The loser’s speech

What do you say to a crowd if you have just lost a general election? Even worse, if it was an election that punters predicted you would definitely win. Does it have to be sombre, awkward and pathetic? Let’s take a look at the options.


As the tide of the federal election recedes, and we find ourselves wandering along a bleak coastline littered with tattered election flyers, how-to-vote cards and mounds of post-election analysis and critique, I have been a little surprised by the positive commentary on Bill Shorten’s concession speech. He has been praised for admitting his disappointment, for eschewing anger and congratulating his opponent, and for signalling hope in the future. Fair enough but let’s be honest too: he looked utterly devastated, he couldn’t deliver his speech off the cuff, he came across as insincere, he was boring and he rattled off a long list of slogans from the Labor campaign in an ‘oh so weary’ voice that made me think: ‘did this guy ever deserve to win?’

Granted, it was a tough night for Labor. Really tough. But a leader is meant to lead, not just in mind and action but in spirit. It is in moments of crisis and defeat that people turn to a leader for guidance, hope, purpose and resilience. I’m not saying Shorten should have transformed himself into Polyanna, but he could have made more of his final moments in the limelight. Let’s consider some of his options.

  1. Slam it

Anger is an easy option but it is rarely advisable. You can’t show anger with the electorate (even if you feel it) because as Aristotle helpfully says, ‘the angry man must always be angry with a particular person, not with mankind in general’. Of course, you can slam your opponent, and deliver your good wishes to your opponent and their family through gritted teeth, reminding them that it’s devastatingly hard work in public office, but it won’t change the fact that you lost. It is not classy and it will not be respected. It will confirm the views of those who voted against you and make them hate you even more.

Shorten did a pretty good job of concealing his anger. Score: 4/5.

  1. Reframe it

You can reframe your defeat as temporary, insignificant or not a loss at all. You have to be careful with this approach because it can come across as denial (and everyone can see through that). The intention is rather to reframe the loss as a) an event that has not destroyed all the good work you have done in the past and b) an event that has not destroyed your hope for the future: see, for example, Abbott’s 2019 line: “I’m not going to let one bad day spoil 25 great years”, or Rudd’s 2013 reframing of Labor’s loss as an opportunity to reform the party and its leadership. Hope is important, and it’s inspirational, and it’s just about all you have left once you’ve hit the bottom of the barrel (as the myth of Pandora illustrates so well) so emphasise HOPE.

Shorten said he was hopeful – he just wasn’t convincing. Score 2.5/5.

  1. Pollyanna it

There are positives to be found in every situation, even defeat. You can focus on the extraordinary loyalty and support of the people you work with. You can focus on your achievements and your pride in those achievements. You can focus on the values and principles you stand for and the importance of those principles. You can point out that you have not shied away from the difficulties of the contest (Keating’s 1996 line, “I’ll tell you what, folks, not once did I tackle and take on a second-best option” and Tony Abbott’s 2019 line “I would rather be a loser than a quitter”). Find the positives and work with them.

Shorten tried to be positive but he looked and sounded miserable. Score: 1/5.

  1. Laugh it off

Humour in a concession speech is extremely important and it can be a potent weapon. For a loser to use humour in their concession speech proves that that person is able to rise above defeat, to see the bigger picture and to engage with the audience. If the humour is sensitive, truly witty and delivered with positivity, it is irresistible and makes everyone regret that that person is about to depart from public life. Here’s a reasonable example from Anna Bligh, 2012, after commenting in her concession speech that it was her son’s 19th birthday: “At this time, nineteen years ago, I was in labour. And this campaign has been a bit like that, but it’s been five weeks longer!” And here’s a bad example from Kevin Rudd, 2013, after thanking Penny Wong for all her great work: “Rarely, Penny, do South Australians get that welcome up here. Mind you, I’m married to one” (cue awkward hug with wife).

Humour can be a very effective tool if you can truly rise above defeat. Remember to wave down at your opponent from your happy little cloud of laughter as you drift up and away into the sky.

As for Bill, no jokes this time. Score: 0/5.

5. Work the crowd

Emotions run high during concession speeches. The audience has been waiting for hours for the speaker to arrive. They desperately want to boo the opponent and they desperately want to clap their leader. This sort of audience should never be ignored. It is crucial to engage. Look them in the eye and talk to them as people, as friends, as loved ones, as supporters. Whatever you do, don’t ignore them, don’t wave at them to be quiet, and don’t fail to interact with their heckling. One of the best heckles came in Keating’s 1996 concession speech and he lapped it up: “You can take the boy out of Bankstown, but you can’t take Bankstown out of the boy!”

Shorten’s score: 1/5.

  1. Keep it brief

There is nothing worse than adding poor time management skills to one’s list of attributes as a loser. Stay long enough to thank everyone you really need to thank. Say something meaningful. Remind them surreptitiously how great you are and that they have made a big mistake and then DEPART. Graciously, charmingly, with a smile, and with one’s head held high.

Shorten’s score: 1/5.

Yes, folks, it is possible to deliver a good concession speech. Maybe next time, ScoMo, what do you say?

Dr Sonia Pertsinidis teaches ‘Rhetoric: the art of persuasion in the ancient and modern worlds‘ at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia.

Image: Yahoo News Australia


What does Pythagoras have to do with the moon?


This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. To commemorate this remarkable technological achievement, the Australian National University is currently hosting a series of lectures exploring the moon through the ages (Works that Shaped the World: ANU Discovery Series 2019).

I was recently invited to present a lecture in the series. I chose to speak about the mysterious Greek philosopher Pythagoras and his theory of the music of the spheres, that is, the theory that each planet and heavenly body emits a sound as it travels through space and that these sounds combine to produce harmonious music.

What would Pythagoras have made of the moon landing? What would he think about his name being ascribed to an impact crater on the north-western rim of the Moon? What would he make of our efforts to hear the ‘sounds’ of planets or to transmit music into space?

Join me for a voyage of discovery, starting in the sixth century BC and ending in the present day, exploring the life and ideas of Pythagoras: a truly remarkable, multidisciplinary and unconventional thinker:

With thanks to the ANU for permission to reproduce the recording (which starts at 22:28).

Recommended reading:

Christoph Riedweg, Pythagoras: His Life, Teaching and Influence, Cornell University Press, 2005.

Sarah B. Pomeroy, Pythagorean Women: Their History and Writings, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.

Image: bust of Pythagoras, Capitoline Museum, Rome. Source: Internet Commons.

The art of listening


The art of listening is in perilous decline. Bombarded by information from all directions, with a swirling mass of issues competing for our attention, and a constant stream of messages, notifications, news items and tweets filling our eyes and ears, the modern person scarcely has time to stop and listen, let alone listen carefully.

What might be a cure for this modern malaise? Public readings. I suggest this because of a recent experience. On Friday night last week, I watched an audience ‘tune in’ to a public reading of Homer’s Iliad. Fifty or more visitors were comfortably settled into the ANU Classics Museum, surrounded by cabinets brimming with beautiful antiquities, and they were listening. They were both captivated and moved. Why? Firstly, because this was a recitation from a great epic poem telling the climactic story of Achilles killing the Trojan prince Hektor. Secondly, because this recitation was being artfully delivered in ancient Greek and English by a group of dedicated students.

In antiquity, an audience would have sat for three days and nights, listening to a professional bard recite the entire 15,000 line epic from memory from beginning to end. No doubt, there would have been moments when audience attention lapsed or when breaks were required but I have no doubt that the audience was listening: they would have been paying close attention not only to the story but how it was being told. How do we know this? Because Homer’s epics were a foundation stone and reference point for ancient Greek culture and society (to not know Homer, or only know one line of Homer, was to be ‘uneducated’) and even to alter one line of an epic poem was a cause of great controversy.

Watching a modern audience being ‘read to’ is powerful. People were concentrating, following the storyline, soaking up the imagery and the poetry, relishing the drama and the beauty of the language. For a moment, a group of strangers were unified by a common experience, and for the readers too, the experience was a powerful one. The magic of oral storytelling, a tradition that is thousands of years old, filled the room and the audience responded warmly and positively to the experience.

Public readings are wonderful for community building and social bonding. It draws us out of our individual thought bubbles and puts us back into contact with each other. To attend a public reading involves tacit consent to put aside other distractions, to stop for a while, and focus on a shared and marvellous experience. So many texts benefit from being read aloud and performed. Recitation forces us to slow down and focus, whereas private reading so often involves skimming, fast-tracking or phasing out.

We need to re-learn how to listen, to ourselves and each other, and to listen with care and attention. Ancient societies have given us a precedent and a means to do this: all we need is a place, a time and a willing presenter.

[This blog is dedicated to the ten wonderful students who participated in the global festival of ancient literature known as the Festival Européen Latin Grec, which was celebrated on Friday 22 March in the ANU Classics Museum. Bravo and long live Homeric poetry!]

Image: Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, A Reading from Homer, 1885 (Philadelphia Museum of Art).


The work/life balancing act


There are mixed opinions about being an academic and a parent and, as far as I can tell, there are more negative stories out there than positive ones. In this light-hearted blog, I outline five reasons why it is great to be an academic and a mother.

  1. The world of a child

A child’s perspective on the world is always fascinating but a child’s perspective on the world of academia is even more wonderful. Just last year, we brought our four-year old daughter along to my book launch. She expressed her deep disappointment that contrary to expectation, there was no official countdown as part of the launch. It seems that she expected the Play-School Rocket Clock and for the book itself to be launched into space. She was not at all impressed with the speeches and the champagne but the tasty canapés might have made up for it.

Four months later and I was heading off to Germany to present a conference paper. For the next ten days, every aeroplane that was spotted in the sky was confidently identified as ‘Mummy’s aeroplane’, even if it was only a Qantas flight to Townsville. Strangely, now that I have returned, every aeroplane that is sighted is still referred to as ‘Mummy’s aeroplane’ even if I am not on it.

  1. Children think only about the short-term

Children are excellent motivators because they focus entirely on the present and the immediate future. Rather than planning the year ahead, or the next five years as we must do for our performance reviews, my children expect my academic article to be completed tomorrow, my second book to be published this week and the outcome of my grant application to be announced within the next month! In this sense, children make impossible-to-please supervisors. Nevertheless, their perspective reminds me that time is short and that focus and diligence is key.

  1. Children ask the hard questions

Children are renowned for asking hard questions and awkward ones too. The least desirable ones have to be about giving birth, but there are some beauties about work too. A classic example is: ‘Mummy, if you don’t get that teaching award, can we still go to the coast?’ or ‘Mummy, that’s not the most important thing to us right now’, or ‘Mummy, if you don’t go back to work tonight, will you lose your job?’ All of this is great preparation for teaching. If I can confidently answer a question from my five-year-old, I’m pretty sure I can tackle any question a twenty-year-old throws at me.

  1. Children keep adults grounded

My children get far more excited about the large, brown cardboard packages that arrive on our doorstep than the long-awaited publications within them. They immediately turn their minds to thinking about how to transform that box into something marvellous: a new toy, a new prop, a new backdrop for play. It reminds me that there is no end to a child’s creativity and that that same creative spirit is part of my own work.

Children are always listening – even when you think they aren’t (this is a warning, folks). My husband and I were in the midst of a discussion about a difficult person we know. The children were up to their usual antics and we were quite sure they weren’t following our mutterings until my daughter turned to me and very confidently said (with all the wisdom of Socrates): ‘Mummy, you can’t change people’. Of course she is right.

    5. Children make wonderful bookmarks (double entendre fully intended)

In the early years of school, I can guarantee that there will be a continuous supply of remarkable drawings to laminate and transform into bookmarks. Sharks, mermaids, dancing girls, stars, rabbits, personal messages and spirograph drawings all grace the pages of the scholarly books in my office. It is a never-ending source of delight to discover these little gems in the course of a day.

I suppose, to put it simply, children really do help you to keep your place, know your place and stay in place – just like the colourful little bookmarks they make.

[This blog is dedicated to my children, to all of the parents/academics out there and to the year ahead. A warm welcome back to all of my readers. Aesop’s Fox wishes you a happy, healthy, balanced and productive 2019.]


The new look rocket clock designed by artist Shaun Tan (ABC TV: Play School)

The crisis of rhetoric in Australia

No one would be surprised if I said that there has been a serious decline in the quality of public speech and debate in this country.

The vast majority of our political representatives are poor orators, clinging to repetitive catchphrases instead of logical arguments, punching out slogans and crude invective instead of engaging in reasoned debate, and tossing out cheap puns and wordplays instead of cultivating wit and wisdom. Who could blame the Australian public for tuning out?

The thinking public is right to disregard much of current public discourse as ‘mere rhetoric’, that is, language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect but which is often regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful content (Oxford English Dictionary).

Yet the very existence of the expression ‘mere rhetoric’ suggests that another type of rhetoric is possible: genuine, meaningful, persuasive and effective rhetoric. This is ‘real’ rhetoric in its original form as developed in classical Greece.

Up until the early twentieth century, the ancient art of ‘real’ rhetoric was widely taught in schools and universities as part of an education in classics. Since that time, the study of ancient rhetoric has declined and, arguably, this has resulted in a corresponding decline in the quality of our public discourse.

In the past, the study of ancient rhetoric involved learning how to construct different types of arguments, devising different forms of appeal based on logic, ethics or emotion and learning how to arrange material logically and persuasively. Students then went on to study the great speechwriters of the classical past such as Demosthenes and Cicero, as well as great speeches of the modern era. This practical training cultivated great speakers as well as attentive and discerning listeners.

A broad reintroduction of the ancient art of rhetoric into the school and university curriculum would have deep, long-lasting and positive effects. In the present political climate especially, we need to be finely attuned to faulty arguments, false premises and deceptions of all kinds.

A classicist in Berlin


For me, the soundtrack for my first visit to Berlin will always be Seven Nation Army. This track was blaring from the speakers on the late night taxi ride from Alexanderplatz to Friedrichshain and in so many ways it proved to be an appropriate choice. Just like the song, Berlin is edgy, energetic, youthful and defiant, well worn but still irresistible. It is not exactly the city that you would expect to appeal to a quiet classical scholar but for me, Berlin turned out to be full of riches. I embraced the vibe, hired a bike and pedalled from one end of the city to the other (well, from Friedrichshain to Charlottenburg at least). I discovered a city that simultaneously tracks man’s potential for great tragedy and great beauty. For the classicist in particular, Berlin is a treasure trove.

At the Pergamonmuseum, I couldn’t help but feel Greek and Roman civilization put in its proper place by the monumental and stunning Ishtar gate. The strutting lions against a turquoise backdrop leave a deep impression of Babylonian civilization, refusing to be intimidated or forgotten.

At the Neues Museum, Nefertiti gazes out from her designated chamber room surveying everyone that passes with the cool gaze of timeless and unmatcheable Egyptian beauty. The architecture of the Neues is itself a marvelous take on Greco-Roman influences, with carefully illuminated niches, palace-sized doorways and catacomb-like passages.

For anyone else who has visited Miletus in Turkey, Berlin holds the rest of the story. The Market Gate is splendid, a fusion of Greek and Roman features and it testifies to the long-ago importance of this trading town. The model is also exceedingly helpful, clearly showing the ancient harbour and the layout of the original town.

Amidst all of this sits Orpheus, calmly plucking at his lyre as animals of all types frolic around him. I have seen pictures of this floor mosaic many times, but there is nothing like seeing it in person and imagining it as the talking piece at a wealthy Roman’s dinner party.

Outside the museums, the busy city abounds with neo-Classical features. There are the obvious references: the Brandenburg gate (with a helmeted Athena tucked inside, grasping her shield and spear), the temple facades of the Reichstag and the magnificent Konzerthaus, and the gleaming golden Nike atop the Victory Column.

There are also unexpected (but no less delightful) references, such as Atlas holding up the world on the roof of the Museum für Kommunikation; a gilded Fortune dancing in the wind on the dome of Schloss Charlottenburg; and statues of naked male youths peeping out from wooded groves in the grounds of the baroque palace gardens.

Berlin is a delight and a must see for the classicist. As I settle in with a coffee and a slice of Kirschenmichel, I know I’ll be back for a longer stay. Only next time, I will remember to pack tattoo stickers, leather pants and a vape!


Image: Athena inside the Brandenburger Tor (S. Pertsinidis, 2018)


A lost dialogue with Socrates


Socrates: Greetings Metaphrastos! What good timing.

Metaphrastos: Greetings Socrates! Where are you going?

Socrates: I’m on my way to the agora. Let us walk together and converse along the way for I have something to ask you. I was strolling by the river this morning, as is my daily practice, when I stopped for a moment under the birch trees and heard the most marvellous birdsong. Try as I might, I could not imitate it and it made me think, my dear Metaphrastos, about the practice of translation.

Metaphrastos: How so, Socrates?

Socrates: I hesitate to ask the question, lest you think me a fool.

Metaphrastos: That I could never do, Socrates.

Socrates: Well, let me ask you, Metaphrastos, in simple terms: do you think that the practice of translation is a skill or an art?

Metaphrastos: I would say that it is a skill, Socrates. For as long as one knows the source language reasonably well, one can find equivalent words in another language.

Socrates: So it is a skill then, just like boat-building, or pottery, or baking bread?

Metaphrastos: Yes, I would say it is much the same Socrates.

Socrates: So just as a boat-builder, or a potter, or a baker needs the right instructions, materials, tools or ingredients, a translator simply needs a good knowledge of the source language and a good dictionary, and one can achieve a reasonable translation?

Metaphrastos: I would say so, Socrates.

Socrates: But surely a boat-builder can be given clear instructions and clear plans and sufficient money and the right tools, and there will still be times when he must make a decision for himself, perhaps about certain modifications that need to be made because of difficulty with the materials, or decisions about certain aesthetic features, or he must interpret the intention of the instructions as best he can without bothering the man who has tasked him with the job?

Metaphrastos: It is as you say, Socrates.

Socrates: And in the same way, wouldn’t you say that the potter, though he may be paid in advance and given clear instructions to prepare a beautiful pot with a scene of Herakles wrestling a lion, will still have to make a decision about how precisely to draw the figure of Herakles, in what stance, and with what expression and so on?

Metaphrastos: You are surely right, Socrates.

Socrates: And even a baker, no matter how well he has been taught, and how long he might have been a baker for, and how well he knows the recipe, knows that a great deal depends on the care and attention and love that he devotes to his task in that moment and this is a much more difficult thing to teach. Yet the baker knows from experience that it is this care and attention and love that makes the best tasting bread so he will strive nevertheless?

Metaphrastos: I could not argue otherwise, Socrates.

Socrates: Then wouldn’t you say that just as boat-building, and pottery, and baking involve a great deal of skill but also a measure of art, that translation is just the same?

Metaphrastos: That seems to be the logical conclusion Socrates.

Socrates: So then, it does not seem right for people to speak of translation solely as a ‘skill’ for this misses an important component, wouldn’t you say?

Metaphrastos: I think so Socrates.

Socrates: And this important component is about understanding things at a deeper level, and getting to the very soul of a thing, and understanding human nature, and emotion, and all of man’s complexities, and striving to do the very best with all of one’s love, care and attention?

Metaphrastos: Just as you have said, Socrates.

Socrates: Then it is thanks to you, my dear friend, for curing my ignorance and putting my mind at ease. Now let us venture into the market and talk to Aristoboulos, for I want to ask him whether a man must be ‘good’ in order to make a ‘good’ translation…

[This imaginary dialogue is dedicated to the staff and students of ‘LANG3001: Translation across Languages’, which is currently being taught at the Australian National University. It is a pleasure to be teaching into the course and reflecting on the ‘philosophy of translation’.]


Some (less conventional) tips for organising a book launch


“It’s a bit awkward”, someone pointed out to me, “it’s like organising your own birthday party!” Sure it is but let’s face it, organising your own book launch has a number of advantages. Here are some tips I learned along the way:

1. Never assume

Don’t assume that your colleagues have the time or inclination to organise a book launch for you. No doubt they are happy for your publishing success but that doesn’t mean they have time to get quotes from caterers! Take control of your own book launch, organise it yourself, and invite your colleagues so they feel really guilty.

2. Check the post

There is nothing worse than being left high and dry at you own book launch without a copy of your book to wave around. So contact your publisher, pester your publisher, ask for your book to be sent by courier not ordinary mail, tell them that you have scheduled your book launch for a specific date, and get them to swear on their first-born child that your book will arrive in time.

3. Flyering, what’s flyering?

Your publisher will usually send you a flyer for your book or can do so on request. This is a great way to advertise the imminent arrival of your book and to advertise the promotional discount! Post the flyer on your door and on noticeboards, send it around by email and paste it on people’s heads (no, not the last one).

4. Location, location, location

As far as venues are concerned, classrooms and staffrooms are a turn-off (there is something about that stale sandwich smell) and it’s just weird to use your own office as a venue (even if it is unusually large). Try to pick a venue for a smallish-sized crowd. One hundred empty seats really isn’t a great look. Library spaces, gallery spaces, museums and of course bookshops are usually the best choices.

5. The food=love equation

Ask your Department about funding support for catering. There is often a small budget set aside for such things. This can help cover the cost of the hot canapés, leaving the cheaper items (the vege sticks, bread and dip) to you. Food = love. Simple.

6. Drinks

Champagne for everyone! And no plastic glasses please. Bad for the environment, and bad for style!

7. Invite your family (yes, the whole family)

Gone are the days when academics went to great lengths to pretend that they had no spouse, partner or children and that they are a robotic race of self-generated individuals without any family connections. And frankly, if you have managed to publish a book at the same time as having a spouse, partner and children, it’s damn well time you got some credit for it. So bring them along, bring all of them along, aged zero to one hundred, and show the world that you wrote a book with one foot rocking a bassinet, one hand on a cup of coffee made by your dearly beloved, and one ear on the phone to grandma.

8. Manage your excitement

There is something really liberating about a book launch – the culmination of years of effort, sweat and tears. There is something about the word ‘launch’ that might make you want to wear pink sequins and a feather headdress, or maybe belt out a karaoke version of ‘Eye of the Tiger’, or actually to launch something (or someone) in the air, but please, contain yourself. Save all of this for going out afterwards!

9. Short and sweet

Find someone really nice to give you a smashing introduction. Keep your own blurb nice and short. Tell the audience about yourself. Convey your passion. Thank people meaningfully. Tell them enough but don’t tell them everything – you want them to read your book, don’t you?

10. Don’t stop

Keep promoting your book even after the event – on social media, on radio, through lectures and events. Just because the launch is over doesn’t mean you should stop talking about yourself (and your book).


The olive branch


Have you been following the Swift/Perry beef? Were you as bemused as I was to read about the gift of the olive branch? Were you as horrified as I was at the quality of Perry’s handwriting? Were you stunned by the fact that Swift appears to have needed help from fans in order to be sure about the precise meaning and symbolism of the olive branch? Then read on…

It’s an interesting world when an olive branch and a hand-written note sent from one pop music star to another makes world headlines but that’s exactly what happened this month when Katy Perry sent an olive branch as a gift to Taylor Swift, with a hand-written note that appears to say:

“Hey old friend, I’ve been doing some reflecting on past miscommunications and the hurt feelings between us, I really want to clear the air – I’m deeply sorry for…”

Swift shared a short video of the gift and the note on Instagram. She also ‘liked’ a post from a fan that explained the meaning of the ‘olive branch’.

Sigh. Oh dear. If only Swift and Perry were students of Classics at the ANU.

Here are 8 good reasons why:

  1. Perry would have taken greater care with her handwriting. Any student of Classics knows that in order to be properly understood, and assessed, handwriting must be legible!
  2. Perry would have written her message in carefully handwritten ancient Greek or Latin. That way she could have found more appropriately idiomatic expressions for ‘old friend’ and ‘clearing the air’ and educated her fan base as they desperately scrambled to translate the handwritten note.
  3. Perry would not have chosen such an ambiguous gift. In ancient times, the olive branch was a symbol of victory, not peace. [When Athena and Poseidon were making competing claims over the region of Attica, they each gave a gift to the region: Poseidon struck a rock on the Acropolis with his trident and sea water came pouring out but Athena planted an olive tree. The twelve gods judged that Athena’s gift was superior and more useful so Athens was named after Athena, and the olive tree became synonymous with Athena and her victory.]
  4. Instead of using Google and Tumblr to decipher the meaning of the olive branch, Swift would have turned to her handy reference guide to classical mythology.
  5. Swift would never be so reckless as to cite an incomplete source. For all we know, the rest of the note says: “I’m deeply sorry for finally winning this long-running feud between us – I realise it must make things very awkward for you. See ya laterrrrr.”
  6. Swift would never be so reckless as to fail to double-check that the text actually did come from the attributed source and not from someone else.
  7. Swift would have correctly interpreted the sticker of the ‘puppy’ as a symbol of purification in early Greek religion (Parker, p.230). Perhaps Perry symbolically ‘washing her hands clean’ of any responsibility for the package?
  8. Swift would have taken a video of herself wearing the olive wreath and preferably a toga as well. Clearly that is what the olive branch was intended for.

Oh well, so many lost opportunities. If only both were enrolled as students in Classics at ANU. Then we could really shake this thing off, once and for all.

Header image:


Hansen, W. Classical Mythology (Oxford 2004).

Parker, R. Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion (Oxford 1983).


The royal wedding speech: uncovered!


Bishop Curry’s speech was not just a great moment during the royal wedding but a fascinating example of the art of persuasion. It revived a mode of persuasion that has largely been lost from formal public discourse: the emotional appeal, which was not, on this occasion, an appeal to negative emotions (for once) but positive ones. So what exactly is the ‘positive’ emotional appeal and how does it work? Happily, the ancient orators have all the answers…

According to the ancient art of rhetoric, there are three ways to persuade an audience: an appeal to reason, an appeal to ethics, and an appeal to emotion. The appeal to emotion is based on the premise that our will prompts us to take action and that emotions influence our will, and that therefore emotions can prompt us to take action. But we can’t will ourselves into feeling love for someone, or feeling anger, or any other emotion for that matter, and this is where the character and appeal of the speaker plays such a crucial role.

There are two fundamental rules for a speaker seeking to appeal to the emotions of an audience. First, the speaker must never reveal his intention to influence the emotions of his audience because if he does, the audience will become immediately suspicious and resistant to the speaker’s efforts. Generally speaking, we don’t like people playing on our emotions but if a speaker initially presents his arguments as reasoned and reasonable, then we are willing to listen. Notice that Bishop Curry did not immediately announce that he was going to try and persuade people to love one another: he began by quoting other authorities on the subject of love generally!

Secondly, the speaker needs to reach the emotions of the audience, by either describing the sorts of things that generally arouse that emotion, or by feeling the emotion himself, or by being deliberately dispassionate so that the audience is provoked to feel the emotion more intensely by themselves. Bishop Curry opted for the first and second methods – by talking about the nature of love and its origin and the wedding and by being an impassioned speaker himself in talking about love.

The use of emotion-laden words can be an effective way to incite emotion in an audience. Bishop Curry used the word ‘love’ fifty-eight times in his address! Another phrase that featured strongly, at least in the first half, was ‘power in love’.

A heavy dose of anaphora (the repetition of the same word at the beginning of successive clause) with increasing volume each time brought the speech to a heady crescendo:

everything that Moses wrote, everything in the holy prophets, everything in the scriptures, everything that God has been trying to tell the world…”

This emotional crescendo was the point at which Prince Harry looked rather red-faced and embarrassed. But the last words of Bishop Curry’s statement (“love God, love your neighbour, and while you’re at it, love yourself”) were delivered in an unexpectedly casual and quieter tone to give them special emphasis but also to bring the emotional level down again – again a carefully studied rhetorical technique.

Next came an appeal to the imagination – to paint a picture of a ‘new world’ in which people love one another as family and in which love takes priority. The appeal to the imagination relies on visualisation and drama for emotional impact:

“think and imagine a world where love is the way, imagine our homes and families where love is the way, imagine neighbourhoods and communities where love is the way, imagine governments and nations where love is the way, imagine business and commerce when love is the way, imagine this tired old world [voice breaking] when, when love is the way”.

The repetition of ‘where love is the way’ at the end of successive clauses is another highly effective stylistic device: epistrophe. The effect of emotion on the quality of Bishop Curry’s voice was very evident here too and quite deliberate.

To release some of the emotional intensity, some humour was needed at this point, and this came with Bishop Curry’s impeccably timed and appropriately self-conscious remark that “with this I’ll sit down, we gotta get y’all married”. Everybody laughed with relief. Humour renews the attention of the audience and helps to warm people’s attitude toward the speaker. But the speaker had already said a great deal and this is where, from a rhetorical standpoint, Bishop Curry should have quit while he was ahead. A good speaker knows precisely when enough is enough. Unfortunately, Bishop Curry made a classic mistake: he went on to talk about a new topic (the discovery of fire), to ask questions of the audience, to introduce more humour and yet more material unrelated to the first part of his speech.

The conclusion to the speech couldn’t have been more welcome or more overdue:

“Dr King was right, we must discover love, the redemptive power of love, and when we do that, we will make of this old world, a new world.”

With these lines, Bishop Curry saved his speech and brought it back full circle, with more than a respectful nod to the king of oratory, Martin Luther King.

The audience reaction to this emotional appeal makes for an interesting study. Some were visibly moved, some were in deep agreement with the speaker, others were dispassionate and even amused. Why is it that the emotional appeal works on some and not others? Some of us (me included) don’t have a problem admitting that our opinions can be affected by our emotions, and we are quite willing to listen to an emotional appeal. This does not mean that reason is entirely displaced, or that we are completely beholden to our emotional reactions, but that we recognise that emotion has a place in our evaluation of arguments.


For others, being stirred to action by the emotions is undignified and embarrassing. This can manifest in a feeling of confusion, awkward side glances, face scratching, reddened cheeks, visible discomfort or bemused superiority. But, if we are honest, who among us has not been driven chiefly by our emotions at some point in life, often at the cost of our rational mind, and frankly, I can’t think of a better example of a more overwhelmingly beautiful emotion than falling in love. Ah love. Where would we be without it? Maybe Dr King was right, and rhetorical devices aside, there is great power in his idea, not just the words.

Images and recording of the speech sourced from: