I swung by All Saints this morning for the first time since I went to the adjacent pre-school. I had a few quibbles with the service (their seminarian intern pronounced ‘discere’ and ‘discupulus’ with soft c’s, and their version of the Nicene Creed referred to the Son as ‘of one substance with the Father,’ which is a theological and etymological bastardization of the original Greek).
But it had some bright spots. The readings came from Deuteronomy, Corinthians, and Matthew. Each featured a different orator-Moses, Paul, and Jesus, respectively-exhorting their audiences to live a more upstanding life. After unfolding some personal vignettes that assimilated the act of knitting to living a Christian life, the aforesaid intern noted with some emphasis that ‘what we think is as important as what we do.’
I’m sure the utilitarians in the audience cringed a bit, but I had to refrain from pounding the pew and shouting, ‘Hear, hear.’ One of the secrets of good rhetoric-there are many-is the orator’s tenacious desire to bring into harmony the way he lives his life, the way he thinks about his life, and the way he speaks about his life. Meryl Streep touched upon this idea during that Iron Lady scene in the doctor’s office. Churchill once penned a defense of oratory that argued essentially the same thing.
The good orator may be many things. He may be arrogant, prejudiced, pedantic, or priggish. One thing he is not: he is never consciously insincere. If he wishes to stir the people’s passions, he must first kindle his own. If he ever comes to express his thoughts on paper, he means precisely what he says, and he means it in the precise way that he says it.
Churchill and Lincoln made history, in part, by imposing the prose they had used to organize their lives upon the world in a time of great peril. For Churchill, it was Macaulay. For Lincoln, it was Shakespeare, Euclid, and the King James Bible. They did not approach these texts as intellectual exercises. They drew upon them to reaffirm their existence and imbue it with meaning. Hence the power of their prose.
Therefore it is not surprising that politicians, even those who have a misplaced reputation for eloquence like President Obama, can no longer move the demos with their speeches. Much like a lady’s honour, the English language is not susceptible to partial diminution. Once it has been segmented into 140-character installments of colloquialisms, once that rhetorical disease has metastasized, the patient is beyond cure.
Hence the rigid observance of grammatical laws, unless one has in the style of Hemingway and Churchill developed an idiom that achieves a more majestic tone (note that few people, myself included, develop that level of maturity as writers). Hence the distain for vulgarisms such as the superfluidity of ‘like.’ The English language is a noble thing. If it ever does undergo innovation, that innovation is valuable only insofar as it is administered by gifted wordsmiths.
‘What we think is as important as what we do.’ A rhetorical imperative to be kept in mind.