Purity of style
In literature as in politics we grow tired of hearing Aristides called the Just, and so perfect writers are less admired than they should be. In Latin Terence, praised by all for the purity of his style, is less read than the ruder Plautus, and in Greek Lysias, accounted by ancient critics the standard writer of Attic prose,1
is less appreciated than Demosthenes.
Using the everyday language as a literary medium, Lysias, by his exceptional skill and mastery over its idiom, exalted it to a simplicity and accuracy of expression never surpassed by other writers. This simplicity is deceptive:
“ut sibi quivis
Speret idem, sudet multum frustraque laboret
It is not till we analyse a passage or try to imitate the style that we realize how great a part has been played by art in this structure which seems so natural.
The smoothness strikes us, after a time, as monotonous, and many readers will turn with relief from Lysias' polish to the more telling ruggedness of Antiphon, or the varied magnificence of Plato. Lysias, in fact, provides us with an excellent example of the purest prose, but the comparative coarseness of the average taste prefers something less refined, less carefully purged of the natural impurities which prevent insipidity, less free from the colouring matter which gives character.
So far I have considered only the broad impression produced by the language, apart from more personal elements in style.
As an orator, Lysias is, on first acquaintance, disappointing. He seems to lack fire, and to subordinate vigour to precision.
For this apparent weakness we must make certain allowances. We must remember that he has to be judged chiefly by speeches written for others, and speeches dealing with cases which in their very nature are often unimportant, and in their details have little interest.
It would be unreasonable to ask for any other qualities than clear statement of fact in a speech for the prosecution relating to embezzlement by a trustee for a will (Against Diogiton
), or in the indictment of Nicomachus, a magistrate who has not rendered his accounts in due course. Such speeches are of considerable importance indirectly: to the jurist, as bearing upon the peculiarities of Attic Law; to the general reader, because they help to fill in details of the picture of public and private life at Athens. We should not pass a hasty judgment on the writer because, considered as examples of oratory, they are less attractive and impressive than some of the more famous models.
I will reserve for future consideration the only speech in which the personal feelings of Lysias are deeply involved—the accusation of Eratosthenes. Of the other speeches there is none which, taken as a whole, is comparable to the finest of the public speeches or the harangues of Demosthenes. Though Lysias had often to deal with trials of public men, these trials were never really of public importance. It was not his business to lay down a definite line of policy for his city to follow; it was not for him to awake an apathetic nation to the need of instant and decisive
action. We cannot believe that any of his speeches would appeal, or were meant to appeal, to Athens as a whole.
Even when he is dealing with events that took place during the tyranny of the Thirty, though no doubt feeling still ran high, we have the impression that only that part of the community which had been directly concerned in promoting or thwarting the Revolution would be keenly interested in the process of punishing or rewarding those who had played minor parts; the majority had acquiesced, with greater or less unwillingness, at the time of the changes, and now that the trouble was past, were eager to make the best of the present; political memory at Athens was short.
The position of Demosthenes was very different; his chief activity was not after a crisis, but during a time of national danger. He found great opportunities and he rose to them.
A great enthusiasm is required to produce really great men, whether orators or statesmen. A gifted man under the influence of a great constructive idea may, with exceptional opportunities, become a Pericles; an extraordinarily favourable combination of such circumstances may give birth to an Alexander.
In modern times the greatest eloquence is usually on the side of the opposition, and in all ages a losing cause has tended to produce more conspicuous men.
Demosthenes owes his great reputation partly to his exceptional ability, but in very large part also to his opportunities, to the fact that he was fighting against national apathy and foreign aggression for a noble ideal—his conception of Athenian Liberty. A lesser intellect might have shone under such circumstances;
and on the other hand Demosthenes, if he had had no opportunity for the speeches against Philip, might have been ranked almost in the same class with such orators as Lysias.