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General tendency of ancient criticism upon oratory: unjust to Andokides.

It is a result of the precision with which the art of rhetoric was systematized in the Greek and Roman schools that much of the ancient criticism upon oratory is tainted by a radical vice. The ancient critics too often confound literary merit with oratorical merit. They judge too much from the standpoint of the reader, and too little from the standpoint of the hearer. They analyse special features of language and of method; they determine with nicety the rank of each man as a composer; but they too often forget that, for the just estimation of his rank as a speaker, the first thing necessary is an effort of imaginative sympathy. We must not merely analyse his style; we must try to realise the effect which some one of his speeches, as a whole, would have made on a given audience in given circumstances. As nearly all the great orators of antiquity had been trained in the rudiments of the technical rhetoric, the judgment upon their relative merits is not, as a rule, much disturbed by this tendency in their critics. It may often, indeed, be felt that the judgment, however fair in itself, is based too much upon literary grounds. But, in most cases, so far as we can judge, no great injustice is done. Criticism of this kind may, however, happen to be unjust; and it has certainly been unjust in the case of Andokides. Others far excel him in finish of style, in clearness of arrangement, in force and in fire; but no one can read the speech On the Mysteries (for instance) without feeling that Andokides was a real orator. The striking thing in that speech is a certain undefinable tone which assures even the modern reader that Andokides was saying the right things to the judges, and knew himself to be saying the right things. He is, in places, obscure or diffuse; he sometimes wanders from the issue, once or twice into trivial gossip; but throughout there is this glow of a conscious sympathy with his hearers. He may not absolutely satisfy the critics; but he was persuading, and he felt with triumph that he was persuading, the judges.

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  • Cross-references to this page (1):
    • Sir Richard C. Jebb, Selections from the Attic Orators, 13.9
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