« PreviousContinue »
ART. VI.-Memoir of Tristam Burges; with Selections from his
Speeches and Occasional Writings. By Henry L. Bowen. Providence: 1835.
It is too well established and self-evident a proposition, that popular governments are alone auspicious to the cultivation of the art of public speaking, to require any comment or stress. At the same time it is unquestionable, that the condition of the free states of antiquity was more conducive to its highest excellence, than that of similar nations in modern days; and that the former were illustrated by more glorious efforts of eloquence, however their pre-eminence in other respects may be disputed, is a fact almost universally admitted. Milton and Tasso may stand undismayed in the presence of Homer and Virgil; Shakspeare may even command homage from Æschylus, and Euripides, and Sophocles, and Aristophanes; Hume, Robertson, and Gibbon, may be placed by the side of Thucydides, Livy, and Tacitus; the halo around the brows of Cæsar is not so dazzling as that which encircles the head of Napoleon; and the laurels which cluster about the memory of Epaminondas or Cincinnatus fade before the immortal verdure of those of our own Washington; but as yet the names of Demosthenes and of Cicero remain apart in unrivalled splendourstars of unequalled magnitude and effulgence in the firmament. None can contend with them for the palm of the loftiest species of oratory; not because the native power has been wanting to rise to their elevation, but because means of equal efficacy have not been afforded in furtherance of its exertions. The plant may have possessed as vigorous a root, but the dews have not been as refreshing—the sun has not been as genial.
The main cause of this circumstance is the pre-eminence which was assigned in ancient times to eloquence over every other pursuit. Not only did it open the sole civil road to political preferments and honours, but it was deemed the noblest achievement of human genius, and imparted the most enviable and glorious fame to him whose devotion to it was signalized by the greatest success. Emulation here was excited to the utmost pitch, for, if we may use the homely language of honest Sancho, both“ pudding and praise” were the sure rewards of it alone. The tongue was the sceptre with which Pericles swayed the destinies of his country, exhibiting an intellectual dominion over freemen more sublime, as has justly been observed, than any
which the proudest despot ever exerted over his slaves; and when Demosthenes spoke, all Greece crowded to hear him. Every other study, accordingly, was more or less subservient to that of eloquence. All other attainments both, in literature and philosophy, were valued mostly as the means of reaching perfection in the
master art. By its aid alone could they be rendered available to the full extent of ambition. Through it alone could the mass be universally influenced. The press was not then at hand to lend its assistance in disseminating throughout the community the thoughts and the feelings of every one who chose to record them on paper. Written literature had little or no bearing upon the public. Manuscripts must have been too costly to be possessed in any material degree by the poorer classes of the state, who then formed its controlling power. The outpourings of the mind were thus forced into the channel of eloquence, which, swollen by all the tributary streams that gushed from the common source, rolled along in a current, “ deep, majestic, full, and strong," fertilizing and vivifying the soil over which it now flowed, now rushed—although at times also, it must be acknowledged, bursting its proper barriers, and causing wide-spread devastation and ruin.
To the press, undoubtedly, is the decline of the estimation and the perfection of eloquence to be in some measure ascribed. The facilities which it affords for the diffusion of ideas, and operating upon the public mind at large, in every variety of mode, necessarily affects the value of public speaking, as far as those objects are concerned. A discourse can be heard by those alone who are assembled at the spot where it is pronounced—a volume may be read simultaneously throughout the civilized world. At the same time, this circumstance has materially conduced to the formation of audiences very different from those of antiquity; and the predominant influence of the character of the audience upon that of the speaker, has been testified by both Demosthenes and Cicero themselves. What a contrast, indeed, between the assemblies that hung upon the accents of those almost inspired men, and the congregations to whom the words of modern orators are addressed! The public harangues, with the exception of the drama, were the only intellectual food upon which the people could gratify their craving after knowledge-a prominent trait in the character, at least of the Athenians. To their assemblies they flocked with eagerness, not because it was a matter of duty or necessity, but because they were there provided with a repast in which they took the highest delight. As they frequented them for the purpose of receiving information, their minds were open to every word of the orator, by which the most potent stimulus at the moment was given to his efforts the probability of accomplishing the immediate object in view, that of infusing his own soul into his audience, and directing them at will. By the constant habit, also, of listening, con amore, to speeches, they had rendered themselves peculiarly alive to the beauties of eloquence, so as to be almost entitled to the appellation of assemblages of trained critics; the consequence of which was, that they could only be addressed
in polished and elegant phrase. Vulgarity of style would have fared no better at their hands, than it would fare at the present day, with an audience composed of Edinburgh reviewers, collected for the very purpose of criticism. The orator had to do with ears which Cicero terms teretes et religiosas ; and however pointed the anecdote may be, of Phocion's asking what foolish thing he had said when his auditors applauded, it is not equally calculated to convey a just idea. If nonsense could only have elicited the applause of the Athenians, Demosthenes and Æschines would certainly not have been their favourite orators; and Phocion himself would have disdained to speak to them, or at least have endeavoured to utter more foolish things than he did.
Such was the description of persons for whom Demosthenes poured forth his breathing thoughts and burning words; and such, to a certain extent, were those to whom Tully discoursed ore rotundo. But what now, we may ask with Marmontel, “What now, in these modern times, are the functions and the sphere of popular eloquence? Where is the country in which, when a question is to be agitated of peace or war, or the election of a magistrate, or the choice of a general for the army, a citizen may exercise the right which he possessed at Rome, of asking an audience of the people, and giving his opinion? Where is the city in which, on the occasion of every public and important event, the senate and the people are assembled as at Athens; or where the tribune is open to any one who chooses to ascend it, and where a crier is heard demanding with a loud voice, what citizen above fifty years of age wishes to harangue the people, and what other citizens wish to speak in their turn?!” No such inspiring circumstances now-a-days. The very aspect of the most important of our modern audiences is enough to chill the genial current of a speaker's soul in the very outset. It requires almost as much fortitude as the old poet deemed indispensable for the man who first dared to encounter the perils of the main, to bear up against the dispiriting influence of the spectacle presented by a legislative assemblage, in this happy land especially. It is much worse in the United States than in England, for there, if an orator is permitted to proceed for awhile in his discourse, he may enjoy the consolatory reflection, that at all events he is not a very great bore, or else he would have been coughed down; and every now and then, perhaps, a cheer from some quarter of the House may inspire the fond hope that he is not altogether wasting the sweetness of his eloquence. But in our rendezvous of talkers, commonly called Congress, when a speaker sees his audience engaged in every other way than listening to his accents; when he beholds a portion in one direction amusing themselves in familiar converse, others conning over newspapers or books, and the rest inditing epistles, or packing up and sending reports and divers other parVOL. XVII.—NO. 34.
liamentary documents to their constituents; when he surveys such a scene as this, what doggedness of resolution, what fondness for hearing the music of his own voice, are not requisite to enable him to prosecute his oratorical journey to the end? These indeed would scarcely be sufficient for the purpose, were there not another stimulus by which his tongue and his patience are rendered inexhaustible—the reflection, that although his words are falling lifeless upon the ears of his ostensible audience, they will be heard and devoured by other and real auditors in that angulus terræ, dearer to him than all the rest of the world, that chosen spot where all his hopes are centered—the district in which dwell his constituents. It is to them that the speech is addressed, as much as to the surrounding crowd; and we ask, what can be more prejudicial to genuine eloquence than such a state of things ? How can a speaker achieve the highest triumph of eloquence, the persuasion of his hearers, when his mind is distracted between two sets of auditors, of a very different character, who are to be operated upon in very different modes! The one is to be affected by the spoken, the other by the written discourse; the first fatigued by a perpetual recurrence of words of mouth, involved in a multiplicity of business, careless or restless, with their minds already complácently made up about the matter in discussion, and not to be changed but by super-human efforts, and desiring brevity in the extreme; the other, reading for the most part scarcely any other discourses than those of its representative, doing this at leisure and with the kindliest feelings towards the author, better satisfied the more he gives them, and not at all exorbitant with regard to cogency of logic or beauty of rhetoric. To adapt a discourse to both is impossible.
The main reason, however, why eloquence does not reach its highest elevation in the United States, where so ample a theatre is provided for its efforts, is the want of due training and cultivation in its professors. When we advert to the assiduous manner in which the ancient orators prepared themselves for their function; the knowledge which they deemed it indispensable to possess for its adequate exercise; the private practice of declaiming to which they resorted, before venturing upon a public harangue; the intellectual armour, in short, in which they had encased themselves, and the dexterity they had acquired in the management of their oratorical weapons, previous to entering the lists, so as to be equally prepared for attack or defence—when we contemplate Demosthenes at midnight, in his solitary cave, forging, if we may so speak, those thunderbolts which were to “ fulmine o'er Greece” and the world; or, with a pebble in his mouth, to overcome a physical defect, haranguing on the sea-side the boisterous waves, fit emblems of those popular billows which he was afterwards to agitate from their inmost depths, and control with a trident as
powerful as that of Neptune, and to whose turbulence he was thus habituating himself by anticipation—when we see Cicero, after years of indefatigable study at home, repairing to Greece to imbibe at the fountain-head the knowledge which he coveted, and so employing himself there as to excite the sorrow of his Attic preceptor, by the evidence which he afforded that on his return he would complete the Roman triumph, by robbing her prostrate rival of even her intellectual pre-eminence—when we reflect upon all this, and regard the mode in which our speakers of the present day qualify themselves for the functions which they attempt to discharge, we cannot be surprised at the difference which strikes us, between the eloquence of the ancient and modern republics.
The greatest British orators, likewise, have all been among the first scholars of their day. Chatham, Pitt, Burke, Fox, Sheridan, Erskine, Wyndham, Canning, Mackintosh, were all men of whose attainments any university might be proud-minds of the most refined and comprehensive culture. The same may be said of the living speakers in Parliament of the highest eminence; Grey, Brougham, Peel, Burdett, Stanley, Macauley, Grant-to all of them the ample page of knowledge, filled with the richest spoils of time, had been unfolded, before they presumed to communicate instruction.
We suppose it would be supererogation to attempt to prove that this discipline, of which we have spoken, is indispensable for the attainment of excellence in eloquence, as in every thing else; and that he who possesses the fullest and best arranged mind in general, will be most able to give due effect to “ that art or talent by which a discourse is adapted to its end.” When Horace observed that
“ Cui lecta potenter erit res, Nec facundia deseret hunc, nec lucidus ordo," he did not mean that a mere exclusive study of a particular theme is sufficient for the effects which he describes, but that they would be the results of a powerful knowledge of it—in other words, a mastery of it in all its bearings. And this cannot be obtained by the former species of study. So nicely linked are the various branches of human knowledge, that he who contents himself with such a practice, will possess but a very superficial and partial acquaintance with his subject, and may often run the risk of being shipwrecked in the very harbour." It was on this account that the ancient writers on eloquence, judging from the examples which they had before their eyes, insisted upon that almost impossible combination for the accomplishment of a consummate orator, which it would seem to demand as much of intellectual force to effect, as would be required of physical power to hurl the rock of Diomed, of which, now-a-days, "not two strong men the enormous weight could raise.” But because all cannot be achieved,