Essay 13


by David Hume

The revolutions and periods in human history are full of variety and surprize in the manners, customs, and opinions.

Civil history has more uniformity than the history of learning and science. The wars, negotiations, and politics of one age resemble more those of another, than the taste, wit, and speculative principles.

Interest and ambition, honour and shame, friendship and enmity, gratitude and revenge, are the prime movers in all public transactions. These passions are very stubborn compared to the common feelings which are easily varied by education and example.

Nations are so widely different. The Goths were far inferior to the Romans, in taste and science, than in courage and virtue.

This later period of human learning is of an opposite character to the ancient. We are superior in philosophy, but much inferior in eloquence. In ancient times, public speaking was thought to require the greatest skill. Some great poets or philosophers did not even have the talent for public speaking.

Greece and Rome each produced but one accomplished orator. Whatever praises the other celebrated speakers might merit, they were still esteemed much inferior to these great models of eloquence.

The ancient critics could scarcely find two orators in any age, who were of the same rank and merit as Caelius, Curio, Hortensius, and Caesar. But the greatest of that age was inferior to Cicero, the most eloquent speaker in Rome. Cicero and Demosthenes were dissatisfied with their own performances.

Of all the polite and learned nations, England alone has a popular government, and an eloquent legislature.

The monuments of their genius are found in our histories. But they seem to have not taken the pains to preserve their speeches. Their authority was due to their experience, wisdom, or power, more than to their talents for oratory.

At present, there are over six speakers in the two houses who are eloquent. No man pretends to give any one the preference above the rest. To me, this is proof:

  • that they are mediocre in their art, and
  • that the species of eloquence which they aspire to can be reached by ordinary talents and a slight application.

A hundred cabinet-makers in London can work a table or a chair equally well. But no one poet can write verses with such spirit and elegance as Mr. Pope. When Demosthenes pleaded, all the ingenious men flocked to Athens from the most remote parts of Greece to see such a spectacle. At London, you may see men sauntering in the court of requests, while the most important debate is ongoing.

People prefer their dinners that to listen to the eloquence of our most celebrated speakers. People were more curious about the actions of old Cibber than about our prime minister defending himself from impeachment. A person, unacquainted with the noble remains of ancient orators, may judge from a few strokes that the style of their eloquence was infinitely more sublime than that aimed at by modern orators.

Demosthenes was so much celebrated by Quintilian and Longinus for using an Apostrophe when justifying the unsuccessful battle of Chæronea. He breaks out:

No, my Fellow-Citizens, No: You have not erred. I swear by the manes of those heroes, who fought for the same cause in the plains of Marathon and Platæa.

It would be absurd for our temperate and calm speakers to use the same technique.

Cicero employs a bold and poetical figure to describe, in the most tragical terms, the crucifixion of a Roman citizen.

Should I paint the horrors of this scene, not to Roman citizens, not to the allies of our state, not to those who have ever heard of the Roman Name, not even to men, but to brute-creatures; or, to go farther, should I lift up my voice in the most desolate solitude, to the rocks and mountains, yet should I surely see those rude and inanimate parts of nature moved with horror and indignation at the recital of so enormous an action.

Such a sentence must be surrounded with a blaze of eloquence for it to make any impression on the hearers. A noble art and sublime talents are requisite to arrive, by just degrees, at so bold and excessive sentiment in order to inflame the audience and conceal, under a torrent of eloquence, its artifice!

This sentiment might appear to us as excessive. But it will give us an idea of the stile of ancient eloquence, where such swelling expressions were not rejected as wholly monstrous and gigantic.cto this vehemence of thought and expression, was the vehemence of action, observed in the ancient orators.

The supplosio pedis, or stamping with the foot, was one of the most usual and moderate gestures they used. Now, it is seen as too violent for the senate, bar, or pulpit. It is only admitted into the theatre.

The genius of mankind at all times is, perhaps, equal. The moderns have applied themselves, with great industry and success, to all the other arts and sciences. A learned nation has a democratic government which is requisite for the full display of these noble talents.

But despite these advantages, our progress in eloquence is very inconsiderable, comparied to our other advances in other parts of learning. Ancient eloquence is unsuitable to our age.

The Decline in Oration was caused by the complexity of modern laws

During the flourishing period of ancient Greek and Roman learning, the municipal laws were few and simple. The legal judgements were left to the common sense of the judges. The study of the laws was not then a laborious occupation. The great Roman statesmen and generals were all lawyers. Cicero, to show its ease, declared that he could learn law in a few days to make himself a complete civilian.

A pleader who addresses his judges has more room to display his eloquence, than if he must draw his arguments from strict laws. In the former case, many circumstances must be taken in; many personal considerations regarded; and even favour and inclination, which it belongs to the orator, by his art and eloquence, to conciliate, may be disguised under the appearance of equity.

But how shall a modern lawyer have leisure to quit his toilsome occupations in order to gather the flowers of Parnassus?

Or what opportunity shall he have of displaying them, amidst the rigid and subtile arguments, objections, and replies, which he is obliged to make use of? The greatest genius and orator who pleads before the Chancellor, after a month’s study of the laws, would only make a fool of himself. This multiplicity and intricacy of laws is a discouragement to eloquence in modern times.

But this will not entirely account for the decline of oration. It may banish oratory from Westminster-Hall, but not from parliament. Among the Athenians, the Areopagites expressly forbade eloquence. Some have pretended that in the Greek orations, written in the judiciary form, there is not so bold and rhetorical a stile, as appears in the Roman.

But to what extend did the Athenians use the deliberative kind of eloquence?

Disputes of this nature:

  • elevate the genius above all others, and
  • give the fullest scope to eloquence.

Such disputes are very frequent in Great Britain. People say that the decline of eloquence is due to the superior good sense of the moderns who reject with disdain all those rhetorical tricks, employed to seduce the judges, and will admit of nothing but solid argument in any debate or deliberation.

If a man were accused of murder, the fact must be proved by witnesses and evidence. The laws will afterwards determine the punishment. It would be ridiculous:

  • to describe the horror and cruelty of the action
  • to throw themselves at the feet of the judges imploring justice with tears
  • to employ a picture representing the bloody deed, in order to move the judges by the display of so tragical a spectacle

This artifice was sometimes practised by the pleaders of old. Now, banish the pathetic from public discourses, and you reduce the speakers merely to modern eloquence which is good sense, delivered in proper expression.

Our modern customs, or our superior good sense, should make our orators more cautious than the ancient, in attempting to inflame the passions of their audience. But, I see no reason, why it should make them fail at it. It should make them redouble their art, and not abandon it entirely.

The ancient orators were on their guard against this jealousy of their audience. But they took a different way of eluding it by getting rid of the sublime and pathetic. This left their hearers no leisure to perceive the artifice that deceived them. In reality, they were not deceived by any artifice, but by feelings.

Orators convince minds by transmitting their feeling to the audience

The orator, by the force of his own genius and eloquence, first inflamed himself with anger, indignation, pity, and sorrow. He then communicated those feelings to his audience. Julius Cæsar had a lot of good sense. But Cicero used the charms of eloquence to absolve a criminal whom Cæsar was determined to condemn.

He is too florid and rhetorical: His figures are too striking and palpable: The divisions of his discourse are drawn chiefly from the rules of the schools: And his wit disdains not always the artifice even of a pun, rhyme, or jingle of words.

The Greek orator addressed himself to an audience much less refined than the Roman senate or judges. The lowest vulgar of Athens were his sovereigns, and the arbiters of his eloquence. Yet is his manner more chaste and austere than that of the other. Could it be copied, it would be more successful over a modern assembly.

It is rapid harmony, exactly adjusted to the sense: It is vehement reasoning, without any appearance of art: It is disdain, anger, boldness, freedom, involved in a continued stream of argument:

Of all human productions, the orations of Demosthenes are the nearest to perfection. The disorders of the ancient governments and the enormous crimes its citizens might have enabled eloquence in their times than in the modern. If there were no Verres or Catiline, there would be no Cicero.

But this is wrong. We can find a Philip in modern times, but where is his Demosthenes? They will then blame the lack of genius in our speakers. A few successful attempts at eloquence might rouse the genius in our nation. There is certainly something accidental in the first rise and progress of the arts in any nation.

The Genesis of Societies is Important in Setting the Dominant Art

I doubt whether a very satisfactory reason can be given, why ancient Rome, though it received all its refinements from Greece, could attain only to a relish for statuary, painting and architecture, without reaching the practice of these arts.

Modern Rome has been excited by the ruins of Roman antiquity and has produced artists of the greatest eminence and distinction. British eloquence might have evolved similarly had such a cultivated genius for oratory, as Waller’s for poetry, arisen during the civil wars. At that time, liberty began to be established and popular assemblies entered into government.

Our orators would then have done honour to their country, as well as our poets, geometers, and philosophers, and British Ciceros have appeared, as well as British Archimedeses and Virgils.

A false taste in poetry or eloquence commonly prevails merely from ignorance of the true, and from the lack of perfect models.. When these appear, they universally are favoured because of their natural and powerful charms.

The principles of every passion and sentiment is in every man. When touched properly by a work of genius, they rise to life, warm the heart, and convey a satisfaction different from works of capricious wit and fancy.

If this is true with the liberal arts, then it must be true for eloquence. Both the general public and men of science and erudition can judge who is the greatest orator. Shallow people might see the indifferent speaker as perfect. Yet, whenever the true genius arises, he draws to him everyone’s attention and immediately appears superior to his rival.

The sublime and passionate version of ancient eloquence is of a much juster taste than the modern which is argumentative and rational. If properly executed, it will always have more command over mankind. We are satisfied with our mediocrity, because we have had no experience of anything better.

But the ancients had experience of both. I think that our modern eloquence is of the same style as Attic eloquence. It is calm, elegant, and subtile. It instructed the reason more than it affected the passions, and never raised its tone above argument or common discourse.

Such was the eloquence of Lysias among the Athenians, and of Calvus among the Romans. But they were eclipsed by Demosthenes and Cicero possessed the same elegance, subtilty, and force of argument. But they threw the pathetic and sublime, on proper occasions, into their discourse. This let them command their audience.

In England:

  • we rarely have that kind of eloquence in our public speakers
  • we have some examples of such eloquence in our writers who try to revive the ancient eloquence.

Lord Bolingbroke’s works have defects in argument, method, and precision. But they have a force and energy which our orators scarcely ever aim at, even if such an elevated style:

  • has much better grace in a speaker than in a writer, and
  • is assured of more prompt and more astonishing success.

It is there seconded by the graces of voice and action. The movements are mutually communicated between the orator and the audience. The very aspect of a large assembly, attentive to the discourse of one man, must inspire him with a peculiar elevation, sufficient to give a propriety to° the strongest figures and expressions.

There is a great prejudice against set speeches. A man is ridiculed if he:

  • repeats a discourse as a school-boy does his lesson, and
  • takes no notice of what has been advanced in the course of the debate.

But where is the necessity of falling into this absurdity? A public speaker must know beforehand the question under debate. He may compose all the arguments, objections, and answers, such as he thinks will be most proper for his discourse.

If anything new occurs, he may supply it from his invention. Nor will the difference be very apparent between his elaborate and his extemporary compositions. The mind naturally continues with the same impetus or force, which it has acquired by its motion; as a vessel, once impelled by the oars, carries on its course for some time, when the original impulse is suspended.shall conclude this subject with observing, that, even though our modern orators should not elevate their stile or aspire to a rivalship with the ancient.

Yet is there, in most of their speeches, a material defect, which they might correct, without departing from that composed air of argument and reasoning, to which they limit their ambition.

Their great affectation of extemporary discourses has made them reject all order and method, which seems so requisite to argument, and without which it is scarcely possible to produce an entire conviction on the mind. It is not, that one would recommend many divisions in a public discourse, unless the subject very evidently offer them.

But it is easy, without this formality, to observe a method, and make that method conspicuous to the hearers, who will be infinitely pleased to see the arguments rise naturally from one another, and will retain a more thorough persuasion, than can arise from the strongest reasons, which are thrown together in confusion.