Squeeze a dollop of today’s society out onto a petri dish, stare at it for a while, and inevitably you’ll come to realize that most of those bright little colourful clusters flitting about in the slime are powered by a potent, barely visible urge to dominate. Crank up the lens another fold or two and you’ll notice that these same, multifariously motivated, now bigger-looking clusters, spend virtually all of their time trying to penetrate, twist and manipulate the minds of each of the millions of half-witted free floating cells contained in the self same great grey gelatinous goop that clouds the dish.
(Dispensing with metaphor for the sake of clarity: Interest groups, political parties and corporations, in order to – influence legislation/obtain funding/attain power/generate revenue – need to package their positions and messages persuasively in order to attract public support/maintain customers loyalty).
Dial the time machine back 2500 years and you’ll observe that although the technology isn’t quite what it is today, most of the best, penetrating, twisting ploys have, over the millennia, remained the same.
Which is why Aristotle’s Rhetoric should be required reading for all compleat modern professional communicators.
Introduction of a new-fangled way of running society – democracy – in Fifth Century BC – placed political power within the grasp of all who could sway and slay juries and assemblies. Ergo, demand for media training – the art of speaking and presenting persuasively – exploded (as, I imagine, it did for sales training when humankind originally clued into the barter/commerce racket). Throughout the following century, textbooks on argumentation, methods of rousing the emotions, and choice figures of speech, flew off the shelves as fast as papyrus stems could be ripped out of the ground.
According to one-time University of Toronto classics professor G.M.A.Grube, many of these works, notably Rhetorica Ad Alexandrum, displayed completely cynical, amoral attitudes, concerning themselves only with how to use arguments and rhetorical devices to best effect, regardless of intent. It is as an attack against this amoral backdrop that Aristotle’s Rhetoric must be appreciated.
Plato, before Aristotle, said that if rhetoric was to be an art, then its practitioners required knowledge both of the human soul and its different parts and functions, and of the different types of arguments and their appeal to different types of men. Aristotle delivers this in the first two books of the Rhetoric. In the third he deals with style, a most important topic, one upon which the remainder of this article will dwell citing with some liberties, a series of choice examples from the advice proffered:
These three things should be aimed for: metaphor (i.e. the loss of the cities youth during the war was as if Spring had been taken out of the year); antithesis (i.e. by bridging the Hellesport and digging through Mount Athos, they sailed over the land and marched over the sea); and vividness.
Style and delivery, although really superfluous, must be deployed because of the depravity of the audience. The power of the written word depends on style rather than content.
The first principle of style is to use good Greek (English, French), also, to use specific rather than general terms, and to avoid ambiguity, unless one deliberately seeks it (i.e. you have nothing to say). What we write should be easy to read and easy to speak.
Speech is not fulfilling its function unless it is clear. Current nouns, adjectives and verbs make for clarity.
One must seem to be speaking in a natural and unstudied manner, for what is natural is convincing, what is studied is not. People distrust rhetorical tricks just as they distrust adulterated wine.
Epithets add something. They can emphasize the worse or shameful side of things, or their better aspect. Orestes, for example, can be called a matricide, or the avenger of his father.
An audience always shares the feelings of a passionate speaker, even when there is nothing in what he says.
Metaphors, antithesis, humour, parody, clarity (or the lack of it), style, epithets (‘Branding’), passion, action, movement, music, rhythm, repetition, name recognition, shaping your message for your audience – all play an important role in the persuasion business, all were originally identified by Aristotle. And, although he may not have anticipated how technology now enables us to create worlds of competing Boorstinean pseudo-realities, much of his wisdom on rhetoric is at play in the media culture we live in today.