully pulpit” and a leader who lacks the ability to speak to his followers is like a quarterback on a football team who doesn’t really like to pass. A recent study of Lincoln’s presidency argues that his use of language is one of the key reasons for his demonstrable success in leading the nation through one of its most perilous historical moments (Douglas Wilson, Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of the Word [New York, 2006].
The question of rhetoric has come up frequently in the most recent presidential race in America. In a recent New York Times editorial (November 2, 2008) about which presidential candidate he recommended, Thomas Friedman listed rhetorical abilities first: “First, we need a president who can speak English and construct and navigate complex issues so Americans can make informed choices. We have paid an enormous price for having a president who could not explain and reassure us during this financial meltdown.” Barack Obama clearly outshone his rivals in terms of speechmaking, drawing large crowds to his stump speeches, although his performance in debates has been less clearly superior. A book has recently come out that analyzes his rhetorical technique: Shel Leanne, Say It Like Obama: The Power of Speaking with Purpose and vision (New York, 2009)
One blog reviewer of the book notes: “There are simple concepts like alliteration and asking rhetorical questions that are easy enough to grasp. But then there are others like polysyndeton, epistrophe, and mesdiplosis that you’ve probably have never heard of, but once explained are evident in Obama’s speeches and adaptable for principals, pastors, or part-time bloggers. My favorite section was Chapter 6, Driving Points Home. Here the author examines how her subject uses repetition, the power of three (triadic extension), as well as slogans and refrains to make his message more clear. Yes we can is used as an example of repetition, and you can picture Obama delivering these lines and even hear the crowd chant with him while going through this part of the book. I also like the advice of giving “just enough” detail, using the right amount of information to paint a picture or convey a message.”
The current president is famous for his rhetorical gaffes. Of course, unlike the eloquent Abraham Lincoln, he graduated from Yale! One wonders whether he took a public speaking course in college or how well he did in it. It is unlikely, in any event, that we will have another president who has so many difficulties expressing his ideas clearly and persuasively. His departure from the public stage will leave a gaping hole in the comic routines of at least one late night television host who regularly satirized him in “Great Moments in Presidential Speeches.”
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