Treatment of subjects: general estimate
During his tenure of the office of γραμματεύς
— clerk to the ecclesia—Aeschines must have gained a thorough knowledge of the procedure of that assembly, and of law. This comes out in his general treatment of his subjects, and particularly in his legal arguments, which are clear and convincing. In the speech against Ctesiphon, where the irregularities of the proceedings about Demosthenes' crown gave him a good subject for argument, he makes out a very strong case.
In the structure of his speeches he follows a chronological order. He realized well that the style of his eloquence lent itself naturally to bright and attractive narrative. His versatility saves him from becoming tedious; at one time he can speak with a noble solemnity
which reminds M. Croiset of the eloquence of the pulpit,1
at another, the lightness of his touch almost conceals the bitterness of his sentiments and the seriousness of his purpose.2
He can speak of himself with dignity, of his family with true feeling; careful argument succeeds to lucid narrative; crisp interrogation, reinforced by powerful sarcasm, to masterly exposition. He can awaken his hearers' interest by an indication of the course which he intends to follow, and this interest is sustained by all the resources of an eloquence which, though at times sophistical, and though disfigured by occasional blemishes, has more of naturalness and shows less traces of scholastic elaboration, than that of any other great orator. He is abler than Andocides, more varied than Lysias, more alive than Isaeus.
His natural gifts place him above Lycurgus, though our insight into the latter's high character gives him a powerful claim to our consideration. Blass ranks him below Hyperides, but a study of the lighter passages in Aeschines leads us to believe that, had he turned his attention to private cases, he might have equalled or surpassed that polished orator on his own chosen ground. The unanimous judgment of ancient and modern times places him far below Demosthenes, who stands apart without a rival; but in one quality, at least, he surpasses the paragon. Demosthenes, according to the opinion of Longinus, is apt to make his hearers laugh not with him but at him;3
Aeschines never turns the laugh against himself.
Aeschines is perhaps less read than he deserves; he has suffered from historical bias, and the prevalent contempt for his qualities as a statesman has led to an undue disregard of his virtues as an orator. There is nothing unfamiliar in this judgment; other orators have suffered in the same way at the hands of prejudiced historians.4
It is interesting to read the account of Aeschines in Blass' Attische Beredsamkeit
; the gifted scholar apparently starts with a strong prejudice against his author, and is almost too ready to insist on his faults; but time after time he is obliged to admit the existence of positive merits, and in the end he seems, almost against his will, to have been forced to modify his judgment; while the care and impartiality with which he has detailed all points, good and bad alike, provides material for a more favourable estimate such as that of Croiset.