Oratory

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Oratory

Post  eddie on Wed Oct 19, 2011 6:23 pm

You Talkin' to Me? by Sam Leith – review

A history of clever speaking from Aristotle to Obama

Charlotte Higgins
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 13 October 2011 10.30 BST


Words to the wise: Cartman and Kyle in South Park. Photo: Sky

When we think of rhetoric, the phrases that spring most readily to mind are "rhetorical question" and "empty rhetoric" – formulations suggestive of the redundancy and the untrustworthiness of the ancient art. Rhetoric as a learned skill – a pillar of every gentleman's education from antiquity to the Renaissance and beyond – long ago withered away as a discrete branch of learning. For the most part, it's regarded as something slightly suspect politicians do, or an unfamiliar craft to be sweatily and imperfectly acquired shortly before one is called on to make a wedding speech.


You Talkin' To Me?: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama
by Sam Leith

Sam Leith's You Talkin' to Me?, a highly entertaining and erudite whisk through the subject, shows how far this is from the truth. Rhetoric, as our medieval forefathers knew, is everywhere – we have simply lost the eyes to see it and the art to grasp it. The advertising copywriter, argues Leith, is no less a rhetorician than the statesman; the rapper no less than the Thucydidean general rousing his troops before battle. If you want to talk your way out of a lover's tiff, or pitch your complaint letter just right, or – yes – get that best man's speech down pat, you'd better know something about rhetoric. The art is, Leith shows, one of deliberative speech: persuasive words employed to fulfil our own ends. It is, in short, hustling.

One of the charms of this book is Leith's ease with his material, both high and low. He handles the important ancient texts, which can be rebarbative in their raw form, with a deliciously light touch, without sacrificing seriousness or finesse. He is determined to impart a working knowledge of the vocabulary of rhetoric – how to tell, for example, an asyndeton from an anaphora, and a zeugma from an epizeuxis. He is comfortable with Plato and Aristotle, two of the most important early writers on rhetoric. He is at home with the finer points of the fifth-century Athenian constitution, which explain why rhetoric, as a taught skill, came about at all. (In a direct democracy, when anyone could steer the ship of state by standing in the assembly and convincing fellow citizens of their point of view, persuasion was a skill worth having, and dozens of teachers, or sophists, suddenly arrived on the scene to feed the ambitions of budding politicians.)

But Leith is also illuminating on why, when photographed snorting cocaine, Kerry Katona inevitably ceased to be the face of the supermarket chain Iceland, whereas Kate Moss, similarly discovered in compromising circumstances, survived with her advertising contracts intact. (It's all about "ethos" – Aristotle's concept of projecting appropriate character, which modern marketing folk would now call "brand identity".) He had me squawking with laughter too when, via close readings of both, he compares the Athenian sophist Gorgias's encomium of Helen of Troy with the extremely silly song "Kyle's Mom's a Bitch" from the 1999 film South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. Reading this book is the equivalent of lounging in a leather club armchair, wreathed in cigar smoke and a couple of whiskies down, alongside a companion who's being funny and clever about Homer and Hello! magazine by turns and who manages to stay a hair's breadth this side of being annoyingly flip. (I choose my imaginary location with care: Leith has a habit of beginning sentences with phrases such as "An eccentric nobleman of my acquaintance …" or "A friend of mine, the daughter of a baronet …", which may not project quite the right "ethos" for some readers.)

The book is, of course, a work of persuasion in itself. The first two pages alone contain a number of the rhetorical tropes Leith will later introduce and define, including the good old rhetorical question, apostrophe, tricolon, alliteration, exemplum, anaphora and a rather splendid praeteritio (where one announces what one is not going to mention as sly a way, in fact, of mentioning it). As such, it works well, for the most part. It's not hard to agree that a little rhetorical knowledge is a wonderful thing, and Leith's work will indeed prove instructive as well as entertaining to those called on to speak in public. While reading it, I was reminded of a show at the Edinburgh festival fringe this year. Called May I Have the Pleasure … ?, it featured performance artist Adrian Howells reminiscing about being a best man – a service he has rendered to friends and family eight times. It was difficult to account for his popularity in the role on the evidence of one of the wedding videos he bravely showed: you could see the friendship draining out of the newlyweds' faces as Howells joked in his speech that he'd had to show the groom the location of the bride's "front bottom". Had he been able to read Leith first, he would have known this to be a rhetorical failure of "decorum", or suitability of material to occasion or audience.

However, though Leith acknowledges the various moral objections to "clever speaking" down the ages – not least from Plato, who was an early sceptic when it came to the polished phrases of those of his fellow Athenians bent on power – he does get a little carried away by his own rhetoric. He is perhaps a touch too much of a cheerleader for an art that many have been right to regard with suspicion. So anxious was Cicero about rhetoric's dark power – the fateful gap between word and deed – that his work on the subject aimed to demonstrate that only those skilled in philosophy, only those with a true understanding of the good, could make excellent rhetoricians. Leith provides a sharp exegesis of what makes Barack Obama a superb speaker; he has less to say on the gulf between the president's oratorical genius and his ability to govern.

Charlotte Higgins is the author of It's All Greek to Me (Short Books).

eddie
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Re: Oratory

Post  eddie on Thu Nov 03, 2011 8:00 am

Ask what your headmaster can do for you: JFK's 'borrowed' speech

Biographer claims John F Kennedy's most famous piece of oratory resembles words spoken by head of his prep school

Reuters in New York
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 2 November 2011 13.37 GMT


'Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country,' said JFK. Photograph: Sipa Press / Rex Features

John F Kennedy's most famous turn of phrase was inspired by the headmaster of his New England prep school, according to a new book on the only US president to have won a Pulitzer prize.

In his 14-minute 1961 inaugural speech, which addressed the US role in the cold war, Kennedy told Americans to "ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country".

Kennedy, it turns out, had heard something like it before.

Two documents that MSNBC television host Chris Matthews unearthed for his book Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero show that the future president's headmaster at the elite Choate boarding school in Connecticut in the early 1930s had used a similar exhortation.

"The youth who loves his alma mater will always ask not 'What can she do for me?' but 'What can I do for her?'" the headmaster said, quoting a Harvard University dean.

The book says that Kennedy, who was nearly expelled from Choate for his rebellious high jinks, boosted his 1960 presidential bid with small but well-timed moves.

For instance, before a televised presidential debate between Kennedy and then vice-president Richard Nixon, both candidates agreed not to use makeup.

But at the last minute, unbeknown to his opponent, Kennedy applied a thin layer of makeup, Matthews's book says.

Kennedy's 1957 Pulitzer prize for Profiles of Courage, a credential that helped bolster his prestige as a candidate, was "no happy accident", the book says.

In fact, Kennedy's father, Joseph Kennedy, had lobbied members of the Pulitzer screening board one at a time.

Kennedy was assassinated less than three years after taking office. The book is being published this week by Simon and Schuster.

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