It is all too easy to deliver a bad speech. One reason for this is obvious—if the speaker is not skilled in rhetoric or the subject difficult, the audience may easily become disengaged. During this sort of speech, if you have the misfortune to be in the audience, you are likely to consider many things, none of which the speaker intends. Intellectual exchange between the speaker and the audience dies a horrible death, and though much is said, little is learned.
There is a second kind of deadening that comes about for the very opposite reason: a speaker may be so skillful in rhetoric that the audience becomes charmed to the point that they stop really thinking. During this sort of speech, if you have the dubious fortune to be in the audience, you are likely to think many things: How convincing! How true! How amusing! You will walk out of such a speech feeling very clever, but if someone asks you what this speech was about, you may only be able to stammer out a few memorable lines before thinking well, you just had to be there. And that is true—but you have left the room, and the spell is broken.
But why should I call this a “deadening”? Isn’t this a sign that the audience is really listening to a well-delivered speech? Possibly, and I have seen that happen as well. But I choose to describe that scenario as “dead” because the intellectual activity in the room is one-sided, since at a certain point a charmed audience is engaging mainly by accepting rather than in lively exchange, that is, by thinking, reasoning, and questioning.
In Book II of the Republic, Plato gives an example of a bad speech that serves as the catalyst for the rest of the dialogue. Shortly after the quest for true justice begins, the proto-Nietzschean-sophist-extraordinaire Thrasymachus delivers a speech that champions injustice, calling it the “advantage of the stronger,” and decries any concern for true justice, as it is rarely beneficial. Socrates, through a series of questions and short speeches, gives a retort that completely silences Thrasymachus. Glaucon, the brave young companion of Socrates, is dissatisfied by this exchange, and says “Thrasymachus seems to me, like a snake, to have been charmed by your voice sooner than he ought to have been.”
Glaucon then proposes to take up Thrasymachus’ argument in a dialogue with Socrates, so that they can better see where the argument leads. Plato’s move here suggests that dialogue necessarily imposes a certain amount of justice on its participants, more than may be attainable in a speech. Any sophist can give a speech, but seekers must ask good questions, and follow the argument where it leads.
While the exchange between a speaker and an audience may become dead, the space between a good question and an answer is always lively (just think how lively the space is between the question “will you marry me?” and the response). The best questions are ones that enliven persons, and cause them to seek out the truth. Matt says it well in The End of Our Exploring: “questioning is a form of our desire… [Questions] make us feel as though there is something incomplete that we desire to resolve.”
This desire that spurs us on, that enlivens our hearts and minds, has the power to change our lives for the better in a lasting way. It draws us to participate with Truth itself; but this is a long and difficult path. Mattie Ross, the heroine of Charles Portis’ True Grit, points out that “There is nothing free except the grace of God.” All else is dearly bought, and well-worth a lifetime.