“So avoid using the word ‘very’, because it’s lazy. A man is not ‘very tired’ – he is exhausted! Don’t use ‘very sad’ – use morose!” (Robin Williams as Mr. Keating, Dead Poets Society)
I know very little of the history of discourse. This “history” would be, in my mind, the study of how ideas of depth and consequence have been communicated over the long and dusty expanses of human thought, those oases that in the best circumstances have stood as welcome watering holes for those who would push the boundaries of accepted opinion or theory. As you might ascertain, however, I even lack the correct scholarly definition of my central question, and I have thus purposefully remained ignorant of such basic details, as I fear that I may begin to parrot the ideas and research of another before my own observations have taken their form.
So I venture forth. In the Western history of discourse, it seems to my simple mind that, at a minimum among the more educated and literate levels of society, an eloquence of ideas and thought was deeply valued if not nearly worshiped as the pinnacle of character and leadership. I think now of Cato and Cicero in the Roman Senate; the multitude of Greek philosophers who predated them; the debates and discourses of the early history of the Church which led to the councils and subsequent formation of modern Christian theological standards; and then, much later and in my own national history, those voices such as Washington and Lincoln. There are the nearly-modern examples of Bonhoeffer, Merton, and the many storied collaborations of C.S. Lewis and Tolkein at the Oxford pubs which they frequented. And, though unfortunately at times less celebrated, we dare not to neglect the many female inclusions to this company: Susan B. Anthony; Mother Teresa; Sojourner Truth; and so many, many others. Doubtless, history has failed to record many discourses and collaborations wherein female voices held the very standard of quality and deepest thinking.Naturally, many of my readers will already be familiar with the above figures, and as is obvious I have omitted many examples. It occurs to me that their oratory, their deep, thoughtful prose of eloquent yet directed and relevant language, did not necessarily guarantee the orator’s character or right-ness in argument – one need only look at the likes of certain of the Caesars as examples of this. Nevertheless, their words placed them amongst their many less-famous peers in belonging to the greater discourse of thought and ideas. Nor were all these characters among the monied, socially or politically influential “elite” (which I find a disgusting and nonsensical term in any event). It was not so many generations ago that Quintilian’s Institutes of the Orator, dating clear back to the classical Roman era of the 1st century CE, was still required reading in certain circles of common education, and modern philosophy and pedagogy continues to be influenced by its pages. One need not be of society’s “elite” to be trained and skilled in the development and consequent expression of ideas of substance.
All of these preliminary words have been to the purpose of my current question: what has happened to the art of oratory and discourse? And of what consequence?
It occurs to me that we (again, I speak to my locus of experience; that is, Western society and culture, and the U.S. specifically) have heavily favoured simple talk as good, noble, or worthwile . The type that “salt-of-the-earth” folk might comprehend and enjoy. We might snicker or openly deride those that utilize more complex vocabulary in their writing and speech. We write off as “pretentious” or, worse, “irrelevant”, those public speakers that bring forth too much nuance of opinion or analysis at the expense of simple plain talk.
Surely, this ingrained preference is embedded into our culture as a counter-reaction to a time in our collective past when a certain pretension of speech ruled the day. It is not difficult for me to imagine a privileged, educated class of society purposefully employing complex language as a divide, a barrier, between themselves and what they perceived as the lower classes. And certainly, this corrective (if I am imagining a reality, and not a fabrication of my own making) was undoubtedly necessary and important – as a culture, we have grasped tightly to the idea that one’s power of influence and voice should not be artificially limited by those who already possess such influence. A common, simple vernacular of discourse removes one important barrier towards that ideal. For example, a sermon to a general audience/congregation should, under the vast majority of circumstances, collect others to deeper faith and purpose. To do so, it must be accessible via the language and illustrations which it employs.
The above acknowledged…does such straightforward presentation of ideas then necessitate simplistic theses? Does our shared value of simple language limit our very ability to discourse? Further: does our lack of quality of oratory and written thought in personal correspondence also serve to detract and rob us of deeper and richer interpersonal exchanges which might then enliven our larger societal discourse?
What I am considering in the above is rough, and ill-defined as yet and needing much refinement. Still, I find that I am convicted by these ideas, and wish to explore them more deeply. An inaccessible vocabulary or syntax need not enter into the equation for more intentionality of language to permeate our speech, teaching, and personal correspondences. Whether such intentionality may be incubated and grown sufficiently, and if it will produce a marked different of thought, speech, or ideas, will be left for a future date to report.