Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.


Thus begins Marc Anthony’s speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

This line — and indeed, the whole speech — has become a prime example of eloquence: a term that originally meant “speaking out,” but generally stands for the ability to command the language to express one’s thoughts in a lucid, persuasive and forceful way. Eloquence, however, is much more than a matter of formal proficiency.

At the time of Cicero, eloquentia was, along with prudentia and probitas (moral goodness), one of the three constituent parts of sapientia (wisdom). Likewise, humanists, from early Italian Renaissance all the way to Erasmus, held that all knowledge should be shared and tested in a public debate, lest it become inert and stale like a water of a pond with no circulation. As Juan Luis Vives put it in the 16th century: “Ideas are the life and soul of words, which, in their absence, remain sterile and meaningless.” Thus eloquence was seen not simply a matter of elegant articulation, it was the way how ideas acquire a concrete form and become accessible — in short, the very essence of an argument.

However, the humanist preoccupation with language and public speaking runs deeper than this. Humanists believed that we exist most fully not in our private thoughts and feelings rather than in our interactions with others. As Ben Johnson wrote in Discoveries Made Upon Men and Matter :

Oratio imago animi. — Language most shows a man: Speak, that I may see thee.  It springs out of the most retired and inmost parts of us, and is the image of the parent of it, the mind.  No glass renders a man’s form or likeness so true as his speech.  Nay, it is likened to a man; and as we consider feature and composition in a man, so words in language; in the greatness, aptness, sound structure, and harmony of it.

It is an election season in Estonia, and while I have been rather successful in isolating myself from the whole thing, hardly a day goes by when I don’t hear someone back at home despairing over the standard (or rather, the lack of it) of the public debate. And this is where I have a feeling of deep regret that something crucial is lost in our politicians becoming ever more technocratic and their occasions of public speaking being increasingly reduced into sound-bits. In this, they all become practically indistinguishable, they disappear into the political rhetoric of their respective parties that is, once again, simply a collection of the very same sound-bits, strung together by PR advisers. I suppose it has something to do with the prevailing view of politics being a matter of management rather than that of inspiration — and thus it is hardly surprising that people are increasingly indifferent of it.

Perhaps Shakespeare would have something to teach here.


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