previous next

Rhetorical devices

Isaeus, the teacher of Demosthenes, was a master of reasoning and demonstration; Demosthenes in his earliest speeches shows strong traces of the influence of Isaeus, but in his later work he has developed varied gifts which enable him to surpass his master. Realizing the insufficiency, for a popular audience, of mere reasoning, he reinforced his logic by adventitious aids, appealing in numerous indirect ways to feeling and prejudice. One valuable method of awakening interest was his striking use of paradox:

“On the question of resources of money at present at our disposal, what I have to say will, I know, appear paradoxical, but I must say it; for I am confident that, considered in the proper light, my proposal will appear to be the only true and right one. I tell you that we need not raise the question of money at all: we have great resources which we may fairly and honourably use if we need them. If we look for them now, we shall imagine that they never will be at our disposal, so far shall we be from willingness to dispose of them at present; but if we let matters wait, we shall have them. What, then, are these resources which do not exist at present, but will be to hand later on? It looks like a riddle. I will explain. Consider this city of ours as a whole. It contains almost as much money as all other cities taken together; but those individuals who possess it are so apathetic that if all the orators tried to terrify them by saying that the king is coming, that he is near, that invasion is inevitable, and even if the orators were reinforced by an equal number of soothsayers, they would not only refuse to contribute; they would refuse even to declare or admit the possession of their wealth. But suppose that the horrors which we now talk about were actually realized, they are none of them so foolish that they would not readily offer and make contributions. . . . So I tell you that we have money ready for the time of urgent need, but not before.

Similarly in the Third Olynthiac he rouses the curiosity of the audience by propounding a riddle, of which, after some suspense, he himself gives the answer. The matter under discussion is the necessity of sending help to Olynthus. There is, as usual, a difficulty about money.

““Very well,” you may say; “we have all decided that we must send help; and send help we will; but how are we to do it; tell me that?” Now, Gentlemen, do not be astonished if what I say comes as a surprise to most of you. Appoint a legislative board. Instruct this board not to pass any law (you have enough already), but to repeal the laws which are injurious under present conditions. I refer to the laws about the Theoric Fund.

This mention of the Festival Fund suggests some reflections on the orator's tenacity and perseverance. He is not content to say once what he has to propose, and leave his words to sink in by their own weight. Like a careful lecturer he repeats his statement, emphasizing it in various ways, until he perceives that his audience has really grasped its importance. The walls which he is attacking will not fall flat at the sound of the trumpet; his persistent battering-rams must make a breach, his catapults must drive the defenders from their positions. Such is the meaning of Lucian's comment in the words attributed to Philip.1

The speech On the Chersonese, for instance, may be divided into three parts, dealing successively with the treatment of Diopeithes, the supineness of Athens, and the guilt of the partisans of Philip; but in all parts we find emphatically stated the need for energetic action. This is really the theme of the speech; the rest is important only in so far as it substantiates the main thesis.

The extract last given (above, p. 245) shows with what adroitness he introduces dialogues, in which he questions or answers an imaginary critic. This is a device frequently employed with considerable effect. The following shows a rather different type:

“If Philip captures Olynthus, who will prevent him from marching on us? The Thebans? It is an unpleasant thing to say, but they will eagerly join him in the invasion. Or the Phocians?—when they cannot even protect their own land, unless you help them. Can you think of any one else?—“My dear fellow, he won't want to attack us.” It would indeed be the greatest surprise in the world if he did not do it when he got the chance; since even now he is fool enough to declare his intentions.

Narrative, too, can take the place of argument; a recital of Philip's misdeeds during the last few years may do far more to convince the Athenians of the necessity for action than any argument about the case of a particular ally who chances to be threatened at the moment.2

Demosthenes' knowledge of history was deep and broad. The superiority of his attainments to those of Aeschines is shown in the more philosophic use which he makes of his appeals to precedent; his examples are apposite and not far-fetched; he can illuminate the present not only by references to ancient facts, but by a keen insight into the spirit which animated the men of old times.3

The examples already quoted of rhetorical dialogue with imaginary opponents will have given some idea of his use of a sarcastic tone. Sarcasm thinly concealed may at times run through a passage of considerable length, as in the anecdote which follows. We may note in passing that he is usually sparing in the use of anecdote, which is never employed without good reason. Here it may be excused by the fact that it figures as an historical precedent of a procedure which he ironically recommends to his contemporaries.

Inveighing against the reckless procedure of the Athenian politicians, who propose laws for their own benefit almost every month,4 he recounts the customs of the Locrians, and, with an assumption of seriousness, implies a wish that similar restrictions could be imposed at Athens:

“I should like to tell you, Gentlemen, how legislation is conducted among the Locrians. It will do you no harm to have an example before you, especially the example of a well-governed State. There men are so convinced that they ought to keep to the established laws and cherish their traditions, and not legislate to suit their fancy, or to help a criminal to escape, that any man who wishes to pass a new law must have a rope round his neck while he proposes it. If they think that the law is a good and useful one, the proposer lives and goes on his way; if not, they pull the rope and there is an end of him. For they cannot bear to pass new laws, but they rigorously observe the old ones. We are told that only one new law has been enacted in very many years. Whereas there was a law that if a man knocked out another man's eye, he should submit to having his own knocked out in return, and no monetary compensation was provided, a certain man threatened his enemy, who had already lost an eye, to knock out the one eye he had left. The one-eyed man, alarmed by the threat, and thinking that life would not be worth living if it were put into execution, ventured to propose a law that if a man knocks out the eye of a man who has only one, he shall submit to having both his own knocked out in return, so that both may suffer alike. We are told that this is the only law which the Locrians have passed in upwards of two hundred years.

This, however, occurs in a speech before the law courts; it is excellent in its place, but would have been unsuitable to the more dignified and solemn style in which he addresses the assembly. Equally unsuitable to his public harangues would be anything like the virulent satire which he admits into the de Corona, the vulgar personalities of abuse and gross caricatures of Aeschines and his antecedents.5 For these the only excuse is that, though meant maliciously, they are so exaggerated as to be quite incredible. They may be compared to Aristophanes' satire of Cleon in the Knights, which was coarse enough, but cannot have done Cleon any serious harm. Demosthenes indeed becomes truly Aristophanic when he talks about Aeschines' acting:

“When in the course of time you were relieved of these duties, having yourself committed all the offences of which you accuse others, I vow that your subsequent life did not fall short of your earlier promise. You engaged yourself to the players Simylus and Socrates, the “Bellowers,” as they were called, to play minor parts, and gathered a harvest of figs, grapes, and olives, like a fruiterer getting his stock from other people's orchards; and you made more from this source than from your plays, which you played in dead earnest at the risk of your lives; for there was a truceless and merciless war between you and the spectators, from whom you received so many wounds that you naturally mock at the cowardice of those who have never had that great experience.

de Corona, §§ 261-262

He is generally described as deficient in wit, and he seems in this point to have been inferior to Aeschines, though on one or two occasions he could make a neat repartee (compare pp. 170, 177). As Dionysius says: ‘Not on all men is every gift bestowed.’6

If, as his critic affirms,7 he was in danger of turning the laugh against himself, he had serious gifts which more than compensated this deficiency.

It must not be supposed that he was entirely free from sophistry. Like many good orators in good or bad causes he laboured from time to time to make a weak case appear strong, and in this effort was often absolutely disingenuous. The whole of the de Corona is an attempt to throw the judges off the scent by leading them on to false trails. It may be urged in his defence that on this occasion he had justice really on his side, but finding that Aeschines on legal ground was occupying an impregnable position, he practically threw over the discussion of legality and turned the course of the trial towards different issues altogether. In this case, admittedly, the technical points were merely an excuse for the bringing of the case, and were probably of little importance to the court. The trial was really concerned with the political principles and actions of the two great opponents, while Ctesiphon was only a cats-paw. But a study of other speeches results in the discovery of many minor points in which, accurately gauging the intelligence of his audience, he has intentionally misled them. Thus, his own knowledge of history was profound; but experience has proved that the knowledge possessed by any audience of the history of its own generation is likely to be sketchy and inaccurate. Events have not settled down into their proper perspective; we must rely either on our own memories, which may be distorted by prejudice, or on the statements of historians who stand too near in time to be able to get a fair view. This gives the politician his opportunity of so grouping or misrepresenting facts as to give a wrong impression.

Instances of such bad faith on the part of Demosthenes are probably numerous, even if unimportant.

In the speech on the Embassy8 he asserts that Aeschines, far from opposing Philip's pretension to be recognized as an Amphictyon, was the only man who spoke in favour of it; yet Demosthenes himself had counselled submission. In the speech Against Timocrates there are obvious exaggerations to the detriment of the defendant. Timocrates had proposed that certain debtors should be given time to pay their debts; Demosthenes asserts that he restored them to their full civic rights without payment (§ 90). Towards the end of the speech a statement is made which conflicts with one on the same subject in the exordium.9

But such rhetorical devices are only trivial faults to which most politicians are liable.10 The orator himself would probably feel that even more doubtful actions were justifiable for the sake of the cause which he championed. We must remember that all the really important cases in which he took part had their origin on political grounds, and during his public career he never relaxed his efforts for the maintenance of those principles which he expounded in his public harangues. Until the end he had hopes for Greek freedom, freedom for Athens, not based on any unworthy compromise, but dependent on a new birth of the old Athenian spirit. The regeneration which he pictured would be due to a revival of the spirit of personal self-sacrifice. Every man must be made to realize first that the city had a glorious mission, being destined to fulfil an ideal of liberty based on principles of justice; secondly that, to attain this end, each must live not for himself or his party but wholly for the city. It is the consciousness that Demosthenes has these enlightened ideas always present in his mind which makes us set him apart from other orators. Lycurgus, a second-rate orator, becomes impressive through his sincerity and incorruptibility; Demosthenes, great among orators, stands out from the crowd still more eminently by the nobleness of his aspirations.

1 Quoted above, p. 230.

2 Chersonese, §§ 61-67. The recital of the present condition of Phocis is a simple but impressive piece of argument by description: ‘It was a terrible sight, Gentlemen, and a sad one; when we were lately on our way to Delphi we were compelled to see it all, houses in ruins, walls demolished, the country empty of men of military age; only a few poor women and little children and old men in pitiable state—words cannot describe the depth of the misery in which they are now sunk’ (de Falsa Leg., § 65).

3 Cf. Third Olynthiac, §§ 24-26.

4 Viz., on every meeting of the ecclesia at which legislation was possible.

5 In particular de Corona, §§ 129-130, 258-262. Cf. above, p. 164.

6 οὐ γάρ πως ἅμα πάντα θεοὶ δόσαν ἀνθρώποισι.

7 de Sublimi, ch. xxxiv.

8 de Falsa Leg., §§ 112-113, with Weil's note.

9 §§ 9, 196. Weil remarks truly, “‘Les orateurs ne se piquent pas d'être exacts: ils usent largement de l'hyperbole mensongère.’”

10 Mr. Pickard-Cambridge (Demos., p. 80) observes: ‘Men who are assembled in a crowd do not think. . . . The orator has often to use arguments which no logic can defend, and to employ methods of persuasion upon a crowd which he would be ashamed to use if he were dealing with a personal friend.’ This is partly true, but should be accepted with reservations. The arguments in the harangues of Demosthenes will generally bear the light, and the public speeches by distinguished statesmen of this country on the causes of the Great War have frequently appealed to the higher nature of their audiences.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: