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The Art Of Conversation:
Introduction To Conversation
Principles Of Conversation
If You Can Talk Well
Culture By Conversation
Rules For Conversation
Reflections On Conversation
Happiness Through Conversation
Conversation And Courtesy
( Originally Published 1913 )
By the way of pre-eminence ours is called the era of the book. The printed page is more and more, the oral word is less and less. It is said that men now find happiness and rest in reading rather than in conversation. The orator is and always will be a power; we are told he will never again be the power. Witness the change that has passed over the professions. As to the bar, gone the old eloquent jury lawyer; decisions are now won by the office lawyer familiar with precedent. As to politics, if Clay was once the type of the successful politician, now the man who controls a newspaper wins the suffrages. As to the pulpit, devotional books are helping to usher in the era when no man need say to his neighbor, "Know ye the Lord," for all shall know Him. As to the old-fashioned hospitality, it is gone. Worn and spent after the day's work, men are too tired for talk, and hide in- the club to smoke in peace. The genius of the age is in that placard in the club room. "No conversation allowed." Men are more and more content to excel in business and trade. They no longer spend years in practicing the art of conversation.
Doutbless the new order explains the decline of good talking. In the olden time eloquence was the one pathway to honor. Then the orator was esteemed above the soldier, the statesman and the merchant. All those offices that are now distributed between newspaper, book, and magazine were concentrated in conversation and public speech. Could we go back twenty-four centuries, and at the close of the day take our stand upon the streets of some Athens or Ephesus, how strange a scene would we behold! As the sun disappeared from sight, men and boys pour forth from homes humble and rich, and out of every alley and street issued the multitude, thronging and crowding toward the market place or forum, to hear how events had gone in the great outer world. All had the hunger for news. The speaker was there the publisher. A merchant, who had just landed a cargo of wheat from Egypt, told of a riot he had witnessed in that distant city. A sea captain pushed into prominence a poor, spent sailor, and told how he had found the mariner clinging to some driftwood off the coast of Cyprus.
An officer brought news from the troops in Macedonia. With prophetic excitement the rough-and-ready soldier described the brave youth who had organized the mountain tribes into an army. What courage was his! What beauty and chivalry! What wonder of devotion did he stir in his followers! When the Grecian officer asked his allegiance, the mountaineer bade one servant plunge a dagger into his heart, and asked another to leap over the precipice. When both had instantly obeyed, the young rebel turned to the Grecian and said: "I have yet ten thousand soldiers like unto these." Then, while the murmur ran round, the wise shook their heads and looked with fear upon one another. On the morrow all knew the rulers would call an assembly to consider the new Macedonian peril.
Later, Alcibiades arose to set the crowd into roars of laughter with a humorous account of the chariot race which he had witnessed during his visit to Thebes. Then came a recitation by a traveling rhetorician from Syracuse, whose eloquence ended with the announcement that he taught "the science of universal wit and humor in ten lessons." In such an age, how important was wise conversation and skillful speech! In an era when no day was without its public assemblage, when the tongue made known all public events, when orators enacted and proclaimed all laws, when all children and youth were instructed, not through books, but through conversation, men came to feel that an evil tongue was a fire and a world of iniquity, while a wholesome tongue was, indeed, a tree of life. He was the perfect man who sinned not with his tongue. Believing good conversation to be the finest flower of his civilization, Zeno said, "The soul bursts into full bloom and beauty in the voice." In seeking to account for the vast influence of the morning conversation of Plato, tradition tells us that, when the philosopher was still an infant, lying in his cradle, "a swarm of bees lighted upon his lips"-not to sting him, but to clothe his tongue with sweetness for those who loved the right, and to clothe his tongue with sharp stings for those who loved error and wrong.
Now all that has gone forever. The newspaper, traveling to all homes, has made unnecessary the evening assemblage upon the streets; the reviews and the magazines have suc ceeded to the philosopher's morning lectures; the college professor has succeeded the traveling rhetorician; but man is still the talking animal and, as of old, the issues of life and death are in the tongue. For the lips are fissures in the rock through which gush hidden waters, sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter. Oft the tongue is a goodly branch, laden with luscious fruit; oft, also, it is a club that falls with crushing force. Now the tongue is a shield lifted up for sharp attack against the wrong; now it is a spear whose sharp point is turned against the right. The sword hath slain its thousands, but the tongue its ten thousands.
Wise men have searched the world for images strong enough to set forth the full power of the tongue. Of the children of sympathy it may be said, the tongue sheds forth heal ing balms and cordials; but of the envious man it is true that the poison of asps is under the lips. For, as of old, so now the tongue is a hand wherewith we lift men up, or a mace wherewith we strike men down. With this instrument bless we God, with it curse we men. No other member carries such influences; and nothing taxes man like the skillful handling of the tongue and its bridling, even as the charioteer lifts the reins above his well-trained steeds. For the tongue gushes forth comfort like a cool, sweet spring; the tongue is a harp, piling up masses of melody; the tongue is a fruitful bower, full of bounty and delight; the tongue carries a glow, warming the soul like a winter's fire; it sends forth sweet songs to be sung in camp and wept over in cottage. Out of words the tongue weaves for the hero an armor against all enemies. Happy, thrice happy, are they whose tongue speaks fit words, that seem "like apples of gold lying in baskets of silver."
This noble use inheres in speech-it is the soul's revelator. The eye and ear, the taste and touch, are windows for letting the great outer world into the secret sanctuary, but the tongue is the one door through which the soul steps out. Only through speech is the invisible man beholden of his friends Character is an illuminated cathedral, luminous with beauty, vocal with music, and sweet with warmth and fragrance. The eyes are often eloquent with hidden meanings, being windows through which friends may look in. The poet tells us that some eyes are homes of silent prayer; other eyes are full of bayonets, and some are indeed like deep, pure wells, into which one might fall. Gesture also, with smiles and scowls and frowns, reveals the soul. Delsarte mentions seven hundred expressions of the eye and two thousand of the mouth, grouping them as "normal, indifferent, morose, contemplative, surprised, and resolute." Prescott tells us that three centuries ago intrepid explorers traveled from the great lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, and with less than one hundred and fifty signs and gestures purchased food, weapons, canoes, and received guidance and convoy. Facial expression can tell us much when it is given to the mouth to reveal love, hate, pity, somnolence, courage. Wordsworth said each human face is carved and channeled with the memories of a thousand thoughts and im pulses. The wrinkled brow of the aged hero "looks familiar with forgotten hopes and purposes."
Nevertheless, the friend's eyes and gestures leave us in the outer court of his soul. Pantomimes cannot reveal the hidden purpose of his soul. Once touch the tongue with dumbness and the spirit sits silent in its dungeon. Then the soul seems like unto those martyrs whom inquisitors walled up in solid masonry, or like miners who have lost their way in some vast cave or tunnel. Pathetic, indeed, are the attempts of men lost in subterranean depths as they seek to find their way back into the open light. But the sorrows of imprisoned martyrs are as nothing to those of brave and brilliant Helen Kellar, with her dumb lips and blind eyes, who places her fingers upon the larynx of some speaking friend, while her soul struggles to find its way out into the light and sunshine where sympathy and friendship dwell. Once the lips begin to speak, the soul stands forth fully revealed. For conversation is a golden chariot upon which the soul rides forth to greet its friends. Carlyle thinks the Saxon people talk too much. "For God's sake," he exclaims, "keep still and do something!" The sturdy Scotchman abhors tall talk-that is, in others. Believing that the word often outruns the deed, he belittles speech, exalts books, and unveils ideas as the giant forces. Yet no great reform was ever ushered in through an idea bound up in parchment. It was an idea flaming in the fiery speech of Bernard that kindled ardor in the Crusaders. When the old hero stood forth before the host, it was as if the skies, long silent, had at last broken into speech. The Reformation also represents not simply the lightning of Luther's thought, but the thunder of Luther's throat. The orations of Clay and Webster lent office and influence to these statesmen, just as Lincoln's speeches made him president. Truth in the abstract must be vitalized by personality. The great abolition movement progressed but slowly so long as its sole instrument was Garrison's printing press. It was the eloquent voices of Beecher and Phillips that made the idea of freedom invincible. For what the printed page,cannot do, it is given to the speaking voice to accomplish. And so long as man remains man, so long as childhood is shaped by the gentle speech of father and mother, so long as our young men and maidens are inspired and instructed, not alone in the library, but also in the lecture room of the living teacher, so long as all the processes of commerce and exchange are through conversation, will the practice and training in the right use of the tongue be one of life's chiefest duties, and the mastery of forceful speech remain one of the noblest purposes to which a man can address himself. To the end of time life and death will be in the tongue...
Many unconsciously make their conversation to be an irritant. These include the people who are proud and self-assertive. Their number is great, and they lower the level of happiness. The first trait of a gentleman is that he is a good listener. Only the selfish are willing to monopolize conversation. All good talk is an exchange, and alas for the dinner party that has an egotist at the table! He will lift up the capital letter "I" and turn it into an intellectual hitching post, and ask every one to stand round about and worship at his shrine and altar. No topic so remote but that it leads straight back to himself, to his experiences, his views, and his personality. He will exhaust all the capital I's in the printing press in the first half-hour. The first rule of good writing is, that the word "I" is never found upon the printed page, and that the author discourse of principles rather than of himself. Richter once said that the most disagreeable man he ever met was an egotist who could never mention his own name without taking off his hat and bowing to himself with great sobriety. England has produced an author, who, in writing his autobiography, tells us that his profession was selected for him by his father, and adds that it was a matter of life-long regret that he was not allowed to study geology and physical science, for he tells us that Providence blessed him with an analytic mind and with unusual powers of observation, so that when his parents turned him from his first love of nature, they unwittingly robbed the century of its greatest scientific mind, and perhaps the greatest analytic mind of all times. Conceit is doubtless a birth-fault and misfortune. Education can correct many faults, but there are two things education cannot do: It cannot teach a man tact, or correct his self-conceit. Modesty and common sense are like the gift of poetry-they are birth-gifts received from parents, but never given by teachers. But all these self-opinionated ones lessen happiness, irritate their fellows, breed discontent, and cast a gloom over every company into which they enter. For the person who possesses it, conceit is not an unmixed evil. It lends confidence and promotes self-reliance. It encourages contentment, for the vain man is never mistaken and has nothing to learn. Vanity is like a stopper in an empty bottle that the ocean itself cannot fill.
Solomon himself cannot instruct a vain man, and the wise king adds this reflection, "Seest thou a man, wise in his own conceit, there is more hope of a fool than of him."