Cato's Letter No. 104

Of Eloquence, considered philosophically.

Thomas Gordon (Saturday, November 24, 1722)

SIR, If we now enquire how eloquence operates upon the minds of men, we must consider three things or causes: The sense, the sound, and the action. The first is addressed to the understanding; and the other two to the passions, and have consequently the greatest force.

Nothing is too hard for sound, which subdues every thing, and raises the highest and most opposite perturbations. One sound lulls men to sleep; another rouses them from it: one sort sets them a fighting, another to embracing; and a third sets them a weeping: It makes them groan or rage; it melts them into compassion, or animates them to resentment. And as to action, in which I also comprehend the motions of the countenance, and of the eyes, it is of such force, that Demosthenes being asked, which was the first excellency of an orator? answered, Action; that the second was Action; and the third was Action. Here is a testimony of a great and experienced judge.

Now the power of action seems to arise chiefly from hence: As it is a sign that the speaker is in earnest, and vehemently means what he speaks, it begets an opinion, that what he says is just, and reasonable, and important: And so his hearers adopt his passions and opinions, and are equally animated with him who animates them, and often more. Hence it is possible for a man, who thus carries his spirit in his gestures, and his meaning in his face, to look another into his sentiments and out of his senses, only by shewing, in the energy of his countenance, that he himself is strongly affected with that passion which he would convey to another, and that his external motions are but the result of his internal. Men have been converted into Quakerism at the silent-meetings of Quakers; and solemn looks, dumb shew, and ghostly groans, have had all the most prevailing effects of eloquence.

Nothing is so catching and communicative as the passions. The cast of an angry or a pleasant eye will beget anger, or pleasure: One man’s anger, or sorrow, or joy, can make a whole assembly outrageous, or dejected, or merry; and the same men are provoked or pleased by the same words spoken in different tones; because they who hear them, take them just as he who speaks them seems to mean them. I have seen a preacher of mean sense and language set a whole congregation a howling, merely because he himself howled. By repeating the words heaven and hell, with distortion and clamour, he possessed their imaginations with all the joys of the blessed, and all the torments and terrors of the damned; and, by making them feel both by turns, raised their passions higher than the reading of our blessed Saviour’s crucifixion, or his Sermon upon the Mount, could have raised them.

The fancy when once it is heated, quickly improves the first spark into a flame; which being an assemblage of strong and glowing images, is, while it lasts, the strongest motion, and consequently the greatest power, in a man; for all animal power is motion. And when a man has thus got a fire in his head, his reason, which is the gradual and deliberate weighing of things, and the cool comparing of one inward pulse with another, must shift its quarters till his brains grow cool again. I dare say, that many men, and still more women, who have without emotion heard the great Dr. Tillotson talk excellent sense and morality for half an hour, would have been powerfully edified, that is, violently transported, with the tuneful and humble reveries of John Bunyan, of Bishop Beveridge, or Daniel Burgess.

This aptness to be moved by sounds is natural, but improvable by education and the use of words. There are in the brain certain fibres, or strings, which naturally stretch and exert themselves as soon as certain sounds strike upon them; but without being able to annex to them any determinate idea, only, in general, that they feel pleasure or pain. It is like rubbing the hand of a man born deaf and blind with a file, or a flesh-brush: He feels the skin irritated, or soothed, but knows not with what. When these fibres are touched, they disperse the motion to the whole animal spirits, and create in them motions and agitations according to the force and quality of that sound which was the first mover. Hence people are said to be cured of the bite of the tarantula by musick; which, by quickening the motions of the animal spirits, raises in the blood such a ferment, as drives out the poison.

But when description is added to those sounds, when they convey particular and distinct images, when scenes of horror or of joy are represented in sounds proper to convey them; then the sense and the sound heightening vastly each other, their united power over the soul is infinite and uncontrollable. The word hell, for example, is, without doubt, capable of being pronounced in such a hideous tone and action, as to affect and affright even a Hottentot, who knows nothing of hell: But if, with the sound of hell, the description of hell be likewise conveyed; that it is a dark, immense, and baleful dungeon, guarded by frightful and implacable furies, armed with whips and torches; that it is filled with suffocating and burning sulphur, and unintermitting fire; that it is inhabited by the damned, whose incessant shrieks, hideous roarings, and dismal yells, are the chief entertainments there; and by devils, who by their endless insults add, if possible, to their intense tortures and horrible burning, which are never, never, to end. . . .

————Sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes,
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed
With ever-burning sulphur unconsum’d————

I say, this idea of hell, added to the sound of hell, would dreadfully aggravate the horror even in a Hottentot. He might likewise be charmed with a soft and melodious sound of heaven, well pronounced, without having any conception of heaven; but still much more charmed, if the idea of it accompanied the sound, and all the celestial scenery of delight, a blessed immortality, God, and glory, were set, as it were, before his eyes.

Such force has sound over the human soul, to animate and calm its passions; and when proper action is added to proper sound, which two parts constitute the mechanical power of eloquence, the effects of it are as certain as the effects of wine, and its strength as irresistible. In this respect men resemble musical instruments, and may be wound up, or let down, to any pitch, by touching skillfully the stops and chords of the animal spirits. An expert hand can make a violin rage as violently, weep as bitterly, beg as heartily, and complain as mournfully, as words can express those several passions; and more than words, without proper modulation, can express them. Timotheus the musician played before Alexander the Great an air so martial and animating, that he started from the table in a warlike fury, and called for his horse and his arms; and by another soft air so quelled the hostile tumult in his mind, that he sat down quietly to meat again. Thus was the conqueror of the world himself conquered by sound! Drums and trumpets make men bold: And the Marquis de Biron, one of the bravest men that ever lived, died like a coward for want of them.

In a day of battle, when the onset is animated by all the awakening military sounds of a camp, the eager neighing of the horses, and even the busy and hollow treading of their feet; a general and warlike murmur of every man preparing to fight; the clattering of arms, calling into the imagination the sudden use that is to be made of them; the hasty thunder and vehement rattling of drums, inspiring an impatience for battle; the dead and sullen dubbing of the kettle-drums, creating a steady and obstinate bravery; and, above all, the loud and shrill clangor of the trumpet, rousing a cheerful and lively boldness: All these hostile sounds, each of them destructive of coldness and fear, must occupy and incense every spirit that a man has in him, set his soul in a flame, and make even cowards resolute and brave.

I have seen a beggar gain an alms by a heavy and affecting groan, when a speech of Cicero’s composing, spoken without Cicero’s art, would not have gained it. That groan struck the animal spirits sympathetically; and, being continued to the imagination, raised up there a thousand sudden conjectures and preoccupations in his favour, and a thousand circumstances of distress, which he who uttered it perhaps never felt, nor thought of. Looks and appearances have the like efficacy: Another beggar, shivering and naked in a cold wet day, with humble, pale, and hungry looks, or despairing ones, shall be as eloquent, without uttering a word, as the other by uttering a groan. The human sympathy in our souls raises a party for him within us, and our fancy immediately represents us to ourselves in the same doleful circumstances; and, for that time, we feel all that the beggar feels, probably much more; for he is used to it, and can bear it better. If to the above melancholy sound and miserable sight, we add the grievous symptoms of pain, sickness, and anguish (as one often meets with objects under all these terrible classes of misery), there is no pitch of human pity and horror, that such a group of human woes cannot raise.

Now, if single sound be thus bewitching, and gesture alone thus persuasive, and still greatly more when united; how vastly prevailing must be their force, when it comes arrayed and heightened by a swelling and irresistible tide of words, enlivened by the most forcible and rapid ideas, and bears down all before it? When the orator attracts your eyes, charms your ears, and forces your attention; brings heaven and earth into his cause, and seems but to represent them, to speak their sense, and to contend for their interest? When he carries your passions in his hands, suspends or controls all your faculties, and yet persuades you that your own faculties guide you? When he lessens great things, magnifies little things, and disguises all; his very gesture is animated, and every muscle persuades; his words lighten, and his breath is on fire; every word glows, and every image flames; he fills, delights, kindles, and astonishes, your imagination; raises a storm in your heart, and governs you in that storm; rouses all that is human in you, and makes your own heart conspire against you! In this magical and outrageous tempest, you are at the entire mercy of him who raised it.

Caesar was resolved to punish Q. Ligarius; but Cicero had a mind to save him, and undertook his defence. Caesar admitted him to speak, only out of the gaiety of his heart, and for the mere pleasure of hearing him; for he was determined not to be shaken from his purpose. But he was deceived: Cicero in the very beginning of his speech wonderfully moved him, and proceeded in it with such a variety of pathos, and such an amazing grace, that Caesar often changed countenance; and it was plain that his soul was in a hurricane, and that all his passions were agitated. But the orator touching artfully upon the battle of Pharsalia, so transported him, that he trembled all over; the papers which he held dropped out of his hands; and, being quite overcome, he acquitted Ligarius.

What an amazing instance of the power of speaking! Behold the great and conquering Caesar, the absolute master of Rome, and of all the Roman world, provoked at a man who had borne arms against him, fixed upon his doom, and life and death in his hands! Behold this great and arbitrary man, this angry, awful, and prepossessed, judge, overpowered by the force of eloquence, disarmed of his wrath, his designs wrested from him, his inclinations, when he thought himself best fortified in them, entirely changed, and himself, from being terrible, brought to tremble! Caesar too was a great orator, and had often tried upon others, with success, the power of his own rhetoric; but was not then aware how much it could do upon himself. It was Cicero, it was the orator, and not the cause, that triumphed here. The bare sense of that fine speech would not have suspended Caesar’s displeasure for a moment: But the speaker was not to be resisted: All opposition fled, and every spark of resentment vanished, before him. The emperor was enchanted by the orator; and Caesar was, as it were, possessed of Cicero.

I am, &c.

P.S. I have in these two letters comprised all that I purposed to say upon eloquence: In my last I have considered it politically, in this philosophically; and in both I have shewn its force. I have likewise examined the several kinds of it, as far as it affects my present purpose; and shewn, how it affects government and human nature, and from what sources in both it proceeds. Those who would study it as an art, and know the many accomplishments necessary to excel in it, must read Cicero de Oratore and Quintilian.


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