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Sunday April 14, 2024

The fading art of rhetoric

By Mubarak Ali
October 08, 2018

The art of rhetoric requires complete command over the use of language, and techniques to make speeches more appealing by quoting suitable verses and the sayings of renowned scholars. Speakers must pay attention to how they can charm their audiences with their voice and body language.

This art flourished in democratic Athens where politicians often addressed citizens at gatherings to win their favour. A group of scholars, known as sophists, used to train the sons of aristocrats in the art of rhetoric so they would be able to participate in politics and fluently express their political manifestos to win people’s support.

In this democratic setting, Athens produced great orators who had the ability to capture the attention of the audience and gain full support for their points of view. Pericles, who was a leader and a fiery speaker of democratic Athens, delivered a famous funeral oration in honour of those Athenians who were killed in the Peloponnesian War, which was fought between Athens and Sparta.

He delivered this speech at a sombre gathering where the relatives of great soldiers were present. It was a rare occasion when women also participated in the gathering. Pericles spoke patiently, eulogising bravery and the spirit of nationalism, which inspired them to sacrifice for the Polis. Greek historian Thucydides has mentioned the full text of Pericles’ oration.

Demosthenes was another great orator, who initially used to stammer. In order to deal with this problem, he put pebbles in his mouth and practised speaking without a pause near the seashore. With time, he emerged as one of the greatest orators of his time.

When Philip of Macedonia invaded Athens, Demosthenes resisted his invasion. He mobilised people by addressing public gatherings and urging people to not recognise Philip’s rule. He also spoke against Alexander and the occupying army of Macedonia. When the army tried to capture him, he committed suicide and died as a patriotic leader.

The art of rhetoric also held sway during the Roman Empire as there were several republican institutions, especially the senate, where political affairs were discussed. Senators participated in these discussions and used their skills as good orators to convince other senators to adopt their policies.

After the assassination of Caesar, Cicero – who was a fiery speaker – spoke against Mark Antony, a close friend of Caesar. Mark Antony was deeply infuriated and ordered his subordinates to kill Cicero. This was the price Cicero paid for freedom of speech.

The importance of rhetoric declined after the fall of the Roman Empire and during the rule of kingship, which ended the role of public assemblies. England was perhaps the only country where institutions such as parliament retained freedom of speech and parliamentarians – who were mostly feudals – presented their demands.

As a result, the House of Commons produced great orators. In 1789, during the French Revolution, the National Assembly became a hotspot for all forms of discussions during which revolutionary leaders delivered their speeches with fervour. The proceedings were watched by the people of Paris who often sat in the gallery of the National Assembly.

The turning point was that oratory shifted from assemblies to the crowd, which largely comprised either voters or supporters of political parties. Therefore, politicians carefully prepared their speeches to mobilise people’s sentiments. During the Second World War, Churchill, on the one hand, created a sense of nationalism to endure the sufferings of war and fight for liberty, and Hitler, on the other, generated enthusiasm and confidence among Germans to sacrifice for the greatness of the fatherland.

In Indian politics, the art of rhetoric was popularised during the struggle for freedom, when speakers sought to inspire nationalist sentiments among their audience. In the Muslim community of India, Bahadur Yar Jang, Abul Kalam Azad and Ataullah Shah Bukhari became famous orators. The speech that Abdul Kalam Azad delivered to a crowd at Jama Masjid, Delhi made every attempt to prevent Muslims from migrating and leaving behind their centuries-old cultural heritage. The speech was delivered with patience and imbued with intense feelings of remorse and sadness. This remarkable and unforgettable speech left deep imprints in history.

Another aspect of oratory is its connection with religion. There was a time when the art of rhetoric was part of the official curriculum at religious schools. The ulema were especially trained to speak about religious issues in great detail. The approach adopted by the ulema was different from that taken by politicians. The latter delivered their speeches by chanting slogans to impress large crowds while the former sought to explain religious issues to their audiences.

However, the art of rhetoric has not only declined among politicians, who are no longer aware of its basic rules, but has also lost favour among religious circles that are also well-equipped to speak properly. The weaknesses in oratory in our society show the weaknesses of our democratic institutions and the lack of political understanding among our people. The topics of modern speeches are no longer appropriate and the voices of our speakers aren’t appealing anymore.

The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.