Monday, February 09, 2015

Rhetoric as an Art

Persuasion, Seduction, and Con-jobs:
Rhetoric and Propaganda

a lecture by Michaelangelo Allocca

"The broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily," is chilling, even if you don't know that Hitler said it in Mein Kampf, about the efficacy of the "big lie."  Yet the nature of rhetoric as an art which sways audiences through emotional seduction, at least as much as through rational persuasion, has been recognized as far back as Socrates. (from the introduction to the lecture)

George Orwell wrote in 1944 that "Only a few exceptionally gifted speakers can achieve the simplicity and intelligibility which even the most tongue-tied person achieves in ordinary conversation." ("Propaganda and Demotic Speech").  While his point was that most speakers are unable to produce a speech in reasonably conversational English, his argument suggests to me a question:  what makes powerful speeches effective, above and beyond simplicity and intelligibility?

Last Friday Michaelangelo Allocca, Staff Chair and Instructor, Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults , the University of Chicago, presented a lecture that provided an answer to that question.  The lecturer opened with a quote from William Penn on the potential for misuse of rhetoric:  "There is a truth and beauty in rhetoric; but it oftener serves ill turns than good ones.”  Throughout the lecture he used references to thinkers from the age of Socrates and Aristotle to the present one, thus providing a tour guide to the basics of rhetoric and propaganda with examples from "a few exceptionally gifted speakers". 
The lecture continued with the quote from Hitler (above) and a definition of propaganda proposed by Antonio Gramsci, the Italian linguist, sociologist, and Marxist theoretician.  He equated propaganda with the world view of a power structure.  In Gramsci's terms use of the media as propaganda enable a certain world view.  A popular example provided in the lecture was the Super Bowl as a cultural event.  

We can trace the origins of speech and rhetoric back to Classical Greece with in the dialogues of Plato.  For example, in the Phaedrus he describes speech as a type of seduction, an instance of the power of Eros in human lives.( Phaedrus, 258d)  The discussion in this dialogue highlights the connection between speech making and love.  Plato's student Aristotle defined rhetoric based on his observations in his book entitled On Rhetoric.  Here Aristotle categorized rhetoric into three types of persuasion, namely:  those derived from the character (ethos) of the speaker, when speaking he shows himself fair minded and trustworthy;  those derived from emotion (pathos) aroused by a speaker in an audience;  and those derived from true or likely argument (logos).  Rhetoric is seen as a sort of offshoot of, or counterpart to, dialectic.    Further, Aristotle identified types of rhetoric by the purpose for which it was used.  There are also three of these:  parliamentary  or deliberative regarding an action in the future;  judicial regarding an action in the past;  and praise or blame without judgement of a past or future action (epideictic).  

The lecture continued with examples from literature and history.  In Shakespeare's drama Julius Caesar we see Brutus followed by Mark Antony both making effective speeches demonstrating these principles.  Yet, there are modern examples in the speeches of Adolf Hitler (as documented in the film Triumph of the Will and elsewhere) and John F. Kennedy's inaugural address.  Perhaps the best examples of great rhetoric can be found in the speeches of Abraham Lincoln.  This was an enlightening and rhetorically pleasing lecture that truly demonstrated its subject.

All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays,  George Orwell.  Harcourt, 2008.
On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse,  Aristotle, George A. Kennedy, trans.  Oxford University, 1991.
Selections from the Prison Notebooks,  Antonio Gramsci.  International Publishers, 1971.


Brian Joseph said...

This is fascinating to me.

I have often thought how both fictional and real life speech makers are not always so great people, even if they deliver great speeches.

Of course Mark Antony from Julius Caesar comes to mind. I also think that Henry V is a great example. What I find interesting about Shakespeare's great rhetoricians is that I find them so inspiring despite the fact that I am aware that they may be trying to pull the wool over my eyes. Such is the power of great speech.

James said...


Henry V is truly a great example. That and others in Shakespeare demonstrate his command of rhetoric as well as poetry.
Other examples suggested in the Q and A session included Churchill and, one of Lincoln's contemporaries, Frederick Douglass.