Words, words, words

It was the custom, and perhaps remains so today, to name the senior class at a Jesuit school as Rhetoric. This proclaimed the classical view that rhetorical skills were needed by anyone who intended to be of substance in the outside world. Indeed, I did much public speaking at school – followed by Speaker’s Corner for the Catholic Evidence Guild. And many years later being paid attractive fees for addressing business conferences and dinners. But rhetoric has been a problem and continues to be today. From Today in Parliament to most social media you will find it flourishing.

It developed as an art from the fifth century Grecian world when there were many lawsuits over land ownership, and was seen as an essential tool to hold one’s own rights and to claim against the rights of others.  It created the need for teachers of rhetoric, who were a questionable lot.  Socrates was not pleased. He took the view, as we read in Plato’s Gorgias, that it was neither an art, nor a virtue, but simply a skill which could be used for good or bad purposes. Aristotle’s compendium on the subject is not light reading, but his analysis of the elements of persuasion remains relevant. And the importance of rhetoric has continued. From Rome to the Renaissance it marked the well-educated individual.

The Oxford Concise Dictionary gives, as its first definition “the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing.” The emphasis here is on “effective” because the purpose is to lead the listener, through argument and emotion, to agree with the rhetorician and to act accordingly. The Dictionary then adds that it can carry the implication of insincerity.  We often employ the word to suggest that the style is superior to the substance.

Take as an example “Friends, Romans, countrymen,” from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Brutus conceals his intention to inflame the mob under the cover of a funeral speech: ”I come to bury Caesar not to praise him.” Every line is designed to deceive the “honourable men”. Compare that with Mark Antony’s “O pardon me thou bleeding piece of earth, that I am meek and gentle with these butchers!.” There is rhetoric enough here to inflame passion but no deceit. In real life we may recall Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of blood” speech, which, ironically, never used that phrase. I do not doubt Powell’s sincerity.  Even I have to admit that I wrote a book entirely devoted to the use of rhetoric in business situations, without using the word “rhetoric” once.

So it comes in all sorts and sizes. We remember that it can be written as well as spoken: from Cicero on natural law to Cassius Longinus’s third century classic “On the Sublime” to Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua to that column you read in your newspaper this morning. It can be long or short. The shortest I have found is “He would, wouldn’t he?” from Mandy Rice Davies. Even my Ukrainian housekeeper had heard that one.

We are left asking the question: whatever our sincerity and the importance of the cause we defend, to what extent are we entitled to use the techniques of rhetoric to persuade our listeners?  Let’s suppose that I am addressing an audience on the undesirability of immigrants, particularly those of colour. I abandon the use of quiet logic and choose passion laced with prejudice. I focus on fears and I make use of anecdotes. Any statistic that helps will be at hand. I hope for a noisy audience and I fan their strong reactions. Ideally they will leave the hall carrying banners and shouting slogans.

But if I wish to support immigration I will need to create a quiet and thoughtful atmosphere. I may season this with a little humour, establishing how civilised I am. My logic will be impeccable as will be my statistics, but both are carefully selected. They will be backed up by chosen anecdotes of the historical outcomes of racialism. I will welcome the occasional heckle because my peaceful response will support the merits of my cause.

My point of course is that both speeches use rhetoric. And the order in which I take subjects, the pauses, my summaries, the tone of my voice, the use of my eyes, and a myriad of other techniques will also influence the outcome. So how comfortable do we feel about influencing people through methods of which they are mostly unaware? Should we not describe rhetoric by definition as manipulation? But, if we do, we recall that “manipulation” comes ultimately from the Latin for hand (manus). So let’s call it “handling the audience”. Choosing the most beneficial word is key in rhetoric.  Now ask your spouse to make you a cup of tea – but remove rhetoric from your request, so “darling”, “would” and “please” are all verboten.

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Quentin queries, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Words, words, words

  1. Nektarios says:


    With all the destruction of Christianity from within the Catholic Church, and its tentacles that seem to spread everywhere, turning away to Communism, Secularism and not to be squeamish about it, to Satanism, Globalism and the imposing of the New World Order.
    Your topic might be interesting to a point, but is a distraction from the the main warfare going on presently. It is about time everyone woke up to what is really going and help others address it,
    so in the end they may be able to stand, and having done all to stand!

    With many leaving off attending the Catholic Church, globally around 72,000 a month and continuing to get increase, why not address it?

    LIke I say, your topic is interesting to a point. In those days in Greece, that was the battle front as they saw it. They all posed many questions, but never gave real answers.They were failures!

    The battle front today, is those who would live Christianity out in their lives and those who would destroy it. Address it, ere it be too late!

    • Vincent says:

      Nektarios, your reply is full of rhetoric. Well done — you don’t so much as just make your point, you actually give an excellent example.

      • Nektarios says:

        Yes, we can all indulge in rhetoric. If you pursue the points I am alluding to above, it is very serious.
        Google up: Leon Zagami.com.

    • Alasdair says:

      Ah yes N, “the New World Order”. My post-tribulation millenial fundamentalist friends and I can’t get enough of it!

  2. G.D says:

    “because the purpose is to lead the listener, through argument and emotion, to agree with the rhetorician and to act accordingly.” Rhetoric is a form of persuasion, be it called handling or manipulating. No matter what the subject is, it takes (tries to take) away the critical faculty of the listener(s) and so the ability to come to a self made choice freely given.
    The next week a better rhetorician (different ‘advert’) can persuade them otherwise and divert the allegiance(s). (Unless the rhetoric is followed with brain washing too, which it often is).

    Whereas an ‘inspired’ unprepared presentation, given from the heart, will incite the listener(s) to respond, freely for or against, from the truth of their own convictions, and own the subject as belonging to them, or not.
    In the latter is debate, change, relationship and stable convictions formed. In both participant(s).

    The first may create followers, but not faithful practitioners; the second creates disciples and witnesses.

    Personally i can’t understand how the sheep like mentality rampant in our present culture is so prone to taking rhetoric as truth. Even if there are ‘truths’ mixed within it, the purpose is to sell a point, not to share truth. ( To enlighten).

  3. ignatius says:

    Unfortunately it seems that yet another of your sources look rather wierd. This is the Zigami who titles himself Grandmaster of the Universal Illuminati no less, the web is littered with strange stuff about him:
    I sometimes wonder where you get them from, Nektarios!

    • Nektarios says:

      Leo Zagami left and exposed the Freemasons and Illuminati within the Catholic Church at
      the Vatican 2012.
      He has also written and talked about Pope Francis and his latest book entitled, The Last Pope which you might be interested to read sometime.
      Leo Zagami is not my only source of information on all that or Pope Francis, but he is one of the most prolific in Italy and social media.

  4. ignatius says:

    I tried the exercise in rhetoric you suggested in your last paragraph, please find attached my solicitors note for divorce proceedings and my hospital bill….. 🙂

  5. Geordie says:

    “Take as an example “Friends, Romans, countrymen,” from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Brutus conceals his intention to inflame the mob under the cover of a funeral speech: ”
    These words were spoken by Mark Antony; I think.

  6. John Nolan says:

    In Shakespeare’s day rhetoric was taught as a discrete subject. Yet even now, GCSE English students are required to use persuasive writing and recognize rhetorical devices. One of them is the ‘rule of three’.

    Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is rightly regarded as a masterpiece of succinct English prose. Yet he has ‘we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow, this ground’ and ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’.

    The Canon of our Roman Mass has two famous examples – ‘haec dona, haec munera, haec sancta sacrificia illibata’ and ‘hostiam puram, hostiam sanctam, hostiam immaculatam’, and there are others in this ancient prayer, which connects us to the Graeco-Roman rhetorical tradition.

  7. John Nolan says:


    I think you see rhetoric in far too negative a light. In our age of bullet points and soundbites, we are not likely to encounter rhetoric in the House of Commons or in a court of law, where it once flourished. And we are all the poorer for it. An interesting exercise would be to rewrite Churchill’s ‘we shall never surrender’ speech in the style of Theresa May, or give a Trump version of the Gettysburg Address.

    In ‘Julius Caesar’ it is Brutus’s speech ‘Romans, countrymen and lovers’ which embodies classic Roman rhetoric, and Shakespeare pointedly uses prose; he reverts to iambic pentameter for Mark Antony’s oration, which is a cynical and all-too-successful attempt to appeal to the emotions of the mob, and not their reason – for the simple reason that a mob is irrational, something that the high-minded Brutus chooses to ignore.

    Modern politicians know how to appeal to the emotions, and do it as cynically as does Mark Antony. But it’s not rhetoric, properly understood.

    • G.D says:

      Yes, John, seem to have the wrong end of the stick again. It was “ to agree with the rhetorician and to act accordingly.” that got to me. If that’s not the purpose then of course it’s OK to use words and emotions rhetorically to make a point.

      • G.D says:

        .. to press an argument .. to claim truth .. claim morality etc . But within that freedom to choose yes or no is a must. If i hamper that …

  8. John Nolan says:

    The Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Theresa May:

    ‘Yes, I agree that if if the enemy lands we might well have to fight him on the beaches. But he (or she, of course) knows that the amount of plastic waste being washed up day after day constitutes a far greater threat to the environment.

    In any case, I believe that there can be a ‘softer’ agreement with Herr Hitler which would allow us access to the greater German Reich and its economic potential.

    I’m sure the armed forces will defend our island, but the cost has to be in proportion to our spending priorities.’

  9. ignatius says:

    What is the ‘rule of three’?

    • John Nolan says:

      Ignatius, the ‘rule of three’ is a rhetorical device which makes its point by juxtaposing three similar ideas in order to reinforce a point – the number three is important since it does not constitute a list but at the same time has a memorable impact. Lincoln was aware that dedicate, consecrate and hallow mean more or less the same thing.

      Brutus has ‘As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honour him [3]; but as he was ambitious, I slew him.’

      In the Mass the nine-fold repetition of the Kyrie is significant, as is the three-fold repetition of the Sanctus, the Agnus Dei, and the Domine non sum dignus, as well as the two examples I gave from the Roman Canon.

      That they also have a Trinitarian significance was not lost on earlier Christians. But it began as a rhetorical device. The Roman Canon is the oldest anaphora in existence – those of he Greek Church are later, and the Eucharistic Prayers II, III and IV of the Novus Ordo were composed in my lifetime (and it shows, even in the original Latin).

  10. Alasdair says:

    Even Margaret Thatcher attempted rhetoric! Unfortunately nobody told her about the rule of three, or maybe she just couldn’t count.
    “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony
    Where there is error may we bring truth
    Where there is doubt may we bring faith
    where there is despair may we bring hope”.
    That’s four by the way. Unfortunately, as I recall, none of the may-we-brings were brung – such is the nature of rhetoric.

  11. John Nolan says:


    I understand that speech was given to her by Norman St John Stevas, who mischievously told her that is was a prayer of St Francis of Assisi, whereas he knew full well that it dated from the 19th century.

    Anyone attempting to evaluate the Thatcher years needs to take account of her achievements without glossing over her mistakes and failures. It is so for all politicians. Interestingly, two politicians of the era commanded the attention of the House when they rose to speak – Enoch Powell and Tony Benn. There is only one who does so today, namely Jacob Rees-Mogg.

  12. Iona says:

    Quentin – when you refer to fifth-century Greece, you mean fifth century BC?

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