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Literary reputation

The verdict of antiquity, which has generally been accepted in modern times, ranked Demosthenes as the greatest of orators. In his own age he had rivals: Aeschines, as we have seen already, is in many respects worthy of comparison with him; of his other contemporaries Phocion was impressive by his dignity, sincerity, and brevity—‘he could say more in fewer words’; the vigorous extemporizations of Demades were sometimes more effective than the polished subtleties of Demosthenes; Aeschines claims to prefer the speaking of Leodamas of Acharnae, but the tone in which he says so is almost apologetic, and the laboured criticism to which Aeschines constantly subjects his rival practically takes it for granted that the latter was reckoned the foremost speaker of the time.

Later Greek authorities, who are far enough removed to see in proper perspective the orators of the preMacedonian times, have an ungrudging admiration for Demosthenes. The author of The Sublime saw in him many faults, and admitted that in many details Hyperides excelled him.1 Nevertheless he finds in Demosthenes certain divine gifts which put him apart from the others in a class by himself; he surpasses the orators of all generations; his thunders and lightnings shake down and scorch up all opposition; it is impossible to face his dazzling brilliancy without flinching. But Hyperides never made anybody tremble.

In later times we find Demosthenes styled ‘The Orator,’ just as Homer is ‘The Poet.’ Lucian, whose literary appreciations are always worthy of attention, wrote an Encomium of Demosthenes, containing an imaginary dialogue, in which Antipater is the chief speaker. He pays a generous tribute to his dead enemy, who ‘woke his compatriots from their drugged sleep’;2 the Philippics are compared to battering-rams and catapults, and Philip is reported to have rejoiced that Demosthenes was never elected general, for the orator's speeches shook the king's throne, and his actions, if he had been given the opportunity, would have overturned it.

Of Roman critics, Cicero in many passages in the Brutus and Orator expresses extreme admiration for the excellence of Demosthenes in every style of oratory; he regards him as far outstripping all others, though failing in some details to attain perfection. Quintilian's praise is discriminating but sincere; in fact we may say that the Greek and Roman worlds were practically unanimous about the orator's merits.

It is difficult to take a general view of the style of Demosthenes, from the mere fact that it is extremely varied; the three classes of speeches—the forensic speeches in private and public suits, and the public harangues addressed to the assembly, all have their particular features: nevertheless there are certain characteristics which may be distinguished in all classes.

First of these is his great care in composition. Isocrates is known to have spent years in polishing the essays which he intended as permanent contributions to the science of politics; Plato wrote and erased and wrote again before he was satisfied with the form in which his philosophy was to be given to the world; Demosthenes, without years of toil, could produce for definite occasions speeches whose finished brilliancy made them worthy to be ranked as great literature quite apart from their merits as contributions to practical policy.

It is a well-known jest against him that his speeches smelt of midnight oil, but he must have had a remarkable natural fluency to be able to compose so many speeches so well. It is quite possible, on the other hand, that the speeches which survive are not altogether in the form in which they were delivered. It seems to have been a habit among orators of this time to edit for publication their speeches delivered in important cases, in order that a larger audience might have an opportunity of reading a permanent record of the speakers' views on political or legal questions which had more than a transitory interest.

We have indirect evidence that Demosthenes was in the habit of introducing corrections into his text. Aeschines quotes and derides certain expressions, mostly exaggerated metaphors, which do not occur in the speeches as extant to us, though some of them evidently should, if the text had not been submitted to a recension.3 We may note the remark of Eratosthenes4 that while speaking he sometimes lost control of himself, and talked like a man possessed, and that of Demetrius of Phaleron, that on one occasion he offended against good taste by quoting a metrical oath which bears the stamp of comedy:

‘By earth and fountains, rivulets and streams.’5 This quotation is not to be found in any extant speech, but it is noticeable that formulae of the kind, typically represented by the familiar γῆ καὶ θεοί—‘Ye Earth and Gods’—are commonly affected by Demosthenes, as indeed they are to be found in his contemporary Aeschines.

Evidently the Attic taste was undergoing a modification; such expressions are foreign to the dignified harmonies of Isocrates and of rare occurrence in the restrained style of Lysias; but they begin to appear more frequently in Isaeus, whose style was the model for the early speeches of Demosthenes. Certain other expressions belonging to the popular speech, and probably avoided by Isocrates as being too colloquial, are found in Demosthenes' public speeches—e.g. δεῖνα and τᾶν.

Under the same heading must come the use of coarse expressions and terms of personal abuse. In many of the speeches relating to public law-suits Demosthenes allows himself all the latitude which was sanctioned by the taste of his times. In the actual use of abusive epithets—θηρίον, κατάρατος, and the like—he does not go beyond the common practice of Aeschines, and is even outstripped by Dinarchus; but in the accumulation of offensive references to the supposed private character of his political opponents he condescends to such excesses that we wonder how a decent audience can ever have tolerated him.6 Evidently an Athenian audience loved vulgarity for its own sake, apart from humour.

In the private speeches there is at times a certain coarseness—inevitably, since police-court cases are often concerned with sordid details. Offensive actions sometimes have to be described;7 but this is a very different matter from the irrelevant introduction of offensive matter.

In the speeches delivered before the ecclesia Demosthenes set himself a higher ideal. Into questions of public policy, private animosities should not be allowed to intrude, and throughout the Philippics and Olynthiacs Demosthenes observes this rule. Under no stress of excitement does he sink to personalities; his political opponents for the time being are not abused, not even mentioned by name. The courtesies of debate are fully and justly maintained.

1 de Sublimi, ch. xxxiv.

2 § 36,οἶον ἐκ μανδραγόρου καθεύδοντας”.

3 Aeschin., Ctes., §§ 72, 166; de Leg., § 21; Ctes., §§ 84, 209.

4 Plut., Dem., ch. ix.,παράβακχον”.

5 ἐνθουσιῶντα. Cf. Aristophanes, Clouds, 194:μὰ γῆν, μὰ παγίδας, μὰ νεφέλας, μὰ δίκτυα”.

6 Notably the caricatures of Aeschines' private life and family history in the de Corona, §§ 129-130, 260. Mr. Pickard-Cambridge makes it clear that the habitual members of the law-courts would be of a lower average socially than the ecclesia. The pay in either case was not enough to attract any but the unemployed, but whereas members of the leisured classes would have sufficient motives for attending the ecclesia, and well-to-do business-men might sacrifice valuable time unselfishly for the good of the State, there would be little inducement to such people to endure the wearisome routme of the law-courts (see Demosthenes, ch. iii.).

7 E.g. Conon, § 4.

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