How Lincoln framed his picture-perfect Gettysburg Address Using An Extended metaphor
The terrific Spielburg movie on our 16th President provides a stunning contrast to the failure of Obama to be a rhetorically inspiring leader on climate. In my first post, I looked at how Lincoln had mastered the figures of speech, especially irony, with the help of the works of Shakespeare. This post looks at his mastery of metaphor and extended metaphor — two crucial inspirational figures that Obama virtually never uses.
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].
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 the first post, 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: