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.