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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Demosthenes (384–322 B.C.)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Robert Sharp (1851–1931)
THE LOT of Demosthenes, the great Athenian orator, was cast in evil times. The glorious days of his country’s brilliant political pre-eminence among Grecian States, and of her still more brilliant pre-eminence as a leader and torch-bearer to the world in its progress towards enlightenment and freedom, were well-nigh over. In arms she had been crushed by the brute force of Sparta. But this was not her deepest humiliation; she had indeed risen again to great power, under the leadership of generals and statesmen in whom something of the old-time Athenian spirit still persisted; but the duration of that power had been brief. The deepest humiliation of a State is not in the loss of military prestige or of material resources, but in the degeneracy of its citizens, in the overthrow and scorn of high ideals; and so it was in Athens at the time of Demosthenes’s political activity.  1
  The Athenians had become a pampered, ease-loving people. They still cherished a cheap admiration for the great achievements of their fathers. Stirring appeals to the glories of Marathon and Salamis would arouse them to—pass patriotic resolutions. Any suggestion of self-sacrifice, of service on the fleet or in the field, was dangerous. A law made it a capital offense to propose to use, even in meeting any great emergency, the fund set aside to supply the folk with amusements. They preferred to hire mercenaries to undergo their hardships and to fight their battles; but they were not willing to pay their hirelings. The commander had to find pay for his soldiers in the booty taken from their enemies; or failing that, by plundering their friends. It must be admitted, however, that the patriots at home were always ready and most willing to try, to convict, and to punish the commanders upon any charge of misdemeanor in office.  2
  There were not wanting men of integrity and true patriotism, and of great ability, as Isocrates and Phocion, who accepted as inevitable the decline of the power of Athens, and advocated a policy of passive non-interference in foreign affairs, unless it were to take part in a united effort against Persia. But the mass of the people, instead of offering their own means and their bodies to the service of their country, deemed it rather the part of the State to supply their needs and their amusements. They considered that they had performed, to the full, their duty as citizens when they had taken part in the noisy debates of the Assembly, or had sat as paid jurymen in the never-ending succession of court procedures of this most litigious of peoples. Among men even in their better days not callous to the allurements of bribes judiciously administered, it was a logical sequence that corruption should now pervade all classes and conditions.  3
  Literature and art, too, shared the general decadence, as it ever must be, since they always respond to the dominant ideals of a time and a people. To this general statement the exception must be noted that philosophy, as represented by Plato and Aristotle, and oratory, as represented by a long succession of Attic orators, had developed into higher and better forms. The history of human experience has shown that philosophy often becomes more subtle and more profound in times when men fall away from their ancient high standards, and become shaken in their old beliefs. So oratory attains its perfect flower in periods of the greatest stress and danger, whether from foreign foes or from internal discord. Both these forms of utterance of the active human intellect show, in their highest attainment, the realization of imminent emergency and the effort to point out a way of betterment and safety.  4
  Not only the condition of affairs at home was full of portent of coming disaster. The course of events in other parts of Greece and in the barbarian kingdom of Macedon seemed all to be converging to one inevitable result,—the extinction of Hellenic freedom. When a nation or a race becomes unfit to possess longer the most precious of heritages, a free and honorable place among nations, then the time and the occasion and the man will not be long wanting to co-operate with the internal subversive force in consummating the final catastrophe. “If Philip should die,” said Demosthenes, “the Athenians would quickly make themselves another Philip.”  5
  Throughout Greece, mutual jealousy and hatred among the States, each too weak to cope with a strong foreign foe, prevented such united action as might have made the country secure from any barbarian power; and that at a time when it was threatened by an enemy far more formidable than had been Xerxes with all his millions.  6
  The Greeks at first entirely underrated the danger from Philip and the Macedonians. They had, up to this time, despised these barbarians. Demosthenes, in the third Philippic, reproaches his countrymen with enduring insult and outrage from a vile barbarian out of Macedon, whence formerly not even a respectable slave could be obtained. It is indeed doubtful whether the world has ever seen a man, placed in a position of great power, more capable of seizing every opportunity and of using every agency, fair or foul, for accomplishing his ambitious purposes, than was Philip of Macedon. The Greeks were most unfortunate in their enemy.  7
  Philip understood the Greek people thoroughly. He had received his early training among them while a hostage at Thebes. He found in their petty feuds, in their indolence and corruptibility, his opportunity to carry into effect his matured plans of conquest. His energy never slept; his influence was ever present. When he was far away, extending his boundaries among the barbarians, his money was still active in Athens and elsewhere. His agents, often among the ablest men in a community, were busy using every cunning means at the command of the wonderful Greek ingenuity to conceal the danger or to reconcile the fickle people to a change that promised fine rewards for the sale of their liberty. Then he began to trim off one by one the outlying colonies and dependencies of the Greek States. His next step was to be the obtaining of a foothold in Greece proper.  8
  The chief obstacle to Philip’s progress was Athens, degenerate as she was, and his chief opponent in Athens was Demosthenes. This Philip understood very well; but he treated both the city and the great statesman always with a remarkable leniency. More than once Athens, inflamed by Demosthenes, flashed into her old-time energy and activity, and stayed the Macedonian’s course; as when, in his first bold march towards the heart of Greece, he found himself confronted at Thermopylæ by Athenian troops; and again when prompt succor from Athens saved Byzantium for the time. But the emergency once past, the ardor of the Athenians died down as quickly as it had flamed up.  9
  The Social War (357–355 B.C.) left Athens stripped almost bare of allies, and was practically a victory for Philip. The Sacred War (357–346 B.C.) between Thebes and Phocis, turning upon an affront offered to the Delphian god, gave Philip the eagerly sought-for opportunity of interfering in the internal affairs of Greece. He became the successful champion of the god, and received as his reward a place in the great Amphictyonic Council. He thus secured recognition of his claims to being a Greek, since none but Greeks might sit in this council. He had, moreover, in crushing the Phocians, destroyed a formidable power of resistance to his plans.  10
  Such were the times and such the conditions in which Demosthenes entered upon his strenuous public life. He was born most probably in 384 B.C., though some authorities give preference to 382 B.C. as the year of his birth. He was the son of Demosthenes and Cleobule. His father was a respectable and wealthy Athenian citizen, a manufacturer of cutlery and upholstering. His mother was the daughter of Gylon, an Athenian citizen resident in the region of the Crimea.  11
  Misfortune fell early upon him. At the age of seven he was left fatherless. His large patrimony fell into the hands of unprincipled guardians. Nature seems almost maliciously to have concentrated in him a number of blemishes, any one of which might have checked effectually the ambition of any ordinary man to excel in the profession Demosthenes chose for himself. He was not strong of body, his features were sinister, and his manner was ungraceful,—a grievous drawback among a people with whom physical beauty might cover a multitude of sins, and physical imperfections were a reproach.  12
  He seems to have enjoyed the best facilities in his youth for training his mind, though he complains that his teachers were not paid by his guardians; and he is reported to have developed a fondness for oratory at an early age. In his maturing years, he was taught by the great lawyer, Isæus; and must often have listened to the orator and rhetorician Isocrates, if he was not indeed actually instructed by him. When once he had determined to make himself an orator, he set himself to work with immense energy to overcome the natural disadvantages that stood in the way of his success. By hard training he strengthened his weak voice and lungs; it is related that he cured himself of a painful habit of stammering; and he subjected himself to the most vigorous course of study preparatory to his profession, cutting himself off from all social enjoyments.  13
  His success as an orator, however, was not immediate. He tasted all the bitterness of failure on more than one occasion; but after temporary discouragement he redoubled his efforts to correct the faults that were made so distressingly plain to him by the unsparing but salutary criticism of his audience. Without doubt, these conflicts and rebuffs of his earlier years served to strengthen and deepen the moral character of Demosthenes, as well as to improve his art. They contributed to form a man capable of spending his whole life in unflagging devotion to a high purpose, and that in the face of the greatest difficulties and dangers. The dominant purpose of his life was the preservation of the freedom of the Greek States from the control of any foreign power, and the maintenance of the pre-eminent position of Athens among these States. In this combination of a splendid intellect, an indomitable will, and a great purpose, we find the true basis of Demosthenes’s greatness.  14
  When at the age of eighteen he came into the wreck of his patrimony, he at once began suit against Aphobos, one of his unfaithful guardians. He conducted his case himself. So well did he plead his cause that he received a verdict for a large amount. He seems, however, owing to the trickery of his opponent, never to have recovered the money. He became now a professional writer of speeches for clients in private suits of every kind, sometimes appearing in court himself as advocate.  15
  In 355–354 B.C. he entered upon his career as public orator and statesman. He had now found his field of action, and till the end of his eventful life he was a most prominent figure in the great issues that concerned the welfare of Athens and of Greece. He was long unquestionably the leading man among the Athenians. By splendid ability as orator and statesman he was repeatedly able to thwart the plans of the traitors in the pay of Philip, even though they were led by the adept and eloquent Æschines. His influence was powerful in the Peloponnesus, and he succeeded, in 338 B.C., in even uniting the bitter hereditary enemies Thebes and Athens for one final, desperate, but unsuccessful struggle against the Macedonian power.  16
  Demosthenes soon awoke to the danger threatening his country from the barbarian kingdom in the north, though not even he understood at first how grave was the danger. The series of great speeches relating to Philip—the First Philippic; the three Olynthiacs, ‘On the Peace,’ ‘On the Embassy,’ ‘On the Chersonese’; the Second and Third Philippics—show an increasing intensity and fire as the danger became more and more imminent. These orations were delivered in the period 351–341 B.C.  17
  When the cause of Greek freedom had been overwhelmed at Chæronea, in the defeat of the allied Thebans and Athenians, Demosthenes, who had organized the unsuccessful resistance to Philip, still retained the favor of his countrymen, fickle as they were. With the exception of a short period of disfavor, he practically regulated the policy of Athens till his death in 322 B.C.  18
  In 336 B.C., on motion of Ctesiphon, a golden crown was voted to Demosthenes by the Senate, in recognition of certain eminent services and generous contributions from his own means to the needs of the State. The decree was not confirmed by the Assembly, owing to the opposition of Æschines, who gave notice that he would bring suit against Ctesiphon for proposing an illegal measure. The case did not come up for trial, however, till 330 B.C., six years later. (The reason for this delay has never been clearly revealed.)  19
  When Ctesiphon was summoned to appear, it was well understood that it was not he but Demosthenes who was in reality to be tried, and that the public and private record of the latter would be subjected to the most rigorous scrutiny. On that memorable occasion, people gathered from all over Greece to witness the oratorical duel of the two champions—for Demosthenes was to reply to Æschines. The speech of Æschines was a brilliant and bitter arraignment of Demosthenes; but so triumphant was the reply of the latter, that his opponent, in mortification, went into voluntary exile. The speech of Demosthenes ‘On the Crown’ has been generally accepted by ancients and moderns as the supreme attainment in the oratory of antiquity.  20
  It is evident that a man the never-swerving champion of a cause which demanded the greatest sacrifice from a people devoted to self-indulgence, the never-sleeping opponent of the hirelings of a foreign enemy, and a persistent obstacle to men of honest conviction who advocated a policy different from that which seemed best to him, would of necessity bring upon himself bitter hostility and accusations of the most serious character. And such was the case. Demosthenes has been accused of many crimes and immoralities, some of them so different in character as to be almost mutually exclusive. The most serious charge is that of receiving a bribe from Harpalus, the absconding treasurer of Alexander. He was tried upon this charge, convicted, fined fifty talents, and thrown into prison. Thence he escaped to go into a miserable exile.  21
  How far and how seriously the character of Demosthenes is compromised by this and other attacks, it is not possible to decide to the satisfaction of all. The results of the contest in regard to the crown and the trial in the Harpalus matter were very different; but the verdict of neither trial, even if they were not conflicting, could be accepted as decisive. To me, the evidence,—weighed as we weigh other evidence, with a just appreciation of the source of the charges, the powerful testimony of the man’s public life viewed as a whole, and the lofty position maintained in the face of all odds among a petulant people whom he would not flatter, but openly reproved for their vices,—the evidence, I say, read in this light justifies the conclusion that the orator was a man of high moral character, and that in the Harpalus affair he was the victim of the Macedonian faction and of the misled patriotic party, co-operating for the time being.  22
  When the tidings of the death of Alexander startled the world, Demosthenes at once, though in exile, became intensely active in arousing the patriots to strike one more blow for liberty. He was recalled to Athens, restored to his high place, and became again the chief influence in preparing for the last desperate resistance to the Macedonians. When the cause of Greek freedom was finally lost, Demosthenes went into exile; a price was set upon his head; and when the Macedonian soldiers, led by a Greek traitor, were about to lay hands upon him in the temple of Poseidon at Calauria, he sucked the poison which he always carried ready in his pen, and died rather than yield himself to the hated enemies of his country.  23
  It remains only to say that the general consensus of ancient and modern opinion is, that Demosthenes was the supreme figure in the brilliant line of orators of antiquity. The chief general characteristics in all Demosthenes’s public oratory are a sustained intensity and a merciless directness. Swift as waves before a gale, every word bears straight toward the final goal of his purpose. We are hardly conscious even of the artistic taste which fits each phrase, and sentence, and episode, to the larger occasion as well as to each other. Indeed, we lose the rhetorician altogether in the devoted pleader, the patriot, the self-forgetful chief of a noble but losing cause. His careful study of the great orators who had preceded him undoubtedly taught him much; yet it was his own original and creative power, lodged in a far-sighted, generous, and fearless nature, that enabled him to leave to mankind a series of forensic masterpieces hardly rivaled in any age or country.  24

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