success stories

Posted January 27, 2004

The Power of Speech

Excellent Advice from the Roman Senator Tullius Cicero for homilists or for those who want to create a great community spirit, keep the family spirit at its best, and to be known for possessing outstanding character.

The power of speech is great and it appears in two forms, oratory and conversation. Oratory is to be used in arguments in court, in the people’s assemblies, and in the Senate. Conversation takes place in social gatherings and discussion, at meetings of friends, and may be introduced at dinner parties. Rules for oratory are laid down by the rhetoricians. There are none for conversation, though I do not know why there could not be. For wherever there are students eager to learn, instructors are found to teach them; but no one is interested in learning how to converse, while the classrooms of the rhetoricians are crowded. However, the rules that govern the choice of words and structure of sentences in oratory are the same too for conversation.

Our organ of speech is the voice, in using which we should aim at two things, to be clear and to be melodious. Both are gifts to be sought for from Nature, yet clarity may be increased by practice, and melodiousness by imitating those who speak softly and pleasantly. There was nothing about the two Catuli to make one think them particularly rare judges of literature, although they were men of good education, But so too were others. These two men, however, were considered perfect masters of the Latin tongue. Their pronunciation was delightful. They neither overstressed nor mumbled their syllables. They were neither indistinct nor mumbled their syllables. They were neither strained nor weak, nor yet shrill. Lucius Crassus was a more fluent speaker, and no less adept, but the reputation of the Catuli for eloquence was as great as his. When it came to wit and humor, the brother of the elder Catulus, Caesar, surpassed them all. Even in court he would with his informal style defeat his opponents with their elaborate oratory. So, if we wish to serve decorum under all conditions, we must pay some attention to all these points.

In the art of conversation, Socratics were pastmasters. The talk should be easy, not insistent, but lively. No individual should shut out others from speaking, as if he had a monopoly of the conversation, but here, as in other things, he should realize that turn about is fair play. One should note first the subject of the conversation; if it is serious, one should approach it soberly; if trivial, lightly. One should especially careful not to let his talk suggest something wrong n his own character, as happens often when people in jest or earnest set themselves to disparaging the absent with malicious slander.

The topics of conversation are ordinarily domestic matters, or politics, or the practice of arts or learning. If the talk begins to drift away to other subjects, one should bring it back but without hurting the feelings of those present. For we are not all interested in the same things at all times or to the same extent. Once should watch too to see how far the conversation is till enjoyed, and as it had a reason for beginning, so it should come to a proper end.

Just as for every phase of life we have the excellent rule to avoid excitement, that is, passions that are too strong and do not obey reason, so our conversation should be free from such emotions. We should not display anger, or greed, or indolence, or callousness, or anything of the sort. Most of all, we should aim to show respect and consideration for those with whom we are talking.

It man sometimes, however, be necessary to express disapproval. On such occasions we should perhaps use a sharper tone of voice and sterner expressions, and even put on an appearance of anger. But we should resort to this kind of reproof seldom, and with reluctance, as we do to cautery and amputation, and never unless it is necessary, and no other remedy can be found. And there must be no real anger, for that prevents all fair, considered action. In most cases a mild reproof is enough, but gravely administered, so as to show its seriousness, and avoiding insult to the feelings. We must make it plain too that whatever harshness there was in our reproof was intended only for the good of the person reproved.

In disputes with our bitterest enemies, even while we hear ourselves insulted, the right thing is to remain calm and restrain our anger. For action taken in excitement cannot be steadily consistent and will not be approved by the witnesses. It is bad taste to talk about oneself, especially to say what is not true, and be of a derisive audience to imitate the “boastful soldier.”

. . . . We should be so orderly in our conduct that everything in our lives is as well organized and harmonious as words in a set speech. It is shocking and highly reprehensible to introduce in a serious conversation jokes appropriate only at a dinner party or in other frivolous talk. Once when Pericles had the poet Sophocles as his colleague in office, and they were conferring about their common duties, a handsome boy chanced to pass by, and Sophocles exclaimed, “Look Pericles; what a beautiful boy!” And Pericles rightly reproved him by saying, “But, Sophocles, a general should keep not only his hands, but his eyes too under control!” Yet if Sophocles had made the same remark at an athletic competition, he could not have been justly blamed. So great is the importance of time and place.

. . . .As when a harp or a flute is only slightly out of tune, the expert still notices it, so we must see to it that nothing in our lives is out of tune, and all the more as a harmony of deeds is deeper and better than a harmony of sounds.

And as the ear of a musician detects even slight dissonances in the tone of a harp, we – if we want to be sharp and constant observers of faults in conduct – will often discover important things by means of trifles. From a glance of the eye, a contraction or lift of the eyebrows, an air of gloom, a burst of hilarity, a laugh, a word, a silence, a raising or lowering of the voice, and other signs of the sort, we shall readily tell what is a proper action and what a violation of a duty or of Nature. In this connection it is not a bad idea to learn what is right or wrong to do by the behavior of others so that what is obnoxious in them we may avoid in ourselves. For it is somehow a fact that we see faults in other people more easily than we do in ourselves. So pupils in school are quickest to correct their faults, when their masters imitate them to teach them better.

And when we are in doubt which course to choose, it is proper to consult men of learning or practical experience, to find out what they think on any point of duty. Most men tend to drift in the direction their nature takes them. If we consult someone else we should take into consideration not only what he says, but also what he thinks and why he thinks as he does. Painters, sculptors, and poets, too, like to have their work inspected by the public, so that they can improve whatever is most criticized. Both by themselves and from others they try to find out where they have failed. So we are helped by other people’s judgment to know what to do and what not to do, what to alter and what to correct.