John Cardinal Newman once set down a list of seven rules for writing sermons. His rules apply not just to sermons but to rhetoric in general. Simple and direct as his rules were in the 19th century, naturally they have fallen into neglect in our era of flash and fizz.
American rhetoric circa 2013 has come to have all the eloquence and permanence of your average television commercial. Our politicians' speeches now have the staying power of fleeting images in the background. Then they are gone. Like last week's inaugural address.
Whatever the state of the Union, the state of American rhetoric is not only poor but poor in the worst, that is, showiest way. In place of eloquence, which is rare enough in any age, we get tendentious talking points. Maybe that's because the basis of any eloquence seems to have disappeared in our public rhetoric: thought.
Last week's Inaugural address, if anyone was listening then or bothers to remember it now, systematically ignored all of Newman's rules. It was as if our newly re-inaugurated president had gone down the cardinal's list and violated them one by one -- if he has ever heard of them. It was a safe assumption, judging by his speech, that his speechwriters hadn't. Maybe somebody should post a copy of Newman's Seven Commandments in their office:
1. A man should be in earnest, by which I mean he should write, not for the sake of writing, but to bring out his thoughts.
The only evidently earnest thing about this president's Second Inaugural, which will be remembered, if at all, as a parody of Lincoln's, was its earnest desire to please every special-interest group he had already pleased during his campaign -- from the gun-control lobby to the greener-than-thou crowd. And so many more. Their various grievances may or may not be justified, their profuse proposals sound or unsound, but that didn't seem to be the point of the president's speech. He seemed interested only in echoing his supporters' demands, and in so doing, bind them even closer to him. That is not leadership or thought; it is just low cunning. Political ambition so often is.
2. He should never aim to be eloquent.
To judge by his text, the president aimed for little else. Last week's inaugural address seemed but a collection of applause lines, which were duly applauded by his more-than-admiring followers. For it was their fondest desires he sought to condense into the series of slogans that constituted his speech.
We all love to see our own hobbyhorses ridden, our pet causes adopted and amplified, our self-interest and self-regard reflected in a speaker's words, and the unthinking will call this form of flattery eloquence. ("What a great speaker -- he agrees with me!")
3. He should keep his idea in view, and should write sentences over and over again till he has expressed his meaning accurately, forcibly and in few words.
ideas did the president seek to express in last week's inaugural? They were only outlined rather than explored. Any details remained vague under all the rhetorical ruffles and flourishes, riffs and repetitions. Which is why the speech, which really wasn't very long as presidential speeches go, seemed endless.
4. He should aim at being understood by his hearers or readers.
Mr. Obama was understood, all right. His motives were transparent. But they weren't very elevating. Or edifying. The mark of true eloquence is its ability to capture what we all may know but have never heard articulated before -- simply, clearly, undeniably. For (classic) example:
"A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new -- North as well as South." --A. Lincoln, speaking in Springfield, Illinois, June 16, 1858.
After his House Divided speech, history changed. Not because a speech had been delivered, but because a great truth had been uttered. What great truth did our president speak on the occasion of his second inauguration?
I can't think of one, either. Which may be why his speech changed nothing.
5. He should use words which are likely to be understood. Ornament and amplification will come spontaneously in due time, but he should never seek them.
Last week's re-inaugural address consisted of little but ornament and amplification. It was less sermon than soda water. No substance and all fizz.
6. He must creep before he can fly, by which I mean that humility, which is a great Christian virtue, has a place in literary composition.
Humility had no place in last week's inauguration, not with its succession of almost Roman hails to the chief, not with the principal speaker's comparisons of himself, stated and unstated, with Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.
Cardinal Newman's seventh and last injunction needs no amplification. And the country needs no better, or rather worse, example of how not to follow his rules for rhetoric than our president's inaugural address last week:
7. He who is ambitious will never write well; but he who tries to say simply what he feels and thinks, what religion demands, what faith teaches, what the Gospel promises, will be eloquent without intending it, and will write better English than if he made a study of English literature.
Enough said. Just as more than enough was said last week.
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