Stephen Fry on ‘Rhetoric’

I have just listened to an excellent radio programme about rhetoric, hosted by Stephen Fry.  It is the first in a new series of his ‘Fry’s English Delight’ Show and it deals with similar subject matter to this blog .  It is available online for 7 days here.  Among others, there were valuable contributions from Professor Jennifer Richards – an expert in Early Modern rhetoric at the University of Newcastle but clearly well-versed in the Greek and Roman material too – and the journalist and writer Sam Leith.  Leith clearly enjoys spotting classically-derived figures and tropes in the speeches of modern politicians and has a book out called You Talkin’ To Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama. Having only just heard of this, I can’t comment on it yet.   I’ll perhaps do a little review of it on this blog asap.

In the show, Fry argues that in place of  dominant pejorative connotations of ‘spin’ and deception, we should try to restore ‘rhetoric’s’ original ‘noble meaning’. In the service of this argument, Fry played back a powerful speech by Gabrielle Gifford, the former US congresswoman who miraculously survived a close-range gunshot wound to the head.  She was shot by a disturbed individual while meeting with her constituents outside a supermarket.  The brief but emotional speech was made at a Senate gun control hearing. Gifford’s head injury was so severe any attempt to speak is still very difficult for her.  Jennifer Richards showed how, despite Gifford’s understandably slow and faltering delivery, the speech’s power and persuasiveness derived in great part from its utilization of rhetorical devices that we find being used and analyzed by the ancient Greeks and Romans.  We do not notice them in so simple and heartfelt a speech as this – but they ARE there.  Gifford’s use of rhetoric to make the case against gun culture – when her own career as a democratic representative was destroyed by a gun and several of her colleagues and constituents were killed or injured by the same gunman – served as a powerful illustration of Sam Leith’s point that rhetoric is the only means we have to debate policy, or argue and settle disputes without recourse to violence.  Richards’ appeal to Kenneth Burke’s definition of rhetoric as ‘equipment for living’ also seemed relevant to Gifford’s case.

One wouldn’t want to argue against the view that rhetoric is a good thing when it serves the ends of non-violent debate, dispute settlement and democratic representation.  But the show didn’t get far into the question of competence and training in the evaluation of arguments amongst those who do not have the power or opportunity to be anything other than members of the ‘the audience’ for other people’s rhetoric.  We heard about Cambridge students learning debating skills from each other at the Cambridge Union and a consultant who teaches his business clients about the art of persuasion.  But for rhetoric to be truly ‘democratic’, we need EVERYONE to be good at spotting a ‘false enthymeme’ or to tell when ‘ethos’ and ‘pathos’ are masking a weak argument.  Otherwise, we risk inhabiting a political culture where what the fifth-century ‘sophist’ Gorgias called the ‘great dynast’ of persuasive speech serves the interests of the trained few and not the majority.  Rhetoric needs to be ‘equipment for living’ in the sense of ‘analytical tools for the critical evaluation of potentially manipulative speech’ as well as in the sense of ‘tools for persuading people’.


3 thoughts on “Stephen Fry on ‘Rhetoric’

  1. Fiona Macpherson

    Hi Jon,

    I heard Fry’s programme this morning too and enjoyed it.

    I agree that the show didn’t get far into the question of competence and training in the evaluation of arguments. But it is clear what the answer is, isn’t it? Philosophy training for all! (Perhaps with a wee bit of Classics on the side…)

    By the way, first year philosophy students at Glasgow always had a section of their course on whether rhetoric should be seen as a positive or negative thing. I’m not sure if they still have to do so. I hope so!


    1. Jon Hesk Post author

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Fiona! Of course, you’re right that a much more widespread (and earlier) exposure to the tools of philosophy would be the answer. I have half a memory that ‘rhetoric’ used to be much more central in Scottish philosophy departments and in Scottish university education in general than it is now? But I guess ‘critical reasoning’ courses are a good example of what we’re talking about. I know these are provided in universities but I’m not sure how much of it there is in schools. Maybe more than I realize…

      all best J

  2. Sandy Kovax

    I am just an American student, and just delighted to read this website in general…..what clarity! Thank you so much. Keep on fearless British scholars…..the English speaking world is counting on you. Me included. Love, Sandy

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