The Power of the Spoken Word, delivered before the National Institute of Arts and Letters at New York, New York (May 22, 1947)
"The Power of the Spoken Word"
Mr. Damrosch, Members of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and friends,
It was a touchingly beautiful gesture when you signalled me to celebrate with you the Power of the Spoken Word here in this exalted cultural watch-tower of America. If my halting words convey to you even a ray of the joy I feel that through the gate of utterance I have entered boundless intellectual and spiritual treasuries, I shall be content. O the perennial miracle of speech wrought out of the air we breathe! It was truly a sound from the Divine when the word "man" was pronounced -- his exodus from the animal state to conscious thought and speech. Even though primitive beings bore no record of that sublime call, we do not need history to be dazzled and exult over other creative namings -- "fire," "wheel," "ship" and "goodness" that gave the genesis of earth- shaping ideas and ever widening communities.
Its seems to me, the Greek Logos contained memories, perhaps dim, of that wondrous awakening. Socrates, as I understand his meaning, said that the spoken word should be kept holy as a power to quicken an idea in the listener's mind, and he never broke this life-giving vow. All through his dialogues he insisted that we never can define the full significance of words like "courage," "eloquence" and "virtue" because they are defined differently by each person uttering them in his individuality and his deeds. Understand your words and think them in your own mental voice -- that was his message. For this his enemies condemned him to drink hemlock because they saw that he was using the spoken word to clear their political confusion and rend asunder their social disguises. He was exalting the power of the spoken word to destiny in the mouth of the philosopher as a statesman, a teacher, a kindler of dumb humanity. As the Greeks would have put it, the anthropos -- the being with upturned face -- stood forth to look with his mind and define. Today behold his spoken word mighty everywhere as inquiry and research! The Psalmist sang, "For Thou has magnified Thy Word above all Thy Name." Is that not because the spoken word generates heat in the brain that expands life boundlessly, while names suggest Frontiers? Customs and traditions mark the stopping- places of human development, but the Voice thundereth upon many waters waiting to be caught in higher names and principles.
Centuries after Socrates' day Jesus imparted a yet richer accent and tone to "man" by retranslating it as the Spirit. He broke the tyranny of the local, the immediate, the physical over the spoken word. Undaunted by world empire and slavish acquiescence He encouraged others so that they spoke out of the treasury of their hearts, and knew liberty. He taught that speech is the fruit of our lips, and that only by speaking the word engrafted within can we grow finer personalities. Unceasingly His voice rolls on, emancipating the oppressed, giving inner light to the blind and language to deaf. In His view, ears were created to be full of hearing -- understanding, not for fear or parrotlike imitation but for independent thinking, the unfettered spirit, boundless experiment in brotherhood and nobler day-by-day living for men. With Him speaking, hearing and doing the word are almost interchangeable.
What a trust is assigned to us in this surviving Power of the Spoken Word! Only by purifying our minds often in this real Ganges of healing can we free the speech we call history from nationalism and falsehood.
All other forms of knowledge are amazingly fertilized when the spoken word sets before each learner the goal of becoming a personality, a life-builder. What a disaster threatens us when as today the radio and the film tend to desecrate the spoken word by perverting it from true teaching to the dictator! The mightiest spoken fiat, "Let there be light," remains for to create a civilization in which stereotyped instruction, citizenship, parenthood shall vanish, and multitudes arise to think and speak, not by rote but by spontaneous self-expression in the harmony of a progressive world commonwealth.