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Characteristics of Modern Oratory

It will now be useful to look at some of the broad characteristics of modern oratory and of the modern feeling towards it; but only in so far as these will help our present purpose—namely, to elucidate the nature of ancient oratory. The first thing that strikes one is how completely modern life has redressed the complaint made by the earliest philosophical theorist of rhetoric. Aristotle opens his treatise with the
Aristotle on the three instruments of Rhetorical Proof:
observation that, whereas there are three instruments of rhetorical persuasion—the ethical, the pathetic and the logical—his predecessors have paid by far the most attention to the second, and have almost totally neglected the third, though this third is incomparably the most important,—indeed, the only one of the three which is truly scientific. The logical proof is the very body, σῶμα, of rhetorical persuasion,—everything else, appeal to feeling, attractive portrayal of character, and so forth, is, from the scientific point of view, only προσθήκη, appendage. This is essentially
His estimate is that of the Modern World.
the modern, especially the modern Teutonic, theory of oratory, and the modern practice is in harmony with it. The broadest characteristic of modern oratory,
Modern Oratory puts the λογικὴ πίστις first.
as compared with ancient, is the predominance of a sustained appeal to the understanding. Hume, with general truth, declares the attributes of Greek oratory to be ‘rapid harmony, exactly adjusted to the sense’, ‘vehement reasoning, without any appearance of art’, ‘disdain, anger, boldness, freedom, involved in a continual stream of argument1’—a description, it must be observed, which should at all events be limited to the deliberative and forensic orators contemporary with Demosthenes. Brougham, however, states the case both more accurately and in terms of wider application, when he observes that in ancient oratory there are scarcely any long chains of elaborate reasoning; what was wanted to move, to rouse, and to please the hearers, was rather a copious stream of plain, intelligible observations upon their interests, appeals to their feelings, reminiscences from the history, especially the recent history, of their city, expositions of the evils to be apprehended from inaction or from impolicy, vindications of the orator's own conduct, demonstrations of the folly which disobeys, or of the malice which assails him2. Aristotle himself, it may be observed, the very champion of the enthymeme, is the strongest witness to the truth of this. He impresses upon the student of Rhetoric that a speaker must ever remember that he is addressing the vulgar; he must not expect them to be capable of a far-reaching ratiocination, he must not string syllogism to syllogism, he must administer his logic temperately and discreetly3. Now, in contrast with this, long and elaborate chains of reasoning, or expositions of complicated facts, have been the very essence of the great efforts and triumphs of modern oratory; the imagery and the pathos heighten the effect, but would go only a very little way if the understandings of the hearers had not, in the first place, been convinced. We are here again reminded of the basis on which ancient oratory rested. The
The modern speaker has no distinct acceptance as an artist.
modern speaker comes before his audience with no a priori claim to be regarded as an artist whose display of his art may be commendable and interesting in itself. Cicero's speech for Archias, which is
The ancients less strict about logical relevance.
exquisitely composed, but of which not more than one-sixth is to the purpose, or his speech for Publius Sextus, in which the relevant part bears a yet smaller proportion to the whole, could not have been delivered in a British court of justice4. There is usually, however, an important difference, which will be noticed by and by, between the nature of Greek and that of Roman irrelevance. On the other hand, the modern exaction of consecutive and intelligible reasoning becomes, of course, less severe the more nearly the discourse approaches to the nature of a display. Still, this logical vigilance, with a comparative indifference to form, is, on the whole, the first great characteristic of modern oratory, and has, of course, become more pronounced since the system of reporting for the Press has been perfected, as it is
Influence of neutral reporting.
now, in many cases, far more important for the speaker to convince readers than to fascinate hearers. The characteristic which comes next in degree of significance for our present object is the habitual
Modern feeling that a great speech must be extemporary
presumption that the speech is extemporary. Even where there has been the most laborious preparation, even where the fact of such preparation is notorious, it is generally felt to be essential to impressiveness that the fact of verbal premeditation should be kept out of sight, and on the part of the hearers it is considered more courteous to ignore it. A certain ridicule attaches to a speech which, not having been delivered, is published,—the sense of something ludicrous arising partly from the feeling, ‘What an absurd disappointment’, but also from the feeling, ‘Here are the bursts which would have
Sources of this feeling: 1 The failures of Premeditation.
electrified the audience’. One thing which has helped to establish this feeling is the frequent failure of those who have attempted verbal premeditation; a failure probably due less often to defective memory or nerve than to neglect of a department in which the ancient orators were most diligent, and in which, moreover, they were greatly assisted by the plastic forms among which they lived, by the share of musical training which they ordinarily possessed, and by the draping of the himation or the toga—delivery, in respect both of voice and of action. When a premeditated speech is rendered lifeless or ludicrous by the manner in which it is pronounced, the modern mind at once recurs to its prejudice against Rhetoric—that is, against the Rhetoric of the later schools—and a contempt is generated for those who deign to labour beforehand on words that should come straight from the heart. There
2 The Hebraic basis of Christian education.
is, however, a much deeper cause than this for the populai modern notion that the greatest oratory must be extemporary, and it is one which, for the modern world, is analogous to the origin of the Greek requirement that speech should be artistic. This cause is the Hebraic basis of education in modern Christendom, especially in those countries which have been most influenced by the Reformation. It becomes a prepossession that the true adviser, the true warner, in all the gravest situations, on all the most momentous subjects, is one to whom it will in that hour be given what he shall speak, and whose inspiration, when it is loftiest, must be communicated to him at the moment by a Power external to himself. The ancient world compared the orator with the poet. The modern world compares the orator with the prophet.

1 Essay XII., Of Eloquence.

2 Dissertation On the Eloquence of the Ancients, pp. 48, 58.

3 See (e.g.) Rhet. I. 2 §§ 12, 13, γὰρ κριτὴς ὑπόκειται εἶναι ἁπλοῦς, κ.τ.λ.”: II. 22 §§ 2 ff., III 17 § 6, etc.

4 Brougham, l.c., p. 46.

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