Of all the public arts once honored, oratory might have fallen the farthest. It is now hard to imagine the great hunger that audiences had for political speeches, sermons, lectures—anything that demonstrated the power of language to educate, persuade, or inspire—in the days before the technological revolutions of the past century. They would stand all day in the sun just to listen. Crowds of up to 15,000 people listened to Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debate about popular sovereignty before Illinois’ senatorial election in 1858, and this was hardly an isolated phenomenon.
Today “oratory” has given way to “communication skills,” and the very idea of formal speech employing schemes and tropes before a live audience now seems arcane. My own image of the older rhetoric (masters like Lincoln aside) comes from a scene in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance when John Carradine, playing a politician named Maj. Cassius Starbuckle, demonstrates the posturing and the ornate diction that must have characterized many a speech in 19th century America. Mark Twain also gets in a few licks at pretension when his two hucksters in Huckleberry Finn butcher Shakespeare as they try to snooker a small-town audience:
To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would fardels bear, till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane…
Bad rhetoric (like bad acting) has always been ripe for satire.
Has the capacity to speak well in public ceased to be important? By no means. Effective rhetoric still has extraordinary power. In fact, it can be an antidote to the steady manipulation of opinion through the news media, the entertainment industry, the courts, and the universities. There is nothing as bracing as live, forthright speech, vivid, well-organized, and well-delivered. The schemes and tropes might change with the cultural moment, but what was effective in Aristotle’s day—or Cicero’s or St. Augustine’s—remains effective now.
That’s why we teach rhetoric at Wyoming Catholic College, and it’s why each year our seniors in their last semester present a 30-minute oration (followed by another half-hour of questions) open to anyone who would like to attend. Each student starts with a prayer, and then, using minimal notes and a sheet of quotations shared with the audience, engages the topic he or she has chosen. Over three days of this week, our 31 seniors have spoken on such themes as asceticism, obedience, tragedy, tradition, and soft despotism, and they have ranged over texts from Plato’s Republic to the Psalms to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Faulkner’s The Reivers, and many more. Some orations, of course, go better than others, but the experience itself counts for a great deal. This final hurdle completes the students’ work in the Trivium sequence, which begins in freshman year and includes a long apprenticeship in writing, oral rhetoric, and guided research, both in the Junior Author Project and the Senior Thesis.
What is the effect on the student? An administrator at a classical school in Phoenix recently told me about his experience several years ago interviewing students from Wyoming Catholic College. He said that our graduates stood out from all the others: “They looked you in the eye; they had a kind of fire in the belly that other applicants, even from good schools, didn’t seem to have.” Many things go into the education at Wyoming Catholic College, but I have to think that the oration—this public performance, which every student anticipates from freshman year on—is crucial.
And one other consideration: cunning orators have long been criticized for making false ideas of good seem more attractive than real good. In Paradise Lost, Milton writes that the devil Belial “could make the worse appear/The better reason, to perplex and dash/Maturest counsels.” If someone on the wrong side can be so effective, is it enough to be on the right side? Hardly. It’s necessary that the better reason appear as better, in its true lineaments and beauty, and that what is good appear as good through the mastery of the same arts also available to the subtlest of enemies. Our future depends on it.
This essay first appeared in the Wyoming Catholic College Weekly Bulletin (February 2018). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.