The Rhetoric of the Wiseguys on 'The Sopranos'

Remembering the Proverbs and Parables of Tony Soprano and Uncle Junior

The Sopranos (HBO)
The late James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano in The Sopranos. © HBO

It's been several years since we said "ciao ciao" to The Sopranos on HBO, but let's never forget our favorite crime family's contributions to the ancient art of rhetoric.

Sure, it's a long way from Marcus Tullius Cicero to Anthony J. Soprano--that foul-mouthed wiseguy who garroted a squealer, suffocated a second cousin, and (in a memorable instance of antonomasia) "Marvin Gayed his own nephew." A persuasive character, no doubt about it.

But Tony the Rhetorician?

Call me a jamook, if you want, but my premise is simple: day in and day out, everybody contributes to the field of rhetoric.

Uncle Junior's Parables

Now if rhetoric simply meant eloquence, we'd have to go back a generation to Tony's Uncle Junior, Corrado Soprano. For one thing, Junior knew how to massage a metaphor, as in his explanation of what's demanded of a boss: "You steer the ship the best way you know. Sometimes it's smooth. Sometimes you hit the rocks."

Junior also knew how to compress a parable into a single sentence. Speaking of Tony's mother, he once said, "Livia is like the woman with a Virginia ham under each arm, crying cause she hasn’t got any bread."

And even in the "nut house," Junior always seemed to know exactly where he stood (even if he didn't always know just where he was): "If I delegate," he said, in a firm epizeuxis, "I delegate."

Compared to his Prozac-popping nephew, Junior generally projected an ethos of stoic acceptance and self-control.

"You choose this life," he once reminded Tony. "It comes with responsibilities. Teddy Roosevelt gave an entire speech once with a bullet lodged in his chest; some things are a matter of duty."

Tony's Proverbs

But Junior's era is long gone, as Tony haltingly explained to his psychiatrist, Dr. Malfi, in the pilot episode:

I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over. . . . I think about my father. He never reached the heights like me. But in a lot of ways he had it better. He had his people. They had their standards. They had pride. Today, what do we got?

What we got was a family man (okay, and a whack job) whose favorite method of communicating (knuckles and bullets and curses aside) was through proverbs, almost always parallel in form and often antithetical:

  • You may not love me but you will respect me.
  • Those who want respect, give respect.
  • Once you're into this family, there's no getting out.
  • If you can quote the rules, then you can obey them.
  • A wrong decision is better than indecision.
  • One thing my father taught me is that a pint of blood costs more than a gallon of gold.

"Proverbs are the wisdom of the people" goes an old Italian saying, and long ago another wise guy, Aristotle, recognized their persuasive power. In Book Two of his Rhetoric, Aristotle defined proverbs (or maxims) as compact forms of community wisdom. Their rhetorical force, he said, derives from their familiarity.

Proverbs and Cliches

"Balderdash!" some might say (or something to that effect). Tony was just spouting cliches.

And it's true that Tony sometimes bungled even the simplest bromide: "I’m willing to move forward. Let the past be bygones." At other times his proverbs seemed to lack conviction: "You know my feelings: every day is a gift. It's just, does it have to be a pair of socks?"

In any case, Aristotle would probably argue that Tony's proverbs were effective precisely because they were cliches--familiar tidbits of wisdom, or commonplaces. Tony employed truisms to flatter the people around him--people whose world views were shaped by the very same cliches.

Nevertheless, it's likely that Aristotle would have discouraged Tony's son, A.J., from following in his dad's rhetorical footsteps. "It is unbecoming for young men to utter maxims," the Greek philosopher observed. "They risk appearing to mouth a common saying that hasn’t yet been learned through experience."

"Don't Stop Believing"

Leaving Tony's family forever popping onion rings at Holsten's diner, we'll let his old nemesis have the last words (a dark epanalepsis). "Next time," Phil Leotardo said, "there won’t be a next time."

Meanwhile, western rhetoric carries on, now in its (roughly) 2,500th year of syndication. If you'd like to catch up on the action, visit Definitions of Rhetoric in Ancient Greece and Rome.