of praise are being heaped on US President Barack Obama for being
able to speak well in public, while commentators trace his skill
back to the rules of rhetoric invented by Aristotle and Cicero.
Plato would be spitting.
The main difference
between our orators and the ancient Greek rhêtor in democratic
Athens is that the ancient rhêtor had no political power whatsoever.
He was trying to persuade an Assembly of citizens (males over 18)
to do what he wanted, but it was they who made the final decision
whether to act on his advice or not. In our system, an Obama or
Brown can speak well or badly, intelligibly or incomprehensibly,
it will still be (s)he who makes the decisions and not the listeners.
Ancient rhetoric, then, unlike the modern, was absolutely central
to the democratic process.
It was central
in another sense. No radical democracy where citizens made all the
decisions could work unless everyone was able to make their contribution
in the Assembly. But not everyone was a natural speaker. That was
why the rules of rhetoric were developed and taught in democratic
Athens. Further, they empowered any citizen not just to participate
effectively in the Assembly, but also to learn to distinguish the
good arguments from the bad, the false from the true.