The President and the Ancient Roots of Improvised Speech

The improvised speech of Donald Trump has been either widely disparaged or celebrated. Certain venues inspire this version of the president, but we are witnessing it more and more slipping into his scripted speeches. This type of speech is clearly divisive (mostly for its content but also for its form); his supporters say that this is what they love about Trump and others believe it unpresidential and at the most, hurtful and dangerous. Trump himself takes pride in his speaking off the cuff, tweeting about the “different types of back to back speeches” he can deliver. And he clearly thinks highly of his improvisatory ability in particular but perhaps has little awareness that such oratorical talent has precedence in ancient Greece and Rome.

Countless orators are known from the ancient Mediterranean, Pericles and Cicero probably the most famous to modern minds. One group of Greek orators are described in the Lives of the Sophists by Philostratus, a Greek writing in the early third century A.D. Philostratus records the biographies of Greek intellectuals, commonly referred to as sophists, living in the Roman Empire. Some he has high praise for and others he spends little time on because of their relatively scant oratorical skill. Much of this work is meant to inflate his own reputation as a sophist, but Philostratus hones in on one important aspect of good oratory: improvised, or extempore, speech.

They weren’t presidents, but many sophists did hold official political or civic titles both throughout the cities of Greece and in Rome itself. And improvised speech appeared in the various speaking competitions these sophists participated in. Their ability to sway audiences in these competitions earned them reputation and wealth (usually in the form of hordes of student disciples or the esteem of the Roman emperor). Philostratus sees Aeschines (4th century B.C.) as the founder and inventor of improvised speech. It is said that Aeschines could speak extempore “as though he were carried away by divine inspiration, like one who breathes out oracles.” And with his improvised speech Aeschines later in life went on to entertain the royal rulers of modern-day Turkey.

No other sophist, however, seems to match the skill of Aeschines in the rest of the Lives. Many gain great reputations for their extempore talent, but only because they have a natural ability for it. Philostratus claims that many orators could make up for this lack of skill with dedication and training. But others simply failed. For instance, the sophist Heracleides is said to have broken down in an extempore speech before the Roman emperor. Intimidated and full of fear in the imperial court, Heracleides actually had an appropriate response according to Philostratus: “A single listener with an arrogant expression, delayed applause, or even unusual clapping can frustrate an extempore speaker.” And when even more hostile elements are present (such as in this case, a rival of Heracleides), the speaker “will think less critically and he will speak less fluently, for these suspicions cloud the mind and hold the tongue.”

Improvised speech therefore needed to be approached with caution. It could backfire for certain Greek orators, especially those who relied on it too often. Word got out that the sophist Philagrus, though he improvised a speech, would rely on this same speech again and again. Out of spite, several other students took the written speech away from him and mockingly read it aloud while Philagrus protested. And others forwent using improvised speech altogether. Aristeides earned the praise of the emperor Marcus Aurelius for his long stretches of meditation before speaking. When the emperor requested a speech on a certain theme, Aristeides refused to speak immediately, replying with what would later become a proverbial statement, “Propose the theme today ... and tomorrow come and hear me, for I am not one of those who vomit forth their words but rather one who makes them perfect.” Philostratus claims, however, that this same sophist actually much admired extempore speech and that he used to shut himself in his room, meticulously practicing it. But one’s natural ability to improvise was still crucial, since Philostratus deems Aristeides’ excessive practice “chewing rather than eating.”

There was therefore no hard-and-fast rule regarding extempore speech for Greek orators. It could be done well by some sophists if it formed part of their repertoire of oratorical skill. But others had no natural ability to improvise well. The audience in every case remained crucial in whether such speaking was received favorably. In 2017, the crowds that the president often draws, as well as his insistence on removing any protesters, suggest a similar dynamic. The use of teleprompter technology by politicians, however, has changed the way modern politicians address their constituents. And Trump’s stilted reading from the teleprompter reveals what type of speech he prefers and who he really is. The president clearly wields more power than these ancient sophists, whose speeches could effect change but were more often a form of entertainment. The crowds drawn to the president’s rallies are clearly entertained by his style, but the stakes for this sort of speech couldn’t be higher.

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