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Style and composition

Though Demosthenes wrote in pure Attic Greek, it is to Lysias and Isocrates rather than to him that Dionysius assigns praise for the most perfect purity of language. It is probable that Demosthenes was nearer to the living speech. Even in his deliberative speeches he can use such familiar expressions as τᾶν, δεῖνα and such expletives as νὴ Δία, the frequent use of which would have seemed to Isocrates to belong to the vocabulary of Comedy. The epideictic style would also have shunned such vigorous touches as λαγὼ βίον ἔζης—‘you lived a hare's life,’ or, to give the proper equivalent, ‘a dog's life,’ (de Cor., § 263) or the famous κακῶν Ἰλιάς— ‘Twenty-four books of misery.’ (de Falsa Leg., § 148). Colloquial vigour is apparent in some metaphorical uses of single words, e.g. ἕωλα καὶ ψυχρά—‘stale and cold’ (applied to crimes, Midias, § 91), προσηλῶσθαι—‘to be pinned down,’ (Ibid., § 105), or the succession of crude metaphors in the account of how Aristogiton, in prison, picked a quarrel with a newcomer; ‘he being newly caught and fresh, was getting the better of Aristogiton, who had got into the net some time ago and been long in pickle; so finding himself getting the worst of it, he ate off the man's nose.’1 There is bold personification of abstractions in ‘Peace, which has destroyed the walls of your allies and is now building houses for your ambassadors,’ (de Falsa Leg., § 275) and such phrases as τεθνᾶσι τῷ δέει τοὺς τοιούτους ἀποστόλους —‘they are frightened to death of so and so,’ are more vigorous than literary.2

Demosthenes seems to discard metaphor in his most solemn moments. In a spirit of sarcasm he can use such expressions as those quoted above about the disorderly scene in prison, and in an outburst of indignation he can speak of rival politicians as ‘Fiends, who have mutilated the corpses of their fatherlands, and made a birthday present of their liberty first to Philip, and now again to Alexander; who measure happiness by their belly and their basest pleasures’ (de Cor., § 296); but on grave occasions, whether in narrative or in counsel, he reverts to a simplicity equal to that of Lysias. The plainness of the language in which he describes the excitement caused by the news of Philip's occupation of Elatea is proverbial (de Cor., § 169); and the closing sentences of the Third Philippic afford another good example:

‘If everybody is going to sit still, hoping to get what he wants, and seeking to do nothing for it himself, in the first place he will never find anybody to do it for him, and secondly, I am afraid that we shall be forced to do everything that we do not want. This is what I tell you, this is what I propose; and I believe that if this is done our affairs may even yet be set straight again. If anybody can offer anything better, let him name it and urge it; and whatever you decide, I pray to heaven it may be for the best.’

The simplicity of the language is only equalled by the sobriety of tone. The simplest words, if properly used, can produce a great effect, which is sometimes heightened by repetition, a device which Demosthenes finds useful on occasion—ἀλλ᾽ οὐκ ἔστιν, οὐκ ἔστιν ὅρως ἡμάρτετε—‘But surely, surely you were not wrong.’ (de Cor., § 208). We realize a slight raising of the voice as the word comes in for the second time. Dinarchus, an imitator of Demosthenes, copies him in the use of this ‘figure,’ but uses it too much and inappropriately. In this, as in other details, his style is an unsuccessful parody of the great orator.

Dionysius compares Demosthenes to several other writers in turn. He finds passages, for instance, which recall the style of Thucydides.3 He quotes the first section from the Third Philippic, and by an ingenious analysis shows the points of resemblance. The chief characteristic noticed by the critic is that the writer does not introduce his thoughts in any natural or conventional sequence, but employs an affected order of words which arrests the attention by its avoidance of simplicity.

Thus, a parenthetical relative clause intrudes between the subject and the verb of the chief relative clause, while we are kept in long suspense as to what the verbs are to be, both in relative clauses and in the main clause itself. The peculiar effects which he notices cannot be reproduced in a non-inflexional language such as English.

At other times, especially in narrative, Demosthenes emulates the lucidity of Lysias at his best. Dionysius quotes with well-deserved approval the vivid presentment of the story on which the accusation against Conon is based. As the speech gives us an excellent picture of the camp life of an undisciplined militia, it will be worth while here to quote some extracts:

“Two years ago, having been detailed for garrison-duty, we went out to Panactum. Conon's sons occupied a tent near us; I wish it had been otherwise, for this was the primary cause of our enmity and the collisions between us. You shall hear how it arose. They used to drink every day and all day long, beginning immediately after breakfast, and this custom they maintained all the time that we were in garrison. My brothers and I, on the contrary, lived out there just as we were in the habit of living at home. So by the time which the rest of us had fixed for dinner, they were invariably playing drunken tricks, first on our servants, and finally on ourselves. For because they said that the servants sent the smoke in their faces while cooking, or were uncivil to them, or what not, they used to beat them and empty the slops over their heads . . . and in every way behaved brutally and disgustingly. We saw this and took offence, and first of all remonstrated with them; but as they jeered at us and would not stop, we all went and reported the occurrence to the general—not I alone, but the whole of the mess. He reprimanded them severely, not only for their offensive behaviour to us, but for their general conduct in camp; however, they were so far from stopping or feeling any shame that, as soon as it was dark that evening, they made a rush on us, and first abused us and then beat me, and made such a disturbance and uproar round the tent that the general and his staff and some of the other soldiers came out, and prevented them from doing us any serious harm, and us from retaliating on their drunken violence.

Another passage quoted from the same speech gives a companion picture of the defendant's behaviour in civil life:

“When we met them, one of the party, whom I cannot identify, fell upon Phanostratus and held him tight, while the defendant Conon and his son and the son of Andromenes fell upon me, and first stripped me, and then tripped me up, and dashed me down in the mud. There they jumped upon me and beat me, and so mishandled me that they cut my lip right through, and closed up both my eyes. They left me in such a weak state that I could neither get up nor speak, and as I lay on the ground I heard them uttering floods of abominable language. What they said was vilely slanderous, and some of it I should shrink from repeating, but I will mention one thing which is an example of Conon's brutality, and proves that he was responsible for the whole incident—he began to crow like a game-cock after a victory, and the others told him to flap his arms against his sides in triumph. After this I was carried home naked by some passers-by, while the defendants made off with my coat.

Dionysius observes that the ecclesia and the courts were composed of mixed elements;4 not all were clever and subtle in intellect; the majority were farmers, merchants, and artisans, who were more likely to be pleased by simple speech; anything of an unusual flavour would turn their stomachs: a smaller number, a mere fraction of the whole, were men of high education, to whom you could not speak as you would to the multitude; and the orator could not afford to neglect either section. He must therefore aim at satisfying both, and consequently he should steer a middle course, avoiding extremes in either direction.

In the opinion of Dionysius both Isocrates and Plato give good examples of this middle style, attaining a seeming simplicity intelligible to all, combined with a subtlety which could be appreciated only by the expert; but Demosthenes surpassed them both in the perfection of this art. To prove his case he quotes first the passage from The Peace which Isocrates himself selected for quotation, as a favourable example of his own style, in the speech on the Antidosis. With this extract a passage from the third Olynthiac is contrasted, greatly to the advantage of Demosthenes, who is found to be nobler, more majestic, more forcible, and to have avoided the frigidity of excessive refinement with which Isocrates is charged.

The criticism professes to be based on an accumulation of small details, but there is no doubt that Dionysius depended, in the main, not upon analysis, but upon subjective impressions. After enumerating the points in which either of the writers excels or falls short, he describes his own feelings:

‘When I read a speech of Isocrates, I become sober and serious, as if I were listening to solemn music; but when I take up a speech of Demosthenes, I am beside myself, I am led this way and that, I am moved by one passion after another: suspicion, distress, fear, contempt, hate, pity, kindliness, anger, envy—passing successively through all the passions which can obtain a mastery over the human mind; . . . and I have sometimes thought to myself, what must have been the impression which he made on those who were fortunate enough to hear him? For where we, who are so far removed in time, and in no way interested in the actual events, are led away and overpowered, and made to follow wherever the speech leads us, how must the Athenians and other Greeks have been led by the speaker himself when the cases in which he spoke had a living interest and concerned them nearly? . . .’ (Demos., ch. xxii.)

Dionysius, as we know from many of his criticisms, had a remarkably acute sense of style; he had also a strong imagination. In this same treatise he recounts how the forms of the sentences themselves suggest to him the tone in which the words were uttered, the very gestures with which they were accompanied.5

Though we modern students cannot expect to rival him in these peculiar gifts, it is still possible for us to sympathize with his feelings. We cannot fail, in reading a speech like the Third Philippic, for instance, to appreciate how fully Demosthenes realizes the Platonic ideal, expressed in the Gorgias, that rhetoric is the art of persuasion. We need not pause to analyse the means by which he attains his end; he may resemble Lysias at one moment in a simple piece of narrative, at another he may be as involved and antithetical as Thucydides, or even florid like Gorgias; he can be a very Proteus, as Dionysius says, in his changes of form; but in whatever shape he appears, naive, subtle, pathetic, indignant, sarcastic, he is convincing. The reason is simple: he has a single purpose always present to his mind, namely, to make his audience feel as he feels. Readers of Isocrates were expected, while they followed the exposition of the subject-matter, to regard the beauties of the form in which it was expressed; in Demosthenes there is no idea of such display. A good speech was to him a successful speech, not one which might be admired by critics as a piece of literature. It is only incidental that his speeches have a literary quality which ranks him among the foremost writers of Attic prose; as an orator he was independent of this quality.

The strong practical sense of Demosthenes refused to be confined by any theoretical rules of scholastic rhetoricians. He does not aspire to the complexity of periods which makes the style of Isocrates monotonous in spite of the writer's wonderful ingenuity. Long and short, complex and simple sentences, are used in turn, and with no systematic order, so that we cannot call any one kind characteristic; the form of the sentence, like the language, is subordinate to its purpose.6

He was moderately careful in the avoidance of hiatus between words, but in this matter he modified the rule of Isocrates to suit the requirements of speech; he was guided by ear, not by eye; thus we find that hiatus is frequently omitted between the cola or sections of a period; in fact any pause in the utterance is enough to justify the non-elision of an open vowel before the pause. Isocrates, on the contrary, usually avoids even the appearance of hiatus in such cases.

There is one other formal rule of composition which Demosthenes follows with some strictness; this is the avoidance of a succession of short syllables. It is notable that he very seldom admits a tribrach (three short syllables) where a little care can avoid it, while instances of more than three short vowels in succession are very exceptional.7 An unusual order of words may often be explained by reference to this practice.8

We know from Aristotle and other critics that earlier writers of artistic prose, from Thrasymachus onwards, had paid some attention to the metrical form of words and certain combinations of long and short syllables. Thrasymachus in particular studied the use of the paeonius (-uuu or uuu-) at the beginning and end of a sentence (Arist., Rhet., iii. 8. 4).

The effect of increasing the number of short syllables, whether in verse or prose, is to make the movement of the line or period more rapid. The frequent use of tribrachs by Euripides constantly produces this impression, and an extreme case is the structure of the Galliambic metre, as seen, for instance, in the Attis of Catullus.9 Conversely the multiplication of long syllables makes the movement slow, and produces an effect of solemnity.10

Demosthenes seems to have been the first prosewriter to pay attention to the avoidance of the tribrach; Plato seems to have consciously preferred a succession of short syllables where it was possible. The difference between the two points of view is probably this—that Plato aimed at reproducing the natural rapidity of conversation, Demosthenes aimed at a more solemn and dignified style appropriate to impressive utterance before a large assembly.

This is the only metrical rule which Demosthenes ever observed, and one of the soundest of modern critics believes that even this observance was instinctive rather than conscious.11 He never affected any metrical formula for the end of sentences comparable to Cicero's famous esse videatur (-uW--) or the double trochee (-u-u) at the beginning of a sentence, approved by later writers. An examination shows that he has an almost infinite variety both in the opening and the close of his sentences. He seems never to follow any mechanical system.

Much labour has been expended, especially in Germany, on the analysis of the rhythmical element in Demosthenes' style. There is no doubt that many orators, from Gorgias onwards, laboured to produce approximate correspondence between parallel or contrasted sections of their periods. In some cases we find an equal number of syllables in two clauses, and even a more or less complete rhythmical correspondence. Such devices serve to emphasize the peculiar figures of speech in which Gorgias delighted, and may have been appropriate to the class of oratory intended primarily for display, but it is hard to believe that such elaboration was ever consciously carried through a long forensic speech.

The appendix to the third volume of Blass' Attic oratory is a monumental piece of work. It consists of an analysis of the first seventeen sections of the de Corona, and the whole of the First Olynthiac and Third Philippic speeches, and conveys the impression that this Demosthenic prose may be scanned with almost as much certainty as a comparatively simple form of composition like a Pindaric ode. It is hard to pronounce on such a matter without a very long and careful study of this difficult subject; but the theory of rhythmical correspondence seems to have been worked out far too minutely. In many cases emendation is required; we have to divide words in the middle, and clauses are split up in an arbitrary and unnatural way. I am far from believing that analysis can justifiably be carried to this extent; it is more reasonable to suppose that Demosthenes had a naturally acute ear, and that practice so developed his faculty that a certain rhythm was natural to all his speech. I am not convinced that all his effects were designed.12

1 On the other hand he often apologizes for metaphors by ὥσπερ or οἶονἦν τοῦθ᾽ ὥσπερ ὲμπόδισμά τι τψ̂ͅ Φιλίππῳ—though ὲμπόδισμα is probably as natural a form of expression as our ‘obstacle.’

2 1st Phil., § 45; cf. “τεθνάναι τῷ φόβῳ Θηβαίους,de Falsa Leg., § 81.

3 de Thucyd., ch. 53.

4 de Demos., ch. xv.

5 Demos., chs. liii., liv. So Aeschines, after reading aloud some extracts from Demosthenes, and observing their effect on his hearers, exclaimed, ‘But what if you had heard the brute himself?’

6 de Chersoneso, §§ 69-71, gives an example of a sentence of about twenty-seven lines in the Teubner edition.

7 Timocrates, § 217,οὐδ᾽ ὁτιοῦν ἂν ὄφελος εἴη” is a case in point— (- uu- u uuu --); in this instance no other arrangement of the words was possible; οὐδ᾽ ὁτιοῦν ἂν εἴη ὄφελος would give a harsh hiatus. Cf. also First Olynthiac, § 27,ἡλίκα γ᾽ ἐστὶ τὰ διάφοπ᾽ ἐνθάδ᾽ 'κεῖ ρολεμεῖν”, where five shorts appear in sequence.

8 E.g. de Falsa Leg., § 11,διεξιὼν ἡλίκα τὴν Ἔλλαδα ρᾶσαν, οὐχὶ τὰς ἰδίας ἀδικοῦσι μόνον ρατπίδας οἱ δωποδοκοῦντες”. The position of ἀδικοῦσι is peculiar, but the sentence already contains a preponderance of short syllables, and any other arrangement would give more of them together: e.g. the more natural orders τὰς ἰδίας μόνον ρατπίδας ἀδικοῦσι (u uu- u- -uu uu-u) or ἰδίας μόνον ἀδικοῦσι ρατπίδας (uu- uu uu-u uuu).

9 Poem 63:Super alta vectus Attis celeri rate maria”, etc. The meter is uu-u-u-- uu-uWu-. The ending with five short syllables gives an impression of headlong speed.

10 Cf. the ‘spondaic’ hymn, Ζεῦ πάντων ἀρχά, πάντων ἅγητορ, Ζεῦ σοὶ σπένδω ταύταν ὔμνων ἀρχάν.

11 Croiset, Hist. de la Litt. Gr., tome iv., pp. 552-553.

12 See ad hoc, Croiset, iv. 553. 1.

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