Theses Doctoral

Eloquence and Its Conditions

Goodman, Rob

Political rhetoric generally assumes an asymmetric relationship between speaker and audience, but the rhetorical tradition has also developed resources to render this relationship more equitable. One such resource is the conception of the rhetorical situation as one of mutual vulnerability to risk on the part of both speaker and audience. However, this conception is increasingly threatened by “algorithmic” practices of political rhetoric that shield elite speakers from exposure to risk, as well as by the overcorrecting reaction to this development seen in the demagogic rhetoric of “unfiltered” and spontaneous “straight talk.” Turning to the classical tradition of eloquence can help us recover an alternative to both of these troubling tendencies, which we might call “spontaneous decorum.” This notion of eloquence combines qualities associated with spontaneity, because it welcomes risk and uncertainty as part of public deliberation, with qualities associated with decorum, because it is conceived as set apart from ordinary speech, embracing verbal artifice and rejecting the value of sincerity.
Part 1 of the dissertation considers the development of this model of eloquence in classical Greek and Roman rhetoric. Chapter 1 uses the oratory of Demosthenes, and its reception in antiquity, to critique the notion of sincerity as a warrant of rhetorical truthfulness. Chapter 2 addresses the resistance to the systematization of rhetoric in Cicero and Quintilian. Part 2 of the dissertation considers the continuing relevance of ancient notions of eloquence, investigating ways in which more recent writers have worked to translate them into modern institutional settings. Chapter 3 focuses on Edmund Burke’s role in the 18th-century reception of classical eloquence; it reconsiders his provocative claim that disruptive speech can act as a spur to sound political judgment, even under rule-bound, constitutional government. Chapter 4 explores the means by which Thomas Babington Macaulay attempted to revive the ancient conviction that history is a branch of rhetoric, arguing that the oratorical coloring of his work can best be understood as a response to the contemporary emergence of mass politics; it also contrasts his historical method with the resolutely anti-rhetorical method of Alexis de Tocqueville. Finally, Chapter 5 considers how Carl Schmitt constructed the contemporary “crisis of parliamentary democracy” as a rhetorical crisis, and how his proposed solution to the crisis—taking seriously the ritual as well as the strictly deliberative aspects of rhetoric—informed the illiberal turn in his thought; I conclude by arguing that a more nuanced conception of ritual action can better account for the value of stylized speech, is consistent with the classical tradition, and is more potentially compatible with democratic deliberation. While the first part of the dissertation reconstructs a model of eloquence open to both spontaneity and stylization, the second part shows that this model is far from a relic, and that it remains a valuable resource for critiquing the current state of political speech.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Johnston, David
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 13, 2018