Feature Stories Campus Events All Stories

New W&L Class Examines Rhetoric from Plato to Today’s Politicians

What better time to teach the rhetorical principles of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian than during the heat of a presidential election?

The U.S. political scene combined with the upcoming student-run Mock Republican Convention on Washington and Lee University’s campus provide a fitting backdrop for David Carlisle, a visiting assistant professor of classics, to introduce a new course, “The Language of Leadership: Classical Rhetoric in Theory and Practice.”

“I think people become much more interested in how words can influence others in public speaking because of Mock Con and the presidential election,” said Carlisle.

So it was that President Obama’s State of the Union address gave Carlisle a ready tool for teaching his class about anaphoras and polyptotons, epistrophes and anadiplosis. Carlisle provided his class the following examples from that speech of the President’s use of rhetorical repetition. President Obama’s quotations are in italics followed by Carlisle’s explanation.

This nation is great because we built it together. This nation is great because we worked as a team. This nation is great because we get each other’s backs. “This is repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of each sentence and is called an anaphora.”—Carlisle.

Those of us who’ve been sent here to serve can learn a thing or two from the service of our troops. “This is repetition of words derived from the same root and is called a polyptoton.”—Carlisle.

What’s at stake aren’t Democratic values or Republican values, but American values. “This is repetition of a word or phrase at the end of several clauses and is called an epistrophe.”—Carlisle.

Ask yourselves what you can do to bring jobs back to your country, and your country will do everything we can to help you succeed. “This is repetition of a word occurring at the end of one clause and at the start of the next and is called an anadiplosis.”—Carlisle.

According to Carlisle, there has been an ongoing debate for at least the last 2,500 years about whether studying rhetoric is a good thing or whether it should be condemned and eliminated from society because of its potential to mask lies and deceive people. “In some contexts ‘rhetoric’ is now a dirty word and we’re going through a period when it is generally looked down upon in society,” he said. “The majority opinion is that the truth speaks for itself, and anyone who uses rhetoric must be doing so to cover something up. But the minority view is that it’s a good thing to study rhetoric and try and perfect it, and that it’s a powerful and useful thing.”

The practice of rhetoric, defined as the art of persuasive discourse, first rose to prominence in Classical Greece when democratic systems of government and justice were created. “Suddenly, law courts were administered by average people, and they realized that they needed to be able to convince other people that they were right when they argued a case, or argued for a particular political course of action,” said Carlisle.

Carlisle noted that rhetoric has largely fallen out of today’s education system, although it is still taught at some schools, whether from a philosophical, historical or practical point of view. (Carlisle’s class combines all three approaches.) “People don’t really study rhetoric anymore, so a lot of the modern examples of rhetoric, especially in political races, are cases where people have accidentally stumbled upon a rhetorical trick,” he said. “It’s what we call natural rhetoric, where a person is naturally talented in speaking and persuading people. In most cases the person didn’t think ‘I want to convince a person of something, so I’m going to use this particular trick.’ They just thought, ‘That’s a good way of putting this.’”

Carlisle said that one of the things he wants students to take away from his class is that rhetoric is only as good or bad as the person who wields it. “In today’s politics, different people have different rhetorical tricks,” he said. “One of the most common is to change the emotional appeal of a word by associating it, or replacing it, with another word that has already built up a positive or negative association.

“For example, politicians use ‘family values’ as a code word to say they don’t support gay rights. They call President Obama a ‘socialist’ when he clearly doesn’t fit the description if you actually sit down and think about it. But they don’t really care whether it is true or not. What they care about is the word ‘socialist’ having a generally negative effect in this country and getting people not to like Obama by calling him a socialist over and over again. Will it work? It probably will, and that’s one of the dark sides of rhetoric. It’s also one of the common things, across the board, that I see people using. It is also a part of rhetoric that if you say something enough times it makes it harder for a person to rebut it.”

Carlisle added that another popular rhetorical trick is the logical order in which a speaker puts things. “In classical rhetorical training there’s a great emphasis on structure and the idea that you can bury in the middle of your speech those things you don’t want people to pay attention to. You’ll see it again and again in public speeches or debates today. And speakers always end with an emotional platitude that gets everyone on their side.”

Rhetorical persuasion through an emotional appeal is something that goes back to the rhetorical handbooks of Classical Greece, which used emotion to construct the most persuasive argument, said Carlisle. “You can use different emotions. But emotional appeals, or pathos, do lie at the base of fear-based politics such as Nazism. And that can be the worst type of rhetoric and can lead to all sorts of bad decisions and actions.”

A second tool of persuasion is character-appeal, or ethos. “It’s essentially saying ‘I’m the kind of guy you can trust, so believe me when I say this.’ Like the emotion-based appeal, the character-based appeal tends to win elections,” said Carlisle. “For example, in the first George W. Bush election there was this idea circulating that he would be a nice person to sit down and have a beer with. That’s the character appeal in a nutshell.”

Logic is the third persuasive tool. “Logic has been traditionally considered a higher level of rhetoric but also one that doesn’t historically get you that much support, because it’s a lot harder to mask the truth with logical argument,” said Carlisle.

Carlisle cited various ways of dividing the study of rhetoric, including how you come up with topics, the structure of speech and stylistics — the different verbal techniques and construction of sentences. “Crescendo is an example of stylistics,” he said, “and is the arrangement of several elements in increasing order. For example, in ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,’ it is the order of the syllables. It starts with one syllable, then two, then three and then four. It builds up the impact of each phrase making each one seem a little weightier and ending on this rising tide of words.

“But, as Demosthenes said, there are three things that are most important in rhetoric — delivery, delivery, delivery,” sad Carlisle. “Delivery was considered the key to an effective speech. For example, if you listen to any of Hitler’s speeches, what he’s actually saying is not good rhetoric; it’s not even that persuasive. It does have the emotional argument that can be very effective in the right context, but it’s the way he delivered his speeches that you can see got to people in the end.”

In addition to studying the rhetoric of others, including classical speeches and those delivered at the Mock Convention next month, Carlisle’s students will practice their delivery on one another.

Said Carlisle: “I want students to at least consider the possibility that we might have a more nuanced understanding and therefore make better leadership decisions if we have a world more open to this traditional sort of public speaking.”

News Contact:
Sarah Tschiggfrie
News Director

If you know any W&L faculty who would be great profile subjects, tell us about them! Nominate them for a web profile.