Page images

art of public speaking is the surest means of gratifying that laudable ambition which prompts most men to take some part in the social and political life of their generation. Wherever self-government is recognized there must be gatherings of different kinds for the transactions of public business, and in these the ablest speaker will win the attention and arouse the sympathies of all who listen to his sentiments. Pericles, as we learn from Thucydides, once remarked that, “a man who forms a judgment on any point, and cannot explain his views clearly to the people, might as well have never thought on the subject.” This assertion is perhaps too absolute, but, at any rate, it points out with emphasis that the value of a mental action is obviously depreciated when we cannot use the result of it orally for the benefit of others. Mankind seem to agree almost unanimously that no accomplishment gains consideration for its possessor so speedily as public speaking; and there is none for which there is so persistent a demand.

Let me again quote some words of Cicero, from one of his best rhetorical treatises :

“I cannot conceive anything more excellent than to be able, by language, to captivate the affections, to charm the understanding, and to impel or restrain the will of whole assemblies, at pleasure. Among every free people, especially in peaceful, settled governments, this single art has always eminently flourished, and always exercised the greatest sway. For what can be more surprising than that, amidst an infinite multitude, one man should appear who shall be almost the only one capable of doing what nature has put in every man's power? Or, can anything impart such exquisite pleasure to the ear and to the intellect as a speech in which the wisdom and dignity of the sentiments are heightened by the utr cst force and beauty of expression ? Is there anything so commanding, so grand, as that the eloquence of one man should direct the inclinations of the people, the consciences

of judges and the majesty of senates? Nay, further, can aught be esteemed so great, so generous, so public-spirited, as to assist the suppliant, to rear the prostrate, to communicate happiness, to avert danger, and to maintain the rights of a fellow citizen ? Can anything be so necessary as to keep those arms always in readiness, with which you may defend yourself, attack the profligate, and redress your own or your country's wrongs ?”

Notwithstanding the truth of these eloquent observations, notwithstanding the acknowledged fact that public speaking as a rule is the passport to profit, to high station, and even to fame, it is certain that as an art, it is comparatively neglected; and the character of the oratory which we usually hear is far inferior to what we might expect from the ordinary culture and intellectual vigor of the present age.

What, then, is the cause of this strange state of things? I would suggest the two following reasons as accounting in a measure for the phenomenon: First, the majority of people seem hastily to have adopted the notion that the faculty.of public speaking is simply and wholly a gift or instinct, peculiar to few, and unattainable by the many. They believe that, like Dogberry's reading and writing, oratory comes by nature that the orator, in fact, as has been said of the poet, nascitur non fit; while the reverse of the case is nearer the truth — orator fit, non nascitur. I am far from denying that some men by nature are better fitted than others to become orators. Still less do I affirm that all men are capable of making themselves good speakers. But I firmly believe that all who are not tonguetied, or positively deficient in intellect can learn by diligent practice to express their thoughts publicly in intelligible and intelligent language, and in a manner which is not painful either to themselves or to their audience. “The speaker must learn his crafts as thoroughly as a painter, a sculptor, or a musician; although, like them also, he must have from nature some special aptitude for his vocation.” Lord Chesterfield was,

I think, guilty of exaggeration when he maintained that a good speaker is as much a mechanic as a good shoemaker, and that the two trades are equally to be learned by the same amount of application.

The second reason why public speaking as an art is neglected is, that even those who hold the same opinions that I have expressed are still unwilling to undergo the necessary labor to become good speakers. They did not, they say, begin the task early in life, as Henry Ward Beecher recommends in his “ Lectures on Preaching,” and a new study now appears tedious and irksome to them, or they have really not time for the requisite training, and have no pressing need for the accomplishment as no immediate emolument can be derived from it.

It would be wasting breath to argue against these frivolous objections. The best way to expose their futility, and at the same time to show how the art of public speaking may be acquired, is carefully to ascertain by what means the greater number of those who have succeeded as orators or debaters have attained their success. Those who endeavor to follow their example and adopt their methods may probably fail to gain their supreme mastery over the instrument of language; but, in the end, they will have profited largely by their selfdiscipline, and it is honorable to win by hard work even a low rank amid a crowd of competitors.

Some years ago, on the occasion of distributing the prizes at University College, London, the Earl of Derby delivered a speech, which no one, old or young, can read without profit or admiration. Part of it I shall quote as strictly applicable to the present subject. As the orator of old insisted on action, so Lord Derby insisted on industry, premising that his exhortations on this head must necessarily appear commonplace. But a common-place well explained is no commonplace in the ordinary sense of the term, and Lord Derby did not declare industry to be the grand secret of success in life without showing its necessity and its products. Capital, in whatever shape it may be accumulated, whether pecuniary or intellectual, is hoarded labor. The man who is ready now has constantly worked hard to be ready, and his present state of modest confidence is the result of unwearied drill. In the words of Lord Derby, “We have heard at the bar, or in Parliament, men whose instantaneous command of words, whose readiness of thought as well as of expression, seemed the effect of instinct rather than of training; but what is the secret of that readiness? Why, this -- that the mind has previously been so exercised on similar subjects that not merely the necessary words, but the necessary arguments and combinations of thought, have become by practice as instinctive as those motions of the body by which we walk or speak, do any

habitual and familiar act.


“One man will pore and perplex himself over a difficult point, be it in law or science, or what you will; another will come in and see at a glance where the difficulty lies, and what is the solution. Does that necessarily prove that the latter has more genius? No, but it proves that his faculties have been sharpened by familiarity with such topics; and the ease with which he now does his work, so far from proving that he has always worked with ease, is a measure, so to speak, of the labor by which he has prepared himself for

doing it.”

These are wise and true words, well worthy of our atten tion. To the same effect is the testimony of Sydney Smith, who shows by indubitable proofs that the greatest poets, historians, and orators have labored as hard in their specialties as the makers of dictionaries and the compilers of indexes. No man, says Henry Ward Beecher, can preach well except out of an abundance of well-wrought material. Some sermons seem to start up suddenly, body and soul, but in fact they are the product of years of experience. Natural genius is but the soil, which let alone, runs to weeds. If it is to bear fruit and harvests worth reaping, no matter how good the soil is, it must be ploughed and tilled with incessant care.

“ The heights by great men reached and kept

Were not attained by sudden flight;
But they, while their companions slept,

Were toiling upward in the night."


Lord Brougham, whose competency to instruct us on the subject of public speaking no one will be bold enough to deny, used the following language in 1820, and apparently so satisfied with its truthfulness that he reproduced it forty years afterward in the address which he delivered at his installation as chancellor of the University of Edinburgh:

“I dwell upon the subject of what is called extempore speaking in order to illustrate the necessity of full preparation and of written composition of those who would attain real excellence in the rhetorical art. In truth, a certain proficiency in public speaking may be acquired by any one who chooses often to try it, and can harden himself against the pain of frequent failures. If he is a person of no capacity his speeches will of course be bad; but even though he be man of genius, they will not be eloquent.

A sensible remark or a fine image may occur; but the loose and slovenly diction, the want of art, in combining and disposing his ideas, the inability to bring out many of his

« PreviousContinue »