Words Like Loaded Pistols
Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama
Basic Books 2012
What’s the connection between Sarah Palin and Plato? The response that leaps to mind is that they’ve both never heard of one another. But another similarity is their scepticism about high-flown rhetoric as a tool used to pull the wool over the eyes of the common man. One possible difference is whether they respond to this with sound logical reasoning or with an ‘anti-rhetorical’ rhetorical attack of their own.
Sam Leith’s book Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama (Basic Books, 2012) is a work that encourages the reader to think about rhetoric in this way. For Leith, rhetoric is all around us, as it has been for many centuries, and yet the terminology used to talk about it is close to falling into disuse. Through a series of enlightening and diverting examples, he makes the case for the traditional style of analysis, while showing that it is capable of handling contemporary examples.
In this interview, we discuss rhetorical styles in politics, and we see where the interests of the scholar and the journalist come together. We look at the contrasting approaches taken by adherents of the rhetorical high style and those who prefer to rely on ethos appeals, and compare historical and recent examples of this. And we touch upon the lives of some colourful figures in the history of rhetoric, and consider how their usage of language has gone sofar as to reshape their identity in the eyes of posterity.