As the world holds a post-mortem on Trump’s post-truth victory, I’d like to put the word ‘rhetoric’ on the slab. Not because it’s dead, but because it needs reviving.
Bandied about by politicians and pundits both sides of The Pond, it’s become a dirty word, implying exaggerated, hyperbolic language of half-truths designed to manipulate people.
That is one definition of ‘rhetoric’.
The flip-side is ‘the art of using speech or writing to persuade or influence’ (Collins English Dictionary). While both definitions overlap, of course, this second one is often misunderstood, so I’m going to shed some light on it.
When we step into the garden of rhetoric, what do we see?
We see tall trees, and tiny flowers.
The trees are the planks of this vast subject, ie the art of arguing, proving, inventing, memorising and delivery. The flowers are what we call the figures of speech.
These are literary devices created by the Ancient Greeks, added to by the Romans (and plundered mercilessly by Shakespeare) that influence listeners and readers. They have a dramatic effect; they work.
These devices range from the familiar alliteration, assonance, hyperbole and rhetorical question to the more obscure epizeuxis, catachresis and polyptoton, taking in tricolon, anaphora and anadiplosis on the way — to name a few.
Now, in case you think I’m showing off, this is what the Greeks and Romans called these devices. To use a phrase invented by Shakespeare, don’t dismiss them with ‘It’s Greek to me’, because they surround us every day; we just don’t know them well enough to recognise them. They’re in political speeches (Obama was a master of rhetoric; the jury’s out on Trump); they’re in the ads we read in the underground as we go to work; they’re in the leader articles of The Economist. (That’s a tricolon — grouping things in threes — by the way.)
They work because they’re invisible; they sneak in under the radar of our intellect, because they instinctively resonate with us. In the case of the tricolon, for instance, lists of three have been used in the earliest human communications, as they relate to how we process information. We recognise and respond to patterns, and three is the smallest number of elements needed for a pattern. So ‘blood, sweat and tears’ has entered the lexicon, as well as Julius Caesar’s ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’. Maybe divinity’s at work here, too, at least in western civilisation: the Holy Trinity has been a pillar of Christian belief for millennia.
As for alliteration — repeating consonant sounds — you’ll recognise that from poetry and Shakespeare (‘Full fathom five thy father lies’, from Ariel’s song in The Tempest). But alliteration abounds (there I go again) in ads and everyday language, too.
Instead of saying ‘death-avoiding’, ‘death-defying’ sounds better. Instead of ‘furniture made to look old’, we say ‘shabby chic’. Rather than ‘cowardly’, we might say ‘lily-livered’. And so on. Alliteration wires words and concepts together, because the patterns of consonant repetition sound better on the ear.
A final example is anaphora — starting each sentence with the same words.
When Winston Churchill spoke to Parliament in June 1940 about defiance in defeat, he said:
We shall fight on the beaches
We shall fight on the landing grounds
We shall fight in the fields and in the streets…
And Martin Luther King nailed anaphora in his iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech in August 1963. Delivered to over 250,000 civil rights supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., the speech ends on a peroration (another rhetorical figure), launching each new point with ‘I have a dream’. This is the 21-gun salute, the climax, where King cranks things up, tears down injustice with his words and moves us with his vision of a just and equal society.
So, good writing is not the preserve of rare geniuses. We can write well by using the devices that have been around for 2,500 years. That’s why in my recent book I say that ‘writing well is neither a black art nor an innate gift, but a learnable skill.’