Rhetoric, the magical art of persuasion, has its roots in 4th-century Athens. But turn on the TV news and you’ll almost certainly spot at least one of the many rhetorical devices that people have used throughout history and are still using today to get their message across.
The environmental activist Greta Thunberg has mastered the art of persuasion at a young age. In her speech before the delegates at the UN climate summit in New York last September, she said: “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope? How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. […] People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in [at] the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
By asking “How dare you…?” She was posing a rhetorical question, a question she didn’t expect them to answer but hoped they would reflect on. She then asked that same question three more times, with increasing levels of anguish. This turned it into another rhetorical device, epiplexis - a series of rhetorical questions designed to express indignation and grief. Although Thunberg is an expert at expressing indignation, she’s the last person you might expect to do it through rhetoric. Thunberg has made it clear on many occasions that she’s not impressed by words but wants action. In fact, one of her first accusations to the UN delegates was precisely this: “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.” And so the fact that even Thunberg uses rhetorical devices (unconsciously), demonstrates just how prevalent they are in 21st century discourse.
Back in the mid-4th century BC, the Greek orator Demosthenes made four extremely angry speeches to his fellow Athenians, criticising Philip II, king of Macedon. Demosthenes claimed that Philip was the very worst enemy of Athens and urged the Athenians to take action and resist Philip by force. His four anti-Philip speeches became known as “the Philippics”.
In the field of politics, a philippic is a strongly critical speech or tirade made against an opponent. Not all of us use philippics in everyday life but at least we can give a name to what politicians do to each other most of the time, like Donald Trump did during the US presidential election campaign: “You know Hillary… Hillary… crooked Hillary, right? Crooked… she’s crooked as you can be. Crooked Hillary! Now crooked Hillary, she said, very strongly, ‘I don’t like the tone of Donald Trump’, the tone…”
While Donald Trump doesn’t have the reputation for being a fine rhetorician, in his tirade against Hillary Clinton, he did follow the pattern of Demosthenes’ speech against Philip II... although in a very basic way. First Trump made a damning attack: “Crooked Hillary”, followed by a call to action: “Lock her up”.
In 47 BC, another statesman, Julius Caesar, won a quick victory over Pharnaces II at the Battle of Zela and then, so we’re told, wrote a letter to the Roman Senate describing what had happened. His minimalist summary in Latin, “veni, vidi, vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered) is an impressive example of a tricolon: a short, three-part, grammatically parallel phrase. Abraham Lincoln famously used a tricolon in his 1863 Gettysburg Address, made during the American Civil War. He speaks of the government being “of the people, by the people, and for the people”.
A tricolon is easy to remember and because of the intonation pattern that occurs in a three-part phrase, at least in English, there is also an important sense of completeness to it. While intonation tends to rise in the first two elements of the phrase, it then falls in the third. Notice the intonation in this example: “My body , my choice , my right ”. It’s a slogan of the pro-choice movement that advocates the right of women to choose to have an abortion. The original slogan was “My body, my choice” - only two elements, but the more definitive-sounding tricolon version is now also used. To finish with a purely commercial example, there’s Ebay’s super snappy advertising tricolon: “Buy it. Sell it. Love it.”
Continuing with the theme of advertising, what do the brands Coca-Cola and KitKat have in common, apart from their products being bad for your teeth? It is, of course, their alliterative names. There’s something strangely satisfying in the sound of a repeated first letter. Companies often create advertising slogans built around alliteration. They’re memorable and appeal to our sense of music in language. Take Land Rover’s slogan “the Best 4x4xFar”: say that in words and you have three satisfyingly memorable Fs: Four by Four by Far.
Rhetoric is clearly everywhere and should be for everyone. Enjoying rhetoric can be as simple as spotting philippics on the campaign trail and alliteration in ads or adding the occasional rhetorical question or tricolon to your conversation.