Boris Johnson may not strike you as a master of rhetoric. He seems to shrink from, rather than rise to, big set-piece speeches and tends to affect a kind of embarrassed shuffle. When they do come, his sentences rush out in staccato dribs and drabs, and he pauses after each one as if awaiting praise for having managed to utter it. Barack Obama he is not.
And yet, in terms of understanding what is going on behind those darting blue eyes, and predicting what we might expect in the months and years ahead — now that he has nominally delivered on his pledge to ‘get Brexit done’ — you could do worse than read up on the rhetorical tradition of the classics that dominated his education.
Richard Lanham, in his 1976 book, The Motives of Eloquence, which is still a standard text for students of rhetoric, argues that the main thing alienating modern readers from the literature of ancient Greece and Rome is the “rhetorical world view”. This is about more than just heavily stylised language, and adds up to a fundamentally different way of viewing reality from the ‘serious world view’ that prevails today.
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The serious world view, ultimately descended from Plato, is centred on the premise that “every man possesses a central self, an irreducible identity” — its virtues are sincerity, clarity and integrity. Every question has a single best answer that we should aim towards.
The rhetorical world view, descended, as Lanham sees it, from Ovid, sees people as changeable and contradictory like the universe they inhabit; they are the sum of their outward performances rather than possessing a single inner truth.
Young men in the ancient world were educated in rhetoric in a way that would be unrecognisable today — learning massive passages for recital, taught to speak with equal conviction on either side of a question and to become masters of ad-libbing and stylistic flourish. The aim was to win at all costs. Very few modern paths of education are even comparable, but Boris Johnson’s journey through Eton, Literae Humaniores at Balliol, and the Oxford Union is probably the nearest equivalent. Footage of him reciting huge chunks of Homer from memory certainly calls it to mind.
Where will Boris Johnson lead us?
This rhetorical education produces, according to Lanham, a very particular kind of person:
“Rhetorical man is an actor; his reality public, dramatic. His sense of identity, his self, depends on the reassurance of daily histrionic re-enactment… His motivations must be characteristically ludic, agonistic. He thinks first of winning, of mastering the rules the current game enforces. He assumes a natural agility in changing orientations. He hits the street already street-wise. From birth, almost, he has dwelt not in a single value structure but in several. He is thus committed to no single construction of the world; much rather, to prevailing in the game at hand.”
In our post-Romantic, post-Enlightenment age, this attitude might sound deplorable (it’s often said of Boris Johnson that he ‘doesn’t believe in anything but himself’) but the ancient poets believed it represented a more profound and honest attitude to the contradictory and changeable nature of reality — created by, as much as described by, the words we use. As Lanham puts it, “the real deceiver is the plain stylist who pretends to put all his cards on the table… To rhetorical man at least, the world is not clear, it is made clear.”
Such high-minded literary theory may seem a long way from today’s No 10, but it lends credence to the notion that when, say, Boris Johnson writes one column in favour of Brexit and another column against it before coming to a decision, it is not simply an act of cynicism. His experience of reality, through a combination of personality and education, seems closer than most people’s to the rhetorical world view of the ancients he so admires. It comes with an abnormal degree of comfort in holding contradictory positions, an unusual sensitivity to the multiplicity and flux of things, and a faith that language has the power to determine, rather than just describe, what happens next.
This unusual disposition has frequently been a source of chaos (a failure to carry out basic tasks was part of the reason Michael Gove abandoned him in his first leadership bid) and can fail him completely (see his meagre performance on the morning after the Brexit vote, caught out by unprepared-for events). In a personal context, it would no doubt be painful to live with — no amount of words addressed to his then wife would be able to bend the reality of his marital infidelities.
But in a political context, his rhetorical world view is proving spectacularly well matched to the times.
All hail Good King Boris
Take Brexit. Like the word itself, the whole movement was an invention, a concept without a hard outline or predictable consequences; despite years of attempts by ‘serious’ technocrats to turn it into a policy question about trade arrangements, there were always too many moving parts to fathom in that way. Boris understood the referendum result in 2016, correctly, as more of an existential squawk against globalised modernity than a policy recommendation; it was a possibility that would require talking into reality.
Remember the widespread certainty of those serious men such as Rory Stewart, that, once leader, Boris would not get a new EU deal by October 31 last year? Boris simply abandoned his erstwhile friends in the DUP, accepted terms offered earlier, and announced it as a triumph; the same Spartans in his party who had rejected the same option when presented by ultra-serious Theresa May, suddenly loved it. He brought his ‘new deal’ into existence through rhetoric and force of personality. His positioning today on an EU trade deal suggests he plans a similar approach for the next round.
The ability to be two things to two different people may sound duplicitous to our modern ears; to rhetorical man it is the highest accomplishment. But which viewpoint is really more deluded? The insistence of the contemporary technocrat that politics is simply policy-making, matching each problem to its measurable ‘right answer’, might prove the more superficial and inadequate in the long term. How else did Lloyd George manage to secure the Irish peace treaty that lasted for 50 years, except by presenting it as one thing to one side and something completely different to the other? Winston Churchill, that other ‘great man of history’ with whom Boris Johnson is famously obsessed, virtually talked the country to victory through the dark days of the 1940s.
In a similar vein, Boris’s success at the general election was to appear, simultaneously, pleasingly jingoistic and anti-establishment to Brexit voters, and liberal and sensible enough to Tory remainers. Was this a trick, or just good politics? Who else but a Janus-faced leader could have brought together a coalition so deeply divided? Opponents will complain that Brexit was not technically ‘done’ last week, only just begun, but by banning the word ‘Brexit’ from government and announcing its completion, he has already gone a long way to making it so. Without the B word, it really will feel like, and, therefore, be, a new era.
The serious folk will rub their hands and wait for Boris’s rhetoric to meet the hard reality of government policy. But on the evidence of his first month in office, they might be kept waiting. Huawei was invited into the country’s 5G plans, while using language about “risk vendors” that made it sound as if it had been banned — even the Americans seem to have fallen for this rhetorical device. The decision was two things at once. HS2 will both go ahead and be simultaneously changed into a more regional, less wasteful project. The new points-based immigration system will literally be one thing to the voters that like immigration (making entry for skilled people easier) and another thing for voters that don’t (making low-skilled immigration harder).
Yes, there should in theory be binary policy choices ahead that he will struggle talk away, but in truth most areas of policy can be manipulated in this fashion. Expect his instinct to finesse and complexify to be a hallmark of the years to come.
The danger ahead for Boris Johnson
It’s possible to see Boris’s approach as part of a new rhetorical age in the wider world. One by one, things that in previous decades have seemed like hard facts of our reality have been debunked: “the markets” have been revealed, since 2008, to be fickle measurements of sentiment; the ubiquitous notion of “brand”, from institutions to social media feeds, has raised awareness of the power of words and marketing to shape reality.
In this light, the populist politics of the past few years looks like the revenge of the rhetorical world view on a technocratic elite who have been found out: the world is not as coherent and serious as they pretended. The initial howls of ‘fake news’ at Donald Trump from serious-minded people at what they saw as his flagrant dishonesty have been turned around by the President, through the rhetorical device of sheer repetition, and made his own. It’s the latest instalment in a battle for truth that, according to Lanham, has been going on for millenia — “the rhetorical view of life threatens the serious view at every point”.
The difference between Theresa May’s failure and Boris Johnson’s success is that he ignites the hope that creativity is possible; that we can, like the ancient rhetoricians, talk ourselves into a brighter future. Policy on its own is usually uninspiring and slow to make a difference. “At the heart of rhetorical reality lies pleasure,” Richard Lanham concludes; Boris Johnson’s version of it has its own truth, and is, frankly, more fun.