The Scaffolding of Rhetoric

In 1897, at the age of 23, Winston S. Churchill wrote an essay titled The Scaffolding of Rhetoric. You can read the original article here. In this essay, Churchill proposed six principal elements as the foundation of rhetoric. This unfinished manuscript appears to only discuss four elements in detail, with the other two less well developed.

I. Correctness of diction.

Knowledge of a language is measured by the nice and exact appreciation of words. There is no more important element in the technique of rhetoric than the continual employment of the best possible word. Whatever part of speech it is, it must in each case absolutely express the full meaning of the speaker. It will leave no room for alternatives…

The unreflecting often imagine that the effects of oratory are produced by the use of long words. The error of this idea will appear from what has been written. The shorter words of a language are usually the more ancient. Their meaning is more ingrained in the national character and they appeal with greater force to simple understandings than words recently introduced from the Latin and the Greek. All the speeches of great English rhetoricians except when addressing highly cultured audiences display a uniform preference for short, homely words of common usage so long as such words can fully express their thoughts and feelings.

2. Rhythm

The great influence of sound on the human brain is well known. The sentences of the orator when he appeals to his art become long, rolling and sonorous. The peculiar balance of the phrases produces a cadence which resembles blank verse rather than prose.

3. Accumulation of Argument

The climax of oratory is reached by a rapid succession of waves of sound and vivid pictures. The audience is delighted by the changing scenes presented to their imagination. Their ear is tickled by the rhythm of the language. The enthusiasm rises. A series of facts is brought forward all pointing in a common direction. The end appears in view before it is reached. The crowd anticipate the conclusion and the last words fall amid a thunder of assent.

4. Analogy

The affection of the mind for argument by analogy may afford a fertile theme to the cynical philosopher. The ambition of human beings to extend their knowledge favours the belief that the unknown is only an extension of the known: that the abstract and the concrete are ruled by similar principles: that the finite and the infinite are homogeneous. An apt analogy connects or appears to connect these distant spheres. It appeals to the everyday knowledge of the hearer and invites him to decide the problems that have baffled his powers of reason by the standard of the nursery and the heart. Argument by analogy leads to conviction rather than to proof, and has often led to glaring error.

In spite of the arguments of the cynic the influence exercised over the human mind by apt analogies is and has always been immense. Whether they translate an established truth into simple language or whether they adventurously aspire to reveal the unknown, they are among the most formidable weapons of the rhetorician. The effect upon the most cultivated audience is electrical.

Besides these four elements, earlier in the article, Churchill pointed out the importance of striking appearance.

First of all a striking presence is a necessity. Often small, ugly or deformed he is invested with a personal significance, which varying in every case defies definition. Sometimes a slight and not unpleasing stammer or impediment has been of some assistance in securing the attention of the audience, but usually a clear and resonant voice gives expression of his thoughts.

At the end of the article, Churchill wrote about the importance of developing and combing all elements together, and expressed his optimism about learning to be a good orator:

The subtle art of combining the various elements that separately mean nothing and collectively mean so much in an harmonious proportion is known to a very few. Nor can it ever be imparted by them to others….so the student of rhetoric may indulge the hope that Nature will finally yield to observation and perseverance, the key to the hearts of men.

Finally, one of my favourite passages and wisdom from Churchill’s many writings, this article begins with:

Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king. He is an independent force in the world. Abandoned by his party, betrayed by his friends, stripped of his offices, whoever can command this power is still formidable.

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