Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Cicero and Conversation in a Virtual Age

In classical and Christian schools we have placed an emphasis on teaching students to speak confidently and persuasively. Beginning at a young age, even in Kindergarten, students make presentations in the classroom, perform at school assemblies, and memorize poems. In high school speeches and debates are a regular part of the curriculum. Students grow in their comfort with speaking in public and in their ability to support or defend the cause of truth beautifully, wisely and effectively. The culmination is the presentation of their senior project, or poiesis, in which they explain the contribution their project has made to their community. Our emphasis on rhetoric is designed to do all of this, and it is one of our main distinctives. 

We are not given the gift of speech just to make speeches, however, but also to talk with one another. There is more to rhetoric than presentation, speech and debate.  Besides this public oratory there is also private and conversational rhetoric. Conversation is one of the two great powers of speech, and while it is just as important, it tends to be neglected.  The great Roman orator Cicero distinguished conversation from other kinds of oratory and commended certain principles for guiding it. In our age where virtual but ultimately empty interactions threaten to degrade actual conversation, we would do well to work to recover them. 

Cicero, in his 'On Duties', wrote, "let oratory find place in the arguments of courts, popular assemblies, and the Senate; let conversation have its scope in smaller circles, in the discussion of ordinary affairs, in the gathering of friends...". For Cicero conversation had great importance and, like more public oratory, he believed it couldn’t be pursued effectively without thought and purpose. The character of those engaged in conversation plays a central role, as it does in oratory. Thought for the others involved is paramount--conversation is done with others not to them or in spite of them. Subjects discussed should be mutually interesting and they should not include, of course, those not present if the conversation could damage their reputation. Here is a passage from Cicero:

Let then conversation, in which the followers of Socrates are pre-eminent, be easy, and by no means prolix; let politeness be always observed, nor must one debar others from their part, as if he had sole right to be heard; but, as in all things else, so in social intercourse, let him regard alternation as not unfair. Then, too, let him at the outset consider on what sort of subjects he is talking; if on serious things, let him show due gravity; on amusing, grace. Especially let him take heed lest his conversation betray some defect in his moral character, which is most frequently the case when the absent are expressly ridiculed or spoken of slanderously and malignly, with the purpose of injuring their reputation. 

Cicero further discussed what sort of subjects are to be talked about, and then adds some important advice about when it is time to stop and go home!

For the most part, conversation relates to private affairs, or politics, or the theory and practice of the arts. Pains must then be taken that, if the conversation begins to wander off to other subjects, it be recalled to these. Yet reference must be had to the persons present; for we are not all interested in the same things, at all times, and in a similar degree. We should always observe, also, the length of time to which the pleasure of conversation extends, and as there was reason for beginning, so let there be a limit at which there shall be an ending.

In our Protocol training for students we emphasize "being at ease" in any social situation. The purpose of this is so students may "put others at ease"--that is, the focus is on loving others in the social details. We seek to help our students be socially graceful but, more importantly, to be socially gracious. We engage in conversation for our own enjoyment, it is true, but we must always remember to put others first. In these things Cicero, value him though we do, is not our ultimate authority. Scripture repeatedly admonishes us to "let your conversation be seasoned with salt", to "build one another up", to avoid slander and gossip and the like. We are to consider others more highly than ourselves, and to serve others, even in our conversations. 

In our high school classrooms our teaching methods support this goal, as well. Besides the speeches and debates mentioned above, students spend a significant amount of time engaged in conversation--on purpose and on the curriculum. Our emphasis on seminar-style discussions (which we call harkness discussions) are one way this is done. Students talk with each other on sometimes complicated or even controversial topics in a manner that is respectful but with an aim to uncover truth. Along the way the community of the classroom is built up in love. This takes deliberate training--how to ask questions, how to support a position, how to disagree respectfully if necessary, how to move the conversation along when needed, how to get quieter students involved, etc. These discussions are not just a method to get students to think out and express their learning, but they are a means to teach important social and rhetorical skills at the same time. 

We may talk by nature but we can only have conversations by training. Principles and practice are needed, underpinned by a realization that what is being learned is very important. Conversation may not be in jeopardy of being completely eradicated by virtual kinds of communication, but there is a strong likelihood that our ubiquitous use of electronic forms may significantly damage the way we interact with others in conversation. The harsh and thoughtless (to say the least) manner in which many people, even Christians, address one another on line, especially in that worst-of-all-possible-worlds, the anonymous comment, should make anyone who cares about our society very concerned. Is this the way we talk to each other now? Let us pray that it won't come to that. But if it isn't we must become more intentional about countering it, finding allies along the way, even in first century Rome. And we must give more thought and time to considering what we say and how we say it.  

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