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That oratory was not only practised, but studied with considerable effect from almost the earliest periods, is evident from the specimens which stand recorded almost as soon as language became stationary in writing. The oratory of the Hebrews is of a peculiar kind, short and sententious, like their poetry. But in the Book of Job, in the speeches of Moses and of Samuel, we have some beautiful examples of the sublime and the pathetic in oratory. The speeches in Homer would be admired even if they were not in measure; and I am inclined to the opinion that the Iliad is not less indebted for its celebrity to the eloquence than to the poetry it contains. This, it will be said, was the work of the poet only, and is neither to be ascribed to the characters from whose mouths it is supposed to issue, nor to the period in which they existed. This I will readily grant; but as the Iliad is universally acknowledged to be a minor, or dramatic representation of the age at least in which the poet lived, two inferences will necessarily follow..... That it was then customary to address public assemblies in the manner of the heroes of Homer; and that no inconsiderable progress must have been made in eloquence as an art. In truth, I do not know any production that a young rhetorician may study with more profit than the oratorical parts of Homer, and particularly the debate of the contending chieftains in the first book of the Iliad.
From the time of Homer to that of Pericles, we have however nothing like a regular and authentic oration on record. That the eloquence of Pericles was unrivalled we cannot doubt, for it is asserted that he governed Athens (and he governed it almost despotically) not less by his eloquence, than by his policy and power. Yet we dare not pronounce that the charming specimens of the eloquence of this great man to be found in Thucydides are genuine. I apprehend them myself to be the fabrication of the historian: for they carry with them decidedly the marks of his peculiar style.
But though we have not any oratorical productions of this period before us, we know that immediately af
ter the time of Pericles, the art of oratory was publicly professed and taught. It was reduced to a method almost mechanical. For the topics or common places, which I have so frequently mentioned, were introduced at this period; and these masters in rhetoric pretended to be able to make any person an orator by pursuing a certain course of study. Gorgias of Leontium accumulated an immense fortune by teaching rhetoric, but we have only a short fragment of his preserved by Hermogenes. It would be unfair, from so slight a specimen, to decide on an author's character; but as far as we may judge from it, his reputation was higher than his merits.
About the same period, it appears, there arose at Athens a set of men, who, having applied themselves to oratory, made a profession of it as public pleaders or orators. Lysias was one of these, and appears to have been a lawyer by profession, though some have asserted that he only composed orations for those who were practising lawyers. His eloquence is therefore almost exclusively forensic. Thirty-four of his orations are transmitted to us; they are acute, clear and methodical; no bad models for a practitioner at the bar, if we did not enjoy the advantage of hearing better almost every day in Westminster-hall.
Isocrates, of whose orations there are twenty-one extant, was somewhat posterior to Lysias. He was a professed rhetorician; and his productions are indeed rather to be considered as essays than orations. When I read them as a young man I was delighted with them, they abound so much in sentiment and moral observation. In more mature age, however, I found the latter exceedingly trite, and the whole too studied and artificial. The style appears, as far as we are judges of style in a dead language, to be very chaste, though not animated. Isocrates is said to have been the first who studied a musical cadence, and has brought it to great perfection. He was so nice in this particular, that he spent no less than ten years in composing one oration, still extant, the Panegyric. Cicero was a great admirer of Isocrates, and seems to have imitated him.
Isæus (ten of whose orations are still extant) was master to Demosthenes, who, by the assistance of a surprising genius, united with indefatigable labour and industry, made so much advantage of his precepts, that he has always been esteemed, by the best judges, the first of Grecian orators. I need not repeat to you the common tale, that he retired into caves, that he might study without being disturbed, and that he kept pebbles in his mouth to correct a defect in his speech. He is said also to have hung a naked sword over his shoulders, to prevent him from using an ungraceful motion, to which he had habituated himself. From this we learn how much natural disadvantages may be balanced by diligent application and study; and it is a proof also how ardently oratory was studied at this period in the Grecian republics.
I never did enter into the very exaggerated praises which have been bestowed upon Demosthenes, and which have exalted him into something more than a man. Yet it would be uncandid and unjust not to confess that in his person oratory was carried to a very high degree of perfection, especially when we consider the carly period at which he flourished. The power which he attained, and the situation which he occupied in the state of Athens, prove him to have been possessed of no uncommon force in persuading and guiding a popular assembly. But it is fortunate that we have still superior evidence to which to resort; we have his own written orations. They are to be criticised as studied compositions, since they are not pretended to have been taken down as he spoke them, but were made public by himself. Demosthenes, therefore, arguing from the specimens he has left us, must be regarded as a close and correct reasoner, master of a flowing, elegant, and harmonious style, as far as we are judges of these qualities in a dead language; and with occasionally a very fine and brilliant thought, though in this he is inferior to many of the moderns, and particularly to Mr. Burke. He had but little of wit, though he occasionally affects it, particularly in the celebrated oration against Æs
chines. One excellence however I cannot too much commend in Demosthenes, nor can I in this respect too strongly recommend his example to young orators. His arguments all tend to a single point, and are concentrated, like the dispersed rays of light when reflected from a concave mirror, so as to bear altogether with their united force upon the object he has in view. He never excurses into too large a field, never loses sight of his subject. This, I think, was the characteristic excellence of Mr. Fox's oratory. Other speakers greatly excelled Mr. Fox in choice of words, in voice, address and manner; but no man equalled him in the selection, force, and happy arrangement of his arguments.
Cicero, who is the only orator of antiquity who will bear a comparison with Demosthenes, and who perhaps possessed more genius, at least more imagination, was more diffuse, and consequently feebler than his Grecian rival. I think Quinctilian, in his celebrated comparison between Cicero and Demosthenes, says, “to the one nothing can be added, from the other nothing can be taken away." The latter character, which applies strictly to Demosthenes, you will easily perceive implies more judgment in him, and speaks him the more forcible orator; such indeed he must have been, though the beauties of Cicero, when separately considered, will perhaps attract the highest admiration.
Though so accomplished an orator, Demosthenes was certainly a very bad general, and not a much better politician. He had moreover the misfortune never to be obeyed by his versatile countrymen but when he happened to give bad advice; and the jarring and inconsistent councils of a discordant republic, soon gave way before the persevering and steady policy of Philip of Macedon. With Demosthenes, therefore, fell the liberties of his country, and with him perished the eloquence of Greece. Those who succeeded were a race of sophists, and pedantic rhetoricians, who taught the art merely in the schools, and never introduced it (indeed they never had an opportunity after their country was enslaved) upon great or public questions.
Oratory was however studied as a fine art, under these masters, long after it ceased to be useful in Greece; and even the Romans, when they became civilized, and applied to literature, regarded rhetoric as one of the most important lessons to which they could attend under their more polished teachers of Greece.
There never was a finer field for eloquence than was opened at Rome. Her government was popular; her judicature popular. With oratory their statesmen influenced the senate; with a public harangue their generals led on their armies to battle and to conquest. I cannot therefore believe, with the French critics and Dr. Blair, that they were greatly inferior in this art to their Grecian rivals.
The Romans, it is true, were a military nation; but though this circumstance is but little favourable to the cultivation of the more profound sciences, can a nobler scope be afforded for that manly and energetic eloquence, which great projects and great undertakings naturally dictate? It might want something of that elegance and polish which Greece, where every pleasing and ornamental art was known to flourish, could boast. Their manner of speaking might be, to use the words of Cicero, somewhat "asperum et horridum;" but can it be believed that it was deficient in dignity, and in vigour? I am not prepared therefore to subscribe to the opinion that Cicero was the only orator that Rome could boast. I shall not quote as authentic documents, the orations which are found in Livy; but if we may judge from the effects, the orations of the Gracchi must have been exceedingly powerful. Scipio appears to have been not less of an orator than a soldier. The two Cato's might not be polished speakers, but they certainly commanded attention in the senate. With respect to Cæsar, Hortensius, and even Anthony, we have the testimony of Cicero himself, and after such an authority we have no right to think meanly of their talents.
After the accession of Augustus, there was scarcely any thing deserving of the name of eloquence in that poor shadow of popular authority, which was called the