The late, great Terry Wogan and the recently departed Fidel Castro rarely appear together in the same sentence, but the two men had a couple of things in common. Both were educated by Jesuits – Sir Terry at Limerick’s Crescent College; El Presidente at schools in Santiago de Cuba and Havana – and both men had the gift of the gab.
They put their talents to radically different uses, of course. Wogan was master of the pithy phrase that helped ease Radio 2 listeners into their day and almost made the Eurovision Song Contest tolerable, while Castro was all about hectoring his foes or preaching revolution with a loquacity that made the mind boggle. But might their education have had some influence on their love of holding forth? Did Jesuit schools represent the ideal training ground for those who would make their mark by turning a phrase, whether as broadcaster or dictator?
It’s clear that a high regard for oratory and the art of persuasion has long been a hallmark of the Society of Jesus. From the birth of the order in the 16th century, its preachers demonstrated a rare ability to adapt their message to local circumstances and appeal to the emotions as well as the intellect. As the great historian of the early Jesuits, John O’Malley, puts it, when surveying their audiences they “welcomed an occasional swoon and found consolation and confirmation in sighs, moans, and especially tears, whether of sadness or joy”.
With salvation and moral rectitude at stake, sophisticated rhetorical strategies were always a legitimate tool. This mentality easily transferred to the Jesuits’ colleges, and generations of pupils would be drilled in the theories of classical rhetoric or encouraged to participate in lavish theatrical performances. The goal was to produce worthwhile members of civil society: the kind of people who could triumph in an argument.
Blameless as that might sound, some of the Jesuits’ critics suggested that the order was producing legions of smooth-tongued sophists. In 1885, for instance, the esteemed French scholar Ernest Renan grumbled about a tradition of flowery, artful speech that resulted in manipulation or hypocrisy. “Rhetoric,” he averred, had been “the only error of the Greeks” and the Jesuits, out of tune with crisp, clean modernism, were charged with sustaining a baleful, age-old habit. This was rather mean: one of those essentialist accusations with which the Jesuits have frequently had to deal. As it goes, there was always flux in the Society’s approach to rhetoric – sometimes championing Seneca, sometimes cheering for Cicero, often adopting the latest trends with aplomb – and, frankly, it’s a curious intellectual world-view that sees linguistic style as the enemy of moral or spiritual substance. The Jesuits realised that the one can lead naturally to the other.
Fidel Castro sometimes expressed gratitude for his Jesuit education and talked of how he admired the rigour and discipline of his instructors. He was even known to twist and torture a biblical parable from time to time or claim Christ as some kind of proto-revolutionary. We can’t be sure of exactly what was taught to Fidel in 1940s Cuba, but if the speechifying seeds were sown we can’t blame the Jesuits for Fidel’s subsequent excesses, any more than we could hold them responsible for the atrocities of that other famous alumnus, Robert Mugabe. The tools are supplied, but the workman chooses his own projects.
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