THE origin of the Grecian, and Roman republics, though equally involved in the obscurities and uncertainties of fabulous events, present one remarkable distinction, which continues perceptible in the progress of their history, through a succession of several centuries. The first principle of human association in Greece, as far as it can be traced, was common consent. At Rome it was force. This striking difference of character is perceptible even in the fables, which form the basis of the respective histories. Thus, while in Greece it was the harp of Orpheus and the lyre of Amphion, which attracted mankind by the fascinations.of pleasure into the ties of civil society, the founder of the Roman state is exhibited, as begotten by the god of battles; suckled in his infancy by a wolf; cementing the walls of his rising city with the blood of fraternal murder; and finding no expedient for its population but rape; no means for its subsistence but rapine. It is among the natural consequences of this contrast in the foundations of their municipal associations, that the powers of eloquence were so early discovered among the Greeks, and remained so long concealed among the Romans. Violence and persuasion, being in their nature as opposite to each other, as light and darkness, can never exist together; and by their reciprocal antipathies, wheresoever either predominates, the other must be excluded. Thus we have seen, that in Greece the art of persuasion by speech was held in honor and in exercise of power from the first moment, that any real fact can be discerned. In the Grecian annals history and oratory make their first appearance, entering hand in hand upon the scene. But so far are these personages from presenting themselves on the Roman theatre together, that the first notice we have of rhetoric, in the imperial city, is a decree of the senate, passed in the five hundred and ninety second year from its foundation, and commanding the expulsion of all philosophers and rhetoricians from Rome. The lordly nation seems to have been as averse to thinking, as to speaking. “Tu regere imperio populos” was their only maxim, and they disdained to rule with any thing but a rod of iron. In proportion however as the Romans acquired a more intimate acquaintance with the Greeks, they became accessible to that all-subduing charm, which accompanies the elegant arts. These gradually obtained the same ascendency, which they had so long enjoyed in Greece, and eloquence,was successively tolerated and encouraged, until the study became an indispensable part of education to every young man of fortune or distinction in the city. In the first instance, and for several ages, it was taught only in the Greek language and by Greek professors; insomuch, that when Plotius opened the first school of rhetoric in Latin, which had ever been known, Cicero, then a youth, burning with the ambition of acquiring the oratorical art; was dissuaded by his friends from attending the lessons of this Latin teacher, and adhered to the language and instructers [sic] of Greece. The progress of the art, in the public opinion, may be discerned in the rank ed station of the persons, who at different times engaged in the occupation of teaching it. During a certain period it was confined to the class of freedmen, the lowest order of Roman citizens. In process of time it was deemed worthy of employing the time and the faculties of a Roman knight; and thence continued to rise in reputation and influence, until Cato, the censor, Antonius, the orator, so highly celebrated by Cicero, and Cicero himself, deemed it no disparagement to devote their faculties to the improvement of their fellow citizens in the art of speech. The writings of Cato and of Antonius on this subject have not reached us. And those of several other Roman writers, mentioned by Cicero and Quinctilian, are also lost. They are perhaps not much to be regretted, while we are in possession of Cicero ana Quinctilian.
Of Cicero, considered as a practical orator, we shall have occasion to speak much at large in the course of these lectures. In that character he is more or less known to you all. In that character you all admire him already; and I trust, as you advance in years, and in knowledge, will admire him yet more. As a teacher of rhetoric and oratory, he is not so generally read; but his rhetorical works have a recommendation to the student, beyond all others; because they are the lessons of a consummate master upon his own art. His theory holds a flambeau [sic] to his practice, and his practice is a comment upon his theory. It is a remark of Rochefoucault, that no man ever exerted his faculties to the full extent, of which they were capable. If there ever was an exception to the universality of this remark, it was Cicero. He presents the most perfect example of that rare and splendid combination, universal genius and indefatigable application, which the annals of the world can produce. There have been other men as liberally gifted by nature. There may possibly have been men, whose exercise of their faculties has been as incessant. But of that mutual league between nature and study, that compact of ethereal spirit and terrestrial toil, that alliance of heaven and earth, to produce a wonder of the world in human shape, which he has described with such inimitable beauty, in one of his orations, there never was so illustrious, so sublime an instance, as himself.
His rhetorical treatises are seven in number, besides a system in four books, addressed to Herinnius, printed in all the general editions of his works, but probably not written by him. As a poet, a historian, a philosopher, a moralist, and an epistolary writer, the rank of Cicero is in the very first line. But by a singular fatality his reputation has been offuscated [sic] by its own splendor, and his writings in half a dozen departments of science, which would have carried as many silent writers to the pinnacle of fame, have been shorn of their beams, in the flood of glory, the one unclouded blaze of his eloquence.
The uncontrollable propensity of his mind was undoubtedly to oratory. From the twenty sixth year of his age, when he pronounced his oration for Quinctius, to the last year of his life, when he delivered the philippics against Mark Antony; that is for the space of nearly forty years, his studies in the closet, and his practice in all the stages of oratory, were without intermission. Hence arose the numerous·treatises upon the art, which at different times he composed. Some while yet a student, and before he plunged into the bustle of active life; others in the midst of those great political events, in which he bore so distinguished and so admirable a part. But the principal of these works, the work,· over which the future orator must consume the last drop of his midnight oil, and hail the first beam of returning dawn, is the treatise in three books, written in the form of dialogues, and entitled de oratore. They were composed at the request of his brother, when the author’s judgment was matured by experience, and his genius in the meridian of its vigor. The substance of his system is collected from those of Aristotle and Isocrates, the two rival systems of Greece. The form of dialogue, into which he has thrown the work, he adopted from Plato. He supposes a conversation, on the subject of oratory, to have arisen between Antonius, Crassus, and Caesar; three persons of high rank and distinction, the most celebrated orators of their age, and who lived about half a century before him. Each of these interlocutors had been noted for a peculiar characteristic manner, and Cicero, by observing to make each of them speak conformably to his known character, avails himself of the occasion to discuss the important questions, involved in the theories of the art.
The first of these dialogues begins by discussing the various opinions concerning the talents, essential to the composition of an orator. This is in substance only settling the true definition of the art. Yet this gives rise to a useful and instructive examination of fundamental principles. Crassus affirms, that the only able statesman must be an orator, always prepared to speak, and to excite admiration upon every subject. Scevola, who is introduced as occasionally taking part in the dialogue, insists, that the philosopher is the only suitable ruler of a nation; and that the art of government is to be learnt only in the schools of philosophy. For example, says he, how can a man be qualified for the management of a state, without the knowledge of physical nature, the structure of the earth, and the. phenomena of the universe; to be acquired only by the study of natural philosophy? And how can a man obtain the confidence of a whole people in his moral character, or that knowledge of the human heart, which alone can establish his control over the will, without a profound investigation of the science of moral philosophy or ethics?
From this diversity of opinion Crassus proceeds to affirm, that for the genuine orator nothing less can suffice, than universal knowledge. And he successively shows how an acquaintance with the science of government, with the forms of administration, with the doctrines of religion, with laws, usages, history, and the knowledge of mankind, may be applied to the purposes of the orator. Physics and mathematics, he contends. are in their own nature inert sciences, of little use even to their professors, without the talent of the speaker to give them life; while in the whole circle of science there is not a particle of knowledge, which can be condemned to sleep, in the mind of an orator.
Besides this broad basis of universal knowledge, the orator of Crassus must be endowed with a fine natural genius, and a pleasing personal appearance. He must have a soul of fire; an iron application; indefatigable, unremitting assiduity of exercise in writing and composition; unwearied patience to correct and revise; constant reading of the poets, orators, and historians; the practice of declamation; the exercise and improvement of the memory; the attentive cultivation of the graces; and a habit of raillery and humor, sharpened by wit, but tempered with the soberest judgment, to point their application.
This is rather an ideal description of what an orator ought to be, than what among the common materials, of which human nature is composed, will readily be found. But Crassus has a substantial reason to alledge [sic] for every one of the accomplishments, which he requires, that his speaker should possess. The orator must excel in his profession, or he cannot deserve the name. The orator must please; he must captivate; he·must charm; he must transfix affected wisdom and hypocrisy with the blasting bolt of ridicule; he must dart the thrills of terror into the souls of his enemies; he must overwhelm guilt with confusion; he must lead innocence to the throne of triumph. The orator must wield a nation with a breath; he must kindle or compose their passions at his pleasure. Now he must cool them to justice, and now inflame them to glory. To discharge functions like these, it is obvious, that no penurious or scanty stock of knowledge will suffice, and no provision, however abundant, can be superfluous.
After this magnificent enumeration of the qualifications, necessary for a perfect orator, Antonius is requested to point out the means of acquiring them. Antonius however was of opinion, that the reputation of universal knowledge was by no means necessary, and might be very prejudicial to a public speaker. Antonius begins then by controverting the opinion of Crassus. The talent of Antonius was principally defensive. His greatest power consisted in refuting the opinions of others, and, instead of admitting universal knowledge to be necessary for an orator, contends, that an orator scarcely needs any knowledge at all. This doctrine he supports with so much ingenious plausibility, that the bearers are left in some suspense, and scarcely know which of the two opinions to adopt. In this method of treating the subject, Cicero purposely followed the example of Plato; who in most of his dialogues, after fully discussing the two sides of a question, leaves the judgment of the issue to the sagacity of the reader. Plato indeed generally makes this a compliment rather of form, than of substance; for one side of his argument is so strong, and the other so weak, that the decision is apparently drawn up by himself, and left for the reader only to pronounce. Nor has Cicero chosen to leave his reader in the dark with regard to his own opinion, and in the second dialogue be brings Antonius to the confession, that his opposition to the sentiments of Crassus on the preceding day was a mere trial of skill for his amusement, and that his affectation of ignorance was an artifice to elude the suspicion and distrust which a high reputation of learning is apt to excite in the minds of judges against an advocate; a prejudice, not without example in later ages, than that of Antonius or Cicero. In this dialogue however Antonius enters into a minute investigation of the art; assigns its limits; marks its divisions; and in the familiar, easy style of elegant conversation, introduces the most important precepts of Aristotle. He passes in successive review the subjects of proof, observance of manners, and management of the passions; and particularly urges the advantages of ready wit, and a talent at ridicule, in judicial oratory. Crassus is the principal speaker of the third dialogue, and his subject is elocution. Crassus was distinguished for the elegance of his oratorical compositions; but, like those of Demosthenes, they were charged by the speaker’s enemies with smelling too much of the lamp. He alledges [sic] two distinct sources of ornament in discourse, one of which must arise from the dignity of the subject, and will naturally communicate some part of its elevation to the expressions, used for its developement [sic]; and the other from the, diction, the choice and collocation of words, and the figures of speech. This distinction is at once rational and useful; and a natural inference from it is, that the graces of the subject ought to pervade every part of the discourse, while those of diction should only occasionally be introduced, and scattered with a sparing hand. Another observation of Crassus will be found of eminent utility to be held in remembrance by the student. In maintaining, that an orator ought to have some tincture of every science, he cautions against the application of too much time to studies of minutiae, and especially of science merely speculative. The knowledge, necessary to discourse with propriety upon any art, is very different from that, which is indispensable to practise [sic] the art. The orator is to obtain,such knowledge, as may be useful to him in the exercise of his own profession; and that, without being equally profound, will enable him to discourse upon the art more copiously, and more accurately too, than can the very artists, who make it the exclusive occupation of their lives.
The principles of the oratorical art, like all other knowledge, may be taught by the analytical, or by the synthetical [sic] process. These terms and the ideas, annexed to them, may not be perfectly clear to the minds of some of you. But you will perceive by the derivation of the words themselves, which is from the Greek language, that analysis is the process, which takes to pieces; and synthesis is that, which puts together. Thus in the dialogues de oratore, Cicero has analyzed, and exhibited separately the various qualifications, which contribute to the formation of an eloquent speaker. In the orator he has combined and embodied the same precepts, to show how they are to be brought into action. The dialogues give a dissection of the art into its constituent parts; the orator gathers the parts, and connects them into an organized body. The dialogues are a delineation of the talent; the oratoris a portrait of the speaker.
The Grecian philosophers first conceived, and Plato has largely expatiated upon, what they call the beautiful, and the good, in the abstract. Beauty and goodness are properties, and, as to any object perceptible to the senses, neither of them can exist without some substance, in which they may exist. A good man, or a beautiful woman, is perceptible to the eye and to the reason of us all; but the qualities themselves we cannot readily discern, without the aid of imagination. But as imperfection is stamped upon every work of nature, the imagination is able to conceive of goodness and beauty more perfect, than they can be found in any of the works of nature, or of man. This creature of the imagination Plato designates by the name of the good and fair. That is, goodness and beauty, purified from all the dross of natural imperfection. And then by one step more of the imagination, we are required to personify these sublime abstractions, and call up to·the eye of fancy images, in which goodness and beauty would appear, if they could assume a human shape. This principle was applied to the fine arts, as well as to morals; and the painters and sculptors, in imitating the productions of nature, improved upon them by these ideal images, and created those wonders of art, which still excite the astonishment of every beholder. The antique statues of the Apollo and Venus have thus been considered, for nearly three thousand years, the perfect models of human beauty. Such exquisite proportions, such an assemblage of features was never found in any human form. But the idea was in the mind of the artist, and his chisel has given it a local habitation in the minds of others. It was the conception and the pursuit of this ideal beauty, which produced all the wonders of Grecian art. Cicero applied it to eloquence. It appears to have been the study of his whole life to form an idea of a perfect orator, and of exhibiting his image to the world. In this treatise he has concentrated the result of all his observation, experience, and reflection. It is the idealized image of a speaker, in the mind or Cicero; what a speaker should be; what no speaker ever will be; but what every speaker should devote the labors or his life to approximate.
Let it be remembered, that this inflexible, unremitting pursuit of ideal and unattainable excellence is the source of all the real excellence, which the world has ever seen. It is the foundation of every thing great and good, of which man can boast. It is one of the proofs, that the soul of man is mortal; and it is at the foundation of the whole doctrine of christianity [sic]. It is the root of all real excellence in religion, in morals, and in taste. It was so congenial to the mind of Cicero, that in the treatise, of which I am now speaking, he took the most elaborate pains, and the most exquisite pleasure, in setting it forth. He addressed it to his friend Brutus, at whose desire it was written; and in one of the familiar epistles Cicero declares, that he wishes this work to be considered, as the test of his capacity; that it contains the quintessence of all his faculties.
The principal difficulty of the subject was to settle a standard of eloquence; for the original controversy between the rival Asiatic and Attic schools, which I have mentioned, was so far from being decided, that it had given rise to a third system, partaking of both the others, and usually known by the name of the Rhodian manner. Cicero therefore determines, that there are subjects, peculiarly fitted to each of these three modes of speaking, and that the perfection of the orator consists in the proper use and variation of them all, according to the occasion. The most remarkable example of which, he thinks, is to be found in the famous oration of Demosthenes for Ctesiphon; commonly called the oration for the crown. In the distinction, which he draws between the schools of Isocrates and of Aristotle, we find the true criterion for judging their respective pretensions. The first he pronounces to have been the cradle of eloquence. Its florid colors, its dazzling splendors, its studied and laborious decorations, he thinks peculiarly adapted to representation, and not to action; to the first essays of youth, and not to the serious labors of manhood. But it is in judicial controversies, where the conflict of rights must be decided by the conflict of talents, that the manhood, the highest energies of the art, must be exerted. Here all the resources of invention, of selection, of arrangement, of style, and of action, must successively be applied, and here alone can the highest perfection of the art be found.
To professional speakers, the orator of Cicero is a work, which they should familiarize and master, at the very threshold of their studies. It contains a lively image of what they ought to be, and a specific indication of what they ought to do. It is in many passages a comment upon the writer’s own orations. It points out the variations of his style and manner, in many of those eloquent discourses, and gives you the reasons, which inspired his sublime, indignant vehemence in the accusation of Verres, and of Catiline; his temperate, insinuating elegance upon the Manilian law, and the solicitations for Ligarius; and his close and irresistible cogency of argument in disclosing and elucidating the intricate case of Caecina. I would particularly recommend it to those of you, who may hereafter engage in the profession of the law, to read over these orations, and compare the management of the cause with this account, given by the author, of his motives for proceeding, as he did in each of them.
But to whatever occupation your future inclinations or destinies may direct you, that pursuit of ideal excellence, which constituted the plan of Cicero’s orator, and the principle of Cicero’s life, if profoundly meditated, and sincerely adopted, will prove a never failing source of virtue and of happiness. I say profoundly meditated, because no superficial consideration can give you a conception of the real depth and extent of this principle. I say sincerely adopted, because its efficacy consists not in resolutions, much less in pretensions; but in action. Its affectation can only disclose the ridiculous coxcomb. or conceal the detestable hypocrite; nor is it in occasional, momentary gleams of virtue and energy, preceded and followed by long periods of indulgence or inaction that this sublime principle can be recognized. It must be the steady purpose of a life, maturely considered, deliberately undertaken, and inflexibly pursued, through all the struggles of human opposition, and all the vicissitudes of fortune. It must mark the measure of your duties in the relations of domestic, of social, and of public life. Must guard from presumption your rapid moments of prosperity, and nerve with fortitude your lingering hours of misfortune. It must mingle with you in the busy murmurs of the city, and retire in silence with you to the shades of solitude. Like hope it must “travel through, nor quit you when you die.” Your guide amid the dissipations of youth; your counsellor [sic] in the toils of manhood; your companion in the leisure of declining age. It must, it will, irradiate the darkness of dissolution; will identify the consciousness of the past with the hope of futurity; will smooth the passage from this to a better world; and link. the last pangs of expiring nature with the first rapture of never ending joy.
You are ready to tell me, that I am insensibly wandering from my subject into the mazes of general morality. In surveying the character and writings of Cicero, we cannot choose but be arrested, at almost every step of our progress, by some profound and luminous principle, which suspends our attention from the immediate cause of our research, and leads us into a train of reflections upon itself. Yet these, though indirect, are perhaps the fairest illustrations of our primary object. In Cicero, more than in any other writer, will you find a perpetual comment upon the saying of Solomon, that “the sweetness of the lips increaseth [sic] learning.” Cicero is the friend of the soul, whom we can never meet without a gleam of pleasure; from whom we can never part, but with reluctance. We have yet noticed only two of his rhetorical works; and must reserve for another occasion our considerations upon the rest.