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When Hyperbole Enters Politics: What Can Be Learned From Antiquity and Our Hyperbolist-In-Chief W. ROBERT CONNOR introduction: an age of hyperbole Everywhere we turn these days we encounter hyperbole—in the colloquialisms of every day speech, advertising , salesmanship, letters of recommendation, sports-casting , and not least in political discourse. This may be a good moment, then, to open a conversation between ancient and modern understandings of verbal “over-shoot,” as the Greek term for exaggeration might be rendered in English. The evidence gathered in H. Lausberg’s Handbook of Literary Rhetoric1 shows that while ancient rhetoricians agreed that hyperbole should be counted among the “figures of speech,” they found much to argue about: was hyperbole a violation of the Aristotelian middle course, hence an extreme to be avoided, or was it a legitimate form of augmentation (auxēsis in Greek, amplificatio in Latin)? Could diminution (meiōsis ) also be regarded as a form of hyperbole? In the interpretation of texts hyperbole poses a further difficulty —unlike simile, alliteration or some other figures of speech, it is “unmarked,” that is, it has no linguistic sign to alert the reader to its presence. Hyperbole likes to disguise itself as if it were going to a masquerade ball, presenting itself as simile or wearing metaphorical dress, or appearing not infrequently as litotes. It can sneak up on you and take you by surprise. The critic Longinus in On the Sublime, ch. 38, and some rhetoricians noted that hyperbole could be most arion 26.3 winter 2019 powerful when least recognized. Many ancient rhetoricians and some modern critics, however, have followed Quintilian, who asserted that “expressions (often hyperbolic), such as “storms of public assemblies, thunderbolts of eloquence, are used merely for ornament” (Institutes 8.6.7). In this view hyperbole is a conspicuous ornament used to embellish speech and make it more elegant and attractive, but today it is more often treated either as an excuse for an outrageous statement (as when the CEO of Cambridge Analytica characterized as “a certain amount of hyperbole” his suggestion of using prostitutes to discredit a political opponent), or as a euphemism for a falsehood (as when a politician promises he will eliminate the national debt—$20 trillion—and his budget director shrugs the claim off as “hyperbole.”) The term seems to extinguish any feeling of embarrassment. None of these understandings of hyperbole is simply wrong, but together they eclipse an alternative view, grounded in one ancient understanding of language, and corroborated by modern experience. In this approach language in general and hyperbole in particular are not simply a set of signs whose meaning is arbitrarily determined by social convention . Instead, they have their own nature (physis, as Isocrates says in Panegyricus 8) and hence their own power to arouse and motivate listeners. Hyperbole, viewed in this light, is a force in its own right, with the ability to give voice to otherwise unarticulated emotions, to intensify them, to push aside doubts and hesitations, and then to turn feelings into action. Language is power, and hyperbole, as an extreme form of language, provides great power to those who use it skillfully. These need not be the docile students of the rhetoricians ; politicians sometimes seem to have an innate understanding of it. The extreme breed among them, the demagogues , are often the ones who know best how to put this extreme of language to use. True, you don’t have to be a politician to put hyperbole to work. It is a favorite mode of speech among lovers, poets, travellers. Holy Men use it, too: Jesus of Nazareth, for exam16 when hyperbole enters politics ple, proclaimed that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God (Matthew 19.24). Almost everyone uses it at some point, except policy wonks whose soulless prose withers before its onslaughts. When people use hyperbole they may be neither lying nor embroidering the truth to make it more ornamental. They exalt and intensify what they see as truth, make it come alive, and thereby rouse their listeners from apathy and distraction . Ordinary people, too, use...