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, I was 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 in Ancient Greece, where there were many lawsuits over land ownership. It was seen as an essential tool to hold on to one’s 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 rhetoric 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 rhetoric has remained important. From Rome to the Renaissance it marked the well-educated individual.
The Concise Oxford English Dictionary gives as its first definition of rhetoric: “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 adds that “rhetoric” 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 the “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech 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 rhetoric comes in all shapes and sizes. We remember that it can be written as well as spoken: from Cicero on natural law to Cassius Longinus’s 3rd-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 “Well he would, wouldn’t he?” from Mandy Rice-Davies. Even my Ukrainian housekeeper had heard that one.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection