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The Nation: A Few Words About Rhetoric

2 minute read

The Greeks created the word for it: politikos. They also had plenty of other words to define the various rhetorical ploys that are the very breath of politics. That is the wry message of a new book called that pestilent cosmetic, rhetoric, by Sol Chaneles, a New York University sociologist, and Jerome Snyder, author-illustrator. In it they provide some updated definitions for classical rhetorical terms plus piquant examples from contemporary national politics.

Under categoria (“direct exposure of an adversary’s faults”) they cite John F. Kennedy’s angry outburst against price rises by U.S. Steel: “My father always told me that all businessmen were sons of bitches, but I never believed it until now.” A standing political favorite is dichaeologia (“in defense of one’s blemished reputation or failings, to place blame on extenuating circumstances, bad information furnished by sly enemies, betrayal by subordinates or former friends”). Champion in this category is the well-known loser of the 1962 California gubernatorial race: “You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more.” Another master rhetorician, Spiro Agnew, has achieved signal results through oxymoron (“a figure designed to convey a truth by linking terms or phrases that are contradictory”). Example: “Protest is every citizen’s right, but that does not ensure that every protest is right.”

In their half-whimsical, half-serious catalogue, the literate authors’ own highly ambivalent feelings about the art of rhetoric emerge: “It is the bag of crafty tricks for common word-mongers; it is the sublime esthetic for the consummate orator.” That plainly smacks of enthymeme (“out of the seeming clash of contraries a meaning”), as in “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

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