Cato's Letter No. 103

Of Eloquence, considered politically.

John Trenchard (Saturday, November 17, 1722)

SIR, In free states, where publick affairs are transacted in popular assemblies, eloquence is always of great use and esteem; and, next to money and an armed force, is the only way of being considerable in these assemblies. This talent therefore has been ever cultivated and admired in commonwealths, where men were dealt with by reason and persuasion, and at liberty to ratify or reject propositions offered, and measures taken, by their magistrates, to examine their conduct, and to distinguish them with honours or punishments as they deserved. But in single monarchies, where reason is turned into command, and remonstrances and debating into servile submission, eloquence is either lost, or perverted to sanctify publick violence, and to deify the authors of it.

In the free states of Greece and Rome this popular eloquence was of such force and consequence, that the best speakers generally governed them; and their greatest orators were often not only their chief magistrates, but their principal commanders. Rhetoric was the first and great study, because the first and great offices of the state were the sure price of rhetoric. By it Cicero came to be the first man in Rome, and Pericles the first man in Athens. Themistocles, Thucydides, Xenophon, and Alcibiades, could speak as well as they could fight: so could Sulla, Pompey, Caesar, Cato, Brutus, M. Antony, and many more; who were not only great orators, as well as great soldiers, but for the most part owed their military power to their powerful speaking. Not that eloquence is necessary to a soldier, no more than skill in war to a civil officer: But both were necessary parts, and indeed the principal parts of the Roman education; and the candidates for preferments were either good speakers, or supported by such. Pompey, though he principally derived his fame and credit from military glory, had been far from neglecting the other accomplishments of the gown and the bar. We have the testimony of Cicero, that he was a graceful and engaging speaker. His great employments, and many wars, had with-held him long from the exercise of declaiming, and his eminent authority in the state had made it for some time unnecessary: But he resumed it with great application in the latter years of his life; when Curio, a young tribune of vast spirit and eloquence, being gained by an immense sum of money, to the interest of Caesar, was by publick and perpetual harangues misleading the people into his party. Cicero continued this exercise till near his death; and Mark Antony and Augustus in the midst of their wars.

The chief power of the state being in the people, and all the great offices in their gifts, made eloquence a necessary qualification in every one who courted their favour, and sought their suffrages. And a candidate thus qualified, rarely missed gaining them; till money, more prevailing than eloquence, and every other accomplishment, corrupted their hearts, abolished their integrity, and finding their souls and their voices saleable, made them first the market, then the slaves, of ambition. But in the times of their purity, before their virtue was vanquished by irresistible gold, which has been ever an over-match for the probity of the sons of men, it must be owned, to their honour, that in almost all the questions and debates in the Roman state, the justest side was the strongest; and he who spoke best, that is, with most reason and truth, had the most voices. Such was the equity and good sense of the Roman people! Even in the days of their degeneracy they gave many proofs, that it was with shame and pain they had departed from their ancient integrity and publick spirit: They continued to prefer many worthy citizens, merely for their worth: They carried Cicero, particularly, through all the considerable offices of the state, only because he deserved them. Cato they created their tribune, in spite of violence and opposition; and would have chosen him praetor, when he first stood for it, notwithstanding the influence and bribery of the faction of the first triumvirate, had they not been cheated and terrified by a religious lie of Pompey’s, who by it broke up the assembly. Cato was however chosen next year; and, by the usual power of his eloquence and credit with the people, frustrated many of the pernicious designs of the triumvirate against his country, and consequently prevented, for a time, many public mischiefs, as he foretold them all.

The credit of eloquence among the Greeks was at least equally high, and its force as visible. However, in Greece itself it was differently esteemed and practised, according to the difference of the forms of government in the several Greek cities. In Sparta, where little riches were to be acquired, and the acting power of the state was chiefly in the Senate, the faculty of haranguing was less studied, in proportion to the smaller power of the people, who had only a negative vote, and the bare right of confirming or refuting the laws proposed to them, and none to debate about them, nor to explain them, much less to offer new laws. Their laws therefore, and their publick deliberations, being carried, as far as regarded the people, without popular speeches and cabals, that city was no proper scene for popular speakers; and, doubtless, it was the most perfect and best established state then in the world; but not being formed for conquest, nor indeed for trade, or increase of people, it was undone by an endeavour to enlarge it.

At Athens it was far otherwise: The multitude, the unrepresented multitude, being the legislature, governed all things, and were themselves governed by their orators; who therefore swarmed in that city, and filled all the great offices in it, as they always will do in such a state. They would never suffer any thing to remain fixed and quiet; but, to make themselves considerable, were for ever starting new projects, new treaties, and new wars; which, at last, ruined the state, as I shall shew in another letter. Aristotle finds just fault with their demagogues, who were making them continually drunk with torrents of inflammatory eloquence. There wanted a proper power to check and balance that of the people; the court of Areopagus being only a court of justice, and its credit and authority broken by Ephialtes and Pericles, two of the chief orators, who hated to see any authority in Athens but their own.

As eloquence itself is necessary, or checked, or quite discouraged, in different forms of government; so the manner of eloquence must vary, even where it is useful, according to the various classes of men to whom it is addressed. There is a considerable difference between the speeches spoken by Cicero in the Senate, and those which he spoke to the people. In an assembly of gentlemen, he who speaks with brevity and clearness, and strong sense, speaks best. The chief court is to be paid to the understanding; and silence is better than a rote of good words, that carry with them no conviction. I do not deny, but in the most polite assembly, the manner of speaking, the voice, and the choice of words, will considerably recommend the speech and the speaker: But it is equally true, that a theatrical action, and an ostentation of language, prejudice both, as they break in upon propriety; and, instead of adorning good sense, disguise it with shew and sound.

But in speeches to assemblies of the people, much greater latitude is allowed; and vehemence of tone and action, a hurry and pomp of words, strong figures, tours of fancy, ardent expression, and throwing fire into their imaginations, have always been reckoned proper ways to gain their assent and affections. I think Valerius Maximus says of Pericles, that whenever he spoke to the people, he always left a sting in their souls: And hence, sine armis tyrannidem gessit, he was a tyrant without an army. Demosthenes gave many proofs of the same dictatorial force of speaking, not only at Athens, but all over Greece; which, in spite of all King Philip’s arts, and power, and ambassadors, and bribes, he worked up into a general insurrection and confederacy against him. The Thebans, particularly, though terrified by Philip’s name and conquests, and dreading to risk again the calamities of war which they had lately felt, no sooner heard Demosthenes, but they were subdued by the dint of his words; and, losing all terror of the Macedonians, ran headlong into the war. “He inflamed their minds,” says the historian,

with a passion for glory and liberty, and covered all their wary considerations in the magical mist of his eloquence; so that, inspired by it, like men possessed, they took sudden, bold, and honourable resolutions.
The substance and reasoning part of this potent speech might have been comprised in a few plain and short propositions, more proper than a copious harangue for a cool council of wise men, taught by experience to weigh every step which they took, and to examine the soundness of the sense divested of deceitful words: But such a summary and dry representation of the orator’s meaning would probably not have moved a fifth part of his auditory; or had the oration itself been read by a clerk, or uttered by one of our pleaders in Westminster-Hall, in an unaffecting tone, and with an unanimated gesture, I doubt it would have had the same or no effect: But it was an oration, and an oration pronounced by an orator, with all the lightning of figures, and thunder of expression: He poured forth persuasion like a torrent; and in his voice, when he cried to war, they heard the sound of a trumpet.

By what I have said of our own pleaders, I mean no sort of reflections upon the gentlemen of the long robe, or upon their manner of speaking, which I think is the only proper manner for our bar; where the rules of proceeding being strict and ascertained, there is no room for haranguing. The judge is tied to the rigid letter of the law, and not to be moved from it by pity or resentment; and therefore an address to his passions would be ridiculous and offensive. In a speech to an assembly that acts by discretion, or to an absolute prince who has life and death in his hands, it is the business of the speaker, by flattering insinuations, to steal into the affections of his judges, and, by a hurricane of tropes and impetuous words, to animate their passions in his behalf: But a speech of this sort would be waste language in Westminster-Hall, and the author of it would be thought fit for Moorfields, where the imagination has more scope. At our bar many excellent pleaders have been very bad orators; and some good speakers, very bad pleaders. To know law, and to speak to the point, is the only rhetoric approved, or indeed allowed, there; and therefore the jokes which witty men have made upon the cold and plain manner of speaking there return upon the makers.

In the pulpit there is much more latitude for oratory, and the preacher has the affections and imaginations of his hearers much more in his power; and, by distracting them with terrors, or elevating them with joys, may awaken and enkindle their passions almost as much as he will. He has a vast field, and full scope for decorations, fine phrases, lively descriptions, and all the pompous array of language; and if he has a fine tuneable voice and his audience a good ear, I know no wonders which he may not work. But as the plainest sermons have generally the best sense and most piety in them, I am almost amazed that the very fine figurative ones do no more harm.

If we enquire into the use and purposes of eloquence, and into the good and evil which it has done, we must distinguish between eloquence and eloquence. That which consists of good sense, put into good words, is every-where useful and commendable: But as to that which consists of fine figures and beautiful sounds, artfully and warmly applied to the passions, and may disguise and banish sense, embellish falsehood as well as truth, and recommend virtue as well as vice; it has done some good, and infinite mischief. It is the art of flattering and deceiving, as one of the ancients calls it: It fills the mind with false ideas; and, by raising a tempest in the heart, misleads the judgment: It confounds good and evil, by throwing false colours over them; and deceives men with their own approbation: And it has in many instances unsettled all good order, and thrown flourishing states into pangs and desolation. But though rhetoric in this sense be but a bad art, yet I do not think it possible to destroy it, without destroying with it most other good arts; for it almost always flourishes and decays with them: And where-ever politeness, liberty, and learning subsist, rhetoric will be cultivated as part of them. It is an evil growing out of much good; and nothing but the abolishing of all liberty and learning can absolutely cure it. In this cure the Turks have succeeded best; and they who would be like them in this, must be like them in all things. Besides, as the several states of Europe are now constituted, they do not seem to have much, or any thing to apprehend from the power of rhetoric, except that which comes from the popish ecclesiasticks, who in the midst of monarchies form a democracy every-where; and every village has one of many popular orators, who have but too successful a talent at turning the heads of the multitude, and inflaming their hearts; a misfortune which has cost many countries very dear: Insomuch that preaching monks have been reckoned publick plagues; as it would be, no doubt, a sort of a publick blessing, if they were all alike idle and dumb. Even the Lutheran monks at Hamburgh are every day preaching that free city into strife and confusion; and will at last, if they are not better controlled, preach it out of its liberty, as more than once they have well nigh done.

T I am, &c.

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