Monday, 31 March 2014

You Talkin’ to Me?

You Talkin’ to Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama by Sam Leith. Profile Books Ltd, London, 2011. pp294.

This review was written on July 11th 2012

I borrowed this book from Tommy Bacon who seemed to enjoy it.  I read it on Kindle because my eyesight is such as to make it difficult to read the book’s relatively small print.

Plato and Aristotle
The magic word is Rhetoric. It is about communication. The blurb on the jacket says that rhetoric is essentially about word power and persuasion. ‘It cajoles, inspires and bamboozles’. I found much of it turgid and confusing, particularly in the early chapters, and yet it seems an important contribution to our knowledge of communication in terms of oratory and the modern concept of oratory by persuasion and propaganda by political leaders. There are many allusions to ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, authors and literary figures – Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Cicero and others – and to more recent scribes such as Shakespeare. It includes numerous references to the oratory and its genesis delivered by political leaders such as Churchill, Hitler, Lincoln, Reagan and Obama.

Ahern and...
The later chapters deal at great length with the important role played by speech writers on behalf of current politicians and world leaders, and it would seem that most of the great speeches by these leaders were largely or entirely written by such backroom agents, although approved of and sometimes amended by the speaker. It was with some regret that I felt I was in terms of age unable to comprehend the first chapters because of the complexity of their content and because of the numerous words which were largely unknown to me and were highly specialised in the study of literature and language construction. In the appendix to the book 83 of these words are explained. The great majority were unknown to me and only a few were familiar but even some of these I did not understand their real context. Using the Kindle made it difficult to access the meaning of these obscure words (anaphora, antonomasia, apostiopesis, isocolon, prosopographia, syntheton, etc, etc.) In my schoolboy days I would have described these as jaw-breakers!

I expect that reading this book in my early years would have provided a useful insight into the English language and its origins, particularly if one had knowledge of Greek and Latin. The author is obviously well versed in these ancient tongues, and is familiar with the lives and contributions of the famous authors of these times. The young and fertile mind would better cope with the complexity of the early chapters of this book. Nevertheless the later chapters are interesting in revealing the importance of aspects of the English language which are the current hallmarks of political oratory and the role professional speech writers have in the service of our political leaders. I expect if I had read this book 60 years ago and if I had gone into politics instead of medicine, I would have carefully studied the later chapters  and learned to speak with the power and eloquence (and the facial and head mannerisms) of the great politicians and statesmen of modern times. If I am to judge correctly it is unlikely that any of our political leaders in Ireland during the last 90 years were served by a cohort of outstanding speech writers.

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