Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Baha'u'llah's Critique of the Power of Oratory

A Lesson In Rhetoric From the Lord of Hosts

By John Taylor; 2010 June 16, Nur 11, 167 BE

I have hit a snag with People Without Borders and will stop for a time to comment on a passage about words and knowledge, on the speech of God and men. Baha'u'llah wrote in the Tablet to Maqsud that,

"Every word is endowed with a spirit, therefore the speaker or expounder should carefully deliver his words at the appropriate time and place, for the impression which each word maketh is clearly evident and perceptible." (Baha'u'llah, Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p. 172-173)

We relate to things below us, to nature, by direct experience, but things above us are different. They are unspeakable. As a certain philosopher put it, "That of which we cannot speak, we must perforce remain silent." That is why it is always wise to stop, reflect, pray, and meditate before we open our mouth. In this quiet time our compass needle can settle down and tell us what direction is what. Where does the spirit lead, here and now? We can only feel in our heart the way the needle points, for higher forces are invisible, ineffable, beyond understanding. This is always the case with any creative act. We cannot know whence it comes, by definition. Immanuel Kant explains it well in his Critique of Judgement,

"Hence, where an author owes a product to his genius, he does not himself know how the ideas for it have entered into his head, nor has he it in his power to invent the like at pleasure, or methodically, and communicate the same to others in such precepts as would put them in a position to produce similar products. (Hence, presumably, our word Genie is derived from genius, as the peculiar guardian and guiding spirit given to a man at his birth, by the inspiration of which those original ideas were obtained.)"

As for what we can know and can communicate, we have only indirect, virtual means, the Word, the speech of the Manifestation of God, to teach us of what is inherently beyond our comprehension. This Word acts as a mirror that places us in the context of time and eternity. So the way that God talks to us must in turn be our model for how to talk to others. Jesus said, "The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life" (John 6:63) Baha'u'llah seems to be saying that for us the context for our speech is the great conditioner of what the spirit of our words should address.

Speak only when you have a hearer, He says in the Hidden Words. He also points out here that every word you say makes an impression that is clear and perceptible. The sign of the spirit is clear; by its fruits we know it. We can easily judge the spirit of our words by looking at their effect upon our listeners. Baha'u'llah continues,

"The Great Being saith: One word may be likened unto fire, another unto light, and the influence which both exert is manifest in the world."

Again, He repeats, you can see the effects for yourself. Look at the faces of your hearers. Fire creates heat. Passion creates emotional fire. Heat only travels a short distance. It is an excitation of atoms; they absorb the heat of the fire and then return to their former state. A blip in the universe's entropy. But light is entirely different. It goes on forever. Your hearers, if they are enlightened, go away changed, forever. Tune into the spirit, say what is right for your time and place, and you will see the results for yourself.

"Therefore an enlightened man of wisdom should primarily speak with words as mild as milk, that the children of men may be nurtured and edified thereby and may attain the ultimate goal of human existence which is the station of true understanding and nobility."

Usually orators are content with fire, but words of light raise listeners to a higher station of understanding and nobility. Who do you know that can do that? Plato said something very similar in my favourite dialog, the Laws.

"Should he not rather, when he is making laws for men, at the same time infuse the spirit of persuasion into his words, and mitigate the severity of them as far as he can?"

All the Manifestations were the epitome of meekness in the face of violent opposition. They did not retaliate with words of anger, they showed a spirit of submission before their God. Even Jesus' prediction of the fall of Jerusalem seems to have been said in a spirit more of sadness than anger.

What speaker have you heard who speaks with words as mild as milk? In past months I have taken up listening to speeches and lectures, recorded, broadcast and podcast, as a sort of hobby. I have heard some brilliant points, but words of milk? Hardly. The only instance that I can think of is the talks of Abdu'l-Baha. Indeed, this entire passage seems to be a pointer to Him. Read the talks of the Master, He seems to say, an unknown, no experience as a public speaker, schooled only in suffering and resignation before the onslaught of enemies who included members of His own family. Yet when He spoke for the first time in that church in London, audiences were enthralled. He was swamped with offers to come speak to groups wherever He went.

"And likewise He saith: One word is like unto springtime causing the tender saplings of the rose-garden of knowledge to become verdant and flourishing, while another word is even as a deadly poison."

You do not have to look far to see the effects of words of poison. Suicide bombers are conditioned by such words, as are the "hot spots" of the world. But think of the power of just one word, it can change winter into spring, a scene of death into growth. How important it is for Baha'is to watch what we say. He says it, literally, watch the effects of what you say. If a chill is the result, back off, reflect and pray more, and when you feel the spirit, then talk. And only in the right time and place. The Master did not accept all engagements, he spoke mostly in places of worship, or to audiences concerned with a divine principle, such as equality of women, economic equity or linguistic neutrality (that is, the Esperantists). Prudence, caution, wisdom, all are necessary before you open your mouth to say a word. That is Baha'u'llah's last word on that.

"It behoveth a prudent man of wisdom to speak with utmost leniency and forbearance so that the sweetness of his words may induce everyone to attain that which befitteth man's station."

Sweet words. Words of milk and honey will lead us to the promised land, the Kingdom of God. So be responsible with your words, says the Word to the learned, I have taken away direct power from you, so learn to exercise your persuasive influence carefully. Be reticent, watch the results and your role in society will not be taken away, it will be enhanced, if only you come not to destroy but to fulfil. Just as did at the One who told us, "Follow me, be as I am."


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