Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882). The Complete Works. 1904. Vol. VII. Society and Solitude: Twelve Chapters
FOR whom the Muses smile upon,
And touch with soft persuasion,
His words, like a storm-wind, can bring
Terror and beauty on their wing;
In his every syllable
Lurketh nature veritable;
And though he speak in midnight dark,
In heaven no star, on earth no spark,
Yet before the listeners eye
Swims the world in ecstasy,
The forest waves, the morning breaks,
The pastures sleep, ripple the lakes,
Leaves twinkle, flowers like persons be
And life pulsates in rock or tree.
IT1 is the doctrine of the popular music-masters that whoever can speak can sing. So probably every man is eloquent once in his life. Our temperaments differ in capacity of heat, or, we boil at different degrees. One man is brought to the boiling-point by the excitement of conversation in the parlor. The waters, of course, are not very deep. He has a two-inch enthusiasm, a patty-pan ebullition. Another requires the additional caloric of a multitude and a public debate; a third needs an antagonist, or a hot indignation; a fourth needs a revolution; and a fifth, nothing less than the grandeur of absolute ideas, the splendors and shades of Heaven and Hell.
But, because every man is an orator, how long soever he may have been a mute, an assembly of men is so much more susceptible. The eloquence of one stimulates all the rest, some up to the speaking-point, and all others to a degree that makes them good receivers and conductors, and they avenge themselves for their enforced silence by increased loquacity on their return to the fireside.
The plight of these phlegmatic brains is better than that of those who prematurely boil, and who impatiently break silence before their time. Our country conventions often exhibit a small-pot-soon-hot style of eloquence. We are too much reminded of a medical experiment where a series of patients are taking nitrous-oxide gas. Each patient in turn exhibits similar symptoms,redness in the face, volubility, violent gesticulation, delirious attitudes, occasional stamping, an alarming loss of perception of the passage of time, a selfish enjoyment of his sensations, and loss of perception of the sufferings of the audience.
Plato says that the punishment which the wise suffer who refuse to take part in the government, is, to live under the government of worse men; and the like regret is suggested to all the auditors, as the penalty of abstaining to speak,that they shall hear worse orators than themselves.2
But this lust to speak marks the universal feeling of the energy of the engine, and the curiosity men feel to touch the springs. Of all the musical instruments on which men play, a popular assembly is that which has the largest compass and variety, and out of which, by genius and study, the most wonderful effects can be drawn. An audience is not a simple addition of the individuals that compose it. Their sympathy gives them a certain social organism, which fills each member, in his own degree, and most of all the orator, as a jar in a battery is charged with the whole electricity of the battery. No one can survey the face of an excited assembly, without being apprised of new opportunity for painting in fire human thought, and being agitated to agitate. How many orators sit mute there below! They come to get justice done to that ear and intuition which no Chatham and no Demosthenes has begun to satisfy.
The Welsh Triads say, Many are the friends of the golden tongue.3 Who can wonder at the attractiveness of Parliament, or of Congress, or the bar, for our ambitious young men, when the highest bribes of society are at the feet of the successful orator? He has his audience at his devotion. All other fames must hush before his. He is the true potentate; for they are not kings who sit on thrones, but they who know how to govern. The definitions of eloquence describe its attraction for young men. Antiphon the Rhamnusian, one of Plutarchs ten orators, advertised in Athens that he would cure distempers of the mind with words.4 No man has a prosperity so high or firm but two or three words can dishearten it. There is no calamity which right words will not begin to redress. Isocrates described his art as the power of magnifying what was small and diminishing what was great,an acute but partial definition. Among the Spartans, the art assumed a Spartan shape, namely, of the sharpest weapon. Socrates says: If any one wishes to converse with the meanest of the Lacedæmonians, he will at first find him despicable in conversation, but when a proper opportunity offers, this same person, like a skilful jaculator, will hurl a sentence worthy of attention, short and contorted, so that he who converses with him will appear to be in no respect superior to a boy. Platos definition of rhetoric is, the art of ruling the minds of men. The Koran says, A mountain may change its place, but a man will not change his disposition; yet the end of eloquence isis it not?to alter in a pair of hours, perhaps in a half hours discourse, the convictions and habits of years. Young men, too, are eager to enjoy this sense of added power and enlarged sympathetic existence. The orator sees himself the organ of a multitude, and concentrating their valors and powers:
That which he wishes, that which eloquence ought to reach, is not a particular skill in telling a story, or neatly summing up evidence, or arguing logically, or dexterously addressing the prejudice of the company,no, but a taking sovereign possession of the audience. Him we call an artist who shall play on an assembly of men as a master on the keys of the piano,who, seeing the people furious, shall soften and compose them, shall draw them, when he will, to laughter and to tears. Bring him to his audience, and, be they who they may,coarse or refined, pleased or displeased, sulky or savage, with their opinions in the keeping of a confessor, or with their opinions in their bank-safes,he will have them pleased and humored as he chooses; and they shall carry and execute that which he bids them.
This is that despotism which poets have celebrated in the Pied Piper of Hamelin, whose music drew like the power of gravitation,drew soldiers and priests, traders and feasters, women and boys, rats and mice; or that of the minstrel of Meudon, who made the pall-bearers dance around the bier.6 This is a power of many degrees and requiring in the orator a great range of faculty and experience, requiring a large composite man, such as Nature rarely organizes; so that in our experience we are forced to gather up the figure in fragments, here one talent and there another.
The audience is a constant meter of the orator. There are many audiences in every public assembly, each one of which rules in turn. If anything comic and coarse is spoken, you shall see the emergence of the boys and rowdies, so loud and vivacious that you might think the house was filled with them. If new topics are started, graver and higher, these roisters recede; a more chaste and wise attention takes place. You would think the boys slept, and that the men have any degree of profoundness. If the speaker utter a noble sentiment, the attention deepens, a new and highest audience now listens, and the audiences of the fun and of facts and of the understanding are all silenced and awed. There is also something excellent in every audience,the capacity of virtue. They are ready to be beatified. They know so much more than the orator,and are so just! There is a tablet there for every line he can inscribe, though he should mount to the highest levels. Humble persons are conscious of new illumination; narrow brows expand with enlarged affections;delicate spirits, long unknown to themselves, masked and muffled in coarsest fortunes, who now hear their own native language for the first time, and leap to hear it.7 But all these several audiences, each above each, which successively appear to greet the variety of style and topic, are really composed out of the same persons; nay, sometimes the same individual will take active part in them all, in turn.
Perhaps it is the lowest of the qualities of an orator, but it is, on so many occasions, of chief importance,a certain robust and radiant physical health; or,shall I say?great volumes of animal heat. When each auditor feels himself to make too large a part of the assembly, and shudders with cold at the thinness of the morning audience, and with fear lest all will heavily fail through one bad speech, mere energy and mellowness are then inestimable. Wisdom and learning would be harsh and unwelcome, compared with a substantial cordial man, made of milk as we say, who is a house-warmer, with his obvious honesty and good meaning, and a hue-and-cry style of harangue, which inundates the assembly with a flood of animal spirits, and makes all safe and secure, so that any and every sort of good speaking becomes at once practicable. I do not rate this animal eloquence very highly; and yet, as we must be fed and warmed before we can do any work well,even the best,so is this semi-animal exuberance, like a good stove, of the first necessity in a cold house.
Climate has much to do with it,climate and race. Set a New Englander to describe any accident which happened in his presence. What hesitation and reserve in his narrative! He tells with difficulty some particulars, and gets as fast as he can to the result, and, though he cannot describe, hopes to suggest the whole scene. Now listen to a poor Irishwoman recounting some experience of hers. Her speech flows like a river,so unconsidered, so humorous, so pathetic, such justice done to all the parts!8 It is a true transubstantiation,the fact converted into speech, all warm and colored and alive, as it fell out. Our Southern people are almost all speakers, and have every advantage over the New England people, whose climate is so cold that t is said we do not like to open our mouths very wide.9 But neither can the Southerner in the United States, nor the Irish, compare with the lively inhabitant of the south of Europe. The traveller in Sicily needs no gayer melodramatic exhibition than the table dhôte of his inn will afford him in the conversation of the joyous guests. They mimic the voice and manner of the person they describe; they crow, squeal, hiss, cackle, bark, and scream like mad, and, were it only by the physical strength exerted in telling the story, keep the table in unbounded excitement. But in every constitution some large degree of animal vigor is necessary as material foundation for the higher qualities of the art.
But eloquence must be attractive, or it is none. The virtue of books is to be readable, and of orators to be interesting; and this is a gift of Nature; as Demosthenes, the most laborious student in that kind, signified his sense of this necessity when he wrote, Good Fortune, as his motto on his shield. As we know, the power of discourse of certain individuals amounts to fascination, though it may have no lasting effect. Some portion of this sugar must intermingle. The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together, and no constable to keep them. It draws the children from their play, the old from their arm-chairs, the invalid from his warm chamber: it holds the hearer fast; steals away his feet, that he shall not depart; his memory, that he shall not remember the most pressing affairs; his belief, that he shall not admit any opposing considerations. The pictures we have of it in semi-barbarous ages, when it has some advantages in the simpler habit of the people, show what it aims at. It is said that the Khans or story-tellers in Ispahan and other cities of the East, attain a controlling power over their audience, keeping them for many hours attentive to the most fanciful and extravagant adventures. The whole world knows pretty well the style of these improvisators, and how fascinating they are, in our translations of the Arabian Nights. Scheherezade tells these stories to save her life, and the delight of young Europe and young America in them proves that she fairly earned it. And who does not remember in childhood some white or black or yellow Scheherezade, who, by that talent of telling endless feats of fairies and magicians and kings and queens, was more dear and wonderful to a circle of children than any orator in England or America is now?10 The more indolent and imaginative complexion of the Eastern nations makes them much more impressible by these appeals to the fancy.
These legends are only exaggerations of real occurrences, and every literature contains these high compliments to the art of the orator and the bard, from the Hebrew and the Greek down to the Scottish Glenkindie, who
Homer specially delighted in drawing the same figure. For what is the Odyssey but a history of the orator, in the largest style, carried through a series of adventures furnishing brilliant opportunities to his talent? See with what care and pleasure the poet brings him on the stage. Helen is pointing out to Priam, from a tower, the different Grecian chiefs. The old man asked: Tell me, dear child, who is that man, shorter by a head than Agamemnon, yet he looks broader in his shoulders and breast. His arms lie on the ground, but he, like a leader, walks about the bands of the men. He seems to me like a stately ram, who goes as a master of the flock. Him answered Helen, daughter of Jove, This is the wise Ulysses, son of Laertes, who was reared in the state of craggy Ithaca, knowing all wiles and wise counsels. To her the prudent Antenor replied again: O woman, you have spoken truly. For once the wise Ulysses came hither on an embassy, with Menelaus, beloved by Mars. I received them and entertained them at my house. I became acquainted with the genius and the prudent judgments of both. When they mixed with the assembled Trojans, and stood, the broad shoulders of Menelaus rose above the other; but, both sitting, Ulysses was more majestic. When they conversed, and interweaved stories and opinions with all, Menelaus spoke succinctly,few but very sweet words, since he was not talkative nor superfluous in speech, and was the younger. But when the wise Ulysses arose and stood and looked down, fixing his eyes on the ground, and neither moved his sceptre backward nor forward, but held it still, like an awkward person, you would say it was some angry or foolish man; but when he sent his great voice forth out of his breast, and his words fell like the winter snows, not then would any mortal contend with Ulysses; and we, beholding, wondered not afterwards so much at his aspect.12 Thus he does not fail to arm Ulysses at first with this power of overcoming all opposition by the blandishments of speech. Plutarch tells us that Thucydides, when Archidamus, king of Sparta, asked him which was the best wrestler, Pericles or he, replied, When I throw him, he says he was never down, and he persuades the very spectators to believe him. Philip of Macedon said of Demosthenes, on hearing the report of one of his orations, Had I been there, he would have persuaded me to take up arms against myself; and Warren Hastings said of Burkes speech on his impeachment, As I listened to the orator, I felt for more than half an hour as if I were the most culpable being on earth.
In these examples, higher qualities have already entered, but the power of detaining the ear by pleasing speech, and addressing the fancy and imagination, often exists without higher merits. Thus separated, as this fascination of discourse aims only at amusement, though it be decisive in its momentary effect, it is yet a juggle, and of no lasting power. It is heard like a band of music passing through the streets, which converts all the passengers into poets, but is forgotten as soon as it has turned the next corner; and unless this oiled tongue could, in Oriental phrase, lick the sun and moon away, it must take its place with opium and brandy. I know no remedy against it but cotton-wool, or the wax which Ulysses stuffed into the ears of his sailors to pass the Sirens safely.13
There are all degrees of power, and the least are interesting, but they must not be confounded. There is the glib tongue and cool self-possession of the salesman in a large shop, which, as is well known, overpower the prudence and resolution of housekeepers of both sexes. There is a petty lawyers fluency, which is sufficiently impressive to him who is devoid of that talent, though it be, in so many cases, nothing more than a facility of expressing with accuracy and speed what everybody thinks and says more slowly; without new information, or precision of thought, but the same thing, neither less nor more. It requires no special insight to edit one of our country newspapers. Yet whoever can say off currently, sentence by sentence, matter neither better nor worse than what is there printed, will be very impressive to our easily pleased population. These talkers are of that class who prosper, like the celebrated schoolmaster, by being only one lesson ahead of the pupil. Add a little sarcasm and prompt allusion to passing occurrences, and you have the mischievous member of Congress. A spice of malice, a ruffian touch in his rhetoric, will do him no harm with his audience. These accomplishments are of the same kind, and only a degree higher than the coaxing of the auctioneer, or the vituperative style well described in the street-word jawing. These kinds of public and private speaking have their use and convenience to the practitioners; but we may say of such collectively that the habit of oratory is apt to disqualify them for eloquence.
One of our statesmen14said, The curse of this country is eloquent men. And one cannot wonder at the uneasiness sometimes manifested by trained statesmen, with large experience of public affairs, when they observe the disproportionate advantage suddenly given to oratory over the most solid and accumulated public service. In a Senate or other business committee, the solid result depends on a few men with working talent. They know how to deal with the facts before them, to put things into a practical shape, and they value men only as they can forward the work. But a new man comes there who has no capacity for helping them at all, is insignificant, and nobody in the committee, but has a talent for speaking. In the debate with open doors, this precious person makes a speech which is printed and read all over the Union, and he at once becomes famous, and takes the lead in the public mind over all these executive men, who, of course, are full of indignation to find one who has no tact or skill and knows he has none, put over them by means of this talking power which they despise.
Leaving behind us these pretensions, better or worse, to come a little nearer to the verity,eloquence is attractive as an example of the magic of personal ascendency,a total and resultant power, rare, because it requires a rich coincidence of powers, intellect, will, sympathy, organs and, over all, good fortune in the cause. We have a half belief that the person is possible who can counterpoise all other persons. We believe that there may be a man who is a match for events, one who never found his match, against whom other men being dashed are broken,one of inexhaustible personal resources, who can give you any odds and beat you. What we really wish for is a mind equal to any exigency. You are safe in your rural district, or in the city, in broad daylight, amidst the police, and under the eyes of a hundred thousand people. But how is it on the Atlantic, in a storm,do you understand how to infuse your reason into men disabled by terror, and to bring yourself off safe then?how among thieves, or among an infuriated populace, or among cannibals? Face to face with a highwayman who has every temptation and opportunity for violence and plunder, can you bring yourself off safe by your wit exercised through speech?a problem easy enough to Cæsar or Napoleon. Whenever a man of that stamp arrives, the highwayman has found a master. What a difference between men in power of face! A man succeeds because he has more power of eye than another, and so coaxes or confounds him. The newspapers, every week, report the adventures of some impudent swindler, who, by steadiness of carriage, duped those who should have known better. Yet any swindlers we have known are novices and bunglers, as is attested by their ill name. A greater power of face would accomplish anything, and, with the rest of their takings, take away the bad name. A greater power of carrying the thing loftily and with perfect assurance, would confound merchant, banker, judge, men of influence and power, poet and president, and might head any party, unseat any sovereign, and abrogate any constitution in Europe and America. It was said that a man has at one step attained vast power, who has renounced his moral sentiment, and settled it with himself that he will no longer stick at anything. It was said of Sir William Pepperell, one of the worthies of New England, that, put him where you might, he commanded, and saw what he willed come to pass. Julius Cæsar said to Metellus, when that tribune interfered to hinder him from entering the Roman treasury, Young man, it is easier for me to put you to death than to say that I will; and the youth yielded. In earlier days, he was taken by pirates. What then? He threw himself into their ship, established the most extraordinary intimacies, told them stories, declaimed to them; if they did not applaud his speeches, he threatened them with hanging,which he performed afterwards,and, in a short time, was master of all on board. A man this is who cannot be disconcerted, and so can never play his last card, but has a reserve of power when he has hit his mark. With a serene face, he subverts a kingdom. What is told of him is miraculous; it affects men so. The confidence of men in him is lavish, and he changes the face of the world, and histories, poems and new philosophies arise to account for him. A supreme commander over all his passions and affections; but the secret of his ruling is higher than that. It is the power of Nature running without impediment from the brain and will into the hands.15 Men and women are his game. Where they are, he cannot be without resource. Whoso can speak well, said Luther, is a man. It was men of this stamp that the Grecian States used to ask of Sparta for generals. They did not send to Lacedæmon for troops, but they said, Send us a commander; and Pausanias, or Gylippus, or Brasidas, or Agis, was despatched by the Ephors.
It is easy to illustrate this overpowering personality by these examples of soldiers and kings; but there are men of the most peaceful way of life and peaceful principle, who are felt wherever they go, as sensibly as a July sun or a December frost,men who, if they speak, are heard, though they speak in a whisper,who, when they act, act effectually, and what they do is imitated; and these examples may be found on very humble platforms as well as on high ones.
In old countries a high money value is set on the services of men who have achieved a personal distinction. He who has points to carry must hire, not a skilful attorney, but a commanding person. A barrister in England is reputed to have made thirty or forty thousand pounds per annum in representing the claims of railroad companies before committees of the House of Commons. His clients pay not so much for legal as for manly accomplishments,for courage, conduct and a commanding social position, which enable him to make their claims heard and respected.16
I know very well that among our cool and calculating people, where every man mounts guard over himself, where heats and panics and abandonments are quite out of the system, there is a good deal of skepticism as to extraordinary influence. To talk of an overpowering mind rouses the same jealousy and defiance which one may observe round a table where anybody is recounting the marvellous anecdotes of mesmerism. Each auditor puts a final stroke to the discourse by exclaiming, Can he mesmerize me? So each man inquires if any orator can change his convictions.
But does any one suppose himself to be quite impregnable? Does he think that not possibly a man may come to him who shall persuade him out of his most settled determination?for example, good sedate citizen as he is, to make a fanatic of him,or, if he is penurious, to squander money for some purpose he now least thinks of,or, if he is a prudent, industrious person, to forsake his work, and give days and weeks to a new interest? No, he defies any one, every one. Ah! he is thinking of resistance, and of a different turn from his own. But what if one should come of the same turn of mind as his own, and who sees much farther on his own way than he? A man who has tastes like mine, but in greater power, will rule me any day, and make me love my ruler.
Thus it is not powers of speech that we primarily consider under this word eloquence, but the power that being present, gives them their perfection, and being absent, leaves them a merely superficial value. Eloquence is the appropriate organ of the highest personal energy. Personal ascendency may exist with or without adequate talent for its expression. It is as surely felt as a mountain or a planet; but when it is weaponed with a power of speech, it seems first to become truly human, works actively in all directions, and supplies the imagination with fine materials.
This circumstance enters into every consideration of the power of orators, and is the key to all their effects. In the assembly, you shall find the orator and the audience in perpetual balance; and the predominance of either is indicated by the choice of topic. If the talents for speaking exist, but not the strong personality, then there are good speakers who perfectly receive and express the will of the audience, and the commonest populace is flattered by hearing its low mind returned to it with every ornament which happy talent can add. But if there be personality in the orator, the face of things changes. The audience is thrown into the attitude of pupil, follows like a child its preceptor, and hears what he has to say. It is as if, amidst the kings council at Madrid, Ximenes urged that an advantage might be gained of France, and Mendoza that Flanders might be kept down, and Columbus, being introduced, was interrogated whether his geographical knowledge could aid the cabinet; and he can say nothing to one party or to the other, but he can show how all Europe can be diminished and reduced under the king, by annexing to Spain a continent as large as six or seven Europes.
This balance between the orator and the audience is expressed in what is called the pertinence of the speaker.17There is always a rivalry between the orator and the occasion, between the demands of the hour and the prepossession of the individual. The emergency which has convened the meeting is usually of more importance than anything the debaters have in their minds, and therefore becomes imperative to them. But if one of them have anything of commanding necessity in his heart, how speedily he will find vent for it, and with the applause of the assembly! This balance is observed in the privatest intercourse. Poor Tom never knew the time when the present occurrence was so trivial that he could tell what was passing in his mind without being checked for unseasonable speech; but let Bacon speak and wise men would rather listen though the revolution of kingdoms was on foot. I have heard it reported of an eloquent preacher, whose voice is not yet forgotten in this city,18that, on occasions of death or tragic disaster which overspread the congregation with gloom, he ascended the pulpit with more than his usual alacrity, and turning to his favorite lessons of devout and jubilant thankfulness,Let us praise the Lord,carried audience, mourners and mourning along with him, and swept away all the impertinence of private sorrow with his hosannas and songs of praise. Pepys says of Lord Clarendon (with whom he is mad in love) on his return from a conference, I did never observe how much easier a man do speak when he knows all the company to be below him, than in him; for, though he spoke indeed excellent well, yet his manner and freedom of doing it, as if he played with it, and was informing only all the rest of the company, was mighty pretty.
This rivalry between the orator and the occasion is inevitable, and the occasion always yields to the eminence of the speaker; for a great man is the greatest of occasions. Of course the interest of the audience and of the orator conspire. It is well with them only when his influence is complete; then only they are well pleased. Especially he consults his power by making instead of taking his theme. If he should attempt to instruct the people in that which they already know, he would fail; but by making them wise in that which he knows, he has the advantage of the assembly every moment. Napoleons tactics of marching on the angle of an army, and always presenting a superiority of numbers, is the orators secret also.
The several talents which the orator employs, the splendid weapons which went to the equipment of Demosthenes, of Æschines, of Demades the natural orator, of Fox, of Pitt, of Patrick Henry, of Adams, of Mirabeau, deserve a special enumeration. We must not quite omit to name the principal pieces.
The orator, as we have seen, must be a substantial personality. Then, first, he must have power of statement,must have the fact, and know how to tell it.19 In any knot of men conversing on any subject, the person who knows most about it will have the ear of the company if he wishes it, and lead the conversation, no matter what genius or distinction other men there present may have; and in any public assembly, him who has the facts and can and will state them, people will listen to, though he is otherwise ignorant, though he is hoarse and ungraceful, though he stutters and screams.
In a court of justice the audience are impartial; they really wish to sift the statements and know what the truth is. And in the examination of witnesses there usually leap out, quite unexpectedly, three or four stubborn words or phrases which are the pith and fate of the business, which sink into the ear of all parties, and stick there, and determine the cause. All the rest is repetition and qualifying; and the court and the county have really come together to arrive at these three or four memorable expressions which betrayed the mind and meaning of somebody.
In every company the man with the fact is like the guide you hire to lead your party up a mountain, or through a difficult country. He may not compare with any of the party in mind or breeding or courage or possessions, but he is much more important to the present need than any of them.20 That is what we go to the court-house for,the statement of the fact, and of a general fact, the real relation of all the parties; and it is the certainty with which, indifferently in any affair that is well handled, the truth stares us in the face through all the disguises that are put upon it,a piece of the well-known human life,that makes the interest of a courtroom to the intelligent spectator.
I remember long ago being attracted, by the distinction of the counsel and the local importance of the cause, into the court-room. The prisoners counsel were the strongest and cunningest lawyers in the commonwealth. They drove the attorney for the state from corner to corner, taking his reasons from under him, and reducing him to silence, but not to submission. When hard pressed, he revenged himself, in his turn, on the judge, by requiring the court to define what salvage was. The court, thus pushed, tried words, and said everything it could think of to fill the time, supposing cases, and describing duties of insurers, captains, pilots and miscellaneous sea-officers that are or might be,like a schoolmaster puzzled by a hard sum, who reads the context with emphasis. But all this flood not serving the cuttle-fish to get away in, the horrible shark of the district attorney being still there, grimly awaiting with his The court must define,the poor court pleaded its inferiority. The superior court must establish the law for this, and it read away piteously the decisions of the Supreme Court, but read to those who had no pity. The judge was forced at last to rule something, and the lawyers saved their rogue under the fog of a definition. The parts were so well cast and discriminated that it was an interesting game to watch. The government was well enough represented. It was stupid, but it had a strong will and possession, and stood on that to the last. The judge had a task beyond his preparation, yet his position remained real: he was there to represent a great reality,the justice of states, which we could well enough see beetling over his head, and which his trifling talk nowise affected, and did not impede, since he was entirely well meaning.
The statement of the fact, however, sinks before the statement of the law, which requires immeasurably higher powers, and is a rarest gift, being in all great masters one and the same thing,in lawyers nothing technical, but always some piece of common sense, alike interesting to laymen as to clerks. Lord Mansfields merit is the merit of common sense.21 It is the same quality we admire in Aristotle, Montaigne, Cervantes, or in Samuel Johnson or Franklin. Its application to law seems quite accidental. Each of Mansfields famous decisions contains a level sentence or two which hit the mark. His sentences are not always finished to the eye, but are finished to the mind. The sentences are involved, but a solid proposition is set forth, a true distinction is drawn. They come from and they go to the sound human understanding; and I read without surprise that the black-letter lawyers of the day sneered at his equitable decisions, as if they were not also learned. This, indeed, is what speech is for,to make the statement; and all that is called eloquence seems to me of little use for the most part to those who have it, but inestimable to such as have something to say.
Next to the knowledge of the fact and its law is method, which constitutes the genius and efficiency of all remarkable men. A crowd of men go up to Faneuil Hall; they are all pretty well acquainted with the object of the meeting; they have all read the facts in the same newspapers. The orator possesses no information which his hearers have not, yet he teaches them to see the thing with his eyes. By the new placing, the circumstances acquire new solidity and worth. Every fact gains consequence by his naming it, and trifles become important. His expressions fix themselves in mens memories, and fly from mouth to mouth. His mind has some new principle of order. Where he looks, all things fly into their places. What will he say next? Let this man speak, and this man only. By applying the habits of a higher style of thought to the common affairs of this world, he introduces beauty and magnificence wherever he goes. Such a power was Burkes, and of this genius we have had some brilliant examples in our own political and legal men.
Imagery. The orator must be, to a certain extent, a poet. We are such imaginative creatures that nothing so works on the human mind, barbarous or civil, as a trope. Condense some daily experience into a glowing symbol, and an audience is electrified. They feel as if they already possessed some new right and power over a fact which they can detach, and so completely master in thought. It is a wonderful aid to the memory, which carries away the image and never loses it. A popular assembly, like the House of Commons, or the French Chamber, or the American Congress, is commanded by these two powers,first by a fact, then by skill of statement. Put the argument into a concrete shape, into an image,some hard phrase, round and solid as a ball, which they can see and handle and carry home with them,and the cause is half won.
Statement, method, imagery, selection, tenacity of memory, power of dealing with facts, of illuminating them, of sinking them by ridicule or by diversion of the mind, rapid generalization, humor, pathos, are keys which the orator holds; and yet these fine gifts are not eloquence, and do often hinder a mans attainment of it. And if we come to the heart of the mystery, perhaps we should say that the truly eloquent man is a sane man with power to communicate his sanity.22 If you arm the man with the extraordinary weapons of this art, give him a grasp of facts, learning, quick fancy, sarcasm, splendid allusion, interminable illustration,all these talents, so potent and charming, have an equal power to ensnare and mislead the audience and the orator. His talents are too much for him, his horses run away with him; and people always perceive whether you drive or whether the horses take the bits in their teeth and run.23 But these talents are quite something else when they are subordinated and serve him; and we go to Washington, or to Westminster Hall, or might well go round the world, to see a man who drives, and is not run away with,a man who, in prosecuting great designs, has an absolute command of the means of representing his ideas, and uses them only to express these; placing facts, placing men; amid the inconceivable levity of human beings, never for an instant warped from his erectness. There is for every man a statement possible of that truth which he is most unwilling to receive,a statement possible, so broad and so pungent that he cannot get away from it, but must either bend to it or die of it. Else there would be no such word as eloquence, which means this. The listener cannot hide from himself that something has been shown him and the whole world which he did not wish to see; and as he cannot dispose of it, it disposes of him. The history of public men and affairs in America will readily furnish tragic examples of this fatal force.24
For the triumphs of the art somewhat more must still be required, namely a reinforcing of man from events, so as to give the double force of reason and destiny. In transcendent eloquence, there was ever some crisis in affairs, such as could deeply engage the man to the cause he pleads, and draw all this wide power to a point. For the explosions and eruptions, there must be accumulations of heat somewhere, beds of ignited anthracite at the centre. And in cases where profound conviction has been wrought, the eloquent man is he who is no beautiful speaker, but who is inwardly drunk with a certain belief. It agitates and tears him, and perhaps almost bereaves him of the power of articulation.25 Then it rushes from him as in short, abrupt screams, in torrents of meaning. The possession the subject has of his mind is so entire that it insures an order of expression which is the order of Nature itself, and so the order of greatest force, and inimitable by any art. And the main distinction between him and other well-graced actors26 is the conviction, communicated by every word, that his mind is contemplating a whole, and inflamed by the contemplation of the whole, and that the words and sentences uttered by him, however admirable, fall from him as unregarded parts of that terrible whole which he sees and which he means that you shall see. Add to this concentration a certain regnant calmness, which, in all the tumult, never utters a premature syllable, but keeps the secret of its means and method; and the orator stands before the people as a demoniacal power to whose miracles they have no key. This terrible earnestness makes good the ancient superstition of the hunter, that the bullet will hit its mark, which is first dipped in the marksmans blood.
Eloquence must be grounded on the plainest narrative. Afterwards, it may warm itself until it exhales symbols of every kind and color, speaks only through the most poetic forms; but, first and last, it must still be at bottom a biblical statement of fact. The orator is thereby an orator, that he keeps his feet ever on a fact. Thus only is he invincible. No gifts, no graces, no power of wit or learning or illustration will make any amends for want of this. All audiences are just to this point. Fame of voice or of rhetoric will carry people a few times to hear a speaker; but they soon begin to ask, What is he driving at? and if this man does not stand for anything, he will be deserted. A good upholder of anything which they believe, a fact-speaker of any kind, they will long follow; but a pause in the speakers own character is very properly a loss of attraction. The preacher enumerates his classes of men and I do not find my place therein; I suspect then that no man does. Everything is my cousin; and whilst he speaks things, I feel that he is touching some of my relations, and I am uneasy; but whilst he deals in words we are released from attention.27 If you would lift me you must be on higher ground. If you would liberate me you must be free. If you would correct my false view of facts,hold up to me the same facts in the true order of thought, and I cannot go back from the new conviction.
The power of Chatham, of Pericles, of Luther, rested on this strength of character, which, because it did not and could not fear anybody, made nothing of their antagonists, and became sometimes exquisitely provoking and sometimes terrific to these.
We are slenderly furnished with anecdotes of these men, nor can we help ourselves by those heavy books in which their discourses are reported. Some of them were writers, like Burke; but most of them were not, and no record at all adequate to their fame remains. Besides, what is best is lost,the fiery life of the moment. But the conditions for eloquence always exist. It is always dying out of famous places and appearing in corners. Wherever the polarities meet, wherever the fresh moral sentiment, the instinct of freedom and duty, come in direct opposition to fossil conservatism and the thirst of gain, the spark will pass. The resistance to slavery in this country has been a fruitful nursery of orators.28 The natural connection by which it drew to itself a train of moral reforms, and the slight yet sufficient party organization it offered, reinforced the city with new blood from the woods and mountains. Wild men, John Baptists, Hermit Peters, John Knoxes, utter the savage sentiment of Nature in the heart of commercial capitals. They send us every year some piece of aboriginal strength, some tough oak-stick of a man who is not to be silenced or insulted or intimidated by a mob, because he is more mob than they,one who mobs the mob,some sturdy countryman, on whom neither money, nor politeness, nor hard words, nor eggs, nor blows, nor brickbats make any impression. He is fit to meet the barroom wits and bullies; he is a wit and a bully himself, and something more: he is a graduate of the plough, and the stub-hoe, and the bushwhacker; knows all the secrets of swamp and snow-bank, and has nothing to learn of labor or poverty or the rough of farming. His hard head went through, in childhood, the drill of Calvinism, with text and mortification, so that he stands in the New England assembly a purer bit of New England than any, and flings his sarcasms right and left. He has not only the documents in his pocket to answer all cavils and to prove all his positions, but he has the eternal reason in his head.29 This man scornfully renounces your civil organizations,county, or city, or governor, or army;is his own navy and artillery, judge and jury, legislature and executive. He has learned his lessons in a bitter school. Yet, if the pupil be of a texture to bear it, the best university that can be recommended to a man of ideas is the gauntlet of the mobs.
He who will train himself to mastery in this science of persuasion must lay the emphasis of education, not on popular arts, but on character and insight. Let him see that his speech is not differenced from action; that when he has spoken he has not done nothing, nor done wrong, but has cleared his own skirts, has engaged himself to wholesome exertion. Let him look on opposition as opportunity. He cannot be defeated or put down. There is a principle of resurrection in him, an immortality of purpose. Men are averse and hostile, to give value to their suffrages. It is not the people that are in fault for not being convinced, but he that cannot convince them. He should mould them, armed as he is with the reason and love which are also the core of their nature. He is not to neutralize their opposition, but he is to convert them into fiery apostles and publishers of the same wisdom.
The highest platform of eloquence is the moral sentiment. It is what is called affirmative truth, and has the property of invigorating the hearer; and it conveys a hint of our eternity, when he feels himself addressed on grounds which will remain when everything else is taken, and which have no trace of time or place or party. Everything hostile is stricken down in the presence of the sentiments; their majesty is felt by the most obdurate.30 It is observable that as soon as one acts for large masses, the moral element will and must be allowed for, will and must work; and the men least accustomed to appeal to these sentiments invariably recall them when they address nations. Napoleon, even, must accept and use it as he can.
It is only to these simple strokes that the highest power belongs,when a weak human hand touches, point by point, the eternal beams and rafters on which the whole structure of Nature and society is laid.31 In this tossing sea of delusion we feel with our feet the adamant; in this dominion of chance we find a principle of permanence. For I do not accept that definition of Isocrates, that the office of his art is to make the great small and the small great; but I esteem this to be its perfection,when the orator sees through all masks to the eternal scale of truth, in such sort that he can hold up before the eyes of men the fact of to-day steadily to that standard, thereby making the great great, and the small small, which is the true way to astonish and to reform mankind.32
All the chief orators of the world have been grave men, relying on this reality. One thought the philosophers of Demostheness own time found running through all his orations,this namely, that virtue secures its own success. To stand on ones own feet Heeren33 finds the key-note to the discourses of Demosthenes, as of Chatham.
Eloquence, like every other art, rests on laws the most exact and determinate. It is the best speech of the best soul. It may well stand as the exponent of all that is grand and immortal in the mind. If it do not so become an instrument, but aspires to be somewhat of itself, and to glitter for show, it is false and weak. In its right exercise, it is an elastic, unexhausted power,who has sounded, who has estimated it?expanding with the expansion of our interests and affections. Its great masters, whilst they valued every help to its attainment, and thought no pains too great which contributed in any manner to further it,resembling the Arabian warrior of fame, who wore seventeen weapons in his belt, and in personal combat used them all occasionally,34yet subordinated all means; never permitted any talentneither voice, rhythm, poetic power, anecdote, sarcasmto appear for show; but were grave men, who preferred their integrity to their talent, and esteemed that object for which they toiled, whether the prosperity of their country, or the laws, or a reformation, or liberty of speech or of the press, or letters, or morals, as above the whole world, and themselves also.35
Note 1. In February, 1847, Mr. Emerson gave a lecture on Eloquence before the Boston Mercantile Library Association. It seems to have been much the same as the present essay. Just three years earlier, after reading his lecture on The Young American before the same body, he wrote in his journal as follows:
When I address a large assembly, as last Wednesday, I am always apprised that an opportunity is there; not for reading to them, as I do, lively miscellanies, but for painting in fire my thought, and being agitated to agitate. One must dedicate himself to it and think with his audience in his mind, so as to keep the perspective and symmetry of the oration, and enter into all the easily forgotten secrets of a great nocturnal assembly and their relation to the speaker. But it would be fine music and in the present well rewarded; that is, he should have his audience at his devotion, and all other fames would hush before his. Now, eloquence is merely fabulous. When we talk of it we draw on our fancy. It is one of many things which I should like to do, but it requires a seven years wooing.
Eloquence, in boyhood and youth, had been his idol. He had used every opportunity to hear the finished speakers of that day, when rhetoric and oratory were more prized than now. In those days apparently the great body of the students at Cambridge voluntarily went to hear the Seniors declaim. The florid and fervid oratory of the young Southerners had a great charm for the Northern boys. The young Emerson himself took the Boylston prize for speaking. Writing to his Aunt Mary, at the age of twenty, concerning his choice of the ministry as a profession, he said: I inherit from my sire a formality of manners and speech, but I derive from him or his patriotic parent a passionate love for the strains of eloquence. I burn after the aliquid immensum infinitumque which Cicero desired. What we ardently love, we burn to imitate. But the most prodigious genius, a seraphs eloquence, will shamefully defeat its own end, if it has not first won the heart of the defender to the cause he defends. In those days he expressed the hope that he might put on eloquence like a robe. After leaving the ministry, on his return from Europe to the new life, he resolved to say, at public lectures and the like, those things which I have meditated for their own sake, and not for the first time with a view to that occasion. He charged himself to make his writings as pure of all dross as if thou wert to speak to sages and demigods. Before he learned from his experience in country lyceums how to interest and quicken uncultivated hearers without lowering the thought, an acquaintance prescribed for him a course of mobs to correct my quaintness and transcendentalism. And I might have found it as good for me as a water-cure for paralyzed stomachs. In the lyceum he drew a lesson from this story of antiquity: When Anaximander sang, the boys derided him, whereupon he said, We must learn to sing better for the boys. In the years between 1840 and 1850 Mr. Emersons growing desire to express himself in poetry began to be fulfilled. He gave a lecture in London in 1848 before the Portman Square Literary and Scientific Institution, in the exordium of which he said, I have ventured to name my topic Poetry and Eloquence, though what I have to say is chiefly on the last. There is much that is common to the two. The best prose should be poetic, but the highest eloquence should be a poem. The present lecture naturally follows that on Art, Eloquence, including Poetry, being the art that the author most loved. The subject was not easily exhausted, and Mr. Emerson wrote another lecture, which was read in Chicago in 1867. This last is included in the volume Letters and Social Aims. [back]
Note 2. Plato, Republic, Book 1. At town-meetings and other public gatherings Mr. Emerson seldom spoke unless the call was urgent. He felt his unfitness for debate or extempore speech; but he listened and watched the disputants with great interest and often admiration. [back]
Note 3. Among Mr. Emersons notes on Eloquence he wrote as a sort of motto some lines from the ancient version of Thomas the Rhymer, called Thomas of Ersseldoune, a legend that was a favorite with him. The Queen of Elfland says to Thomas at parting,
Note 4. See Plutarchs Lives of the Ten Orators in the Morals. Antiphon of Rhamnus in Attica (480411 B.C.), was the first of the Ten Attic Orators to introduce the new rhetoric into politics. He was a leader in the Revolution of the Four Hundred, and when they fell was put to death. [back]
Note 7. In writing in his journal the resolve to give his best thoughts to all classes of hearers he said, And be no whit ashamed if not one, yea, not one in the assembly, should give sign of intelligence. Is it not pleasant to youunexpected wisdom? depth of sentiment in middle life? persons that in the thick of the crowd are true kings and gentlemen without the harness and envy of the throne? [back]
Note 8. Yet with all the pleasure he took in the torrent of Celtic eloquence when Kate, the housemaid, described accidents that befel her, he praises in the essay on The Superlative the cautious understatement of the Yankee. [back]
Note 9. Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson relates that he heard Mr. Emerson speak thus in praise of Southern eloquence, to the content of students from that section, in the audience; a content that was lessened when he went on, The negro too is eloquent. [back]
Note 10. Knowing how children learn through stories, Mr. Emerson when a teacher wrote out many good anecdotes from Plutarch and other sources for his scholars, which are still preserved. [back]
Note 11. The ballad of Glenkindie, the minstrel, is in Professor Childs collection of English and Scottish Ballads. [back]
Note 12. Mr. Emerson had this description of Ulysses from the Iliad (Book III. 191) written out for declamation, perhaps for his own speaking when in college. He gave it to his son for this purpose, but he was much disturbed when some one corrected the last sentence to the form here given. His own mistranslation or acting version was far more effective and majestic in his delivery: But when he sent his great voice forth from his breast, and words fell like to the winter snows, not then would any mortal have wished to contend with Ulysses, and we rejoice not, beholding the son of Laertes here. [back]
Note 13. Journal, 1856. I last night remembered what fools a few sounding sentences made of me and my mates at Cambridge, as in Lees and John Everetts orations . I still remember a sentence in Carter Lees oration: And there was a band of heroes, and round their mountains was a wreath of light, and, in the midst, on the mountain-top, stood Liberty feeding her eagle. [back]
Note 15. My hand of iron, said Napoleon, was not at the extremity of my arm, it was immediately connected with my head. [back]
Note 16. In Natural Aristocracy (in Lectures and Biographical Sketches) the power of a commanding personality is set forth at length. [back]
Note 17. All this paragraph, as far as the quotation from Pepyss Diary, Mr. Emerson took from his note-book of 1830. [back]
Note 18. The Rev. Joseph Stevens Buckminster, born in 1784, ordained pastor of Brattle Street Church in Boston before he was twenty-one years old, who died at the age of twenty-eight. He was a cultivated, thoughtful and eloquent man. He preached the funeral sermon of Mr. Emersons father, the Rev. William Emerson. [back]
Note 19. From his youth upward Mr. Emerson lost no opportunity of hearing Daniel Webster speak. In his Phi Beta Kappa Poem in 1834 he introduced a description of Websters commanding personality and in praise of his gifts and services. This passage may be found in the Appendix to the Poems. In 1843, when Mr. Webster was retained in an important case in Concord, Mr. Emerson wrote in his journal: Mr. Webster loses nothing by comparison with brilliant men in the legal profession; he is as much before them as before the ordinary lawyer. At least, I thought he appeared, among these best lawyers of the Suffolk Bar, like a school-master among his boys. His wonderful organization, the perfection of his elocution, and all that thereto belongs, voice, accent, intonation, attitude, manner, are such as one cannot hope to see again in a century: then he is so thoroughly simple and wise in his rhetoric. Understanding language and the use of the positive degree, all his words tell, and his rhetoric is perfect, so homely, so fit, so strong. Then he manages his matter so well, he hugs his fact so close, and will not let it go, and never indulges in a weak flourish, though he knows perfectly well how to make such exordiums and episodes and perorations as may give perspective to his harangue without in the least embarrassing his plan or confounding his transitions. What is small he shows as small, and makes the great great. In speech he sometimes roars and his words are like blows of an axe. [back]
Note 20. In his poem The Adirondacs Mr. Emerson celebrates the skill and powers of the guides, to the disadvantage of the gentlemen. [back]
Note 21. Mr. Emerson honored Lord Mansfield for his decision in the case of Somerset the slave, and contrasted him in his journals with the Boston judges who gave the decision under the Fugitive Slave Law returning Sims and Burns to bondage. Mr. Emerson here and elsewhere shows his liking for the word common-sense, in its larger sense, being almost an equivalent for the universal mind found everywhere in his writings. In the journal of 183637, after speaking of the mob, he says: A contrast is seen in the effect of eloquence, the power which one man in an age possesses of uniting men by addressing the common soul of them all: if, ignorantly or wilfully, he seeks to uphold a falsehood, his inspiration and, ere long, his weight with men is lost; instead of leading the whole man, he leads only appetites and passions. [back]
Note 22. This definition of the eloquent man suggests the definition of eloquence in the essay of that name in the next volume: Eloquence is the power to translate a truth into language perfectly intelligible to the person to whom you speak. [back]
Note 23. This passage refers to the Rev. Edward Taylor, the pastor of the Seamens Bethel at the North End in Boston, whose rugged and searching eloquence Mr. Emerson greatly admired. Journal, 1845. What an eloquence Taylor suggests! Ah, could he guide those grand sea-horses of his with which he caracoles on the waves of the sunny ocean. But no, he is drawn up and down the ocean currents by the strong sea-monsters only on that condition, that he shall not guide. [back]
Note 24. See the last part of stanza i. of the Voluntaries in the Poems. [back]
Note 27. When Mr. Emerson, a young divinity student, was writing his first sermon, he thus cautioned himself: Take care, take care that your sermon is not a recitation; that it is a sermon to Mr. A and Mr. B and Mr. C. A few years after leaving the ministry he came home distressed at the preaching he heard on Sunday morning: At church to-day I felt how unequal is this match of words against things. Cease, O thou unauthorized talker, to prate of consolation, and resignation, and spiritual joys in neat and balanced sentences. For I know these men who sit below and on hearing of these words look up. Hush quickly! for care and calamity are things to them . O speak things then, or hold thy tongue. [back]
Note 28. Mr. Emerson used to say laughingly, Eloquence is dog-cheap at an Anti-Slavery meeting. [back]
Note 29. Evidently Theodore Parker was in Mr. Emersons mind here. Mr. Lowells remarkable description of Mr. Parkers omniscient pugnacity in his Fable for Critics might be read in this connection. [back]
Note 30. Mr. Emerson, in writing to his revered friend the Rev. Henry Ware, after the Divinity School Address, had said as to arguments by which he might justify his position, I do not know what arguments mean in reference to any expression of a thought. On another occasion he said, Truth ceases to be such when polemically stated. He ignored attacks and left the thought to make its way. This is the counsel given in his poem Saadi. [back]
The speech of John Brown before receiving his death-sentence is an example of eloquence based on the great principles. In the essay on this subject in Letters and Social Aims, Mr. Emerson speaks of it, classing it as one of the two best specimens of eloquence we have had in this country. [back]
Note 32. Mr. Emerson acted on the counsel he gave to the American Scholar in the Phi Beta Kappa Address, in 1837: Let him not quit his belief that a popgun is a popgun, though the ancient and honorable of the earth affirm it to be the crack of doom.Nature, Addresses and Lectures, p. 102. [back]
Note 33. Arnold Ludwig Heeren was a writer whose works on ancient history and civilization, particularly of Greece, translated by George Bancroft, interested Mr. Emerson. [back]
Note 34. The reference here is to Kurroglou the Kurd, a robber-minstrel. Mr. Emerson was greatly interested in the romantic story of him and his horse Kyrat, told in Specimens of Ancient Persian Poetry by Chodzko. Kurroglou is the hero of Longfellows poem The Leap of Roushan Beg. [back]
Note 35. The following note from the journal of 1850 is appropriate: And let it be well considered in eloquence, that what we praise and allow is only relatively good, and that perhaps a person is there present who, if he would, could unsettle all that we have just now agreed on. We have fallen into a poor, beggarly way of living, and our orators are of the same poverty, and deal in rags and cold. The imagination, the great awakening power, the morals, the great creator of genius and men, are not addressed. But though the orators and poets are of this jejune rule of three faction, the capacities remain. The child asks you for a story and is thankful for the poorest. It is not poor to him, but a symbol all radiant with meaning. The man asks you for leave to be a poet and to paint things as they ought to be for a few hours. The youth asks for a poem. The stupidest wish to go to the theatre. We must have idolatries, mythologies, some swing and verge for the eternal and creative power lying coiled and cramped here, driving us to insanity and crime if it do not find vent. [back]