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The English word ‘orator’ compared with Latin and with Greek ῥήτωρ

At the outset, it is well to clear away a verbal hindrance to the comprehension of this subject in its right bearings. The English term ‘orator,’ when it is not used ironically, is reserved for one who, in relation to speaking, has genius of an order analogous to that which entitles a man to be seriously called a poet. The term ‘oratory,’ though the exigencies of the language lead to its often being used as a mere synonym for ‘set speaking,’ is yet always inconveniently coloured with the same suggestion either of irony or of superlative praise. The Roman term orator, ‘pleader,’ had this advantage over ours, that it related, not to a faculty, but to a professional or official attitude. It could therefore be applied to any one who stood in that attitude, whether effectively or otherwise. Thus the Romans could legitimately say ‘mediocris’ or ‘malus orator,’ whereas, in English, the corresponding phrases are either incorrect or sarcastic. Even the Romans, however, seem to have felt that their word was unsatisfactory, and to have confessed this sense by using ‘dicere,’ ‘ars dicendi,’ as much as possible. But the Greeks had a word which presented the man of eloquence, not, like the English word, as a man of genius, nor like the Roman word, as an official person, but simply as a speaker, ῥήτωρ. This designation was claimed by those Sicilian masters who taught men how to speak: at Athens it was given especially to the habitual speakers in the public assembly: in later times it was applied to students or theorists of Rhetoric. What, then, is the fact signified by this double phenomenon—that the Greeks had the word rhetor,
Significance of the term ‘rhetor’.
and that they did not apply it to everybody? It is this: that, in the Greek view, a man who speaks may, without necessarily having first-rate natural gifts for eloquence, or being invested with office, yet deserve to be distinguished from his fellows by the name of a speaker. It attests the conception that speaking is potentially an art, and that one who speaks may, in speaking, be an artist.

This is the fundamental conception on which rests, first, the relation between ancient oratory and ancient prose; secondly, the relation between ancient and modern oratory.

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