Lies, damned lies, and rhetoric

Some years ago, when I was receiving what seemed to me alarmingly large sums of money for addressing business conferences and the like, I used to teach rhetoric. We may first think of rhetoric as an art (which it is), but it is also a science, in the sense that it has procedures and techniques which can be evidenced empirically. It has been studied from at least the time of the ancient Greeks. Even Aristotle wrote a (rather tedious) book on it.

The most accessible example is “Friends, Romans, countrymen” from Act III of Julius Caesar. Ironically, we do not know whether Shakespeare himself ever experienced those heady moments of holding and controlling the feelings of a large audience. If not, it was only his genius which enabled him to exemplify rhetoric so brilliantly.

Mark Antony is addressing a lynch mob which is passionately against the assassinated Caesar. And that key first line forces them to recognise that he is one with them. We do not dislike “people like us”; it’s written in our genes. But before they can analyse that, he counters their suspicions by assuring them that he is not going to praise that vile Caesar. Nor, they discover quickly, is he going to attack their hero, Brutus. On the contrary, Brutus is an honourable man.

In fact he is so honourable that Antony is called upon to mention this several times. But each time he couples it with a fact which is incompatible with the claim of an honourable man. The compliment becomes a condemnation. Beware when your opponent assures his respect for your good faith.

But since I can only exemplify, I move on to the point where Antony is overcome by his depth of feeling: “Bear with me; my heart is in the coffin there with Caesar, and I must pause till it come back to me.” You can almost hear the crowd gulping in emotional sympathy, just as we do when we hear an appeal from a parent on the television. And on some occasions it comes from the very parent who has done the dirty deed. Antony times it to perfection. During the space he has created with his crocodile tears the crowd begins to wonder whether he has a point.

And then he strikes. He reveals that he holds Caesar’s will in his hand, but he does not intend to read it although it is so generous to them that they would kiss Caesar’s wounds in gratitude if they heard it. And predictably they insist, they implore, they demand that he should do so. But to refuse to read the will because its generosity might inflame them is high-level provocation, and Antony sustains it.

Instead, he asks their permission (for he is of course no more than their servant) to show them the body of Caesar, wound by wound. “If you have tears prepare to shed them now.” An appropriate visual aid can be invaluable for dramatic and persuasive effect. I always look for an opportunity to use one, but I rarely have to hand a bloodstained corpse. No wonder he is able to say: “O, now you weep, and I perceive you feel the dint of pity.”

The crowd is so enraged it is on the point of riot. They have even forgotten the existence of the will. But Antony wants a rebellion, not an episode of temporary vandalism. He must push the message fully home. He reads them the will and the public benefits it contains. And the mob rushes off intent on destruction. While Antony, presumably with a little self satisfied dimple in his cheek, says: “Now let it work; mischief, thou art afoot.”

Was Mark Antony insincere? At a deeper level we have no reason to doubt his love for Caesar, and his determination that his treacherous assassins should be punished. And if he sees that a resulting coup will create a new regime in which he will be a leading participant, that is hardly surprising.

But the speech itself is a brilliant exercise in persuasive communication; and his last line would show that, even if it were not obvious from the context. And yet he has the nerve to say: “I am no orator as Brutus is; but, as you know me all, a plain, blunt man.” What a decent chap! No wonder he gets later to rule Egypt from Cleopatra’s bed – even if the long-term outcome proved unsatisfactory.

We have at least two considerations to reflect on here. The first is to consider whether good rhetoric is intrinsically dishonest. And that analysis might start by investigating the elements of rhetoric which most of us use naturally.

If you have ever smiled at someone in order to get good service, that’s rhetoric. If you have ever said “thank you” when you didn’t mean it, that’s rhetoric. If you have ever chosen your words, or the order of your words, to give a specific impact to your communication, that’s rhetoric. And it can prove dangerous when your public remark is belied by your private views – as many politicians have had cause to discover. As did Tony Hayward, chief executive of BP, when he unwarily said: “I want my life back.”

The second is to be on guard against the rhetoric we hear – from the political broadcast to a Science and Faith column to a papal statement. Again, I would not suggest the Pope was ever insincere, but his addresses are constructed to give a particular effect, and we need to know how our susceptibilities are being addressed. I bear in mind that his hero, Socrates, continually championed the truth while using the most skilful rhetoric with which to bolster his, often doubtful, arguments.

Is rhetoric simply a form of manipulation? Is it the duty of the Christian always to speak plainly, and from the heart? And how would our social life change if that were so?

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Lies, damned lies, and rhetoric

  1. chauffer says:

    Christians rely on rhetoric these days because we inhabit what could be termed a ‘post-evangelical society’ – often afflicted with resentment acrued from Catholic educational mores, unfortunately – and any type of ‘preaching’ (other than that of dogmatic atheism, again unfortunately) requires sensitivity; which requires moderation and invokes rhetoric.

    Maybe things have become so settled that ‘straight talking’ could easily shock and override subtlety, as an effective communication tool, depending on the calibre of the preacher. There used to be a mesmerising rastafarian type in the ‘Lion’s den’ of Camden Town’s Brittania junction a few years ago.

    I sensed that he may have thrived on conflict and gave most of the hecklers a run for their money (ie ‘attitude’) but again, I suppose that rhetoric was even more evident, or perhaps a ‘touch of the theatric’ which could be something different, if it stems from the edge of a sharp message and enhances the scope of potential impact.

  2. Ion Zone says:

    Rhetoric is a favoured debate tool on all sides, and often seems inherently dishonest. A favourite, dishonest, way that is often used against us is to effectively blacken our name without, or against all, evidence, while claiming to have it all.

  3. Ion Zone says:

    The way it works is to make claims and statements that are very hard to refute hard enough for them not to have a negative effect of the audience.

  4. Daisy says:

    it might be interesting to note how many rhetorical devices Jesus used. Surely the parable is such a device. So is using a symbolic word like referring to the Temple when he really means his body. I’m sure people can think of lots of others.

  5. claret says:

    How quick we often are to make a vice into a compliment. We often hear of people being a ‘Blunt Yorkshireman’ or a ‘Plain speaker’ as though this was some kind of wonderful trait when what they actually are is arrogant and offensive.
    Another one is a person, ‘who does not suffer fools glady,’ as though this was to their credit when in fact it means they are self opiniated and pompous.
    The same can be said of those who use foul language when they are variously described as using language that is ‘earthy’, ‘fruity’ or ‘saying it as it is.’

  6. st.joseph says:

    Pulling the wool over peoples eyes. A form of blackmail over the mind of others. Making one feel guilty about a particular subject by putting pressure on ones conscience. I say thats ‘too bad’, if it helps someone to seek the Truth. There is nothing clever about that. Just doing ones duty as a Christian.
    Certain people knocking on my door,using a device to convert me into their way of thinking -and if I don’t do it their way ,I will end up in Hell fire, is a different form of preaching to what Jesus teaches through ‘His’ Church.
    Pilate asked ‘What is Truth’ when he was looking at the ultimate Truth.Some people are blindfolded to it and need the scales taken from their eyes, and need what ever measure it takes to do so,as long as it is the Truth one is speaking and not just their own opinion.

  7. Horace says:

    Is it the duty of the Christian always to speak plainly, and from the heart?

    ” – would that I should be able to accomplish all that I would like! The work is difficult, my intelligence and command of rhetoric small; none the less though the result might come below expectation, the effort will at least pay my debt of obedience.” [ from the Preface to the Life of Wilfrid written by Eddius Stephanus – seventh century]

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