« AnteriorContinuar »
been cut off from all intercourse with his species, that now that he is restored to it he has no longer powers to enjoy it.
Thank God! the system of lettres de cachet is no more! it never can revive again. It is true that I am not a fellow-countryman to this people, among whom it has so long existed: but, at all events, I am bound to them as a fellow-creature ; and no one with a human heart within his breast can fail to rejoice at the annihilation of so dreadful an engine of secret and silent tyranny.
242.-ON THE ATHENIAN ORATORS.
[THE following is an extract from an article which appeared in • Knights Quarterly Magazine’some twenty-five years ago. We trace in it the same antithetical style, and the same affluence of illustration, which distinguish the productions of one of the most brilliant writers and speakers of our age.]
It may be doubted whether any compositions which have ever been produced in the world are equally perfect in their kind with the great Athenian orations. Genius is subject to the same laws which regulate the production of corn and molasses. The supply adjusts itself to the demand. The quantity may be diminished by restrictions, and multiplied by bounties. The singular excellence to which eloquence attained at Athens is to be mainly attributed to the influence which it exerted there. In turbulent times, under a constitution purely democratic, among a people educated exactly to that point at which men are most susceptible of strong and sudden impressions, acute, but not sound reasoners, warm in their feelings, unfixed in their principles, and passionate admirers of fine composition, oratory received such encouragement as it has never since obtained.
The taste and knowledge of the Athenian people was a favourite object of the contemptuous derision of Samuel Johnson; a man who knew nothing of Greek literature beyond the common school-books, and who seems to have brought to what he had read, scarcely more than the discernment of a common schoolboy. He used to assert with that arrogant absurdity which, in spite of his great abilities and virtues, renders him, perhaps, the most ridiculous character in literary history, that Demosthenes spoke to a people of brutes ;-to a barbarous people;that there could have been no civilization before the invention of printing. Johnson was a keen, but a very narrow-minded, observer of mankind. He perpetually confounded their general nature with their particular circumstances. He knew London intimately. The sagacity of his remarks on its society is perfectly astonishing. But Fleet Street was the world to him. He saw that Londoners, who did not read, were profoundly ignorant; and he inferred that a Greek, who had few or no books, must have been as uninformed as one of Mr. Thrale's draymen.
There seems to be, on the contrary, every reason to believe that, in general intelligence, the Athenian populace far surpassed the lower orders of any community that has ever existed. It must be considered, that to be a citizen was to be a legislator—a soldier—a judge—one upon whose voice might depend the fate of the wealthiest tributary state, of the most eminent public man. The lowest offices, both of agriculture and of trade, were, in common, performed by slaves. The commonwealth supplied its meanest members with the support of life, the opportunity of leisure, and the means of amusement. Books were indeed few, but they were excellent, and they were accurately known. It is not by turning over libraries, but by repeatedly perusing and intently contemplating a few great models, that the mind is best disciplined. A man of letters must now read much that he soon forgets, and much from which he learns nothing worthy to be remembered. The best works employ, in general, but a small portion of his time. Demosthenes is said to have transcribed, six times, the History of Thucydides. If he had been a young politician of the present age, he might, in the same space of time, have skimmed innumerable
and pamphlets. I do not condemn that desultory mode of study which the state of things, in our day, renders a matter of necessity. But I may be allowed to doubt whether the changes, on which the admirers of modern institutions delight to dwell, have improved our condition so much in reality as in appearance. Rumford, it is said, proposed to the Elector of Bavaria a scheme for feeding his soldiers at a much cheaper rate than formerly. His plan was simply to compel them to masticate their food thoroughly. A small quantity, thus eaten, would, according to that famous projector, afford more sustenance than a large meal hastily devoured. I do not know how Rumford's proposition was received ; but, to the mind, I believe, it will be found more nutritious to digest a page than to devour a volume.
Books, however, were the least part of the education of an Athenian citizen. Let us, for a moment, transport ourselves, in thought, to that glorious city. Let us imagine that we are entering its gates, in the time of its power and glory. A crowd is assembled round a portico. All are gazing with delight at the entablature, for Phidias is putting up the frieze. We turn into another street; a rhapsodist is reciting there; men, women, children, are thronging round him: the tears are running down their cheeks; their eyes are fixed; their very breath is still; for he is telling how Priam fell at the feet of Achilles, and kissed those hands—the terrible—the murderous—which had slain so many of his sons. We enter the public place; there is a ring of youths, all leaning forward, with sparkling eyes, and gestures of expectation. Socrates is pitted against the famous Atheist, from Ionia, and has just brought him to a contradiction in terms. But we are in terrupted. The herald is crying—“ Room for the Prytanes.” The general assembly is to meet. The people are swarming in on every side. Proclamation is made——" Who wishes to speak.” There is a shout, and a clapping of hands: Pericles is mounting the stand. Then for a play of Sophocles; and away to sup with Aspasia. I know of no modern university which has so excellent a system of education.
Knowledge thus acquired, and opinions thus formed, were, indeed, likely to be, in some respects, defective. Propositions, which are advanced in discourse, generally result from a partial view of the question, and cannot be kept under examination long enough to be corrected. Men of great conversational powers almost universally practise à sort of lively sophistry and exaggeration, which deceives, for the moment, both themselves and their auditors. Thus, we see doctrines, which cannot bear a close inspection, triumph perpetually in drawingrooms, in debating societies, and even in legislative or judicial assemblies. To the conversational education of the A nians, I am inclined to attribute the great looseness of reasoning, which is remarkable in most of their scientific writings. Even the most illogical of modern writers would stand perfectly aghast at the puerile fallacies which seem to have deluded some of the greatest men of antiquity. But the very circumstances which retarded the growth of science were peculiarly favourable to the cultivation of eloquence. From the early habit of taking a share in animated discussion, the intelligent student would derive that readiness of resource, that copiousness of language, and that knowledge of the temper and understanding of an audience, which are far more valuable to an orator than the greatest logical powers.
Horace has prettily compared poems to those paintings of which the effect varies as the spectator changes his stand. The same remark applies with at least equal justice to speeches. They must be read with the temper of those to whom they were addressed, or they must necessarily appear to offend against the laws of taste and reason; as the finest picture, seen in a light different from that for which it was designed, will appear fit only for a sign. This is perpetually forgotten by those who criticise oratory. Because they are reading at leisure, pausing at every line, reconsidering every argument, they forget that the hearers were hurried from point to point too rapidly to detect the fallacies through which they were conducted ; that they had no time to disentangle sophisms, or to notice slight inaccuracies of expression; that elaborate excellence, either of reasoning or of language, would have been absolutely thrown away. To recur to the analogy of the sister art, these connoisseurs examine a panorama through a microscope, and quarrel with a scene-painter because he does not give to his work the exquisite finish of Gerard Dow.
Oratory is to be estimated on principles different from those which are applied to other productions. Truth is the object of philosophy and history. Truth is the object even of those works which are peculiarly called works of fiction, but which, in fact, bear the same relation to history which algebra bears to arithmetic. The merit of poetry, in its wildest forms, still consists in its truth-truth conveyed to the understanding, not directly by the words, but circuitously by means of imaginative associations, which serve as its conductors. The object of oratory
alone is not truth, but persuasion. The admiration of the multitude does not make Moore a greater poet than Coleridge, or Beattie a greater philosopher than Berkeley. But the criterion of eloquence is different. A speaker, who exhausts the whole philosophy of a question, who displays every grace of style, yet produces no effect on his audience, may be a great essayist, a great statesman, a great master of composition,
but he is not an orator. If he miss the mark, it makes no difference whether he have taken aim too high or too low.
The effect of the great freedom of the press in England has been, in a great measure, to destroy this distinction, and to leave among us little of what I call Oratory Proper. Our legislators, our candidates, on great occasions even our advocates, address themselves less to the audience than to the reporters. They think less of the few hearers than of the innumerable readers. At Athens the case was different; there the only object of the speaker was immediate conviction and persuasion. He, therefore, who would justly appreciate the merit of the Grecian orators should place himself, as nearly as possible, in the situation of their auditors : he should divest himself of his modern feelings and acquirements, and make the prejudices and interests of the Athenian citizens his own. He who studies their works in this spirit will find that many of those things which, to an English reader, appear to be blemishes—the frequent violation of those excellent rules of evidence, by which our courts of law are regulated—the introduction of extraneous matter—the reference to considerations of political expediency in judicial investigations—the assertions, without proof—the passionate entreaties--the furious invectives-are really proofs of the prudence and address of the speakers. He must not dwell maliciously on arguments or phrases; but acquiesce in his first impressions. It requires repeated perusal and retlection to decide rightly on any other portion of literature. But, with respect to works of which the merit depends on their instantaneous effect, the most hasty judgment is likely to be best.
.243.—THE BATTLE OF THE NILE.
SOUTHEY. [ROBERT SOUTHEY, one of the most voluminous writers in our language, was born at Bristol in 1774. He died at Keswick in 1843. He was educated at Westminster, and at Balliol College, Oxford. Of an enthusiastic temperament, he had the misfortune, with the strictest honesty of purpose and with undoubted sincerity, to commence life with extreme democratic principles, and, after many ebullitions of wild