previous next

Modern approximations to the theory of Ancient Oratory.

It is true, indeed, that the ancient theory has often been partially applied in modern times, sometimes with great industry and with much success; but modern conditions place necessary limits to the application, and the great difference is this:—The ancients required the speech to be an artistic whole; the modern orator who composes, or verbally premeditates, trusts chiefly, as a rule, to particular passages and is less solicitous for a total symmetry. Debate, in our sense, is a modern institution; its
Influence of Debate
unforeseen exigencies claim a large margin in the most careful premeditation; and hence, in the principal field of oratory, an insurmountable barrier is at once placed to any real assimilation between the ancient and the modern modes. Just so much the more, if only for contrast, is it interesting to contemplate those modern orators who have approximated to the classical theory in such measure as their genius and their opportunities allowed. In an inquiry of the present scope, it might be presumptuous to select living illustrations of the Pulpit, the Senate, or the Bar. It would not, indeed, be needful to go far back; but it may be better, for our purpose, to seek examples where the natural partialities of a recent memory no longer refract the steady rays of
Finished Rhetorical Prose:
fame. In respect of finished rhetorical prose, which is not, either in the ancient or in the modern sense, great oratory, but which bears to it the same kind of relation that the Panegyrikos of Isokrates bears to the speech On the Crown, no one, perhaps, has
Canning's Plymouth speech.
excelled Canning. The well-known passage of his speech at Plymouth in 1823 will serve as an illustration:—

‘The resources created by peace are means of war. In cherishing those resources, we but accumulate those means. Our present repose is no more a proof of inability to act, than the state of inertness and inactivity in which I see those mighty masses that float in the waters above your town is a proof that they are devoid of strength and incapable of being fitted out for action. You well know, gentlemen, how soon one of those stupendous masses now reposing on their shadows in perfect stillness—how soon, upon any call of patriotism or of necessity, it would assume the likeness of an animated thing, instinct with life and motion—how soon would it ruffle, as it were, its swelling plumage—how quickly it would put forth all its beauty and its bravery, collect its scattered elements of strength, and awaken its dormant thunder. Such as is one of those magnificent machines when springing from inaction into a display of its might—such is England herself, while, apparently passive and motionless, she silently concentrates the power to be put forth on an adequate occasion.’

The ancient parallel for this is such a passage

His analogue— Isokrates.
as that in the Panegyrikos, describing the irresistible and awe-inspiring might in which the Panhellenic invasion will move through Asia — “θεωρίᾳ μᾶλλον στρατείᾳ προσεοικώς(Isokr. Or. IV. § 182). But a nearer
Union of rhythmical finish with passion:
resemblance to the classical union of rhythmical finish with living passion is afforded, in deliberative oratory, by Grattan, in forensic, by Erskine. Take the peroration of Grattan's speech in the Irish
Grattan.
Parliament on the Declaration of Irish Rights1:—

‘Do not suffer the arrogance of England to imagine a surviving hope in the fears of Ireland; do not send the people to their own resolves for liberty, passing by the tribunals of justice and the high court of Parliament; neither imagine that, by any formation of apology, you can palliate such a commission to your hearts, still less to your children, who will sting you with their curses in your graves, for having interposed between them and their Maker, robbing them of an immense occasion, and losing an opportunity which you did not create and never can restore.

‘Hereafter, when these things shall be history, your age of thraldom and poverty, your sudden resurrection, commercial redress, and miraculous armament, shall the historian stop at liberty, and observe—that here the principal men among us fell into mimic trances of gratitude; that they were awed by a weak ministry, and bribed by an empty treasury; and, when liberty was within their grasp, and the temple opened her folding doors, and the arms of the people clanged, and the zeal of the nation urged and encouraged them on,—that they fell down and were prostituted at the threshold.

‘I might, as a constituent, come to your bar and demand my liberty,—I do call upon you, by the laws of the land and their violation, by the instruction of eighteen counties, by the arms, inspiration, and providence of the present moment, tell us the rule by which we shall go—assert the law of Ireland—declare the liberty of the land.

‘I will not be answered by a public lie in the shape of an amendment; neither, speaking for the subject's freedom, am I to hear of faction. I wish for nothing but to breathe, in this our island, in common with my fellow-subjects, the air of liberty. I have no ambition, unless it be the ambition to break your chain and contemplate your glory. I never will be satisfied so long as the meanest cottager in Ireland has a link of the British chain clanking to his rags; he may be naked, he shall not be in iron; and I do see the time is at hand, the spirit is gone forth, the declaration is planted; and though great men should apostatize, yet the cause will live; and though the public speaker should die, yet the immortal fire shall outlast the organ which conveyed it, and the breath of liberty, like the word of the holy man, will not die with the prophet, but survive him.’

Erskine.

Erskine's defence of Stockdale, the publisher of a pamphlet in defence of Warren Hastings, containing certain reflections on the Managers which the House of Commons pronounced libellous, contains a passage of which the ingenuity, no less than the finished art, recalls the best efforts of ancient forensic oratory; though this ingenuity cannot be fully appreciated without the context. At first, Erskine studiously keeps his defence of Stockdale separate from his defence of Hastings; then he gradually suggests that Hastings is entitled to indulgence on account (1) of his instructions, (2) of his situation, (3) of English and European policy abroad, (4) of the depravity to which, universally, men are liable who have vast power over a subject race,—and the last topic is illustrated thus:—

‘Gentlemen, I think that I can observe that you are touched by this way of considering the subject; and I can account for it. I have not been considering it through the cold medium of books, but have been speaking of man and his nature, and of human dominion, from what I have seen of them myself among reluctant nations submitting to our authority. I know what they feel, and how such feelings can alone be repressed. I have heard them in my youth from a naked savage, in the indignant character of a prince surrounded by his subjects, addressing the governor of a British colony, holding a bundle of sticks in his hand as the notes of his unlettered eloquence; ‘Who is it,’ said the jealous ruler over the desert encroached upon by the restless foot of English adventure—‘who is it that causes this river to rise in the high mountains and to empty itself into the ocean? Who is it that causes to blow the loud winds of winter, and that calms them again in summer? Who is it that rears up the shade of those lofty forests, and blasts them with the quick lightning at his pleasure? The same Being who gave to you a country on the other side of the waters, and gave ours to us; and by this title we will defend it!’ said the warrior, throwing down his tomahawk on the ground, and raising the war-sound of his nation. These are the feelings of subjugated men all round the globe; and, depend upon it, nothing but fear will control where it is vain to look for affection2.’

But no speaker, probably, of modern times has

Burke.
come nearer to the classical type than Burke; and this because his reasonings, his passion, his imagery, are sustained by a consummate and unfailing beauty of language. The passage in which he describes the descent of Hyder Ali upon the Carnatic is supposed to owe the suggestion of its great image, not to Demosthenes, but to Livy's picture of Fabius hovering over Hannibal; the whole passage is infinitely more Roman, more Verrine, if the phrase may be permitted, than Greek; but it is anything rather than diffuse:—

‘Having terminated his disputes with every enemy and every rival, who buried their mutual animosities in their common detestation against the creditors of the Nabob of Arcot, he drew from every quarter whatever a savage ferocity could add to his new rudiments in the arts of destruction; and compounding all the materials of fury, havoc, and desolation into one black cloud, he hung for a while on the declivity of the mountains. Whilst the authors of all these evils were idly and stupidly gazing on this menacing meteor, which darkened all their horizon, it suddenly burst, and poured down the whole of its contents upon the plains of the Carnatic. Then ensued a scene of woe, the like of which no eye had seen, no heart conceived, and which no tongue can adequately tell. All the horrors of war before known or heard of were mercy to that new havoc. A storm of universal fire blasted every field, consumed every house, destroyed every temple. The miserable inhabitants, flying from their flaming villages, in part were slaughtered; others, without regard to sex, to age, to the respect of rank, or sacredness of function, fathers torn from children, husbands from wives, enveloped in a whirlwind of cavalry, and amidst the goading spears of drivers and the trampling of pursuing horses, were swept into captivity in an unknown and hostile land. Those who were able to evade this tempest fled to the walled cities. But escaping from fire, sword and exile they fell into the jaws of famine. For months together these creatures of sufferance, whose very excess and luxury in their most plenteous days had fallen short of the allowance of our austerest fasts, silent, patient, resigned, without sedition or disturbance, almost without complaint, perished by a hundred a day in the streets of Madras or on the glacis of Tangore, and expired of famine in the granary of India.’

Brougham3 contrasts this passage with that in

Brougham on Burke compared with Demosthenes.
which Demosthenes says that a danger ‘went by like a cloud’, with that where he says, ‘If the Thebans had not joined us, all this trouble would have rushed like a mountain-torrent on the city’, and with that where he asks, ‘If the thunder-bolt which has fallen has overpowered, not us alone, but all the Greeks, what is to be done4?’ Brougham contends that Burke has marred the sublimity of the ‘black cloud’ and ‘the whirlwind of cavalry’ by developing and amplifying both. This, surely, is to confound the plastic with the picturesque—a point which will presently claim our attention. Demosthenes is a sculptor, Burke a painter.

It might, however, have been anticipated that

Modern Eloquence of the Pulpit.
modern oratory would have most resembled the ancient in that branch where the conditions are most nearly similar. If Isokrates could have foreseen the splendid, the unique opportunities which in later ages would be enjoyed by the Christian preacher, what expectations would he not have formed, not merely of the heights that would be attained—past and living instances remind us that, in this respect, no estimate could well have been too sanguine—but of the average abundance in which compositions of merit would be produced! It will, of course, be recollected that no quality is here in question except that of an eloquence which, regarded as literary prose, has the finish which deserves to be called artistic. If the test, thus defined, be applied, it will be found to afford a striking confirmation of what has already been observed in regard to the effect upon oratory of that especially Protestant conception according to which the orator's function is prophetic. In the combination of argumentative power with lofty earnestness and with eloquence of the Hebraic type5, none have surpassed, or perhaps equalled, those divines whose discourses are among the chief glories of the English language. In respect, however, of complete artistic form, of classical finish, a nearer resemblance to the antique has been presented by the great preachers of Catholic France6.

1 Speeches, Vol. I. pp. 52 f.

2 From a longer extract given by Brougham in his Essay on Erskine, reprinted from the Edinburgh Review in the volume of his ‘Rhetorical and Literary Dissertations and Addresses,’ p. 225.

3 In his Inaugural Discourse before the University of Glasgow.

4 Dem. de Corona § 188 (νέφος), § 153 (χειμάρρους), § 194 (σκηπτός).

5 Chatham prescribed a study of Barrow as the best foundation of a good style in speaking

6 In his Essay on ‘Pulpit Eloquence’ Brougham seems hardly to do justice to Bossuet—the more florid Isokrates of the group. Bonrdaloue, with his abundant resource, his temperate pathos and his frequent harshness, may perhaps be compared with Lykurgos: Massillon, Voltaire's favourite, with his severity, rapidity, and lofty fervour, was probably the most Demosthenic.

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: