Mon, 27 October 2014
Courtly political rhetoric
Today we continue our month-long celebration of deliberative rhetoric by looking back half a millennium to the European Renaissance.
Back in the European Renaissance, politics looked different. There were no brightly colored billboards along the side of the freeway on-ramp, no official newspaper endorsements of candidates, no candidate debates. There were, in fact, no candidates. That is not to say that there was no politics. Instead of working to get the vote of the average Joe, those who aspired to political power had to work another angle—they had to work the court.
Royal courts were the nexis of political life in the Renaissance. There were smaller courts for smaller authorities, but the courts of say, the king of France or the Queen of England might include thousands of people. Courtiers, these court members, could have their fortunes made because of the favorable impressions they made at court. There were offices of the court, including such fantastic positions as Gentleman of the Bedchamber, Doorward, and Groom of the Stool, which did, in fact, mean “stool” in two senses of the word. These were important positions that could secure your family’s influence for generations. Everyone was competing for these positions, so it became brutally important to make the right impression. You didn’t want to lose your chance to be Groom of the Stool. On the other hand, say or do the wrong thing and you could be exiled from court or from the country or worse. Many of the monarchs who were insecure had reasons to distrust the insubordinate at court and could punish absolutely anyone who undermined their authority at court. You don’t want to make a major social gaffe when you could literally lose your head for it.
In the context of the high stakes of court living, handbooks of behavior began to appear so that social climbers could politic their way to the top without doing anything stupid. These handbooks could be subtitled “How to Win Friends and Ingratiate People.” Giovanni Della Casa’s courtusie book, for example, gives the gentle reader the advice that it’s an “unmannerly part, for a man to lay his nose upon the cup where another must drink, or upon the meate another must eate, to the end to smell unto it” because, in a horrifying gaffe, “it may chance there might fall some droppe from his nose, that would make a man loath to it.” (qtd Richards 479). Ew. That would be so embarrassing.
But the master of masters of the hunt, the main man of gentle men was Baldassare Castiglione. Besides having an embarrassing first name, Castiglione was a courtier at the court of the Duke of Urbino, in Italy, where he was a poet, religious leader, soldier and all-around man around court. He wrote the most famous handbook of the Renaissance “The Courtier.” The Courtier is a dialogue, like the other text that it most resembles, Cicero’s De Oratore. It addresses the question of what makes the ideal Renaissance gentleman and the dialogues in it take place over several days, with multiple figures putting in their two cents, changing their minds and coining new terms to describe how to best do polite politics at court.
One of the most important of these terms was Sprezzatura. Sprezztura refers to making something difficult seem easy. As Castiglione’s character puts it, “I have found quite a universal rule which in this matter seems to me valid above all other, and in all human affairs whether in word or deed: and that is to avoid affectation in every way possible as though it were some rough and dangerous reef; and (to pronounce a new word perhaps) to practice in all things a certain sprezzatura [nonchalance], so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.”
This idea, to make whatever is done or said to appear as if it took no effort and no thought is one that has been valued in rhetoric for years. Cicero, in De Oratore, points out the values of “orations [that] were composed very simply” as if they sprang up from “nature and truth [rather] than from study and art.” (1.26).
For Castiglione and his fellow courtiers, sprezzatura, or nonchalance, was able to conceal
the art, the work that went into appearing witty, or poetic. One translation describes it as “an art without art, a negligent diligence, an inattentive attention” (Saccone 57). It’s the rhetorical equivalent of “oh this old thing?” Daniel Javitch, a 20th century scholar, defines Sprezzatura as “at once artifice made to seem natural and a seemingly effortless resolution of difficult. (56). If your excellent speech looks like it took a lot of time and effort, then you look like someone who takes a lot of time and effort, but if your excellent speech looks like you took no time at all, then you look like a genius.
One figure in the Courtier, Canossa, describes how this nonchalance can improve the practice of rhetoric: “I remember having read of some excellent orators … who endeavored to make everyone believe that they were ignorant of letters and, dissembling their knowledge, gave the impression that their speeches were made very simply, as if they had been prompted by nature and truth rather than study or artifice” (53).
Junior high kids get this. Remember the archetype of the slacker genius? We all knew one, or aspired to be one. The kid who sits in the back of class, playing tetris on her phone, until the most difficult math problem stumps the whole class and she’s the only one who solves it, or the guy who cuts class every day, but then turns in a final paper that wows the teacher into giving him an A. There’s something mystical about the idea that some people can skip all the work and still succeed.
This idea was all the more important in rhetoric, because if you labored over your work, not only did it look like you were not just naturally brilliant, but it might look like you weren’t sincere. We still kind of dislike the idea of the speechwriter in politics, who is crafting just the right words to make the voters feel outrage or sympathy on behalf of the politician. But if the politician appears to be speaking words that flow out naturally from the power of the moment filtered through a great and sensitive mind, we feel inspired rather than manipulated.
There is, perhaps, something dishonest in the idea of sprezzatura, but the figure of Canossa insists that it’s something that can’t be taught. Much like in De Oratore, there is a question in the courtier about how much any of this can be taught and how much is just something that you’re born with, a natural grace that accompanies everything you do.
The Book of the Courtier itself seemed to be charmed with natural grace. It was translated widely, most notably for English speakers, by Thomas Hoby, where it came to define manners and ideals in the age of Elizabeth and Shakespeare.
In fact, you can find traces of Castiglione in several of Shakespeare’s plays, especially those that take place in court, like Pericles who was, himself, a remarkable example of a courtier who sings, jousts, writes love poetry, and negotiates treacherous courts. Pericles’ daughter, Marina, is even more so the naturally talented courtier: she almost can’t help it how artistic, beautiful and smart she is, and though it gets her into trouble, it gets her out again. The talent that saves Marina, actually, is her rhetorical prowess. When she is sold to a brothel, She financially ruins the pimps when time and time again, she persuades the men who would take advantage of her to choose virtue over vice. This includes, as it would for a true courtier, when she must gently persuade those in positions of power. “Let not authority, which teaches you to govern others, be the means to make you misgovern much yourself,” she says to a lusty governor named Lysimachus, “If you were born to honor, show it now; If put upon you, make the judgment good that thought you worthy of it.”
Whether skill of the courtier comes from training or from inborn ability, it is crucial for courtiers like Pericles and Marina. This is the politics of the royal court, which seeks to cajole and charm those in power, so that they will say as Lysimachus did to Marina, “Thou art a piece of virtue, the best wrought up that ever nature made and I doubt not thy training hath been noble […] Hold, here’s more gold. If thou dost hear from me, it shall be for thy good.”
If you hear from me, in the future, I hope that it’s for your good as well. I’d love to hear from you. Contact us through our email mererhetoricpodcast, or check out on Twitter at mererhetoricked to make comments or suggestions for future podcasts. As a matter of fact, today’s podcast was the suggestion of an old classmateVincent Robert-Nicoud, who is not only a heck of a great Renaissance scholar, but he also always opened the door for me, which is an awful gentlemanly thing to do. He can have any office at my court that he wants—Grand Squire, Master of the Hunt. Only not the Gentleman of the Stool.
Sat, 18 October 2014
Welcome to Mere Rhetoric a podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren.
Last week we continued our conversation of deliberative rhetoric by talking about Saving Persuasion, a contemporary book about how rhetoric doesn’t have to be rhetortricky. Today we’re going to talk about one of the figures in political rhetoric who was really, really good at what he did and that made everyone around him very nervous. I’m talking about one of the most engaging political figures of ancient Athens: Demosthenes.
That name may sound vaguely familiar to those of you who are regular listeners because we mentioned Demosthenes as one of the great orators who got his start in logography. Logographers, as some of you might recall, were the pre-lawyer lawyers. They could be hired to write speeches for people going to court. They had to be savvy about what the jury would respond to and they had to write in a way that would represent their client. What they didn’t have to do, though, was deliver the speech.
We also mentioned that Demosthenes was all about delivery when we talked about the canons of rhetoric [canon boom] Really? Well, when we talked about the canons of rhetoric, one of the last ones was delivery, and Demosthenes reportedly thought delivery was the most important. He had an unnatural time at it, though, because he was allegedly born with a serious speech impediment. Plutarch says that Demosthenes had “a perplexed and indistinct utterance and a shortness of breath, which, by breaking and disjointing his sentences much obscured the sense and meaning of what he spoke.” More likely, Demosthenes said his “r”s like “l”s. I have a lot of sympathy for this, as someone who went to speech therapy herself until she was in junior high. I also had problems with my r’s and l’s and on top of it, I had a retainer. My mom, a writing teacher, thought this was fantastic, because Demosthenes learned to over come his speech impediment by way of—not a retainer—but pebbles in his mouth. As he learned to talk around the pebbles in his mouth, he became hyper aware of his diction and became a great orator. All of this is cold comfort to a twelve-year-old with orthodonty, but it worked out well for Demosthenes.
Really well. Demosthenes, who had been taking a sort of back-seat position as a logographer began to get more of a toehold in politics, by way of taking on “public” cases. You see, if you hated someone’s politics, you could sue them. Remember how some Republicans were going to sue Obama for abuse of power? It was like that. All. The. Time. So Demosthenes gets more into politics and begins writing public speeches like Against Androtion and Against Leptines and then Against Timocrates and Against Aristocrates Are you noticing a theme in these titles? Demosthenes was really taking to town all of the politicians who were allegedly corrupt and politics in ancient Athens were always personal. “Pretty much you try to paint the other guy as a villain beyond all villainy. Athens did smear campaigns better than anyone who ever put their opponent in grainy, slow-mo footage. Here’s a taste of Demosthenes’ accusations: “For on many occasions, men of Athens, the justice of the case has not been brought home to you, but a verdict has been wrested from you by the clamor, the violence and the shamelessness of the pleaders. Let not that be your case today, for that would be unworthy of you.” “In this court Leptines is contending with us, but within the conscience of each member of the jury humanity is arrayed against envy, justice against malice, and all that is good against all that is most base.” “do not think, gentlemen of the jury, that even Timocrates can lay the blame of the present prosecution upon anyone else: he has brought it on himself. Moved by desire to deprive the State of a large sum of money, he has most illegally introduced a law which is both inexpedient and iniquitous.”
These are awesome. But as anyone running a good campaign knows, it’s not enough just to slam the opponent; you also need to make a few campaign promises yourself. In 354 BC, Demosthenes outlined his policy of moderation and a scheme for financing in his first political oration, On the Navy, which is not to be confused with the Village People’s immortal classic, In the Navy. [sound bite, maybe]. With this speech, first of many, Demosthenes launched his political career in earnest. But what really drove Demosthenes’ career was a great opponent and that he had in Philip II of Macedon. As you might infer from the name, Philip II wasn’t an Athenian, but a Macedonian who was taking over other city states that were alarmingly proximate to Athens. Demosthenes saw Philip as a huge threat and warned the Athenians in his rousing First Phillipic. Unfortunately, Philip still conquered Athens.
This led to Demosthenes being able to give the second and third Phillipic, criticizing the attacker of his city and declaring it "better to die a thousand times than pay court to Philip." The Third Phillipic was his magnum opus in a lot of ways.
“But if some slave or superstitious bastard had wasted and squandered what he had no right to, heavens! how much more monstrous and exasperating all would have called it! Yet they have no such qualms about Philip and his present conduct, though he is not only no Greek, nor related to the Greeks, but not even a barbarian from any place that can be named with honor, but a pestilent knave from Macedonia, whence it was never yet possible to buy a decent slave.” Ooh, that’s good.
Philip did conquer Athens. But then he died. Demosthenes loved that. After Philip’s assassination, Demosthenes put a “garland on his head and white raiment on his body, and there he stood making thank-offerings, violating all decency” according to one account. In fact, after Philip was assassinated, Demosthenes’ classy rhetoric led an uprising of Athenians to finally break the Macedon army. It wasn’t successful and Philip’s son Alexander was in charge and—big surprise—Demosthenes hated him too. It was mutal. Alexander demanded the exile ofDemosthenes.
But the Athenians still loved him and he loved the people. “A project approved by the people is going forward,” he wrote in a public speech commemorating the defeat of his political enemy. Because of the way that Demosthenes had opposed kings and led the people into riot, he became vilified by all good monarchists for centuries. Here was this sneaky demagogue who could manipulate the people into rebellion.
If political types were antsy about Demosthenes, rhetoricians adored him, especially those with a republican bent. Cicero idealized Demosthenes’ orataional and political career, and Longinus and Juvenal praised him highly. Renaissance rhetoricians who were comfortable with his anti-monarach stance loved him too—John Jewel and Thomas Wilson. John Jay, Hamilton and Madison, the American founding fathers and authors of Federalist papers, also admired Demosthenes’ style. So if you like people and rhetoric, chances are, you’ll like Demosthenes.
In some ways, Demosthenes was an orator of the people all along. His style is relative plainspoken, abrupt and built on the assumption of sincerity. As Harry Thurston Peck puts it, Demosthenes "affects no learning; he aims at no elegance; he seeks no glaring ornaments; he rarely touches the heart with a soft or melting appeal, and when he does, it is only with an effect in which a third-rate speaker would have surpassed him. He had no wit, no humour, no vivacity, in our acceptance of these terms. The secret of his power is simple, for it lies essentially in the fact that his political principles were interwoven with his very spirit.” But even though Demosthenes gave the appearance of speaking out of the conviction of his soul 100% of the time, allegedly, he refused to speak off the cuff. He put a lot of work into making his words seem artless.
And that’s what our topic for next week is going to be—Sprezzatura, the art of making what you say seem artless. It’s a prime skill for politicians in our day as well as back in the Renaissance where the term was coined. We’ll talk about why the idea of pretending that you haven’t worked on your speech is so important again in this age of sincerity. If you have things that you’re sincerely interested in, why not write to us at email@example.com? You can send us ideas for podcasts, feedback or stories of your own orthodonticure. And until new week, happy political season!
Fri, 10 October 2014
Today we continue our month-long festival of all things deliberative rhetoric with a discussion of Saving Persuasion by Bryan Garston.
Thu, 2 October 2014
Welcome to Mere Rhetoric the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements that have shaped rhetorical history. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or trought Twitter @mererhetoricked
And guys. Guys, today we address the last of the three traditional branches of rhetoric. This makes me sad. We had the Law and Order rush of judicial or forensic rhetoric and the pageantry of epideictic rhetoric and today we come to deliberative, or political rhetoric. And then we won’t have any more branches of rhetoric, because if there’s one thing Aristotle loved, it’s breaking things down into threes.
It is, of course, Aristotle who thought to divide rhetoric into the three genres of judicial, epideictic and deliberative and there’s nothing that says rhetoric always fits into these handy three categories, but it was convenient for Aristotle to do so. Think about it: Three branches of rhetoric. One of them, the judicial, focuses on the past—did the accused do something accuse-worthy? One of them—epideictic—focuses on the present—let’s celebrate how great this day is right now. And so one of them, deliberative rhetoric, will focus on the future. Judicial, epideictic, deliberative; past, present, future; law, community, policy.
It’s deliberative rhetoric that focuses on determining a future course to take. Traditionally, this was read strictly, as a matter of political debate by those who had authority to determine policy for a city state—should we go to war with Sparta? As Aristotle says, deliberative rhetoric "aims at establishing the expediency or the harmfulness of a proposed course of action; if he urges its acceptance, he does so on the ground that it will do good; if he urges its rejection, he does so on the ground that it will do harm." Aristotle gave two pairs of criteria for practitioners of deliberative rhetoric to keep in mind as they chose their debates. First, the moral—is it good or is it unworthy? Good or unworthy includes ethical concerns, but not exclusively that. Remember that for Romans “virtue” meant “manly” and “gentleman” used to mean a rank and not a compliment, so in some ways, worthy has to do with a specific set of political and social ideals and not just some sort of kindness-first morality that seems more natural to contemporary readers. It may be “good” to go to war to avenge some perceived slight to the country’s aristocratic pride, if pride is considered a moral priority. Aristotle lists things that are “good” like good birth, bodily stature, wealth and reputation, which might seem a little shallow alongside ethical virtues like justice, courage and generosity.
The second pair of criteria are even more pragmatic: is it advantageous or disadvantageous? In this pairing, you can see these less squishy values becoming more important. The country needs money and war with Sparta will bring spoils and rewards. War with Sparta will increase our reputation as a fearsome city state. Things like that. So that’s Aristotle for you: deliberative rhetoric deals with the future, and you can argue about whether an act is good or whether it is advantageous.
But a lot has happened in the years and centuries and millennia since Aristotle. Mostly we keep going back to the divisions that Aristotle came up with, even though we have changed our ideas of democracy and deliberative rhetoric for that matter. Oh, but don’t worry—Aristotle isn’t the only person willing to divide things into three parts! G. Thomas Goodnight, a rhetoric professor at the University of Southern California, studies argumentation, especially deliberative rhetoric, and he decided that deliberative rhetoric can take place in what he calls three spheres—the public, the technical and the private. The public is the one that is most familiar to us.
We think of deliberative rhetoric as necessarily political, but that is not necessarily that case. If deliberative rhetoric just means “forward looking,” and “policy deciding” it doesn’t just have to be about whether we should go to war with Sparta—and not just because the city state of Sparta isn’t much of a threat anymore. No deliberative rhetoric can also include private arguments: from questions as trivial as “where should we go for lunch today?” To as important as “should our family accept that job in North Dakota?” and “should Billy join the marines?” These instances of deliberative rhetoric are usually informal—we have a speaker of the house, but we don’t have a speaker of the home. They are, however, no less important. Consider the impact during the 60s and 70s of a hundred thousand private deliberations over how to treat people of other races, or the family debates about moving to the city during the industrial revolution. Private sphere deliberation matters.
Technical deliberation is the deliberative rhetoric that takes place among experts who have specialized knowledge of the subject matter. For instance, you might think about a group might come up with professional standards or expectations like the rules of conduct for lawyers or teachers. They set rules of their own group. Technical deliberation might also result in suggests or recommendations for other groups. A group of climatologists, for example, might write a brief on climate change, or a congress of feminist scholars might make a declaration on pornography, something that everyone argues over until they can agree on a common stance. These experts can debate in a very technical and in-depth register.
When private and technical deliberation can’t get the job done, it’s time for public sphere deliberation. Goodnight classifies the public sphere as the "argument sphere that exists to handle disagreements transcending personal and technical disputes." Once things enter the public sphere of deliberation, Goodnight says it’s time to focus on the common good—not just what’s right for individuals or families, and not just for groups of experts, but for everyone in the public.
And that’s the general gist of deliberative rhetoric.
Now if you’re as sad as I am that we’ve wrapped up the last of the 3 genres of rhetoric, then I have good news for you! All month long, the month of October is going to be devoted to deliberative and political rhetoric. That’s right, to lead up to America’s election day on the first Tuesday of November we’re going to talk about all kinds of ideas and issues about using rhetoric in politics, especially in a democracy. So strap on your star-spangled goggles, for a wild ride into the radical idea that we can talk about what we’re going to do before we do it.