Archway with Words festival: Journalist Sam Leith dusts off the art of rhetoric

Sam Leith

Sam Leith - Credit: Archant

Up until the late 19th century, rhetoric – alongside grammar and logic – was one of the three cornerstones of British secondary education. Arguably the country’s greatest ever wordsmith, William Shakespeare, grew up studying the art, but in recent years, it appears to have fallen out of fashion.

While studying English literature at Oxford University, journalist Sam Leith – who previously served as Literary Editor at the Telegraph for ten years – became ‘beguiled’ by the power of rhetoric after picking up a copy of Richard Lanham’s A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms. (The writer adds it would probably be his desert island book – a curiosity considering there would be no one to persuade.)

Earlier this year, Leith took his passion one step further and published You Talkin’ To Me? – a memoir charting the use of such language by everyone from Aristotle to Barack Obama, with a dash of more unusual choices like Homer Simpson along the way.

“It’s not a lost art, but we don’t talk about rhetoric in the formal way we used to,” says Leith. “Rhetoric simply means persuasive language, not just formal oratory but any sort of writing or talking to persuade. My thesis in the book is that there is more of that around us than ever before but the vocabulary we have to talk about it and discuss how it works has fallen by the wayside.”

According to the author, rhetoric doesn’t need much updating as much a simple dusting off. Many are put off formally studying the subject because of its heavy focus on classical Latin and Greek phrases; Leith argues however that you don’t need to know the ancient word for a rhetorical question or the tricolon (grouping words into threes: ie. Friends, Romans, countrymen) to naturally recognise and use their power.

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He continues: “What has changed, when you’re talking about rhetoric nowadays, is that you’re talking about different means of transmission.

“We have blogs, twitter, rolling news and sound bites and all the things that are characteristic of the modern age: all of those fold very neatly into the theme of it if you take a broad enough understanding of how to be persuasive. It’s all about matching yourself to your audience.”

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While Leith doesn’t quite envisage his book as a how-to guide of rhetoric – he rather hopes it will simply draw attention to an interesting subject – the East Finchley resident notes it has helped him to recognise the devices in his own writing and how “the ancients saw this coming years ago”.

“There’s a thing in one of Moliere’s plays Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme; a lovely line where he says, ‘My god, I’ve been speaking prose all my life and I never knew it.’

“That’s my argument about rhetoric – we are using rhetoric all our life and we just don’t know it.”

Sam Leith talks at the Worship Centre, Archway Methodist Church on Saturday October 18, 2pm. Tickets £5.

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