We have forgotten the importance of physical gestures, and lost the power to use them effectively. The modern man mumbles hesitatingly through his daily conversations with speech, intonation, and physical movements that betray his supreme lack of confidence and paralyzed will; his sentences are strung together with drooping, truncated, insipid copulas and expressions that are just as uninspiring as his limp-wristed gesticulations, his distended paunch, and his lack of musculature. Grunting and stumbling have now replaced fluency of communication, grace of artistry, and the supple movement of a divine form towards a noble goal. Since the words flowing from so many mouths now mean so little, we can expect the gestures of such speakers to echo the hollowness of their words. It seems that T.S. Elio’s descriptive lines in “The Hollow Men” have become fact:
Shape without form, shade without color,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion.
Yet it was not always so. The traveler who stands before the many seated Buddhas that adorn the temples of old Japan will notice hands carved into various signs: clenched fists, encircled fingers, open palms, and fingers extended in different directions. Only the specialist in Buddhist theosophy will know the meaning of these arcane signs–but meaning they do have. Technology and our creeping social regression have deprived physical gestures of the resonance they once possessed. The orator with clenched fist is looked upon with a vague sense of unease; the gesticulating Mediterranean is seen as a quaint buffoon; and most of us are so blind to bodily cues that we fail to interpret physical signals of any sort. It is a product of our times, an affliction of the era.
Previous ages of history had different views. Rhetoric and speech-making were studied extensively in the classical curriculum; students learned not just how to craft a coherent argument, but what gestures and postures were best to deliver it. In the days of our ancestors, a grand gesture could announce one’s position, courage, or moral rectitude. Modern man, because of his lukewarm appreciation of all these things, shrinks from such displays. What, he obsesses, will the herd think of me! He could not carry them out even if he wanted to. You can almost see him twitching fretfully, for fear that his company’s human resources manager might catch him in an episode of prohibited thought.
Edward Gibbon tells us that around 1097 a Frankish crusader named Robert of Paris found himself at the court of the Greek emperor Alexius. Robert, with his uncouth Western ways, refused to stand before the emperor, preferring to keep his seat. Baldwin I of Jerusalem scolded him, saying “Who is this rustic, that keeps his seat, while so many valiant captains are standing around him?” The Greek emperor kept a polite but offended silence. Robert responded as follows:
I am a Frenchman of the purest and most ancient nobility of my country. All that I know is, that there is a church in my neighborhood, the resort of those who are desirous of approving their valor in single combat. Till an enemy appears, they address their prayers to God and his saints. That church I have frequently visited, but never have I found and antagonist who dared to accept my defiance. [Ch. 58]
This statement constituted a verbal gesture, a declaration of Robert’s purpose and ideals. He made it very clear what his objectives were, what he believed in, and what he intended to do. There was no skittish testing of the waters, no evasive chicanery, and no vapid mouthing of platitudes. There was will, and there was intent: all would follow from this. Even the smallest physical gestures were more latent with meaning that we appreciate today. Bodies were trained for movement, for the display of poise, and for subtle communication in situations where words could not be used. There is a strange line in Cicero’s Rhetorica Ad Herennium that reads as follows:
And let us stand the defendant beside his bed, holding a cup in his right hand, tablets in his left, and the testicles of rams with his doctor finger. [III.20]
The reader of this sentence will inevitably scratch his head, baffled by the weirdness of the language. What could this mean, this holding of ram’s testicles with a “doctor finger”? And what is a doctor finger? The actual words Cicero uses are medico testiculos arietinos tenentem. In Cicero’s day, the fourth finger of the hand (i.e., the finger between the middle and the pinky) was called the “doctor.” The Greeks and Romans gave the fingers names; these names varied slightly with the centuries, but the humanist Angelo Poliziano says that the following were the names used for the fingers of the hand: the thumb, the index finger, the notorious finger (i.e., the middle finger), the doctor finger, and the little finger. The Greeks had a different convention, calling them the “opposing” finger (i.e., the thumb), the licking finger (index finger), the bundle, the passenger, and the gadfly.
As for the “ram’s testicles,” we should note that in ancient times, small purses for coins or other valuables were made from the cured skins of rams’ scrotums. So what Cicero is saying in the quote above is that the defendant is standing and holding a cup and writing tablets, while suspended from his fourth finger (the “doctor” finger) was a purse presumably containing money. We may wonder why the fourth finger of the hand was known as the “doctor.” I have not been able to discover the answer to this question; perhaps the explanation dates back to the early days of Greek medicine, where that finger had some preferred medical use. Regardless of the reason, what matters is that the ancients found it necessary to assign names to the fingers. They did this because the hands mattered to them; they served an important function in communication and professional practice. Gestures mattered.
Poliziano, in his Miscellanies, again highlights the importance of gestures when he notes a line from the poet Statius (Silvae I.1.37):
The right hand forbids battles. [Dextra vetat pugnas]
He explains that an open, unarmed hand would indicate the idea of peace. The rhetorician Quintilian (II.3.119) noted that a certain type of statue was called a “peacemaker,” if it displayed a head tilted towards the right shoulder and had an outstretched arm and a hand containing a raised thumb. What matters here is the gesture of the arm and hand, and the posture of the body.
We should pay more attention to our gestures, our posture, and how we communicate with our movements. Physical action can sometimes convey an idea more efficiently than any collection of words, no matter how eloquent. I remember once during a jury trial I was cross-examining a hostile witness. He was difficult to control; he constantly tried to insert his own impressions and opinions into his answers, instead of simply answering my questions. I then remembered a technique I had read about in a book on cross-examination: the writer said that, if you are faced with a rambling witness, thrust out your arm at the witness with palm open. Do not say anything—confine yourself to this simple arm movement, and the witness will immediately fall silent. I tried it, and it worked beautifully.
Read more in the new illustrated and annotated translation of Lives of the Great Commanders: