Magi Mike's Blog

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Charlotte Higgins on America’s New Cicero

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Barack Obama’s speeches are much admired and endlessly analysed. The sheer numbers of people who have heard him speak live set him apart from his rivals, recalling the politics of ancient Athens, where the public speech given to ordinary voters was the motor of politics, and where the art of rhetoric matured alongside democracy.

But, says Charlotte Higgins—author of a Short Book on how Ancient Greece has shaped our world—in an article in The Guardian, 26 November, 2008, one of their most interesting aspects is the enormous debt they owe to the oratory of the Romans, and, through sermons, the church, which taught the rhetorical tradition of the ancients as practically useful to its aims, while destroying most of the rest of classical tradition. To understand the next four years of American politics, we will need to understand something of the politics of ancient Greece and Rome. The Greeks and Romans discovered all there was to know about rhetoric, and they put a name to most of the devices it used.

Unlike most politicians who make a point of dumbing down the content of their addresses, Obama’s speeches respect the intelligence of their audience. The adjective used to describe Obama’s oratorical skill is “Ciceronian”. Cicero, the outstanding Roman politician of the late republic, was the greatest orator of his time, and one of the greatest in history, though, more immediately, Obama looks to Lincoln, Roosevelt and King.

Winston Churchill recommends it!

Winston Churchill recommends it!

Like Cicero, Obama is a lawyer. Like Cicero, Obama entered politics without family backing or a military record, in contrast to his rivals McCain and the Clintons who had one or the other. Like Cicero, Obama is a writer of enormous accomplishment—Dreams From My Father, Obama’s first book, will surely enter the American literary canon, Higgins says. In the intricacies of speechifying, Obama recalls Cicero—Obama knows and uses them, too. Like Cicero, Obama likes “tricola”, the linking of three words or phrases, as in Caesar’s veni, vidi, vinci. In his 4 November speech, Obama said, “Our campaign… began in the backyards of Des Moines and the living rooms of Concord and the front porches of Charleston”, which is a tricolon. In the 2004 Democratic convention speech, Obama used the technique of “praeteritio”—drawing attention to a subject by not discussing it. Higgins notes that Obama excels in the projection of ethos. In his book On The Orator, a book which aspiring politicians must read now, surely, he argues that real eloquence can be acquired only if the speaker has attained the highest state of knowledge—“otherwise what he says is just an empty and ridiculous swirl of verbiage”.

The true orator is one whose practice of citizenship embodies a civic ideal—whose rhetoric is not empty, as McCain tried to imply, but is the deliberate, rational, careful organiser of ideas and argument that propels the state forward safely and wisely. Higgins asks finally, “Can Obama’s words translate into deeds?”.

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Written by mikemagee

1 December, 2008 at 4:44 pm

Posted in Politics

Tagged with , ,

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