Otto Steinmayer: Classic Ground

The ancient art of Œpainting white blackš

[New Straits Times, 11 December 1991]


I'd as soon give a loaded revolver to a man named Bugsy as give some people lessons in rhetoric.

"Rhetoric" means "the technique of public speaking." It is the art of arranging your words to persuade large numbers of people, an art of great utility and danger.

Korax and Tisias, the men who invented the thing, lived in Sicily sometime in the mid 5th century B.C. Korax discovered a system of persuasion and advertised for pupils with this special offer: "If, using my method, you don't win your first law-case, your lessons are free!" Tisias took the course and walked out without paying. Korax sued him, and Korax made the following defence: "if I win the lawsuit, I don't pay you; if I lose it, I don't pay you then too!" The jury threw them both out for offending the dignity of the court.

Rhetoric had a bad name from the beginning. Ordinary people viewed it with suspicion as the art of "painting black white," or as they charged against Socrates, making the worse cause appear the better. Rhetoric is indifferent. It can be high and noble, or low and sneaky, and its craftiest trick is to hide its own sophistication.

Public speaking was vital to ancient Greek life, both in law and in the government. The Greek legal system was much different than the present one. In Athens, all cases were civil cases. If a man murdered someone, there was no public prosecutor to obtain an arrest warrant. The victim's relatives themselves had to bring a charge against the suspect before the magistrate.

The case was brought to trial in public before a very large jury of several hundred men selected by lottery, called "judges." There were no presiding judges in our sense. The plaintiff gave a speech outlining the charges and his argument. Then the defendant gave a speech in reply. Speeches were timed by the waterclock.

The judges voted. A majority decided conviction or acquittal, and then the penalty was set after a further pair of speeches, the loser having the right to propose a penalty of his own.

The most famous set of speeches that have come down to us are those which Plato reconstructed from the trial of Socrates. We have only the defendant's side of it, but the speeches illustrate the process pretty well. One peculiarity of Greek life was that the border was always nearby, it was easy enough to escape from the Law. Socrates knew he was hated, but he didn't leave town, nor did he agree to have his friends spring him from the slammer after conviction. A Greek who left his own city ran the risk of spending the rest of his life as a stateless and impoverished refugee. It's no wonder that most preferred to take their chances at a trial.

Both the plaintiff and the defendant had to speak for themselves, no substitutes were allowed. Greek democracies, too, were participatory. The law required all male citizens to attend the meetings of the assembly, where each had the right to voice his opinion. All citizens made the policy of the government.

You can see, therefore, how important public speaking was both in private and public affairs.

We are all by nature endowed with some measure of the gift of gab. We often have to use our wits and our language to try and persuade others to do something, to persuade your husband, for example, to spend a weekend at PD rather than work at the office. Nature has given us a big bag of linguistic tricks, strategies to appeal to reason, interest, emotion, guilt.

Just as the grammarians put names to the parts of speech and showed us how we speak correctly or incorrectly, so the rhetoricians figured out how we go about constructing our speeches of persuasion. The rhetoricians found that the skill of speaking, which we admire in naturally good talkers, can be taught.

An ancient Athenian stuck in a lawsuit, or maybe with a relish for stirring up trouble, could hire a sophist to teach him the principles of talk. Others, with no wish or talent to speak on their own could hire a speechwriter to write a speech for him. The speechwriter's knowledge of the law and its loopholes, and of argument made him the prototype of a lawyer.

The sophist and conservative Antiphon was the first Athenian to make a career of ghost-writing. Antiphon also wrote a curious little handbook containing hypothetical lawcases in which he wrote the speeches for both sides that illustrate the ambiguities of the law. A boy is practising javelin-throwing at the gymnasium. He throws, another boy runs in front of the target and is killed. Who is at fault?

Speaking well didn't always ensure you would win. Antiphon, after leading an abortive ultra-rightwing revolution, was charged with treason and put on trial for his life. Although Thucydides the historian says that Antiphon "gave the best speech in his own defence that anyone had ever heard," Antiphon was condemned to drink the hemlock.

Antiphon's career, and the history of Athenian democracy, illustrate the dangers of rhetoric. Rhetoric taught how to persuade, but did not claim to teach what should be persuaded. Demogogues like the intensely vulgar Kleon argued forcefully for policies that served nothing but their own ends, and the people bought them. Right now advertisers (not to say politicians) use the slickest arts of the trade to persuade us to buy things that we don't need, or are even harmful to us. To learn the techniques of persuasion is also a form of self-defence.

More innocently, the Greeks also marked festive civic days with speeches. The nearest thing to a National Day speech happened in wartime, when a speaker was selected to deliver a eulogy for the men who had died in battle. Pericles, the first man of Athens, used his turn to praise the "open society" of Athens over the autocratic life of Sparta. Thucydides perserved it, a moving defence of democracy. (There's a rumor that it was in fact his mistress, Aspasia, who wrote it for him.)

At another burial, the travelling sophist ("Gorgeous") Gorgias delivered a virtuoso eulogy full of dazzling rhetorical fireworks, a little low on substance, but which wowed Athens like the arrival of the Beatles.

Rhetoric leaves its greatest benefit to us in literature. Rhetoric marked the beginnings of prose-writing in the west. Before the practicalities of speech began to be investigated, prose was a poor cousin to poetry. Every writer knows how hard it can be to begin a piece, an essay, or even a story or poem, and develop it. Rhetoric gives great help in finding ideas and words, and in disposing them in the order that make the best impression. Rhetoric's gadgets can be fun in themselves. A good writer uses them, not they him, and never appears conventional.

Outside of imaginative writing, western prose, and anything it has influenced, still retains that strong rhetorical urge to persuade somebody to something. You might ask yourself what I am trying to persuade you in these essays.

Rhetoric has lost a lot of importance modern in political life. Television is now the tool by which leaders persuade the population, and that depends on soundbites. Newspapers rarely print a speech in full. We, the public, get persuaded by fragments of thought rather than by full arguments. We don't hear the whole story.

A Greek would certainly have felt stifled in this modern world of media and remote representation. Freedom of speech meant to him not the hypothetical possibility of saying his mind without fear in public, but the actual doing it. What the Greek citizen had to say he wanted his whole city to hear, and he wouldn't settle for anything less.