What we need these days, good people, are more philippics and fewer jeremiads. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Let’s examine this intriguing question.
The age we are living in seems perfectly suited to angry tirades and bitter lamentations. But then again, every age can have been defined by their philippics and jeremiads. These two forms of speeches are as old as oratory itself, as old as human language. They’ve been around as long as angry humans have been standing up in public and opening their mouths.
A philippic is a fiery speech denouncing a politician, or a public figure. For instance, Bret Stephens in the New York Times recently wrote:
“That was quite a philippic Arizona Republican Jeff Flake delivered on Tuesday [Oct. 24] from the Senate floor, announcing his decision not to seek re-election while denouncing Donald Trump’s ‘reckless, outrageous and undignified’ behavior and ‘flagrant disregard for truth and decency.’”
In today’s Republican Party, the erstwhile party of Lincoln, the philippic is making a comeback, as the GOP’s civil war between conservatives and the “establishment” is compelling congressmen and senators to not seek re-election, and to speak their minds about the state of their party as they make that announcement.
But the actual term philippic actually goes back almost 2,500 years, to the noted orator Demosthenes of Athens, who delivered a series of verbal attacks on Philip II, king of Macedon and father of Alexander the Great. The term was brought into common parlance by Cicero (106 BC-43 BC), who wrote a series of speeches — the Philipicae — denouncing Mark Anthony, basically saying it was too bad that Mark Anthony hadn’t been assassinated at the same time as Julius Caesar. Ouch!
Today’s political speeches during our municipal elections, and even our provincial and federal elections, tend to avoid the philippic. Our convention is to at least to try to be gracious in politics, though when interviewing a candidate I have often seen a philippic struggling to get out, usually between the lines.
A jeremiad is something else entirely — a bitter lament about the state of society, with a prediction of that society’s imminent downfall. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
It is named after the biblical Jeremiah (circa 625 BC) — “the Weeping Prophet” — who allegedly authored the Book of Jeremiah, the Book of Kings, and the Book of Lamentations in the Old Testament. He spent his prophetic career condemning idolatry, the greed of priests, and false prophets. All very pertinent to today, I think.
But a jeremiad doesn’t have to be so lofty. It has many practical day-to-day uses. For instance, I recently went to a movie, and expected to line up at the ticket booth to hand my money to a teenager and get my ticket. Instead, when I arrived I found the line-up was in front of an automated ticket machine. Standing in line, I launched into a jeremiad about the lack of youth employment, the looming spectre of automation, and the imminent destruction of any meagre savings I may have accumulated. My fellow movie-goers stood silently around me, gritting their teeth, as one does when standing near a Jeremiah. Someone eventually pointed out that all things being equal, we were all still standing in line. So I shut up.
These are great figures of speech, and very useful too, and I encourage you all to fire up your oratorical ardor — think of it as Hugs and Slugs writ large. Just don’t direct it my way please.
I suppose I should add that for all Demosthenes’s hatred of Philip of Macedon, and for all his great oratory and wit, Philip ended up defeating Athens in a series of wars, leaving Demosthenes to stew in his juice.
As for Jeremiah, his message prompted a conspiracy on his life (Jeremiah 11: 21-23). When Jeremiah complained to God, God told him that the attacks on him would only get worse. Jeremiah was then beaten and put in the stocks, after which he recounted how if he tried to shut the word of the Lord inside and not mention God’s name, the word became like a fire in his heart and he was unable to hold it in.
Makes standing in line seem like small potatoes indeed.
Barry Coulter is Editor of the Cranbrook Townsman, who really doesn’t mind standing in line, but who does support the idea of more youth employment.