Lawrence Reed and Cicero

In the summer of 2019, Acton Institute hosted a lecture by Lawrence W. Reed. His theme was Modern Parallels to the Fall of Rome.

As I habitually do with speakers on this blog, I have attached to Reed’s name a hyper-link that will take you to a biography, but you will find there not much more than you learn from the detailed introduction given him by Stephen Barrows. He does such a good job of the introduction that I have attached a hyper-link to a biography of him also. He supplies one particular piece of information that seems relevant to this blog. At 2:03 he tells us that Reed has delivered at least seventy five speeches a year for the past thirty years. That’s an average of three per fortnight. He should be pretty good at it. Reed begins at 2:50.

I firmly tell my trainees that every speaker – every speaker – experiences a Hump. They often seem incredulous, but here at the beginning I see tiny, subtle symptoms of nervousness. I am impressed and delighted that even with his huge experience his adrenal glands are still doing their job to raise him to optimal performance. If a speaker is not nervous at the beginning he’ll bore you. If you can’t see Reed’s nerve symptoms that’s because he’s good at disguising them.

After brief preliminaries, including an amusing anecdote, he launches straight into the subject of the Ancient Roman Republic. What I particularly like, the lecture title notwithstanding, is that he seldom bothers to draw modern parallels at all. He doesn’t need to: it’s all implicit. He merely narrates relevant information about the Roman Republic, its crumbling and its transition into an empire, and lets us work out the parallels for ourselves. As a general rule audiences dislike being spoon-fed.

For instance as a Brit my ears prick up at 09:15 when he tells us that Rome had an unwritten constitution which was nonetheless very powerful and built on long established conventions. The British constitution, likewise unwritten, was recently tested, somewhat assailed, but succeeded in riding out the crisis.

When at 18:45 he quotes Sallust’s description of the character of the administration of Rome in its late republican crumbling, he allows it to transmit its own parallel message. Likewise when he tells us at 20:00 about Tacitus warning of ‘lust for power’.

Though the general principles of what he describes are not earth-shatteringly new, it is pleasing to have so much clarity of chapter and verse attached to them. It appears also to be necessary to repeat the obvious warnings.

The lecture is half-an-hour long, as is the Q&A that follows. During the latter he is asked to identify which historical figure (other than Jesus Christ) he would most like to meet. Topping his list is Cicero, whose writings tell us so much about the crumbling of the republic. Cicero has quite a lot also to tell us about public speaking, so I might try to gatecrash that conversation.

Catherine Engelbrecht in The Land of the Free

Every so often I go blitzing on line, compiling lists of links to speeches that might be worth visiting more thoroughly later. So it was that I skimmed my way through “Top 10 greatest speeches from TV shows”, a series of examples of heavy dramatic fiction. The very next thing I came to was a video of testimony made on 6 February, 2014, by Catherine Engelbrecht, founder and President of True the Vote, to a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives. I had to keep pinching myself to cling to the knowledge that the fiction had stopped and that this dramatic account was real life in The Land of the Free.

One of the simplest and most fundamental principles of life, one that we learn when tiny tots in the school playground, is that when one side of an argument feels that it needs to break or bend rules, or cheat in any way on behalf of their cause, then there is something wrong with their cause. They may rationalise their cheating with all sorts of end-justifies-the-means sophistry, but – and here’s the clincher – they¬†likewise realise, deep down, that there’s something wrong with their cause. Otherwise they wouldn’t perceive a need to cheat.

I’m an Englishman, not an American. Though reasonably well-read, and accordingly some of what she says is not completely new to me, I am not well enough versed in the back story to feel qualified to comment beyond general principles like the above. But I have exceptional experience to qualify me to judge how she puts across her account.

I read stress by the bucketful. I think that, even without the story she is telling, it must be pretty tough for a private citizen to address an audience like that. Accordingly I applaud how well she copes.

This is one occasion that I am four-square behind a speaker with a script. She has to stick very tightly to time: she must be very precise with her data: she must be seen to be very precise with her data. But there’s another important plus to her credit with this script. It is written in spoken English.

I am not altogether happy with the “motherhood and apple-pie” section beginning at 1:16. It is not the content that bothers me – that’s crucially relevant – it’s the attempts at the warm smiles at the mention of her husband and family. However warm might be her feelings towards them, and however genuine those smiles at any other time, here and now under a tsunami of stress those smiles could not but look forced. I know why she’s doing it: it’s to add colour to the contrast between her two lives before and after she took on this campaign. I just don’t think it works.

In citing harassment from a range of government agencies she bravely names one of the panel at 1:47. Does she think this will neutralise some of the aggression from his cross-examination later? If so, according to this account, it doesn’t work. There’s more video material there, and you may think it worth watching. I shall not comment on it.

Is her story true? I am not in a position to know absolutely; though I know what I believe. The story that unfolds is a harrowing one and, when recounted without attempts at smiles and as flatly and unemotionally as her stress will allow, is very powerful. At 3:54 she speaks hypothetically about “a political machine that would put its own survival against the civil liberties of the private citizen”.

The preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America begins with the words, “We the people…” The implication is that government is the servant of the people. It’s an extension of the assertions in Magna Carta. Is this concept some kind of wide-eyed romantic fantasy these days? If it is, we should be nervous. History shows an extraordinary consistency in that wherever and whenever people have been free of tyranny that society has managed pretty well. Wherever and whenever a self-serving elite has broken into those freedoms the result has always been misery and immiseration. There is no such thing as a benign tyranny.

There is a silver lining to this story. In the society that currently obtains, Catherine Engelbrecht was able to present this testimony to the House of Representatives: we are able to view it on line: I am able to comment on it here. So far, for the moment, those freedoms at least continue. If any of the links in that chain become endangered it will be time to man the barricades.