Monday, June 18, 2012

What Do Socrates and Lincoln Have In Common?

As we observe the pundits calling the next presidential election and listen to their comments about the strategies needed to win, let’s keep in mind that many experts do not always know any more than you or I do.

Sometimes, it takes time and perspective before the true impact of an idea or an action is fully realized. History shows us that this has been true for at least 2,500 years!

When Greek philosopher, Socrates, was charged with “corrupting youth,” his defense address failed to move the jury and he was sentenced to death by hemlock. Probably many Athenians thought he was just an eccentric…a flash in the pan. But today Socrates continues to be regarded as one of the giants in Western philosophy and a forefather of the scientific method.

One of my favorite examples of a speech that has stood the test of time is Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, delivered in the middle of the Civil War in November, 1863. That speech is today regarded as one of the greatest and most poetic presidential talks of all time. But while it was admired by some at the time of delivery, it was not the showstopper then that it is today.

A contemporary reviewer of Lincoln’s talk from The Chicago Times said: “The cheeks of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances.” Others were put off because it was so short; it was over in two minutes. In that period it was common for politicians to speak for an hour or more, so this brief statement was seen as strange, under the circumstances. Overall, my sense, based on what I have read, is that the reaction was tepid at best.

I recall from the book, Lincoln, by the late David Donald – the Lincoln expert from Harvard – that Lincoln was disappointed at the reaction and was the first president, according to the book, to employ public relations techniques on a presidential speech. He distributed the text of the speech to editorial pages of major newspapers around the nation and the subsequent positive media coverage helped change the public perception, so that it became a model of brilliant oratory.

While there is a lot to be said for the wisdom of crowds and their influence on public perception, neither crowds nor experts are always right. But not giving up when you believe in your product is key, if you are going to start a trend that influences opinion. Lincoln obviously understood this. That said, many times it is hard to clearly read history in the making rather than history after it has been made.

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