Reading Hannah Arendt’s marvelous book on The Human Condition, I came across a particularly thought-provoking paragraph on the ancient ideal of speech. Arendt draws a sharp contrast between the Greek household—which was ruled by necessity, the need to provide food and shelter and to raise children—and the political life. The two were distinct because once the burdens of necessity were satisfied in the household, men (Greek political life was not particularly inclusive) became free to pursue political life. Necessity was what humans shared with animals; only in the sphere of freedom, of public life, could humans do the great deeds and speak the great words which were exclusively, and therefore properly, human. Her thoughts on speech in the Greek bios politikos are illuminating:

Of all the activities necessary and present in human communities, only two were deemed to be political and to constitute what Aristotle called the bios politikos, namely action (praxis) and speech (lexis), out of which rises the realm of human affairs…from which everything merely necessary or useful is strictly excluded.

… The Homeric Achilles can be understood only if one sees him as ‘the doer of great deeds and the speaker of great words’ [The Iliad]. In distinction from modern understanding, such words were not considered to be great because they expressed great thoughts; on the contrary, as we know from the last lines of Antigone, it may be the capacity for ‘great words’ (megaloi logoi) with which to reply to striking blows that will eventually teach thought in old age. Thought was secondary to speech, but speech and action were considered to be coeval and coeval, of the same rank and the same kind; and this originally meant that most political action, in so far as it remains outside the sphere of violence, is indeed transacted in words, but more fundamentally that finding the right words at the right moment, quite apart from the information or communication they may convey, is action. Only sheer violence is mute, and for this reason violence alone can never be great. Even when, relatively late in antiquity, the arts of war and speech (rhetoric) emerged as the two principal political subjects of education, the development was still inspired by this older pre-polis experience and tradition and remained subject to it.

In this experience of the polis, which not without justification has been called the most talkative of all bodies politic, and even more in the political philosophy which sprang from it, action and speech separated and became more and more independent activities. The emphasis shifted from action to speech, and to speech as a means of persuasion rather than the specifically human way of answering, of talking back and measuring up to whatever happened or was done.

I think we can see in the development of rhetoric—for all that some of us might romanticize it—a shift from speech as witness to speech as power. In the earlier notion of speech, it was about measuring words to the moment, speaking what is true and a sort of sub-cognitive level, such that great words could precede the understanding of them which only comes in old age. Rhetoric was to take words—among the most powerful and most malleable of human capacities—and turn them into weapons, or at least tools.

The distinction is interesting for our time, when social media and blogging (cough) have normalized persuasive speech (or, at least, speech that aims to persuade) as a dominant feature of everyday social life. Speech in Greek times was a shared, personal conversation in the assembly at the middle of town; in our country of 300 million, the political conversation for a while could only happen by proxy, both on the floors of Congress (representing party and geographical interests) and in the interplay of factions (The League of Women Voters, the AFL-CIO). But the Internet comprises a sort of new agora, a space for the airing of opinions and ideas which, unlike the assembly-fields of Greece, is infinitely large and accommodating.

The upshot is that persuasive speech is everywhere. The opinion-piece, once a small and carefully curated section of newspapers, often focusing on local issues, has become arguably the most prestigious and the most traffic-driving article in many papers and many more websites. News, in other words, is now subordinate to commentary. Whatever the merits of this new profusion of persuasive writing, one alarming drawback is that we have some of the art of saying what is. We have somewhat lost “the specifically human way of answering, of talking back and measuring up to whatever happened or was done,” in Arendt’s words. That lost art is on full display, for instance, in the Chicago Tribune’s next-day narration of the Cubs’ winning the 1908 World Series:

Overall was the final selection for the game that was to end the series, and Overall was extremely right. That was shown in the first inning, when he struck out four men, thereby establishing a new strikeout record for the majors. Before he was through whiffing for the day, Big Jeff had the scalps of ten batsmen dangling at his belt and seven of these strikeouts were put over when there were men on bases. Three hits were all the Tigers could get off Overall, yet two of these coming together in a single round made the outcome of the game doubtful for the actual space of five minutes. In that time the tall Californian disposed of the two batsmen who stood between him and victory.

Of course this is not exactly the same as Achilles’s speaking great words, but it shows a felicity of reporting what is—that is, the news—which is rare in today’s times. Sports journalism today focuses on the socially relevant story—Tim Tebow, Deflategate, etc.—relevant because it provides fodder for our relentless need to take moral or, more mildly, strongly evaluative stances on everything that comes out in the news. We need our issues, and persuasive writing is designed to give us that, but we have lost our taste for the kind of apt narration of what is, the rising of reporting to the extraordinary occasion, achieved by the Tribune in 1908.

Perhaps our need for issues, for right sides and wrong sides, for pieces condemning X or lionizing Y, stems from our ever-present compulsion to become actors on the moral stage. The idea of persuasive speech as power indicates the contrast between using words to pay tribute to what is and using words to propagate our own visions of what should be. Our drive to self-justification underlies it; the persuasive word describes what ought to be, and in doing so it puts us firmly in the driver’s seat of the reality the words express.

This is nothing new; confronted with the occasionally uncomfortable truth of what is, we deflect, make reality itself a sort of set-piece in our own moral dramas, which we direct. That is not the result of mass media but only of an ingrained piece of our nature which has more scope for its operation in mass media than it used to. In this vein, you can see Jesus’s famously circuitous dialogues as a sort of fencing match, where he nullifies the self-serving words of others and leads them to speak truth: “the specifically human way of answering, of talking back and measuring up to whatever happened or was done.”

Those of Jesus’s hearers most open to grace are the ones who tend to get it in the end. The woman at the well casts Jesus in her moral narrative and uses words to create Issues, to ensnare him into declaring whether he is on the Right Side of the issue or the Wrong side.

‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you* say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ They left the city and were on their way to him.

By the end of the dialogue, her words have shifted from words of persuasion, rhetoric, and ultimately coercion (placing Jesus into a box, as a supporting character or an antagonist in the Samaritans-versus-Jews drama) to words of witness. Perhaps even more significantly, they have taken on a subjective dimension, a question, ‘He cannot be the Messiah, can he?,’ which has now cast her in the role of a seeker, someone admitting their need and desiring something more—the Messiah, salvation. Her line is at once worship and confession—admitting her true subjective need and apprehending its true objective fulfillment (or the possibility of its fulfillment).

The role of the writer as artist seems to be to bear witness to reality through her words. Jesus does not strong-arm, simply negating her narrative (e.g., ‘the Jews and Samaritans both have it wrong, and this conflict, while valid in some ways, is misguided in others…’), which is basically what we do anytime we think someone else has it wrong. Instead, Jesus simply bears witness to a higher truth, inviting her to worship, as he worships, to enter the world where all speech becomes praise and rhetoric is transcended by, or passes over into, doxology. Jesus eschewed the think-piece (though that also has its place—see the Pauline letters) and instead acted. He was the man of action, for whom speech often came before thought and, most of the time, was tailored to a specific person rather than the sorts of expressions of abstract ideas to which we are usually drawn.

Thus Jesus invites her, and by extension us, not to the exact set of right ideas but to a person, to a relationship (God with us, God to us), and not primarily to theology but to worship. To the extent Christianity has any bearing on journalism or social media posting or blogging or denouncing your uncle’s dated politics over Thanksgiving dinner, it might be to give us a slight nudge away from idea-pushing and toward “the specifically human way of answering, of talking back and measuring up to whatever happened or was done,” which seems as good a definition of worship as any. Though to even speak of such a “nudge” certainly manifests the human drive towards influence and control, crossing from the descriptive and doxological into the prescriptive realm, and manifests a certain degree of sin.