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We all have a way with words

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In Defence of Rhetoric, by Brian Vickers. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, Oxford University Press. 508 pp. $75. We all take pleasure in speaking and writing well, in turning a phrase, in bestowing praise and blame. We all try to tell the truth. We expect, and sometimes enjoy, feedback from others who enjoy doing these things as much as we do. We are all rhetoricians.

Still, rhetoric has a bad name. Poets try to avoid it, politicians promise to avoid it, lovers think they are beyond it. Rhetoric's bad name has a history, which Brian Vickers has now laid before us, along with its implications for literary studies.

It all started, of course, with Plato. Besides being one of the greatest rhetoricians of all time, in Vickers's rather literal reading of the dialogues Plato was also its cruelest enemy. His opposition was due to his awareness of its universal attractiveness and power. As Vickers shows, Plato announced the war between philosophy and rhetoric, the war between timeless truth and daily language, between the contemplative life and the active life, a war still being fought.

An unnecessary war, if Vickers is right. Beneath the rules of rhetoric - the five parts of compositions, the rhetorical figures like metaphor and simile - is the bedrock of our enduring emotional life, which, without rhetoric, would go unexpressed. According to Vickers - and anyone with the patience to read his detailed analyses of ancient, medieval, and modern texts would tend to agree - rhetoric deals with ``the crystallization of real-life emotional states.'' Why else would we shudder so when we hear a politician - or a consultant, or a salesman - ape sincerity by pausing like an actor, or repeating his message with variations, or reaching for a flowery exaggeration. We don't like to see rhetoric misused, precisely because it is dangerous, and lovable.


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