Let’s see. Male, check. White, check. Old, well, white hair anyway. Actually my kids cringe. They say as if by way of apology. “OMG Dad, you are so-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o WHITE!” I am unsure if they are commenting on my looks, or my demeanour. Dead. Well, not dead yet.
Seems we are quite apologetic of aging white males. They also say we are quite angry. They have a nasty name for my kind in England, it’s what they call an aging white male when he is complaining and his face turns all red. They call us Gammon, after a leg of pork that has been hung out to dry, and is all flushed, and yet still somehow pasty looking in an unsavoury way. The University of Kansas is now offering “Angry White Male” studies. We are a ‘thing’ worthy of study, if you subscribe to the proper opinion, that we are to be dismissed, and have nothing of value to say. Cambridge University has done something similar, they have dumped old, dead white guys from the reading list. Only authors of colour need apply.
The group into which I am lumped, has also taken a hit in the statuary of the world. It has become popular to tear them down, by way of protest. The Mayor of Victoria BC has been alternately applauded and excoriated for tearing down the statue of Sir John A. MacDonald, our founding Prime Minister. Oh, those old white, men, always lecturing us. Begone, and trouble us no more.
You still see them in museums though. No tearing down of these dead, white males. They sit on stands, looking bemused but pregnant with things to say except that their voices have been muted. You can look at the names and really, have no idea who they were. It is not likely that anyone is going to tell. Except for the fact that they are already dead, let us just say that they are a dying breed.
Let me introduce you to one talking head and tell you his story. He looks old, white and yep, pretty dead so let me give him a name and put some flesh on his bones. His name is Demosthenes of Athens, he lived in the fifth century when the halcyon days of Greece were in decline. Demosthenes shines as an example of someone who failed, dusted himself off, and then succeeded. Maybe he could teach us something, for him who has ears to hear.
Demosthenes had a lot of things going against him. His father died while he was very young. He was raised by a coterie of women, he had a speech impediment in the form of a lisp, and he suffered from asthma. Lacking a father, he was not placed in the company of the other boys wrestling in the gymnasium. Demosthenes spent all his time at home with his back hunched over books, he was weak, spindly and unimpressive.
But he witnessed something that was to change his life forever. One day he attended a trial and he saw in the court of law how the great orator moved and impressed the people. He saw for the first time, the magic and power of words, to clothe and deliver your thoughts and opinions in a way that would matter. Word as a tool to persuade and to evoke change.
Demosthenes was sixteen, when he discovered that the inheritance his father left to him, had been eaten up by his guardians. He had no way to get it back, short of arguing for it in court of law. Athenian courts required that you speak without notes, and he had a history of great orators before him, which only served to magnify his lack of skill.
But Demosthenes was not to be discouraged. He vowed to learn how to overcome his obstacles and to become a great speaker. He looked at the five canons of rhetoric that the famous orator Cicero had discussed and tried to break them down into bite sized chunks.
First was the lisp. Demosthenes took a pebble, and practised speaking around the stone balanced on his tongue until he could consciously pronounce all of his words with precision and grace. Demosthenes mastered diction, and elocution despite his speech impediment.
The second thing was his physical demeanour. Demosthenes practised speaking in the mirror so that he could judge whether his facial expressions were appropriate. To straighten his hunched back, he dangled a sword around his neck so that it would prick him if he did not stand straight. Demosthenes had started a process where he could become consciously aware of all aspects of his delivery, until they became natural in the process of his speech.
Demosthenes next had to tackle his shortness of breath. He practised by running up and down the hills by the ocean, shouting his speeches and using the cross training to gain more lung power. To master volume and projection, Demosthenes stood on the shore and shouted out to the waves crashing on the shoreline. He practised until he was confident he could be heard over the sound of the waves.
There were no cheat sheets in an Athenian court of law. You had to speak extemporaneously. Demosthenes began by reading aloud, other peoplesʼ speeches to see how they were put together, how they used words to persuade. As a boy he had read over and again, the History of the Peleponnesian Wars by Thuciddides. He decided to commit some of the speeches to memory, and in this way he gained practice for how to speak without notes.
Still to be conquered was body stance and delivery. How to move onstage with power and a sense of presence. Even a well written speech can be delivered badly, but Athens had a great history of theatre. Demosthenes hired a personal coach, a stage actor, who got Demosthenes to read out a speech to him. He then laughed, and reread the speech in a way that displayed grandeur, poise, and power. He coached Demosthenes to do the same.
As you might predict, practise makes perfect. Demosthenes, although yet a minor came from behind to win his day in court, and was able to gain back his rightful inheritance.
Encouraged, he then vowed that he would make a career in public speaking, and set his sights on Athenian politics. His first speech was well crafted and well practised, but when this slight young boy stood up in the presence of all these seasoned orators, he was laughed at. But Demosthenes refused to give up. He hired himself out as an advocate who would take up your case and as it turned out, he was very successful in the court of law.
He then became the captain of a ship, and went on to become one of the most famous orators of Greek history. His favourite topic was speeches against Philip of Macedon, so much so that his speeches coined the term, a “philippic”, that is, a targeted speech intended as a criticism.
Hmmm. Seems the success of Demosthenes was not only that he did not give up, it was that he fortified himself in the present, with lessons from the past, you know, those old, white men who had gone before. He refused to give up on his rightful inheritance from the mute and the dead.
Lesson of the day, and it is a short one: do not discount that you can yet learn valuable lessons from old, white men. It is fashionable to dismiss them wholesale, without gaining the insights and lessons they may still offer. Significance in the face of adversity, is a thing it seems. An old, white and apparently not dead yet, kind of thing.