On Speech

The Voice of Saruman

"Cicero Denounces Catiline" by Cesare Maccari (Source)

“Cicero Denounces Catiline” by Cesare Maccari (Source)

Part of the wonder of Middle earth comes from its distinctiveness from the world in which we now live. Yet in Saruman we experience something all too familiar: the industrialist, the politician, the modern man. Easily could Saruman grace the ungraced cameras of graceless media channels and ungraceful press conferences. Easily could Saruman’s words find resonance in these muddled times. Tolkien himself noted this observation: “I look East, West, North, South, and I do not see Sauron; but I see that Saruman has many descendants.” Distinct and original evil has been replaced with a lesser yet no less unseemly form, less destructive and more corruptive.

Language is the gift of rational being: in being able to speak, we augment the capacity to know. With words comes the ability to strive for and to defend the truth and justice, as Aristotle claimed. With words comes the opportunity to build the ideal city in speech, as Plato laid forth. In speech we can represent the best of what it is to be human (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”) and the worst (“To be or not to be”). Rhetoric was once one of the higher matters of study, a member of the Seven Liberal Arts: today, such a capacity is only used (and abused) by a select few. The power of speech is both known and unknown, recognized and yet forgotten: with the TVs droning in our ears and the blue haze of the Internet’s screens haloed about our heads, speech has become so monotonous and common that we hardly consider it at length and depth anymore. Yet woe that we should forget the power of the tongue: after all, it was a simple yet marvelous speech – “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears!” – that finally laid low the mighty Republic of Rome.

But we do not live in times of such wondrous speech: instead, the modern tongue is drab and banal, more interested in contractions and contradictions than acronym-less art. The abundance of communication has hollowed the once hallowed craft: the occurrence of texting, email, and ceaseless noise have drowned out more balanced forms. For their part, the descendents of Saruman have taken up his example: they speak fairly and fittingly, with a sweetness in their voice that is difficult to overcome without effort. We who are both so familiar and yet utterly foreign to the mechanisms of persuasion can so easily be roused up or misled by the new keepers of Orthanc: the doublethink mixes well with our somma.

The descendents of Saruman have much power in our times, and through their speech they would have us lay bare much that we love and sacrifice much that we hold dear for the sake of industry, of efficiency, of “peace,” of progress. In recognition comes the glimmer of recovery: in our hearts we remember, as Gandalf said, that Saruman “cannot be both tyrant and counsellor.” There is no magic that can undo the words of Saruman, for the words of Saruman are not magical: listening and discernment are as much crafts as the “wizardry” of rhetoric.  And, in our hope, we can raise in counter the same words as Tolkien once toasted: “To the Hobbits. May they outlast the Sarumans and see spring again in the trees.”

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