Beautiful Words Have Power
by Lt. Gen. Clarence E. McKnight, Jr.
"If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging symbol," St. Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians two thousand years ago. "If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith that I can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor, and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing." Paul bequeathed us faith, hope and love -these three -- "but the greatest of these," he said, "is love."
Paul passed away, as we all must in our time, but he continues to enrich the human experience with his beautiful words that are timeless. It should be noted that when Paul spoke of love, he was not talking about romance between a man and a woman, but rather love for our fellow human beings. Interestingly, the scholars working for King James translated that key phrase as "faith, hope and charity" which I believe came closer to Paul's meaning.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident," wrote Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence two centuries ago, "that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Jefferson and his editors among the Founding Fathers toyed with that last one. Some wanted to say "life, liberty and property." But they hesitated to assert that everyone was entitled by God to property. I am glad they chose "pursuit of happiness" instead of "pursuit of property," for the words are beautiful in their vague simplicity. Like the words of St. Paul, they have stood the test of time and still inspire people.
Some are troubled by Jefferson's eloquence about liberty because of his hypocrisy as a slave owner, and he was certainly aware of that even within the context of his own time. Jefferson knew slavery was evil and acknowledged as much, saying it alarmed him "like a fire bell in the night" as if he had foreseen the consequences that would ensue for that failure to deal with the worst blot on our nation's history. That was left for another great wordsmith to deal with.
"Fourscore and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," opined Abraham Lincoln at the dedication of the military cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in 1863. "We are now engaged in a great Civil War testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure." He concluded his short address with the hope that "government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth."
St. Paul, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln shared a gift for beautiful words - constructing sentences that soar beyond mere communication to touch the heart and inspire humanity to rise above its mean estate. It is difficult to imagine President-elect Trump joining this company - tweets do not often sustain eloquence - but you never know. If he can summon President Reagan's speechwriter Peggy Noonan back to Washington, anything is possible.
Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications," published by The History Publishing Company.