A Mastery of Words

December 22, 2015 — 8 Comments

ben franklinOh the curse of so many fascinating things to read . . . and so little time. The following pieces of wisdom come from a free volume, The World’s Famous Orations, by William Jennings Bryan.*

Bryan (1860-1925) was one of the most prominent American orators and politicians. In his study of rhetoric he collected a wide range of speeches given throughout Western history.

The collection is fascinating. It includes moments from well known historical events and from obscure yet intriguing occasions. For example, you can hear the words of Hannibal spoken to his army after its successful crossing of the Alps, or the republican speech offered by the falsely condemned Algernon Sidney from the scaffold.**

Public speaking used to be a cornerstone of education. In colleges today, “speech” is often merely an elective.

C.S. Lewis relates a funny story about one of his first experiences speaking in a formal setting. The occasion was the annual Encaenia at Oxford University, which commemorated founders and benefactors. Honorary degrees were given and excerpts from prize compositions were recited.

Lewis wrote to his father about the event. “I had almost forgotten, if I had ever known, that ‘prizemen’ have to read portions of their compositions at our ceremony of the Encaenia.”

After the honorary degrees [one of which was received by Georges Clemenceau], the Professor of Poetry made an ‘oration’ in Latin, chiefly about colleagues who had died during the last year: this was my first experience of spoken Latin and I was pleased to find that I could follow and enjoy it. The performance of us prizemen was of course very small beer after all this. We had been instructed to read for about two minutes each: I had some difficulty in finding a short passage which would be intelligible by itself. I was, of course, nervous: I am also told that I was the first of our little band whom Clemenceau looked at: but as I do not know with what expression he looked, nor whether he speaks English, we must remain in doubt whether this was a compliment or not.

I have had a good lesson in modesty from thus seeing my fellow prize men. I was hardly prepared for such a collection of scrubby, beetle-like, bespectacled oddities: only one of them appeared to be a gentleman. Any I spoke to sounded very like fools, perhaps like Goldsmith, they ‘writ like an angel and talked like poor Poll’. 76 It brings home to one how very little I know of Oxford: I am apt to regard my own set, which consists mainly of literary gents, with a smattering of political, musical and philosophical–as being central, normal, and representative. But step out of it, into the athletes on one side or the pale pot hunters**** on the other, and it is a strange planet.

The World’s Famous Orations combines a number of separate volumes that run from classical Greece and Rome, on through most of the European nations, including their “colonies” in the Western Hemisphere. President Teddy Roosevelt is the final orator whose words are included.

I invite you to sample some of the rich banquet included in this volume. The speeches themselves are fairly short, and these excerpts the more so. Mere teasers. If you perchance become bored, skip to the final passage—Benjamin Franklin provides his fellow Americans a warning that we sadly failed to heed.

Socrates (470-399 BC) upon being condemned wittily insults his judges.

For the sake of no long space of time, O Athenians, you will incur the character and reproach at the hands of those who wish to defame the city, of having put that wise man, Socrates, to death. For those who wish to defame you will assert that I am wise, though I am not. If, then, you had waited for a short time, this would have happened of its own accord; for observe my age, that it is far advanced in life, and near death. . . .

But if, on the other hand, death is a removal from hence to another place, and what is said be true, that all the dead are there, what greater blessing can there be than this, my judges? For if, on arriving at Hades, released from these who pretend to be judges, one shall find those who are true judges, and who are said to judge there. . . . At what price would you not estimate a conference with Orpheus and Musæus, Hesiod and Homer? I indeed should be willing to die often, if this be true. For to me the sojourn there would be admirable, when I should meet with Palamedes, and Ajax son of Telamon, and any other of the ancients who has died by an unjust sentence.

The comparing my sufferings with theirs would, I think, be no unpleasing occupation. But the greatest pleasure would be to spend my time in questioning and examining the people there as I have done those here, and discovering who among them is wise, and who fancies himself to be so but is not.

“Enough with the insults, philosopher; drink the hemlock.”

Seneca (the Younger, 4 BC-AD 65) before being ordered to commit suicide by Nero, whom he had tutored.

This is the fourteenth year, Cæsar, since I was summoned to train you for your high destiny; and the eighth since your advancement to the empire. During the intervening period, you have showered such honors and riches upon me, that nothing is wanting to complete my felicity but the capacity to use them with moderation. . . .

But both of us have now filled up our measure— you, of all that the bounty of a prince could confer upon his friend; I, of all that a friend could accept from the bounty of his prince. Every addition can only furnish fresh materials for envy; which, indeed, like all other earthly things, lies prostrate beneath your towering greatness, but weighs heavily on me. I require assistance. Thus, in the same manner as, were I weary and faint with the toils of a warfare or a journey, I should implore indulgence; so in this journey of life, old as I am, and unequal even to the lightest cares, since I am unable longer to sustain the weight of my own riches, I seek protection.

Order your own stewards to undertake the direction of my fortune, and to annex it to your own; nor shall I by this plunge myself into poverty, but having surrendered those things by whose splendor I am exposed to the assaults of envy, all the time which is set apart for the care of gardens and villas, I shall apply once more to the cultivation of my mind.

“Did you forget, noble tutor, that I Nero am insane enough to demand both your wealth and your life?”

Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) at his execution, following his renunciation of a forced recantation. (Yes, that sounds confusing, but under duress he had bent to the will of bloody Queen Mary.)

And now I come to the great thing which so much troubleth my conscience, more than anything that ever I did or said in my whole life, and that is the setting abroad of a writing contrary to the truth—which now I here renounce and refuse, as things written with my hand contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart, and written for fear of death, and to save my life if it might be—and that is, all such bills and papers which I have written or signed with my hand since my degradation, wherein I have written many things untrue.

And forasmuch as my hand hath offended, writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall first be punished; for when I come to the fire, it shall be first burned.

“Darn that troublesome archbishop! That wasn’t the speech we approved in advance for him to give.”

Maximilien François Marie Isidore Robespierre (1758-94) denying King Louis was entitled to a trial.

Louis was king and the Republic is founded; the great question which occupies you is decided by these words alone. Louis has been dethroned for his crimes; Louis denounced the French people as rebels; to chastise them he has invoked the arms of his brother tyrants. Victory and the people have decided that he was the rebel: hence Louis can not be judged; he is judged already. He is condemned, or the Republic is not absolved.

To propose a trial for Louis XVI. in any way whatever is to retrograde toward royal and constitutional despotism; it is a counter-revolutionary idea, for it is putting the revolution itself on trial.

“We’ll see how you feel about allowing trials for tyrants two years into your reign of terror, when we take you to the guillotine.”

Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) warns about the dangers of providing salaries to bureaucrats.

I think I see inconveniences in the appointment of salaries [for those in the Executive Branch]; I see none in refusing them, but, on the contrary, great advantages.

Sir, there are two passions which have a powerful influence in the affairs of men. These are ambition and avarice—the love of power and the love of money. Separately, each of these has great force in prompting men to action; but, when united in view of the same object, they have, in many minds, the most violent effects.

Place before the eyes of such men a post of honor, that shall, at the same time, be a place of profit, and they will move heaven and earth to obtain it.

The vast number of such places it is that renders the British government so tempestuous. The struggles for them are the true source of all those factions which are perpetually dividing the nation, distracting its councils, hurrying it sometimes into fruitless and mischievous wars, and often compelling a submission to dishonorable terms of peace.

And of what kind are the men that will strive for this profitable preeminence, through all the bustle of cabal, the heat of contention, the infinite mutual abuse of parties, tearing to pieces the best of characters? It will not be the wise and moderate, the lovers of peace and good order, the men fittest for the trust.

It will be the bold and the violent, the men of strong passions and indefatigable activity in their selfish pursuits. These will thrust themselves into your government and be your rulers.

“Oh that we had listened to your sage counsel. Now we are reaping what we have sown in our political machinations.”

_____

* You can download a personal copy of the book in a variety of versions here.

** Algernon Sidney (1622-83) fought honorably for the republican cause in the English Civil War. The fact that he opposed the execution of Charles I did not deliver him from the vengeance of the hedonist Charles II.

*** Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929) was the French prime minister who helped set the stage for World War II by demanding excessive concessions with Germany during the Versailles peace talks.

**** A “pothunter” is someone who hunts game without a concern for rules of sport. Lewis is likely applying it here in the sense of a person who participates in competitions primarily with the goal of accumulating prizes.

8 responses to A Mastery of Words

  1. 

    I can’t help but sympathize with the Greek chorus, in italics though they be …. Each of these speeches are ironically prescient.

  2. 

    Some strong quotations. I was struck reading Rachel Held Evans’ book “Evolving in Monkey Town” that Jennings Bryan was activist that we could admire–even if we don’t have the same appreciation for the Scopes trial.
    Of course, Franklin on paying politicians, you see what he does when he chooses not to pay them? It means only the elite can ever serve. That pathway would perpetuate the British Lord caste.
    However… for all America avoided that path, “advertising”–the need to “win” an election–has made for a new elite. This elite proves that Franklin was wrong: Men will serve for reasons other than money.

    • 

      Sadly, it seems to me that while a simple majority (say 55%) of people may enter politics for selfless reasons (i.e. the desire to serve their neighbor, rather than a desire for power or control over others or their money)… that very, very few remain untainted by their environment. I would not be surprised to learn that only 5% of all politicians retire with their integrity intact.

      As for the landed estate being the primary group that could afford to serve in politics… you’re right. However, it was envisioned that Congress would only be in session a handful of days each year.

      Also, I believe that Franklin is limiting his discussion here to the unmanageable growth of the Executive branch, which in the United States is the bureaucracy with its leadership appointed and wholly beholden to the President (as contrasted with the citizenry).

      Thanks for your Canadian perspective!

      • 

        Can I misquote James: Not all of you should desire to become politicians. I have desired it, and I have a complex mind and heart, the ability to dabble and deal in ideas without selling out. I lack all the nuance of social network though–the willingness to use others for a certain goal.Even the way I put it here is making it sound slimey!
        I’d be okay if Congress (or Parliament) were just a few days a year. In Canada, they treat that like the primary work, but I see their community work as being more essential.. Of course, we don’t have a Presidential or Chairman system, but a “sober second thought” system.

      • 

        Not misquoting him… merely paraphrasing James. And, appropriately, from my perspective.

        I think I would be capable of being a statesman (the kind where it is pressed upon a person) but not a politician…

  3. 

    Family has always been readers and writers. We have some old signed copies of William Jennings Bryan’s books that have been handed down.
    You’ve touched on some of my heroes here. Timely words.
    (And I’ve found Franklin is rarely wrong in the long run. Congress was supposed to be short turn public service with people donating their time and expertise for short periods before returning home to let fresh ideas/new blood have a chance. Elected offices were never meant to be long term careers – with no other real life job experience to bring to the table. We need term limits desperately now.)
    Schools here used to mandate all students every year to write research reports (in English, history and science here) which familiarized students with facts vs opinion, ordering thoughts into logical form and scientific method research. Students also had to stand up and give speeches/debates – or at least book reports – orally multiple times a year. Speaking in front of a group is not only a useful skill, it teaches the importance and appreciation of word choice, sequencing information towards a goal.
    All that was gained may not show up on benchmark multiple choice state tests, but much was lost when those activities were cut.
    Thanks so much for taking the time to pull this post together. Much appreciated
    May your Christmas be merry, bright, and full of wonder!

    • 

      What a blessing to come from a family of readers and bibliophiles. That’s pretty cool too, owning some autographed classics.

      Your assessment of the state of education in our nation is sadly correct.

      Being able to speak in public with a minimum of confusion and distress is a skill valuable for almost every single vocation.

      Thank you for the Christmas wishes. God’s very best to you and yours as we celebrate the Nativity of Jesus… and throughout the new year.

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