There’s a story in the Old Testament where Moses—an Israelite slave turned Egyptian prince turned exile—is told by God to speak with Pharaoh and demand that he let all the Israelite slaves go free. Moses doesn’t want to. He is scared, for obvious reasons, but his excuse is also that he is not an eloquent speaker. In response, God says, to summarize, “Don’t worry about your eloquence, I’ll give you the words to speak.” And it’s this sort of scenario that is echoed by some of the later prophets like Isaiah and again in the New Testament by the disciples. They are not to worry so much about their rhetorical abilities, or lack thereof, since they will be given the words—and more, the authority—they need when the time comes. Persuasion, it seems, is not in their hands.
What’s interesting to me is how this seriously upends the high value placed upon rhetoric just a little later on and a little further west. As the city-states of Greece started to develop and a burgeoning form of democracy began to thrive, the study and practice of rhetoric became something of the utmost importance to civic life. If you wanted to change civil society, you needed the ability to persuade people: you had to inform them, delight them, and, most importantly, move them to some form of assent and action. Since the pre-Socratic sophists, we’ve always been fascinated by this power of ours to persuade another to think in a new way, to adopt our vocabulary, or even to change longstanding habits and behaviours.
And this power is very real, as most of us who’ve been on either side of the dynamic can attest; but it’s also somewhat elusive. Just what is it about how we speak that has the ability to move another person at some times, but not at others? In most accounts of rhetoric, the lion’s share of attention is given to the power and ethos of the speaker and to the extension of that speaker into a carefully crafted speech.
But even with such a focus, knowledge of all the rules for a good orator and oration didn’t guarantee anything. And it’s why there’s always been a debate about the usefulness of studying rhetoric, since it, like music, seems to be intuitively apprehended by some and not by others. That is, rhetoric was not merely a mechanical procedure: if you do x, the result will be y. Because sometimes x could produce z, or sometimes it might even produce nothing. It was more of a study that had to be situated, and examined case by case, realizing that general rules may or may not work given the variety of other variables that could be thrown into any possible number of mixes. But there’s a third part to the dynamic that needs some attention: the audience.
Going back to Moses, then, it seems that the Judeo-Christian approach to persuasion, for better or worse, didn’t rely the same way on rhetorical arguments that the Greco-Roman approach focused upon. Consider classical writers’ invocations to the muses to inspire their speeches and speechwriters, to descend upon them and provide them with the words they needed to say. The idea of inspiration seems to be taken quite literally.
But it seems from many of the biblical accounts that the threefold dynamic of the speech act—speaker-text-audience—is actually fully participating in something that largely transcends and often eludes all the various parts—not just the speaker. So might it not be possible that such inspiration is also required for the listener to appreciate rhetoric? In this vein, the other half of the Moses story is quite important. Pharaoh, despite all the proclamations Moses and Aaron were giving, was not given the ears to hear. For the audience to hear, it seems, is a gift of grace akin to that of inspiration for speaking well. The speaker, then, was not the only one in the relationship who needed to be “inspired.”
What implications does this have for those of us working to research, to present, and to influence? We want to be winsome, credible, and logical. But these stories attest that we may need to ask also for some other movement of grace in order that our ideas, should they be true, won’t simply fall on ears incapable of hearing.