26 October, 2008

Electio

One of the great neglected essays of antiquity is the Dialogue on Oratory by Tacitus, written in 102 AD. Why, he asks, has the fire and eloquence of the old orators deserted us? We have lawyers and speech-makers, but no genuine oratory. As Marcus Aper points out from the start, rhetoric is a sword and buckler in argumentative battle, and moreover a pleasure to every ear. Vipstanius Messala and Curiatius Maternus debate the causes of oratory's decline since the golden days of Cicero. (Plutarch, around the same time, was debating the causes of the oracle's decline since the golden days of Pericles.) Messala attributes the decline to the debased wisdom and abilities of modern Romans: a standard narrative of degeneration. Maternus' explanation, on the other hand, is far more interesting; he argues that 'the discourse of men always conforms to the temper of the times'—a position we now associate with the historicism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—and that firebrand oratory is suited to an age of war and dissent, an age like Cicero's Republic, but not at all like Trajan's placid Empire:
Eloquence, it is certain, flourishes most under a bold and turbulent democracy, where the ambitious citizen, who best can mould to his purposes a fierce and contentious multitude, is sure to be the idol of the people. In the conflict of parties, that kept our ancestors in agitation, laws were multiplied; the leading chiefs were the favourite demagogues; the magistrates were often engaged in midnight debate; eminent citizens were brought to a public trial; families were set at variance; the nobles were split into factions, and the senate waged incessant war against the people. Hence that flame of eloquence which blazed out under the republican government, and hence that constant fuel that kept the flame alive.

The state, it is true, was often thrown into convulsions: but talents were exercised, and genius opened the way to public honours. He who possessed the powers of persuasion, rose to eminence, and by the arts which gave him popularity, he was sure to eclipse his colleagues. He strengthened his interest with the leading men, and gained weight and influence not only in the senate, but in all assemblies of the people. Foreign nations courted his friendship. The magistrates, setting out for their provinces, made it their business to ingratiate themselves with the popular speaker, and, at their return, took care to renew their homage.
Back when we first started this enterprise, my colleague and friend Gawain and I agreed that politics would be off the agenda. For one thing, we have so little of merit to contribute. There are so many blogs and punditries swimming in this stuff, or rather drowning; and clearly the temperature, at least in America, is now unbearable. I try to explain to some why, despite my continuing lack of interest in politics, I have developed, like so many, an enthusiasm for the current fight. To some I say it is like an absorbing soap—but I do not watch television—to others, like a brilliant game of chess; but nor do I play or follow that sport of brains.


If you mention that you are gripped by the elections, the first question asked, invariably, is 'Whom do you support?' This question does not interest me. In my last two posts I examined microcosms of philosophical conflict—Lockeans vs. Cartesians, and Catholics vs. Protestants. In neither case was resolution possible, as common ground was missing. As Carl Becker argued with such wit, real dispute is intelligible only when there is a substratum of agreement, and none exists in these examples; nor in modern politics. There is no possibility of reasoned choice between red and blue, for the choice is a priori. Partisan accounts of one of the debates, for instance, will provide glittering testimony to how contrarily a word or gesture can be interpreted; what you already believe determines your judgement of its value.

It seems reasonable, therefore, to succumb consciously to surfaces, to admit that one will judge a candidate not on his policies or character, but merely on aesthetics. This entails denying the very possibility of post-partisanship, and embracing tribalism instead. It is at least, I think, the more honest path. Of course I like the way he speaks, and fairly loathe the way she does. But that is simply because, were I American, I would be Noveboracensian. I like fancy-talk, and I like eloquence. I liked it when the New Yorker gushed:
Although his opponents have tried to attack him as a man of “mere” words, Obama has returned eloquence to its essential place in American politics. The choice between experience and eloquence is a false one—something that Lincoln, out of office after a single term in Congress, proved in his own campaign of political and national renewal. Obama’s “mere” speeches on everything from the economy and foreign affairs to race have been at the center of his campaign and its success; if he wins, his eloquence will be central to his ability to govern.
Not because I think it is true, but because I think it is a handsome idea, and handsomeness is a neglected virtue, in today's politics as in its art. In a bold and turbulent democracy, let us see eloquence flourish, at the risk of idol-making.

This contest for office is remarkably similar to the contest for Wimbledon that we enjoyed three months ago: it is a struggle between an artist (in this case perhaps a con-artist) and a fighter, between grace and toughness. Back then I favoured Federer for the beauty of his game, but also because I wanted to see him make history; because I wanted to witness, even to participate in, a historic moment. It is so much the greater with Obama: whether or not his presidency turns out a success, November 5 will be a genuinely historic day. The entire world, like it or not, will rejoice, just as it mourned and mocked when the towers fell. To experience the making of history, even terrible history, is one of the profoundest aesthetic pleasures of civilised man, and to that, politics and substance must be deemed, at the last count, palpably irrelevant.

15 comments:

Peony said...

I wish you had shown even one example of the beauty of Obama's game, because I too give high points for aesthetic effort. As it stands, I am still wondering, not whom you are partial to, but still Why?

And is this history in the making...? I'd say I remain highly unconvinced...

I do remain open to persuasion, though. Until you persuade me with examples, though, this is still the most interesting thing I've seen on the US elections coming out of Britain! Your favorite Lady too!

Greg Afinogenov said...

Kudos on citing Becker; he's one of my favorite historians, certainly my favorite of his era. (Imagine my surprise when I discovered that he had, like me, followed a tropism from the history of colonial New York to the intellectual history of the Enlightenment.)

Incidentally, I support the same candidate and for exactly the same reason. Whatever either of them does in office does not concern me in the slightest.

The arguments against Obama made by both Hillary and McCain recall Cleon in Thucydides:

The persons to blame are you who are so foolish as to institute these contests; who go to see an oration as you would to see a sight, take your facts on hearsay, judge of the practicability of a project by the wit of its advocates, and trust for the truth as to past events not to the fact which you saw more than to the clever strictures which you heard; the easy victims of new-fangled arguments, unwilling to follow received conclusions; slaves to every new paradox, despisers of the commonplace; the first wish of every man being that he could speak himself, the next to rival those who can speak by seeming to be quite up with their ideas by applauding every hit almost before it is made, and by being as quick in catching an argument as you are slow in foreseeing its consequences; asking, if I may so say, for something different from the conditions under which we live, and yet comprehending inadequately those very conditions; very slaves to the pleasure of the ear, and more like the audience of a rhetorician than the council of a city.

John Cowan said...

But that is simply because, were I American, I would be Noveboracensian.

Which is as much as to say: were you an American, you would be no American at all (but none the worse for that).

For once, a delightfully euphonious CAPTCHA: "ouseduc".

Peony said...

Ditto on Becker

languagehat said...

Whatever either of them does in office does not concern me in the slightest.

I hope this is simply a parody of rose-sniffing estheticism rather than the repellent thing itself. Oh, let's all have tea at the Palaz of Hoon, shall we, and listen to the mysterious woman singing in the Nightingale Garden? Let the rabble distract themselves with the grubby details of workaday life! Politics? Our servants will do that for us!

Conrad H. Roth said...

Peony: "I wish you had shown even one example of the beauty of Obama's game"

His March 18 speech on the Rev. Wright issue has probably been the highlight for me; though his glacial superiority during the second and third debates was also a delight.

LH: "Let the rabble distract themselves with the grubby details of workaday life! Politics? Our servants will do that for us!"

Let the rabble distract themselves as they will: nobody has a damn clue what will happen if either candidate is elected, and even if we did know, we still would not know how beneficial or harmful it would be. Given that, we might as well take tea, or even, God forbid, read Wallace Stevens.

Greg Afinogenov said...

I hope this is simply a parody of rose-sniffing estheticism rather than the repellent thing itself. Oh, let's all have tea at the Palaz of Hoon, shall we, and listen to the mysterious woman singing in the Nightingale Garden? Let the rabble distract themselves with the grubby details of workaday life! Politics? Our servants will do that for us!

No, that's not it. Quite simply, the great will do what they will and my opinions on the matter are both impotent and irrelevant. So let them do it, and I'll salvage what good I can from their cavorting. I haven't been alive for long, but I've never seen a snowstorm or a tornado change direction because someone was emotionally invested in its doing so.

John Emerson said...

Politics in nineteenth century America was highly oratorical -- Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was the finest flower of that, though highly atypical in its brevity.

One we know about the oratory of that era is from the complaints of Thoreau and de Tocqueville, who were thoroughly sick of it.

Oratory is one of the ways of getting a large number of people to feel partly the same way and partly agree about something. Mass media cater to the lower chakras, and academia caters to the higher ones, but neither of them really works politically. Academia is too specialized and too unwilling to talk to the mob, and the mass media try to persuade by manipulation, without intelligible content.

Most academics today have toruble thinking of persuasion as anything different than lies.

languagehat said...

nobody has a damn clue what will happen if either candidate is elected, and even if we did know, we still would not know how beneficial or harmful it would be.

Quite simply, the great will do what they will and my opinions on the matter are both impotent and irrelevant. So let them do it, and I'll salvage what good I can from their cavorting.


I quite agree with both these sentiments, but I trust you gentlemen will not dissent if I say that "Whatever either of them does in office does not concern me in the slightest" seems to go a good deal farther. If the statement had been "Whatever either of them promises to do in office does not concern me in the slightest," I would not have had a problem with it. But I would certainly rather read Stevens (good catch!) or Blok than listen to another word of campaign coverage.

Greg Afinogenov said...

I quite agree with both these sentiments, but I trust you gentlemen will not dissent if I say that "Whatever either of them does in office does not concern me in the slightest" seems to go a good deal farther.

Fair enough; I overshot the mark.

Incidentally, I've posted a few Blok translations here. I'll be gradually adding more things every couple weeks or so; I might do Kharms' "Old Woman" next.

chris miller said...

I was so sure that no American could vote for W after the precise whipping he took in the 2004 debates with Kerry.

Which goes to show -- how little I understand my countrymen.

So I've refrained from judging the rhetorical skill of the current contestants.

It looks like hope is the most effective sales pitch in the current contest -- and I'm surprised at how it's trumping Obama's provocative quips about "spreading the wealth" and the small town people who "cling to religion and guns"

Yes - it does make a difference who's President (I don't think anyone but W would have invaded Iraq)-- but it's so hard to predict such things.

BTW -- that was a great chess set!
Was that picture taken with a cell phone camera ?

Conrad H. Roth said...

I'm glad someone liked it! The picture was taken with a normal digital camera.

Alexandre S. said...

I don't know what L.Licinius Crassus would think of this somewhat inexperienced Messiah, but doesn't he state, in Cicero's De Oratore, that a true orator must have "extensive handling of all public business", without which he is a mere "idle talkative Greekling"?

lloydmintern said...

Nicely put.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thank you.