As I was watching Beau Biden (video below) and his father Joe at the Democratic Convention today, I was struck by a stunning parallel between Senator Biden’s remarkable life story and that of the ancient Greek orator Demosthenes.
Both were stammerers in their youth. Both were taunted for it with cutting nicknames–“dash” for Biden, since he left his words hanging with a dash; batalus for Demosthenes, which meant both asshole and stammerer.
But both defined themselves by overcoming this impediment, and thus turning their greatest weakness–speaking–into their greatest strength–oratory. Demosthenes went on to become the single greatest orator not only in Greece but in all of history. Statesmen from Cicero to Disraeli and Churchill looked to him for lessons in how to move a political audience with speech. Joe Biden, too, became an effective–and, if anything, a garrulous–senator and may now become vice president.
As always, it is how they overcame that is the story. Joe Biden’s story is all over the news this week. But you may not know Demosthenes’ story. Here is the brief version, as Plutarch tells it:
Once, after Demosthenes was once again laughed out of the forum of Athens for his slobbering, panting attempts at speech, he was walking in dejection around the port. An actor followed him and caught up. He asked Demosthenes to recite passages from Euripides and Sophocles. Demosthenes recited them. As soon as he stopped, the actor would deliver the same passage, but with full force and feeling, with gesture and emotion.
Demosthenes was so inspired that he built himself a sort of cave underground where he hid for months at a time, just practicing his speech. He shaved one half of his head, then the other, so that he would be too ashamed to come out. With laser-like focus, he stayed in that dungeon and worked on his tongue, his vocal cords, his gestures, his cadence, his logic.
Eventually he came out of his cave and set his hurdles higher. He recited speeches while running up hills. He went to the shore and orated against and over the breaking waves. When even that became easy, he put pebbles under his tongue and then enunciated over the roaring surf. Here he is, as the painter Jean Lecomte du Nouÿ imagined him:
In time, he became the greatest orator, and then the greatest statesman, of his country and time, Athens in the fourth century BCE. It would be Demosthenes who roused the Athenians against the menace of Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great.
Were the early failures, setbacks and shortcomings of Joe Biden and Demosthenes impostors, in Kipling‘s sense? Do they belong in my book, which is about how the two impostors, triumph and disaster, work? Stammering, for Biden or Demosthenes, was not a liberating event, as failure was for Steve Jobs, J.K. Rowling, or Hannibal’s nemesis, the great Scipio. Their stammer was more like a gauntlet that life threw before their soul. Success in life can be about picking such gauntlets up and then going deep, way deep, to find the strength.