Maybe Emerson was off, or maybe I was off, but this week’s Emerson essay, Eloquence, just didn’t do anything for me. I even found myself a bit bored by it. And now, I will try not to bore you.
Emerson begins his essay by offering various definitions of eloquence from a few of the past great orators of history. Then he proceeds to pick it all apart, trying to get at the heart of what eloquence really is, because while the great orators’ definitions are okay, Emerson is not satisfied with them.
To be eloquent, one needs possess certain skills and gifts. To begin with, one must have a “certain robust and radiant physical health.” Emerson rates this the lowest of qualities, but if one does not have “animal eloquence,” and exuberance and passion, then you’ll be hard-pressed to get people to pay attention to you. Likewise if you are not able to be interesting. You don’t have to be Scherezade, but if you aren’t the least bit interesting, all the animal eloquence in the world won’t keep your audience in their seats.
One also needs to be “a supreme commander over all his passions and affections.” One must be able to speak with passion, yes, but that passion must come from a deeper place founded on intelligence and reason. An eloquent speaker must be able to keep her cool in all situations and avoid knee-jerk emotional reactions.
The eloquent speaker must also have personality, which I would lump in with being interesting, but which Emerson considers a higher, separate matter which produces the very important “power of statement.” The power of statement is reinforced and built upon facts. A speaker who wants to get anywhere has to stick to the facts and if you want to be considered eloquent, you need to clothe the facts in beautiful sentences and words. An eloquent orator needs to be a sort of poet. But not one of those obscure poets whose poetry elicits the response of, “huh?” No, one’s beautiful words must be grounded in the “plainest of narrative.”
You can be master of all these things and still not be eloquent in Emerson’s eyes. To be sure, you’d be a darn good speaker, but you would lack “transcendent eloquence.” This type of eloquence requires some kind of crisis or cause that deeply engages a person and focuses their power on a single thing. Because, you see, a truly eloquent person must not only speak beautifully and persuasively, but must also be “inwardly drunk with a certain belief.” Eloquence must ultimately rest on strength of character:
If you would lift me you must be on higher ground. If you would liberate me you must be free. If you would correct my false views of facts,–hold up to me the same facts in the true order of thought, and I cannot go back from the new conviction.
But wait! That’s not all! The highest aim of eloquence is not just to persuade, but to be in service of the moral sentiment, or “what is called affirmative truth.” In Emerson’s view, eloquence should be an “instrument” of moral sentiment and if it is not, then it is nothing but “glitter for show,” “false and weak.” The truly eloquent orator should have nothing short of the reform of mankind as his goal.
I can’t help but think that Emerson wants us all to be like him. He was a good speaker, he made his living by it, was in demand all over the US and abroad. He spent hours practicing and refining his words and his delivery. He knows what he’s talking about. Still, there is, at least for me, a feeling that I am being told by an authority figure that he knows better than I do and this is it because he says so. My rebellious inner teenager resents him for it and wants to somehow prove him wrong. That is unlikely to ever happen, however, because, well, I suck at public speaking. And so I resent Emerson even more for this essay because he’s probably right about most, if not all of it.
Next week’s Emerson: Domestic Life