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Vol. 15, No. 5, 2016
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Robert J. Lewis
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Nick Catalano is a TV writer/producer and Professor of Literature and Music at Pace University. He reviews books and music for several journals and is the author of Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter, New York Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham and A New Yorker at Sea. His latest book, Tales of a Hamptons Sailor, is now available. For Nick's reviews, visit his website:

A demagogue is “a political leader who tries to get support by making false claims and promises and using arguments based on emotion rather than reason” (Merriam-Webster). Most people understand this notion but few have knowledge of the irony involved in its origin during a period of near miraculous political idealism – the onset of Democracy in ancient Greece.

After decades of political experiments in the sixth century B.C. during which leaders (Solon, Pisistratus) grappled with the challenge of giving justice to all citizens regardless of their economic or social status, a revolutionary system was enacted by Cleisthenes in 504 B.C. An assembly (ekklesia) was created in Athens comprised of all citizens rich or poor where all could speak on issues and vote for or against. No favoritism was given to the wealthier or more powerful; a jury of peers would decide the fate of a defendant during trials where arguments from all Athenian citizens could be delivered and heard.

New democratic assembly sessions opened with the presiding officer asking “Who wishes to speak?” As the Athenian citizenry (about 6000) all participated in the often vigorous debates and discussions on the Pnyx hill under their magnificent acropolis, it soon became obvious that those who could speak with the most persuasive voices had the greatest say over the voters and voting. Quickly, citizens rushed all over town seeking out teachers who could help them orate more effectively and persuasively. It was at that point that the art of ‘rhetoric’ came into being.

Teachers or sophists as they became known flocked to the Agora or marketplace in the center of Athens and held court. Those who gave the best lessons and got the highest results made the most money. And there is evidence that sophistry became the most coveted occupation in the city with the most revered sophists garnering huge prestige and influence.

Who were the principal creators of rhetoric? Many have heard of Protagoras, Gorgias, Socrates and Demosthenes but few know about Coras and Tisias -- Sicilian Greeks who most scholars credit with starting matters off about 467 B.C. What was the substance of their teaching? What techniques of speaking marked the success of an influential orator?

A huge list of rhetorical terms has come down to us from antiquity. There are hundreds of judiciously labeled and defined terms and techniques that the sophists taught and it will serve us to deal with only a few in order to understand the scope of the achievements of these Athenian instructors. Credit must also be given to the Romans who emulated the Greeks and translated their terms into Latin expressions which are more familiar to us.

Following are brief examples of some techniques. For more detailed analysis readers can consult any number of works on Rhetoric.

Syllogisms were bedrock structures employed in mathematical and philosophical reasoning: a) Bob is a person b) all persons are mortal c) therefore Bob is mortal. But soon rhetoricians developed Enthymemes which sounded like syllogisms but were based on opinion and not logic: a) These clothes are tacky b) I am wearing these clothes c) Therefore, I am unfashionable. Similar tricky techniques include: Hypophora: wherein a speaker asks the audience a question and then answers it himself i.e. “When he reminded you of your old friendship, were you moved? No, you killed him nevertheless.” Apophasis: wherein the speaker brings up a subject by denying that it should be brought up: “I forgive you your jealousy, so I won’t even mention what a betrayal it was.” Zeugma (also called Syllepsis): wherein a speaker uses a single word with two other parts of a sentence but is understood differently in each part: “Eggs and oaths are soon broken.”

There were literally hundreds of these techniques developed by the Sophists and utilized in political speeches. Some of the more powerful ones were later re-labeled by the Romans and it is these terms that moderns are more familiar with. Non Sequitur: a statement bearing no relationship to the previous context i.e. “He went to the same college as Bill Gates. He should be famous too.” Argumentum Ad Populum: the appeal to the popularity of a claim as a reason for accepting it i.e. “the fact that the many citizens support the death penalty proves that it is morally right.” Post hoc ergo propter hoc: wherein the speaker claims that something causes another thing simply because it occurred before i.e. “the current economy’s health is determined by the actions of previous presidents.”

There is much evidence that when rhetoric was initially instituted the Greeks thought that the techniques would be always used for establishing the truth of the issue in question and never to service any distortion of it. But as anyone can imagine it didn’t take a genius to figure out that rhetorical expertise would eventually be employed maliciously.

When Aristotle came along and analyzed what had been happening since the inception of democracy in his Rhetoric written in 350 B.C. he immediately took note of the onset of deviousness that had been developing over the years since persuasive rhetoric was first taught. He wrote “Revolutions in democracies are generally caused by the intemperance of demagogues.” He singled out one of the most insidious techniques – what we now refer to as argumentum ad verecundiam – an appeal to one’s prejudice, emotions or special interest rather than to one’s reason i.e. “How can he be a good neighbour? He wasn’t born here.”

Aristotle later wrote “The orator persuades by means of his hearers, when they are roused to emotion by his speech; for the judgments we deliver are not the same when we are influenced by joy or sorrow, love or hate.” The influential Roman statesman Seneca continued the warning “Reason herself, to whom the reins of power have been entrusted, remains mistress only so long as she is kept apart from the passions.” The comments of the Sicilian Greek Gorgias, however, are the most dramatic: “The power of speech has the same effect on the disposition of the soul as the disposition of drugs on the nature of bodies.”

Unfortunately, ever since its invention, iniquitous rhetoric has damaged reasonable debate and often instigated deep chasms of injustice throughout human history.

We need only reference the horrific effects caused by Adolf Hitler when employing argumentum ad verecundiam. Essentially, he began by bemoaning the terrible economic conditions in post W.W. I arousing anger and frustration in crowds he addressed. And then, using the aforementioned illogic, he insisted that since many prosperous businesses were owned by Jews they were to blame for the poor economic conditions in Germany. What followed was the horror of the holocaust. The madness all began innocuously enough with a speaker simply appealing to the anger of the crowd with passionate rhetoric focused on emotions and carefully omitting rational thought.

Recently, the same illogic has been employed by Donald Trump in his rhetoric against Muslims. Because of the violence caused by international terrorists (he neglects to note that much violence is attributable to criminals of all races and creeds) he demands that America denounce all Muslim peoples and segregate those who already enjoy peaceful citizenship.

In similar speeches he has deprecated, Hispanics, members of the LGBTQ community, a Mexican judge, Afro-Americans, Native-Americans, and Jews utilizing the same demagogic rhetoric originating thousands of years ago.

Thus irony and tragedy have come to us from the ancients. They thought they were merely teaching concerned citizens to speak persuasively. Instead they unleashed rhetorical weaponry for which we still do not have any antidote. Demagoguery and demagogues continue to flourish everywhere. It takes informed and aware listeners to detect these insidious appeals to passion and prejudice and condemn these orators of barbarism.



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So well written. A meaningful commentary.

Hal McLaughlin 
Donald Trump appears to be a perfect example of a Demigogue in modern times using modern media. I never used the word so I didn't quite know what it meant. Now I see a Demigogue every day on TV. Thanks for your article.
How poignant -- and beautifully written! Michele

By Nick Catalano:
The Guns of August
Miles Ahead and Born to Be Blue
Manon Lescaut @The Met
An American in Paris
What We Don't Know about Eastern Culture
Black Earth (book review)
Cuban Jazz
HD Opera - Game Changer
Film Treatment of Stolen Art
Stains and Blemishes in Democracy
Intersteller (film review)
Shakespeare, Shelley & Woody Allen
Mystery and Human Sacrifice at the Parthenon
Carol Fredette (Jazz)
Amsterdam (book review)
Vermeer Nation
The Case for Da Vinci's Demons


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