Essay: Modern Rhetoric

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¶ … President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech

Since he began his campaign for the presidency of the United States, Barack Obama has been consistently criticize for his "rhetoric." These criticisms seem as prone to using the epithet "high-flown rhetoric" as Homer was likely to describe the sea as "wine-dark." But both general comments on Obama as inclined to the rhetorical and the more specific criticism of him as a producer of high-flown rhetorical speeches. (A Google search for "Obama high-flown rhetoric turns up over 25,000 hits.) The fact that Republicans -- some no doubt still stinging from depictions of George W. Bush as remarkably inarticulate -- should show their partisanship by criticizing the fluency of Obama's speeches is not surprising. But it does underscore the ways in which "rhetorical" is use in a way that classical writers and philosophers would not recognize. This paper seeks in some small way to remedy that by providing a neo-Aristotelian analysis of President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance speech.

Before looking more specifically at this speech, I think that it will be useful to look for just another moment at criticisms of Obama as being good at rhetorical flourishes (a phrase use not quite as often as "high-flown rhetoric" but still heard on a near-daily basis). The clear suggestion -- and sometimes it is explicit rather than merely a suggestion) is that a man (or woman too, of course) who is well-spoken must be sadly deficient in other arenas. Obama is consistently portrayed as a man of words in direct opposition to those people who are focused on deeds -- on actually getting something done as opposed to merely talking about getting something done.

This distinction (which can be seen as a fundamentally anti-intellectual one) violates classical understandings of rhetoric. (I would argue that it also violates commonsensical understandings of rhetoric as well) for it predicates a world in which speech -- or language or rhetoric -- is not also action. But Obama's Nobel Prize speech is a very good example of how speech is action, of how rhetoric has real consequences in the world.

To understand how we can use a Neo-Aristotelian framework with which to analyze and understand Obama's Nobel Prize speech it is necessary to return to Aristotle himself and his understanding of what forms of discourse constituted rhetoric. The way in which the term is generally used today and in particular the ways in which it is applied to Obama suggest that rhetoric is any form of highly (or perhaps even only "somewhat") articulate speech. (Indeed, when Obama is not being described as being rhetorical, he is described as being articulate.) But for Aristotle -- along with Plato and Socrates -- rhetoric had a particular form and a particular purpose. For Aristotle, the purpose of rhetoric (as he tells us in the opening of Book One of Rhetoric) is to serve as one of the arms of philosophy, along with logic and dialectic. While logic (and logicians) properly concerned itself with the use of reason to derive (and teach) points of scientific fact. Dialectic and rhetoric were, for Aristotle, both tools to discern and describe probabilities and as such were the most appropriate tools for any discourse concerning human nature or behavior -- realms about which there is no certainty as there is in science. Dialectic and logic were counterpoints to each other for Aristotle, with dialectic the proper form for a philosophical exercise in which educate people work together to assess whether a fact to determine its potential truthfulness. Rhetoric, for Aristotle, was properly reserved for various forms of practical debate: Rhetoric was the tool to be used when one wants to persuade an audience -- using the language and sense of probabilities -- to take action to resolved a practical issue.

We can see that Obama -- in both the Nobel Prize speech and in general in his speeches -- is in fact using rhetoric in precisely the sense that Aristotle argues for its use (and in a quite different way from that which his detractors use the term as an accusation). The question then becomes how effectively he is using it. I would argue that the speech overall was an effective one, an accomplishment given the opposing demands that Obama had on him in the giving of this speech. It is no simple thing to talk about the merits of war when accepting a prize for peace. In acknowledging to the Nobel committee that he "would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the considerable controversy that your generous decision has generated" Obama successfully begins the task of creating a sense of exigency, a sense of the importance of these particular words at this particular moment in history.

For good rhetoric is never universally good: Good rhetoric is placed within a specific context. A Neo-Aristotelian rhetorical analysis requires an assessment of the probabilities of the situation, which is another way of saying that it requires a way of aligning -- of trying to align -- the realities of the moment with the dynamics of the speech. This is one of Obama's main concerns throughout the speech, but especially in its first sections. Near the beginning of his speech, Obama argues that "Our actions matter, and can bend history in the direction of justice." This is in fact a statement that might be said at anytime, but it has a specific meaning within the context of current world affairs. Obama is arguing that action in the world must sometimes be taken -- up to and including war -- if justice is to prevail.

In Book One of Rhetoric, Aristotle describes the use of rhetoric in the political arena. It is, first of all, useful when practiced skillfully because while things that are true and things that are just have a natural tendency to prevail over their opposites" sometimes an audience mistakes what is true for what is false, and so a speaker must be skilled enough to counteract this possibility. Obama appears to acknowledge the importance of the way in which words are put together and the grace with which an argument is constructed when he defends the idea of a just war, for he must have been aware that many in his audience would question whether the current wars in which the United States is engaged are in fact just wars (or whether there can ever be a just war). He seeks to be Aristotle's convincing rhetorician when he says: "The concept of a "just war" emerged, suggesting that war is justified only when it meets certain preconditions: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the forced used is proportional, and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence." With these words, he is asking his audience to consider the probabilities of the situation; that is, he is asking his audience to consider the possibility that he is speaking the truth -- both that a just war is possible and that the wars in question meet the definition that he has just set out.

Aristotle, still in the first book of Rhetoric, outlines another reason for the use of rhetoric: Some people cannot be convinced of the truth by any other means. Such a description of rhetoric might more appropriately be used in an analysis of a more pointedly partisan speech (such as Obama's speech to Congress on health care reform). The Nobel Peace Prize speech was imbued with ideals of the progressive side of American politics, but it was not overtly partisan. (Likewise, while it was clearly an American speech, it was not a jingoistic one.)

This is how Aristotle describes the important of rhetorical skill when speaking to an audience that cannot come to the truth on its own:

...before some audiences not even the possession of the exactest knowledge will make it easy for what we say to produce conviction. For argument based on knowledge implies instruction, and there are people whom one cannot instruct. Here, then, we must use, as our modes of persuasion and argument, notions possessed by everybody, as we observed in the Topics when dealing with the way to handle a popular audience.

The audience before whom Obama spoke -- those people who were actually present -- should not be considered to be a "common audience" in that they were generally well educated and sophisticated about the complexities of statecraft in the twenty-first century. But the larger audience -- for Obama was addressing the "citizens of the world" were such an audience, and Obama was addressing many of his listeners knowing that the facts of the situation were not sufficient to convince them of his vision of the need for war in some cases.

Aristotle understood that there is often a fine line between a "mode of persuasion" in convincing someone else of the rightness of one's words and the use of unbridled and uncontrolled emotionalism. He greatly distrusted the latter -- the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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