“The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor”: How to be as persuasive as Lincoln, 3

Metaphors are the Rolls Royce of figures. Or, to put it more aptly, metaphors are the Toyota Prius of figures because a metaphor is a hybrid, connecting two dissimilar things to achieve a unique turn of phrase.

Metaphor, like verbal irony discussed in Part 2, is a trope, because it alters or enhances a word’s literal meaning. The headline quote is from Aristotle, who writes in Poetics, “To be a master of metaphor is a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.”

A 2005 study on “Presidential Leadership and Charisma: The Effects of Metaphor” examined the use of metaphors in the first-term inaugural addresses of three dozen presidents who had been independently rated for charisma. The remarkable conclusion:

Charismatic presidents used nearly twice as many metaphors (adjusted for speech length) than non-charismatic presidents.

Additionally, when students were asked to read a random group of inaugural addresses and highlight the passages they viewed as most inspiring, “even those presidents who did not appear to be charismatic were still perceived to be more inspiring when they used metaphors.”

Given their power, metaphors have naturally become a weapon wielded by all great political speechmakers. Lincoln, a devout student of the two great rhetoric texts, the Bible and Shakespeare, understood that power more than any other president.

In 1848, when he was a Whig in Congress, he responded to the claim that his party had “taken shelter under General Taylor’s military coat-tail,” referring to Zachary Taylor, the Whig Party Presidential nominee. He turned the metaphor against his opponents, saying they themselves had run under the coat-tail of General Jackson for five elections. Then, instructing them in rhetoric, Lincoln added “military coat-tails, or tails of any sort, are not figures of speech such as I would be the first to introduce into discussions here.”

Lincoln launched a metaphor of his own, wishing the “gentlemen on the other side to understand that the use of degrading figures is a game at which they may not find themselves able to take all the winnings.” At this point, some in the opposition cried, “We give it up!” But Lincoln was just warming up. His reply was a rhetorical cruise missile:

Aye, you give it up, and well you may; but for a very different reason from that which you would have us understand. The point–the power to hurt–of all figures consists in the truthfulness of their application; and, understanding this, you may well give it up. They are weapons which hit you, but miss us.

The opposition was hoist with their own metaphorical petard.

Lincoln offered his most poignant metaphor in a June 1858 speech to the Illinois Republican state convention after they had chosen him as their candidate to run against Democrat Stephen Douglas in the U.S. senate race: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” He then amplified the metaphor by listing divisions, one after the another:

I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.

Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.

We learn from Lincoln’s partner in law, William Herndon, that Lincoln 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.”

The power of the metaphor of the Union as a house is not merely its visual simplicity, but in the link to the gospels. Lincoln is quoting Jesus, implying that God is on the side of those who think like he does, that slavery must die and soon. Lincoln lost the Senate race, and some thought that he had lost because of this speech, because his message was too strong. But if the metaphor cost him the Senate, Lincoln’s brilliant extension of the metaphor in the speech would cost Douglas the presidency, as we will see in the final part:  How Lincoln framed his picture-perfect Gettysburg Address, 4: Extended metaphor.

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2 Responses to “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor”: How to be as persuasive as Lincoln, 3

  1. Greg N says:

    Metaphors are dangerous and can backfire.

    For example, I don’t like the “earth has a fever” metaphor.

    Fevers are natural, happen routinely every few years, and usually get better soon enough without too much intervention.

    On the other hand, I like the term “forcing”. I know it’s a bit of sciency jargon relating to watts per sq. m, but it has the right feel.

    “Humans are forcing the climate to march along the road to catastrophe”, that kind of thing.

  2. My favorite Lincoln metaphor:

    “The patent system added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius.”