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The Social and Public Uses of Rhetoric

In this country, where the political genius of the people lies in self-government, where liberty depends upon the capacity of justly stating its claims, the art of public speaking has public importance.

To be able to take a subject well in hand, like a stagecoach driver does his horses, to hold the reins of argument firmly, to direct and drive well home the burden of meaning, is a power useful to every man who rises to address a congregation or a council or stands up in Parliament to persuade, or on a platform to convince a meeting.

Perfect expression is even an indispensable household acquisition—a social charm, an economy in explanation, and hourly ministers to good understandings. In public, a good speech, well-spoken, is part of the necessary defense of truth and right. In one of his famous letters to Mr. Delane (1864), Mr. Cobden remarks:—
'It is known that I am not in the habit of writing a word beforehand of what I speak in public. Like other speakers, practice has given me as perfect self-possession in the presence of an audience, as if I were writing in my closet. Now, my ever-constant and over-ruling thought while addressing a public meeting—the one necessity which long experience of the arts of controversialists has impressed on my mind, is to avoid the possibility of being misrepresented, and prevent my opponents from raising a false issue—a trick of logic as old as the time of Aristotle. If I have, as some favorable critics are pleased to think, sometimes spoken with clearness, it is more owing to this ever-present fear of misrepresentation than any other cause.'

This remarkable antobiographical passage shows how the practice of rhetoric had trained great natural powers to explicitness and mastery in their use.

Progression is a series of stages—individuals first, then groups, then classes, then nations are raised. You can no more introduce the people at once to the highest results of philosophy than you can take them to the summit of a monument without ascending the steps, or reach a distant land without travelling to it. But it is possible to impart method in classification, coherence in inferences, and inculcate justice in invective. The people are not waiting for new discoveries in thought; there is more wisdom extant than they master, more precepts than they apply. The scaling-ladders of the wise, which they, having mounted the citadel of wisdom, have kicked down, are yet of service to those who are below. The author has picked one of these ladders up, and reared it in these pages for the use of those who have yet to rise.

In the ancient state of society, war was the only trade, force the only teacher, and the battle-axe the only argument A transition has, indeed, taken place; the times, and means, and ends are changed. The struggle now is for income and intelligence, and most men are engaged in a double battle against want and error. Provided the literary sword will cut, few will quarrel about its polish. If the blade has good temper, he who needs it will put up with a plain hilt.

A poor man cannot rival the rich in luxury of life, but he can in luxury of knowledge. He cannot furnish his house as the wealthy can, but he can furnish his head. He cannot found a house of note, but he may found a mind of mark. Though some kingdoms may be afflicted or adorned with kings, learning has always been a republic, where all are equal who know.

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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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