Eloquence and Wisdom

Malala Yousafzai addresses the UK Department for International Development
Malala Yousafzai addresses the UK Department for International Development

We are, in the words of Kenneth Burke, sentenced to the sentence.  This curious, if concise, turn of phrase suggests that you and I, dear reader, are at this very moment linked through language. This link is tenuous. In an instant you can choose to stop reading (you will be missed) and my sentences cease.  Our mutual sentencing exhibits other “constraining” characteristics as well, namely space and time. I have been allocated here precious few ordinary words with which to convey the contours of extraordinary concepts (eloquence, wisdom, etc.), given a deadline, and time waits for no one; we both have things to do. These are but a few of the factors contributing to the enduring and vexing nature of one of Concordia University Irvine’s big questions: What Is Eloquence?

A series of other constraints usefully complicate our quest to answer this query including concision, context, and contrasting concepts. Ours is an age of concision. Messages we seek to convey are expected to be short, sweet, and to the point (think of the 280 character limit of Twitter or the unstated expectation of a 20 minute sermon on Sunday morning). Even kept to its most concise form, the same symbolic expression often elicits radically different reactions in different contexts (think of reactions to the phrase “I Love You” when uttered at a wedding versus a wake). Perhaps most puzzling is when a concept such as eloquence is contrasted with an equally important concept such as wisdom. Taken together, these and many other challenges contribute to the enduring nature of the big question, What Is Eloquence?

Among the many entry points to our inquiry, the Roman statesman and orator Cicero (106–43 BCE) offers insights from the ancient world that my students and I find fruitful. Sprinkled throughout Cicero’s extensive writings, a reader of his De Oratore (“On the Orator”) will find repeated reference to the Latin terms eloquentia et sapientia (“eloquence and wisdom”). Cicero notes that there has been an “absurd and unprofitable and reprehensible severance between the tongue and the brain, leading to our having one set of professors to teach us to think and another to teach us to speak.”

A division between Philosophy and Rhetoric (often called Communication Studies today) existed in Cicero’s time and lingers in our institutions today. Rather than contrasting these concepts, Cicero sought consilience, to (re)unite these concepts as a synthetic whole. Cicero’s treatises work toward a simultaneity of these modes of being in the world.

For Cicero, to embody and perform eloquent-wisdom simultaneously necessitated knowing one’s context and using decorum. To be clear, this did not mean “selling out” but rather observing one’s available means of conveying a message (speech, writing, and/or gesture) and prudent phronesis (“practical wisdom”).

Cicero’s contextual sensibilities extended to his belief that educators should cultivate scholar-citizens who thought deeply and acted decorously for the betterment of the Republic.

My hyphenation is deliberate. Cicero believed that one should not live a monastic life of contemplation alone, but should also be engaged in the work of statesmanship, work Cicero viewed as vital to preserving a fragile Republic.  Such work is as vital today as it was for Cicero’s Rome.

Cicero’s commitment to reuniting what others had divided for the good of the State cost him his life. Marc Antony mocked and made public example of Cicero, having the visible symbols of Cicero’s craft (his head and hands) severed and nailed above the Senate. Ideas often prevail over brute force and Cicero’s efforts came to influence many subsequent thinkers including St. Augustine, whose “On Christian Doctrine” is heavily indebted to Cicero’s writings. Indeed, Cicero’s ideas surrounding eloquentia et sapientia live on, haunting the weary eyes of students.

As students search for contemporary examples of eloquent-wisdom, they frequently find exemplars in the speech acts of those who capitalized on their contexts through concise prose to forge connections with their audiences for a greater good.

Think, for instance, of Martin Luther King Jr., Ronald Reagan, and Malala Yousafzai, the 16 year old education advocate who survived the Taliban’s attempt to take her life and won a Nobel Peace Prize. Through such critical reflection we witness eloquent-wisdom made manifest in the thoughts, words, and deeds of those navigating many risks to speak truth to power and the rewards of doing so.

Concision commands that I conclude, keeping my remarks here much shorter than the hours I devote to engaging such questions in the classroom. Yet I will ask a final favor. As you return to your vocations, competing to be heard/read/understood above (and beyond) an array of equally eloquent (and inelegant) distractions (i.e., cell phones, tablets, laptops, etc.), contemplate eloquence and wisdom not as mutually exclusive concepts.  Instead, I invite you to consider eloquent-wisdom as a mutually constitutive (or symbiotic) modality of being in our world of words and symbols.

David Schulz is Professor of Communication at Concordia University Irvine