Rhetorical mastery

We have gotten accustomed to the kind of rhetoric we hear from Henry V before the battle of Agincourt.  It is gorgeous!  It is so stimulating that it is hard to pay attention to just how it works, but I would like to call your attention to just one part of the appeal.  Then I would like to pivot to Ohio’s handling of the COVID 19 crisis.

Henry 1The king promises his soldiers, mostly ragtag peasants, that in the future, some wonderful thing will happen to them.  There are two elements of this I want to point out. The first is that the reference point is in the future.  This is very comforting to soldiers confronting a battle; it imagines that they will have a future.  It doesn’t say so.  That would be cheap.  It just takes it for granted, which is much more powerful.

The second element is that is promises something they really dare not hope for.  A manhood that their social betters can only envy.  The king wants to promise them something they want, but that they can’t say they want.  Here’s that part of the speech.

This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Here’s where the power is, I think.  “Gentlemen” and “any.”  It’s easy for us to miss that because “gentlemen” has come to mean virtually nothing.  At its farthest reach, “good manners.”  But for them, “gentlemen” was the name of a class they dared not aspire to; a class that looked on people like them with disdain.  And these gentlemen will think themselves accursed (no damage done there) and hold their manhood cheap in the presence of “any” who fought in this battle.

Any of you, says the king, will outrank those gentlemen.  When any of you speak, they, your social betters, will fall silent, recognizing just who is the true man.  Any of you.

That is a powerful promise because it promised something that dare not be aspired to openly and it is powerful because it asks these men to look back on this moment from a time certain in the future.  You ask these men to look back in pride at deeds THEY HAVE NOT YET ACCOMPLISHED!


Now let’s look at Ohio’s response to the onset of the COVID 19 crisis and particularly at the work of Dr. Amy Acton.  The New York Times for May 5 has the whole story.  I want to excerpt just one scene from it.

Screen Shot 2020-05-05 at 7.08.11 AM.png

Ignore the colors for just a moment.  Look at this line first: “I know someday we’ll be looking back and wondering how it was we did in this moment.”  It’a nor Shakespeare, but it plants the flag of the popular imagination in the future, just as King Henry did, and asks you to remember how you did. [1]  This is the power of the future.  Put yourself there are look back at this moment.  What will you be glad you had the strength to do?

The second element, remember, is that the king promised them something they wanted.  It was comparative social standing in his case.  “Hold their manhood cheap while any speaks who fought with us.”  Dr. Acton promises, instead leadership, engagement, and community.  Does that seem a lot?

OK, now look at the colors.  The light blue “I” is leadership.  I am calling on you to do something.  Five “I’s” in quick succession and one more later.  Here’s what I want from you.  The browny-orange is “you.”  I want you, I need you, I want you.  In another context it could be a love song.  It’s personal and it’s powerful.  The rose color represents community; it represents all of us together.  Note the “our,” and the “all of us” and the “we’ll” and the “we.”

The commentator saw a strategy to the sequence.  Lead with I, follow with you.  Then, with those established, follow with “us.”  I’m not so sure about the sequence, but I am completely sure about the three elements.  And this same pattern of elements shows up in briefing after briefing.  It wasn’t a happenstance; it was a strategy.

I love it.  I don’t know if I have ever seen it done better.

[1]  Henry’s strategy is better, I think, because he presumes success.  Dr. Acton reminds us that when we look back, we will have two confront just how we did–whether we did well or poorly.


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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