The Roman lawyer and government official Pliny the Younger wrote a fascinating letter to the historian Cornelius Tacitus that has fortunately been preserved for posterity (Letters I.20). The topic discussed is whether it is better to deliver a long speech, or a short one. Pliny says he has often debated this subject with a learned friend who believes conciseness in public speech is the best policy.
Pliny begins by noting the merits of brevity, as long as it does not come at the expense of omitting essentials or rushing past points that can buttress the main argument. A broad treatment of one’s central point, he notes, including an exploration of nuances and side-issues, often relaxes the minds of listeners, and makes them more receptive to the speaker’s message. He says:
As most arguments increase in a certain strength and substance with a longer handling, so is a speech impressed on the mind not by jabbing more than delay, as is a sword against the human body. [Nam plerisque longiore tractatu vis quaedam et pondus accredit, utque corpori ferrum, sic oratio animo non ictu magis squam mora imprimatur].
Frequent jabs with the sword, interspersed by brief delays, can be more effective than a single furious attack. Pliny’s friend names a number of famous orators who were known for their short-windedness; but he then counters with the names of equally distinguished speakers who spoke at great length, such as Lysias, Demosthenes, Aeschines, Hyperides, and especially Cicero. Cicero’s longest speech (Pro Cluentio), Pliny says, is considered by many to be his best. Good books that are long are better than good books that are short; paintings and statuary are also better when bigger, he asserts, provided that their proportions are not riotously skewed. Pliny’s friend counters that the published speeches of many great orators contain verbiage added after the fact; the speeches actually delivered were shorter than those published later, in some cases much shorter.
Pliny is not so sure of this. He notes that when he served as a judge, he noticed that different people are influenced by different things. Different things move different people, and small points, he says, can lead to significant consequences in courts of law:
Individuals are moved by different things, and small issues bring about great outcomes. [Aliud alios movet, ac plerumque parvae res maximas trahunt].
The judgments and estimations of men differ depending on their personalities. Two men from two different backgrounds can listen to the same set of facts and reach markedly different conclusions: each man brings his own frame of reference to the party, so to speak. Pliny, with his wealth of real-world experience, could not have been more right. This is something that I have always noticed myself in the practice of law. At a trial, small points somehow become magnified: trivial matters seem to take on undue significance, while central issues may be overlooked or minimized by a judge or jury. It is almost as if the courtroom functions as a prismatic agent of distortion, where every person’s preconceptions and prejudices are projected onto the matters under review. It can be a very disconcerting experience, when you are the one seeing this happen in real time.
Pliny quotes the words of an old Athenian comic poet named Eupolis, who, using the analogy of a bee-sting, said something to the effect that a certain orator left his sting in his listeners. In other words, when this orator was finished speaking, his words stuck like a barb in the bodies of his listeners. The speaker who can do this forces his listeners to deal with his words, and their effect, long after he has finished speaking and his audience has gone home—he does not just jab them, but he implants his “stinger” in them. Pliny is also not convinced that the old adage about the “middle road” between length and brevity is suitable here. Public speakers are just as likely to be called dull and unimaginative, as they are to be called prolix and long-winded.
So, then, what is the best way? I think Pliny captured the truth when he described an instance in which he was arguing a case with a fellow lawyer named Regulus. Regulus told Pliny not to worry about following up with every point, and responding to every little issue. It is better, he counseled Pliny, to go for the jugular, and hold on tightly to that:
Ego iugulum statim video, hunc premo.
I see the throat at once, and latch on to that. [I.20.14]
By this he meant, of course, that the speaker must distill matters down to their essentials, and hammer home these points over and over. Since men’s powers of judgment vary widely, and their estimations are prone to gross distortion resulting from their backgrounds and experiences, the speaker must focus on the main issue and never leave it. And this is the type of counsel that agrees with my own experience, not just in public advocacy, but in other areas of life as well. This tenacity of focus is the only way to overcome the smoke and uncertainties of conflict. Even if some people say they like short speeches, we should pay this little heed; every lazy person has an excuse for letting his attention wander. If we adhered to this advice of always speaking briefly, Pliny says, “it would be preferable not only to speak briefly, but not to speak at all.”
See the throat, and seize it. Grip it, and do not relent. It was with this thinking that Andrew Jackson undertook to defend the city of New Orleans from British attack in 1814. Theodore Roosevelt, in his Naval War of 1812, notes that while the American navy in the War of 1812 generally gave as good as it got, and acquitted itself favorably against a formidable adversary, the performance of the American army was less than competent, to say the least. It could not even prevent the nation’s capital from being shamefully fired. The one exception to this terrible record was the Battle of New Orleans. It was an incredible victory, made all the more bizarre in that it was battle that never should have been fought. It took place weeks after the peace treaty ending the war had been signed; but in that pre-telegraph era, news of such developments took a long time to circulate.
As for Jackson’s personal leadership qualities, Roosevelt knowledgeably notes:
But Andrew Jackson was of all men the one best fitted to manage such troops. Even their fierce natures quailed before the ungovernable fury of a spirit greater than their own; and their sullen, stubborn wills were bent at last before his unyielding temper and iron hand. Moreover, he was one of themselves; he typified their passions and prejudices, their faults and their virtues; he shared their hardships as if he had been a common private, and, in turn, he always made them partakers of his triumphs. They admired his personal prowess with pistol and rifle, his unswerving loyalty to his friends, and the relentless and unceasing war that he waged alike on the foes of himself and his country. As a result they loved and feared him as few generals have ever been loved or feared; they obeyed him unhesitatingly; they followed his lead without flinching or murmuring, and they ever made good on the field of battle the promise their courage held out to his judgment.
He led by example, and was always in the thick of the action. And if there is no example being set by a leader, then there is no trust in that leader: nihil exemplum, nihil fiducia. Jackson’s genius in the battle is to be found in the tenacity with which he held on to the defensive position that he knew was crucial to hold. He identified the correct way to prevent an entry into the city, and, once he had set himself and his men in place, was never was forced off his position, no matter how many attacks were launched against him. He was relentless.
The British infantry in 1814 were probably Europe’s best, but Jackson had drilled his irregular militias into a very good state of readiness. The Tennesseeans and the men of Louisiana, who formed the bulk of Jackson’s force, were hardy, tough, and deadly accurate with their rifles. Roosevelt notes that “the extreme deadliness of their [the Tennesseeans] fire made it far more dangerous to attempt to storm a breastwork guarded by these forest riflemen than it would have been to attack the same work guarded by an equal number of the best regular troops of Europe.”
And although the battle had no outcome on the war, it was not fought in vain. New Orleans was saved from burning or sacking. The victory also did much to salvage the national honor in the wake of the war’s earlier defeats on land in Virginia and Maryland. Jackson had seen what needed to be done at once; he had gripped the looming crisis by the throat, and had never let go until victory was achieved.
Read more on tenacity and the judgments of command in the new translation of Sallust:
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