Demosthenes/Conclusion


CONCLUSION.


Demosthenes is one of those men concerning whom, both as a statesman and an orator, there cannot be much difference of opinion. As a statesman, he is unanimously eulogised by modern historians of the first rank—such as Thirlwall, Grote, and Curtius. Every one who sees anything to esteem and admire in old Greek life, must esteem and admire Demosthenes. His political career was a consistent one. He clung to and worked for one idea. That idea was a free and independent Greece, of which his own Athens had, morally and intellectually, the right to be head. It was not, as we have seen, the view of Isocrates; nor was it afterwards that of the historian Polybius. Both these men refused to believe that Greece could any longer be what she had been. Both were honest and conscientious thinkers; but we can never have quite the same feeling towards the man who is inclined to despair of a great cause as we have towards him who will persist in hoping against hope. It was this which Demosthenes did through life amid many discouragements; and this gives him a moral greatness which we believe posterity will always recognise. Such a man would be sure in his public speeches to appeal to conscience, to the moral sense, and to a lofty patriotism. The appeals may have often fallen dead; but he could not help believing that there was still a spirit in his countrymen which, if rightly invoked, might yet be roused, and stir them to the deeds of their forefathers. This was the faith of Demosthenes. This it was which made him dislike and distrust even the noble speculations and philosophy of Plato. These, he felt—as many an Englishman might have felt—would tend to carry Athenians away from the practical sphere of politics into a shadowy realm of ideas. Athens, he thought, ought still to assert her greatness and dignity, and he had something in regard to her of the feeling which Virgil has expressed in the well-known line—

"Tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento."[1]

As an orator he has, almost without question, been unrivalled. Lord Brougham, in his dissertation on the oratory of the ancients, confidently pronounces this opinion, and we are not aware that there is or has been any dissent from it. His eloquence was the joint product of natural genius and elaborate study. Quintilian says, on the whole truly, that Cicero owed more to study, and Demosthenes to nature. Still, as we have seen, Demosthenes did his best to perfect his great natural gifts by the most assiduous application. His industry was prodigious. He left behind him a collection of exordia, or introductions to speeches, which it seems that Cicero had by him. He was continually revising his words and phrases. All his speeches, as far as we know, were the result of careful preparation. His speaking exhibited great varieties. His opponent is often scathed with an eloquence not unlike that of the late Lord Derby, when his words were inspired by a strong moral indignation. Some of his speeches remind us of the subtle and ingenious reasoning of Mr Gladstone. Such is the speech we have noticed, in which he argues for the repeal of the law of Leptines. In others, again—the Olynthiac orations especially, and that for the Crown against Æschines—we have passages which recall to our memories the impassioned fervour of some of the most eloquent speeches of Mr Bright. There is the same impressive appeal to the human conscience, and to the worth and grandeur of freedom. At the same time, he was a most dexterous master of his art. James Mill used to point out to his famous son "how, first, Demosthenes said everything important to his purpose at the exact moment when he had brought the minds of his hearers into the state most fitted to receive it; second, how he insinuated, gradually and indirectly, ideas which would have roused opposition if directly presented." Generally, he was a thoroughly successful speaker, winning many a triumph in the Assembly and the law court, and finally discomfiting his able rival. And it must indeed have been an inspiriting recollection to him when he looked back to Chæroneia, where, thanks to his eloquence, Athenians and Thebans fought side by side in the cause of Greece.


END OF DEMOSTHENES.

  1. "Thine, Roman, be the claim to rule the world."