Eloquence, according the renowned Roman orator Cicero, is a double edged sword. In part one of Cicero's De Inventione he noted "When I consider the disasters of our own republic,(Rome) and when I call to mind also the ancient calamities of the most important states, I see that it is by no means the most insignificant portion of their distresses which has originated from the conduct of the most eloquent men. But, at the same time, when I set myself to trace back, by the aid of written memorials and documents, affairs which, by reason of their antiquity, are removed back out of the reach of any personal recollection, I perceive also that many cities have been established, many wars extinguished, many most enduring alliances and most holy friendships have been cemented by deliberate wisdom much assisted and facilitated by eloquence." Eloquent speech both causes wars and ends them, creates friendships and tears them apart. But what is this eloquence and why does it matter today?
Aristotle observed that human beings are "a species of association" and we naturally come together to form communities and eventually cities for mutual benefit. Getting a small group of people together is no big deal, but how do we communicate once the group gets bigger? If we all talked at the same time the result would be chaos. If nobody talked at all the result would be a rather awkward silence. From the earliest recorded communites we see individuals who were able to speak to an entire crowd. Pericles is one of the earliest for the Greeks, and Marcus Antonius for the Romans. (The speeches of Marcus Antonius were used by Shakespeare as the basis for his play "Julius Caesar.") But how did those speakers get their ideas across?
They were able to take big ideas which touched a large group of people and articulate them in simple and often passionate ways through public speaking. The better a person could do this, the more eloquent they were said to be. The Latin root of the word eloquent essentially means to speak persuasively. Before other forms of celebrity became dominant, a person could gain fame simply from being an eloquent spokesman. Crowds used to gather just to hear Abraham Lincoln, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and other notable American orators. It didn't matter whether the audience agreed with what they were saying or not, huge crowds came just to hear the way they said it.
It is hard to imagine that happening today. To some extent it happened in 2008, when then Senator Barack Obama displayed what even his critics admitted was a powerful skill at oratory. I think it helped him win because we as Americans are thirsty for eloquent speech. At some level, we are all offended by the vile political ads we see on TV because the creators of those ads expect us to decide, on the basis of a mere thirty second infomercial, who we should choose to be our President, or to represent us in Congress. These are lower forms of communication meant to divide us, an approach which could be likened to Biblical concepts of evil. After all, the word "devil" comes from the original "diablos" which means to divide or separate (as in to separate a believer from the redeemer).
We need eloquent speakers because our ability to communicate with each other through speech perhaps more than any other quality separates us from animals. All civilization is based on our ability to communicate. It is the reason why protecting free speech is given the honor in our Constitution of being the First Amendment. I started with Cicero so I'll close with him; wisdom without eloquence is but of little advantage...and eloquence without wisdom is often most mischievous." Until we demand better leaders and better speakers, we won't get them.