The Rhetoric of “Yes We Can”
Darío Villanueva outlines the history and significance of the rhetorical tradition and highlights the striking persistence of the power of the word in American politics. Even in our high-tech age, a three-word tagline -"Yes We Can"- carries devastating clout. The Greek sophists -the original masters of rhetoric, notorious for their appetite for influence rather than truth- would be both impressed by the abiding power of their art, and dismayed that, in the Gutenberg Galaxy, it has become a blunt instrument.
Centuries before our time, the Greeks considered the question of how to speak so as to sway the hearer's mind with the power of words. The first to examine the ways in which we relate to one another through language, the Greeks wrote detailed treatises laying bare the sinews of human communication, and their experience of language and the laws they inferred from it gave rise to Rhetoric, the art or science of the public speaker. The father of rhetoric was said to be Corax, who lived in the closing third of the fifth century BC in the Greek city state of Syracuse in Sicily; his disciple Thysias was credited with bringing his rhetorical discoveries to mainland Greece.
Once there, rhetoric was appropriated by the so-called "sophists." The history of the term is riven with self-contradiction. Etymologically, "sophist" means "bearer of truth," but its modern meaning is the exact opposite: a sophistry-the stock-in-trade of politicians-is a plausible but spurious argument in support of a falsehood.
True rhetoric, however ─Aristotle urges in the introduction to his Rhetoric─ is by no means sophistic. Discussing the uses of the discipline, Aristotle begins with the proclamation that rhetoric educates the common citizen and shapes his spirit, and is a useful way of advancing truth and justice, which in the natural course of things would "prevail over their opposites" if it were not because their advocates are sometimes inept. Going back to the root of the matter, however, G.B. Kerferd, a scholar concerned with the earliest Greek sophists, divided the school into three distinct types: sages, such as Solon, whose wisdom was embodied as law; statesmen, who applied their pre-eminent talents to practical affairs, such as Pericles and Themistocles; and "teachers of wisdom," skilled in passing on their learning and teaching eloquence, such as Protagoras, Gorgias or Socrates.
If we view this classification in Montesquieu's terms, the first group would stand for the legislative and judicial powers of the state, while the second group makes a good fit with the executive power. The third group, however, comprising masters of wisdom and oratory, embodies the time-honored marriage of interests and skills between scholars and rulers, sustained by the old but evergreen art of rhetoric.
Leaving aside any objective or partisan judgment one might pass on his politics, which is irrelevant to our concern here, Barack Hussein Obama, a university academic, senator, and President of the United States, provides a fascinating example. He makes a perfect fit with a society as sharply characteristic as the American New World, the promised land where the political principles that were later to inspire the French Revolution of 1789 gave rise to an eclectic community, a melting pot of different ethnic origins-not all of them European-and open to all the innovations brought forth by the spectacular advance of science and technology from the Enlightenment to our own day. This was the New Democratic Nation that, ushering in modern poetry, Walt Whitman sang in his book, Leaves of Grass. One of the singular features of that New World is the somewhat astonishing survival, at some fundamental level, of the power of the word. The contrast may seem improbable, but in America the flourishing of technology and all its rich resources ─the central theme of a book that is in no way complacent,...
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