Classical Ideals in a Mediated WorldWritten by Harry Argo
“We’re moving to Boston! Yes, to teach at Sattler College! To teach oral communications!” How many times did we repeat this? And within a few weeks there I was…looking for housing in a college town just before classes began. Finally, after an intense search with countless calls and emails, someone responded. I took their apartment offer, trusting my dear wife would approve.
“62 On The Park” is a classic hotel constructed in the late 1800s and converted to apartments sometime in the 1980s. Located on Boylston Street, close to the Boston Marathon finish line, and looking into the Boston Commons of Revolutionary War fame, our apartment is a short walk to Sattler, past many historical markings and graves of patriots such as Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, and John Hancock.
Soon after moving in, I noticed a bronze placard at the entrance stating that John Quincy Adams lived at this site. Yes, President John Adams’ son, President John Quincy Adams, whom I knew so little of.
Some research proved he was quite a distinguished and accomplished man in his day. He left his successful law firm at 23 to become ambassador to the Netherlands (his father was the first), then ambassador to Portugal, Prussia, and eventually Great Britain, followed by becoming the first official Minister to Russia. Then he was elected to the Massachusetts Senate, the US Senate, and later in life, the US House of Representatives. He turned down his confirmed appointment to the US Supreme Court to become “the greatest of all Secretaries of State.” Somewhere in this busy life he also became our sixth President and is considered to have the highest of all presidential IQs.
What is the key to Adams’ brilliance as a statesman and what made him so smart? Being greatly interested in education and mental development, I found a key ingredient to his greatness, but not by researching for it.
As a communication professor, the persuasive power of various media greatly intrigues me, but especially the science of rhetoric and the art of oratory as discovered and formalized during the classic era of ancient Greece and Rome. My academic goal, and hopeful impact on Christ’s church, is to recover the fundamentals of powerful, persuasive oral communication, which is being obliterated in today’s tsunami of digital media.
Electronic entertainment and addictive social media have vanquished much of society’s communication and relational skills, to the point that today’s average person prefers mindless entertainment to effortful reading and discussion of the deeper issues of life. I fear that as electronic media overwhelms us, manipulating our emotions through graphic or musical stimuli, our society—and more importantly, Christ's Church—will lose the ability to communicate and persuade effectively, thus hampering the power of the gospel. I hope our students avoid the shallow existence propagated by popular culture and embrace meaningful lives of purposeful vocation with minds well developed through scholarly exercise. We want to prepare them to be godly persuasive giants!
Thus, while pursuing authors well versed in the classical approaches to communication, I was surprised to find strong recommendations for John Quincy Adams! How could this extremely busy man be an expert on classic rhetoric and oratory? I’m not sure how he managed it, but while a US senator and professor of logic at Brown University, he became the first Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University. He purposed to impart to law and divinity students the powerful communication skills necessary to impact church and nation.
I excitedly purchased John Quincy Adams’ two-volume Lectures on Rhetoric and Oratory and lit into them. The first astonishing point I found was the report about Adam’s. It read:
“[It was his] constant aim to point out the right path of a virtuous and noble education and lead and draw them in willing obedience, inflamed with the study of learning and the admiration of virtue; stirred up with high hopes of living to be brave men, and worthy patriots, dear to God and famous to all ages.”
His goal of developing character along with rhetorical and oratorical skills drove Adams to resurrect such themes from the ancient genius of Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, and others. In his writing, he adamantly argues for a return to fundamental theories of rhetorical science and oratorical art, insisting that our sublime faculties ought not be “buried in the grave of neglect.” He saw that these tools had fallen into severe neglect, beginning at the fall of Rome and continuing throughout the cultural sequester of the medieval “monkish ages.”
However, he expresses hope that in his age the young American universities might revive these essential forms of persuasion. Ultimately, he aims at the high ideal of speaking well-grounded in sound logic and transmitted in master eloquence.
How marvelous that I get to enjoy and gain insight from John Quincy Adams for my parallel aspirations…and the delightful thought that I read his lectures, some two hundred years later, at the exact spot where he wrote them.
We at Sattler College hope to supply the persuasive thunder that Adams wished to each of his divinity students. In his description of the duty of a Christian ambassador he says:
“[As] the ambassador of Christ it is his great and awful duty to call sinners to repentance. His only weapon is the voice; and with this he is to appall the guilty, and to reclaim the infidel; to rouse the indifferent, and to shame the scorner. He is to inflame the lukewarm, to encourage the timid, and to cheer the desponding believer. He is to pour the healing balm of consolation into the bleeding heart of sorrow, and to sooth with celestial hope the very agonies of death.”
May our precious Sattler Students strive to master skills of rhetoric and oratory to enable them to turn the world upside down for Christ.