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Repetition a Necessity

Repetition has its uses and necessities, and is excellent in a speaker, provided he does not repeat himself. Few persons, as a rule, ever understand any new thing on its first saying. It is by many repetitions in many forms that a new idea is comprehended. Leaders of opinion, even of the soberer sort, have within my knowledge been so captivated by reason, as to overlook the conditions under which reason acts. They have been so moved when the reason of a thing has become plain to them, that they have had no doubt that all men could be at once convinced by the same exposition of the facts. The processes of education should have taught them differently. First elementary principles are acquired, then successive stages are reached until the whole subject looms before the mind, impressing it by its completeness. Every step, though with less precision, like the steps in Euclid, recall and repeat what has gone before.

The repetition here explained and commended is variation in statement, and means presenting the same idea under different aspects. Every important principle has many relations and applications. To trace these and show them is to recall the cardinal idea without wearying the hearer, who, indeed, is often charmed with the range of view which reveals the same fact operative in divers circumstances. Bishop Hall said of moderation that it was the 'silken string running through the pearl chain of all our virtues.' To trace this silken cord wherever it runs in the channels of possible applications, is the kind of repetition meant in this chapter. It keeps one idea always in view under a brilliant diversity which instructs and charms. There is a 'damnable iteration' spoken of in the play. That is when the same thing is said in the same way in season and out of season. He who is always obtruding the same view upon others soon becomes tiresome, and people avoid him and his subject. Repetition as a part of rhetoric is an art, and is limited to varying attention on an essential point until it is understood, and no further. To go further is to provoke resentment and dislike. Robert Owen laid down five fundamental facts and twenty laws of human nature. There were a million ideas in them, but because he often repeated them in the same language, unrelieved by variation and illustration, he was regarded as a man of 'one idea.' Another generation who may look into his works, sayings and designs, will be of a different opinion. Splendid enthusiasts forget themselves in their desire to serve others, and leave it to posterity, who will reap the advantages of their disinterested devotion, to do them justice—if so minded.

History acquaints us with the wondrous effects of eloquence upon multitudes, carried away to far crusades by the oratory of a hermit. Even in grave political assemblies and parliaments, a great speaker can persuade so that majorities hang upon his words. Persuasion is a task of skill. 'Inculcating an idea—disseminating it—winning conviction first, and inspiring enthusiasm after—is often like the dropping of a seed, and patiently waiting till it growsfostering it, watering it, protecting it, until it expands into stem and flower. Such,' said the Daily News years ago, 'is the political eloquence of modern times. He who discovered it, and who practices it, is—Richard Cobden.' It is hardly true that Mr. Cobden 'discovered' it. He was its greatest illustrator, but it had grown with the growth and commercial character of the nation. Long before Cobden's time, the magic fancy of Burke, the ceaseless sentences of Pitt, the thundering declamation of Fox, all had like features in lesser degree. The king of American transcendentalists has said, that 'eloquence at first and last must still be at bottom a statement of facts. All audiences soon ask, "What is he driving at?" and if this man does not stand for anything, he will be deserted.' And he will be deserted unless his hearers see the same facts stand firm in different lights.

Matthew Arnold, says a writer in Scribner, had a repellent endowment of one kind of courage—' the courage of repeating yourself over and over again.' It is a sound forensic maxim—tell a judge twice whatever you want him to hear; tell a special jury thrice, and a common jury half a dozen times, the view of a case you wish them to entertain. 'Mr. Arnold treated the middle-class as a common jury, and addressed them with remorseless iteration.' In introducing a new topic to an auditory, it is well to repeat the main idea in different forms of expression, each in itself brief, but altogether affording an expansion of the sense to be conveyed, and detaining the mind upon it.

It is given to well-calculated reiteration to accomplish that which is denied to power. The reputation of Robespierre—now breaking a little through clouds of calumny as dense and dark as ever obscured human name—is a striking illustration of the omnipotence of repetition. The most eloquent of his vindicators has thus sketched his triumph:—

'Still deeper in the shade, and behind the chief of the National Assembly, a man almost unknown began to move. Agitated by uneasy thoughts, which seemed to forbid him to be silent, he spoke on all occasions, and attacked all speakers, indifferently, including Mirabeau himself. Driven from the tribune, he ascended it next day; overwhelmed with sarcasm, coughed down, disowned by all parties, lost amongst the eminent champions who fixed public attention, he was never dispirited. It might have been said, that an inward and prophetic genius revealed to him the omnipotence of a firm will and unwearied patience, and that an inward voice said to him, "These men who despise thee are thine: all the changes of this revolution, which now will not deign to look upon thee, will eventually terminate in thee, for thou hast placed thyself in the way like the inevitable excess in which all impulse ends."'

Robespierre had power of thought, distinction of person; for, though a democrat, he was scrupulously careful of his dress and of his language, which was never mean or inexact. Had he not had unusual qualities, his pertinacity had done nothing for him. He had sunk into obscurity, or have been remembered only as an irrepressible fool. His relevance of thought, and his studied precision of expression, were the qualities which at last commanded attention.

In his Historical Characters, Sir H. L. Bulwer (Lord Dalling) remarks:—' Napoleon complained of Talleyrand's repetitions, saying he could not conceive how people found M. de Talleyrand eloquent, "II tournait toujours sur la meme idee."' (He always turned round the same idea.) But this was a system with him, as with Fox, who laid it down as the great principle for an orator who wished to leave an impression.

When the columns of the Times were crowded for five days with reports of the trial of Palmer of Rugeley, the leading article upon it, on the sixth day, when the trial had ended, gave a reiterated account of the fat, rascally, horseracing surgeon who poisoned Cook, an article which the busy man could understand, though he had never read a line of the reports. The article was like a Scotch houseself-contained. It was lighted up, as it were, by freshness of statement, still but a reflection of facts the readers had seen day by day, but could not recall in the same order or with the same effect. One object of repetition is to bring into view all that is necessary to present a complete case to auditor or reader. It is of no use listening to a speaker or reading an author, if you require first to hear or read some one else to understand him.

Reiteration, without tiresomeness, is not only an advantage but a force. One who knew all things pertaining to the art of persuasion, wrote:—
Truth can never be confirmed enough,
Though doubt itself were dead.

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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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