Today, the increasingly shrill rhetoric around Britain’s future position within or outside the European Union (‘Bremain’ vs. ‘Brexit’) appears to have claimed the life of Labour MP Jo Cox.
We tend to think of speech as ‘mere words’.
But speech is a dangerous weapon, as Cicero reminds us in De oratore 3.55 (transl. H. Rackham):
Est enim eloquentia una quaedam de summis virtutibus – quanquam sunt omnes virtutes aequales et pares, sed tamen est specie alia magis alia formosa et illustris, sicut haec vis quae scientiam complexa rerum, sensa mentis et consilia sic verbis explicat ut eos qui audiant quocumque incubuerit possit impellere; quae quo maior est vis, hoc est magis probitate iungenda summaque prudentia; quarum virtutum expertibus si dicendi copiam tradiderimus, non eos quidem oratores effecerimus, sed furentibus quaedam arma dederimus.
For eloquence is one of the supreme virtues – although all the virtues are equal and on a par, but nevertheless one has more beauty and distinction in outward appearance than another, as is the case with this faculty, which, after compassing a knowledge of facts, gives verbal expression to the thoughts and purposes of the mind in such a manner as to have the power of driving the hearers forward in any direction in which it has applied its weight; and the stronger this faculty is, the more necessary it is for it to be combined with integrity and supreme wisdom, and if we bestow fluency of speech on persons devoid of those virtues, we shall not have made orators of them but shall have put weapons into the hands of madmen.
We owe it to Jo Cox not ever to forget this.