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THE GRECIAN ORATORS
WHAT CONSTITUTED THEIR ART
“ As others do, so will I: I renounce, I am sorry for it, my early visions; I must eat the good of the land and let learning and romantic expectation go, until a more convenient season”; then dies the man in you; then once more perish the buds of art, and poetry, and science, as they have died already in a thousand thousand men. The hour of that choice is the crisis of your history, and see that you hold yourself fast by the intellect.
Ralph Waldo EMERSON: Dartmouth Address
F A man would become a truly great orator, he must
put aside all mere selfish desires and heed only the call of the best that is in him. He must have visions, and realize them; he must act according to his own understanding, and not become the pliant tool of another, be that other a political boss, a political machine, or an unholy ambition; he must be himself, and refuse to echo the thoughts of others; and, as a foundation upon which all these virtues are to be built, must be the one great virtue of industry.
Through all climes and in all ages men have achieved eminence as orators by persevering efforts only, and while, at times, an orator, full-fledged and ready for the fray,
has burst into the list and played his part upon the stage of action, such occurrences have been so rare as to make them but examples of the exception that proves the rule. Therefore, let him who would become proficient in the art of speech make up his mind to labor in order to attain that proficiency.
At the same time, we should remember that this labor need not necessarily be hard, need not be what is termed laborious, because the main requisite is that we should not interfere with nature in her work. It is perfectly natural for man to breathe properly, and yet how few do so; it is natural for man to speak, and yet how few speak properly! If we will aim to remove the defects or errors that interfere with Nature doing properly her assigned task, we need not worry but that she will perform it. Take up the work of becoming a public speaker because you love the art of oratory, labor at it because you desire to accomplish it, and it will submit to you because all arts love to be mastered.
The history of oratory is a history of the world, just as the history of a great central character is an epitome of the history of his time, and as it is best to study the lives of the makers of history in order to understand the events of history, so is it best to examine the orators in order that we may learn of oratory.
In ancient times oratory was considered the art of arts because it embraced all other arts and was therefore the most difficult of achievements. Positions of honor and renown were bestowed upon those who were capable of
giving fitting expression to their thoughts in public. Poets sang the praises of orators and made them the heroes of their songs. The psalmists and prophets are but types of the orator, and the actor of today is the outcome of the player of old who was more a speaker than he was an actor.
Every citizen, at one time, was his own lawyer, spoke in his own defense, and advocated his own cause. Then came the era of the speech writers, who prepared the matter for the citizen to deliver; and finally, the professional advocate of today who appears in behalf of his client and acts and speaks for him.
Let us consider the productions of the orators of that marvellous period in the world's history which dates from 500 to 300 years previous to the coming of Christ; and in doing so, let us not forget that they are all translations into a foreign tongue, and that in their transition from one language into another they have lost much of their force and beauty. Another thing to bear in mind is that an oration does not read as it sounds. It lacks the magnetism of the living speaker, the presence of the assembled multitude, the concern in the subject, and the gravity of the interest at stake, to lend a completeness to the words and to impregnate them with the expression that life alone possesses, turning the dead words into living thoughts. Here, in these orations, we possess the mere bodies — mummies, they might well be termed - the spirit having departed ages ago; but by the influence of the imaginative mind of the reader they may be compelled to assume some semblance of their former greatness.
The best way of judging of the power of orators, and the influence of oratory, is to study the effect they had on the subjects with which they dealt, the audiences they addressed, and on posterity, which looks with an unprejudiced eye. All great orations have not accomplished the purposes for which they were uttered, but they have all had a decided influence on shaping the thoughts of man and directing his actions many years after the orators who uttered the words have passed back into the elements whence they came. Demosthenes did not succeed in saving his loved Athens from the clutches of Philip, but his burning words in behalf of liberty have stirred the hearts of men in other lands and other ages and caused them to battle in behalf of the principles for which the ancient Grecian spoke; Edmund Burke and the Earl of Chatham did not succeed in turning Lord North from his determination to subdue the colonies of North America by force of arms, but their noble speeches inspired their brother Whigs in America to rush to arms and sacrifice their all in the struggle for independence; Abraham Lincoln, in his debate with Stephen A. Douglas, did not prevail on the electorate of the State of Illinois to return legislators who would elect him to the United States Senate, but his clear reasoning and masterful presentation of facts in that famous debate drew the attention of the nation to him and contributed much toward making him President of the United States. Oratory cannot fail in ultimately accomplishing its object, although it may not accomplish the specific object that the speaker had in mind
at the time of uttering the oration, because truth must always ultimately triumph, and real oratory is always truth.
Oratory requires a large theme. Men cannot grow eloquent over a ship subsidy; they may rhetorically wave the flag of their country and claim the land will go to ruin unless the subsidy is granted, but there can be no genuine enthusiasm, no eloquence, over such a cause. When Henry Clay declared that the American flag should be honored wherever it floated, that its folds should protect its citizens on sea as well as on land, he had a theme of such magnitude that he was able to move his country to take up arms in defense of the doctrine he espoused. When Lincoln started on his mission to preserve the Union, he held a tremendous question in hand — the question whether government by the people should pass from the earth and this question brought as a response the immortal Gettysburg Address. William H. Grady, when speaking to the North on the subject of the New South, had a theme of vast importance — the theme of a reunited country. Theodore Roosevelt, in adopting “Conservation of Natural Wealth” as his subject, brought to the minds of his countrymen a truth to which they had blindly closed their eyes since the settlement of the Western Hemisphere. These are subjects upon which, if the man is prepared, he can grow eloquent; and as soon as the people seriously consider questions of moment to themselves and their posterity, men will come forward who are able to discuss such questions with eloquence that will