What with a masterful must-see-movie on our 16th President and the general failure of Obama to be the rhetorically inspiring leader that climate hawks had hoped for on global warming, I’m going to repost my multi-part series on Lincoln.
This is material that comes from my recent book on rhetoric and politics — “Language Intelligence: Lessons On Persuasion From Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, And Lady Gaga,” which is available at Amazon.com [Kindle is here]. I must say the Spielburg movie — screenplay by Tony Kushner based in part on a Doris Kearns Goodwin book — creates a very plausible version of our most rhetorically gifted president. I like the fact that Lincoln constantly quotes Shakespeare in the movie (as he did in real life) but doesn’t tell you that he is. Also, I like the way he lets people get annoyed with his constant homespun stories — that is, as we’ll see, the very definition of irony, something Lincoln had mastered.
I think science has mostly told us what it can about the urgent need to act swiftly and strongly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avoid destroying the planet’s livability for the next several hundred years (see “An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces“).
Yes, more observations and more analysis are valuable — which is why I keep reporting on the ever-worsening climate outlook — but right now we need much more persuasiveness (see Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Part 1). As James Hansen says, we are still waiting for our climate Churchill.
One of Churchill’s defining characteristics was his mastery of rhetoric. Indeed, at the age of 22 he wrote a brilliant, unpublished essay, “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric so.” But this is the day we remember Lincoln, so I’m going to rerun my series on Lincoln’s mastery of rhetoric, the 25-century-old art of influencing both the hearts and minds of listeners with the figures of speech. If you have any doubt about the importance of the figures to Lincoln, consider this:
In a famous 1858 speech, Lincoln paraphrased Jesus, saying “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” and he extended the house metaphor throughout the speech. His law partner, William Herndon, later wrote that Lincoln had told him he wanted to use “some universally known figure [of speech] expressed in simple language “ … that may strike home to the minds of men in order to raise them up to the peril of the times.”
Part 1 will look briefly at how Lincoln taught himself the figures. I’ll also include here his use of irony. Part 2 will look at his use of two other key figures: metaphor and extended metaphor. The best textbook on the figures of speech in the English language, other than the King James Bible, is the complete works of Shakespeare.
The Bard and his audience knew and used over two hundred figures of speech. The figures-the catalog of the different, effective ways that we talk-turn out to “constitute basic schemes by which people conceptualize their experience and the external world,” as one psychologist put it.
Elizabethans like Shakespeare learned the figures the hard way. William likely attended the town grammar school from age seven to at least age thirteen. Grammar schools got their name because they taught grammar-Latin grammar. The schooling was intensive: ten hours a day, six days a week, thirty-six weeks a year.