A rhetorical question

November 06 2015

You know what rhetoric is, don't you? We all do, a bit: because we all use it every day. But most of us don't think that hard about it: like the fish in the old joke who wonders: "What's water?" I want to use the opportunity of the Listserve to make a plea on behalf of my favourite subject.

We often hear the word used to mean something negative: politicians are attacked for using "empty rhetoric", and a "rhetorical question" is a question that doesn't want an answer -- not a real question, in other words. People with a sense of "classical rhetoric" might think of something boring involving togas and long Latin and Greek words.

But rhetoric, simply put, is persuasive language: which, one way and another, means almost every bit of language you come across. Every advert you see is rhetoric. Every compliment to a lover. Every memo to a colleague. We all spend our lives constantly wanting things -- money, a kiss, that overdue report on our desk now -- and the way in which we get those things, through language, is rhetoric.

So understanding how it works is a way of understanding human nature. And it is, for those so inclined, a way of getting a closer look at the glories of language: the way a sentence can be given a memorable cadence, the way it can be linked to other sentences with sound-effects and repetition, and the foxy ways in which arguments can be finessed.

Rhetoric goes back further than the birth of Christ -- Aristotle, in the 4th century BC, laid down the ground-rules -- and reaches right into the age of Twitter.

Aristotle said that someone convinces you in three ways: ethos, pathos and logos. Ethos is the speaker's (or writer's) appeal to the audience: are they honest, impressive, authoritative, sympathetic? Pathos is the way the speaker sways his audience's emotions: rousing anger, or pity, or laughter. Logos covers the actual arguments that are used.

But at the smaller level, rhetoric furnishes us with ways of thinking about almost anything language can do. Listen to any political speech, and you'll hear things bunched in groups of three (tricolon), phrases repeated at the beginnings of successive sentences (anaphora), ideas placed in the balance against each-other (antithesis) and, of course, our old friend the rhetorical question (erotema).

If you start to notice it, you start to see the world in a different way: you'll take pleasure in good argument and skilful use of language, you'll get better at telling when someone's trying to put one over on you, and you'll be better at mounting arguments and persuasive appeals of your own.

I love the subject so much I even wrote a simple introduction to it, which is (I hope) an easy read and full of jokes -- though in the spirit of the Listserve I won't link to it here. (If you're interested, my Twitter profile @questingvole has details.)

Anyway, that's the pitch: if studying rhetoric was interesting to Cicero, Shakespeare and Abe Lincoln... isn't it worth your while dipping in? That's a rhetorical question too.


Sam Leith
[email protected]

PS - Tell us about yourself, the Listserve suggests. Well, since you ask, I judged this year's Man Booker prize and I have a third nipple.

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