The Art of Virtuosity

Alec Pallin

ESF “The Wind of Freedom”

November 22, 2013

Professor Robert Harrison & Dr. Inga Pierson

A Virtuoso

President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were champions of the Civil Rights Movement, inspirational leaders during a crucial moment in the history of the 20th century, and both had a charisma that earned them global esteem. They spoke of equality, change and most importantly freedom. When searching for a person with the same mastery of the spoken word, there are few who could a hold candle to the late President Kennedy or Dr. King. In her essay “What is Freedom?” Hannah Arendt suggests that certain individuals are virtuosos of the public sphere, and here I wish to argue that JFK and MLK are virtuosos in their performance as public speakers/orators.  Their speeches, to millions, outside, inside, from prison, while marching, demonstrate what it means to be free. I will show how both John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. can be said to have enacted or performed freedom in the public. I will compare their performances, discussing King’s “I have been to the Mountaintop” (April 3rd, 1968) and Kennedy’s “Civil Rights Address” (June 11th, 1963), considering especially their use of persuasive appeals.

To understand why they are virtuosos, one must understand what it means to be a virtuoso.  Arendt understands the term virtuosity as “An excellence we attribute to the performing arts”(Arendt 151). She describes the performing arts as things such as “flute-playing, dancing, healing and seafaring” (Arendt 151). However, Arendt means to discuss political freedom, and she applies virtuosity to speech and deeds conducted in the public sphere.  In other words, for Arendt and I have suggested above, public speaking is a performance of freedom. Kennedy and King express their ideas through their performance by using rhetoric. Rhetoric is defined as the ability to see what is possibly persuasive in every given case (Rapp). The persuasive appeals are derived from Aristotle treatise on rhetoric; they are ethos, logos and pathos. Logos is the appeal to reason or logic and pathos is the appeal to emotion. Ethos is the appeal to legitimacy; it often involves establishing one’s character or reputation, why one is worth listening to for one reason or another. It is through these three appeals and/or a combination of these three appeals that King and Kennedy make their arguments.  Within Hannah Arendt’s essay “What is Freedom?” Arendt describes two spheres where ideas are shared, presented and discussed, public and private.  The public sphere is where one becomes a virtuoso and thus where this discussion will reside. In the modern world, the public sphere can be conceived as social media, the Internet and television. It is a space where people are free to express and share their ideas with others. To put Arendt’s ideas simply, if public, social, and/or political freedom is restricted, the public sphere breaks down. It is run on the open sharing of ideas. By choosing to perform within the public sphere, you are expressing your basic freedom.  The audience of the two speeches proves that King and Kennedy performed in the public, but for they to be considered virtuosos, it must also be proven that they possess a mastery of the persuasive appeals.

For example within his “Civil Rights Address”, JFK exhibits his command of rhetoric by creating a connection with the American public. This speech galvanized the Civil Rights Movement. It was given on June 11th 1963 over TV and radio to propose a bill that would eventually become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It followed upon an incident in Alabama wherein the National Guard was called in to protect two African American who enrolled at the University of Alabama.   To quote JFK, “That order called for the admission of two clearly qualified young Alabama residents who happened to have been born Negro.” These students were completely qualified to attend the university, however it was a mere accident of nature that had prevented them from attending. Kennedy called for Americans to see that civil rights movement was more than a legal debate.

Now Kennedy must establish why desegregation should be accomplished; he must show why it is necessary. By leading with this story, Kennedy is using pathos as Aristotle intended it, to put the listener in a mind to receive the message. With this anecdote, Kennedy is able to turn this previously legal issue into a moral one. He then proceeds with his plan for desegregation. Once again he will rely on pathos or the emotional side of his argument to demonstrate that African American students have the right and the ability to attend a university. After the initial description of the Alabama University incident, JFK switches to the rights of the American public more generally.  He does not make distinctions between Negroes and whites in his speech. Rather by using the first person plural, JFK brings black and white Americans into the same body of citizens; grammatically speaking, he integrates the population. JFK builds on this notion of unity within his language by emphasizing the equality found in our human nature; with great subtlety he suggests, repeatedly, that skin color is a physical attribute or a mere accident of nature, like hair color, height, or freckles. Kennedy is trying to say that these accidents of nature do not prevent any man woman or child from being full citizens of the United States.

“The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?”

Kennedy understood the very real hardships that segregation causes for its victims.  The everyday effects of segregation, being forced to sit at the back of the bus, having to eat at different restaurants and drink from different water fountains, are only the tip of the iceberg. Kennedy’s aforementioned question includes the idea that children inherit the political oppression of their parents.  Kennedy encourages his listens to empathize with African Americans by putting themselves in the place of the oppressed.  The question forces the listener to turn segregation onto himself and to ponder what life would be like. Through empathy, a sense of unity is gained. By pure luck of the draw, a human being is placed on a lower social tier, unable to run for public office, vote or provide opportunities for their children. Once listeners realize this does not make sense, America is able to come together for every action against a Negro is an act against an American. In a time of extreme nationalism and anti-Communism, JFK created the strongest bond of understanding that he could show by explaining how segregation attacks American citizens.

JFK understood that for his controversial idea to pass through Congress, he would need the support of the press. According to an analysis of his rhetoric in Writing JFK, Kennedy is the first President to understand the importance of the press (Benson, 4).  However, Kennedy knew that by engaging the press, emotionally speaking, the press in turn would connect Kennedy to the emotional side of the American people. This is why his argument is based on the above claim: black Americans are American citizens and as such equally entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Martin Luther King Jr. shared Kennedy’s rationale concerning the importance of consensus. They believed that through a majority of public supporting an idea, society could change.  MLK also strove to demonstrate equality through a shared humanity, but as a preacher, he relies on biblical narratives and allusions. Another difference can be found in his use of the terms black and white; MLK wished to address all Americans, but he wanted, above all, to awaken the black community to their freedom as citizens. While the overall purpose of the two men were the same, one spoke to provoke thought within the American populous and the other spoke to stir a revolution.

King’s strength lies in his ability to motivate people. While Kennedy’s is contained, the tone of his voice remains constant, King seems to sing; his voice rises and falls, does he move his arms? His speaking has been compared to that of a preacher, with his words flowing like song lyrics.  King’s voice captivates his audience, but he still uses the basic weapons of rhetoric, employing the appeals pathos, ethos and logos. Let us take a look at the ending of his last speech.

The above clip is the last minute of Dr. King’s final speech, nicknamed “I have been to the Mountaintop”. This speech was given on April 3rd 1968, the day before King was killed, at Mason Temple in Memphis Tennessee.  The event at Mason Temple followed a march protesting low wages for African American garbage collectors.  Originally, King was not supposed to speak that night due to an illness. However, a fellow speaker Ralph Abernathy thought that King should at least say a few words to motivate the crowd. That night, King approached the stage without a note in hand and delivered his final speech (American RadioWorks).  Even without written notes, King’s words moved not only the listeners but also himself to tears. Benjamin Hooks states that “I remember that night when he finished, he stopped by quoting the words of that song he loved so well…He wheeled around and took his seat and to my surprise, when I got a little closer, I saw tears streaming doesn’t his face.”  (Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968).This display of emotion is pathos in and of itself. King’s feelings finally overwhelm his composure in the last section of his speech. King expresses his hope for the future that the Civil Rights Movement does not begin and end with him. The rhetoric of the last section of the speech did much more than persuade the listeners to believe in King, the appeals to ethos, logos and pathos moved them to action.

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!”

Within this one-minute clip, King makes an allusion to the book of Exodus and signals to his faith in the goodness of God. When taking in the context of this speech, this reference to God becomes an excellent example of a blend of pathos, logos and ethos. By stating “I just want to do God’s will.” King makes a play to ethos by stating that he is acting under the authority of the highest power, God. His credibility is established, King proceeds to combine plays to pathos and logos within the comment, “but I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything.” King believes that if the entirety of the Civil Rights Movement stands together, they can accomplish any goal.  By combining this appeal to logos with the tone in his voice, King increases the emotional feeling the audience gains from his logic. For the pursuit of justice is not found by individuals, King sought to teach his listeners that the community as a whole brought change. Actually, King’s logic is also dependent upon his appeal to ethos. King could not preach unity for all in the Movement if he put himself on a higher plane.

Commonly, ethos is used as an appeal to the positive aspects of one’s reputation in the public. As stated previously, Kennedy appealed to ethos by acting as the President of the United States. This title alone forced his listeners to hear his appeals to pathos and logos without much emotion in his words.  Kennedy remains calm and collected even when delivering a personal emotional statement seen in the speech section above.

The title of President commands respect. By Kennedy restraining his emotions, the public is not distracted by his appeal to ethos. Kennedy’s logic affects the public to trigger an emotional response; turning the legal issue of Civil Rights into a moral conflict. These three uses of ethos, pathos and logos follow the traditional practice but are used to perfection. Martin E. Marty describes King’s play to ethos as how King was very open about his own death, which creates a mortal imagine sounding his public figure. Marty believes that King wanted his people to know that the Civil Rights Movement would progress without him, and that idea made people listen to the limited time King had left (Marty). In actuality, King wants his reputation to be mundane. King uses the idea of his death to show that the Movement does not need him to succeed. It is about the collective mindset of the whole that will allow for their success. While Marty shows that King does not use ethos to establish credibility towards himself, King does not appeal to ethos only through his morality.  A popular topic within King’s speeches is the idea of oppression.  King wants to invoke the idea of overcoming oppression by unity to his listeners. For this message to be followed King must make it that there is no individual that is greater than the group; King must become one of the group.  And this play to ethos was effective. When King died the next day, his message did not die. All of his emotions and logic proving the injustice of segregation where taken by his followers and the group continues to accomplish King’s goals to this day.

Do Martin Luther King and President Kennedy possess the virtuosity that Hannah Ardent describing in here essay, “What is Freedom?”  She believes that a virtuoso must enact a freedom to perform a mastery of an artistic skill to the public, or one most enact freedom to perform in public and have a mastery of an artistic skill.  Both King and Kennedy have shown plenty of evidence that they had a freedom to perform to the public. Kennedy risked his Presidency by speaking about a controversial issue and distinctly picking a side. However, this is dwarfed by King’s freedom to speak in front of the public. He risked much more than his job, but his reputation, freedom from the law and in the end he lost his life because of his freedom. The other half of becoming a virtuoso is slightly more difficult to determine. The particular artistic skill Kennedy and King perform orations to the public.  An orator is a speaker that provides persuasive argument given in front of an audience.  The legacy of these two men, the success of their movements and the genius behind their words, provide clear evidence that these two men persuaded a generation to change the fundamental mindset towards a deeply routed civil issue.

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. Between past and Future; Eight Exercises in Political Thought. New York: Viking, 1968. Print.

Benson, Thomas W. Writing JFK: Presidential Rhetoric and the Press in the Bay of Pigs Crisis. College Station: Texas A & M UP, 2004. Print.

King, Martin L. ““I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”.” AFSCME. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2013. <;.

“Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968).” Say It Plan. American RadioWorks, 2013. Web. 13 Dec. 2013. <;.

Martin, Marty E. “Martin Luther King: The Preacher as Virtuoso.” Religion Online. N.p., 5 Apr. 1989. Web. 13 Dec. 2013. <;.

“President Kennedy Addresses the Nation on Civil Rights.” NBC News. NBCUniversal Media. 11 June 1963. NBC Learn. Web. 22 June 2013.

Rapp, Christof, “Aristotle’s Rhetoric”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.

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