IN the last lecture, delivered by me from this place, I gave you a general idea of what is understood by elocution, when considered as the third of the primary divisions of the rhetorical science. I explained to you the meaning of the terms elegance, composition, and dignity, when associated as the constituent parts of elocution; and made it manifest, I hope to your satisfaction, that by these words no more was intended, than the collection of rules for the choice, the array, and the embellishment of the orator’s words.
The laws of rhetorical elegance, or the characters, which ought to govern in the choice of words, from the universal concurrence of the writers, ancient and modern, were stated to be purity and perspicuity; the former of which, standing upon grounds somewhat different in the modern languages, and especially our own, from those, which formed its ancient foundations, I traced through its variations and modifications from the inflexible rigor of Greek exclusion, down to the almost indiscriminate license of English facility. The consideration of perspicuity comes next before us; which I propose to treat i the same order, which was pursued with regard to its cooperating attribute, purity, by explaining, first what is intended by the term; secondly the reasons, upon which its influence is founded; and thirdly the means, by which it is to be obtained.
1. By analyzing the word itself we shall immediately discover, that it is itself figurative; and borrowed from the operations of the sight. The combination is Latin; per aspicio, to look through. It is according to Quinctilian the first virtue of eloquence. For every species of written composition it is doubtless a virtue of the highest order; but of public speaking it is the vital spark. It is the property, by means of which the orator makes himself understood by his audience; and a discourse, deficient in perspicuity, is just so far as that defect extends like an harangue to a multitude of one nation in the language of another.
In the communication of ideas from mind to mind, by the means of writing or speech, there is necessarily implied a double operation; the operation of the speaker or writer, and that of the hearer or reader. The object of the former is to impart, and that of the latter to receive the idea. The act of receiving is an operation less laborious, than that of imparting thought; yet is it such an act, as can by no means be performed in a passive state of mind. The communication of ideas in a continued discourse must always be imperfect; but of that which is written the reader may take his own time to search out the meaning. He can review, compare, and combine, at his leisure; giving time for the memory and the judgment to come in aid of perception. But oratory, considered as such, as independent of the pen and of the press, has no such resources. A long and complicated succession of ideas must be imparted, for the reception and arrangement of which the hearer has only the time necessary for the speaker to deliver them in speech. He must catch the thought, as it flies on the wings of its words. He has not a moment for deliberation; not an opportunity for revision. The sound of the words, in which one thought is invested, still vibrates in his ear, and he must be prepared for the reception of its successor. However acute his perception, however retentive his memory, however capacious his intelligence, it is impossible, with the ordinary faculties allotted to human nature, that every idea of a long discourse should be completely received in so short a space of time. If some few extraordinary examples might be adduced as exceptions, I think they would appear rather as memory of sounds, than as reception of ideas.
There is indeed a material distinction between the imperfect reception and the imperfect retention of ideas. Every sentence of an oration may be well understood at the time of its utterance, and yet none of its hearers will be able to repeat any considerable portion of it afterwards. This defect being inherent not in the discourse of the speaker, but in the memory of the auditor, cannot be remedied by any perspicuity; the disorders of vision cannot be healed by any lucidness in the object. We are not to inquire, because we cannot provide for those imperfections of communication, which are imputable only to the receiver. It is the interest and the duty of the speaker to facilitate, by every possible assistance that he can afford, the task of the hearer; and to this nothing can contribute aid more effectual, than perspicuity.
The term is equivalent to transparency; and means that we should present our ideas in so clear a light, that they may be completely received by the minds of the auditory, as natural objects are perceived, with all the advantages of daylight, through the medium of a cloudless atmosphere. To the clear perception of any material object three things are indispensable; first the object itself; secondly light, as the medium of vision; and thirdly unobstructed space between the eye and the object. Apply these principles by analogy to the public discourse; the object itself is the idea of the speaker’s mind; the light is the words and sentences, by means of which he attempts its transmission to the minds of his auditors; and the unobstructed space is the absence of every other object or idea, which by intervention might intercept the communication of his thought. If the speaker has in his own mind no distinct idea, there can be no perspicuity; because there will be no object to be seen. The discourse will be sound without sense; vox et praeterea nihil. The language will be unintelligible.
2. If the words are not chosen with such judgment, as to bear in the hearer’s mind the same meaning, which they have in his own, there will be a failure of light. The object is there; but it cannot be clearly discerned, "because the medium of vision is imperfect. The discourse will be obscure.
3. If the words selected should be ill chosen, and present another idea besides that, which he means to convey, the sight of the object is intercepted by a foreign substance, or doubled by an opaque vapor, exhibiting the object as double. It produces an optical illusion. The discourse is ambiguous. And hence arise all the offences [sic] against perspicuity; the unintelligible, the obscure, and the ambiguous; or in other words the no-meaning, the half-meaning, and the double meaning. The causes of these defects may be traced either to the imperfections of the speaker, or to those, which are inherent in human language.
Articulate speech eventually terminates in a language altogether of convention. But words are the representatives immediately of ideas, and [im]mediately of things. If you name a horse or a tree, the sound of the words can never convey to my mind the ideas represented by them in yours, unless, by some previous reference to the things, I have been made to understand the connexion [sic] between them, existing in your mind. If then you have a new idea, which you are desirous of communicating to me, you must not only use a new word, or an old word with a new meaning, for the purpose of transferring it to my mind, but you must give me, by some reference to the thing, the connecting link between your articulate sound and the object you intend by it to express. If the thing, represented by the word, be susceptible of immediate exhibition to the senses, the natural and ordinary way of transmitting the idea is to expose the object to the sense, and to articulate the word at the same time. This is the manner, in which children and foreigners learn the first rudiments of a language; and it may be remarked, that the coincidence of speech and gesture to exhibit ideas remains an universal custom among the nations, which speak the primitive languages. Very small however is the portion of language,which can be thus made manifest to the senses. The original stock of words, which could thus have been furnished to any language, must have been very small. It has been attempted, and perhaps in some degree successfully, to trace all the modern languages of Europe to a very small number of such radical terms, and to account even for them; that is, to show that they were not arbitrary, but were dictated by the natural impression of the object upon the physical organs of the first speaker. However this may be, we must suppose a certain number of these articulate sounds to have been uttered and understood, until by common consent the sound was agreed upon, as the common representative of the thing, before before we can have the basis of a language, after the confusion of Babel. When once the practice had made the meaning of words conventional. two new and copious sources arose for the multiplication of words; imitation and association. Instead of fixing the sense of the sound by a reference to the object itself, its meaning was indicated by the resemblance of the object to some other substance, already familiarized to the hearer’s mind. If the resemblance were of one physical object to another, the new word was formed by the process of imitation; if the resemblance were only of attributes, it was produced by means of the association of ideas. But from there two sources flowed at the same time the greatest imperfections of speech, and the most dangerous shades of perspicuity. From imperfect imitation came that multiplicity of senses, in which the same word is so frequently and often so improperly applied; and from imperfect association most of the obscurities, which are so apt to darken all figurative language. To illustrate this observation, let us take for example the words gun-powder and printing.
Gun-powder is a substance perhaps as universally known, as any thing that could be mentioned. It has been in use (in too common use) among men throughout the world, between four and five centuries; yet I know not any one language, in which it claims an appropriate name. In all the languages of Europe it goes by the name of powder; which it shares with a thousand other substances, all so different from it, that when designated by that word alone, without some accessary [sic] term to mote its destination, the chances are an hundred to one that it would be misunderstood, and taken for something else. In order to distinguish it from all other powders, the word is usually combined with some accessary [sic] term, which limits the boundaries of its meaning. But in different languages this accessary [sic] is drawn from different attributes. The English call it gun-powder; and the French cannon-powder; which points it out by association with the instruments, from which it is most commonly projected. The Germans shoot-powder, by connecting it, not with the instruments, but with the action, by which its chief operation is produced. In Latin it has been termed nitrous-powder, by combination with one of the ingredients, of which it is composed. Yet not one of these terms conveys a complete idea of the thing. Neither guns nor cannon are the sole depositaries of its fury; nor is it even exclusively destined to the act of shooting. Still less significant is the Latin term, since the powder of nitre is no more gunpowder, than the powder of sulphur, or the powder of charcoal.
A similar observation my [sic] be applied to the art of printing; which was invented somewhat more than three hundred years ago. Who its inventor was is a subject of warm and doubtful controversy. Of its importance to the world there is no question. But it has no name. To print is a term of great generality; meaning the effect of an application of one physical substance to another. To print a book was a common form of expression long before Dr. Faustus was suspected of an illicit commerce with the prince of darkness for having discovered this perpetual fountain of light. Three thousand years before that time one of the most venerable personages of antiquity, a character never suspected of any collusive intercourse with the spirit reprobate, the pious and faithful patriarch Job, in the midst of his trials and distresses exclaimed, “Oh, that my words were now written! Oh, that they were printed in a book!”* From which it is apparent, that the name, always applied to one of the mechanical modes of book-making, was adapted to the process of Koster’s invention without the slightest intimation of any thing like a new discovery. Perhaps if a reflecting man were required to point out the two incidents, which have had the most extensive influence upon the history of nations and the happiness of private life, since the foundation of christianity, he would name gun-powder and printing. Their invention was nearly contemporaneous. They effected a total revolution in the management of the two great engines, which operate upon human action, force and reason. To the application of physical force bun-powder gave a concentration of activity and of energy, which had never before been known. To the operation of intellectual power printing added the advantages of multiplicity and dissemination. By the composition of gun-powder matter seemed sublimated into soul. By the process of printing soul derived new vigor by the vesture of matter. Gun-powder and printing, if they have not added to the laws of nature, have at least operated as a revisal of her code. Archimedes could not move the world, because he wanted a place to stand on. Gun-powder and printing have accomplished the task, by a more compendious process, without needing the stand, which he required, and without using the fulcrum or the lever, which he had. Yet these two things, thus wonderful in themselves, thus unbounded in their influence and consequences, have never received from mankind the common compliment of a name.
When ideas originate among a people speaking one language, and are afterwards transmitted to a nation, using another, it is natural that they should carry with them the words, in which they are clothed. Thus the study of natural and moral philosophy, as well as the theory and practice of all the fine arts, having been borrowed by the Romans from Greece, poured upon the Latin language such a flood of Greek words, that from the time of the Ciceronian age the Latin seems to be little more than a dialect of the Greek. The same influence has pervaded an the languages of modern Europe. To the Greeks' we are obliged to resort for the first fountains of all profound science, and all liberal art; and from their language we are compelled to borrow all the words relating to such subjects. A striking proof of this may be furnished from the very science, upon which I am discoursing, and from the multitude of words, which I have been called to explain in the course of these lectures, derived either directly or mediately from the Greek. But it is still more remarkable that modern philosophy, even when exploring regions of science never accessible to the Greeks, still has recourse to them for the names of all her new discoveries. We may instance especially chemistry and botany; sciences, with regard to which the researches of modern times have much increased the fund of human knowledge.
The number of different plants, growing upon the surface of the earth, amounts to about ten thousand. Of these a very inadequate proportion were specifically known and distinguished by name among the ancients. The principal object and merit of the Linnean system, now so fashionable in the world, is that of having discovered marks of discrimination and of coincidence, by which this multitude of vegetable productions could be so methodised [sic], that every species and variety of plants should have its appropriate name. To this end a multitude of new words became necessary, equal to that of the things, thus designated. It was the creation of almost an entire language. But Linneus could devise no better expedient, than to adopt the Greek language as the basis of his new dialect; and his whole nomenclatures consists of Greek words in combination; each part of which had an original signification of its own, far remote from the new idea, with which it was to be associated, but leading to it by some fanciful analogy, traced by the fertile imagination of the author.
Precisely the same course was pursued by Lavoisier, the founder of the modern system of chemistry. He carried the analysis of matter to a degree of refinement so much more minute, than natural philosophy had ever before found practicable, that he discovered a multitude of substances, which all previous investigation had found too subtle for the detection of the senses. He decomposed substances, which under the ancient doctrines of philosophy had passed for elements, not susceptible of decomposition. His new materials however wanted names; and like Linneus he drew for them upon the common stock of the Greek language. Thus the sexual combinations of Linneus and the chemical separation of Lavoisier are alike exhibited in Grecian attire. The loves of the plants must murmur in the same dialect, which alone can sound the dirge over the dissolution of water. Neither nuptials of the blossom nor the generations of the gas can be accomplished, but under Grecian names. The pistilla and the antheræ are metamorphosed into Athenian men and women; the vital and mephitic ingredients of the atmosphere become generators of acid, and destroyers of life; but the marriage and the divorce, the generation and destruction, though never until within half a century known to man, have found no name, by which they could walk the world, without having recourse to the language of Demosthenes and of Homer.
To these causes, upon which the scantiness of time rather than of matter forbids me from farther enlarging, must be ascribed many of the imperfections of communication, inherent in the nature of human speech. The deficiencies imputable to the speaker are generally still greater, and may arise either from ignorance or inaptitude; from perturbation of intellect or stagnation of utterance; from depravity of taste or from darkness of design. As a general result it may be stated, that the no-meaning or unintelligible is always imputable to the speaker; the double-meaning or ambiguous, commonly to the language; and the half-meaning or obscure occasionally to either, and sometimes to both.
A speaker may be unintelligible either for want of distinct ideas, or of proper expressions. No man can give what he has not. Indistinct conception never can possess distinct communication. This is indeed generally considered as the sole cause of deficient perspicuity. When the idea in the mind is clear and definite, the words for conveying it commonly present themselves, without any toilsome search. But this is not universally the case. A free command of language is not invariably the attendant upon accuracy of intellect. And there are even examples of shrewd and active minds, united with facility of speech in persons, whose discourses have been remarkable unintelligible. This was particularly the character of Oliver Cromwell, of whom the historian Hume observes, that the sagacity of his actions and the absurdity of his discourse form the most prodigious contrast, that ever was known.
The unintelligible sometimes results from affectation of sublimity, and excessive attention to the sound. There is something so pleasing in the mere music of harmonious articulation, that combinations of words are employed, which have no substantial meaning, but with which the speaker and hearer both rest contented, because they enjoy the gratification of the ear, and never take the trouble of scrutinizing the thought. This species of nonsense is more frequent in poetry than in public speaking.
Of the double-meaning, or ambiguity, the most frequent cause is equivocation, or the use of a word, which with propriety may bear two different senses. I said it was most commonly imputable to the defects inherent in the language; and have endeavoured [sic] to point out its origin, the practice of applying old words to the conveyance of new ideas, and the consequent multiplicity of meanings elicited from the same sounds. There are however two very different kinds of equivocation, which are used with design. The first is the employment of a word in one sense, with the intention that the hearer shall receive it in another. This is one of the vilest modifications of falsehood; but it was taught among the doctrines of the Jesuits; was found among the answers of ancient oracles, among the heathens; and was sometimes practised [sic] most disingenuously by the Romans in the interpretation of their treaties. The other is a lighter and more trivial form, not used for any purpose of deception, but to amuse and surprise, by connecting the word in one sense with an idea, formed by its combination in another. These are merely the subsidies, which wit borrows from buffoonery. They terminate in quibbles, conundrums, and puns; cross-readings, ship-news, and mistakes of the press[.] It has long been decided by the grave tribunals of criticism, that in all this there is no genuine wit; but they are the spoilt children of genius. They are ranked by Quinctilian among the figures of speech; nor is it easy to see why they have been degraded from that rank, and more than other tropes or figures, acknowledged to exist alone in the words. To exclude them systematically from the discourses of the orator is a severity, to which I am not inclined; but to seek them with much assiduity were an idle waste of industry. But the ambiguities, against which rhetoric raises her voice, are different from either of these. They are the fruits of ignorance or inattention, and not of design. Her precepts against them are meant to guard not against intended deceit, but against possible misconceptions.
The half-meaning or obscure was the third of the offences [sic] against perspicuity, which I have noticed; and this may arise from a great variety of causes. Sometimes from the defect of the language, when it does not furnish the words precisely adapted to the speaker ’s ideas; and sometimes from the design of the speaker not to disclose his whole idea, but to leave part of it to be formed by the imagination of the hearer.
There have been periods in the literary history of most cultivated languages, when obscurity has been estimated an accomplishment; when a writer has been admired in proportion to the quantity of his meaning, which he did not express; and when style was little more than a trial of skill between the writer and his reader. The earliest examples of this fashion of composition are found among the Latin classics of the silver age, who wrote under the harrow of the early Roman emperors. They have been imitated by many of the most eminent modern writers, both French and English. But Seneca, Martial, Juvenal, Persius, and Tacitus, had an apology for their obscurities, which the modern writers of dark sayings and sententious riddles cannot plead for themselves. In the times when they lived, a man, who ventured to open all his thoughts, the next day might receive an intimation to open all his veins. Distinction of every kind was an irredeemable crime. Treachery crept into intimacies of friendship; into the bosom of domestic life. The confidence in the ties of kindred and of personal attachment, which constitutes the charm or the consolation of human existence, was dissolved. Every man of note was watched by a spy, in the guest at his table; in the partner of his bed. Every step was tracked; every word was registered. In such a state of things the mind was compelled to seek a sepulchre [sic] in concealment, or a varnish of disguise. Dissimulation became the prevailing characteristic of manners, and obscurity the excellence of style. Between that natural tendency to expansion, which is at all times the property of thought, and that effort of suppression, dictated by the instinct of self-preservation, was generated this dark, enigmatical fashion of speech, which unveils itself by halves, and makes the hearer of the discourse perform half the labor of its composition. Once introduced, it soon fascinated by its very obliquity. It flatters alike the vanity both of the orator and of his hearer. The one exults in the consciousness of a cunning mind, from the construction of a stratagem. He prides himself in the darkness of his conceptions, and glories in the mysteries of his meaning. The hearer assumes insensibly the practice of delving for precious ores of meditation, and gratulates [sic] his own sagacity for the depth of his detections. The taste for the beautiful simplicity of nature becomes vitiated. The attention of the hearer deserts the sentiment, to fasten upon the expression; and as we are told was actually the case in the days of Quinctilian, no public discourse can aspire to success, unless it stand in need of a translation.
These are perhaps the principal causes of those imitations, which in the literature of modern times have occasionally appeared of this species of style. It is a fashion, which for a time gives a false glare of reputation to those, who carry it to the utmost excess; but, as instability is the essential character of all corruption, the public taste is never steady to any particular stage of decay. The fashion therefore never lasts long; and the riddle-writers, after glittering for a day in the sunshine of favor, pass from the library to the lumber-room, and thenceforth delight only the moths and the mice.
Obscurity often proceeds from want of attention in the speaker; and not unfrequently [sic] from a want of patience to assign to every idea its rightful word. So much more rapid is the action of thought than that of utterance, that a careless speaker will not allow himself time to articulate his whole idea. From every sentence, which they pronounce, some material word will be omitted; their opinions are all emitted in fragments; and as this over-haste commonly induces some confusion of mind, as well as of elocution, it is not easy for the hearer to supply the words, which have been left out.
The violations of perspicuity are as great, and perhaps more frequent, from defective arrangement, than from ill selected words. But this will more properly form the subject of our future consideration. To sum up all that has been said, in this and my last lecture, on that purity and perspicuity, which constitute oratorical elegance, I can only say, that if in public discourse you can always make choice of such words, as will convey effectually to the minds of your audience your meaning, your whole meaning, and nothing but your meaning, you will fairly be entitled to the character, and unquestionably obtain the reputation of an elegant speaker.
*Job, xix. 23.