Are you seeking for greatness, O brother of mine,
As the full, fleeting seasons and years glide away?
If seeking directly and for self alone,
The true and abiding you never can stay.
But all self forgetting, know well the law,
It’s the hero, and not the self-seeker, who’s crowned.
Then go lose your life in the service of others,
And, lo! with rare greatness and glory ’twill abound.
Is it your ambition to become great in any particular field, to attain to fame and honor, and thereby to happiness and contentment? Is it your ambition, for example, to become a great _orator_, to move great masses of men, to receive their praise, their plaudits? Then remember that there never has been, there never will, in brief, there never can be a truly great orator without a great _purpose_, a great cause behind him. You may study in all the best schools in the country, the best universities and the best schools of oratory. You may study until you exhaust all these, and then seek the best in other lands. You may study thus until your hair is beginning to change its color, but this of itself will _never_ make you a great orator. You may become a demagogue, and, if self-centred, you inevitably will; for this is exactly what a demagogue is,–a great demagogue, if you please, than which it is hard for one to call to mind a more contemptible animal, and the greater the more contemptible. But without laying hold of and building upon this great principle you never can become a great orator.
Call to mind the greatest in the world’s history, from Demosthenes–Men of Athens, march against Philip, your country and your fellow-men will be in early bondage unless you give them your best service now–down to our own Phillips and Gough,–Wendell Phillips against the traffic in human blood, John B. Gough against a slavery among his fellow-men more hard and galling and abject than the one just spoken of; for by it the body merely is in bondage, the mind and soul are free, while in this, body, soul, and mind are enslaved. So you can easily discover the great _purpose_, the great cause for _service_, behind each and every one.
The man who can’t get beyond himself, his own aggrandizement and interests, must of necessity be small, petty, personal, and at once marks his own limitations; while he whose life is a life of service and self-devotion has no limits, for he thus puts himself at once on the side of the _Universal_, and this more than all else combined gives a tremendous power in oratory. Such a one can mount as on the wings of an eagle, and Nature herself seems to come forth and give a great soul of this kind means and material whereby to accomplish his purposes, whereby the great universal truths go direct to the minds and hearts of his hearers to mould them, to move them; for the orator is he who moulds the minds and hearts of his hearers in the great moulds of universal and eternal truth, and then moves them along a definite line of action, not he who merely speaks pieces to them.
How thoroughly Webster recognized this great principle is admirably shown in that brief but powerful description of eloquence of his; let us pause to listen to a sentence or two: “True eloquence indeed does not consist in speech…. Words and phrases may be marshalled in every way, but they cannot compass it…. Affected passion, intense expression, the pomp of declamation, all may aspire to it; they cannot reach it…. The graces taught in the schools, the costly ornaments and studied contrivances of speech, shock and disgust men when their own lives and the fate of their wives and their children and their country hang on the decision of the hour. Then words have lost their power, rhetoric is vain, and all elaborate oratory contemptible. Even genius itself then feels rebuked and subdued, as in the presence of higher qualities. Then patriotism is eloquent, then self-devotion is eloquent. The clear conception, outrunning the deductions of logic, the high purpose, the firm resolve, the dauntless spirit speaking on the tongue, beaming from the eye, informing every feature and urging the whole man onward, right onward to his object,–this, this is eloquence.” And note some of the chief words he has used,–_self-devotion, patriotism, high purpose_. The self-centered man can never know these, and much less can he make use of them.
True, things that one may learn, as the freeing of the bodily agents, the developing of the voice, and so on, that all may become the _true reporters of the soul_, instead of limiting or binding it down, as is so frequently the case in public speakers,–these are all valuable, ay, are very important and very necessary, unless one is content to live below his highest possibilities, and he is wise who recognizes this tact; but these in themselves are but as trifles when compared to those greater, more powerful, and all-essential qualities.