If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
Today, rhetoric gets a bad rap and its definition to most people would be summed up from the verse from 1 Corinthians 13 from the Bible.
Rhetoric has come to mean empty words and insincerity, but it wasn’t always this way.
Rhetoric – the art of persuasion was a vital part of Roman politics and social discourse. The Roman Empire may have had its Caesars and Emperors but his word was not always law. Like in democracies today, there is a head of state, a Senate and a lower house and the Empire functioned in many respects, by the consent of the governed.
The plebeians outnumbered the patrician class by an order of magnitude and life wasn’t any good for anyone if there was a general strike or mass rebellion. So the ruling classes – from Emperors down to Magistrates and lawyers had to persuade the largest number of people to their case.
Without mass media and social media, and even without the humble printing press and public address system, getting the message out to the greatest number of people and without it becoming lost in translation, was a work of art in itself. And they called it rhetoric and oratory.
The Romans helped their cause by erecting buildings such as the Forum and various bascilica to have outstanding acoustics. In fact, the acoustics were so good that the Christian church adopted, then modelled, churches in that design to ensure that Mass could be heard even by those sitting in the back pews.
But what of the speakers themselves? Effective rhetoric – the use of persuasive language was one important part – the second was oratorical gestures used for emphasis. In effect, public speaking became performance art and specific gestures – expansive arms for inclusion, and hand up for silence — had specific meanings.
Although theatrical gesticulation by public speakers disappeared in the 20th century when film and television gives us front row seats, we are still attuned to body language – not a new term, but coined by Cicero in 50 BC: ‘sermo corporis’.
Here is a fabulous example, delivered here with sublime effect by Charlton Heston in the 1970 film version of Julius Caesar.
As a playwright, Shakespeare knew the power of oratory only too well, and he uses it to masterful effect in Mark Anthony’s speech in Julius Caesar.
In the speech that follows, Antony merely sets the table for dissent. He progressively hits upon the notes of ambition and honourable in a cadence that soon calls both terms into question. Antony’s prime weapons at the beginning are his conspicuous ambiguity regarding Caesar (“If it were so, it was a grievous fault”) and Brutus (“Yet Brutus says he was ambitious”), rhetorical questions (“Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?”) and feigned intent (“I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke”). More chilling, however, is Antony’s cynical epilogue to the funeral speech as the mob departs: “Now let it work: mischief, thou art afoot/Take thou what course thou wilt!” As Antony exemplifies, the art of persuasion is not far removed in Julius Caesar from the craft of manipulation.
You can find the rest of this fascinating analysis here.
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