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DIFFERENT KINDS OF ORATORY...........ELOQUENCE OF THE SENATE......OF THE BAR.
MY DEAR JOHN,
ALL orations may be arranged under two divisions. 1st. Those which are precomposed, and delivered either from memory, or read aloud to the audience; and 2dly, those which are spoken on the occasion, with little of previous study, at least with respect to the style or language, and this kind of eloquence is what we call extempore.
We have reason to believe that the most finished orations of the ancients were precomposed, and committed to memory. We have the frank acknowledgment of Pliny the younger, that their ornamental eloquence, their panegyrics, come under this description; and we find from the same authority, that it was even common to read them, previous to their delivery, to a select company of friends, for the benefit of their criticisms. The confession of Cicero* that, he had by him a volume of Exordiums ready precomposed, from which he was accustomed to select, leads me to suspect that many of his orations were in the same predicament. If I am not mistaken, the pleadings before the French parliament were always precomposed, and read by the advocates. The form of their trials, in which the evidence was all reduced to writing, and taken before notaries previous to the pleading before the court, entirely favoured this kind of eloquence. The French preachers also com
Ad Atticum, lib. xvi. ess. 6.
mitted their sermons to memory; and I have been assured that in the national assembly, and the convention, many, even of the first orators, either read their speeches or delivered them from memory.
A modern writer (Mr. Hume) has instituted a comparison between ancient and modern eloquence, infinitely indeed to the disadvantage of the latter. I suspect he was scarcely sufficient master of the languages to read the ancients with that kind of relish that results from familiarity, and therefore incautiously took their praises at second hand; and I am also inclined to believe that he had not heard the best effusions of our senatorial oratory. That he had never stood before the glorious torrent of Lord Chatham's eloquence, or witnessed the varied and enchanting flow of Mr. Burke's incomparable genius.
Granting however for the present Mr. Hume's conclusion to be just, there are many reasons why the exertions of ancient genius should be almost exclusively directed to oratory. The art of printing had not given that facility to the diffusion of sentiment, which at present exists. It was by oral effusions alone that the ancients could hope to arrive at fame and distinction. Their philosophers taught in this manner, and their statesmen openly deliberated in public assemblies. Even the history of Herodotus was recited at the Olympic games. The occasions too for the employment of eloquence were more frequent than with us. Every citizen of the free states of antiquity might address the assembly of the people upon any public occasion. The law was not a laborious study exclusively confined to those who are educated to the profession; and, as justice was administered generally on the vague and simple principles of natural equity, not according to forms, statutes, and precedents, any man might in a little time become completely acquainted with all that was necessary to accomplish him for a pleader. The science of the ancients too was neither extensive nor profound, so that genius was not distracted by a variety of pursuits. From all these
circumstances we cannot wonder that oratory was cultivated in the ancient world with ardour and success.
But indeed I cannot in honesty and candour subscribe to the truth of Mr. Hume's position, that the ancients were every thing, and that we are nothing in this art. Whether the ancients excelled or not in extempore speaking, this at least we know, that the specimens of their eloquence which have been transmitted to us are studied compositions. Now to compare these with any unpremeditated effusion which we may happen to hear in the British senate, is scarcely fair; and yet I declare I have heard speeches there which would not lose in a comparison with the best of Cicero or Demosthenes. The vehement and impressive oratory of Mr. Fox, the wit and pathos of Mr. Sheridan; and the choice and polished elocution of Mr. Pitt, might vie with any thing to be found in these celebrated models of eloquence.
But we have even a fairer and more certain criterion. Let any unprejudiced critic compare those specimens which the masters of eloquence among ourselves have condescended to publish, with the productions of the ancients, and let him determine for himself. I protest I find more genius and fancy, more knowledge of human nature, and a far greater proportion of wit, in the published speeches of Mr. Burke, than in any of the works of the ancient orators; and if chaste and correct eloquence is what he requires, I can only advise him to hear the present Chancellor of the Exchequer,* even when he speaks without premeditation; or to peruse a speech which was published some years ago by himself, or some of his friends, on the abolition of the slave trade.
I am not wishing to depreciate the ancients, who certainly have cultivated eloquence with a success which could scarcely have been expected at so early a period; but I cannot endure that the merit of the moderns should be wantonly underrated, through a blind veneration for
* This was written during Mr. Pitt's administration.
the excellent of former times. Rely upon it, there is no theatre more favourable for the exertions of eloquence than a British house of commons, nor any, where it has been more successfully studied or employed.
The occasions, as I have just mentioned, were more frequent, for the exertion of eloquence, among the ancients than among ourselves. Except a particular opportunity which a public meeting of the people may casually present, the only theatres of oratory are the parliament, the bar, and the pulpit. In the two former the orations are chiefly, if not altogether, extempore. In the latter the practice is at present almost exclusively` confined to studied compositions.
In the remainder of this letter I shall endeavour to propose a few rules for parliamentary eloquence, and I shall also briefly consider the eloquence of the bar, which will include all that is to be offered on the subject of extempore oratory.
1st. I should be sorry to discourage any young man of genius from attempting to speak in parliament; but to use a parliamentary phrase, I would caution him against "committing himself" too soon. A laugh once raised against a modest man perhaps disarms him for ever. Yet a young member must not be too fastidious. Mr. Gibbon, when he first entered the house of commons undoubtedly intended to speak; and I cannot doubt but if he could have subdued the first impulse of modesty, he would have spoken incomparably; but the fact was, that waiting too long for a fit occasion to display his talents, he sunk into utter indolence or despair; and thus the senate of Great Britain was deprived of a genius, which would probably have been its brightest ornament. Dr. Johnson (who was indeed an older man) felt more confidence in himself, and regretted that, Lord North, at the solicitation of Mr. Thrale, had not afforded him an opportunity of displaying his talents. I have not a doubt but he would have acquitted himself admirably; for the style of Dr. Johnson in conversation was as pointed, and nearly as correct as in his publica
tions. Lord Chesterfield, who knew mankind, and the houses of parliament in particular, better than most men, advises his son to feel his way; to make short speeches at first, and principally in committees, where formal speeches are not expected; and thus to acquire confidence by degrees, before he launched out on any great or momentous occasion.
2dly. A young member of parliament should endeavour to make himself well acquainted with every subject which is likely to come under discussion; and if his mind is full upon the question, it is very likely he will feel a momentary impulse to enter into the debate, especially if any pause should take place. At all events, by studying diligently the different topics of debate, he enables himself to discharge his duty properly if he gives only a silent vote, and is accomplishing his mind for future occasions.
3dly. It is practice that makes a fluent orator. Practice cannot give genius, it is true; but (if I may be allowed a vulgarism) there is a ready knack, both of writing and speaking, which men of very moderate talents often and easily acquire. Debating societies have their disadvantages, and there are two in particular against which young men ought to be guarded. They are apt to generate a love of disputing, the most disagreeable quality, without exception, with which a young man can enter society. The applause also which superficial speakers receive there, is apt to generate a belief that a command of words is the only necessary accomplishment. Otherwise by affording an opportunity of practice, debating societies certainly contribute more than any means I know of towards fluency and readiness, which are no mean qualifications in an orator. But it is only to a mind which is well stocked with useful knowledge that they will afford this improvement. The person who goes ignorant into one of these seminaries, unless he compensates by ardent study for his former deficiencies, will come out, under the most favourable circumstances, only a noisy and fluent dunce.