We are in the midst of a golden era of popular books on popular usage. Whether on punctuation (Lynne Truss’s 2003 game-changing Eats, Shoots & Leaves), grammar (Simon Heffer’s Strictly English) or even fonts (Simon Garfield’s Just My Type), these books brush the dust from subjects that many had thought consigned to school primers.
Sam Leith’s entertainingly brisk survey of rhetoric – “the attempt by one human being to influence another in words” – would seem to be cut from similar cloth. But whereas other writers on popular usage often lament the decline of their subjects and hearken back to the glory days of correct practice (usually their own childhoods), Leith, a former Daily Telegraph books editor, revels in his own subject’s atomisation.
While the formal study of rhetoric is pretty much extinct, rhetorical techniques have become embedded in our culture – “like the fish in its water, we can and do swim in it unthinkingly”. In consequence, while Leith follows a classical outline by splitting his book into five sections concerning the traditional rhetorical parts of invention, arrangement, style, memory and delivery, it is through a welter of colloquial examples and eccentric line readings that the book really comes alive.
John Milton’s rhetorical techniques in depicting the devil in Paradise Lost (1667) are compared with those employed by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in their satanic comedy Bedazzled (1967). Jennifer Lopez’s desperate assertion of authenticity, or ethos, in her 2002 song “Jenny from the Block” (“Don’t be fooled by the rocks that I got,/I’m still Jenny from the block”) is shockingly contrasted with Adolf Hitler’s similar attempts to identify with his audience in his 1933 address to workers at the Siemens Dynamo Works in Berlin (“Once I stood amongst you ... Deep inside me, I always remained what I had been before”).
Even seasoned rhetoricians are unlikely to have ever thought of comparing the ascending tricolon – a set of three terms, increasing in force – at the start of Mark Antony’s funeral speech from Julius Caesar (“Friends, Romans, countrymen ... ”) with the opening chords of AC/DC’s 1980 single “Back in Black” (“a single stressed syllable, then a trochee, then a dactyl ... DUM! DUH-Dum! DUH-duh-dum!”). This is erudite loopiness of the highest order.
A self-confessed rhetoric nerd, Leith delights in his subject’s ability to speak “half-truths and fine-sounding meaninglessness” as well as “ringing truths and vital declarations”. He charts the way that rhetoric has always been both an effective technique for persuading crowds and yet also perceived as a somewhat scurrilous art not too dissimilar from legerdemain. Barack Obama was criticised in the 2008 presidential election for his high rhetorical style and for being “just a person of words”. These criticisms echoed those aired more than 2,000 years earlier by both Plato and Aristophanes, who complained that rhetoric was the art of weak reasoning, “which by false arguments triumphs over the strong”. Of course, as Leith points out, this anti-rhetoric is, in itself, just another rhetorical strategy.
Like a cheerful schoolmaster, Leith pulls the reader by the ear through the dense thickets of Latin and Greek terms that have grown on the rhetorical field over the past two millennia.
Occasionally, the general fuzziness of rhetoric, with all its overlaps, interpenetrations and terminal terminology, threatens to gum things up but Leith is generally quick to escape. A somewhat lengthy disquisition on epideictic rhetoric (the rhetoric of praise and blame) is notably broken up by a discussion of the figural strategies of auxesis (the arrangement of clauses in a sequence of increasing extravagance) and epistrophe (the repetition of a word or phrase at the end of a sentence) in the cartoon South Park’s obscene song, “Kyle’s Mom’s a Bitch”. This may be a first.
Leith doesn’t try to challenge Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian and propose new guidelines for rhetoric. More’s the pity. Such is his lightness of touch that he would appear perfect for continuing the work of the illustrious George Puttenham, a 16th-century rake who attempted to anglicise every rhetorical term (for instance, hyperbole became “Loud Lyer”, while mycterismus – an insult with an accompanying gesture – became “The Fleering Frumpe”). While the formal study of rhetoric might have collapsed under its own weight, Leith offers a slimmed-down version that is sure to enlighten.
George Pendle is author of ‘Death: A Life’ (Three Rivers Press)
You Talkin’ To Me?: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama, by Sam Leith, Profile Books, RRP£14.99, 304 pages