Political Language: The Use and Abuse of Rhetoric | by Umberto Eco

It is moralistic to assert that political discourse must be freed of rhetorical techniques in order to relate to the truth. Running a city is a question of opinions, and it is in relation to this plurality of opinion that the game of reciprocal persuasion must be played.
Umberto Eco

by Umberto Eco

Aristotle divided discourses into judicial, deliberative, and epidictic. The judicial doesn’t need to be explained; epidictic discourse is dis­course in praise or blame of someone or something (a typical example being the Encomium of Helen by Gorgias). Today we’d include under the heading of epidictic discourse the advertising message, which effectively consists of a eulogy of a given product.1 Deliberative dis­course consists of political, and, one might now add, trade union discourse. In short, it is a matter of convincing the audience of the necessity or risk entailed by doing or not doing something that concerns the economic and political future of the community.

There are three types of discourse examined by Aristotle in the book devoted to Rhetoric. Among moderns the term ‘rhetoric’ has undoubtedly fallen into disuse and has assumed connotations of pom­pous vacuousness. However, one should go back to the original meaning.2 Rhetorical discourse, for the Greeks, was discourse that treated with that which is probable and aimed to persuade listeners of the acceptability of an assertion. Just to illustrate the point, saying two and two make four, or that two parallel lines never meet, or that a proposition cannot be both true and false, has not (and does not) belong to rhetoric. One is dealing instead with statements which (even if not considered ‘true’ in any absolute sense) are based on a system of precise and convention-governed axioms. Given the axioms, and given the rules for deriving demonstrations therefrom, one enters a certain logic and cannot dispute certain conclusions. They are apodictic.

Let us suppose, however, that we have to discuss whether it is right or not to take something from someone who has robbed you. As will become apparent, there doesn’t exist a mathematical law that lays down the precise conditions under which a conclusion can be said to be true. It is necessary, if one wants to construct a syllogism, to start from a premise that is only probable. For example, I can argue as follows: ‘What others possess having taken it away from me is not their property; it is wrong to take from others what is their property, but it is not wrong to restore the original order of property, putting back into my hands what was originally in my hands.’ But I could also argue: ‘Rights of property are sanctioned by the actual pos­session of a thing; if I take from someone what is actually in their possession, I commit an act against the rights of property and there­fore theft.’ Of course a third argument is possible, namely: ‘All property is per se theft; taking property from property-owners means restoring the equilibrium violated by the original theft, and therefore taking from the propertied the fruits of their thefts is not just right but a duty.’

As one can see, these three arguments (in a crude and elliptical form that condenses the chain of rhetorical syllogisms or enthymemes) are all acceptable enough, so long as one accepts the premises (that are not axioms but opinions). The task of confronting deliberative (or political) discourse is that of demonstrating, through other argu­ments, the acceptability of these opinions, taking them as accepted by the audience in order to draw conclusions accordingly.

Two approaches shape two instances of political discourse – the theoretical, for which discussing the rights of property is a matter for political economy, and the propagandistic, which is not to be con­flated with the ‘demogogic’ in the worst sense of the word. No public speaker at a meeting, no journalist in an article, can start laying down fundamental premises every time he expresses an opinion and calls for decisions to be made: he simply takes generally accepted opinion in order to persuade the audience/readers of a given set of conse­quences; or else he asserts an opinion that is not generally accepted so convincingly that it becomes indisputable. And the three arguments put forward as examples arc neither fictitious nor paradoxical but make up the kernel of many of today’s debates and could be aired on an edition of Tribuna politica.3

All these observations point to the fact that political discourse (just like philosophical, critical or any other discourse dealing with abstract values in the context of a highly formalized body of axioms) must persuade. In other words, it must get the listener to agree to the speaker’s point of view, even if other options remain available. It is, therefore, a form of rhetorical discourse.

However, rhetoric in this sense is an honest and productive exer­cise. Instead of imposing my will on another I seek to get his agree­ment, his active support, and so I argue in order to persuade him accordingly. While doing so I am obliged to re-examine my premises and arguments. Consequently the discourse I am addressing to another person is also being addressed to myself in order to clarify what I want. In an extreme case, and in circumstances of maximum intellectual honesty, a rhetorical discourse designed to convince others of something could bring me to reject what I had intended to say. Rhetoric (in this respect) as technique of persuasion is a means of creating awareness.

However, we cannot deny that there exists another sense of ‘rhet­oric’ understood as discourse that masks under empty and grandilo­quent forms a basic lack of substantial argument. If I say ‘Forward, forward, let us follow the immortal destiny of those men bound to us in singleness of purpose’, I’m simply saying, ‘Let’s do what everyone who thinks in the same way as me wants’, except that on the strength of the emotions I have evoked I might then sweep along some imbe­cile who doesn’t share my views. This second idea of rhetoric is genetically dependent on the first and constitutes its natural stage of degeneration. In fact, technicians of persuasion have since classical times identified those premises and arguments that seem best designed to persuade. Acceptable premises are called endoxa and consist of opinions held by the majority and difficult to challenge. For example, a typical endoxon is: ‘You must never make a mother weep.’ Every­one, initially, would maintain that this is an incontrovertible truth. Obviously it isn’t, because if I have to condemn a man guilty of rape and murder to life-imprisonment, I must do so even if his mother will be broken-hearted. Yet an appeal of this kind coming from the lips of an unscrupulous lawyer for the defence would still be liable to con­jure up unchecked emotions in a jury, if only for a moment or two. Here then is a first instance of degeneration of rhetoric: namely, using opinions that are widely held and difficult to criticize without there being time to consider other and equally established opinions. As for the arguments available, rhetoric has for over 2,000 years classified batteries and repertories of argumentation which, used opportunely, cannot fail to achieve consensus, even though one knows perfectly well that other arguments work equally effectively. Perclman, for example, cites two typical arguments (also called loci) which, although mutually contradictory, can each in turn evoke consensus. The first is the locus of quantity: ‘You must do this because most people do.’ The exact opposite is the locus of quality: ‘Nobody docs this; if you do, you’ll set yourself above all the others.’ It’s not hard to see that the knowing use of premises and loci consolidated over time enables one to obtain favourable emotional responses, almost as a conditioned reflex, and this constitutes an obvious example of de­generated rhetoric.

All of Mussolini’s speeches belong to this second type of political argumentation. Take an expression like ‘Only God can bend our will; men and things never can’, and compare it with a generally accepted opinion of a different kind sufficient to undermine it: ‘God acts only through men and things as his instruments.’ Often humour is achieved thanks to a paradoxical collision of opposing and equally acceptable premises; think of Bergson’s quip: ‘Stop! Only God has the right to kill those of his kind’ Or an advertisement that simul­taneously exploits the loci of quantity and quality: ‘A tiny number of people will buy this rare product. Join this select band now!’

Lastly, there’s a third layer of rhetorical usage that is found both in ‘creative’ and ‘degenerated’ rhetoric: namely that of the rhetorical figures such as metaphor, metonymy, oxymoron, hypallage, or paro­nomasia (pun). The list of these figures includes over one hundred types and it isn’t possible to enumerate them here.4 Let’s simply recall that we’re dealing with the capacity to say something, perhaps some­thing fairly familiar, in a new and surprising way so as to attract attention and, so to speak, appeal to the aesthetic sense of the audience. A rhetorical figure used well and at the right moment is charged with numerous connotations. If I make a speech to con­sumers asking them to limit their spending in the face of the devalua­tion of the dollar, and instead of saying ‘we the consumers at this critical conjuncture’ were to say ‘Oh, my fellow voyagers on the tempestuous seas of international finance’, not only would I be saying the expected in an unexpected manner but I would be calling upon feelings of solidarity, communicating the drama of the occasion, making my listeners share in a common adventure and asking for their trust on that basis. When these figures are being used for the first time we certainly witness a creative act that makes us see reality with new eyes; poets have this important role.5 However, the recurrent figure is already overlain with certain emotional values and ideologi­cal connotations by convention. Using it, then, is not merely laziness on the part of the speaker. Such use also constitutes a safe if dishonest investment in the emotional disposition and laziness of the audience.

There is one final way of making full use of rhetorical figures, which consists in real verbal abuse of power and not just degenerated rhetoric. In brief, this is the discourse of the swindler: an overuse of figures, an interweaving of premises and arguments of which one loses the thread, dressing up a discourse in all the trappings of scientificity and its accompanying authority merely to confound an audience. This type of discourse can be used either by those who know what they want to say but only want a few others to know, or by those who don’t know what they are saying and hide their own confusion in an accumulation of rhetoric.

All these forms of rhetorical discourse can be found in the linguistic activity of this country (and others) in the area of political debate. Unmasking these usages of persuasive discourse should not be seen as simple qualunquismo or apparent rejection of all politics and poli­ticians. Rather it means hunting out all abuses of power and acknow­ledging clarity when it is found. In short the purpose is to restore clarity of thought and, subsequently, the freedom of information that is every citizen’s right.

Political language is always addressed to specific audiences. The politician who speaks in parliament or in the piazza knows the set of opinions and openness to argument of his listeners. Calibrating his speech in such a way as to get across to a given audience, and hence calibrating the argumentation by modulating the sharpness of an assertion here or underlining one point while dropping another there, all these are perfectly legitimate techniques of persuasion, not abuses of power. We too, when we try to convince a friend of something, resort to arguments that touch the heart.

However, the means of mass communication have now put the politician in a position, whether writing or speaking, to address sim­ultaneously a whole spectrum of people that are remote from him and differentiated by background, region, culture and personal inclina­tion. The limit case is provided by political debates on television. Research carried out a few years ago on the style of argumentation of Italian politicians appearing on Tribuna politica showed that very often the arguments of a Liberal or a Christian Democrat, a Commu­nist or a Socialist were very different from one another at the public meeting in the piazza.6 Yet once presented to a television audience they appeared, in the final analysis, remarkably similar. Knowing they were talking to a far more differentiated audience, each speaker tended to soften the edges, select arguments acceptable to the ma­jority, possibly use generally known terms. The upshot was that everyone converged towards a kind of middle-of-the-road argument in which, for all the differences, there visibly emerged a uniformity of opinion. What is found on television is also found in the press, though to a lesser extent since newspapers have specific readerships (and extremely specific ones in the case of party organs). But even here we cannot overlook the levelling role of the means of mass communi­cations.

Yet this is not the main danger facing political discourse in Italy. What is striking isn’t so much the uniformity (with some dramatic exceptions) as the apparent incomprehensibility, sometimes to the point of pernicious vacuousness. As for vacuousness, one can point to instances of degenerated rhetoric in the use of tried and tested formu­lae that promise acceptability and reassurance. For example, a few years ago we find papers reporting two parliamentary speeches in this vein: ‘Minister Such-and-such stated: We will give the regions con­crete powers. The Right Honourable Something-or-other reiterated: One must oppose whoever pushes the country in the wrong direc­tion.’ If we avoid accusing the speakers of talking in generalities it is nonetheless significant that the paper in question instantly selected them as the most significant. Obviously there is little more abstract than the expression ‘concrete powers’, and saying that one must oppose whoever pushes the country in the wrong direction is not saying anything without analysis of the direction and the related error. But what is worrying is that in the course of the article there appear expressions in inverted commas such as, The government must press on, selecting the proposals and studies so far undertaken, and identifying the substantial points of a new law so as to go beyond the stage of pure and simple proposals and move promptly to that of decision-making.’ The sentence just says that the government should, in order to resolve the problem, elaborate precise laws and then apply them. Which is, as everyone knows, what a government does or should do every day, without the announcement of the fact constitut­ing a news story.

These are typical examples of formulae not difficult to comprehend and not unappealing, but vague and evasive. However, a second type of degenerated rhetoric consists in the use of rhetorically complex formulae designed to hide (or filter for the benefit of those in the know) a decision or political opinion that is either too risky or unsafe.

The series of quotations that will now be presented is culled from a debate involving politicians of various parties that took place in parliament, at public meetings and in leading newspaper articles in June 1968 during a ministerial crisis which threatened to bring down the centre-left coalition. Since situations of this kind have occurred several times in Italy in living memory, the example might well serve as a general model applicable to analogous situations. The first inter­vention, made by the press agency Nuova Stampa, specifies that the planned Leone government ‘should not be considered a monochrome Christian Democrat one but a government of Christian Democrats in monochrome.’ The experts in political matters read between the lines the importance of the distinction: it consists in a government of Christian Democrat politicians but one in which the Christian Demo­crats as a party do not assume full responsibility. However, in order to express the substantial concept without divulging it, a rhetorical procedure is employed, namely antimetathesis; that is, the repetition of the same words in transposed order in two successive phrases. The Right Honourable Malagodi, on the other hand, expresses ‘the wish that the new government can act to serve only the objective interests of Italy and not with the view to the manifestation of eventual and future political forms whose concrete content is today difficult to imagine and evaluate.’ The sentence exemplifies another rhetorical figure, namely periphrasis or circumlocution, and aims to show that the party that enunciates it would not support the government in a vote of confidence. With the polemics hotting up, the Right Honour­able Zannier defines the situation on 12 June as follows: ‘There is an entirely open-ended problematic. For now it is a moment of stasis.’

Giving ‘open-ended problematic’ the obvious sense of ‘unstable situation’, we thereby arrive at the first formulation: ‘static insta­bility’. In rhetoric this is called an oxymoron. The oxymoron is, according to Horace, a ‘rerum concordia discors’, the clash of two opposites, such as ‘cautious enthusiasm, clear ambiguity, luminous  obscurity, strong weakness’. When well used it can poetically bring alive the meaning of an expression; when used badly it serves to diminish meaning, i.e. to say nothing. But wanting to say nothing can constitute a precise political message, otherwise it would be imposs­ible to explain Nenni’s phrase of 21 June: ‘Now one must decide. […] There remains nothing for us but to abstain’. So, starting with the oxymoron, we come upon another odd operation that is called epanortos. The operation consists in expanding on the initial phrase with another that alters its meaning. On 17 June, for instance, a definition emerges according to which: ‘This will be a government of business […] or better, government in waiting.’ Anyone who is persuaded that a government that ‘waits’ does less than a government that gets on with business is being misled: the government in waiting should be a government in the fullness of its prerogatives’, and therefore a government that, in order to wait in a dignified manner, should do an enormous number of things. The explanation is that ‘the waiting’ does not regard the government but the parties that, while the govern­ment governs, should wait and clarify their ideas. Hence the ‘precipi­tous wait’.

The oxymoron is so daring that, at the time, nobody wanted to claim paternity for it. The Popolo of 17 June announces the definition but attributes it to the Socialist Cariglia. Avanti, the same day, states that it was the Christian Democrat Gava; the Corriere della Sera, also that day, decides to attribute it to the Christian Democrat Sullo. By this point the Socialist parliamentarians have to make a statement on the matter, taking up the polemic on ‘disengagement’ once again. On 13 June, Mariotti asserts that disengagement should have shown the Socialists’ determination to return to government ‘with the proviso that the Centre-Left guarantees to contest and democratically change the existing system at the level of society’. Yet on 18 June, the Social Democrat Preti states that one should engage because ‘in the Italian and European society of today the Socialist Movement does not have the function of assuming a contestatory role.’ From which can be derived two exemplary oxymorons: ‘contestative disengagement’ and ‘engagement that does not contest’.

By this stage the taste for disengagement is spreading to the Chris­tian Democrats as well, first to its left wing and then to the whole party. The government will be Christian Democrat but not the ex­pression of Christian Democrats.

This important decision is announced through a sequel of semantic operations that in rhetoric go by the name reticence. For the Popolo, the Socialist Mancini said that the Christian Democrats were disen­gaging; for Avanti, the Christian Democrat Party said it. In either case it is evident that the Christian Democrats are disengaging with respect to a government of Christian Democrats that stands thanks to help from the Socialists. Mancini, with extreme semiological finesse, grasps the contradiction and discloses it in the form of an antitheton (which is, according to Isidore of Seville, a figure whereby opposites are opposed to opposites and generate the beauty of an enunciation); in effect the situation now requires the Christian Democrats to engage and form a government with respect to which it is busy disengaging, while the United Socialist Party is disengaging vis a vis a government with regard to which it should be engaging. We are simultaneously presented with another well-known figure, paradox, and an oxy­moron, no two, because the antitheton opposes an ‘engaged disen­gagement’ to a ‘disengaged engagement’. And by this point one might conclude that the Italian political elite had been scrutinizing the now’ very fashionable works of Marshall McLuhan, w ho, with a deft touch defines alphabetic communication (in which there are no images) as ‘visual’ and television as ‘tactile’. And when we are surrounded by sounds, lights, noises, words etc., in front of the television, lo and behold, McLuhan declares we are being subjected to a ‘very cold’ medium, and yet when we are freezing at the end of a telephone we are having ‘very hot’ communication. By the same token, the notion of disengagement is now defined as ‘supporting with every effort the business which others are w ashing their hands of’.

We’ve reached the climactic moment. With a concise play of reti­cence, after three days of press reports warning of the imminent appointment of Leone as head of government, Sullo announces to the country that, having only just learnt that the government in waiting is to be offered to his friend Leone, the Christian Democrats are guaran­teeing him affectionate solidarity. By solidarity is meant ‘Leone forms the government choosing the Christian Democrats he wants but the Christian Democrat Party knows nothing about the matter.’ How could it possibly know’ nothing? Through an artifice which, according to Frege’s semantics, consists in changing the sense of a phrase with­out changing its referent: it is not the same to say ‘Dante’ or ‘the author of the Divine Comedy’. Or, to be more precise, the thing designated doesn’t change but the sense of the designation does. Dante for instance had an aquiline nose, but as the author of the Divine Comedy this fact doesn’t matter. Hence Gui, Andreotti or Leone can be seen under two different suppositions: as politicians (happening to be members of the Christian Democrat Party) and as Christian Democrat politicians. It will be in their former capacity that they will participate in the government which is not, let it be noted, a monochrome Christian Democrat one but a monochrome govern­ment with Christian Democrats. The same thing happens as in a Dario Fo song sung by Janacci that speaks of ‘The Twenty-One – meaning the tram’. The Twenty-One and the Christian Democrat politician can be said to rediscover their real nature after decades of being repressively identified with a party in which they didn’t entirely fulfil themselves.

The cycle of our rhetorical drama set in many (political) acts is complete. The possibility of a contestativc disengagement, a procras­tinated engagement, a dissident consensus, a parallel divergence, a sharpest of blunt edges, a circle with hypotenuse, and a radical solu­tion that leaves things as they are – this whole series of verbal artifices that only unreasonable people could define as senseless is justified as a justification of a moderately decisive decision taken by two parties of government. And the decision can be communicated, without rhetori­cal figures, in the following way: ‘Give us time to think it over.’ If the rhetorical overlay appears absurd, the blame lies not with the art of rhetoric, which expresses what one wants to say, but with the fact that, in politics, whoever wants to govern never has the right to think it over.

On the other hand one shouldn’t think that all expressions put in rhetorical form necessarily hide emptiness. Sometimes they hide a potential, a conflict of alternatives, and, far from constituting verbal contrivances without content, they represent verbal contrivances that confusingly circumscribe a content; it’s just that one doesn’t yet know’ who w’ill manage to fill them with content of their own.

In the history of parliamentary and ministerial rhetoric the ex­pression ‘parallel convergences’ has become celebrated – another oxymoron but this time one that didn’t attempt to disguise a state of indecision because it referred to a precise formula for governmental equilibrium. Let’s not forget that expressions that arc perhaps less baroque but equally hermetic are found in the lexicon of all the parties and political currents. Candidates might include: ‘non-integrable objectives’, ‘more advanced equilibria’, ‘new majority’, and even, in its Italian usage, ‘cultural revolution’. Each of these formulae referred or refer to precise enough political projects. Every political commentator could, in a bout of sincerity, translate each of them into a definition expanding on and clarifying exactly what the relevant formula was meant to express. Yet one would soon notice diver­gences of interpretation both over marginal (to the outsider) and crucial political issues. This is because, when occasions arise in which decisions have to be made about a course of action, a politician (either by chance or out of a feeling for words) invents and propounds a formula that alludes to a direction to be taken. The formula is not empty, and the course of action is specific. However, in that course of action there are many options still open. Which of these will the formula apply to? What happens in the world of politics is a sort of blind struggle to control the power definitively and unequivocally to fill the formula with a particular meaning. In the period of waiting, and at the height of the struggle, the formula is not without meaning but has many and interrelated meanings. Whoever manages to make his own interpretation prevail will take control of the formula, making it into the verbal emblem of his brand of politics. Except when, in the very moment of triumph of a particular definition, the formula is conclusively emptied of any power of suggestion and loses its magic properties, no longer the epicentre of moral struggle.

There is undoubtedly a fascinating side to this process whereby a language often anticipates the realities that it must designate, and from the point of view of a study of rhetorical forms and pragmatics (rather than semantics) of language the phenomenon has much to offer. But unfortunately we are analysing political language, that is to say language which should be spoken by the whole national com­munity in order to inform all citizens of their representatives’ inten­tions so that these can then be judged. At present the socio-cultural situation of this particular national community is the one exposed a couple of years ago by an RAI Audience Survey on the comprehen­sion of political jargon in radio and television news programmes.

The findings, now widely known, provide food for reflection. Out of every hundred interviewees, twenty believed that the Confindustria (employers’ association) was the trade union of workers in industry, and 40% said they didn’t know what it was. Only 28% of a group of farm-workers in Andria knew the meaning of ‘alternative’, and only 19% the meaning of ‘cabinet reshuffle’. Only 8% of a group of Voghera housewives knew’ the meaning of the word ‘notion’. Thirty- five per cent of a group of Milan workers thought ‘dialogue’ meant conflict of opinions and 40% considered ‘minister without portfolio’ to mean Finance Minister’. Almost 50% thought that ‘lay parties’ meant parties in favour of Church/State collaboration, with only 26% giving the correct answer.

This, then, is the objective situation in which the public speaker is operating when he addresses the electorate. It is easy enough to sec that when the Right Flonourable Colombo refers to unemployment on television with the euphemism ‘available manpower’, he is not merely designating an unpoetic reality in an inoffensive manner; he is, in effect, hiding information from the addressee. But is he actually addressing the citizen?

I his is a good place to analyse the cultural factors that push the politician to express himself in the ways outlined above. There are reasons to do with educational background: the residues of a human­ist culture of a legal hue or the legacy of the uphill battle to master the dustiest of classics. I he traditional political elite is composed of liter­ary intellectuals rather than technocrats and most have not renounced the ornate forms of speech that symbolize prestige and status, and act as a substitute tor the technological and economic power beyond their reach. Industrialists express themselves in far more concrete terms, and when Pasolini accused Italian politicians of speaking a technological language he was wide of the mark.8 Italian political language is still pre-technological, agrarian.

But this isn’t the only explanation. A further explanation that digs down to the determining effects of economic development tells us that the politician, when speaking in obscure terms, is actually sending a message in code that emanates from one power group and is destined for another.9 The two groups, sender and receiver, understand one another perfectly well, and the wittiest of rhetorical turns is not, for the right people, mere flatus vocis but so many promises, threats, refusals and agreements. It is clear, moreover, that in order for com­munication between power groups to carry on undisturbed it must go over the heads of the public, just like the coded message passing between two armed camps in a war situation, which might be inter­cepted by chance by a radio ham but never understood. The fact of its not being understood by others is the indispensable condition for the maintenance of private relationships between power groups. Accord­ingly, political discourse in this vein, whatever the aims of the govern­ment in question, is anti-democratic because it leapfrogs the citizen and denies him any room to agree or disagree. It is an authoritarian discourse. Unmasking it is the only political activity that is worth­while and addressed to citizens as a w hole. This is the only real way to exercise rhetoric so as to create convictions rather than to induce subjugation. It is a cognitive exercise in which one still persuades, but persuades others to want to see things clearly.

It is moralistic to assert that political discourse must be freed of rhetorical techniques in order to relate to the truth. Running a city is a question of opinions, and it is in relation to this plurality of opinion that the game of reciprocal persuasion must be played. When a group claims that discussion is useless and a waste of time, it is better in the name of consistency for it engage directly in revolutionary action (whereby popular power is its own raison d’etre) and to bypass the labyrinths of persuasion. Better still would be resorting to a vile demonstration of an armed force that tells no lies and acts as a call to revolution. However, the political discourse that replaces persuasive speech with incantatory formulae (or, worse still, with magic formu­lae containing secret messages passed from witch to witch) represents a linguistic and civic reality that every democratic community must attack with the weapon of clear-sighted analysis and demystification.


1. See U. Eco, La struttura assente (Milan: Bompiani, 1968), especially section A4 (‘The Persuasive Message’) and A5 (‘Rhetoric and Ideology’), not to men­tion the analysis of advertising posters in B5.

2. The most wide-ranging and comprehensive reinstatement of rhetoric in a contemporary perspective is C. Perelman and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca, The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation (trails. J. Wilkinson and F. Weaver; London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1969). Many of the observations I make here, especially concerning the affinities between persuasive rhetoric and undogmatic philosophical discourse, are inspired by this work.

3. It is easy to point out how the three arguments concerning property and theft condense three different ideological positions. The first harks back to the argumentation of Catholic casuistry, notably the principle of ‘hidden compen­sation’ according to which a badly paid employee, having heard the advice of his confessor and in the absence of other means of redress, is able to compen­sate himself in some way in order to restore the proportion of the ‘just wage’ wrongly denied him. The second argument is that of currently established law: in order to restore what someone has wrongly taken possession of I must have recourse to the courts so that the possession is declared wrongful. Otherwise it is property that the law recognizes and I cannot reappropriate it through an arbitrary individual act. The third argument is, broadly speaking, that of communists. One should note, however, that the first and third argument could well coincide; but for the fact that, by common agreement, the casuistic argument is clearly limited to the ethical sphere (personal relations and matters on a small scale), while the communist argument extends to the political sphere (collective relations and planetary scale). However, the fact is that with the communist set of premises there is no difference between politi­cal and ethical spheres, with the former subsuming the latter. Instead, the casuistic argument, if it is to work, needs to assume as implicit the premises that establish the difference between politics and ethics. For argument number two, by contrast, both spheres are neutralized by that of the law, which rules supreme. The fact that all three arguments are rhetorical in nature is shown by the following: they all cease to be valid if the system of implicit premises underpinning them is changed.

4. For two exemplary repertories, see the nimble ‘L’ancienne rhetorique’ (Com­munications, 8, 1965), by R. Barthes, and the denser H. Lausberg, Elementidi retorica (Bologna: Mulino, 1972). For the definitive manual, see H. Lausberg, Handbuch der literarischen Rhetortk (Munich: Hueber, 1960).

5. The graffiti of the Sorbonne of May 1968 are all excellent examples of fresh and effective rhetorical formulations. Take some of the best known: Popular­ize the struggles of the Divine Marquis’ (paradox)’, ‘Patriotism is mass egoism’ (oxymoron); ‘CRS-Assassins’ (alliteration); ‘Power to the Imagination* (personification); Society is a carnivorous flower’ (similitude); ‘At Nanterre you enter’ (paronomasia); ‘It is prohibited to prohibit’ (derivation antithesis); Leave fear of the reds to animals with horns’ (metonym + periphrasis + metaphor).

6. See Paolo Fabbri, ‘Prospettive di analisi del linguaggio politico’, in Il TelecomizioAspetti semiologici e sociologici del messaggio televisivo (Urbino: Fditrice Montefeltro, 1971).

7. See Risultati di una indagine sulla comprensione del linguaggio politico’, RAI, Appunti del Servizto Opinioni,

8. The polemic on technological language, launched by Pasolini’s intervention at a conference, took place in late 1964/early 1965; for an initial resume, see Andrea Barbato, Da Dante a Granzotto’, L’Espresso, 24 January 1965.

9. In this sense the dominant rhetorical figure when politicians communicate with the public at large is euphemism. Sec the chapter entitled ‘Political Interdiction’ in Nora Galli de’ Paratesi, Semantica dell’eufemismo (Turin: Giappichelli, 1964), later published by Mondadori under the title Le brutte parole.

SOURCE: Apocalypse Postponed (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994); pp. 75-86


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