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ORATORY AND THE GENIUS OF THE AGE
N THE Course of human affairs there is no stability, nothing secure or permanent. It is with our minds as with our bodies: the latter as soon as they have attained
their full growth, and seem to flourish in the vigor of health, begin, from that moment, to feel the gradual approaches of decay. Our intellectual powers proceed in the same manner; they gain strength by degrees, they arrive at maturity, and, when they can no longer improve, they languish, droop, and fade away. This is the law of nature, to which every age, and every nation, of which we have any historical records, have been obliged to submit. There is besides another general law, hard perhaps, but wonderfully ordained, and it is this: nature, whose operations are always simple and uniform, never suffers in any age or country, more than one great example of perfection in the kind. This was the case in Greece, that prolific parent of genius and of science. She had but one Homer, one Plato, one Demosthenes. The same has happened at Rome: Virgil stands at the head of his art, and Cicero is still unrivaled. During a space of seven hundred years our ancestors were struggling to reach the summit of perfection; Cicero at length arose; he thundered forth his immortal energy, and Nature was satisfied with the wonder she had made. The force of genius could go no further. A new road to fame was to be found. We aimed at wit, and gay conceit, and glittering sentences. The change, indeed, was great, but it naturally followed the new form of government. Genius died with public liberty.
We find that the discourse of men always conforms to the temper of the times. Among savage nations language is never copious. A few words serve the purpose of barbarians, and those are always uncouth and harsh, without the artifice of connection; short, abrupt, and nervous. In a state of polished society, where a single ruler sways the sceptre, the powers of the mind take a softer tone, and language grows more refined. But affection follows, and precision gives way to delicacy. The just and natural expression is no longer the fashion. Living in ease and luxury, men look for elegance and hope by novelty to give a grace to adulation. In other nations, where the first principles of the civil union are maintained in vigor; where the people live under the government of laws, and not the will of man; where the spirit of liberty pervades all ranks and orders of the state; where every individual holds himself bound, at the hazard of his life, to defend the constitution framed by his ancestors; where, without being guilty of an impious crime, no man dares to violate the rights of the whole community; in such a state, the national eloquence will be prompt, bold, and animated. Should internal dissensions shake the public peace, or foreign enemies threaten to invade the land, eloquence comes forth arrayed in terror; she wields her thunder, and commands all hearts. It is true that upon those occasions men of ambition endeavor, for their own purposes, to spread the flame of sedition; while the good and virtuous combine their force to quell the turbulent, and repel the menaces of a foreign enemy. Liberty gains new strength by the conflict, and the true patriot has the glory of serving his country, distinguished by his valor in the field, and in debate, no less terrible by his eloquence.
Hence it is that in free governments we see a constellation of orators. Hence Demosthenes displayed the powers of his amazing genius, and acquired immortal honor. He saw a quick and lively people, dissolved in luxury, open to the seductions of wealth, and ready to submit to a master; he saw a great and warlike monarch threatening destruction to the liberties of his country; he saw that prince at the head of powerful armies, renowned for victory, possessed of an opulent treas
ury, formidable in battle, and, by his secret arts, still more so in the cabinet; he saw that king, inflamed by ambition and the lust of dominion, determined to destroy the liberties of Greece. It was that alarming crisis that called forth the powers of Demosthenes. Armed with eloquence, and with eloquence only, he stood as a bulwark against a combination of enemies foreign and domestic. He roused his countrymen from their lethargy; he kindled the holy flame of liberty; he counteracted the machinations of Philip, detected his clandestine frauds, and fired the men of Athens with indignation. To effect these generous purposes, and defeat the policy of a subtle enemy, what powers of mind were necessary! how vast, how copious, how sublime! He thundered and lightened in his discourse; he faced every danger with undaunted resolution. Difficulties served only to inspire him with new ardor. The love of his country glowed in his heart; liberty roused all his powers, and fame held forth her immortal wreath to reward his labors. These were the fine incentives that roused his genius, and no wonder that his mind expanded with vast conceptions. He thought for his country, and, by consequence, every sentiment was sublime; every expression was grand and magnificent.
The true spirit of genuine eloquence, like an intense fire, is kept alive by fresh materials; every new commotion gives it vigor, and in proportion as it burns it expands and brightens to a purer flame. The same causes at Rome produced the same effect. Tempestuous times called forth the genius of our ancestors. The Moderns, it is true, have taken fire, and rose above themselves, as often as a quiet, settled, and uniform government gave a fair opportunity; but eloquence, it is certain, flourishes most under a bold and turbulent democracy, where the ambitious citizen, who best can mold to his purposes & fierce and contentious multitude, is sure to be the idol of the people. In the conflict of parties, that kept our ancestors in agitation, laws were multiplied; the leading chiefs were the favorite demagogues; the magistrates were often engaged in midnight debate; eminent citizens were brought to a public trial; families were set at variance; the nobles were split into factions, and the senate waged incessant war against the people. Hence that flame of eloquence which blazed out under the republican government, and hence that constant fuel that kept the flame alive.
The state, it is true, was often thrown into convulsions; but talents were exercised, and genius opened the way to public honors. He who possessed the powers of persuasion rose to eminence, and by the arts, which gave him popularity, he was sure to eclipse his colleagues. He strengthened his interest with the leading men, and gained weight and influence not only in the senate, but in all assemblies of the people. Foreign nations courted his friendship. The magistrates, setting out for their provinces, made it their business to ingratiate themselves with the popular Speaker, and, at their return, took care to renew their homage. The powerful orator had no occasion to solicit for preferment, the offices of pretor and consul stood open to receive him. He was invited to those exalted stations. Even in the rank of a private citizen he had a considerable share of power, since his authority swayed at once the senate and the people. It was in those days a settled maxim that no man could either rise to dignities, or support himself in office, without possessing, in an eminent degree, a power of words, and dignity of language.
Nor can this be matter of wonder, when we recollect that persons of distinguished genius were on various occasions called forth by the voice of the people, and in their presence obliged to act an important part. Eloquence was the ruling passion of all. The reason is, it was not then sufficient merely to vote in the senate; it was necessary to support that vote with strength of reasoning and a flow of language. Moreover, in all prosecutions the party accused was expected to make his defense in person, and to examine the witnesses, who at that time were not allowed
to speak in written depositions, but were obliged to give their testimony in open court. In this manner, necessity, no less than the temptation of bright rewards, conspired to make men cultivate the arts of oratory. He who was known to possess the powers of speech, was held in the highest veneration. The mute and silent character fell into contempt. The dread of shame was a motive not less powerful than the ambition that aimed at honors. To sink into the humiliating rank of a client, instead of maintaining the dignity of a patron, was a degrading thought. Men were unwilling to see the followers of their ancestors transferred to other families for protection. Above all, they dreaded the disgrace of being thought unworthy of civil honors; and if by intrigue they attained their wishes, the fear of being despised for incapacity was a spur to quicken their ardor in the pursuit of literary fame and commanding eloquence.
From the "Dialogue on Oratory."
PLINY THE YOUNGER
(CAIUS PLINIUS CÆCILIUS SECUNDUS)
(62-113 A. D.)
LINY THE YOUNGER was one of the best prose writers of Rome after the death of Cicero. His "Letters" on philosophical and literary subjects are especially celebrated. He was a lawyer by profession, and he edited a number of his own orations. His letter on the "Forensic Oratory of Greece and Rome" is the opinion of an expert, though the style of his "Eulogy of Trajan," by which he is judged as an orator, is not so much admired as that of his "Letters." He was born at Como in Italy, 62 A. D., from a patrician family, his father being a brother of the celebrated naturalist, Caius Plinius Secundus, called "the Elder" to distinguish him from his equally celebrated namesake. The younger Pliny was a friend of the Emperor Trajan, under whom he served as Governor of Bithynia and Pontica,-provinces from which he wrote his celebrated letter to Trajan on the treatment and conduct of the Christians. He died 113 A. D.
THE ELOQUENCE OF THE BAR
HAVE frequent debates with a learned and judicious person of my acquaintance, who admires nothing so much in the eloquence of the bar as conciseness. I agree with him, where the cause will admit of this manner, it may be properly enough pursued; but to insist that to omit what is material to be mentioned, or only slightly to touch upon those points which should be strongly inculcated, and urged home to the minds of the audience, is in effect to desert the cause one has undertaken. In many cases a copious manner of expression gives strength and weight to our ideas, which frequently make impressions upon the mind, as iron does upon the solid bodies, rather by repeated strokes than a single blow. In answer to this he usually has recourse to authorities; and produces Lysias among the Grecians, and Cato and the two Gracchi among our own countrymen, as instances in favor of the concise style. In return, I name Demosthenes, Eschines, Hyperides, and many others, in opposition to Lysias; while I confront Cato and the Gracchi, with Cæsar, Pollio, Cœlius, and, above all, Cicero, whose longest oration is generally esteemed the best. It is in good compositions, as in everything else that is valuable; the more there is of them, the better. You may observe in statues, basso-relievos, pictures, and the bodies of men, and even in animals and trees, that nothing is more graceful than magnitude, if it is accompanied with proportion. The same holds true in pleading; and even in books, a large volume carries something of beauty and authority in its very size. My antagonist, who is extremely
dexterous at evading an argument, eludes all this, and much more which I usually urge to the same purpose, by insisting that those very persons, upon whose works I found my opinion, made considerable additions to their orations when they published them. This I deny; and appeal to the harangues of numberless orators; particularly to those of Cicero for Murena and Varenus, where he seems to have given us little more than the general charge. Whence it appears that many things which he enlarged upon at the time he delivered those orations were retrenched when he gave them to the public. The same excellent orator informs us that, agreeably to the ancient custom which allowed only one counsel on a side, Cluentius had no other advocate but himself; and tells us further that he employed four whole days in defense of Cornelius,- by which it plainly appears that those orations which, when delivered at their full length, had necessarily taken up so much time at the bar, were greatly altered and abridged when he afterwards comprised them in a single volume, though I must confess, indeed, a large one. But it is objected, there is a great difference between good pleading and just composition. This opinion, I acknowledge, has some favorers, and it may be true; nevertheless, I am persuaded (though I may perhaps be mistaken), that, as it is possible a pleading may be well received by the audience, which has not merit enough to recommend it to the reader, so a good oration cannot be a bad pleading; for the oration upon paper is, in truth, the original and model of the speech that is to be pronounced. It is for this reason we find in many of the best orations extant, numberless expressions which have the air of unpremeditated discourse; and this even where we are sure they were never spoken at all: as, for instance, in the following passage from the oration against Verres,—“A certain mechanic—what's his name? Oh, I am obliged to you for helping me to it; yes, I mean Polycletus." It cannot then be denied that the nearer approach a speaker makes to the rules of just composition, the more perfect he will be in his art; always supposing, however, that he has the necessary indulgence in point of time; for if he be abridged of that, no imputation can justly be fixed upon the advocate, though certainly a very great one is chargeable upon the judge. The sense of the laws is, I am sure, on my side, which are by no means sparing of the orator's time; it is not brevity, but an enlarged scope, a full attention to everything material, which they recommend. And how is it possible for an advocate to acquit himself of that duty, unless in the most insignificant causes, if he affects to be concise? Let me add what experience, that unerring guide, has taught me: it has frequently been my province to act both as an advocate and as a judge, as I have often assisted as an assessor, where I have ever found the judgments of mankind are to be influenced by different applications; and that the slightest circumstances often produce the most important consequences. There is so vast a variety in the dispositions and understandings of men that they seldom agree in their opinions about any one point in debate before them; or if they do, it is generally from the movement of different passions. Besides, as every man naturally favors his own discoveries, and when he hears an argument made use of which had before occurred to himself, will certainly embrace it as extremely convincing, the orator, therefore, should so adapt himself to his audience as to throw out something to every one of them, that he may receive and approve as his own peculiar thought. I remember when Regulus and I were concerned together in a cause, he said to me, You seem to think it necessary to insist upon every point; whereas, I always take aim at my adversary's throat, and there I closely press him. ('Tis true, he tenaciously holds whatever part he has once fixed upon; but the misfortune is, he is extremely apt to mistake the right place.) I answered, It might possibly happen that what he took for what he called the throat was in reality some other part. As for me, said I, who do not pretend to direct my aim