Mar 14, 2009

Why Political Rhetoric is Awesome, Part I: The Greeks

"Rhetoric" as a subject first came into existence in, go figure, Ancient Greece. The Sophists sought to perfect their use of language to convince others of their opinions, calling themselves ῥήτωρες ('rhetores', public speakers). Aristotle wrote his Art of Rhetoric, in which he gave three different types of rhetorical proof: ethos, pathos, and logos.

  • Ethos refers to the credibility of the speaker--the greater the credibility, the more people are willing to believe.
  • Pathos refers to the emotional tools that change the audience's opinions--personal stories, anecdotes, or aggrandizement.
  • Logos refers to (you may guess) logic--persuasion through reason.

There are also three genres of public rhetoric: forensic, epideictic, and deliberative.

  • Forensic refers to using facts to discover the truth or falsehood of past events.
  • Epideictic refers to celebration, praise, blame, and other dealings with current events.
  • Deliberative refers to the prudence of choosing certain courses; future events.

Aristotle's writings were the primary source for the teaching and understanding of rhetoric for hundreds of years, up until the Renaissance.

We can see the uses of these types and genres within one of the earliest and most famous pieces of civic rhetoric: Pericles' Funeral Oration. The speech was given at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War, in memory of those who had died in the conflict.

In the Perooemium (introduction), Pericles, through epideictic use, praises the custom of honoring the dead. In an interesting twist, he establishes his own credibility through humbling himself: "the reputation of many [sh]ould not [be] imperiled on the eloquence or want of eloquence of one, and their virtues believed or not as he spoke well or ill." This automatically accomplishes the point of the entire speech by honoring the dead above all, especially above himself, their leader.

Pericles then spends most of the body of the speech explaining the political history of Athens, logically (inductively, in fact) tracing the path of a free society to power through virtue. Athens opens its doors wide to foreigners, but it doesn't dilute the culture. They also, he notes, allow anyone to do whatever he wants in private but are sure to remain vigilant to maintain public decorum. "While we are thus unconstrained in our private business, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws."

Here is where he makes the rhetorical connection. In a bit of pathos (exaggeration and emotional pull) and logos (seeking to make a deduction), Pericles shows that the war dead are but an outward manifestation of Athens itself. "[F]or the Athens that I have celebrated is only what the heroism of these and their like have made her...none of these men allowed either wealth with its prospect of future enjoyment to unnerve his spirit, or poverty with its hope of a day of freedom and riches to tempt him to shrink from danger. No, holding that vengeance upon their enemies was more to be desired than any personal blessings, and reckoning this to be the most glorious of hazards, they joyfully determined to accept the risk... Thus, choosing to die resisting, rather than to live submitting, they fled only from dishonor."

Now, he deliberates. The future, he reminds the gathered Athenians, is for them: "So died these men as becomes Athenians. You, their survivors, must determine to have as unaltering a resolution in the field, though you may pray that it may have a happier outcome." It reminds any American student of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address:

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government : of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Next: The Romans--Caesars, Catos, and Cicero


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