My friend Bruno sent me an email to express his admiration for the rhetoric qualities displayed yesterday – while speaking at the United Nations – by President Barak Obama. In fact he spoke without reading a script and doing all the right pauses, the right movements of the head and arms.
I was also quite impressed but I answered that before entering into politics Obama had taught Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago Law School and had been a civil rights attorney. In a court, especially an American one, the way an attorney moves, speaks, reasons and that way he piles up his arguments is the key to an absolution or a condemnation because the popular jury will be convinced, one way or another.
I remember that during his first electoral campaign by Obama, while sparring with John McCain, he had greatly impressed British author Jeffrey Archer who spoke about it while presenting his latest novel at the FCC. Archer – more than a month before election day – had no doubts about who will be the next president of the United States. He told us that the next president would certainly be Barak Obama and he added that John McCain challenged Obama on a debate about racial discrimination in America, a grave mistake, according to Archer, for two reasons: first, because the colour of Obama’s skin made him well prepared on the that argument and, second, because Obama was one of the greatest rhetoricians of our times.
The art of rhetoric in classical antiquity was one of the most important subjects of study, and was considered an art which could move mountains. We can see the truth of this statement by the fact that President Obama got the top job and the Nobel prize for Peace mainly because of his rhetorical abilities, which are not – according to some of his critics – backed by many other virtues.
The art of rhetoric was invented in Syracuse, Sicily, during the V century BC by Corace and by his pupil Tisia and, almost immediately, the debate about being good or appearing good was initiated. According to the Sicilian school the key point of this art was always to come up with something new. Gorgias from Lentini and Trasimacus from Chalcis then created the Athens’s school and made rhetoric also the art of writing well, not only speaking well. Trasimacus was the inventor of the ‘musicality’ of the speech, with the precise indication of pauses and accelerations, a thing which Obama seems to master almost to perfection. Isocrates, a pupil of Gorgias, created a classification of the different styles of speech and the body movements, for instance the importance of fixing three points, left centre and right and move the eyes continuously like scanning them.
Empty talking rhetoricians were called sophists (because they were able to demonstrate that black is white and hot is cold) but were condemned by Plato in his Eutidemus and his Gorgias. Aristotle saw rhetoric in a more favourable light compared with Plato, his teacher and created the distinction between: judicial, deliberative and epidictic forms. Then subdivided it into three styles: etical, passional, logic.
The Romans learned about rhetoric from the Greeks, even if Cato the Censor stressed that it boiled down to be a vir bonus decendi peritus. And with Cicero and Quintus Hortensius we find the best example of the Roman interpretation of this art, following the classical division of inventio, dispositio, elocutio, actio which President Obama is following almost to the letter. All the Roman and Greek knowledge in rhetoric was then summarized during the II century under the Flavians by Quintilian in his book Institution Oratories which has been the standard text up to the end of the Renaissance, my guess is that President Obama had studied Quintilian while he studied at Columbia UNiversity.