The power to persuade

Rhetoric, the art of eloquent speaking, is nowadays regarded with deep suspicion:

  • It is seen as essentially dishonest, a way of at best dressing up the facts, at worst falsifying them completely
  • Politicians in particular are accused of using ‘mere' rhetoric, as though the more fluently something is expressed, the less true it is.

The classical world took a very different view. In democratic Athens, where every citizen had a voice in the assembly, there was a sense in which every man was a politician. As such, he needed to be able to express himself as effectively as he could. The well-born Roman also needed to be able to argue for his own or his family's interests before the Senate – or, if need be, in a court of law – so rhetoric played an important part in his education too.

Devious devices

Part of the problem, from the modern point of view, is that the ancients were so frank about their study of rhetoric. Today's politicians use many of the same rhetorical devices, but would not dream of admitting the fact (often because they do not realize that they are doing so).

Greek and Roman rhetoricians felt no shame whatever about discussing and deploying rhetoric. Here are just a very few of the hundreds of different devices used:

  • accumulatio – making a series of points one after another to build up an apparently overwhelming case (from which derives the English word accumulate)
  • anaphora – repeating the same formula for cumulative emphasis (‘I believe you are unscrupulous; I believe you are corrupt; I believe you are criminal ...')
  • apostrophe - seeming to address an idea or thing as though it were a person (‘O Athens, how you must weep to see this day!')
  • enumeratio - working through causes, effects or implications of something one by one (from which derives the English word enumerate)
  • hyperbole - exaggeration for effect
  • litotes - using a double-negative to make a positive point: ‘I am not unmindful of this problem ...'
  • pathos – an appeal to the audience's feelings (from which derives the English word pathetic)
  • personification – referring to a thing or quality as though it were a person (‘Justice herself recoils at such a decision ...')
  • apophasis – mentioning by not mentioning: ‘I'll say nothing of my opponent's recent bribery conviction ...'

Arguing both sides

The danger of rhetoric was that it did have a way of reducing what was supposed to be principled discussion to clever-clever game-playing. To the modern mind, it seems important that right should prevail by its own merits, not by the cunning and resourcefulness with which it is argued. Young Greek and Roman students would hardly have understood such a concern. They worked hard to gain the ability to argue both sides of any given case, selecting their facts and expressing them as best suited these positions.

More on sophistry: One school of Greek philosophers of the fifth century BCE, the Sophists, boasted of their ability to use rhetorical skill to ‘make the weaker argument the stronger'. So notorious did they become for this ability that ‘sophist' (originally derived from the Greek sophia, ‘wisdom') became the word for a clever arguer who used rhetorical trickery to mislead.

The validity of rhetoric

It is worth being aware of rhetoric because it is still very much in use by today's politicians, even if they work hard to hide the fact. It is of interest too because, over 2,000 years after its study was systematized, it remains very much a valid skill. Rhetoric is applied in the British legal system as opposing lawyers make a case for and against an offender.

Communication has never been more important. The ability to construct an argument, setting out a case clearly and persuasively, is as useful today as it was in ancient Rome or Greece.

Related topics

Impact of classical literature: Aristotle, Democracy

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