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Obama and Cicero – what we should learn. December 1, 2008

Posted by Sverre in : Uncategorized , trackback

Although I freely admit I might not be the best practicioner of good rhetoric, I’ve had a keen interest in the theory of rhetorics for years. I’ve read a bit of both Aristotle, Cicero and others and find it all to be extremely fascinating. Tore O. Sandvik’s blog highlights an article by Charlotte Higgins in The Guardian which I recommend to everyone.

obamaciceroShe discusses Barack Obama’s use of classical rhetorical tricks of the trade, linking it among others to the great Marcus Tullius Cicero. One of the points she discusses is the negative association the very word rhetoric has aquired. Rhetoric may indeed be used to cloud a subject and befuddle an audience, but I wonder how much important knowledge has been lost on account of bad rhetoric by scientists. I’m sure I have missed a lot of important insights because articles and lectures were just so damn boring I stopped paying attention.

So scientists of the world – read Higgins’ article, read Cicero, read Aristotle. Reinvigorate your style of writing and make sure your knowledge lives on.


1. Simon Carter - March 7, 2009

Sverre, your point re negative connotations of rhetoric is an interesting one.

I think you’re right on two counts:
– ‘Rhetoric’, as Charlotte H points out, is usually linked ot ’empty’
– But good uses of rhetoric might make meanings clearer.

On the second point, I’ve just done a comparison of Obama’s and UK PM Brown’s speeches. I’ve looked at tricolons, but also other techniques that make meaning clear – short sentences and lower syllable counts.

You’ll find it here: http://www.onethreefour.co.uk/2009/03/06/magic-of-threes/

I think there’s definitely an argument for combining rhetoric techniques with simple clear-writing ideas. A ‘clarity rhetoric’ maybe…

Best regards and keep up your interesting work.

2. sverrebm - March 12, 2009

As Aristotle and Plato themselves were concerned with, there are great differences between rhetoric and what was referred to as sophism. The first is a way of expressing yourself clearly and the discovery of truth, while the latter is a way of obfuscating reality through play with words. When people in modern days refer to ‘rhetoric’ in a derogatory manner, it is really sophism they are accusing the speaker of.