Speech Criticism, the Development of Standards for Rhetorical Appraisal

By Lester Thonssen; A. Craig Baird | Go to book overview
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Chapter 17

Response the Key to Oratory

"Historians," said W. E. H. Lecky, "will probably always judge men and policies by their net results, by their final consequences, and this judgment is on the whole the most sure that we can obtain. It is not, however, altogether infallible. Apart from the question of the moral character or the methods employed which a good historian should never omit from his consideration, success is not always a decisive proof of sagacity. Chance and the unexpected play a great part in human affairs . . ."1 This observation is important to the study of rhetoric. It suggests that the men who play roles. in the making of history--and this includes the orators--are judged finally by their influence upon people and events. In the eventual reckoning, men will be tested in the light of what they did. Orators will be judged by what they accomplished, either immediately or in the long run of public affairs.

What are the tests we apply to oratory? How measure its effectiveness? By what criteria do we call a speech successful? 2 These and related questions engage our attention in this chapter. Upon the answers rests, in last analysis, the attitude which we assume toward rhetoric as an instrument of social progress.

By its very nature, speaking is a response-getting activity. Conceived as an act of communication, it seeks to realize an end or objective agreeable to the purpose of the orator. Consequently, the speaker himself looks to response as a measure of his success; failing to secure the end he seeks, he must feel that his undertaking is incomplete, his efforts unfruitful.

It is not a simple task to trace the influence of a speaker's words upon the public mind. Influences operating upon the people at a given moment may be manifold and complexly interrelated. To establish the direct causal relation between spoken words and subsequent actions or tendencies requires not patience alone, but facility in understanding the processes of history. The superficial appreciation of a speech as an excellent piece of craftsmanship may leave the critic as


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Speech Criticism, the Development of Standards for Rhetorical Appraisal


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