Most foreign writers, who have given any character of the English nation, whatever vices they ascribe to it, allow, in general, that the people are naturally modest. It proceeds perhaps from this our national virtue, that our orators are observed to make less gesture or action than those of other countries. Our preachers stand stock-still in the pulpit, and will not so much as move a finger to set off the best sermons in the world. We meet with the same speaking statues at our bars, and in all public places of debate. Our words flow from us in a smooth continued stream, without those strainings of the voice, motions of the body, and majesty of the hand, which are so much celebrated in the orators of Greece and Rome. We can talk of life and death in cold blood, and keep our temper in a discourse which turns upon everything that is dear to us. Though our zeal breaks out in the finest tropes and figures, it is not able to stir a limb about us.
We are told that the great Latin orator very much impaired his health by the laterum contentio, the vehemence of action, with which he used to deliver himself. The Greek orator was likewise so very famous for this particular in rhetoric, that one of his antagonists, whom he had banished from Athens, reading over the oration which had procured his banishment, and seeing his friends admire it, could not forbear asking them, if they were so much affected by the bare reading of it, how much more they would have been alarmed had they heard him actually throwing out such a storm of eloquence?
How cold and dead a figure, in comparison of these two great men, does an orator often make at the British bar! holding up his head with the most insipid serenity, and stroking the sides of a long wig that reaches down to his middle!
Question was asked of Demosthenes what was the chief part of an orator? He answered, Action: what next? Action: what next again? Action. He said it that knew it best, and had by nature himself no advantage in that he commended. A strange thing, that that part of an orator which is but superficial, and rather the virtue of a player, should be placed so high above those other noble parts of invention, elocution, and the rest; nay, almost alone, as if it were all in all. But the reason is plain: there is in human nature generally more of the fool than of the wise: and therefore those faculties by which the foolish parts of mens minds is taken, are most potent.
The business of oratory is to persuade people; and you easily feel that to please people is a great step towards persuading them. You must then, consequently, be sensible how advantageous it is for a man who speaks in public, whether it be in Parliament, in the pulpit, or at the bar (that is, in the courts of law), to please his hearers so much as to gain their attention: which he can never do without the help of oratory. It is not enough to speak the language he speaks in its utmost purity, and according to the rules of grammar; but he must speak it elegantly; that is, he must choose the best and most expressive words, and put them in the best order. He should likewise adorn what he says by proper metaphors, similes, and other figures of rhetoric; and he should enliven it, if he can, by quick and sprightly turns of wit.
Eloquence, which consists more in the dexterous structure of periods, and in the powers of harmony of delivery, than in the extraordinary vigour of the understanding, may be compared to a human body, not so much surpassing the dimensions of ordinary nature, as remarkable for the symmetry and beauty of its parts. If the short-hand writer, like the statuary or painter, has made no memorial of such an orator, little is left to distinguish him;but in the most imperfect reliques of Foxs speeches the bones of a giant are to be discovered.
Lord-Chancellor Erskine: Letter to Mr. John Wright, Editor of Foxs Speeches.
We have long considered this distinguished counsellor [Curran] as possessed of a higher genius than any one in his profession within the British empire. The most obvious difference between these two great orators is, that Curran is more versatile, rising often to sublimity, and often descending to pleasantry, and even drollery; whereas Grattan is always grave and austere. They both possess that order of intellectual powers of which the limits cannot be assigned. No conception could be so brilliant or original that we should confidently pronounce that neither of these men could have uttered it. We regret to imagine how many admirable thoughts, which such men must have expressed in the lapse of many years, have been unrecorded, and are lost forever.
John Foster: Life and Thoughts, by W. W. Everts, 230.
It was reckoned the fault of the orators at the decline of the Roman empire, when they had been long instructed by rhetoricians, that their periods were so harmonious as that they could be sung as well as spoken. What a ridiculous figure must one of these gentlemen cut, thus measuring syllables, and weighing words, when he should plead the cause of his client!
It may be doubted whether any compositions which have ever been produced in the world are equally perfect in their kind with the great Athenian orations. Genius is subject to the same laws which regulate the production of cotton and molasses. The supply adjusts itself to the demand. The quantity may be diminished by restrictions and multiplied by bounties. The singular excellence to which eloquence attained at Athens is mainly to be attributed to the influence which it exerted there. In turbulent times, under a constitution purely democratic, among a people educated exactly to that point at which men are most susceptible of strong and sudden impressions, acute but not sound reasoners, warm in their feelings, unfixed in their principles, and passionate admirers of fine composition, oratory received such encouragement as it has never since obtained.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: On the Athenian Orators, Aug. 1824.
Horace has prettily compared poems to those paintings of which the effect varies as the spectator changes his stand. The same remark applies with at least equal justice to speeches. They must be read with the temper of those to which they are addressed, or they must necessarily appear to offend against the laws of taste and reason; as the finest picture seen in a light different from that for which it was designed, will appear only fit for a sign. This is perpetually forgotten by those who criticise oratory. Because they are reading at leisure, pausing at every line, reconsidering every argument, they forget that the hearers were hurried from point to point too rapidly to detect the fallacies through which they were conducted; that they had no time to disentangle sophisms, or to notice slight inaccuracies of expression; that elaborate excellence, either of reasoning or of language, would have been absolutely thrown away. To recur to the analogy of the sister art, these connoisseurs examine a panorama through a microscope, and quarrel with a scene-painter because he does not give to his work the exquisite finish of Gerard Dow.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: On the Athenian Orators.
Oratory is to be estimated on principles different from those which are applied to other productions. Truth is the object of philosophy and history. Truth is the object even of those works which are peculiarly called works of fiction, but which, in fact, bear the same relation to history which algebra bears to arithmetic. The merit of poetry, in its wildest forms, still consists in its truth,truth conveyed to the understanding, not directly by the words, but circuitously by means of imaginative associations, which serve as its conductors. The object of oratory alone is not truth, but persuasion. The admiration of the multitude does not make Moore a greater poet than Coleridge, or Beattie a greater philosopher than Berkeley. But the criterion of eloquence is different. A speaker who exhausts the whole philosophy of a question, who displays every grace of style, yet produces no effect on his audience, may be a great essayist, a great statesman, a great master of composition; but he is not an orator. If he miss the mark, it makes no difference whether he have taken aim too high or too low.
The effect of the great freedom of the press in England has been, in a great measure, to destroy this distinction, and to leave among us little of what I call Oratory Proper. Our legislators, our candidates, on great occasions even our advocates, address themselves less to the audience than to the reporters. They think less of the few hearers than of the innumerable readers. At Athens the case was different; there the only object of the speaker was immediate conviction and persuasion. He, therefore, who would justly appreciate the merit of the Grecian orators should place himself, as nearly as possible, in the situation of their auditors: he should divest himself of his modern feelings and acquirements, and make the prejudices and interests of the Athenian citizen his own. He who studies their works in this spirit will find that many of those things which to an English reader appear to be blemishesthe frequent violation of those excellent rules of evidence by which our courts of law are regulated,the introduction of extraneous matter,the reference to considerations of political expediency in judicial investigations,the assertions without proof,the passionate entreaties,the furious invectives,are really proofs of the prudence and address of the speakers. He must not dwell maliciously on arguments or phrases, but acquiesce in his first impressions. It requires repeated perusal and reflection to decide rightly on any other portion of literature. But with respect to works of which the merit depends on their instantaneous effect, the most hasty judgment is likely to be the best.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: On the Athenian Orators.
The history of eloquence at Athens is remarkable. From a very early period great speakers had flourished there. Pisistratus and Themistocles are said to have owed much of their influence to their talents for debate. We learn, with more certainty, that Pericles was distinguished by extraordinary oratorical powers. The substance of some of his speeches is transmitted to us by Thucydides; and that excellent writer has doubtless faithfully reported the general line of his arguments. But the manner, which in oratory is at least of as much consequence as the matter, was of no importance to his narration. It is evident that he has not attempted to preserve it. Throughout his work, every speech on every subject, whatever may have been the character of the dialect of the speaker, is in exactly the same form. The grave king of Sparta, the furious demagogue of Athens, the general encouraging his army, the captive supplicating for his life, all are represented as speakers in one unvaried style,a style, moreover, wholly unfit for oratorical purposes. His mode of reasoning is singularly elliptical,in reality most consecutive, yet in appearance often incoherent. His meaning, in itself sufficiently perplexing, is compressed into the fewest possible words. His great fondness for antithetical expressions has not a little conduced to this effect. Every one must have observed how much more the sense is condensed in the verses of Pope and his imitators, who never ventured to continue the same clause from couplet to couplet, than in those of poets who allow themselves that license. Every artificial division which is strongly marked, and which frequently recurs, has the same tendency. The natural and perspicuous expression which spontaneously rises to the mind will often refuse to accommodate itself to such a form. It is necessary either to expand it into weakness, or to compress it into almost impenetrable density. The latter is generally the choice of an able man, and was assuredly the choice of Thucydides.
It is scarcely necessary to say that such speeches could never have been delivered. They are perhaps among the most difficult passages in the Greek language, and would probably have been scarcely more intelligible to an Athenian auditor than to a modern reader. Their obscurity was acknowledged by Cicero, who was as intimate with the literature and language of Greece as the most accomplished of its natives, and who seems to have held a respectable rank among the Greek authors. Their difficulty to a modern reader lies, not in the words, but in the reasoning. A dictionary is of far less use in studying them than a clear head and a close attention to the context. They are valuable to the scholar as displaying beyond almost any other compositions the powers of the finest of languages: they are valuable to the philosopher as illustrating the morals and manners of a most interesting age: they abound in just thought and energetic expression. But they do not enable us to form any accurate opinion on the merits of the early Greek orators.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: On the Athenian Orators.
Though it cannot be doubted that, before the Persian wars, Athens had produced eminent speakers, yet the period during which eloquence most flourished among her citizens was by no means that of her greatest power and glory. It commenced at the close of the Peloponnesian war. In fact, the steps by which Athenian oratory approached to its finished excellence seem to have been almost contemporaneous with those by which the Athenian character and the Athenian empire sunk to degradation. At the time when the little commonwealth achieved those victories which twenty-five eventful centuries have left unequalled, eloquence was in its infancy. The deliverers of Greece became its plunderers and oppressors. Unmeasured exaction, atrocious vengeance, the madness of the multitude, the tyranny of the great, filled the Cyclades with tears, and blood, and mourning. The sword unpeopled whole islands in a day. The plough passed over the ruins of famous cities. The imperial republic sent forth her children by thousands to pine in the quarries of Syracuse, or to feed the vultures of Ægospotami. She was at length reduced by famine and slaughter to humble herself before her enemies, and to purchase existence by the sacrifice of her empire and her laws. During these disastrous and gloomy years oratory was advancing towards its highest excellence. And it was when the moral, the political, and the military character of the people was most utterly degraded, it was when the viceroy of a Macedonian sovereign gave law to Greece, that the courts of Athens witnessed the most splendid contest of eloquence that the world has ever known.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: On the Athenian Orators.
In our time, the audience of a member of Parliament is the nation. The three or four hundred persons who may be present while a speech is delivered may be pleased or disgusted by the voice and action of the orator; but, in the reports which are read the next day by hundreds of thousands, the difference between the noblest and the meanest figure, between the richest and the shrillest tones, between the most graceful and the most uncouth gesture, altogether vanishes. A hundred years ago scarcely any report of what passed within the walls of the House of Commons was suffered to get abroad. In those times, therefore, the impression which a speaker might make on the persons who actually heard him was everything. His fame out of doors depended entirely on the report of those who were within the doors. In the Parliaments of that time, therefore, as in the ancient commonwealths, those qualifications which enhance the immediate effect of a speech were far more important ingredients in the composition of an orator than at present. All those qualifications Pitt possessed in the highest degree. On the stage he would have been the finest Brutus or Coriolanus ever seen.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: The Earl of Chatham, Jan. 1834.
There was Burke, ignorant, indeed, or negligent, of the art of adapting his reasonings and his style to the capacity and taste of his hearers, but in amplitude of comprehension and richness of imagination superior to every orator, ancient or modern . The charges and the answers of Hastings were first read. The ceremony occupied two whole days, and was rendered less tedious than it would otherwise have been by the silver voice and just emphasis of Cowper, the clerk of the court, a near relation of the amiable poet. On the third day Burke rose. Four sittings were occupied by his opening speech, which was intended to be a general introduction to all the charges. With an exuberance of thought and a splendour of diction which more than satisfied the highly-raised expectation of the audience, he described the character and institutions of the natives of India, recounted the circumstances in which the Asiatic empire of Britain had originated, and set forth the constitution of the Company and of the English Presidencies. Having thus attempted to communicate to his hearers an idea of Eastern society, as vivid as that which existed in his own mind, he proceeded to arraign the administration of Hastings as systematically conducted in defiance of morality and public law. The energy and pathos of the great orator extorted expressions of unwonted admiration from the stern and hostile Chancellor, and, for a moment, seemed to pierce even the resolute heart of the defendant. The ladies in the galleries, unaccustomed to such displays of eloquence, excited by the solemnity of the occasion, and perhaps not unwilling to display their taste and sensibility, were in a state of uncontrollable emotion. Handkerchiefs were pulled out; smelling-bottles were handed about; hysterical sobs and screams were heard; and Mrs. Sheridan was carried out in a fit. At length the orator concluded. Raising his voice till the old arches of Irish oak resounded, Therefore, said he, hath it with all confidence been ordered by the Commons of Great Britain, that I impeach Warren Hastings of high crimes and misdemeanours. I impeach him in the name of the Commons House of Parliament, whose trust he has betrayed. I impeach him in the name of the English nation, whose ancient honour he has sullied. I impeach him in the name of the people of India, whose rights he has trodden under foot, and whose country he has turned into a desert. Lastly, in the name of human nature itself, in the name of both sexes, in the name of every age, in the name of every rank, I impeach the common enemy and oppressor of all!
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: Warren Hastings, Oct. 1841.
A contemporary historian, says Mr. Thackeray, describes Mr. Pitts first speech as superior even to the models of ancient eloquence. According to Tindal, it was more ornamented than the speeches of Demosthenes and less diffuse than those of Cicero. This unmeaning phrase has been a hundred times quoted. That it should ever have been quoted, except to be laughed at, is strange. The vogue which it has obtained may serve to show in how slovenly a way most people are content to think. Did Tindal, who first used it, or Archdeacon Coxe and Mr. Thackeray, who have borrowed it, ever in their lives hear any speaking which did not deserve the same compliment? Did they ever hear speaking less ornamented than that of Demosthenes, or more diffuse than that of Cicero? We know no living orator, from Lord Brougham down to Mr. Hunt, who is not entitled to the same eulogy. It would be no very flattering compliment to a mans figure to say that he was taller than the Polish Count, and shorter than Giant OBrien, fatter than the Anatomie Vivante, and more slender than Daniel Lambert.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: The Earl of Chatham, Jan. 1834.
It was a fashion among those Greeks and Romans who cultivated rhetoric as an art, to compose epistles and harangues in the names of eminent men. Some of these counterfeits are fabricated with such exquisite taste and skill that it is the highest achievement of criticism to distinguish them from originals. Others are so feebly and rudely executed that they can hardly impose on an intelligent school-boy. The best specimen which has come down to us is perhaps the oration of Marcellus, such an imitation of Tullys eloquence as Tully himself would have read with wonder and delight. The worst specimen is perhaps a collection of letters purporting to have been written by that Phalaris who governed Agrigentum more than 500 years before the Christian era. The evidence, both internal and external, against the genuineness of these letters is overwhelming. When, in the fifteenth century, they emerged, in company with much that was far more valuable, from their obscurity, they were pronounced spurious by Politian, the greatest scholar of Italy, and by Erasmus, the greatest scholar on our side of the Alps. In truth, it would be as easy to persuade an educated Englishman that one of Johnsons Ramblers was the work of William Wallace as to persuade a man like Erasmus that a pedantic exercise, composed in the trim and artificial Attic of the time of Julian, was a dispatch written by a crafty and ferocious Dorian who roasted people alive many years before there existed a volume of prose in the Greek language.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: Francis Atterbury: Encyc. Brit., 8th edit., Dec. 1853.
Parliamentary government is government by speaking. In such a government the power of speaking is the most highly prized of all the qualities which a politician can possess; and that power may exist in the highest degree without judgment, without fortitude, without skill in reading the characters of men or the signs of the times, without any knowledge of the principles of legislation or of political economy, and without any skill in diplomacy or in the administration of war. Nay, it may well happen that those very intellectual qualities which give a peculiar charm to the speeches of a public man may be incompatible with the qualities which would fit him to meet a pressing emergency with promptitude and firmness. It was thus with Charles Townshend. It was thus with Windham. It was a privilege to listen to those accomplished and ingenious orators. But in a perilous crisis they would have been far inferior in all the qualities of rulers to such a man as Oliver Cromwell, who talked nonsense, or to William the Silent, who did not talk at all. When parliamentary government is established, a Charles Townshend or a Windham will almost always exercise much greater influence than such men as the great protector of England or as the founder of the Batavian commonwealth. In such a government parliamentary talent, though quite distinct from the talents of a good executive or judicial officer, will be a chief qualification for executive and judicial office. From the Book of Dignities a curious list might be made out of Chancellors ignorant of the principles of equity and First Lords of the Admiralty ignorant of the principles of navigation, of Colonial ministers who could not repeat the names of the Colonies, of Lords of the Treasury who did not know the difference between funded and unfunded debt, and of Secretaries of the India Board who did not know whether the Mahrattas were Mahometans or Hindoos.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: William Pitt: Encyc. Brit., 8th edit., Jan. 1859.
The republicks that have maintained themselves in a regular and well modelld government, such as those of Lacedæmon and Crete, had orators in no very great esteem. Aristo did wisely define Rhetorick to be a science to perswade the people; Socrates and Plato, an art to flatter and deceive. And those who deny it in the general description, verifie it throughout in their precepts. The Mahometans will not suffer their children to be instructed in it, as being useless; and the Athenians perceiving of how pernicious consequence the practice of it was, being in their city of universal esteem, orderd the principal part, which is to move affections with their exordiums and perorations, to be taken away. Tis an engine invented to manage and govern a disorderly and tumultuous rabble, and that never is made use of but like physick to the sick, in the paroxisms of a discomposd estate. In those, where the vulgar, or the ignorant, or both together, have been all powerful, and able to give the law, as in those of Athens, Rhodes and Rome, and where the publick affairs have been in a continual tempest of commotion, to such places have the orators always repaird. And in truth, we shall find few persons in those republicks, who have pushd their fortunes to any great degree of eminence, without the assistance of elocution: Pompey, Cæsar, Crassus, Lucullus, Lentulus and Metellus, have thence taken their chiefest spring to mount to that degree of authority to which they did at last arrive: making it of greater use to them than arms, contrary to the opinion of better times.
Michel de Montaigne: Essays, Cottons 3d ed., ch. li.
It was with no small pleasure I lately met with a fragment of Longinus, which is preserved, as a testimony of that critics judgment, at the beginning of a manuscript of the New Testament in the Vatican library. After that author has numbered up the most celebrated orators among the Grecians, he says, Add to these Paul of Tarsus, the patron of an opinion not yet fully proved. As a heathen he condemns the Christian religion; and as an impartial critic, he judges in favour of the promoter and preacher of it. To me it seems that the latter part of his judgment adds great weight to his opinion of St. Pauls abilities, since, under all the prejudice of opinions directly opposite, he is constrained to acknowledge the merit of that apostle.
Dr. Zachary Pearce: (Editor of Longinus) Spectator, No. 633.
It is a well-known and common art of the orator to extol the ingenuity and eloquence of an opponent, that the effect of what he says may be attributed rather to his ability than to the strength of his cause, and that the hearers may even be led to feel a distrust and dread of him. We commonly find a barristerespecially when he has a weak causecomplimenting his learned brother on the skill with which he has pleaded.
Richard Whately: Annot. on Bacons Essay, Of Cunning.
There are two kinds of orators, the distinction between whom might be thus illustrated. When the moon shines brightly we are apt to say, How beautiful is this moonlight! but in the daytime, How beautiful are the trees, the fields, the mountains!and, in short, all the objects that are illuminated; we never speak of the sun that makes them so. Just in the same way, the really greatest orator shines like the sun, making you think much of the things he is speaking of; the second-best shines like the moon, making you think much of him and his eloquence.
Richard Whately: Annot. on Bacons Essay, Of Discourse.