In the Kuwaiti desert in March 2003, before 800 soldiers of the Royal Irish Regiment, British army colonel Tim Collins made a dazzling eve-of-battle speech. With Shakespearean flourishes and the moral fine-tuning of Jehovah, he instructed the troops to “tread lightly” in “the birthplace of Abraham,” though some would kill, others would be killed, and there would be “no time for sorrow.” Iraq’s children would one day acknowledge that the “the light of liberation in their lives was brought by you.” Reporters and their audiences, including President George W. Bush, were electrified. Months later, however, Sam Leith, a writer and former literary editor of The Daily Telegraph, spoke to a high-ranking officer who suspected the speech had sunk like a stone before the immediate audience, youngsters more worried about staying alive in the desert than in history books.
Leith recounts the story in Words Like Loaded Pistols, his brief, rambunctious handbook of rhetoric, to illustrate a larger point. If you want folks on your side, you’ve got to speak their language. Collins would have done better to borrow a page from General George S. Patton, who roused his soldiers with a profane promise to get them home — the fastest route being through Berlin, where he’d personally shoot the so-and-so Hitler, “just like I’d shoot a snake!”
To help his readers both to hone their own rhetorical skills and to train their noses to detect baloney when the scent wafts their way, Leith breaks down the basics of rhetoric, the art of persuasion systematized by Aristotle. He often provides practical advice: When confronted with your past failures, talk about building a better future. But “if you’re arguing against someone about what to do in the future, find something in the past with which to discredit him.”
Pistols is not all pop how-to. A self-confessed rhetoric nerd, Leith will not disappoint his fellows. He sprinkles his study with terminology, from “atticism” (“crisp, unornamented, aphoristic style”) to “zeugma”—go look that one up, there’s a glossary in the back—as well as metrical line readings that poets might appreciate. He observes that Antony’s supplication to “friends, Romans, countrymen” in Julius Caesar rouses its listeners because it sounds like the opening bars of AC/DC’s heavy metal song “Back in Black”: “DUM! DUH-dum! DUH-dum-dum!” And the three consecutive stressed syllables “Yes we can” gave that hopeful 2008 refrain enough heft to lob its speaker into the White House.
Rhetoric is, in fact, everywhere that elections are, and that’s for the better, Leith maintains, since the art is most robust in societies where citizens are allowed a say. “People in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya, by pushing for democracy, are arguing, in effect, for the right to argue,” he writes of the Arab Spring. This is true, but many a fine voice has incited not compassion but cruelty, not virtue but vice. Indeed, the rhetoric masters the book profiles include not only Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. but also Adolf Hitler, and even Satan, who speaks with a silver tongue in Genesis and John Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Perhaps for that reason, not everyone has been as excited about rhetoric as Aristotle was. His mentor, Plato, may have been dismayed that his pragmatic pupil thought rhetoric on a par with the search for objective truth. The Western tradition of persuasion is confrontational to the core, “better at dealing with either/or propositions than and/also possibilities or neither/nors,” Leith notes. I wouldn’t have minded hearing more about that analysis, or about this one: The very point when women became educated and enfranchised strangely coincided with the “point at which our long history of understanding and consciously thinking about rhetoric sank beneath the waters of Lethe.” Leith doesn’t speculate why, but I wish he had.
To be fair, that discussion might have been beyond the scope of this book, whose larger aim, Leith writes, is to pass along love, for “to understand rhetoric is in large part to understand your fellow human beings.” That sounds like a suspiciously benign motivation to study the art of argument, but in these funny, friendly pages, it rings entirely true.
Darcy Courteau is an assistant editor of The Wilson Quarterly.
Reviewed: Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric From Aristotle to Obama by Sam Leith, Basic Books, 312 pp.
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