The power of rhetoric and oration.
Oration seems to be a dying art, replaced by the desire for visuals that catch the eye and attention, something we can simply attribute to the evolution of communication and its multiple outlets.
Yet nothing trumps speech. The stringing of words tailored to deliver a message which connects to the emotions and will of a people. Inspiring and stirring. Ignore it all you want but we need to revive the art, especially in these crucial times. Our leaders need to rediscover the efficacy of words, well drawn out and purposeful.
I don’t want to sound political because it is not my intention. I simply want to remind us of what can possibly be, drawing from history that has been proven.
I have often wondered, while skimming through Nigeria’s relatively young history where this power has been most evident… Not much really. Save for the early independence years our diverse and reportedly brilliant nation has been bereft of orators. Tafawa Balewa and Samuel Akintola Williams were well regarded in the art of speech, holding their audiences spell bound with inspiring words but their moments of brilliance and documents of speeches given have hardly been documented (well, not extensively). Luckily a few video and audio recordings have survived down the years that give evidence to the eloquence these founding fathers possessed.
Beyond the years after the 1966 coups leaders with oratory skills became an endangered species in Nigeria. Save for a couple , most leaders since the Tafawa Balewa period have discarded this skill for less inspiring speeches that even though they may be documented leave one desiring words which connect to the emotions of men.
In the general sense of history one man who can be described as the poster boy for the art of oration is the great Cicero of the mighty Roman Republic, a man who through his series of speeches (The Catiline Orations)turned an impending civil war into an opportunity to consolidate power. In records of his words and speeches, it can be observed that while holding his audiences spell bound by the carefully selected words and phrases, his message was never obscured or riddled with mundane expressions. For the record this was no mere talent, Cicero trained under some of the best masters of oration in Rome and Greece, an indication that this art was highly regarded in his period.
Below is a popular quote from the first of his Catiline Orations (there are four of them).
“How Long, O Catiline will you abuse our patience? And for how long will that madness of yours mock us? To what end will your unbridled audacity hurl itself..”
Abraham Lincoln who I have had the opportunity of studying of late had quite a few decent speeches. His style was not the most popular at the time, in fact many people in Washington considered him most un-statesman-like but no President has ever seen his speech inspire a nation like the one he delivered at Gettysburg during the dedication of the battlefield on behalf of the fallen soldiers who died there. It is indeed a short speech, one which he delivered just after the then Harvard University president had delivered his. Lincoln in less than 5 minutes summed up the war effort and eternally bound it to the survival and future of the United States of America. It is said that there was a moment of astonishing silence when he left the podium to return to his seat but when the gathered crowd became aware of themselves once again their applause and shouts were thunderous and deafening. As history records, the Union troops went on to win the war and Abraham Lincoln is still regarded as the greatest President to ever serve.
In the modern world people like Martin Luther King Jr., Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy and Nelson Mandela have continued this admirable art, living on to deliver speeches that have been part of what we all consider their body of work. In most cases it is clear evidence that the words they chose to speak sparked something in their audiences and listeners. For example, Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream speech’ was delivered to hundreds of thousands of people but one of the most interesting reactions to the speech was the one documented by an FBI official who in summary identified Reverend King as a threat. Before then he was little more than an activist, after that speech he was a marked man by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The question is; how do we correlate these great men and their speeches to our own unique Nigerian situation? Well, one apparent indication is they spoke up during a time when it seemed darkest, at a point where clear direction was needed. In our own indigenous situation the same cannot be said because the one to give the speech is lacking or maybe I haven’t looked hard enough.
In a Country which boasts some of the best literary minds of the modern age coupled with our rich cultural history (one that prides itself as being orally passed down from generation to generation)we seem not to identify strongly with the power of oration.
I fear for the answers forming in my head for they do not present a bright future for us. I would rather lean towards the more general observation of a new age so saturated in diverse forms of media that the average individual has a short attention span. This in some circles could be attributed to the dwindling interests in speech or most other forms/arts of oration. I occasionally find the odd avenues and forums for spoken word poetry (which gives me hope).
This is does not mean that all hope is lost. Somewhere somehow I believe we shall see a revival of this art, a call to renew such noble habits that distinguish enlightened minds from mere rabble rousers. But till then I dare say ‘Ba Cicero’.
Below is a Link to Abraham Lincoln’s Speech at Gettysburg;