What is Oratory?

The glaring absence of this art in the political arena today gives cause for reflection on how its presence is immediately recognizable to listeners. We know we heard it in Martin Luther King’s speeches; we know we heard it in John Kennedy’s speeches; the world heard it in Winston Churchill’s speeches, but we don’t hear oratory in the GOP presidential candidates of 2016 and maybe just little glimmers in Bernie Sanders; none in Hillary Clinton’s because her words fail to aspire.

Oratory is formal speaking, although at points in an address an orator may modulate his key from a lofty to a folksy tone for greater intimacy with his audience. Franklin Roosevelt did this in his fireside chats. The Latin root ars conveys the meaning that oratory is the art of eloquence, of eloquent speech. Then what is eloquence? How is eloquence recognized? Eloquence is fluid, forcible, filled with crafted sentences, analogy, metaphor, and colorful language. It is rhythmic, musical, and paced like carefully placed rests in a musical measure. What about the speaker? He is confident; his gestures are graceful and purposeful. He is not wooden or robotic.  He enunciates his words, varies his pitch, volume, and tone consistent with his meaning.  He avoids perpetual shouting and the canning of lines he delivered hundred of times before.  He chooses the precise word, in fact, every word deepens and broadens understanding of his argument. He does not have to resort to vulgar language in a weak ploy to add force to his speech, which only appeals to the baser instincts of his audience.

There is substance to oratory in contrast to the platitudes that comprise the usual political speech. Substance is achieved through a well-organized speech that has been written out and planned in advance but delivered as if it were extemporaneous. Good orators know how to read from a text naturally. Churchill wrote his speeches in psalm format. “The Finest Hour” speech appears like typed lines of poetry on the page.Finest hourEach line builds upon the other. Progression is paramount, thus enabling the audience to follow the argument easily. Repetition is used meaningfully.  Contrast the orator’s organized speech to the ramblings of our current candidates or the jumbled blather of Sarah Palin.

Oratory is an art form because it encompasses many disciplines: knowledge of literature, history, the ability to construct balanced sentences, an ear for rhythm and harmony, control of voice and body movement. Great orators are great readers. They are conversant with the world’s literature and with the sacred texts of the world, including the Bible. They would not be stumped to quote a favorite passage from the Book of Proverbs or elsewhere in the New or Old Testaments. Forgive me, if I cannot conceive of any of our candidates reading more than a few books of any substance since they graduated from college.

But a stump speech can be oratory if it demonstrates these qualities of eloquence. Unfortunately, what I am hearing on the campaign trail is harangue. What distinguishes harangue from oratory? Often Adolf Hitler is given credit for oratorical skills, but his was the talent of the haranguer. The haranguer is a great shouter. The emotions the haranguer stirs up are fear and hatred while the orator inspires the audience with nobler qualities of faith, hope, courage, love, and the brotherhood of man. He is encouraging his audience to believe and to act better than they have previously thought they were capable of doing.

Often cited as the presidents who possessed oratorical skills to one degree or another are John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. One of the reasons attributed for the election of a junior senator like Obama was his oratory. Similarly, Ronald Reagan greatly benefited from his early days as a radio announcer and his acting career. He won also because his speeches inspired the country to believe that the United States was that shining city on a hill, the New Jerusalem.

I look for inspiration with substance backed up with sound reasoning, precision of language, and coherence of argument. Bombast is not oratory. A grocery list of platitudes is not oratory. Senseless repetition is not oratory. Oratory is inseparable from the speaker; for the speaker must be confident, truthful, sincere, principled, and dedicated to ideals beyond glorification of self.

 

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