previous next

The plastic character as manifested in Greek oratory.

Since, as has been seen, Oratory was for the Greeks a fine art, it follows that Greek Oratory must have, after its own kind, that same typical character which belongs to Greek Sculpture and to Greek Tragedy. Wherein, then, does it manifest this character? We must here be on our guard against the great stumblingblock of such inquiries, the attempt to find the analogy in the particulars and not in the whole. It might be possible to take a speech of Demosthenes and to work out the details of a correspondence with a tragedy of Sophokles or a work of Pheidias; but such refinements have usually a perilous neighbourhood to fantasy, and, even when they are legitimate, are apt to be more curious than instructive. How truly and universally Greek Oratory bears the plastic stamp, can be seen only when it is regarded in its largest aspects. The
A series of types is developed by a series of artists.
first point to be observed is that, in Greek Oratory, we have a series of types developed by a series of artists, each of whom seeks to give to his own type the utmost clearness and distinction that he is capable of reaching. The same thing is true of Tragedy, but not in the same degree; for, in Tragedy, the element of consecrated convention was more persistent; and, besides, Oratory stood in such manifold and intimate relations with the practical life that the artist, in expressing his oratorical theory, could express his entire civic personality. Hence the men who moulded Attic Oratory, whether statesmen or not, are good examples of conscious obedience to that law of Greek nature which constrained every man to make himself a living work of art. ‘In its poets and orators’, says Hegel1, ‘its historians and philosophers, Greece cannot be conceived from a central point unless one brings, as a key to the understanding of it, an insight into the ideal forms of sculpture, and regards the images of statesmen and philosophers as well as epic and dramatic heroes from the artistic point of view; for those who act, as well as those who create and think, have, in those beautiful days of Greece, this plastic character. They are great and free, and have grown up on the soil of their own individuality, creating themselves out of themselves, and moulding themselves to what they were and willed to be. The age of Perikles was rich in such characters: Perikles himself, Pheidias, Plato, above all Sophokles, Thucydides also, Xenophon and Sokrates, each in his own order, without the perfection of one being diminished by that of the others. They are ideal artists of themselves, cast each in one flawless mould—works of art which stand before us as an immortal presentment of the gods.’

The plastic character of Greek oratory,—thus seen, first of all, in the finished distinction of successive types, clearly modelled as the nature that wrought them,—is further seen in the individual oration. Take it whence we will, from the age of

In the individual oration,
Antiphon or of Demosthenes, from the forensic, from the deliberative or from the epideictic class, two great characteristics will be found. First, however little
the main lines of the theme are unperplexed,
of sustained reasoning there may be, however much the argument may be mingled with appeals, reminiscences or invectives, everything bears on the matter in hand. It is an exertion of art, but of art strictly pertinent to its scope. No Greek orator could have written such a speech as that of Cicero For Archias or For Publius Sextus. In a Greek speech the main lines of the subject are ever firm; they are never lost amid the flowers of a picturesque luxuriance. Secondly, wherever pity, terror, anger,
and the unity is sealed by a final calm.
or any passionate feeling is uttered or invited, this tumult is resolved in a final calm; and where such tumult has place in the peroration, it subsides before the last sentences of all. The ending of the speech On the Crown—which will be noticed hereafter2—is exceptional and unique. As a rule, the very end is calm; not so much because the speaker feels this to be necessary if he is to leave an impression of personal dignity, but rather because the sense of an ideal beauty in humanity and in human speech governs his effort as a whole, and makes him desire that, where this effort is most distinctly viewed as a whole —namely, at the close—it should have the serenity
Attic perorations in Cicero and Erskine.
of a completed harmony. Cicero has now and then an Attic peroration, as in the Second Philippic and the Pro Milone; more often he breaks off in a burst of eloquence—as in the First Catilinarian, the Pro Flacco and the Pro Cluentio. Erskine's concluding sentences in his defence of Lord George Gordon are Attic:—‘Such topics might be useful in the balance of a doubtful case; yet, even then, I should have trusted to the honest hearts of Englishmen to have felt them without excitation. At present the plain and rigid rules of justice are sufficient to entitle me to your verdict3.’

1 Aesthetik, Part III. Section 2, ch. 1, quoted by Pater, p. 192.

2 Vol. II. p 415.

3 This calmness of the Greek peroration is noticed by Brougham in his Dissertation (p. 25), but is more fully discussed in his essay on Demosthenes, pp. 184 f. He does not, however, penetrate to the true Greek feeling when he says, ‘The same chastened sense of beauty which forbade a statue to speak the language of the passions, required that both the whole oration and each highly impassioned portion of it, should close with a calmness approaching to indifference, and tameness.’ There comes in the popular modern notion of the sculpturesque.

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: