The Public Orations of Demosthenes/Introduction

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77350The Public Orations of Demosthenes — IntroductionArthur Wallace PickardDemosthenes

Demosthenes, the son of Demosthenes of Paeania in Attica, a rich and highly respected factory-owner, was born in or about the year 384 B.C. He was early left an orphan; his guardians mismanaged his property for their own advantage; and although, soon after coming of age in 366, he took proceedings against them and was victorious in the law-courts, he appears to have recovered comparatively little from them. In preparing for these proceedings he had the assistance of Isaeus, a teacher and writer of speeches who was remarkable for his knowledge of law, his complete mastery of all the aspects of any case with which he had to do, and his skill in dealing with questions of ownership and inheritance. Demosthenes' speeches against his guardians show plainly the influence of Isaeus, and the teacher may have developed in his pupil the thoroughness and the ingenuity in handling legal arguments which afterwards became characteristic of his work.

Apart from this litigation with his guardians, we know little of Demosthenes' youth and early manhood. Various stories have come down to us (for the most part not on the best authority), of his having been inspired to aim at an orator's career by the eloquence and fame of Callistratus; of his having overcome serious physical defects by assiduous practice; of his having failed, nevertheless, owing to imperfections of delivery, in his early appearances before the people, and having been enabled to remedy these by the instruction of the celebrated actor Satyrus; and of his close study of the History of Thucydides. Upon the latter point the evidence of his early style leaves no room for doubt, and the same studies may have contributed to the skill and impressiveness with which, in nearly every oration, he appeals to the events of the past, and sums up the lessons of history. Whether he came personally under the influence either of Plato, the philosopher, or of Isocrates, the greatest rhetorical teacher of his time, and a political pamphleteer of high principles but little practical insight, is much more doubtful. The two men were almost as different in temperament and aims as it was possible to be, but Demosthenes' familiarity with the published speeches of Isocrates, and with the rhetorical principles which Isocrates taught and followed, can scarcely be questioned.

In the early years of his manhood, Demosthenes undertook the composition of speeches for others who were engaged in litigation. This task required not only a very thorough knowledge of law, but the power of assuming, as it were, the character of each separate client, and writing in a tone appropriate to it; and, not less, the ability to interest and to rouse the active sympathy of juries, with whom feeling was perhaps as influential as legal justification. This part, however, of Demosthenes' career only concerns us here in so far as it was an admirable training for his later work in the larger sphere of politics, in which the same qualities of adaptability and of power both to argue cogently and to appeal to the emotions effectively were required in an even higher degree.

At the time when Demosthenes' interest in public affairs was beginning to take an active form, Athens was suffering from the recent loss of some of her most powerful allies. In the year 358 B.C. she had counted within the sphere of her influence not only the islands of Lemnos, Imbros, and Scyros (which had been guaranteed to her by the Peace of Antalcidas in 387), but also the chief cities of Euboea, the islands of Chios, Cos, Rhodes, and Samos, Mytilene in Lesbos, the towns of the Chersonese, Byzantium (a city of the greatest commercial importance), and a number of stations on the south coast of Thrace, as well as Pydna, Potidaea, Methone, and the greater part of the country bordering upon the Thermaic Gulf. But her failure to observe the terms of alliance, laid down when the new league was founded in 378, had led to a revolt, which ended in 355 or 354 in the loss to her of Chios, Cos, Rhodes, and Byzantium, and of some of the ablest of her own commanders, and left her treasury almost empty. About the same time Mytilene and Corcyra also took the opportunity to break with her. Moreover, her position in the Thermaic region was threatened first by Olynthus, at the head of the Chalcidic League, which included over thirty towns; and secondly by Philip, the newly-established King of Macedonia, who seemed likely to displace both Olynthus and Athens from their positions of commanding influence.[1]

Nevertheless, Athens, though unable to face a strong combination, was probably the most powerful single state in Greece. In her equipment and capacity for naval warfare she had no rival, and certainly no other state could vie with her in commercial activity and prosperity. The power of Sparta in the Peloponnese had declined greatly. The establishment of Megalopolis as the centre of a confederacy of Arcadian tribes, and of Messene as an independent city commanding a region once entirely subject to Sparta, had seriously weakened her position; while at the same time her ambition to recover her supremacy kept alive a feeling of unrest throughout the Peloponnese. Of the other states of South Greece, Argos was hostile to Sparta, Elis to the Arcadians; Corinth and other less important cities were not definitely attached to any alliance, but were not powerful enough to carry out any serious movement alone. In North Greece, Thebes, though she lacked great leaders, was still a great power, whose authority throughout Boeotia had been strengthened by the complete or partial annihilation of Platacae, Thespiae, Orchomenus,[2] and Coroneia. In Athens the ill feeling against Thebes was strong, owing to the occupation by the Thebans of Oropus,[2] a frontier town which Athens claimed, and their treatment of the towns just mentioned, towards which the Athenians were kindly disposed. The Phocians, who had until recently been unwilling allies of Thebes, were now hostile and not insignificant neighbours, and about this time entered into relations with both Sparta and Athens. The subject of contention was the possession or control of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, which the Phocians had recently taken by force from the Delphians, who were supported by Thebes; and in the 'Sacred War' to which this act (which was considered to be sacrilege) gave rise in 355 B.C., the Thebans and Locrians fought against the Phocians in the name of the Amphictyonic Council, a body (composed of representatives of tribes and states of very unequal importance[3]) to which the control of the temple traditionally belonged. Thessaly appears to have been at this time more or less under Theban influence, but was immediately dominated by the tyrants of Pherae, though the several cities seem each to have possessed a nominally independent government. The Greek peoples were disunited in fact and unfitted for union by temperament. The twofold desire, felt by almost all the more advanced Greek peoples, for independence on the one hand, and for 'hegemony' or leadership among other peoples, on the other, rendered any effective combination impossible, and made the relations of states to one another uncertain and inconstant. While each people paid respect to the spirit of autonomy, when their own autonomy was in question, they were ready to violate it without scruple when they saw their way to securing a predominant position among their neighbours; and although the ideal of Panhellenic unity had been put before Greece by Gorgias and Isocrates, its realization did not go further than the formation of leagues of an unstable character, each subject, as a rule, to the more or less tyrannical domination of some one member.

Probably the power which was most generally feared in the Greek world was that of the King of Persia. Several times in recent years (and particularly in 387 and 367) he had been requested to make and enforce a general settlement of Hellenic affairs. The settlement of 387 (called the King's Peace, or the Peace of Antalcidas, after the Spartan officer who negotiated it) had ordained the independence of the Greek cities, small and great, with the exception of those in Asia Minor, which were to form part of the Persian Empire, and of Lemnos, Imbros, and Scyros, which were to belong to Athens as before. The attempt to give effect to the arrangement negotiated in 367 failed, and the terms of the Peace of Antalcidas, though it was still appealed to, when convenient, as a charter of liberty, also came to be disregarded. But there was always a sense of the possibility or the danger of provoking the great king to exert his strength, or at least to use his wealth, to the detriment of some or all of the Greek states; though at the moment of which we are speaking (about 355) the Persian Empire itself was suffering from recent disorders and revolutions, and the king had little leisure for interfering in the affairs of Greece.

It was to the department of foreign and inter-Hellenic affairs that Demosthenes principally devoted himself. His earliest political speeches, however, were composed and delivered in furtherance of prosecutions for the crime of proposing illegal legislation. These were the speeches against Androtion (spoken by Diodorus in 355) and against Leptines (in 354). Both these were written to denounce measures which Demosthenes regarded as dishonest or unworthy of Athenian traditions. In the former he displays that desire for clean-handed administration which is so prominent in some of his later speeches; and in the prosecution of Leptines he shows his anxiety that Athens should retain her reputation for good faith. Both speeches, like those of the year 352 against Timocrates (spoken by Diodorus), and against Aristocrates (spoken by Euthycles), are remarkable for thoroughness of argument and for the skill which is displayed in handling legal and political questions, though, like almost all Athenian forensic orations, they are sometimes sophistical in argument.

The first speech which is directly devoted to questions of external policy is that on the Naval Boards in 354; and this is followed within the next two years by speeches delivered in support of appeals made to Athens by the people of Megalopolis and by the exiled democratic party of Rhodes. From these speeches it appears that the general lines of Demosthenes' policy were already determined. He was in opposition to Eubulus, who, after the disastrous termination of the war with the allies, had become the leading statesman in Athens. The strength of Eubulus lay in his freedom from all illusion as to the position in which Athens stood, in his ability as a financier, and in his readiness to take any measures which would enable him to carry out his policy. He saw that the prime necessity of the moment was to recruit the financial and material strength of the city; that until this should be effected, she was quite incapable of carrying on war with any other power; and that she could only recover her strength through peace. In this policy he had the support of the well-to-do classes, who suffered heavily in time of war from taxation and the disturbance of trade. On the other hand, the sentiments of the masses were imperialistic and militant. We gather that there were plenty of orators who made a practice of appealing to the glorious traditions of the past and the claim always made by Athens to leadership among the Greek states. To buy off the opposition which his policy might be expected to encounter, Eubulus distributed funds freely to the people, in the shape of 'Festival-money', adopting the methods employed before him by demagogues, very different from himself, in order that he might override the real sentiments of the democracy; and in spite of the large amounts thus spent he did in fact succeed, in the course of a few years, in collecting a considerable sum without resorting to extraordinary taxation, in greatly increasing the navy and in enlarging the dockyards. For the success of this policy it was absolutely necessary to avoid all entanglement in war, except under the strongest compulsion. The appeals of the Megalopolitans and the Rhodians, to yield to which would probably have meant war with Sparta and with Persia, must be rejected. Even in dealing with Philip, who was making himself master of the Athenian allies on the Thermaic coast, the fact of the weakness of Athens must be recognized, and all idea of a great expedition against Philip must be abandoned for the present. At the same time, some necessary measures of precaution were not neglected. It was essential to secure the route to the Euxine, over which the Athenian corn-trade passed, if corn was not to be sold at famine prices. For this purpose, therefore, alliance was made with the Thracian prince, Cersobleptes; and when Philip threatened Heraeon Teichos on the Propontis, an expedition was prepared, and was only abandoned because Philip himself was forced to desist from his attempt by illness. Similarly, when Philip appeared likely to cross the Pass of Thermopylae in 352, an Athenian force was sent (on the proposal of Diophantus, a supporter of Eubulus) to prevent him. The failure of Eubulus and his party to give effective aid to Olynthus against Philip was due to the more pressing necessity of attempting to recover control of Euboea: it had clearly been their intention to save Olynthus, if possible. But when this had proved impossible, and the attempt to form a Hellenic league against Philip had also failed, facts had once more to be recognized; and, since Athens was now virtually isolated, peace must be made with Philip on the only terms which he would accept—that each side should keep what it de facto possessed at the time.

Demosthenes was generally in opposition to Eubulus and his party, of which Aeschines (once an actor and afterwards a clerk, but a man of education and great natural gifts) was one of the ablest members. Demosthenes was inspired by the traditions of the past, but had a much less vague conception of the moral to be drawn from them than had the multitude. Athens, for him as for them, was to be the first state in Hellas; she was above all to be the protectress of democracy everywhere, against both absolutism and oligarchy, and the leader of the Hellenes in resistance to foreign aggression. But, unlike the multitude, Demosthenes saw that this policy required the greatest personal effort and readiness for sacrifice on the part of every individual; and he devotes his utmost energies to the task of arousing his countrymen to the necessary pitch of enthusiasm, and of effecting such reforms in administration and finance as, in his opinion, would make the realization of his ideal for Athens possible. In the speeches for the Megalopolitans and the Rhodians, the nature of this ideal is already becoming clear both in its Athenian and in its Panhellenic aspects. But so soon as it appeared that Philip, at the head of the half-barbarian Macedonians, and not Athens, was likely to become the predominant power in the Hellenic world, it was against Philip that all his efforts were directed; and although in 346 he is practically at one with the party of Eubulus in his recognition of the necessity of peace, he is eager, when the opportunity seems once more to offer itself, to resume the conflict, and, when it is resumed, to carry it through to the end.

We have then before us the sharp antagonism of two types of statesmanship. The strength of the one lies in the recognition of actual facts, and the avoidance of all projects which seem likely, under existing circumstances, to fail. The other is of a more sanguine type, and believes in the power of enthusiasm and self-sacrifice to transform the existing facts into something better, and to win success against all odds. Statesmen of the former type are always attacked as unpatriotic and mean-spirited; those of the latter, as unpractical and reckless. There is truth and falsehood in both accusations: but since no statesman has ever combined all the elements of statesmanship in a perfect and just proportion, and since neither prudence and clear-sightedness, nor enthusiastic and generous sentiment, can ever be dispensed with in the conduct of affairs without loss, a larger view will attach little discredit to either type. While, therefore, we may view with regret some of the methods which both Demosthenes and Aeschines at times condescended to use in their conflicts with one another, and with no less regret the disastrous result of the policy which ultimately carried the day, we need not hesitate to give their due to both of the contending parties: nor, while we recognize that Eubulus and Phocion (his sturdiest supporter in the field and in counsel) took the truer view of the situation, and of the character of the Athenians as they were, need we (as it is now fashionable to do) denounce the orator who strove with unstinting personal effort and self-sacrifice to rouse the Athenians into a mood in which they could and would realize the ideal to which they, no less than he, professed their devotion.

But the difficulties in the way of such a realization were wellnigh insuperable. Neither the political nor the military system of Athens was adapted to such a policy. The Sovereign Assembly, though capable of sensible and energetic action at moments of special danger, was more likely to be moved by feeling and prejudice than by businesslike argument, particularly at a time when the tendency of the best educated and most intelligent men was to withdraw from participation in public life; and meeting, as the Assembly did (unless specially summoned), only at stated intervals, it was incapable of taking such rapid, well-timed, and decisive action as Philip could take, simply because he was a single man, sole master of his own policy, and personally in command of his own forces. The publicity which necessarily attached to the discussions of the Assembly was a disadvantage at a time when many plans would better have been kept secret; and rapid modifications of policy, to suit sudden changes in the situation, were almost impossible. Again, while no subjects are so unsuited under any circumstances for popular discussion as foreign and military affairs, the absence in Athens of a responsible ministry greatly increased the difficulties of her position. It is true that the Controller of the Festival Fund (whose office gradually became more and more important) was now appointed for four years at a time, while all other offices were annual; and that he and his friends, and their regular opponents, were generally ready to take the lead in making proposals to the Council or the Assembly. But if they chose to remain silent, they could do so;[4] no one was bound to make any proposal at all; and, on the other hand, any one might do so. With such a want of system, far too much was left to chance or to the designs of interested persons. Moreover, the Assembly felt itself under no obligation to follow for any length of time any lead which might be given to it, or to maintain any continuity or consistency between its own decrees. In modern times, a minister, brought into power by the will of the majority of the people, can reckon for a considerable period upon the more or less loyal support of the majority for himself and his official colleagues. In Athens the leader of the moment had to be perpetually adapting himself afresh to the mood of the Assembly, and even to deceive it, in order that he might lead at all, or carry out the policy which, in his opinion, his country's need required. It is therefore a remarkable thing that both Eubulus and Demosthenes succeeded for many years in maintaining a line of action as consistent as that taken by practical men can ever be.

The fact that the Council of Five Hundred, which acted as a standing committee of the people, and prepared business for the Assembly and was responsible for the details of measures passed by the Assembly in general form, was chosen by lot and changed annually, as did practically all the civil and the military officials (though the latter might be re-elected), was all against efficiency and continuity of policy.[5] After the system of election by lot, the most characteristic feature of the Athenian democracy was the responsibility of statesmen and generals to the law-courts.[6] Any citizen might accuse them upon charges nominally limited in scope, but often serving in reality to bring their whole career into question. Had it been certain that the courts would only punish incompetence or misconduct, and not failure as such, little harm would have resulted. But although there were very many acquittals in political trials, the uncertainty of the issue was so great, and the sentences inflicted upon the condemned so severe (commonly involving banishment at least), that the liability to trial as a criminal must often have deterred the statesman and the general from taking the most necessary risks; while the condemnation of the accused had usually the result of driving a really able man out of the country, and depriving his fellow countrymen of services which might be urgently required when they were no longer available.

The financial system was also ill adapted for the purposes of a people constantly liable to war. The funds required for the bare needs of a time of peace seem indeed to have been sufficiently provided from permanent sources of income (such as the silver mines, the rent of public lands, court fees and fines, and various indirect taxes): but those needed for war had to be met by a direct tax upon property, levied ad hoc whenever the necessity arose, and not collected without delays and difficulties. And although the equipment of ships for service was systematically managed under the trierarchic laws,[7] it was still subject to delays no less serious. There was no regular system of contribution to State funds, and no systematic accumulation of a reserve to meet military needs. The raising of money by means of loans at interest to the State was only adopted in Greece in a few isolated instances:[8] and the practice of annually distributing surplus funds to the people,[9] however necessary or excusable under the circumstances, was wholly contrary to sound finance.

An even greater evil was the dependence of the city upon mercenary forces and generals, whose allegiance was often at the call of the highest bidder, and in consequence was seldom reliable. There is no demand which Demosthenes makes with greater insistence, than the demand that the citizens themselves shall serve with the army. At a moment of supreme danger, they might do so. But in fact Athens had become more and more an industrial state, and men were not willing to leave their business to take care of itself for considerable periods, in order to go out and fight, unless the danger was very urgent, or the interests at stake of vital importance; particularly now that the length of campaigns had become greater and the seasons exempted from military operations shorter. In many minds the spread of culture, and of the ideal of self-culture, had produced a type of individualism indifferent to public concerns, and contemptuous of political and military ambitions. Moreover, the methods of warfare had undergone great improvement; in most branches of the army the trained skill of the professional soldier was really necessary; and it was not possible to leave the olive-yard or the counting-house and become an efficient fighter without more ado. But the expensiveness of the mercenary forces; the violent methods by which they obtained supplies from friends and neutrals, as well as foes, if, as often happened, their pay was in arrear; and the dependence of the city upon the goodwill of generals and soldiers who could without much difficulty find employment under other masters, were evils which were bound to hamper any attempt to give effect to a well-planned and far-sighted scheme of action.

It also resulted from the Athenian system of government that the general, while obviously better informed of the facts of the military situation than any one else could be, and at the same time always liable to be brought to trial in case of failure, had little influence upon policy, unless he could find an effective speaker to represent him. In the Assembly and in the law-courts (where the juries were large enough to be treated in the same manner as the Assembly itself) the orator who could win the people's ear was all powerful, and expert knowledge could only make itself felt through the medium of oratory.

A constitution which gave so much power to the orator had grave disadvantages. The temptation to work upon the feelings rather than to appeal to the reason of the audience was very strong, and no charge is more commonly made by one orator against another than that of deceiving or attempting to deceive the people. It is, indeed, very difficult to judge how far an Athenian Assembly was really taken in by sophistical or dishonest arguments: but it is quite certain that such arguments were continually addressed to it; and the main body of the citizens can scarcely have had that first-hand knowledge of facts, which would enable them to criticize the orator's statements. Again, the oration appealed to the people as a performance, no less than as a piece of reasoning. Ancient political oratory resembled the oratory of the pulpit at the present day, not only because it appealed perpetually to the moral sense, and was in fact a kind of preaching; but also because the main difficulty of the ancient orator and the modern preacher was the same: for the Athenians liked being preached at, as the modern congregation 'enjoys' a good sermon, and were, therefore, almost equally immune against conversion. The conflicts of rival orators were regarded mainly as an entertainment. The speaker who was most likely to carry the voting (except when a great crisis had roused the Assembly to seriousness) was the one who found specious and apparently moral reasons for doing what would give the audience least trouble; and consequently one who, like Demosthenes, desired to stir them up to action and personal sacrifices, had always an uphill fight: and if he also at times 'deceived the people' or employed sophistical arguments in order to secure results which he believed to be for their good, we must remember the difficulty (which, in spite of the wide circulation of authentic information, is at least equally great at the present day) of putting the true reasons for or against a policy, before those who, whether from want of education or from lack of training in the subordination of feeling to thought, are not likely to understand or to listen to them. Nor, if we grant the genuineness of Demosthenes' conviction as to the desirability of the end for which he contended, can many statesmen be pointed out, who have not been at least as guilty as he in their choice of means. That he did not solve the problem, how to lead a democracy by wholly honest means, is the less to his discredit, in that the problem still remains unsolved.

It should be added that with an audience like the Athenian, whose aesthetic sensitiveness was doubtless far greater than that of any modern assembly, delivery counted for much. Aeschines' fine voice was a real danger to Demosthenes, and Demosthenes himself spoke of delivery, or the skilled acting of his part, as the all-important condition of an orator's success. But it is clear that this can have been no advantage from the standpoint of the public interest.

In the law-courts the drawbacks to which the commanding influence of oratory was liable were intensified. In the Assembly a certain amount of reticence and self- restraint was imposed by custom: an opponent could not be attacked by name or on purely personal grounds; and an appearance of impartiality was commonly assumed. But in the courts much greater play was allowed to feeling; and the arguments were often much more disingenuous, not only because the personal interests at stake made the speaker more unscrupulous, but also, perhaps, because the juries ordinarily included a larger proportion of the poorer, the idler, and the less- educated citizens than the Assembly. The legal question was often that to which the jury were encouraged to pay least attention, and the condemnation or acquittal of the accused was demanded upon grounds quite extraneous to the indictment. (The two court-speeches contained in these volumes afford abundant illustrations of this.) Personalities were freely admitted, of a kind which it is difficult to excuse and impossible to justify. To attempt to blacken the personal character of an opponent by false stories about his parentage and his youth, and by the ascription to him and his relations of nameless immoralities, is a very different thing from the assignment of wrong motives for his political actions, though even in purely political controversy the ancients far exceeded the utmost limits of modern invective. And this both Demosthenes and Aeschines do freely. There is also reason to suspect that some of the tales which each tells of the other's conduct, both while serving as ambassadors and on other occasions, may be fabrications. The descriptive passages for which such falsehoods gave an opening had doubtless their dramatic value in the oratorical performance: possibly they were even expected by the listeners; but their presence in the speeches does not increase our admiration either for the speaker or for his audience.

All the force of Demosthenes' oratory was unable to defeat the great antagonist of his country. To Philip of Macedon failure was an inconceivable idea. Resident during three impressionable years of his youth at Thebes, he had there learned, from the example of Epaminondas, what a single man could do: and he proceeded to each of the three great tasks of his life—the welding of the rough Macedonians into one great engine of war, the unification of Greece under his own leadership, and the preparation for the conquest of the East by a united Greece and Macedonia—without either faltering in face of difficulties, or hesitating, out of any scrupulosity, to use the most effective means towards the end which he wished at the moment to achieve; though in fact the charges of bad faith made against him by Demosthenes are found to be exaggerated, when they are impartially examined. Philip intended to become master of Greece: Demosthenes realized this early, and, with all the Hellenic detestation of a master, resolved to oppose him to the end. Philip was, indeed, in spite of the barbarous traits which revealed themselves in him at times, not only gracious and courteous by nature, but a sincere admirer of Hellenic—in other words, of Athenian—culture; the relations between his house and the people of Athens had generally been friendly; and there was little reason to suppose that, if he conquered Athens, he would treat her less handsomely than in fact he did. Yet this could not justify one who regarded freedom as Demosthenes regarded it, in making any concession not extorted by the necessities of the situation: his duty and his country's duty, as he conceived it, was to defeat the enemy of Hellenic independence or to fall in the attempt. Nor was it for him to consider (as Isocrates might) whether or no Philip's plans had now developed into, or could be transformed into, a beneficent scheme for the conquest of the barbarian world by a united Hellas, if the union was to be achieved at the price of Athenian liberty. It is because, in spite of errors and of the questionable methods to which he sometimes stooped, Demosthenes devoted himself unflinchingly to the cause of freedom, for Athens and for the Hellenes as a whole, that he is entitled, not merely as an orator but as a politician, to the admiration which posterity has generally accorded him. It is, above all, by the second part of his career, when his policy of antagonism to Philip had been accepted by the people, and he was no longer in opposition but, as it were, in office, that Demosthenes himself claims to be justified; and Aeschines' attempt to invalidate the claim is for the most part unconvincing.

It is not easy to describe in a few paragraphs the characteristics of Demosthenes as an orator. That he stands on the highest eminence that an orator has ever reached is generally admitted. But this is not to say that he was wholly free from faults. His contemporaries, as well as later Greek critics, were conscious of a certain artificiality in his eloquence. It was, indeed, the general custom of Athenian orators to prepare their speeches with great care: the speakers who, like Aeschines and Demades, were able to produce a great effect without preparation, and the rhetoricians who, like Alcidamas, thought of the studied oration as but a poor imitation of true eloquence, were only a small minority; and in general, not only was the arrangement of topics carefully planned, but the greatest attention was paid to the sound and rhythm of the sentences, and to the appropriateness and order of the words. The orator had also his collections of passages on themes which were likely to recur constantly, and of arguments on either side of many questions; and from these he selected such passages as he required, and adapted them to his particular purpose. The rhetorical teachers appear to have supplied their pupils with such collections; we find a number of instances of the repetition of the same passage in different speeches, and an abundance of arguments formed exactly on the model of the precepts contained in rhetorical handbooks.[10] Yet with all this art nothing was more necessary than that a speech should appear to be spontaneous and innocent of guile. There was a general mistrust of the 'clever speaker', who by study or rhetorical training had learned the art of arguing to any point, and making the worse cause appear the better. To have studied his part too carefully—even to have worked up illustrations from history and poetry—might expose the orator to suspicion.[11] Demosthenes, in spite of his frequent attempts to deprecate such suspicion, did not succeed wholly in keeping on the safe side. Aeschines describes him as a wizard and a sophist, who enjoyed deceiving the people or the jury. Another of his opponents levelled at him the taunt that his speeches 'smelt of the lamp'. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, one of the best of the ancient critics, says that the artificiality of Demosthenes and his master Isaeus was apt to excite suspicion, even when they had a good case. Nor can a modern reader altogether escape the same impression. Sometimes, especially in the earlier speeches to the Assembly, the argument seems unreal, the joints between the previously prepared commonplaces or illustrations and their application to the matter in hand are too visible, the language is artificially phrased, and wanting in spontaneity and ease. There are also parts of the court speeches in which the orator seems to have calculated out all the possible methods of meeting a particular case, and to be applying them in turn with more ingenuity than convincingness. An appearance of unreality also arises at times (again principally in the earlier speeches) from a certain want of imagination. He attributes feelings and motives to others, which they were really most unlikely to have entertained, and argues from them. Some of the sentiments which he expects Artaxerxes or Artemisia to feel (in the Speeches on the Naval Boards and for the Rhodians) were certainly not to be looked for in them. Similar misconceptions of the actual or possible sentiments of the Spartans appear in the Speech for the Megalopolitans, and of those of the Thebans in the Third Olynthiac (§ 15). The early orations against Philip also show some misunderstanding of his character. And if, in fact, Demosthenes lived his early years largely in solitary studiousness and was unsociable by disposition, this lack of a quick grasp of human nature and motives is quite intelligible. But this defect grew less conspicuous as his experience increased; and though even to the end there remained something of the sophist about him, as about all the disciples of the ancient rhetoric, the greatness of his best work is not seriously affected by this. For, in his greatest speeches, and in the greatest parts of nearly all his speeches, the orator is white-hot with genuine passion and earnestness; and all his study and preparation resulted, for the most part, not in an artificial product, but in the most convincing expression of his real feeling and belief; so that it was the man himself, and not the rhetorical practitioner that spoke.

The lighter virtues of the orator are not to be sought for in him. In gracefulness and humour he is deficient: his humour, indeed, generally takes the grim forms of irony and satire, or verges on personality and bad taste. Few of his sentences can be imagined to have been delivered with a smile; and something like ferocity is generally not far below the surface. Pathos is seldom in him unmixed with sterner qualities, and is usually lost in indignation. But of almost every other variety of tone he has a complete command. The essential parts of his reasoning (even when it is logically or morally defective) are couched, as a rule, in a forcible and cogent form;[12] and he has a striking power of close, sustained, and at the same time lucid argumentation. His matter is commonly disposed with such skill that each topic occurs where it will tell most powerfully; and while one portion of a speech affords relief to another (where relief is needed, and particularly in the longer orations) all alike bear on the main issue or strengthen the orator's position with his audience. Historical allusions are not (as they often are by Aeschines and Isocrates) enlarged out of proportion to their importance, but are limited to what is necessary, in order to illustrate the orator's point or drive his lesson home. Add to these qualities his combination of political idealism with absolute mastery of minute detail; the intensity of his appeal to the moral sense and patriotism of his hearers; the impressiveness of his denunciation of political wrong; the vividness of his narrative, the rapid succession of his impassioned phrases, and some part of the secret of his power will be explained. For the rest, while there is in his writing every degree of fullness or brevity, there is no waste of words, no 'fine language' out of place. His language, indeed, is ordinarily simple—sometimes even colloquial; though in the arrangement of his words in their most telling order he shows consummate art, and his metaphors are often bold and sometimes even violent. In the use of the 'figures of speech' he excels; above all, in the use of antitheses (whether for the purpose of vivid contrast or of precise logical expression), and of the rhetorical question, used now in indignation, now in irony, now in triumphant conclusion of an argument: and at times there are master-strokes of genius, which defy all analysis, such as the great appeal to the men of Marathon in the Speech on the Crown.[13] He does not as a rule (and this is particularly true of the Speech on the Crown) cover the whole of the ground with the same adequacy; but so concentrates all his forces upon certain points as to be irresistible, and thus 'with thunder and lightning confounds'[14] the orators who oppose him. It is no wonder that some of the greatest of English orators, and notably of those of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, borrow from him not only words and phrases, but inspiration and confidence in their cause, and look upon him as a model whom they may emulate, but cannot excel.


  1. See Introduction to First Philippic.
  2. 2.0 2.1 See notes on Speech for the Megalopolitans.
  3. See note on Speech on the Crown, § 140.
  4. See Speech on the Crown, §§ 170 ff.
  5. See Zimmern, The Greek Commonwealth, pp. 159 ff., for an excellent short account of the constitution and functions of the Council. That the councillors themselves sat (for administrative purposes) in relays, changing ten times a year, was also against continuity.
  6. See Speech on Embassy, § 2 n.
  7. See Introduction to Speech on Naval Boards, and Philippic I, §§ 36, 37.
  8. See Zimmern, The Greek Commonwealth, p. 205.
  9. See Zimmern, The Greek Commonwealth, p. 205.
  10. The 'Art' of Anaximenes is an interesting extant example of a fourth- century handbook for practical orators. The Rhetoric of Aristotle stands on a higher plane, but probably follows the lines laid down by custom in the rhetorical schools.
  11. See Speech on Embassy, § 246, and note.
  12. He is especially fond of the dilemma, which is not indeed cogent in strict logic, but is peculiarly telling and effective in producing conviction in large audiences.
  13. See [Longinus] 'On the Sublime', especially chap, xvi-xviii (English translation by A. O. Prickard in this series). This treatise should be read by all students of Demosthenes, especially chap. xii, xvi-xviii, xxxii, xxxiv, xxxix.
  14. 'On the Sublime', chap. xxxiv.