Oration, oratory

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Oration, oratory

Oration, oratory: Oration refers to a carefully crafted oral presentation, usually written with a large audience in mind and designed to emotionally move as well as intellectually persuade a body of listeners. Alternatively, it signifies the practice of writing and delivering such speeches. Oratory refers to the art of oration, the use of eloquent language in formal public speaking.

In classical Greek and Roman times, skillful orators were widely respected, and oration was a preferred mode of public discourse. Specific rules governed the construction of a formal oration. Corax of Syracuse (fifth century B.C.), generally considered the father of rhetoric, identified five parts; later rhetoricians, such as the Romans Cicero (De oratore [On the Orator] [55 B.C.]) and Quintilian (Institutio oratoria [On the Education of an Orator] [12 vols.; c. 95 A.D.]), put the number of parts at four to seven, depending on the situation. Parts included the exordium, an introductory segment often involving an attention-grabbing opening; the narration, or statement of facts regarding the issue or situation; the proposition, a statement of the speaker’s thesis; the partition, an outline of the speaker’s arguments; the confirmation, or proof of the proposition using logical arguments; a refutation of counterarguments; and the peroration, or conclusion, summing up the main points and typically including an emotional appeal.

Orations are seldom heard today, and those that are delivered are rarely constructed according to classical rules. The closest thing to an oration that most of us are likely to hear would be a president’s inaugural address; the closing arguments made in a highly publicized trial (such as the 1995 murder trial of O. J. Simpson); or a sermon given to tens of thousands of people attending a Billy Graham-style evangelical “crusade.”

EXAMPLES: Socrates’s “Apology” (399 B.C.), his defense of free thinking; George Washington’s “Resignation Speech” (1784), in which, at the end of the Revolutionary War, he gave up his position as Commander in Chief rather than hold on to power; Mahatma Gandhi’s “Quit India” speech (1942), in which he advocated nonviolence in the struggle for Indian independence from Great Britain; Martin Luther King Jr.’s, “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered from the Lincoln Memorial during a 1963 civil rights march in Washington, D.C.; Ronald Reagan’s “Remarks at the Brandenburg Gate” (1987), where he called on Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union, to tear down the Berlin Wall.