Speech has the power to divide as well as to unite, to conceal as well as to convey, to sting as well as to soothe. For political speech, this dual dimension is as much a source of promise as of peril. Our capacity to persuade and be persuaded is integral to our ability to live with one another without violence, force, or tyranny—in short, our ability to do politics at all. Yet this capacity can, with greater finesse and more lasting consequences than sheer violence, undermine political institutions.

This course considers the responsibility of citizens to cultivate and wield the power of political speech. Participants will discuss a range of selected readings on the topic. In doing so, participants will enact what they seek to understand: a serious and civil conversation about politics.

The Hertog Readings in Politics & Culture series addresses the need for thoughtful discussion of perennial political issues informed by careful reading of great texts. The program runs for six weeks. Dinner will be provided. The first five meetings consist in a seminar discussion of the selected texts, led by Hertog associate director, Mary Elizabeth Halper.  The final meeting features a capstone speaker, Diana Schaub, who will speak on Frederick Douglass’s Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln.

Image: Cesare Maccari, Cicero Denounces Cataline, fresco, 1889


Mary Elizabeth Halper

Mary Elizabeth Halper is the Associate Director at the Hertog Foundation. She graduated with B.A.s in Philosophy and in Classics from the University of Dallas and has since been devoted to liberal education in various forms. She earned her Ph.D. in Philosophy from the Catholic University of America, where she defended a dissertation on the political philosophy of Plato’s Protagoras and Gorgias.

Diana Schaub

Diana J. Schaub is Professor of Political Science at Loyola University Maryland and a member of the Hoover Institution’s task force on The Virtues of a Free Society. From 2004 to 2009 she was a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session



Discussion Questions:

  1. Why would it matter whether rhetoric were an art or a knack? Why is it so tempting to think of speech as only an instrument?
  2. What’s so bad about pandering? How does it obscure true beauty/health?
  3. Could there be a way to use appearances without pandering? Could there be a way to appeal to the passions without pandering?
  4. Why is anger the first passion Aristotle addresses? What is the power behind anger?
  5. How does shame function in civic discourse? Can it play both a negative and a positive role?



  • Thucydides, Peloponnesian War
    • Pericles’s Funeral Oration 2.34–2.47 (pp. 110–18)
    • Mytilenian Debate: Cleon v. Diodotus 3.36–3.49 (pp.175–83)
    • Melian Dialogue 5.84–5.116 (pp.351–57)


Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the putative civic end of Pericles’s speech? What other function might his speech serve?
  2. To what passions does Cleon explicitly and implicitly appeal? What role does Diodotus’ defense of deliberative rhetoric play in the success of his counsel? What is the motivation for making the debate not about justice but about self-interest?—what is its effect?
  3. How much does genuine dialogue depend on shared presuppositions? What must be minimally held in common in order for discourse to occur? Did the Athenians actually discourse with the Melians? Did the Melians with the Athenians?  What is the purpose of this exchange of speeches, if not communication?
  4. What is the Athenian conception and use of public discourse? How does it change over the course of the speeches? What accounts for this change? How does their conception of discourse relate to the structure of their regime?



Discussion Questions:

  1. How does flattery figure into Richard’s reign and downfall? Does it affect how he manages “free speech” in his court? How? Is there a sense of censorship in his court (perhaps regarding the death of Gloucester)? How does flattery figure into Bolingbroke’s ascendancy (consider especially his courting of the common people)?
  2. Is the duel a necessary evil, the limit of healthy discourse, or a sign of an intractable problem? What are the differences between the way Richard handles the issue of a duel and the way Bolingbroke does (Act IV, Sc. 1)? What does it mean for the issue of rightful authority that the most pointed matters are resolved by institutional violence?
  3. How does divine authority limit and/or liberate speech?  What are the accounts that can mend, at least temporarily, the public (and sometimes private) rift when this divine authority is deposed? What are the limits to the power of such accounts?
  4. What is the connection between freedom of speech and honor? Is honor strictly private or public? How does regard for honor inform the use of political speech?
  5. What characterizes the interplay between words and deeds throughout the play?  Is there a wisdom for political deeds that is distinct from a wisdom about political speech?



Discussion Questions:

  1. Why is Lardner’s story funny? Why is O’Connor’s? How does the humor of each differ? Is not taking oneself too seriously as important as taking oneself seriously?
  2. From what oppression does Mr. Shelton seek relief and how? Is his violation of civility an act of freedom? From what oppression does Rayber seek relief and how? Is his failure a failure of civility?
  3. Does either protagonist enjoy the good that civility is meant to protect? How does each conceive of his role in civic discourse? And of civic discourse in his own life?



Discussion Questions:

  1. What accounts for the power of language? How does how we speak affect how we think and about what we think? What is the point of aiming for beautiful speech?
  2. Is our public discourse only a manifestation of our public health? Can it assert—or reassert—the “vital connection” between the institutions of society and the values which are supposed to govern the private lives of our citizenry?
  3. Is there an inescapable tension between the truthfulness and beauty of speech? Between the justice and civility of speech? What is the source of that tension?  If it is inescapable, is it manageable? How?

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