As important as it is to use language well, it is more important to use it to move people with the truth…

For two full days, with all regular classes canceled, the seniors at Wyoming Catholic College this week presented their senior orations to faculty, fellow students, board members, and guests of the College. The classrooms were packed, often overflowing, for these thirty-minute presentations, which were often delivered entirely from memory (though a few notes were permitted). Afterwards, the seniors fielded tough questions for another half an hour.

It is always a beautiful and moving thing to see our students step into this public arena, where they measure themselves against their professors and the distinguished visiting speakers who have spoken in similar circumstances. This year, the orations ranged widely across diverse topics. I was able to hear six of them, and in every case I found myself remembering what these students were like four years ago and reflecting on what this education has done for them in terms of maturity and confidence.

One of the three arts of the Trivium, rhetoric is a major and much-neglected prerequisite of a successful active life. I have no statistics at my disposal, but I strongly suspect that most American college graduates finish their four years with little proficiency in “public speaking” (a pale remainder of the art of rhetoric) and that a large percentage never argue formally in front of a critical audience—much less with just a few notes. Our students, by contrast, have an entire semester of classical oral rhetoric as sophomores, they give many speeches on serious topics in many different modes, and they culminate their academic careers with a serious public presentation. Why not brag on them a little?

Of course, being able to speak well and move people can also be dangerous. As important as it is to use language well, it is more important to use it to move people with the truth, as Socrates argued long ago. I’m reminded of the dark power of rhetoric when I read Milton’s Paradise Lost, which I am currently teaching. In Book II of his epic, Milton has four exemplary figures of misleading rhetoric speak at the Council of demons in Pandemonium, the huge palace that the fallen angels erect in Hell. At issue is how they should proceed now that God has cast them out of Heaven.

All of them present versions of despair and acedia. Moloch argues for a Pickett’s Charge on the Almighty, hoping that God will forget Himself and annihilate them this time in His rage. Smooth Belial reminds them of how pleasant it is to exist and argues for keeping a slothfully low profile, hoping that God will forget about them. Mammon recommends working hard instead to make Hell into a resort paradise just for them: somehow I think of Las Vegas. Each in his peculiarly persuasive way presents an argument that makes “the worse appear the better cause,” as Socrates was accused of doing. Their subtly self-serving speeches are trumped only by Beelzebub’s, who presents the most beguiling argument of all (and the most evil)—the design of corrupting God’s new creation, man, a project that only Satan himself can achieve by journeying to the New World.

In presenting Satan’s seduction of Eve in Book IX of the poem, Milton describes the serpent as adopting the rhetorical pose, “As when of old some orator renowned,/In Athens or free Rome, where eloquence/Flourished, since mute, to some great cause addressed,/Stood in himself collected.” As it happens, I am currently finishing the final novel, Dictator, in Robert Harris’s excellent trilogy about Cicero, this one about the last years of the great statesman’s life. Oratory was, of course, central to “free Rome,” as Milton calls Rome’s republican era, and no one in antiquity was greater at persuasion than Cicero. But he was equally great at seeing through the rhetoric of his opponents. As ennobling as rhetoric can be, knowledge of its inner workings also enables its practitioners to resist its unscrupulous use. In Milton’s presentation, needless to say, the Fall of Man came when Eve listened too uncritically to serpentine rhetoric.

When we think of what happened in Europe in the early decades of the past century, we recognize again how important it is to be able to listen with understanding and to speak in such a way that the oldest and highest truths move us to see the present moment rightly. How else did Churchill help England turn the European darkness into its “finest hour”? We’re grateful once again to think how healthy our curriculum is—not to mention our policy of banning cell phones. In the age of Twitter, we will continue to cultivate rhetors and writers as we prepare our students for their own heroic future.

Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College’s Weekly Bulletin (February 2017).

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