WITHIN a century after the death of Cicero, while his language was yet flourishing, and the events of his, age, and institutions of his country, were in recent remembrance, it was observed by Quinctilian, that a young man, desirous of ascertaining his own proficiency in literary taste, needed only to ask himself how he relished the writings of Cicero, and if he found the answer to be, that they highly delighted him, he might safely conclude himself far advanced in refinement. If this remark was then correct, it must apply much more forcibly to the self-examination of any young man in our times. The difficulties to be vanquished, before you can obtain access to those inestimable treasures, are incomparably greater, than they were in the age of Quinctilian. The youth of that day, to understand Cicero, needed little other preparatory knowledge, than merely how to read. Some little acquaintance with the history of the time, the sources to which flowed copious and frequent; some little recollection of republican habits and manners, which had indeed vanished from practice, but were fresh in the memory of all, and yet lurked in the wishes of many; was all the information, necessary for a Roman of that epocha [sic] to master every page of Cicero. Your labors to obtain the same possession must be far more severe, and their success at best must fall far shorter of being complete. You have a language, long since deceased, to revive; you have a circumstantial history of the age to familiarize; you have a course of painful studies into the civil, political, and military constitution of the Roman republic to go through, before you can open an unobstructed avenue between the beauties of Cicero and your own understandings. How much more reason then must you have to be pleased with your own acquirements, if you can honestly answer it to your hearts, that you are charmed with the works of Cicero, than a pupil of Quinctilian could have from the same cause? Yet I am not sure, that originally the remark was very judicious. To a Roman in the age of Quinctilian, methinks the fondness for Cicero could not be so clear a demonstration of an excellent taste, as the dislike or contempt of him would have been to prove the contrary. Not to admire him must have shown a want of the reason and feeling, which belong to man. To delight in him could indicate only common sense and common sensibility. Even now, my friends, I doubt not but many of you are sincere admirers of Cicero; and yet I cannot advise you to draw from that sentiment any very pointed inference of self-complacency. Taste was never made to cater for vanity. I would rather recommend it to you to turn the pleasure you take in those exquisite compositions to better account. Make your profit of your pleasure; scrutinize the causes of your enjoyments; pass the spirit of the Roman orator through the a’embic [sic] of your reason, until every drop of its essence shall be distinctly perceptible to your taste. As a general hint to guide you in this examination, I mentioned to you in my last lecture the distinguishing characteristics of his two principal rhetorical treatises. I told you, that the dialogues de oratore contained an analytical decomposition of the art of public speaking, while the orator put together the same precepts, to exhibit them in the person of a perfect speaker. But instruction is to be derived as much, perhaps more, from example, than from precept; and Cicero has also availed himself of this process for the illustration of his favorite art. The treatise, which bears the the [sic] double title of Brutus and de claris oratoribus, contains, as this latter title imports, a summary review of all the famous orators, Greek and Roman, until his own time. In form it partakes both of the didactic manner, in which the author speaks in his own person, and of the dialogue, where interlocutors are formally introduced. The Brutus is a narrative of a dialogue, or conversation between the orator and his friends, Atticus and Brutus; for it is not immaterial to observe how Cicero, in writing so many works upon the same general subject, has given to his discussions the charm of variety. The Brutus is a practical commentary upon the dialogues and the orator. In examining the several excellencies and defects of the most renowned Greek and Roman speakers, the true principles of eloquence are naturally unfolded. But it is further valuable, as it teaches the principles of rhetorical criticism; the art of appreciating the real merits of a public speaker. The natural graces of simplicity, the splendor of ornamented diction, the elegance and purity of a correct style, the charms of urbanity, the stings of ingenious sarcasm and raillery, are exhibited in the shape of historical proof. Specific instances are produced of temperate insinuations, of strength, of vehemence, of dignity, of copious facility, of fertile invention, discerning selection of argument, novelty of expression, art in the choice and arrangement of words, readiness of action, quickness of rapartee [sic], skilful digression, and the rare talent of the pathetic, are held up to admiration with the force of example. And as the detection of faults is no less instructive to the student, than the display of beauties, in rendering all justice to the perfections of the illustrious orators, Cicero has not been blind to their blemishes. Boldness of invention, barrenness of fancy, affectation, singularity, treacheries of memory, heaviness, carelesness [sic], exaggerations, awkwardness, penury of thought, meanness of expression, And many other imperfections, occasionally pass through the ordeal, and never escape the discriminating and accurate judgment of Cicero. The acuteness and variety of his remarks are adorned by the live1iness of his manner, and embellished with that richness of fancy, and glow of coloring, which mark every production of his pen.
There is in this work a very perceptible partiality, favorable to his own countrymen. He bestows upon them a much larger share of attention; extends greater indulgence to their faults, and warms with more fervent admiration at their excellencies, than he is willing to bestow upon the Greeks. He acknowledges elsewhere this predilection, and ascribes it partly to his national feelings, and partly to the wish of stimulating them by commendation to superior excellence. But all these sentiments are subordinate to his enthusiasm for the transcendent merit of Demosthenes.
The Brutus concludes with two parallels. The first between the eloquence of Antonius and that of Crassus; the two principal interlocutors of the dialogues de oratore; and the other between Cicero himself and his rival, Hortensius. We have none of the writings of Antonius or of Crassus left, upon which we can form an opinion of Cicero’s accuracy in the comparison between them; we must take it upon the credit of his general correctness and ability. He speaks of them in terms probably more favorable, than the judgment of posterity would have confirmed; and as for Hortensius, it is praise enough for him to have been remembered for twenty centuries, as the antagonist of Cicero. But the view, in which this last parallel may be turned to advantage by us, is the signal example, which it furnishes, of industry triumphant over indolence. In point of natural genius, Hortensius was perhaps not inferior to his great competitor. But it is from the example of Cicero’s life, that the only means of obtaining unrivalled excellence is to be learnt. The thirst for distinction, as an orator, as felt by Cicero from his very childhood. He frequented assiduously all the scenes of public speaking, and listened with eager avidity to the eminent orators of the age. He was continually reading, writing, meditating upon this favorite pursuit. He sought instruction in jurisprudence from Scevola, in philosophy from Philo, the Athenian, in oratory from Molon of Rhodes, in logic from Diodotus, the Stoic; associating with the study of rhetoric a close application to every branch of learning, connected with it, and composing by turns, both in the Greek and Latin languages, according as the attendance upon his several instructers [sic] required.
After a long and unremitting course of preparation like this, he made his first appearance at the bar; and in his oration for Roscius of Ameria, delivered in his twenty seventh year, unfolded those wonderful powers, which were to make him the glory of his own age, and the admiration of all succeeding times. His constitution was naturally feeble, and had probably suffered by the intenseness of his application. His friends and physicians advised him to abandon the profession, and sacrifice his hope of glory to his health. But these were not counsels for the soul of Cicero. With the genuine, inflexible enthusiasm of genius, he resolved to persevere in his high career, though it should cost him his life. With the united view however of recovering his health and enlarging the sphere of his improvement, he visited Greece and Asia Minor. He spent six months at Athens, during which he went through a renewed course of moral philosophy, and of mechanical oratorical exercises, under Demetrius Syrus. Thence he travelled [sic] over Asia, never losing an opportunity to hear the public speakers, celebrated throughout those regions. On his return he made some stay in the island of Rhodes, where he took further lessons of practice from his old instructer [sic], Molon, whom he eulogizes for friendly severity, in remarking his faults. At the expiration of two years he returned to Rome; his health confirmed, and every faculty improved by the labors of his absence. He was very soon sent, as quaestor, into Sicily, and there with unwearied industry continued his rhetorical studies; so that he was qualified to display the full blaze of his talents in his accusation of Verres.
Hortensius was then without a rival at the bar. He had attained the highest official honors of the republic. Among the characters of his own age and standing, he knew there was none able to contest the first rank in oratory with him; and he had no suspicion, that a younger man was arising to wrest the prize from his hands. The relaxation so naturally consequent upon success, the desire quietly to enjoy the fruits of his former labors, rendered him indolent and careless. Cicero continued persevering and indefatigable. In less than three years the reputation of Hortensius began, among competent judges, to decline; and it was not much longer, before the waning of his fame was perceptible to the multitude. By the time, when Cicero obtained the consular dignity, Hortensius was almost forgotten; and although roused to transient exertions by the swelling celebrity of his new competitor, he was never able to recover that leading and commanding station, which he had so long enjoyed undisputed; but which, once outstripped by his more active successor, he had lost forever.
Cicero had never indulged himself with an hour of relaxation. His only intermissions were from one study to another; or from study to practice, and from practice to study. Nothing, that could promote his great purpose, was by him neglected, or overlooked. He labored all his compositions with anxious vigilence [sic]. He followed up his practice at the bar with exemplary assiduity. He introduced a new style and character into his discourses. His hearers fancied themselves in a new world. Until then they had heard talk of eloquence. He made them feel the powers, of which they had only heard. His orations commanded undivided admiration, because they soared far above the possibility of imitation by any of his cotemporaries [sic]. Not one of the public speakers in repute had any extent of attainment in literature, the inexhaustible fountain of eloquence; nor in philosophy, the parent of moral refinement; nor in the laws municipal or national, so indispensable to all solid eloquence at the bar; nor in history, which makes all the experience of ancient days tributary to the wisdom of our own.ˇThey hadˇneither the strength of logic, that key-stone to the arch of persuasion; nor its subtlety to perplex, and disconcert an opponent. They knew neither how to enliven a discussion by strokes of wit and humor, nor how to interweave the merits of the question with the facts of the cause; nor how to relieve tediousness by a seasonable and pertinent digression; nor finally to enlist the passions and feelings of their auditors on their side.
Cicero does not tell us, that he himself possessed all these qualities, in which the other barristers of his time were so deficient. He leaves the inference to those, who had heard, and those, who should read him. The critical examination of his judicial discourses is his unanswerable evidence of the fact, and that evidence is happily still in our possession. This is that basis of adamant, upon which his reputation arose, while that of Hortensius was crumbling into dust. Unfortunately for him another circumstance concurred to its decay. He had addicted himself to the Asiatic style of oratory; a style more suitable to the airy vivacity of youth, than to the grave and dignified energy of years and station. Hortensius wanted either the ability or the attention to vary his style in conformity to the changes in his situation; and the same glitter, which had given him fame in youth, served but to expose his age to censure and derision.
Such is the parallel, which, long after the death of Hortensius, Cicero drew to exhibit the relation between himself and the most powerful oratorical competitor, with whom he ever had to contend. It is interesting, as it introduces so much of his own biography; and useful, as it furnishes so striking a commentary upon the maxim, that indefatigable industry is as essential to the preservation, as to the attainment of eminence.
The little dissertation de optimo genere oratorum, of the best kind of orators, was only the preface to a translation, which Cicero made and published, of the two orations for the crown; of Demosthenes and Eschines. The rigorous critics at Rome had censured Cicero himself, as inclining too much to the Asiatic style; and the tribe of small writers, and talkers, and thinkers, whose glory consisted in finding something to blame in Cicero, armed with their watchword the Attic style, delighted in cavilling [sic] at every excursion of fancy, and every splendid ornament, which the active and elegant mind of Cicero so profusely lavished in most of his orations. To give this censure greater weight, they drove the principles of their Atticism into its remotest boundaries, and affected to consider the plain, unseasoned simplicity of Lysias, as holding forth its most perfect model. By way of self-defence [sic], Cicero published the master pieces of the two great rival Athenians, and in this preface directed the attention of his countrymen to them, as to the genuine models of Atticism. And this he contends is marked, not by the unvarying use of the plain style, which becomes tiresome by its monotony and its barrenness, but by the alternate mixture and judicious application of the sublime and intermediate with the simple style, of which the orations for the crown display the brightest example. The translation is lost. But this preface was included by himself in a general collection of his rhetorical works, and the two orations are happily yet extant in their original language.
The topics are a short essay upon a part of the oratorical art, much esteemed among the ancients, but which in modern times have fallen into great discredit. I shall upon some future occasion give you at large my own opinion concerning them, and endeavour [sic] to explain them to you in such a manner, as shall enable you to judge of them for yourselves. The work of Cicero is remarkable, as having been written in the hurry and bustle of a sea-voyage, when the author had no access to the book of Aristotle, from which it is abstracted. It is addressed to Trebatius, a lawyer and familiar friend of Cicero, and to whom many of his most amusing letters in the collection of his epistles were written.
The oratorical partitions are a short elementary compendium, written in the form of a dialogue between Cicero and his son; in which, by way of question and answer, all the divisions and subdivisions of the rhetorical science are clearly and succinctly pointed out. It is altogether preceptive [sic], barely containing the rules, without any illustration from example. It is a system of rhetoric in the abstract.
All the writings of Cicero, which I have hitherto enumerated, were composed in the latter part of his life, when the vigor of his genius was matured by long and successful experience. There are two others, less valuable, but of which it is proper some notice should be taken. The one has come to us in an imperfect state. It was originally in four books, only two of which still remain. Their title would indicate, that they treated only of invention; but their intent was to comprise a complete system of rhetoric. They were however, a mere juvenile exercise, compiled from the Greek rhetoricians for his own use; and surreptitiously published at a later period of life, when his name was sufficient to confer celebrity upon any thing. In his dialogues de oratore he mentions them himself, as a mere boyish study; and complains of their publication without his consent.
The other is a system of rhetoric in four books addressed to Herinnius, published in all the general editions of Cicero ’s works, but in all probability not written by him. The internal evidence is at least very strong against its legitimate descent. It was ingeniously said among the Greeks, that it would be as easy to wrest the club from the hand of Hercules, as to pilfer a line from Homer, without detection. By a like reason, you might as well put a distaff into the hand of Hercules, and call it his club, as call this a work of Cicero, because it is bound up with his works. Not that it is a despicable performance. The language is pure; the style not unpleasant. As a compilation from Aristotle and Hermogenes, set forth in classical Latin, and with a very good method, it may be perused with profit. But the manner is dry and barren; totally stripped of Cicero’s copious exuberance. Cornificius, to whom it has generally been ascribed, or whoever was the author, appears rather in the form of a grammarian or logician, than of a rhetorician. Never in a single instance does he rise to that of an orator. Cornificius is always a precise, correct, cold schoolmaster; Cicero never ceases to be the eloquent speaker. Cornificius chills you, as he instructs; Cicero warms you, as he teaches. From Cornificius you may learn the theory of rhetoric; from Cicero you must learn by feeling the practice of the art.
I cannot conclude this account of the rhetorical writings of Cicero, without once more urging upon your attention all the works, as well as the life and character of this extraordinary man. When you have dilated your understanding to the full conception of his merit, you will learn from his history the process, by which it was acquired. He lived at the most eventful period, recorded in the annals of the world, and contributed more, than any other man, to its splendor. In a republic, where it had been observed, that the distinction of ranks was more strongly marked, than in any other nation under the sun, he rose, on the sole foundation of personal merit, against all the influence and opposition of the proudest of all aristocracies, not only to the highest official honors and dignities, but to a distinction, never attained by any other mortal man. To be proclaimed by the voice of Rome, “free Rome,” the father of his country.
Roma patrem patriae Ciceronem, libera dixit.
Compared to this how mean and despicable were all the triumphs of Ceasar [sic], “the world’s great master and his own.” How small, how diminutive is the ambition of that soul, which can be satisfied with a conquest of the world by force, or with a mastery over itself so partial, as to be only a composition with crime, a haif.way forbearance from the extreme of guilt, compared with the sublime purposes of that mind, which, not by the brutal and foul contest of arms, but by the soul-subduing power of eloquence and of virtue, conquers time, as well as space; not the world of one short lived generation, but the world of a hundred centuries; which masters, not only one nation of cotemporaries [sic], but endless ages of civilized man, and undiscovered regions of the globe. These are the triumphs, which Ceasar [sic], and men like Ceasar [sic], never can obtain. They are reserved for more exalted conquerors. These are the palms of heroic peace. These are the everlasting laurels, destined for better uses, than to conceal the baldness of a Caesar, destined to be twined, as a never fading wreath, around the temple of Cicero.
As an orator, the concurring suffrage of two thousand years has given him a name above all other names, save only that of Demosthenes. As a rhetorician, we have seen, that he is unrivalled by the union of profound science with elegant taste; by the extent, the compass, the variety of the views, in which he has exhibited the theory of his favorite art; by that enchanting fascination, with which he allures the student into the deserted benches of the Grecian schools. His correspondence with Atticus and his other familiar friends contains the most authentic and interesting materials for the history of his age. His letters introduce you at once into his domestic intimacy, and to a familiar acquaintance with all the distinguished characters of an era, which seems to have spurned the usual boundaries of human existence; and destined in the memory of mankind to live forever. But those same letters are the most perfect models of epistolary style, that the world has ever seen; and such is the variety of the subjects, they embrace, that the student may find in them finished examples of the most perfect manner, in which a letter can be written, from the complimentary card of introduction to the dispatch, which details the destinies of empires.
His philosophical writings make us acquainted with the most celebrated speculations of antiquity upon those metaphysical topics, which, unless fixed by the everlasting pillars of divine revelation, will forever torture human reason, and elude human ingenuity. On the nature of the gods, on the boundaries of good and evil, on those moral paradoxes, which Milton has represented, as constituting at once the punishment and the solace of the fallen angels in Pandemonium, Cicero entertains us in lively language, dignified by judicious reflections, with all the eccentric vagaries of the ancient philosophers, who, like those rebellious spirits,
“Found no end in wandering mazes lost.”
But the most amiable and warmest coloring, in which the character of Cicero presents itself to the eye of contemplation, is as a moralist. With what a tender and delicate sensibility has he delineated the pleasures and prescribed the duties of friendship! With what a soothing and beneficent hand has he extended the consolations of virtue to the declining enjoyments and waxing infirmities of old age! With what all vivifying energy has he showered the sunshine of virtue upon the frosty winter of life! His book of offices should be the manuel [sic] of every republican; nay it should be the pocket and the pillow companion of every man, desiring to discipline his heart to the love and the practice of every virtue. There you will find the most perfect system of morals, ever promulgated before the glad tidings of christianity. There you will find a valuable and congenial supplement, even to the sublime precepts of the gospel.
It is not then to the students of eloquence alone, that the character and the writings of Cicero ought to be dear. He is the instructer [sic] of every profession; the friend of every age. Make him the intimate of your youth, and you will find him the faithful and incorruptible companion of your whole life. In every variety of this mutable scene, you will find him a pleasing and instructive associate. His numerous and inveterate enemies, while he lived, solaced the consciousness of their own inferiority, by sneering at his vanity, and deriding his excessive love of glory. Yes, he had that last infirmity of noble minds! Yes, glory was the idol of his worship. His estimation of mankind over-rated the value of their applause. His estimation of himself is not liable to the same censure. His most exulting moments of self-complacency never transcended, never equalled [sic] his real worth. He had none of that affected humility, none of that disqualifying hypocrisy, which makes virtue consist in concealment, and indulges unbounded vanity at the heart, on the single condition of imposing silence upon the lips. As he thought of himself, so he spake [sic], and without hesitation claimed the approbation of the world for talents and virtues, which he would have celebrated with ten-fold magnificence of panegyric in others. To his cotemporaries [sic] let us admit, that the sense of his immeasurable superiority was of itself sufficiently burdensome, without the aggravation of hearing his encomium from himself. But to the modern detractors of his fame it may be justly replied, that his failings leaned to virtue’s side; that his heaviest vices might put to the blush their choicest virtues. Of his own age and nation he was unquestionably the brightest ornament. But he is the philosopher, the orator, the moralist of all time, and of every region, A modern poet has beautifully said, that it is
“To fill the ambition of a common man,
“That Chatham’s language was his mother tongue,
“And Wolfe’s great name compatriot with his own.”
But in contemplating a character, like this, we may joy in a more enlarged and juster [sic] application of the same sentiment. Let us make this the standard of moral and intellectual worth, for all human kind; and in the reply to all the severities of satire, and all the bitterness of misanthropy, repeat with conscious exultation, “we are of the same species of beings, as Cicero.”