Sunday, December 5, 2010


They are eloquent who can speak low things acutely, and of great things with dignity, and of moderate things with temper.
--Marcus Tullius Cicero  

Today marks the anniversary of the delivery of the last of the four famed Cataline Orations, spoken by Marcus Tullius Cicero to save the Roman Republic. Cicero’s profound learning, combined with his passion for democracy, gave him great powers of persuasion. He makes a fitting study for the Celtic virtue of Soithnges (Eloquence).

The Old Irish Soithnges, translated as “Eloquence” or “Persuasion,” derives from so (“good”) + tengae (“tongue”), literally a "good tongue." It’s the second Celtic virtue we’ve encountered on TTV, Cubus being the first. Both come from a set of fifteen virtues discussed in the Audacht Morainn (“The Testament of Morand”), written around 700 C.E. Old Irish legend says the Audracht outlines the teachings of Morand, who guided Feradach Find Fechtnach to become Ireland’s greatest High King.

The Audracht is what scholars call a “Mirror for Princes”: a manual for future kings on how to rule wisely. Such texts often reveal the belief that Justice in the kingdom depends on the virtues of the king. The greatest of such manuals comes not from Europe, in my mind, but from the East, in the Analects of Confucius.

Confucius, however, maintained that Eloquence, like Courage, while a necessary ingredient in making Virtue, did not constitute a virtue unto itself: “One who has accumulated virtue will certainly also possess eloquence; but he who has eloquence does not necessarily possess virtue.” (Analects 14:5).

Many traditions take a similar view to Confucius (who was not, I might point out, known for his verbal skills; history awards that distinction to his student, Mencius). The Bahá'í faith, for example, lists Qawl (Speech) as one of twenty Divine qualities naming the months in their calendar. In the Tablets of Bahá'u’lláh, however, it also warns: “Oh people of Bahá! Ye are the dawning-places of the love of God and the daysprings of His loving-kindness. Defile not your tongues with the cursing and reviling of any soul.”

The Jewish middot likewise include Seyag LiD'varav, sometimes translated as Guarding One’s Speech--avoiding petty or harmful forms of speech. The middot, however, also include Arichat Sefatayim, Right Speech: speaking Truth and not making claims one can’t support. Theravadan Buddhists also cite this identical principle as Samma Vaca. Soithnges likewise embeds within it the notion of “good”--meaning in my mind not simply Skill, but also Beneficence. The Irish judge Morand imparted this virtue to King Feradach to promote not just power, after all, but Justice.

Cicero’s Cataline Orations, which saved Rome from rebels driven more by personal ambition and greed than by Justice, qualify as a fine example Soithnges. Cicero, son of a minor noble family, amassed an impressive education in the teachings of the Greeks--including rhetoric--and translated their wisdom into Latin. His zest for philosophical argument honed his speech into a powerful tool to edify and persuade listeners. If any skill satisfies Dione Fortune’s definition of magic--the “art of changing consciousness at will”--the oratory of Cicero certainly does.  

Cicero climbed the ladder of civil service, eventually becoming in 63 B.C.E. one of Rome’s two consuls, who shared control of the nation. One of his rivals for control of the nation was Catalina, who, after failing to get elected consul for a second time, began using open bribery to buy votes. Catalina’s followers included noblemen who could not pay their debts and saw an opportunity to make some money. The rebels formed an army and planned to murder Cicero in a coup d’etat.

Cicero, catching wind of the plot, drew attention to it in the first of his four Cataline Orations. The subsequent speeches directed the army of Rome to defeat the rebels; informed the citizens of the victory; and advocated execution of the surviving plotters. An overview of the full story can be found here.

“The pen is mightier than the sword,” wrote Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Modern day activists often cite the importance of Speaking Truth to Power. The worldwide drama unfolding at this very minute from the acts of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who threatened entrenched world powers simply by opening up their vault of secrets, demonstrates this. I am not sure if the manner of Assange’s reveal constitutes Soithnges, but it surely captures part of its spirit.

Today, take a moment to consider how the application of speech to enlighten people with Truth constitutes a power for Justice. How have you, in your own life, used the right words at the right time to move a friend or loved one into the light of Truth? Claim your Soithnges.

May we see the gates of Soithnges, and perhaps make a home there. 

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