Rhetoric and Eloquence

Rhetoric has been commonly defined as "The power of persuading." This opinion originated with Isocrates, if the work ascribed to him be really his; not that he intended to dishonor his profession, tho he gives us a generous idea of rhetoric by calling it the workmanship of persuasion. We find almost the same thing in the Gorgias of Plato, but this is the opinion of that rhetorician, and not of Plato. Cicero has written in many places that the duty of an orator is to speak in "a manner proper to persuade"; and in his books of rhetoric, of which undoubtedly he does not approve himself, he makes the end of eloquence to consist in persuasion.

But does not money likewise persuade? Is not credit, the authority of the speaker, the dignity of a respectable person, attended with the same effect? Even without speaking a word, the remembrance of past services, the appearance of distress, a beautiful aspect, make deep impressions on minds and are decisive in their favor.

Did Antonius, pleading the cause of M. Aquilius, trust to the force of his reasons when he abruptly tore open his garment and exposed to view the honorable wounds he received fighting for his country? This act of his forced streams of tears from the eyes of the Roman people, who, not able to resist so moving a spectacle, acquitted the criminal. Sergius Galba escaped the severity of the laws by appearing in court with his own little children, and the son of Gallus Sulpitius, in his arms. The sight of so many wretched objects melted the judges into compassion. This we find equally attested by some of our historians and by a speech of Cato. What shall I say of the example of Phryne, whose beauty was of more service in her cause than all the eloquence of Hyperides; for tho his pleading was admirable in her defense, yet perceiving it to be without effect, by suddenly laying open her tunic he disclosed the naked beauty of her bosom, and made the judges sensible that she had as many charms for them as for others. Now, if all these instances persuade, persuasion, then, can not be the end of rhetoric.

Some, therefore, have seemed to themselves rather more exact who, in the main of the same way of thinking, define rhetoric as the "Power of persuading by speaking." It is to this that Gorgias, in the book above cited, is at last reduced by Socrates. Theodectes does not much differ from them, if the work ascribed to him be his, or Aristotle's. In this book the end of rhetoric is supposed to be "The leading of men wherever one pleases by the faculty of speaking." But this definition is not sufficiently comprehensive. Many others besides the orator persuade by their words and lead minds in whatever direction they please.

Some, therefore, as Aristotle, setting aside the consideration of the end, have defined rhetoric to be "The power of inventing whatever is persuasive in a discourse." This definition is equally as faulty as that just mentioned, and is likewise defective in another respect, as including only invention, which, separate from elocution, can not constitute a speech.

It appears from Plato's Gorgias that he was far from regarding rhetoric as an art of ill tendency, but that, rather it is, or ought to be, if we were to conceive an adequate idea of it inseparable from virtue. This he explains more clearly in his Phaedrus, where he says that "The art can never be perfect without an exact knowledge and strict observance of justice." I join him in this opinion, and if these were not his real sentiments, would he have written an apology for Socrates and the eulogium of those brave citizens who lost their lives in the defense of their country? This is certainly acting the part of an orator, and if in any respect he attacks the profession, it is on account of those who make ill use of eloquence. Socrates, animated with the same spirit, thought it unworthy of him to pronounce the speech Lysias had composed for his defense, it being the custom of the orators of those times to write speeches for arraigned criminals, which the latter pronounced in their own defense; thus eluding the law that prohibited pleading for another. Plato, likewise, in his Phaedrus, condemns the masters that separated rhetoric from justice, and preferred probabilities to truth.

Such are the definitions of rhetoric which have been principally set forth. To go through all of them is not my purpose, nor do I think it possible, as most writers on arts have shown a perverse dislike for defining things as others do or in the same terms as those who wrote before them. I am far from being influenced by a like spirit of ambition, and far from flattering myself with the glory of invention, and I shall rest content with that which seems most rational, that rhetoric is properly defined as "The science of speaking well." Having found what is best, it is useless to seek further.

Accepting this definition, therefore, it will be no difficult matter to ascertain its end, for if it be "The science of speaking well," then "to speak well" will be the end it proposes to itself.


The next question is on the utility of rhetoric, and from this point of view some direct the bitterest invectives against it, and what is very unbecoming, exert the force of eloquence against eloquence, saying that by it the wicked are freed from punishment, and the innocent opprest by its artifices; that it perverts good counsel, and enforces bad; that it foments troubles and seditions in States; that it arms nations against each other, and makes them irreconcilable enemies; and that its power is never more manifest than when error and lies triumph over truth.

Comic poets reproach Socrates with teaching how to make a bad cause good, and Plato represents Lysias and Gorgias boasting the same thing. To these may be added several examples of Greeks and Romans, and a long list of orators whose eloquence was not only the ruin of private persons, but even destructive to whole cities and republics; and for this reason it was that eloquence was banished from Sparta and so restricted at Athens that the orator was not allowed to make appeal to the passions.

Granting all this as sound argument, we must draw this necessary inference, that neither generals of armies, nor magistrates, nor medicine, nor philosophy, will be of any use. Flaminius, an imprudent general, lost one of our armies. The Gracchi Saturninus, and Glaucia, to raise themselves to dignity, put Rome into an uproar. Physicians often administer poisons, and among philosophers some have been found guilty of the most enormous crimes. Let us not eat of the meats with which our tables are spread, for meats frequently have caused disease. Let us never go into houses; they may fall and crush us to death. Let not our soldiers be armed with swords; a robber may use the same weapon against us. In short, who does not know that the most necessary things in life, as air, fire, water, nay, even the celestial bodies, are sometimes very injurious to our well-being?

But how many examples can be quoted in our favor? Did not Appius the Blind, by the force of his eloquence dissuade the Senate from making a shameful peace with Pyrrhus? Did not Cicero's divine eloquence appear more popular than the Agrarian law he attacked? Did it not disconcert the audacious measures of Cataline? And did not he, even in his civil capacity, obtain by it honors that are conferred on only the most illustrious conquerors? Is it not the orator who strengthens the soldier's drooping courage, who animates him amidst the greatest dangers, and inspires him to choose a glorious death rather than a life of infamy?

The example of the Romans, among whom eloquence always has been held in the greatest veneration, shall have a higher place in my regard than that of the Spartans and Athenians. It is not to be supposed that the founders of cities could have made a united people of a vagabond multitude without the charms of persuasive words, nor that law-givers, without extraordinary talent for speaking, could have forced men to bend their necks to the yoke of the laws. Even the precepts of moral life, tho engraved on our hearts by the finger of nature, are more efficacious to inspire our hearts with love for them when their beauty is displayed by the ornaments of eloquent speech. Tho the arms of eloquence may harm and benefit equally, we must not, therefore, look on that as bad which may be put to a good use. Doubts of this kind may well be entertained by such as make "the force persuasion the end of eloquence," but we who constitute it "The science of speaking well," resolved to acknowledge none but the good man an orator, must naturally judge that its advantage is very considerable.

Certainly, the gracious Author of all beings and Maker of the world, has distinguished us from the animals in no respect more than by the gift of speech. They surpass us in bulk, in strength, in the supporting of toil, in speed, and stand less in need of outside help. Guided by nature only, they learn sooner to walk, to seek for their food, and to swim over rivers. They have on their bodies sufficient covering to guard them against cold; all of them have their natural weapons of defense; their food lies, in a manner, on all sides of them; and we, indigent beings! to what anxieties are we put in securing these things? But God, a beneficent parent, gave us reason for our portion, a gift which makes us partakers of a life of immortality. But this reason would be of little use to us, and we would be greatly perplexed to make it known, unless we could express by words our thoughts. This is what animals lack, more than thought and understanding, of which it can not be said they are entirely destitute. For to make themselves secure and commodious lodges, to interweave their nests with such art, to rear their young with such care, to teach them to shift for themselves when grown up, to hoard provisions for the winter, to produce such inimitable works as wax and honey, are instances perhaps of a glimmering of reason; but because destitute of speech, all the extraordinary things they do can not distinguish them from the brute part of creation. Let us consider dumb persons: how does the heavenly soul, which takes form in their bodies, operate in them? We perceive, indeed, that its help is but weak, and its action but languid.


If, then, the beneficent Creator of the world has not imparted to us a greater blessing than the gift of speech, what can we esteem more deserving of our labor and improvement, and what object is more worthy of our ambition than that of raising ourselves above other men by the same means by which they raise themselves above beasts, so much the more as no labor is attended with a more abundant harvest of glory? To be convinced of this we need only consider by what degrees eloquence has been brought to the perfection in which we now see it, and how far it might still be perfected. For, not to mention the advantage and pleasure a good man reaps from defending his friends, governing the Senate by his counsels, seeing himself the oracle of the people, and master of armies, what can be more noble than by the faculty of speaking and thinking, which is common to all men, to erect for himself such a standard of praise and glory as to seem to the minds of men not so much to discourse and speak, but, like Pericles, to make his words thunder and lightning.


There would be no end were I to expatiate to the limit of my inclination on the subject of the gift of speech and its utility. I shall pass, therefore, to the following question, "Whether rhetoric be an art?" Those who wrote rules for eloquence doubted so little its being so, that they prefixt no other title to their books than "The art of speaking." Cicero says that what we call rhetoric is only an artificial eloquence. If this were an opinion peculiar to orators, it might be thought that they intended it as a mark of dignity attached to their studies, but most philosophers, stoics as well as peripatetics, concur in this opinion. I must confess I had some doubt about discussing this matter, lest I might seem diffident of its truth; for who can be so devoid of sense and knowledge as to find art in architecture, in weaving, in pottery, and imagine that rhetoric, the excellence of which we have already shown, could arrive at its present state of grandeur and perfection without the direction of art? I am persuaded that those of the contrary opinion were so more for the sake of exercising their wit on the singularity of the subject than from any real conviction.


Some maintain that rhetoric is a gift of nature, yet admit that it may be helped by exercise. Antonius, in Cicero's books of the Orator, calls it a sort of observation and not an art. But this opinion is not there asserted as truth, but only to keep up the character of Antonius, who was a connoisseur at concealing art. Lysias seems to be of the same opinion, which he defends by saying that the most simple and ignorant people possess a kind of rhetoric when they speak for themselves. They find something like an exordium, they make a narration, they prove, refute, and their prayers and entreaties have the force of a peroration. Lysias and his adherents proceed afterward to vain subtleties. "That which is the effect of art," say they, "could not have existed before art. In all times men have known how to speak for themselves and against others, but masters of rhetoric have been only of a late date, first known about the time of Tisias and Corax; therefore oratorical speech was prior to art, consequently it could not be the result of art, and therefore, rhetoric is not an art." We shall not endeavor to enquire into the time when rhetoric began to be taught, but this we may say, that it is certain Homer makes mention not only of Phoenix, who was a master, skilled in both speaking and fighting, but also of many other orators. We may observe likewise from Homer, that all the parts of a discourse are found in the speech of the three captains deputed to Achilles, that several young men dispute for the prize of eloquence, and that among other ornaments of sculpture on the buckler of Achilles, Vulcan did not forget law-causes and the pleaders of them.

It will be sufficient, however, to answer that "Everything perfected by art has its source in nature." If it were not so, we should exclude medicine from the catalog of arts, the discovery of which was owing to observations made on things conducive or harmful to public health, and in the opinion of some it is wholly grounded on experiments. Before it was reduced to an art, tents and bandages were applied to wounds, rest and abstinence cured fever; not that the reason of all this was then known, but the nature of the ailment indicated such curative methods and forced men to this regimen. In like manner architecture can not be an art, the first men having built their cottages without its direction. Music must undergo the same charge, as every nation has its own peculiarities in dancing and singing. Now, if by rhetoric be meant any kind of speech, I must own it prior to art; but if not everyone who speaks is an orator, and if in the primitive ages of the world men did not speak orator-like, the orator, consequently, must have been made so by art, and therefore could not exist before it.


The next objection is not one so much in reality as it is a mere cavil; that "Art never assents to false opinions, because it can not be constituted as such without precepts, which are always true; but rhetoric assents to what is false, therefore it is not an art." I admit that sometimes rhetoric says false things instead of true, but it does not follow that it assents to what is false. There is a wide difference between assenting to a falsehood, and making others assent to it. So it is that a general of an army often has recourse to stratagems. When Hannibal perceived himself to be blocked up by Fabius, he ordered faggots of brush-wood to be fastened about the horns of some oxen, and fire being set to the faggots, had the cattle driven up the mountains in the night, in order to make the enemy believe he was about to decamp. But this was only a false alarm, for he himself very well knew what his scheme was. When Theopompus the Spartan, by changing clothes with his wife, made his escape out of prison, the deception was not imposed upon himself, but upon his guards. Thus, when an orator speaks falsehood instead of truth, he knows what he is about; he does not yield to it himself, his intention being to deceive others. When Cicero boasted that he threw darkness on the minds of the judges, in the cause of Cluentius, could it be said that he himself was unacquainted with all the intricacies of his method of confusing their understanding of the facts? Or shall a painter who so disposes his objects that some seem to project from the canvas, others to sink in, be supposed not to know that they are all drawn on a plain surface?


It is again objected that "Every art proposes to itself an end; but rhetoric has no end, or does not put into execution the end it proposes to itself." This is false, as is shown from what already has been said concerning the end of rhetoric and in what it consists. The orator will never fail to obtain this end, for he always will speak well. This objection, therefore, can affect only those who make persuasion the end of rhetoric; but our orator, and our definition of art, are not restricted to events. An orator, indeed, strives to gain his cause; but suppose he loses it, as long as he has pleaded well he fulfils the injunctions of his art. A pilot desires to come safe into port, but if a storm sweeps away his ship, is he, on that account, a less experienced pilot? His keeping constantly to the helm is sufficient proof that he was not neglecting his duty. A physician tries to cure a sick person, but if his remedies are hindered in their operation by either the violence of the disease, the intemperance of the patient, or some unforeseen accident, he is not to be blamed, because he has satisfied all the directions of his art. So it is with the orator, whose end is to speak well; for it is in the act, and not in the effect, that art consists, as I shall soon make clear. Therefore, it is false to say that "Art knows when it has obtained its end, but rhetoric knows nothing of the matter," as if an orator could be ignorant of his speaking well and to the purpose.

But it is said, further, that rhetoric, contrary to the custom of all other arts, adopts vice, because it countenances falsehood and moves the passions. Neither of these are bad practises, and consequently not vicious, when grounded on substantial reasons. To disguise truth is sometimes allowable even in the sage, and if a judge can not be brought to do justice except by means of the passions, the orator must necessarily have recourse to them. Very often the judges appointed to decide are ignorant, and there is necessity for changing their wrongly conceived opinions, to keep them from error. Should there be a bench, a tribunal, an assembly of wise and learned judges whose hearts are inaccessible to hatred, envy, hope, fear, prejudice, and the impositions of false witnesses, there would be little occasion for the exertions of eloquence and all that might seem requisite would be only to amuse the ear with the harmony of cadence. But if the orator has to deal with light, inconstant, prejudiced, and corrupt judges, and if many embarrassments must be removed in order to throw light upon truth, then artful stratagem must fight the battle, and set all its engines to work, for he who is beaten out of the straight road can not get into it again except by another turnabout.


These are the principal objections which have been made against rhetoric. There are others of less moment but derived from the same source. That rhetoric is an art is thus briefly demonstrated. If art, as Cleanthes thinks, is a power which prepares a way and establishes an order, can it be doubted that we must keep to a certain way and a certain order for speaking well? And if, according to the most generally accepted opinion, we ought to call art, everything which by a combination of agreeing and co-exercised principles conducts to a useful end, have we not already shown that nothing of all this is lacking in rhetoric? Has it not, likewise, the two constituent parts of other arts, theory and practise? Again, if dialect be an art, as it is granted, for the same reason; so is rhetoric an art, the chief difference lying not so much in the genus as in the species. But we must not forget this observation, that art must be where a thing is done according to rule, and not at random; and art must be where he who has learned succeeds better than he who has not learned. But in matter of eloquence not only will the ignorant person be surpassed by the learned, but also the learned by the more learned; otherwise we should not have so many rules nor so many excellent masters. This ought to be acknowledged by all, but more especially by us who do not separate eloquence from the man of integrity.

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