Persuasion is not an antiquated art for a lost era. In a time of base language and tweets, social media and the hive mind of the internet, it makes sense to study the principles of oral rhetoric and to understand effective and responsible appeal to an audience.

A strange madness descended this week upon Lander, Wyoming. I saw a normal-looking young woman, seated on an otherwise empty sidewalk bench on a very cold day, speaking fervently and gesticulating with no one nearby. As I walked down the block, I glanced in a window and there was a young man, all by himself, similarly engaged, articulating something to no one and reaching out expressively to an empty room.

Ordinarily, one would treat such figures as Coleridge suggests: “Weave a circle round him thrice, / And close your eyes with holy dread / For he on honey-dew hath fed, / And drunk the milk of Paradise.” But at this time of year, such behavior typifies seniors at Wyoming Catholic College—well, seniors before they have given their orations. Each one, drawing on the work already done for the senior thesis in the fall, gives a 30-minute talk from a few notes and answers questions for half an hour, first from a faculty panel and then from the audience. Their fellow students attend, as do parents who fly in for the occasion, guests from the community, and members of the Board of Directors. The Senior Oration is unquestionably a rite of passage. Afterwards, the seniors look like they have just kayaked Class 4 rapids and survived. The general joy is palpable.

This year’s much-praised orations have covered a wide range from horsemanship to public-key cryptography, from metaphor to the phenomenology of household management. Each year a certain theme tends to get picked up by various seniors, and this year the English Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) seemed to leave a particularly deep impression on this class. A number of orations dealt with his work directly, but all of them seemed awake to the concern with beauty so close to Hopkins, who wrote that it “keeps warm / Men’s wits to the things that are.”

But why we have orations at all deserves an explanation every year. The very word “oratory” calls to mind an era of public speaking when speeches addressed great matters of state and turned the hearts and minds of those who heard them. Cicero, of course, is still the most famous of orators, the Roman whose great speeches as consul exposed the conspiracy of Catiline and saved the republic. Our students at Wyoming Catholic read Cicero as sophomores before they spend a semester in Trivium 202, oral rhetoric, where they give speeches using a variety of techniques inherited from the classical tradition—narrative, ekphrasis, invective, refutation, dissoi logoi (contrasting arguments), and many others. They learn to speak effectively, but not to “make the worse appear / The better reason, to perplex and dash / Maturest Counsels,” as Milton writes of the demon Belial.

Part of their education in rhetoric concerns its abuses. They study the philosophic critique of the sophists in Plato’s dialogues, including the Phaedrus, the Republic, and the Gorgias. Today, on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, it is good to remember that the greatest oratory focuses memorably on key principles and moves its audience, not through the tricks of art, but through making what is best appear best. When he was a young man living for a time in Washington, William Tecumseh Sherman heard one of Henry Clay’s speeches on the Union, and it sent all its listeners to their feet as if jolted by “a thrill like electricity.” This is what real persuasion feels like. Something like this must have been the effect of Lincoln’s address at Cooper Union in 1860 that won him the nomination of the Republican Party. His brief address at Gettysburg in November of 1863 burned its way into the American self-understanding, while the speech of the official orator of that occasion, Edward Everett Hale, has never been felt to merit study or imitation.

If persuasion were merely an antiquated art for a lost era, if it no longer made sense to study its principles or to understand effective and responsible appeal to an audience, we would not insist on putting seniors through this exercise in a time of base language and tweets, social media and the hive mind of the internet. But in many ways, Orations Week is the crowning event of the college year. It gives these students occasion to speak in public about a topic of importance, often quite scholarly, and it gives their audiences occasion to follow their thought with pleasure.

Exactly how this training in rhetoric and this experience before a general audience will serve our students in the future, it is impossible to predict, but situations will arise almost daily at home, at work, in public settings when the courage to say well what needs saying will be bolstered by what they have learned. When the crises of the coming years arrive—and they surely will—others less prepared will turn to them for the high language that changes hearts and minds.

Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter.

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The featured image is “Allegory of Rhetoric” (1650) by Laurent de La Hyre (1606–1656) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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