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Premeditation in Speech

Premeditation is but thoughtfulness in speech, and he who speaks without thought will soon have hearers who will pay him no attention. He who speaks without preparing what he will say is but a gambler in oratory who trusts to the right dice turning up as he proceeds. Preparation is premeditation.

A book is not written—a poem is not written, a play is not planned, a picture is not painted—without premeditation. If they are, the book will lack arrangement—the poem will be wanting in grace, the play will be deficient in construction, and the picture will not be the best expression of the artist's powers. Of course there are exceptions. Inspiration may come like a flash of light and reveal a remarkable design; but though premeditation is not in it, and could not produce it, meditation alone can perfect the design. Speeches are the better for premeditation. Even sermons are improved by it. A young candidate for holy orders had to preach his trial sermon before Archbishop Whately. That experienced prelate discovered crudeness of arrangement and want of finish of expression in what he heard, and asked the young preacher whether he was accustomed to prepare his discourses. He answered that he was not, as he trusted to the divine promise—'In the hour in which you have to speak it shall be given to you what you shall say.' The Archbishop remarked that that promise was given to the Apostles, and unless he was sure that he was an apostle it might not apply to him. The candidate had trust and piety, without which preaching is ineffective, but the shrewd prelate knew that without preparation piety could seldom commend its cause in the pulpit.
Orators of renown have not disdained to premeditate their speeches, both in Parliament and on the platform. Porson said that 'Pitt carefully considered his sentences before he uttered them, but that Fox threw himself into the middle of his, and left it to God Almighty to get him out again.' But those who lack the splendid confidence of Charles James Fox had better acquire that sureness in speech affirmed of a certain French speaker, whose sentences were like cats—when showered into the air they found their feet without trouble.

There is reason to believe that the greatest masters of oratory have been sensible of the value, and have practiced premeditation. It is only the young, would-be speaker who expects to be great without effort, or whose vanity leads him to impose upon others the belief that he is perfect at will—and needs no preparation. One of the biographers of Canning tells us that he was himself fastidious to excess about the slightest terms of expression. He would correct his speeches and amend their verbal graces. He was not singular in this. Burke, whom he is said to have closely studied, did the same. Sheridan always prepared his speeches; the highly-wrought passages in his speech on the Hastings impeachment were written beforehand and committed to memory, and the differences were so marked that the audience could readily distinguish between the extemporaneous passages and those that were premeditated. Canning's alterations were frequently so minute and extensive that the printers found it easier to recompose the matter afresh in type than to correct it. This is to be amendment mad. Frugality in revision is as much a mark of sanity as frugality in metaphors.

Oratory in this country is less good than it would be, owing to the foolish contempt for 'cut-and-dried speeches,' till it has come to be considered a sign of weakness for a man to think before he speaks. Those who travelled with Shiel when he spoke in the country, could hear him in the morning repeating his intended oration in his dressing-room. Disraeli said in the Young Duke, 'Mr Shiel's speech in Kent was a fine oration, and the boobies who taunted him for having got it by rote were not aware that in doing so he wisely followed the example of Pericles, Demosthenes, Lycias, Isocrates, Hortensius, Cicero, Caesar, and every great orator of antiquity.'
The orations or compositions of Demosthenes are not distinguished by ornament and splendor. It is an energy of thought which raises him above his species. He appears not to attend to words, but to things. We forget the orator, and think of the subject. Demades says, that Demosthenes spoke better on some few occasions when he spoke unpremeditatedly. Probably he spoke well in some of these instances, but it was the result of power acquired by the habit of preparation. As a general rule, he who thinks twice before speaking once, will speak twice the better for it when he has no time to think.

When Macaulay was about to address the House of Commons his anxious and restless manner betrayed his intention. Still, he was regardless of the laugh of the witlings, and continued intent on his effort. This is the real courage that does things well—the courage that is neither laughed nor frowned from its purpose.

Macaulay spoke early in the evening, before the jarring of the debate confused him, or long attention enfeebled his powers. When the great Lord Chatham was to appear in public he took much pains about his dress, and in his last speech he arranged his flannels in graceful folds. He was carried into the House when near death. It need not then detract from our respect for Erskine, says Lord Campbell, in his Lives of the Chancellors, that 'when he went down into the country on special retainers, he examined the court the night before the trial, in order to select the most advantageous place for addressing the jury. On the cause being called, the crowded audience were perhaps kept waiting a few minutes before the celebrated stranger made his appearance; a particularly nice wig, and a pair of new yellow gloves, distinguished and embellished his person beyond the ordinary costume of the barrister of the circuit.'

Amid the applause bestowed upon premeditation, it would not be just to omit the ridicule with which it has been visited by Sydney Smith, who said, 'It is only by the fresh feelings of the heart that mankind can be very powerfully affected. What can be more ludicrous than an orator delivering stale indignation and fervor of a week old? turning over whole pages of violent passions, written out in German text; reading the trophes and apostrophes into which he is hurried by the ardor of his mind, and so affected at a preconcerted line and page that he is unable to proceed any further.' True, 'it is only by the fresh feelings of the heart that mankind can be very powerfully affected.' But nature is always fresh; and he who reproduces nature will always be effective. Macready never stabbed his daughter to preserve her honor. Yet every man was moved at his Virginius. As Othello, Macready's 'indignation' at Iago was a glory of the stage for years; yet men were as much affected by its intensity as on the first day when he displayed it. The speech of Antony over the dead body of Caesar was 'written in German text' in thed ays of Queen Elizabeth; it was 'cut and dried' near three hundred years ago. Yet, whatever our satirical canon may say, the idea of premeditation is extinguished by the charm of perfect expression, and the passion excited, in those capable of realizing its fitness and force, is fresh to every generation of hearers. Lord Brougham wrote out the last passages of his speech for the defense of Queen Caroline nine times. Its effect was a triumph of preparation.

When Dr. Black had a class of young men at the Reform Association, he disciplined them in rhetoric by causing each to marshal his discourse on a chosen theme under certain heads. These once gone over, he required these heads to be spoken upon by inversion, beginning probably with the peroration, continuing with the argument, taking afterwards the statement, or other division belonging to the theme, and ending with the exordium. Not until a member could speak well on any one head, and in any order, was he deemed master of his subject.
Professor de Morgan remarks in a paper which he furnished to Dr. Lardner's Geometry, that to number the parts of propositions is the only way of understanding them. To identify details and grasp the whole are the two indices of proficiency.
Margaret Fuller relates how backwoodsmen of America, whom she visited, would sit by their log-fire at night and tell 'rough pieces out of their lives.' This disintegration of events by men strong of will and full of matter, in order to set distinct parts before auditors, is a sign of that power which we call mastery. Ability is, always, power under command.

Elsewhere, in describing Colonel John Hay's account of Abraham Lincoln, I have said:—It has never been made so clear in what way, and by what qualities, the gaunt rail-splitter attained the Presidency. His speeches show that he excelled in seeing all the way into a State problem and in power of perfect statement of it. His account of his self-education is one by which many students may profit to-day. Lincoln said, 'When a child I used to get irritated when anyone talked to me in a way I could not understand; that always disturbed my temper, and has ever since.' He 'hunted after the idea in a dark saying' until he thought he had caught it, and was not satisfied until he had put it into language 'plain enough for any boy to understand it.' That was Lincoln's answer as to how he acquired the art of ' putting things'—which does not come by nature, but by education. In studying law-books, he came upon the word 'demonstrate,' which excited his curiosity, and he studied Euclid until he had mastered what demonstration meant in geometry, and afterwards applied the knowledge in argument.

Gather relevant knowledge anywhere. Every man is indebted to others for much information. No man knows everything by his own research and verification, unless it be Mr. Gladstone.

Preparation is power; nor does the hesitation which the desire of exactness sometimes begets, tell against the speaker. Mr. T. P. O'Connor says of Mr. Sexton on a famous occasion:—
'He spoke, I say, slowly—but at the same time it was evident that he had his mind well fixed on the end which he wished to reach. Nothing adds so much to the effectiveness of oratory as the sense that the man who is addressing you, is thinking at the very moment he is speaking. You have the sense of watching the visible working of his inner mind; and you are far more deeply impressed than by the glib facility which does not pause, does not stumble, does not hesitate, because the speaker does not stop to think.'
Humanity is the instrument upon which the orator has to play, and he had better learn what notes it is capable of before he begins. Experience in Parliament and on the platform will soon teach any observer, that few speakers are worth hearing who do not prepare, and prepare carefully, what they want to say.

In writing we may be brief and suggestive, because each word remains to be pondered over. But that which falls on the ear not being so permanent as that which falls on paper, fullness, premeditation and varied treatment are indispensable.

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George Jacob Holyoake

  • Born April 13, 1817 in Birmingham, UK and died on January 22nd, 1906.
  • Was a British secularist, co-operator (The English Leader), and newspaper editor (Reasoner).

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