There is a vast gulf between oratory, on the one hand, and public speaking on the other.
By oratory I mean the art of speaking in the style we associate with great orators of the Western past, not elaborate, formal, public discourses treating important topics in a stiff, formal, or dignified manner.
A true orator is born, not made. Oratory, properly speaking, is a gift possessed by the few. It can be cultivated by those born with it, but not readily learned or practiced by just anyone.
Following the recent death of English New Right intellectual-activist Jonathan Bowden, the consensus seems to be that his skill as an orator is what most set him apart, not his painting or writing. Although I only heard him speak over the Internet, that was my impression as well.
Bowden simply stood apart as a speaker. He was remarkable to listen to and watch. His uncanny ability to channel an almost incomprehensibly vast erudition was also stunning. We have little, if any, exposure to oratory in modern society, so to suddenly observe it in action was quite an experience.
It is difficult to describe exactly what orators do, or how they achieve their peculiar effects. Indeed, it is sometimes difficult even to remember what famous orators said!
Ear-witnesses to [Patrick] Henry’s hypnotic orations remarked that while they always seemed to be convincing in the moment, they had a difficult time remembering exactly what he had said immediately afterwards. According to Thomas Jefferson, “Although it was difficult, when [Henry] had spoken, to tell what he had said, yet, while speaking, it always seemed directly to the point. When he had spoken in opposition to my opinion, had produced a great effect, and I myself had been highly delighted and moved, I have asked myself, when he ceased, ‘What the devil has he said?’ and could never answer the inquiry.”
Henry biographer William Wirt, who painstakingly reconstructed the Virginia attorney’s famous “Give me liberty or give me death!” speech of 1775, wrote in 1816 that Henry’s audience that day sat spellbound in “the trance of a moment.”
Personally, I would have a hard time explaining the essence of Bowden’s speaking talent. Still, a description by Jef Costello captures a great deal:
He told me beforehand that he had no idea what he was going to talk about. He called his style of speaking “mediumistic.” It involved getting up in front of an audience and gauging its mood and feeding off of it. As a result, his speaking style had a kind of incantatory quality, as if he were conjuring up spirits. He had a truly remarkable ability to achieve rapport with an audience. And a remarkable ability to speak off the cuff.
A Mediumistic, Incantatory Quality
Pursuing this line of thought further, Thomson Jay Hudson, a 19th-century attorney and US Patent Office examiner, believed “the great orators” constituted a class of persons “who possess the faculty of evoking at will” the powers of the subconscious mind.
Hudson was greatly interested in hypnosis, mesmerism, telepathy, spiritualism, and similar matters. He wrote a book called The Law of Psychic Phenomena (1893) in which he touched briefly upon oratory. He recounted from memory a couple of items he had read or heard about Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, which I report here because I regard him as factually reliable.
About Webster’s famous Senate speech “Second Reply to Hayne” (1830), considered by some the most eloquent speech ever delivered in Congress (a historian writing in 1891 said that “a fellow-senator who heard him has likened his elocution to the steady flow of molten gold”), Hudson quoted Webster’s own description of the experience:
I have made the Constitution of the United States the study of my life; and on that occasion it seemed to me that all that I had ever heard or read on the subject under discussion was passing like a panorama before me, arranged in perfectly logical order and sequence, and that all I had to do was cull a thunderbolt and hurl it at him.
About Henry Clay, Hudson recounted an occasion on which the Kentucky senator, though unwell, felt compelled to speak extemporaneously on an important matter under discussion. Due to weakness, he requested that a colleague signal him when ten minutes was up. After the lapse of the requisite interval, the senator tugged hard at Clay’s jacket three times, without capturing his attention.
Finally, the man stuck Clay in the leg with a pin, but the orator, “thoroughly aroused,” continued to pour forth “a torrent of eloquence. The pin was inserted deeper and deeper into the orator’s leg without eliciting any response,” until finally the friend gave up. Eventually, Clay glanced at the clock, noticed the time, and abruptly sat down, exhausted. In Hudson’s view
The fact that Mr. Clay, on that occasion, made one of the ablest speeches of his life, two hours in length, when he felt almost too ill to rise to his feet, and that his body at the time was in a condition of perfect anesthesia, is a splendid illustration of the synchronous action of the two minds [conscious and subconscious], and also of the perfect control exercised by the subjective mind over the functions and sensations of the body.
According to John Wentworth (1882),
Although the Senate and galleries would always be filled when it was announced that Mr. Clay was to speak, yet it was always with the expectation and hope that some one would interrupt him, and a grand, intellectual sparring exposition would take place. Of all men whom I ever heard, I never know one who could endure so much interruption and discuss so many side issues, and yet finish his speech with the entire facts and the entire line of argument marked out in his mind from the beginning, as Mr. Clay. Could the enemies of Mr. Clay have formed a combination never to interrupt him, nor be interrupted by him, they would have deprived him of much of his senatorial glory.
Decades after his death, colorful stories continued to be told about Clay.
In the 1870s, German-American US Senator Carl Schurz (R.-Mo.) spoke to colleagues who had heard Clay. Schurz believed Clay possessed “the true oratorical temperament, that force of nervous exaltation that makes the orator feel himself, and appear to others, a superior being, and almost irresistibly transfuses his thoughts, his passions, and his will into the mind and heart of the listener.”
The Fusion of Audience and Speaker Occurs “In the Moment,” Then Slowly Fades Away
Another striking attribute of oratory is that it is heavily context- (time and place) dependent.
This is true despite the fact that if a speech is well-conceived and well-argued, the published text may survive extraction from the original speaker-crowd-emotional-performance framework and retain an intellectual, rather than merely historical (“this was a famous and influential speech, which is why we remember it”), significance.
Adolf Hitler was one of history’s great orators. We have all seen films, or, rather, brief clips, of him speaking.
Yet, due to the incomprehensible (for most of us) language, our distance from the crowd (we are not part of it), and our remoteness from the specific social context in which the crowd and speaker co-existed, we are unable to share the experience, even via filmed live performances.
This does not mean that everyone need be in the same location to experience the full impact of a speech. Via the mass media—radio, television, movie theater newsreels, the Internet—an audience (strictly speaking, Le Bon’s crowd) can “assemble” and be “present” even when far removed from where the speaker is discoursing.
Likewise, members of an “audience” can listen to a speech days, weeks, months, or even years later—atomized and separated in time—and still be affected, as long as the social context remains intact.
That is why listening to Jonathan Bowden via the Internet—at different locations and different times—still affects us. The sense of immediacy and participation is largely maintained.
However, even the most effective oratory is subject to a decay factor, akin to radioactive half-life, as the specific social context recedes into the past. Would Germans who had been moved to tears or adulation by a Hitler speech just a few years before be able to recapture the former experience by re-watching a recording of the speech in 1950?
Likewise, if we could magically watch archived film recordings of even the greatest speeches by Demosthenes, Cicero, Patrick Henry, or others, those orators would probably not move us the way they did their contemporaries. Could we vicariously share the electric excitement that galvanized the “audience in the galleries rising and leaning over as if to catch every syllable”?
It seems unlikely.
Impassioned Oratory: Hume on Eloquence
In “Of Eloquence,” from Essays Moral, Political, and Literary (1742), Scottish philosopher David Hume decried the absence of true oratory in England, comparing the country unfavorably in that regard with ancient Greece and Rome, each of which, in his view, produced a single great orator—Demosthenes in Greece (“of all human productions, the orations of Demosthenes present to us models which approach the nearest to perfection”) and Cicero in Rome.
Hume particularly accentuated the fervor of ancient oratory, whose speakers attempted to “inflame the passions, or elevate the imagination of their audience.” “It is vehement reasoning, without any appearance of art: it is disdain, anger, boldness, freedom, involved in a continuous stream of argument”:
They hurried away with such a torrent of sublime and pathetic, that they left their hearers no leisure to perceive the artifice by which they were deceived. Nay, to consider the matter aright, they were not deceived by any artifice. The orator, by the force of his own genius and eloquence, first inflamed himself with anger, indignation, pity, sorrow; and then communicated those impetuous movements to his audience.
He contrasted this ancient practice with “modern eloquence”—sober “good sense, delivered in proper expressions,” calm and rational, never raising its tone and instructing the reason rather than affecting the passions.
It is interesting in this regard that Jonathan Bowden’s speeches are, in general, more intellectual than passionate. Bowden was acutely aware of the cramped limits of permissible speech—he frequently alluded to them explicitly. Contrast his talks with Patrick Henry’s famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech (quoted below), or the orations of Adolf Hitler, both of which more closely resemble Hume’s model. Yet, despite his self-restraint, Bowden clearly possessed the oratorical gift to a marked degree.
Gesticulation and similar emotive, outward physical signs of unreserved psychic immersion in the “stream of speech” are integral to the impassioned oratory described by Hume.
Thus, John Wentworth noted of Henry Clay that posterity is
incapable of hearing the varied intonations of his ever-pleasing voice, or of seeing his gesticulations, his rising upon his toes, his stamp of the foot [emphasis added], his march down the aisles until his long fingers would almost touch the president’s desk, and his backward tread to his seat, all the while speaking; his shake of the head, his dangling hair, and his audience in the galleries rising and leaning over as if to catch every syllable.
Compare Hume: “Suitable to this vehemence of thought and expression, was the vehemence of action, observed in the ancient orators. The supplosio pedis, or stamping with the foot, was one of the most usual and moderate gestures which they made use of,” though in England such displays are “now esteemed too violent” for the legislator, the lawyer, or the preacher.
Are Republicanism and Democracy to Blame for Oratory’s Demise?
Hume’s unfavorable verdict on the quality of English oratory might tempt some readers to conclude that liberal, bourgeois, republican, or democratic governance or values were at fault. But such was not the case. (I will speak of totalitarian societies such as ours presently, which are distinguishable.)
Great orators such as Patrick Henry, James Otis, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Wendell Phillips, Stephen Douglas and William Jennings Bryan, “the boy orator of the Platte,” all flourished under republican or democratic regimes.
Adolf Hitler’s unsurpassed oratorical mastery was likewise honed in the purest rough-and-tumble democratic tradition, in a grueling, hectic speaking schedule in the years following his rejection of the revolutionary putsch in favor of electoral politics.
The preceding statement requires qualification in that once you have gangs of armed Jewish-Communist thugs involved, as was the case with Hitler, whose followers were compelled to fight physically merely to assert their candidates’ right to speak, or with David Duke in Louisiana, then you no longer have a truly democratic system. In addition, Hitler abolished democracy immediately after his election to office, so subsequent speeches, though embodying oratory, were likewise exterior to democracy.
Hume approved this populist tendency (in “Of Eloquence,” anyway). Eloquence (oratory), he wrote, being calculated
for the public, and for men of the world, cannot, with any pretence of reason, appeal from the people to more refined judges, but must submit to the public verdict without reserve or limitation. Whoever, upon comparison, is deemed by a common audience the greatest orator, ought most certainly to be pronounced such by men of science and erudition. . . . [W]henever the true [oratorical] genius arises, he draws to him the attention of every one, and immediately appears superior to his rival.
Contemporary Fear and Loathing
My 1950 Columbia Encyclopedia states that “In recent years, especially with the advent of radio, oratory has become less grandiloquent. The term oratory itself has fallen into disuse, giving way to public speaking.”
Radio was the mass broadcasting precursor to television, which in 1950 was still in its infancy. Radio as a mass entertainment and news medium for decades extended into every household like TV does today
It is no secret that traditional European-style oratory has disappeared. Try to name a single post-WWII orator of note. Probably the only name that will spring immediately to mind is Martin Luther King, Jr. for his “I Have a Dream” speech.
In totalitarian societies, where freedom of speech does not exist, oratory is disfavored. Dominant, politically correct dogmas do not require oratory for their successful propagation. White-hot arousal of popular passions is avoided in favor of instilling long-term, all-encompassing, deep-seated prejudices and hatreds. There is a profound, atavistic fear among elites that they could lose control of some populist “demagogue” who might somehow inflame the masses to revolt.
This fear is reflected in Hollywood films such as All the King’s Men (1949) about the rise and fall of a Huey Long-like senator, or Elmer Gantry (1960) about a stem-winding Christian evangelist.
One might say of orators what a white nationalist reviewer of the Coen brothers’ movie Fargo (1996) insolently said of the “the conspicuously Aryan-monikered killer Gaear Grimsrud ([played by actor] Peter Stormare)”:
It seems clear that the jewboys gave special attention to the creation of this character: The blond Grimsrud is as eerily cold and silent as the whited-out Dakota landscape; impassive and dead-eyed as he chain-smokes Marlboros. I think Grimsrud represents the atavistic jewterror of White hyper-violence unleashed by the sudden shattering of the carefully forged chains of jew false morality. . . . The physical embodiment of all their darkest hates and fears.
Similarly, the born orator, possessed of the supernatural ability to move masses of people, including elites and intellectuals, emotionally, is a supremely disturbing, otherworldly figure.
To date the Jewish-communist state has found no use for orators, even house-Negro orators of the MLK stripe. They might get out of hand! Passionate, unleashed speech is unconducive to the maintenance of a rigid party line.
This is the reason oratory has disappeared from the public arena, not the advent of movies, radio, or television, which would simply have magnified and extended oratory’s effect. Politicians, legislators, lawyers, and preachers—the traditional talent pools from which orators were drawn—still exist.
Oratorical and Rhetorical Risk-Taking Can Be Frightening
As Hume emphasized, in great oratory there is frequently an element of unleashing restraints, letting oneself go, of taking great risks in front of an audience. It involves tapping into something deep and true within and letting ‘er rip!
What is the major stumbling block?
Falling on one’s face in public!
What will people say?
What will people think?
Hume cites examples of “vehemence of thought and expression” from the speeches of Demosthenes and Cicero, “where such swelling expressions were not rejected as wholly monstrous and gigantic”—so radically unlike the “temperate and calm” speakers of 18th century England—observing,
With what a blaze of eloquence must such a sentence [a line from Cicero] be surrounded to give it grace, or cause it to make any impression on the hearers! And what noble arts and sublime talents are requisite to arrive, by just degrees, at a sentiment so bold and excessive! To inflame the audience, so as to make them accompany the speaker in such violent passions, and such elevated conceptions; and to conceal, under a torrent of eloquence, the artifice by which all of this is effectuated!
This well-describes Patrick Henry’s style—and Adolf Hitler’s as well.
During his famous speech to the House of Burgesses on behalf of the Virginia Stamp Act Resolutions of 1765—”Caesar had his Brutus; Charles the First his Cromwell; and George the Third . . . may he profit by their example”—Patrick Henry was accused of treason by the Speaker of the House.
Addressing the Second Virginia Convention a decade later, Henry uttered the famously incendiary lines:
Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace — but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
The concept of risk-taking applies equally to white nationalist written rhetoric.
Jewish, Leftist, anti-white, anti-conservative, and anti-Christian rhetoric—even elite rhetoric denominated “scholarly,” or officially prepared for legislators, courts, and secret police agencies by powerful hate groups such as the ADL and SPLC—is conventionally violent, heated, deceitful, incorrect, blindly partisan, extremist, drenched in lies and hyperbole, and infused with passionate hatred.
It is striking that the victims of these attacks almost never respond in kind. The fight has evidently gone out of them, if it ever existed. Possibly they do not truly believe in their cause. Perhaps they are not genuinely angry or concerned. Or maybe they simply lack any well-developed sense of justice, principle, or morality.
Of course, they are afraid of the bully. Jews and communists and totalitarian police states are not the liberal government of 18th century England.
Only a handful of white nationalists, including George Lincoln Rockwell, William Pierce, and Alex Linder, take risks, escape rhetorical deadness, and infuse white rhetoric with a depth of emotion, commitment, and passion matching that of Jews and the Left.
But, for the most part, the hatred of the Left is not repaid in kind. White nationalist writers resemble Hume’s proper, cautious bourgeois. They are extremely reluctant to take rhetorical risks or display passion on behalf of their hated, dispossessed, and fatally endangered people.
Rhetorically, conservatives, right-wingers, and white nationalists have fallen into the same trap as their mainline Christian counterparts, scathingly excoriated in a rousing sermon decades ago by the Reverend Jimmy Swaggert—no mean stem-winder himself in his glory days—as “Dead pastors preaching dead sermons to dead congregations in dead churches!”
As Cicero wrote in his history of Roman oratory, Brutus (also known as History of Famous Orators or History of Eloquence):
What trace of anger, of that burning indignation, which stirs even men quite incapable of eloquence to loud outbursts of complaint against wrongs? But no hint of indignation in you, neither of mind nor of body! Did you smite your brow, slap your thigh, or at least stamp your foot? No. So far from touching my feelings, I could scarcely refrain from going to sleep then and there.
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In Memoriam: Frances A. Yates’ The Art of Memory
A Tale of Two Jonathans
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Some Thoughts on the Hume-Rousseau “Philosopher’s Quarrel”
The Worst Week Yet: April 24-30, 2022
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Counter-Currents Radio Podcast No. 436 Ask Me Anything with Greg Johnson