Barack Obama’s presidential campaign was, among other things, a victory for the almost forgotten art of political rhetoric. His long, perfectly balanced sentences, his ability to shift pitch and perspective without losing narrative flow, and his subtle evocations of two masters of the genre, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, were demonstrations of the power of public speech to move imaginations and lift hearts. At its best, oratory is the music of the mind.
Mere words, some might say. But to the religious sensibility, certainly the Jewish one, words are not mere. The Bible tells us that God created the Universe with words. His first gift to the first human, made in His image, was the ability to name the animals and use words to understand the world. When He wanted to cure the hubris of Babel’s builders, He merely “confused their language”, for without words we cannot communicate; without communication we cannot co-operate; and without co-operation we are helpless and alone. The human person is, in an ancient Aramaic translation of the Bible, a “speaking soul”.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the prophets of Ancient Israel, who had no power, no army, no throne, nothing except the word God placed in their mouths. Yet their words transformed the moral horizons of humankind. Think of Amos: “Let justice run down like water, and righteousness as a mighty stream.” Or Isaiah: “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall rise with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not be faint.” Or Micah: “What does the Lord require of you but to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.”
God, in the Bible, reveals Himself in words, and we, in the act of prayer, offer our words to Him. Because of language, and only because of it, we, frail, fallible and finite, can speak and be spoken to by the Infinite. Words abolish distance. Just as the internet abolishes physical distance, so revelation and prayer abolish metaphysical distance. Language is the narrow bridge across the abyss between self and self, soul and soul. Words are the redemption of solitude.
As God makes the natural Universe with words, so we make or unmake social universes with words. Few things have more force than the human voice, telling a story, communicating a vision, summoning energies and bodying forth ideals. Great words make people think in new ways. We are as big or small as language makes us. At its best, language is an epiphany, revealing to us the glory of the human spirit and the radiance of the created world.
Martin Luther King understood the power of oratory: his “I have a dream” is one of the great speeches of all time. John and Robert F. Kennedy were virtuosi. Recall John’s “Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind.” Or Robert’s definition of the task of politics: “To tame the savageness of Man and make gentle the life of this world.”
The greatest American of them all was Lincoln. At Gettysburg in 1863, the man who spoke before him, Edward Everett, went on for more than two hours. Lincoln’s address, 273 words long, lasted two minutes and will endure for centuries. He used words to inspire and heal, to summon the nation to greatness, and reunite it after war.
Language is a double-edged sword and can be used for evil as well as good. “Life and death,” says the book of Proverbs, “are in the power of the tongue.” Hitler was a spellbinding demagogue who could incite vast crowds to hate. Blessedly, at that time, Britain had the finest speaker of the 20th century, Winston Churchill, whose radio speeches were one of the greatest weapons in the fight for freedom. Churchill also understood the importance of wit in the midst of seriousness: “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”
Words are essential to democracy, where the power of persuasion must always defeat the threat of coercion. In ages of turbulence like ours, victory goes to the leader who can speak to the anxieties of the age, constructing for a generation a compelling narrative of hope. That is what Barack Obama did, and why he won. He gave words wings and thus redrew the landscape of possibility.
(First published in The Times)