98 Persuasion: On Diversion

The best and most useful public speaking advice can only be demonstrated, it cannot be taught. The most powerful weapon in any speaker’s arsenal is passion — if you speak with conviction and zeal on any subject, people will take notice … they will find your statements more compelling and will believe in your belief.

Montaigne had a problem with this truth — he didn’t like the fact that people can be carried away with their emotions and fail in their reason. Quoting the great oratorical educator Quintilian, Montaigne notes that to be a highly effective speaker is to be an actor:

Quintilian says that he had known actors to be so involved in playing the part of a mourner that they were still shedding tears after they had returned home; and of himself he says that, having accepted to arouse grief in somebody else, he had so wedded himself to that emotion that he found himself surprised not only by tears but by pallor of face and by the stoop of a man truly weighed down by grief.

I don’t accept Montaigne’s interpretation … passion can come from within even if it’s use is to persuade your audience. I have found that a certain level of public speaking anxiety heightens the passion of speech … to be fearful of others reactions can make you fight for your right to be heard and to explain yourself, leading to a more energetic presentation. I think Montaigne would agree with this, but remember, he’s not a fan of oratory in general:

The orator (says Rhetoric) when acting out his case will be moved by the sound of his own voice and by his own feigned indignation; he will allow himself to be taken in by the emotion he is portraying. By acting out his part as in a play he will stamp on himself the essence of true grief and then transmit it to the judges (who are even less involved in the case than he is); it is like those mourners who are rented for funerals and who sell their tears and grief by weight and measure: for even though they only borrow their signs of grief, it is nevertheless certain that by habitually adopting the right countenance they often get carried away and find room inside themselves for real melancholy.

Trying my best to rationalize Montaigne’s 180 degree difference of opinion with me on oratory, remember that he’s speaking in an age of limited mass media. Public speaking was then the supreme form of mass communications, so one who believed in higher forms of discourse would mock it in his day much like we mock Internet bulletin board posts or pundits who appear on Fox News.

Also bear in mind that Montaigne is doing some of his own rationalizing — he admits that he’s not a terribly persuasive speaker:

I found out by experience that when it came to persuasion I was unsuccessful and heavy-handed: I either offer my arguments too pointedly and drily or else too brusquely, showing too little concern.

So Montaigne advises people — especially when trying to console the grieving — to deflect sad and hurt feelings as much as possible. And he suggests that this is what effective physicians do as well in fighting illness:

Doctors can rarely get the soul to mount a direct attack on her illness: they make her neither withstand the attack nor beat it off, parrying it rather and diverting it.

As he often does, Montaigne turns the discussion towards death and notes that the best way to avoid dwelling on it is to point towards a more hopeful future — even if the hopes is placed on your children and grandchildren:

Our thoughts are always elsewhere. The hope of a better life arrests us and comforts us; or else it is the valor of our sons or the future glory of our family-name, or an escape from the evils of this life or from the vengeance menacing those who are causing our death.

Montaigne’s advice for those who have loved and lost is extremely blunt and actually rather obscene even to modern eyes:

If when in love your passion is too powerful, dissipate it, they say. And they say truly: I have often usefully made the assay. Break it down into a variety of desires, one of which may rule as master if you like, but enfeeble it and delay it by subdividing it and diverting it, lest it dominate you and tyrannize over you: When the peevish vein gurgles in your vagrant groin, ejaculate the gathered fluid into any bodies whatever. And see to it quickly, lest you find yourself in trouble once it has seized hold of you, unless you befuddle those first wounds by new ones, effacing the first by roaming as a rover through vagrant Venus.

I think similar advice was given in “There’s Something About Mary,” but I could be mistaken. It’s interesting that Montaigne moves from this question of sexual frustration quickly to his grief over the death of Étienne de La Boétie. Montaigne suggests that he threw himself immediately into a romantic relationship to relieve himself of the sting of grief:

Once upon a time I was touched by a grief, powerful on account of my complexion and as justified as it was powerful. I might well have died from it if I had merely trusted to my own strength. I needed a mind-departing distraction to divert it; so by art and effort I made myself fall in love, helped in that by my youth. Love comforted me and took me away from the illness brought on by that loving-friendship. The same applies everywhere: some painful idea gets hold of me; I find it quicker to change it than to subdue it.

Montaigne appreciates the value of all forms of escape — but he also warns of the consequences:

When I throw myself into building castles in the air my imagination forges me pleasures and comforts which give real delight and joy to my soul. How often do we encumber our spirits with yellow bile or sadness by means of such shadows? And we put ourselves into fantastical rages, deleterious to our souls and bodies! What confused, ecstatic, madly laughing grimaces can be brought to our faces by such ravings! What jerkings of our limbs and trembling of our voices! That man over there is on his own, but does he not seem to be deceived by visions of a crowd of other men whom he has to deal with, or else to be persecuted by some devil within him?

Bringing the discussion back to public speaking and persuasion, Montaigne is making a case for genuine rationality — for winning people over with reason and sincerity, not passion and sophistry. And the main reason to do so isn’t for the effect your words might have on others, but the impact that state of mind may have on you:

Abandoning your life for a dream is to value it for exactly what it is worth. Listen though to our soul triumphing over her wretched body and its frailty, as the butt of all indispositions and degradations. A fat lot of reason she has to talk! O wretched clay which Prometheus first moulded! How unwisely he wrought! By his art he arranged the body but saw not the mind. The right way would have been to start off with the soul.

I can accept that argument — be passionate about the things that matter most to you, not just for show. I would add to that, be rational and logical, but if you care enough about your ideas to speak them, be like Geppetto to Pinocchio … give them life.

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