Where are the orators?

The present state of British politics is pretty parlous. There are major issues to be confronted, but in seeking to articulate answers and give a lead politicians are not notable for their capacity to articulate what needs be to be done.  It is not just a question of ideas, but also how they are articulated.

At the end of last year, I gave the inaugural lecture to mark the creation of the Network for the Interface of Politics and the Classics.  Delivered in the Liverpool Victoria Gallery and Museum (pictured), I sought to demonstrate the relevance of the classics to contemporary politics.

As ever in political science, one starts with Aristotle.  At the time that he was teaching, understanding the use of speech in order to persuade – in Aristotle’s words, ‘the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion’ – was known as rhetoric. The word, in terms of its roots, covers both the art of persuasion and the content of the speech constructed in order to persuade.  Aristotle recognised the value of rhetoric and saw it is a counterpoint to dialectic, and not, like Plato, as an enemy.  Many appear to follow in Plato’s footsteps, seeing rhetoric in a negative light, as a means of manipulation, contrasted with attempts to reveal the objective truth.

I argued that the classics, and especially Aristotle’s work, are useful both analytically and, of particular relevance today, prescriptively.  They provide a framework for understanding contemporary political discourse and, of especial significance, have a role to play in countering popular distrust of Parliament.  Here I deal with the types of oratory identified by Aristotle.  In later posts, I will identify notable orators, deal with modes of persuasion, and summarise my thesis as to how it may help in countering distrust of Parliament.

Types of oratory

Aristotle divided oratory into ceremonial (what he termed epideictic), forensic, and deliberative.  One can relate each to being especially appropriate to a particular forum.  The ceremonial can be seen as a feature of the public platform, orating to an audience – as Aristotle puts it, ‘onlookers’ – rather than engaging in debate with a specified opponent, be it opposing counsel or political adversaries.  Aristotle saw the ceremonial as essentially conveying praise or blame, used for example at a wedding, funeral or inaugural address.  I deploy it in a somewhat broader sense, as also being used to make an argument, to persuade an audience, but where those attending are there to listen and not engage in a verbal discourse.

The other two types involve engaging with alternatives, in effect putting a case against an opposing case, and have been a feature, though not exclusively, of law courts and political arena respectively.  I take the two types as constituting debate; both involve engaging with those expressing opposing views, whereas ceremonial oratory sees the orator standing alone, which could be in a debating chamber, but where the person speaking is delivering a set-piece oration.  One can see occasions where an event is not confined to any one type.  A formal speech may be followed by a deliberative engagement, but that is different to a debate in which each side puts its case.

As Richard Toye has noted, how a speech is delivered matters.  Some orators are effective in crafting their orations, through words or performance or, typically both, so as to influence the minds or emotions of their audience in a way that favours the speaker.  The effect on the mind may be to induce admiration rather than agreement, but it has an effect.  The most effective orator, one could argue, would induce both admiration and agreement, agreement that may result in action.  Some speakers may have the effect of inducing boredom or ridicule, so would not be seen to be achieving the desired goal.

Exceptionally, there are politicians who can engage, or have engaged, effectively in ceremonial, forensic and deliberative oratory.  That they are exceptions is not that surprising, given that each requires different skills.  Some can labour over crafting fine speeches and deliver them effectively, but lack the mental capacity, or formal training, to engage in deliberative or forensic debate.  Some speakers may be quick witted, and able to engage in deliberative debate in a parliamentary chamber, but not good at crafting a series of logical and well-crafted sentences that deliver a clear and sustained message, in a way that sways the audience.  A legislative chamber may provide an arena for ceremonial and deliberative oratory, but members may not be good at both.  Some are adept at none of the three.

What is notable is how few politicians today master any type of oratory.  One could argue that political discourse is the poorer because of a dearth of orators.  The Sophists recognised that rhetoric could be taught.  Though politicians today, not least party leaders, may be trained in how to project themselves in public, they are not taught the art of oratory.  They may be more adept at the soundbite, and looking good, than the flowing persuasive speech.  British politics is the worse for it.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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5 Responses to Where are the orators?

  1. Lord Norton,
    Having sat in the gallery at Parliament on some kind of special permission when too small, in courts where my father practiced and my grandfather sat on a bench and having taught speech in China and coached and judged its competition as art and discipline in the US make me feel qualified to remark on this post. Oratory is a vital component of a healthy political life in a complex and and sophisticated society.

    In a broader context than the British Parliament, oratory is in a type of crisis. The art and discourse that Oratory is at once form an entity in jeopardy from technological and social forces which press against it with limits on the audience, fewer forms of distribution that are worthy of the better and the best and diminished standards of rhetoric, logic and veracity. Good oratory alone will not save civilization but a lack of good oratory will surely preclude many of the best hopes for a society a civilization and a world.

  2. One in a million!

    My beloved Uncle was an articulate orator. His lean, strong stature was larger than life, well-dressed, very tall, handsome or at least not ugly, kind and commanding. His efficacious voice was strong, clear and powerful and his eyes were forever on you when he spoke. He said what he wanted to say and that was all that one needed to hear. I was not surprised that his distinguished oratorical skill and unique vocal expressions eventually earned him the befitting office of Chief Justice of the Louisiana State Supreme Court. The man was the greatest orator that I have ever known. I miss our honest conversations. I miss my Uncle Frank’s composed voice. A truly gifted American. REST IN PEACE…

  3. maude elwes says:

    This is the best thread you have added to your blog in a very long time, LN. A perfect read. I enjoyed it immensely

    However, I did have some amusement at the last paragraph. Looking good is not one of the modern traits in our politicians today. I don’t think many of the larger women on the back benches realise the camera is positioned in a spot where short skirts are not camera friendly.

    Well dressed is greatly feared. Separates you from the crowd suffering austerity. Look at the wonderful speaker and dignified orator, Jacob Rees-Mogg. An obvious ‘Englishman’ largely disliked in the HoC for it rather than revered.

    And, as side swipe, who is it chooses these inarticulate individuals, who, as a result of limited vocabulary and comprehension, cannot speak adequately for the people? Are they not to blame in large part? Or, is it those who select these candidates don’t know the difference?

  4. Pingback: Great orators | The Norton View

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