Book Review—Words Like Loaded Pistols, Rhetoric From Aristotle to Obama

Book Review—Words Like Loaded Pistols, Rhetoric From Aristotle to Obama

Words Like Loaded Pistols, Rhetoric From Aristotle to Obama, by Sam Leith, might be one of the best books at highlighting the power of being able to communicate thoughts and feelings, experiences and ideas, and whatever else might cross one’s mind.  And if there was one sentence that championed Leith’s thesis, it was, “Most great leaps forward in human understanding have been developments from, or arguments with, the understanding of the past.”

To build on his thesis, Leith introduces readers to what may be an absolute truth, very early into the book, “Language is made of ringing truths and vital declarations.  It is a way in which our shared assumptions and understandings are applied to new situations, and the language of history is channelled, revitalized, and given fresh power in each successive age.” And by the end of the book, readers will likely be left thinking that perhaps there are no greater skills than to speak clearly and articulately and movingly, and to be able to connect with our fellow man.

If I was to pitch this book to someone, below are some of the takeaways I would reference.

Rhetoric Then and Now

The first section of the book, Rhetoric Then and Now, takes us on a trip down memory lane to revisit the early days of rhetoric.  Leith highlights how the conditions that we live in at the dawn of the twenty-first century, referring to our commerce, our politics, our cultural and social lives—all of it, is rhetorical to an extraordinary extent, and all of it can be traced back to the birthplace of rhetoric, credited as being ancient Athens.

At the time, ancient Athens was a place just getting used to a radical and unprecedented experiment with democracy.  The ancients would quickly come to realize the principles behind persuasive speech, how it was at the heart of everything, and the importance of being able to connect with outside spaces and those that were disenfranchised.

One of the earliest philosophers to dabble in the science of rhetoric was Aristotle, and he believed that the power behind rhetoric was found in character because character contained the strongest proof of all.  Aristotle understood the importance of rhetoric, and to him, the theory of rhetoric was essentially the theory of human nature.  Aristotle also believed that it would be rhetoric that would eventually lead to the answers that were posed by the deepest human questions.  And in the end, much of Aristotle’s successes can be attributed to his trailblazing realization that the study of rhetoric was the study of humanity itself.

Another one of rhetoric’s most famous teachers was the Roman, Quintilian, and he too had a profound impact on the idea of rhetoric.  Quintilian believed that there was a vital connection between virtue and rhetorical accomplishment, and he described speech as the greatest instrument by which man becomes beneficial to man.  That it was through the intercourse and transmission of thought, by means of speech, to which we were chiefly indebted for the improvement of thought itself.

Over time, the language arts, as they came to be known, had three identifiable components to them: logic, grammar, and rhetoric.  In summary, logic is concerned with the thing-as-it-is-known, grammar is concerned with the thing as it is symbolized, and rhetoric is concerned with the thing-as-it-is-communicated.  And while some might look past the importance of post-secondary degrees in language arts, perhaps the language arts are exactly what our society needs more of, as technology has upended many younger generations’ ability to communicate effectively with others, especially in-person.

The First Part of Rhetoric

The First Part of Rhetoric is a chapter where Leith highlights how ideas were identified as prospering when they were founded on common assumptions, but also the dangers of certain beliefs, and why where people received their information mattered as much as who they listened to.  Additionally, how a person presented themselves would be the foundation on which all the rest was built.  Leith also quoted another author, Kenneth Burke, author of the classic twentieth-century study A Rhetoric of Motives (1950) and how Burke emphasized the importance of meeting the expectations of an audience: “You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his.”

The Second Part of Rhetoric

The chapter called The Second Part of Rhetoric focused on arrangement, with narration, proof, and refutation potentially being the most significant aspects of arrangement.  Narration had to have three qualities: brevity, clarity, and plausibility, but plausibility was the most important out of these three.  Proof had to do with establishing the facts, indicating the grounds of the dispute, and making one’s case in earnest, and then using arguments of analogy, probability, and induction to leverage the greater principles of equity and justice.  And refutation had to do with proving one’s own case or disproving your adversaries, and it could be quite adversarial at times.  There were two ways to be effective when it came to refutation, either through brilliance or through “bullshit”.  A skilled orator was capable of misrepresenting an opponent’s case in such a way as to make it easier to attack, and it was said that the best of orators could indignantly answer a charge nobody made, or fiercely deny something adjacent to the truth.  It was also possible for them to turn confusion into a rhetorical advantage.  Quite the incentive to become an oratory expert, if you ask me.

Not sold yet?

The potential of Sam Leith’s Words Like Loaded Pistols, Rhetoric From Aristotle to Obama, is that it illustrates the significance of being able to load a chamber with the right words before firing them at someone, so that when they hit their target it results in moving that person away from “bad thinking” to better thinking. Or, as Leith describes, the ideal orator is a person in whom eloquence was the conduit of true feeling and good intention – authenticity and dignity. Quite frankly, the power of being able to facilitate fundamental rethinking and reconceptualizing might be the most important skill to have in the 21st century—the power to convert and to accelerate the positive while reducing the negative, because rhetoric is everywhere language is, and language is everywhere people are.