On Speaking Well

In recent years, speaking well has become an educational ideal for graduates at many institutions.

Able speakers can convey their thoughts and intents with both ease and confidence. Isocrates, the pre-socratic rhetorician, terms it “assurance.”

Unfortunately, courses in rhetoric and speech aren’t always required, and a number of graduates would find it difficult to present, let alone dialogue, on a public platform.

Isocrates found this to be true in ancient Athens as well, for he did not believe that just anyone could be taught. He felt training in speech was necessary for many, but not for all.

One of the reasons Isocrates addresses the issue of speaking well is because he felt it his duty to educate the youth of Athens: “the government of the state is handed on by the older men to the youth . . . succession goes on without end . . . [it] will be the fortune of the state.”

He saw that for posterity, even the legacy of Athens, to be preserved, new leaders must be trained.

Isocrates, however, did appear to believe that a natural gift of speaking was necessary.

Potential students had to have three things: a natural aptitude, the ability to submit to training and to master the subject’s knowledge, and then to be versed and practiced in the use and application of their art.

One exception were those who had not received training but were “well-endowed by nature and . . .  schooled by practical experience.”

Isocrates also purported that the power of speech could improve the quality of life. This concept is rare, if not of unheard of today.

He wrote, “People can become better and worthier if they conceive an ambition to speak well if they become possessed of the desire to be able to persuade their hearers.” Yet he failed to explain how one was to acquire that motivation.

In addition, Isocrates felt a prepared speaker would speak to the best and most virtuous topics, thereby edifying himself and others at the same time.

The more a student studied and prepared to speak on the noblest virtues, then the more the quality of his studies would affect his character positively. This was such an ideal that Isocrates assumed others would envy the virtue of the best speakers because men envy what they don’t have.

Isocrates claimed, “I am of the opinion that while all those who are envious of my success covet the ability to think and speak well, yet they themselves neglect to cultivate it . . . they grow irritated, jealous, perturbed in spirit.”

In his pride, he also argued that those same men would come seek him and others who spoke well when any city crisis arose.

Though his arguments weren’t always tactful, Isocrates left us a number of ideals regarding the power of speech.

A motivated student could be trained to master the art of speaking, and in that discipline of training, he could potentially elevate his moral character.

By ennobling his character, Isocrates encourages us that “the power to speak well and think right will reward the man who approaches the art of discourse with love of wisdom and love of honour.”

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