Noted abolitionist and advocate Wendell Phillips once stated “If you want to be an orator, first get your cause.” These words highlight an intriguing concept – few people are solely orators. Being an orator is frequently secondary to a person’s other accomplishments; indeed, oration may be the tool that many use to go about their various purposes, as Wendell Phillips did as he advocated for abolition, women’s and Native American’s rights, and more. (1)
The American Heritage Dictionary defines an orator as “one who delivers an oration” or “an eloquent and skilled public speaker.” (2) The Online Etymology Dictionary phrases it more strongly, stating that an orator is “one who pleads or argues for a cause.” (3) The Online Etymology Dictionary delves into the word’s origins, stating that it emerged from the Anglo-French term oratour and the Old French orateur. These two words are then derived from the Latin orator, meaning “speaker”, and orare, meaning “to speak before a court or assembly, plead.”
If you look solely at the definition of the word and its etymology, it is difficult to argue with Wendell Phillips. Much of its definition has roots in words like “plead.” If this is the case, Phillips’ quotation holds true, then a cause for which to plead is a necessary component of being an orator.
Cicero made note of this fact. By and large, the most eminent orators throughout history (at least at the point when he was writing) were often something else first, most notably war heroes or philosophers. (4) He questioned why this was, also noting that the study of oratory attracted even fewer people than the study of poetry, something, that was increasingly obscure in his day. This surprised him oratory is perhaps one of the most familiar concepts in society; it takes place in the open on a regular basis and is essentially a part of daily life. It is a far more open concept than many of the other arts.
It is difficult to say that much has changed since the time of Cicero’s writings. Indeed, there have been a number of notable orators since his time – Martin Luther, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr. These three individuals reached an impressive level of success as orators, but each of them had causes for which to plead. Martin Luther was an advocate of religious reformation. Abraham Lincoln was president during the most fractious period of American history (and emerged as one of Cicero’s war heroes). Martin Luther King, Jr. is arguably the most famous orator of the 20th century, but did not speak just to orate; he spoke for the cause of civil rights.
A person’s status as an orator is almost always secondary to their “true” purpose, a cause, yet it is a vital skill. While it could be said that if there were no causes, there would be no reason for oratory, the fact remains that while most fields of study are studied for their own value, oratory is often relegated to a second-string status.