A speech writer's take on important speeches, and the craft of writing for an audience.
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Enchanting the Soul
Columnist Mark Bowden, writing recently on the power of oratory, said: “The real work of rhetoric is to explain and persuade.” All right, that’s hard to argue with, but it describes many uses of words. It describes, for instance, a dry, passionless legal brief. It even encompasses the police officer’s citation which may have necessitated that legal brief.
Words which merely “explain and persuade” do not necessarily constitute rhetoric. For our purposes, the definition of rhetoric must meet a higher standard.
If, as Plato described it, rhetoric is the “art of enchanting the soul,” how does that enchantment take place? What is the source of the magic that casts such a spell on a listener? What happy constellation of words constitutes rhetoric?
Rhetoric, at its best, involves the ability to create striking mental images using words.
People no longer crowd close into a stone paved Agora, as in Plato’s day, straining to get within earshot of a speaker. Today, sound systems guarantee everyone can hear what is said. Still, the power to enchant a listener’s soul is not subordinate to the advances of technology. It is, as it ever was, a force lodged in the writer and speaker.
Even in a world where speeches can be accompanied by power point presentations, or photos projected on a screen to provide illustration, rhetoric - that happy combination of words - still offers the highest power to create and sustain the enchantment which can possess our souls.
Take the image projected in President Kennedy’s inaugural address: “The torch has been passed, to a new generation ... ” It evokes an image of one of Plato’s contemporaries, an ancient Greek runner - Phedipiddes perhaps - arm outstretched, handing off a torch on its journey to the Olympic games.
That the passing of the Olympic torch is a modern invention, first used to open the 1936 Berlin Olympics, matters not. In fact, it demonstrates the power of Kennedy’s rhetoric, to create a mental image of a scene that never existed.
Or, take the way Lincoln chose to begin the Gettysburg address: “Four score and seven years ago, ...” Any number of reviewers have observed that using the number “eighty seven” would have been a far clearer way to communicate the time span of which he was speaking. But Lincoln’s intent was to create a Biblical image for his audience, to remind them their nation was engaged in a noble, even holy, crusade.
There is no precise formula to define what constitutes rhetoric and what does not. Nor is there one which describes how to create it or how not to. In that sense, it is much like Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography - “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it,” (Jacobellis v. Ohio - 1964).
But, just because we can’t define it, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek it. After all, the Grail for which we, as speech writers and listeners alike, must quest, is nothing short of an enchanted soul.
A veteran writer, researcher and lecturer, with more than 25 years experience in politics, political communications, and public relations. I’ve studied speech writing at NYU, and authored a number of published articles on the practice of lobbying as well as topics in American history.
My lecture on the War of 1812: 1812 – Uncle Sam’s First War, is now a lecture in the New York Speakers in the Humanities bicentennial commemoration series.