“We don’t study speech to change our lives, but our lives are changed nonetheless”

Thank you Mrs. Hobgood for that too-kind introduction. This morning, I did what any speaker should do: I made an appointment with Mrs. Hobgood at the Speech Center. And the first thing I did was exactly what a client should not do: I said “I don’t want to give the speech; I just want to talk about it.” Apparently, Mrs. Hobgood had heard that one before, because she did that thing she does with her eyes, and got me up at the podium.

So, in this speech, as in so much of life, the good parts can be attributed to Mrs. Hobgood. The faults, of course, are my own.

On the wall of Mrs. Hobgood’s office is a postcard from Athens that reads “Greetings from the World’s first Speech Center.” It’s a clever line, if I do say so myself, but it is wrong. Although speech instruction flowered in Athens, it actually had its origins in Sicily, where it came just after the invention of the world’s first argument.

Apparently, there was a time before arguments had been invented. People would solve disputes by swearing oaths or just bopping each other on the head. But in the 5th century BC, a man named Corax invented argument.

He thought that the senses could not be trusted, and that people should argue from probability. So, if a big guy and a little got in a fight and were hauled into court to figure out who started it, the little guy should say: “Look at me; I’m a little guy. He’s a big guy. If I started a fight with him, I’d get beat up, and I wouldn’t want to do that. So he must have started the fight.” But the big guy should respond: “Look at me; I’m a big guy. He’s a little guy. No one would believe that he would start a fight with me, so if I started a fight with him, I would get in trouble, and I wouldn’t want to do that. So he must have started the fight.” People were impressed, and a young man named Tisias wanted to learn how to argue. So Corax taught him how to argue, but when he was done, Tisias refused to pay his fee. So Corax hauled him into court. At the trial, Corax said that if he had proven Tisias owed the fee and he should win. But even if the judge thought Tisias should win, that just showed how well Corax had taught him to argue, so Corax should still win. But Tisias replied that if he had proven that he shouldn’t have to pay the fee, he should win. But if the judge thought he should lose, it just showed that Corax had not taught him how to argue, so Tisias should still win and not have to pay. The judge said (and keep in mind that Corax means “Crow” in ancient Greek), the judge said: “Bad crow, bad egg,” and threw them both out of court.

With that, the world learned how to argue; and consultants learned to get paid in advance.

That postcard was wrong in another way: although rhetoric flowered there, Athens was not a Speech Center as we know it. The students had to make do with sitting at the feet of the masters like Isocrates, Plato, and Aristotle. But in a Speech Center, students not only learn to speak, but also use that knowledge to train others. It is an arrangement that enriches the lives of both clients and consultants. At least it enriched mine. And to think I almost missed it.

I didn’t come to college to major in Speech. I came to college to go to law school, particularly Harvard Law School. When I was about 13, I came to the shocking realization that I was never going to play in the NBA, and I figured that Harvard Law School was like the NBA, but for short nerdy guys. All I wanted to do was be a Harvard Lawyer, which shows the danger of making major life decisions when you’re 13. So I came to college and did what one does when one wants to be a lawyer; I majored in Political Science. But after a year or so, I found that social science, with its attempts to reduce humanity to numbers, left me cold, and I went looking for a new major. As luck would have it, my friend Larry was in a class called Rhetoric and Film. He said I should take it because it was interesting, and easy, and filled with pretty girls. We enjoyed the class, but one day, we were sitting around, sort of making fun of it. It was pretty easy: it had “and” in the title, and you know how easy those something-and classes are. We had watched “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” like 5 times, while we applied neo-Aristotelian theory, feminist theory, symbolic convergence theory and Burke’s Pentad (that’s Ken, not Ed). It was interesting, but this rhetoric thing was useless. It wouldn’t help us make money, or get jobs, or even help us with the pretty girls. All it was good for was for deciding how to live your life. With that, the hook was set. I had found my academic love.

Here was a subject to set fire to my soul, to chase off that academic ennui: this most human of the humanities, this most liberal of the liberal arts.

For, I came to learn, rhetoric concerns itself with the only things that really matter: the truth and what we do about it. Rhetorical truth is not a philosopher’s abstraction. It is addressed to people at a particular moment who need to decide what to do. Hence, the enthymeme, the enthymeme of my title: the rhetorical syllogism that only works with an audience to supply the missing premise. And what we do about it is not a question for applied statistics, not the matter of what Burke (this time it’s Ed, not Ken) called “Sophists, calculators, and economists,” but a question addressed to people in their full humanity. Hence its appeal to pathos and ethos as well as logos beyond pure rationality.

In a sense, every speech demonstrates kairos, the opportune moment, when the orator through prudence and decorum applies eternal verities to a historical situation. It seeks to move people in a situation of uncertainty. To men and women who are, as Aristotle calls us, people in need of argument.

I also found a new model to aspire to: The Orator, the man of knowledge, prudence, and decorum, who can speak eloquently on any topic at any time. What Quintilian called “The good man speaking well.” Now, perhaps we have not seen a true orator since Cicero himself, but what good is small ambition? And hey, a boy can dream.

This was heady stuff. But it was not complete. For, as I would later learn from Mike Leff, one cannot just study rhetoric. If all one has is the study of rhetorical precepts, one has what Quintilian called a mutam scientiam, a dumb science. No, a rhetorician has to actually do speeches.

Luck and Larry would intervene again. Those of you who have been to the Speech Center here may have seen the picture of Larry Witkos hanging on the wall. Larry and I were greatly concerned about the Speech Department, as if two 19-year old punks had any right to be worried about a department run by Jerry Tarver and David Thomas. When Larry found out that Mrs. Hobgood was starting a speech center, he thought that might be the department’s salvation. So he threw himself into it and started picking consultants and deciding on the way things ought to be. I don’t know what authority was delegated and what Larry just seized, but he was surely the Consultant Princeps, the first among consultants. It was an unspeakable loss when he got cancer, just a couple of weeks into the first theory and pedagogy course, and when he died just a couple of weeks before graduation. Without Larry, there would surely be a speech center, but it just as surely would not be the same.

I was lucky that Larry deemed me worthy to be a speech consultant. One day he said “You should meet Mrs. Hobgood. I told her you would be one of her consultants. She’ll like you. Because you’re from Cleveland.”

And so, I became a speech consultant, and I got to use what I was learning on actual speeches. I like to think that we didn’t just help students create great speeches and get better grades; although we did. But also that we helped teach them little bits of the fundamentals of oratory. Although I can’t swear that I ever actually said enthymeme until someone screamed.

As consultants, we were constantly challenged to apply rhetorical principles to all kinds of subject matters. We never knew what would come through the door, but for an hour we would have to understand it.

It wasn’t always easy. I’ll even admit that sometimes I helped students better express opinions that I personally found to be reprehensible, immoral, and downright degenerate, like the speech on “Why You Should be a Yankees Fan.” Talk about making the worse appear the better cause! And I thought being a lawyer would make me feel slimy. But I like to think that even a Yankees fan can learn to speak, and not just in curses hurled from the bleachers.

The great value of the speech center model is that it serves as a force multiplier, to bring speech instruction students who would never have signed up for a speech class, but whose education is enriched one one-hour session at a time. But as much as I like to think we benefited our fellow students, I think the greatest beneficiaries were we consultants ourselves. Here was a chance to engage in many and varied rhetorical situations. To see what worked and what didn’t, to play critic and editor, and to engage in speeches without the responsibility of research or the pressure of a grade. It was a chance to apply theory. To lose the mutam from our scientiam. Plus, it was a lot of fun.

Sadly, after four years at Richmond, they gave me a diploma and threw me out. But I could not let rhetoric go, so, as my own self-indulgent time, what the sociologist might today call my “emerging adulthood,” when others were backpacking across Europe or living in squats in Williamsburg, or, horror of horrors, getting a job, I was off to graduate school at Northwestern to sit at the feet of the masters of our day: Zarefsky, Leff, Goodwin, Farrell, Goodnight, Gaonkar.

Northwestern then was really something special. It was only with the passing of Michael Leff that I realized how lucky we had been, and how much we had lost. So, those of you who are students: appreciate your professors while you have them, for you will not have them forever.

But childhood dreams die hard, and ultimately, I could not resist the siren song of the Harvard Law School. I went with Cicero’s admonition ringing in my ear that an Orator could not just study rhetoric, but had to practice it in the arena, particularly that most difficult of arenas, the courts of law.

I soon learned the bad news: the law is not, generally an arena of great oratory. In fact, it is more conducive to becoming the narrow, almost ridiculous lawyer Cicero makes fun of in the Pro Murena than an orator like Cicero himself. One is more apt to push paper than to pound the rail of a jury box.

Nothing proves Socrates’ assertion that lawyers are slaves, running to fro at their clients’ bidding like the modern law firm. And late at night, plowing though another box of documents or turning edits on a memo, I’d get a touch of that old ennui and a longing to be doing rhetoric. Not that I didn’t try, but for some reason, the partner did not appreciate my pentadic analysis of our motion to dismiss.

I’ve found that in job interviews, people have two standard questions: what is rhetoric, and how does it help you be a lawyer. The standard answer is that it helps me see arguments and express them persuasively, which is partly the truth. The real answer, which I would never say, is that it has formed my very character.

It is hard for me to believe that I have now been in law more than twice as long as I studied rhetoric. But I never stopped thinking of myself as a rhetorician who practices law rather than a lawyer to who simply uses rhetoric. I always thought that someday, I’d get back to it. But knowing how way leads on to way . . . Well, I’m grateful for Mrs. Hobgood’s twitch upon the thread that brought me here today.

It is a true honor to be here for your 10th anniversary. It is a testament to the greatness of the speech center movement that in what seems like the blink of an eye, it has gone from a few scattered speech centers, struggling valiantly to save speech education to a mighty band, over a hundred strong, struggling valiantly to save speech education.

I understand that there are difficulties: the economy is bad; budgets are tight; deans are skeptical.

If you’ll permit me a brief aside: it seems like we used to have better enemies. Dame Rhetoric once contended with giants, like Plato, who said that rhetoric was no more than cookery. Today’s enemies, the budget-cutting dean, the covetous colleague, the snide commentator, who never says rhetoric without the prefix mere or empty, seem so small by comparison. I am reminded of Dr. Johnson’s observation that “A fly may sting a stately horse and make him wince; but one is but an insect and the other is a horse still.”

I guess Horse is a compliment. The Texans would probably pronounce it “Hoss.”
But despite the flies, still you soldier on, for you are doing God’s work in bringing the light of Speech to your students.

In De Oratore, the character Antonius says that when he walks in the sun, although he doesn’t do so to get a tan, for that would be ridiculous, nevertheless, it changes his complexion.

We don’t study speech to change our lives, but our lives are changed nonetheless. Like me, not many students come to college for a Speech Center, but the lucky ones, who end up in a Speech Center, as consultant or client, are rarely sorry that they did. And you can be proud, that however briefly, be it one hour or 4 years, you let them stand in the sun.

Leave a Reply

Download Whitepaper

Thank you for your interest. Please enter your email address to view the report.