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IN PRAISE OF ELOQUENCE
should have more of a sense of shame, most distinguished gentlemen and choice young men, in speaking of eloquence while being almost unskilled in oratory, if her great majesty were not so combined with such beauty that, in the manner of an immortal goddess, she readily compels all men to admire her, even if she bestows her full store upon nobody. For if Antonius, that man of keen wit, spoke the truth when he said that he had encountered many learned men, but none who was truly eloquent, with the result that being eloquent is scarcely conceded even to a god, then this endeavor of mine ought not only to be free of all suspicion of rashness, but even should be approved, if I am so earthbound that I cannot even look up at it, but nevertheless consider it worthy of all reverence. Therefore, just as a man who has never learned to paint can form an opinion about what is good and bad in pictures and statues by some inarticulate intuition, unassisted by any skill or understanding, or if I myself, who have never seen a ship or the ocean, can conceive a mental idea of the appearance of a ship, and of the sea, and can describe troubled waves and calms not without a certain ability, thus this entire speech of mine delivered in praise of eloquence will be nothing other than an appraisal, which I hope will not be inept, but of an art that does not belong to me. In which business, just as those who occupy themselves in the preparation of maps conceal all the details that elude their understanding on the edges and advise the reader in the margin that far-flung regions burn with excessive heat or cold, or are parched sandbanks, or the inaccessible Caucasus, or some frozen sea, so, most gentle listeners, I must ask you that, if much that belongs to the complete praising of oratory is not comprehended within this my map, you must consider that these things are difficult, sublime, abstruse, and lying without the scope of human reach.
2. Thus I am of the opinion that in this science, which should be, and be thought to be, mistress and queen over the others, there should be three paramount ingredients: utility, pleasure, and dignity. For what faculty can be more useful than eloquence? I shall not speak of how in the beginning the human race, scattered through mountains and forests, bewitched by the speech of eloquent men, enclosed itself within towns and walls; but now that cities have been founded, what force is more conspicuous in their maintenance? For what sea do you imagine has such upheavals, such dangerous commotions of waves, as civic society has its disturbances and great surges? In the settling of such storms the speech of the eloquent man is so instrumental that Neptune with his trident cannot calm the swollen sea as much as the orator can pacify a sedition-troubled state by means of his moderation. For who can frame laws more wholesomely? Who can undertake embassies more prudently? Who can tend the state’s wounds more artfully? Who can more quickly quench the fires of emulation, the flames of envy? What voice can more ardently summon us to virtue? Whose voice can more sharply retrieve us from our vices? Who is a harsher denouncer of the wicked, a more artful praiser of the good?
3. I have no inclination to catalogue eloquence’s benefits (which are innumerable) singly, especially because it is not so admirable for this reason, as because its great utility is accompanied by great pleasure. It is hard to express how much pleasure is purveyed to the ear by those men who are called musicians, so that it seems almost incredible to me that such sweet, delicate, and almost divine modulations, or again such solemn and austere ones, could ever be invented by such a melancholy, not to say insane, race of men. What should I say about poets? Their talent is so born to the provision of delight that, although they sprinkle in an admixture of the useful with the beautiful, they always put the greater emphasis on beauty. I would quote the sweetest of them, were I not afraid (having small trust in my judgment) lest in being badly recited they have less effect on you, the hearers, than on myself, the reader. But who is the man who has read the Fourth Book of the Aeneid and does not burst into tears for the very intensity of his mind’s pleasure, as often happens? But, in truth, for some reason I do not understand, the things that produce the greatest pleasure on our senses and upon first appearance stir us the strongest, are things about which we become most quickly jaded out of satiety. Poetry is exquisite, ornate, and elegant. Nothing could be more polished, nothing more picturesque. But, just as one cannot long subsist on sweet drink and food, just so one is most quickly offended by the elegance and allure of musicians and poets, nor is the pleasure we take in them wont to endure.
4. Eloquence, which is truly like a mother, scorns and rejects these voluptuous and almost meretricious pleasures, and embraces those that are solid and genuine. She does not always smell of saffron; often she is redolent of earth, sometimes of nothing at all. Ultimately she aims not so much at pleasure as satisfaction, not so much at sweetness as at a certain pleasantness, and she is not so concerned about purveying pleasure as about purveying it without satiation. For men’s ears are like flutes, and the skillful man plays upon those so that they always resound clearly and well, not so that they often sound pleasant and joyful. Nor are those three elements which create all variation in music, the acute, the grave, and the circumflex, perceptible in chords any more than on the tongues of trained speakers; for such men are able to sound harsh with hard voices, gentle with softened ones, grave with lowered tones, and piteous with inflections. For whose voice creates more pleasing varieties of intonation than that of the man who says trivial things in an offhand way, everyday things in a temperate manner, and great things with gravity/ The result is that you cannot see a bird held by any song, more than a crowd hanging on his speech. And, to leave behind the jurors’ benches, in our leisure what can be more pleasant than a pure and candid conversation, in no wise uncouth, which flows along like a tranquil stream with no rough spots? The man who cultivates this ability, sweeter than any honey, even if he should happen to be less educated, will surpass those who are right learned but inarticulate, nor will he permit himself to be despised and scorned by such, and he will claim for himself, as if by right, a reputation for polite literacy. But on the other hand, what out-of-tune symphony assaults our ears like a style of speaking and writing which is, I shall not say barbaric or old-fashioned, but rather horrid and rotten? I mean like that passage of some grammarian or other whom Alciati says to have enjoyed a good reputation, Pegasus tuus qui me tollutim succussit apud capanae pelvis capam erit, inde petito, phoretrumque ex quo tempore praecidito. Who would not swear this was written by a Sphinx rather than a man? One could properly use Oedipus’ words, “Who can explain such monstrosities? I, who myself bore off the spoils of the Sphinx, shall be baffled.” Nor is eloquence ever so enslaved by the delightfulness of words that she forgets her dignity. Of whose splendor ought I to speak? At this point, in truth, I ought to summon Lucius Crassus, or Marcus Antonius, or rather Marcus Cicero himself from the shades, in order to explain eloquence’s amplitude to you, if only the poverty of my language could sustain such a character and put a sufficiently great speech in his mouth.
5. Now I must use that poets’ standby, “Tell me now, Muse.” For what is more excellent than by speech to wander through the minds of men, and move them by every means? What more sovereign than now to burst into their senses, now to steal in, now to plant now opinions, now to uproot established ones? And what more glorious than for every seat to be occupied when it has been heard that an eloquent man is about to speak; for the forum to be filled, everyone graceful in giving and yielding place; to see everybody bolt upright in a packed through; when the speaker rises to his feet, to have the crowd cry silence; for there to be much applause, much approval; for there to be laughter or weeping, as he wants? He is the sole man in whose presence all men tremble, whom they gaze at with amazement as he speaks, for whom they shout “couldn’t be better!” and raise their applause. While there are two skills which can always place a man on the highest rank of honor, one that of the general and the other that of the good orator, I would prefer to deliver that single speech of Cicero’s pro Archia than to receive two triumphs of Julius Caesar, nor could anything more flattering be invented either about Cicero or about Pericles the Athenian, than that the one “was king in the courtroom” and that the other “left his sting in men’s minds,” and was said by the poet Aristophanes to “lighten, thunder, and throw Greece into confusion.” It is the property of eloquence alone to hold a crowd of men in its grip, to sway their minds, to compel their wills whither, or whence, it wishes. This is documented elsewhere, and especially in that speech which Cicero delivered on behalf of Quintus Ligarius. “What was your unsheathed sword doing in the battle of Pharsalus, Tubero? What was your mind doing? Your eyes? Your hand? Your zeal? What was your desire, your hope?” They say that Caesar was so moved by these words that he took the voting-slate which he had brought from home to condemn Ligarius, and was grasping at the moment, and cast it aside in consternation. Why should I cite those words of Gracchus? “Where ought I betake myself in my misery? To the Capitoline? But it is drenched with my brother’s blood. Or homewards? That I might see my wretched, grieving mother?” Cicero says that this was delivered with such an expression, voice, and gesture, that his enemies were unable to restrain their tears.
6. But why linger over isolated details, when the skillful orator can show himself so adroit in employing those kinds of oratory that can so affect the various parts of our minds that he can even elicit cries and complaints from the mental capacities of infants? But for the rest, to the extent that oratory is possessed of utility and wonderful dignity, it is all the more lamentable (whether this has happened because of the weakness of our natures, or Nature’s hostility, or some accident) that the talent for achieving this is far smaller in us than in those who lived many centuries previously. For antiquity is like a giant on whose shoulders posterity is perched like a little boy and sees farther than it did regarding many things; but in every fine quality of speaking well the ancients achieved so much that their glory, as if heaped up higher, seems to have obstructed posterity’s eyesight. Who is so enamored of himself that if he happens across some speech of Cicero, he will not immediately begin to displease himself, and will not admit that everything of his device is vain, that he has read nothing, learned nothing, accomplished nothing in the exercise of oratory? For my part, I acknowledge that I should not speak rashly about those modern orators who have come forward within our memory or a little previously. But hang me if the things they have expressed in this department of letters, when compared with those of the man I have just named, do not seem the effusions of schoolmasters rather than the speeches of orators.
7. That statement of Velleius Paterculus is so true, that the whole glory of eloquence so blossomed in the reign of the prince of that art, Cicero, that you can take pleasure in few of his predecessors, and admire none of them, unless one who saw or was seen by him. As happened to Penelope’s suitors, that when they could not seduce Penelope, they turned to her handmaidens, so, when eloquence is sought by many but condescends to give herself to nobody, one man is compelled to embrace clever Jurisprudence, another lucrative Medicine, this one subtle Rhetoric, that one contentious Dialectic, some men talented Grammar, and, in sum, different men embrace different arts. I say all of this not that I might impede young men’s studies or weaken them by despair, so that they would be less willing to try their hand at what they do not trust themselves to accomplish, but in order to show that eloquence is by far the fairest and most difficult of things, and that it is a greater thing than men imagine. For the rest, it is honorable to stand in the second or third rank; just as they say that among Greek artists those men were flautists who were not able to play the lyre, thus when we are unable to be eloquent we should consider ourselves to be doing well if we are numbered among the learned.
8. But I should furl my sail, for the farther I sail from port, the farther I am borne onto the sea. A clever painter, when reprehended by someone because in painting a rainbow he did not employ many colors, although it acquires a thousand different ones when the sun shines on it, said “but that was unfair, for if all colors do not appear in this rainbow, it is because many are hidden on the other side.” In the same way, gentlemen, I beg and beseech you think that, if any praises are missing from my eulogy on eloquence, you imagine they are, as it were, written on the other side of my speech I have spoken.