Page images



By N. Cleaveland, Esq. Newbury, Mass.

In tracing the history of Eloquence, we are struck with the remarkable fact, that its earliest annals are also those of its most signal triumphs. In that age of wonders, when Athens burst upon the world in all the splendor of her literature, her arts, and arms, Eloquence was born. Like that most beautiful of the mythological fancies, the Goddess of Wisdom, it seems to have sprung at once to perfection, fullarmed and glorious. We know, indeed, that Greece abounded in orators, before the age of Demosthenes. But the earlier and ruder efforts of the art, like the impassioned talks of our own Aborigines, perished with ihe occasions that produced them. The eloquence of Pericles, indeed, was of a higher stamp. He seems to have been the first great orator of Greece and the world. But though we are told, and can believe, that “he thundered, and lightened, and shook all Greece," no authentic specimen of his powers remains. Of the Athenian orators immediately preceding, and cotemporary with Demosthenes, we shall make no mention here, dimmed as they were, and ever must be, by his incomparable splendor.

The superiority of Demosthenes, and his claim to rank as the greatest of orators, is universally admitted. His reputation, like that of Homer, than which it is only less ancient, may be considered as resting on an irnmovable basis. It is established by the admiration of his acute and fastidious countrymen-by the unbounded sway which he exerted over them--and by the dread with which he inspired their foes. Cicero, the all-accomplished orator, philosopher and statesman-Quintilian, the greatest of rhetoricians-and Longinus the ablest of critics-alike awarded to him the palm of unrivalled eloquence. Nor has the decision of antiquity been reversed by the moderns. Little as his sententious energy has been imitated, its vast superiority is conceded by all.

It may be interesting to examine, somewhat particularly, the character of that eloquence which has thus secured the suffrage of ages, and of nations ;-and the rather as the praises which have been lavished upon it, must have excited the curiosity, if not the skepticism of those, who have never read either original or translation,-or whose reading has been limited to a few short extracts in our school-books. Even among the educated men of our country, Demosthenes, for obvious reasons, is much less known than Cicero. Selected orations of the latter form a part of the preparatory course for college, while the former is scarcely studied, even in college. To read the Grecian orator in his own tongue, with a just appreciation and relish of his merits, requires a familiarity with the language, which comparatively few attain. The Greek of Demosthenes is by no means easy. The very excellencies of his style, its conciseness and idiomatic structure, render the acquisition a serious labor, even for those who have become familiar with other Greek authors. He has indeed been well translated. But few take an interest in translations, which was not first inspired by the originals. It must be remembered also, that the best translation is an imitation, rather than fac-similethat the Greek and English idioms are widely dissimilar—and that there are peculiarities in the style of Demosthenes, which render the transfer especially difficult. In view of these considerations, it may seem less strange, though not perhaps any less to be regretted, that the acknowledged Prince of orators should be so little known, and so imperfectly appreciated.

The grand characteristic of this great man is, undoubtedly, strength. “ His peculiar properties," says Longinus,“ specially vouchsafed to him by immediate dispensation of the Divinity, were unrivalled and unapproachable vigor and power.” It is perhaps more easy to perceive the fact, than to tell wherein the great strength of this intellectual Samson lay.

We may say, in the first place, that he was eminently argumentative. No orator can be named, who in this respect is more original, more ingenious, or more logical. In statement he is succinct and clear. His arrangement is perfect without the show of arrangement; and he is unerring in the sagacity with which he discovers his own strong points, and the weak ones of his adversary.


But his argumentation is never dry—it is never cold. His reasoning seems to proceed as much from the heart as from the head. He so intermingles his declamation with his argument, that it never appears to be declamation. Through the entire texture of his discourse, reason and passion, passion and reason, like warp and woof, are beautifully inter

Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say of this peculiar feature, that his argument is impussioned, and his declamation, logical. The profound, brilliant, impetuous flow of his eloquence is like that of some great river, when having escaped its rocky barriers, it has gained the gentler inclination of the alluvial plains ;--no longer chafed and frothy as among the hills, nor discolored yet by admixture with the sea - deep, clear, rapid, sparkling—it rolls along, a noble image of beauty, grandeur, and irresistible power.

His conciseness has already been named. This trait was carried by our orator to such an extreme, that some have even deemed it a fault. But this we would be slow to assert. It is unquestionably one great source of his power. Every thing is finished with consummate care. Every word is significant and apt; and that very place is assigned to each, which makes it most effective. Hence, indeed, arises no small part of the difficulty of transfusing his spirit and power into another language.

With that exquisite tact, which never forsakes him, he stops always at the precise point of greatest effect. Having made a bold or happy stroke, he passes on to his argument or inference. By no needless explanation-by no superfluous embellishment, does he endanger the effect, or incur the hazard of “ tearing his subject to tatters.” How unlike, in this respect, to most orators of modern times !

But nothing seems to have attracted the wonder and admiration of his readers so much, as that oblivion of self which is conspicuous on every page. It is to the Olynthiacs and Philippics that we now refer. In these immortal productions Demosthenes seems to be nothing ;-his subject—his causehis country-every thing. Widely different was the case with Cicero, whose elaborate pictures rarely failed to exhibit the orator himself, the most prominent figure in the foreground. While we follow the Grecian orator, we cease to wonder at his success. Such earnestness and sincerity; such all-absorbing, self-renouncing patriotism, exhibited with such force of argument, and such powers of appeal, could not but be resistless, for we cannot resist them ourselves. Once fairly in the stream, the torrent bears us on. We think not of stopping-we cannot stop if we would. Unreluciant captives, we surrender at discretion, and realize that it is exciting and delightful, thus to feel the influence of one master mind.

While still" our little barks attendant sail,
Pursue the triumph, and partake the gale.”


As yet we have contemplated the orator only as he is,speaking to us from the written page, and in a language, which by a sort of misnomer we call dead. But we shall have only an imperfect estimation of his power, until we have formed some adequate conception of what he was. We must cross the western and the midland oceans, must run up the stream of time two thousand years,—we must see the orator standing in the pride of his living power ; and on the very scene of his immortal triumphs. A native of the small island of Seriphus once reproached Themistocles with deriving his greatness from that of his country. “It may be so," was the reply, “ but thou ld'st no more have been renowned at Athens, than 1 at Seriphus.” The sentiment thus expressed is of universal application. Great talents may exist and be discoverable anywhere. But they can attain to the full measure of their greatness, only when Providence places them in a sphere of commensurate extent. Such a sphere, Demosthenes undoubtedly had.

It is well known that all the essential powers of the Athenian state were vested in the people. The government of Athens was to all intents an unmixed and unmitigated democracy. All matters, both of internal and external policy, all questions both of peace and war, were debated and decided in the popular assembly. The Athenians were a remarkable race ;-a people of ardent temperament-and clear and active intellect. Perhaps no other community of equal extent has ever existed, so polished, so universally literary. Accustomed to constant attendance on dramatic exhibitions,—that faultless drama, which to this day is the unrivalled model of simplicity and beauty; living in an age and land, in which the fine arts, history, poetry and eloquence were carried to the very zenith of perfection, the Athenians had become in all matters of taste and language, ingeniously acute, fastidiously critical. Prone to admiration, more prone to distrust ; passionately devoted to war and glory-still more devoted to pleasure and ease ; indolent, fickle, turbulent at home-when abroad, active, patient, brave; the Athenian character was a singular compound of good and evil. Such was the people whom Demosthenes addressed.

Let us enter their assembly. The place of meeting is an amphitheatre of vast extent. Its canopy is the open sky. In the rear, but high above them, towers the Acropolis, glorious with that architectural splendor, on whose crumbling relics we still gaze with the admiration of despair. Before them is the blue Ægean---their gallant navy riding by the shore, and in the distance, unconquered Salamis,' the scene of its early glory: On those stone-benches, are seated, within reach of a single speaker's eye and voice, an entire myriad of human beings,-met here on terms of perfect equality, to deliberate on the state of the nation. The civil and military power which they wield, is no other than that which once repelled the millions of Persia,—and which since, on a thousand hard-fought fields of intestine and of foreign war, has drawn around it all that sympathy which we naturally feel in brilliant success and unparalleled disaster. All feel it to be a scene of overwhelming interest. The moment is big with the fate of empires. On the decisions of the hour may depend the question, whether Athens shall longer be the eye of Greece, and glory of the world. Nay, more--freedom and slavery--national existence and national extinction may now be oscillating in the balance of Fate.

Philip of Macedon, an ambitious and able monarch, has long been aiming at the sovereignty of Greece. No means likely to effect his purpose have been left untried. One after another of the Grecian states has yielded to Macedonian arms, or arts, or gold. Athens alone was competent to resist the usurper. Moved by the threatening danger and the harangues of Demosthenes, more than once has she roused herself to action, and after checking the tyrant's career, sunk again into security. But intelligence has come of new and more alarming encroachments. Treaties have been violated; provinces overrun; cities in alliance conquered and

« PreviousContinue »