2 OCTOBER 1942, Page 10


By HAROLD NICOLSON THE Brains Trust the other day were asked what were the principles of oratory and who was the greatest living orator? Had they defined oratory merely as the capacity to arouse effective emotions among the • masses, then assuredly they would have accorded the palm to Hitler. But since they included truthfulness among the main virtues of the orator, they decided that, on the whole, Winston Churchill was the best speaker of his age. In the course of the discussion, Professor Gilbert Murray mentioned Cicero's De Oratore, and I have since re-read that dialogue in order to remind myself of what Cicero had actually said. The scene of the disputa- tion is laid in the villa-garden of Lucius Crassus at Tusculum, and the members of this Roman Brains Trust (which included Julius Caesar in the unexpected guise of the witty man) lie upon cushions in the shade of an enormous plane tree. The assembled politicians did not, except incidentally, mention sincerity as acnong the faculties essential to the successful orator. 'hey narrowed down their argu- ment to five main essentials, namely : (i) Natural gifts, (2) experience, (3) understanding of human nature, (4) self-confidence, and (5) style. Under natural gifts, they attached special importance to the gift of memory, and indeed it would have been impossible for any Roman senator to speak from typewritten notes. By " experience " they meant not merely long practice in public speaking, not merely " the trained skill of highly educated men," but also a deep knowledge of foreign and domestic affairs. Understanding of human nature seemed to them essential, since a good speaker must be a man of the world ("perurbanus"), must possess sufficient psychological insight to capture,the favour of his audience, and must have a special sympathy with national character. All those who feel shy of public speaking will be interested by their remarks upon self-confidence. It was, they felt, not sufficient merely to master one's nervousness (and they admitted that their knees knocked together when they rose in the Senate), it was also essential to possess "os," meaning thereby " bounce " or " cheek." And among the obvious components of style they classed diction, gesture, intonation, method, lucidity, charm, variety and tact.

* * * *

Last week, Messrs. Cassell published a second volume of Mr. Winston Churchill's War Speeches under the title of The Un- relenting Struggle. I have amused myself by examining his oratory in the light of Cicero's five points. Under the heading of " natural gifts " the Prime Minister would not obtain full marks. He is not a born orator ; he has a poor rhetorical memory and is forced to rely much on notes ; his eminence as a speaker is due rather to his immense capacity for taking pains. From the test of " experience " he emerges triumphantly, since there are few men alive today who possess his immense knowledge of public affairs or who are so deeply imbued with veneration fox " the splendours of our political and moral inheritance." Under the test of understanding of human nature and of the national character he would obtain quite good marks. His self-confidence is often hampered by modesty and by extreme sensitiveness ; but nobody could regard him as deficient in "os." His diction, which to him is an asset of charm, might prove a liability to any less loved man. He is capable of great lucidity,- and his powers of exposition and narrative are of a high order. His gestures, although few, are ungainly ; his charm is all his own. Un- doubtedly he possesses variety, wit and humour. He does not always possess tact, and there are times when his passionate sincerity gets the better of his sense of occasion. I should conclude, therefore, that if Winston Churchill were to be examined as an orator under the five Ciceronian tests, he would receive some sixty marks out of a hundred. None the less, I certainly regard him as the greatest orator now alive. How am I to account for the missing forty marks?.

* * * * The Ciceronian formula, in that it omits sincerity, is not enough. Winston Churchill possesses powers of personality, some of which

would have been regarded by Cicero as lacking in gravity, others of which transcend the- limits of Cicero's rather mean philosophy of life. The fact is that Churchill puts into his speeches the very things which Cicero left out. In estimating oratory of such immense temporary significance, one should seek to assess it regardless of its immediate historical import and unmoved by the surge of gratitude associated with " the breathless days of June." Viewed objectively, I should suppose that what gives to Churchill's speeches so high a place in the history of rhetoric is a peculiar combination of humanity and elevation. Under " humanity " I should include not only his rare gift of sentiment and pity, but the special attributes of his charm and style. The charm, the incommunicable charm, of Churchill's oratory is composed of elements more subtle and more varied than those of which the Romans dreamed. He is modest ; he is un- pretentious ; he is not in the least conceited ; he is at once proud and humble. "I am only- the servant," he said in June, 5941, " of the Crown and Parliament ; I am always at the disposal of the House of Commons, in which I have lived my life." Formidable but kind, truculent but generous, pugnacious but amused, he gives to his themes and his allusions a variety which serves to illumine the concentration and intensity of his will. The flashes of his humour, the zest with which he savours them himself, play like summer lightning among the towering cloud-masses of his sternness. He creates surprise not so much by sudden outbursts of the unusual or dramatic, as by the unexpected usage of expected terms. He main- tains expectancy by the very zest of his delivery, by the impression he conveys of being passionately interested himself. He achieves an accord of feeling, partly by his pervading courtesy and humanity, and more specifically by his use of the Anglo-Saxon, and his abuse of the foreign, word. And he conveys in his every ungainly gesture, in the stamping of his feet, in the jerk and jump of his impatient knees a sense of energy and gusto, of which Cicero, with his studied Roscian mode, would have deeply disapproved.

* * * * Such tricks of manner or delivery delight the emotions ; yet after all it is the elevation of his will and character that Churchill's oratory moves the minds of man. There is the note of defiance which echoes in " Let it roar and let it rage. We shall come through." There is the call to courage in " We shall not fail or falter ; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle nor the long- drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down." There is the manliness of "To defeat there is only one answer. the only answer to defeat is victory." There is the strong pulse of pride which pounds along through all our defeats and rejoices that we are still the masters of our destiny. And behind it all there is a simple sense of moral principles:

" History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passions of former days. What is the worth of all this ? The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the up- setting of our calculations ; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honour."

* * * *

I have heard many of the greatest orators of my age. I have listened to the screams of Hitler and the deep reverberations o Briand's lovely voice. I have admired the art of Painleve, the lucidity of Stafford Cripps, the purity of Asquith's mind, the "os" of Aneurin Bevan, the brilliance of Venizelos, the austerity of Woodrow Wilson. From these I have derived many emotional or intellectu effects. But only for a moment have they mad- me feel different after listening to Churchill I feel different, and far better, for quit a time. Assuredly under the aegis of such simplicity and grandeur inspired by such " sublime resolve," we shall be able, as we hay been enabled, " to save and guide the world."