This, then, is what we are principally to learn; this is what we can not attain without the help of art; this ought to be the object of our study, our exercise, our imitation; this may be full employment for our whole life; by this, one orator excels another; and from this proceeds diversity of style.
THE PROPER VALUE OF WORDS
It should not be inferred from what is said here that all our care must be about words. On the contrary, to such as would abuse this concession of mine, I declare positively my disapprobation of those persons who, neglecting things, the nerves of causes, consume themselves in a frivolous study about words. This they do for the sake of elegance, which indeed is a fine quality when natural but not when affected. Sound bodies, with a healthy condition of blood, and strong by exercise, receive their beauty from the very things from which they receive their strength. They are fresh-colored, active, and supple, neither too much nor too little in flesh. Paint and polish them with feminine cosmetics, and admiration ceases; the very pains taken to make them appear more beautiful add to the dislike we conceive for them. Yet a magnificent, and suitable, dress adds authority to man; but an effeminate dress, the garb of luxury and softness, lays open the corruption of the heart without adding to the ornament of the body. In like manner, translucent and flashy elocution weakens the things it clothes. I would, therefore, recommend care about words, but solicitude about things.
The choicest expressions are for the most part inherent in things, and are seen in their own light, but we search after them as if always hiding and stealing themselves away from us. Thus we never think that what ought to be said is at hand; we fetch it from afar, and force our invention. Eloquence requires a more manly temper, and if its whole body be sound and vigorous, it is quite regardless of the nicety of paring the nails and adjusting the hair.
THE DANGER OF VERBIAGE
It often happens, too, that an oration becomes worse by attending to these niceties, because simplicity, the language of truth, is its greatest ornament, and affectation the reverse. The expressions that show care, and would also appear as newly formed, fine, and eloquent, lose the graces at which they aim, and are far from being striking and well received, because they obscure the sense by spreading a sort of shadow about it, or by being too crowded they choke it up, like thick-sown grain that must run up too spindling. That which may be spoken in a plain, direct manner we express by paraphrase; and we use repetitions where to say a thing once is enough; and what is well signified by one word, we load with many, and most things we choose to signify rather by circumlocution than by proper and pertinent terms.
A proper word, indeed, now has no charms, nothing appearing to us fine which might have been said by another word. We borrow metaphors from the whims and conceits of the most extravagant poets, and we fancy ourselves exceedingly witty, when others must have a good deal of wit to understand us. Cicero is explicit in his views in this respect. "The greatest fault a speech can have," says he, "is when it departs from the common way of discourse and the custom of common sense." But Cicero would pass for a harsh and barbarous author, compared to us, who make little of whatever nature dictates, who seek not ornaments, but delicacies and refinements, as if there were any beauty in words without an agreement with things, for if we were to labor throughout our whole life in consulting their propriety, clearness, ornament, and due placing, we should lose the whole fruit of our studies.
ACQUIRING A PRACTICAL VOCABULARY
Yet many are seen to hesitate at single words, even while they invent, and reflect on and measure what they invent. If this were done designedly to use always the best, this unhappy temper would still be detestable, as it must check the course of speaking and extinguish the heat of thought by delay and diffidence. For the orator is wretched, and, I may say, poor, who can not patiently lose a word. But he will lose none who first has studied a good manner of speaking, and by reading well the best authors has furnished himself with a copious supply of words and made himself expert in the art of placing them. Much practise will so improve him afterward that he always will have them at hand and ready for use, the thought fitting in naturally with the proper manner of expression.
But all this requires previous study, an acquired faculty, and a rich fund of words. For solicitude in regard to inventing, judging, and comparing, should take place when we learn, and not when we speak. Otherwise they who have not sufficiently cultivated their talents for speaking will experience the fate of those who have made no provision for the future. But if a proper stock of words is already prepared, they will attend as in duty bound, not so much in the way of answering exigencies as always to seem inherent in the thought and to follow as a shadow does a body.
HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT WORDS
Yet this care should not exceed its due bounds, for when words are authorized by use, are significant, elegant, and aptly placed, what more need we trouble ourselves about? But some eternally will find fault, and almost scan every syllable, who, even when they have found what is best, seek after something that is more ancient, remote, and unexpected, not understanding that the thought must suffer in a discourse, and can have nothing of value, where only the words are commendable. Let us, therefore, pay particular regard to elocution, yet, at the same time be convinced that nothing is to be done for the sake of words, they having been invented solely for the sake of things. The most proper words always will be those which are best expressive of the ideas in our mind, and which produce in the ideas of the judges the effect we desire. Such undoubtedly will make a speech both admirable and pleasing, but not so admirable as are prodigies, nor pleasing by a vicious and unseemly pleasure, but a pleasure reflecting dignity with praise.