How To Be as Persuasive as Abraham Lincoln: Study the Figures of Speech

President’s day 2012 is another reminder of Obama’s ongoing failure to be the rhetorically inspiring leader that climate hawks had hoped for. So here’s some material from my forthcoming book on messaging.

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 — and I will 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 Indeed, at the age of 22 he wrote a brilliant, unpublished essay, “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric so.”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 Part 1 of 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.”

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.

The amount of repetition was staggering: Every single hour of instruction required, according to one sixteenth-century schoolmaster, six or more hours of exercises to apply the lesson to both speaking and writing. Much of the curriculum was rhetoric since the Elizabethans saw eloquence as the greatest skill to be acquired and rhetoric as the key to the Bible and literature. The teaching strategy was systematic: “First learn the figures, secondly identify them in whatever you read, thirdly use them yourself.” Hour after hour after hour, identifying every figure in Ovid or Cicero, then creating your own versions.

How did students respond to such rigorous teaching? C. S. Lewis says we must imagine the following mindset of would-be Elizabethan poets: “Your father, your grown-up brother, your admired elder school fellow all loved rhetoric. Therefore you loved it, too. You adored sweet Tully [Marcus Tullius Cicero] and were as concerned about asyndeton and chiasmus [figures of speech] as a modern schoolboy is about county cricketers or types of aeroplanes.”

Nineteenth-century America lacked the rigorous teaching of the rhetoric of Shakespeare’s day, but orators were widely admired, entertaining large audiences-and larger readerships-with speeches that lasted over two hours and that might be printed in a local newspaper, the text often filling the entire front page. This was the golden age of American oratory, the age of Daniel Webster, of Henry Clay, of Stephen Douglas, and of Abraham Lincoln.

In modern times, with multiple media to entertain ourselves with-television, movies, radio, the Internet, video games, iPods-we can hardly imagine what it was like to live at a time when public speeches and debates were a primary form of entertainment. One 1858 audience, after sitting through three hours of Lincoln and Douglas debating, actually went out to hear another speech. Lincoln himself, after his first debate with Douglas that year, headed off to hear another speech.

Lincoln, a master orator, debater, and rhetorician, was the most consciously rhetorical of our presidents. He once incisively attacked an opponent for employing a particular metaphor-using a metaphor of his own: “I wish gentlemen on the other side to understand that the use of degrading figures [of speech] is a game at which they may not find themselves able to take all the winnings.”

In Lincoln’s day, aspiring preachers, lawyers, and politicians were taught some rhetoric in college, though they would have learned much just from their study of the Bible. Lincoln worked hard to teach himself elocution and grammar.

Lincoln studied the great speechmakers of his time, like Daniel Webster, as well the great Elizabethan speechmaker. At an early age, he appears to have studied William Scott’s Lessons in Elocution, which ends with forty-nine speeches from life and art, nineteen from Shakespeare, including a number that he memorized, such as the soliloquy by King Claudius on the guilt he feels for having murdered Hamlet’s father. At the age of twenty-three, Lincoln walked six miles to get a copy of Samuel Kirkham’s English Grammar, which ends with a several-page discussion of the figures of speech.

Lincoln continued his passion for poetry and Shakespeare throughout his entire life. He spent hours reading passages from Shakespeare to his personal secretary John Hay and the artist F. B. Carpenter. After seeing one performance of Henry IV Part One, Lincoln debated Hay on the meaning and emphasis of a single phrase of Falstaff’s. During the painting of “Signing of the Emancipation Proclamation,” Carpenter describes Lincoln reciting Claudius’s 36-line speech in Hamlet “from memory, with a feeling and appreciation unsurpassed by anything I ever witnessed upon the stage.”

The one figure of speech discussed in both Kirkham’s book (briefly) and Scott’s book (with three full pages of examples) is antithesis-placing words or ideas in contrast or opposition, such as Lord Chesterfield’s quip, “The manner of speaking is as important as the matter,” or Shakespeare’s

Cowards die many times before their deaths,The valiant never taste of death but once.”

This became one of Lincoln’s favorite figures, in unforgettable lines such as “the world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here” and “with malice toward none; with charity for all.”

Part 2 looks at Lincoln’s use of the figure of irony, Part 3 at his use of metaphor, and Part 4 at how he framed his picture-perfect Gettysburg Address with extended metaphor.

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