Flowers of rhetoric

A diagram of virtues, vices and the branches of rhetoric from a 15th-century of Cicero’s works, Ajaccio, Bibliothèque Municipale, 80

Why write the 5-word sentence ‘This is an emotional book’ when you can also do it like this: ‘This is a profoundly moving reading experience’. We may chuckle when we read something like this, but this pomposity is far from being a child of our bling-bling times. The injunction to use rhetorical embellishment and flowery language, especially when the same could be expressed in a more simple and compressed form, goes back to Antiquity. By the way, the laboured phrase mentioned at the beginning is from the Washington Post, quoted in the latest New Yorker magazine.

Forget flowers. Offer the gift of flores rhetoricae. Flowers of rhetoric, all sitting, growing and waiting to be picked in the Forest of Rhetoric – which is also a leafy website about ancient rhetorical devices. Check it out.

But back to our blossom. From Aristotle to the rhetoric masters of the Quattrocento and beyond, ornamentation sat at the intersection of style and persuasion, nourished by the artful expression of ideas and a desire to appeal to emotion for the purpose of swaying hearts and minds.

Because our ancestors were swayed by garnished words and manicured locutions, it doesn’t mean we are necessarily subject to the same faiblesses. Nothing has changed as far as style and persuasion are concerned. But today, stylistic finery does not sit as comfortably at the junction of 1st and 2nd as it used to. We have left pomp behind in government, art and rhetoric, even if sometimes we turn around, like Lot, to watch the rejected past, only to inflict upon ourselves the very things we sought to forsake.

Many of the ancient flowers are still blooming, while others have withered with the passage of too many winters, under the glacial sun of our disenchanted modern orb.


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