THE character and qualifications of an orator are so well, and so fully handled in the following work, that it would be the height of presumption to say any thing further on these heads. Our author himself has rested his reputation upon the merits and execution of this performance, and all that is left for a translator is to endeavour that his original may not be disgraced by the copy, and that the friends of Cicero may not blush at the mean appearance he makes in a modern language. But it is impossible with any propriety to introduce my great author to the public in the following translation, without at the same time acquainting the world with the motives, I had almost said, with the necessity, of the present undertaking.
Men of learning are divided with regard to the merit of translations in general; I shall not pretend to decide upon either side; but I will venture to say, that if the present taste in learning should gain ground, this nation will soon have no other means left of being acquainted with the good sense of the ancients, but through translations. It is upon this footing only that I will justify the translation of a prose author; and I may appeal to every gentleman who converses abroad in the world, to every gentleman who has had any opportunities of being acquainted with the present trade of education, if, in this island, we are not in danger of losing not only the beauties, but even the meaning of those ancients, whose works are yet untranslated. While I say this, I am far from condemning the method of education that is now gone into. I am as sensible as this is a trading nation, that the education which most tends to qualify young gentlemen to support the interests of their country, which undoubtedly lies in commerce, is most to be pursued; but at the same time the nature of our government and constitution demands that gentlemen of property be conversant in other studies; and though there is not in this nation perhaps the same public demand for the knowledge and practice of the art, which is the immediate subject of these sheets, as there was in old Rome, yet I will venture to affirm, that in no age, and in no country, since the days of Cicero, they have been more useful and more necessary than in the present.
Looking upon this undertaking in that light, we shall find that it claims all the attention that is due to a public concern; and though a few of the many who may have occasion to practise the excellent rules laid down by our author, may understand, nay be pleased with them in the original, yet their importance and usefulness must in a great degree have been lost to the world, without the medium of a modern language. I am sorry to observe further, that for wanting that medium they have been in a great measure lost hitherto, and that they who are acquainted with the original, and shall take the trouble to read my author, even in the disguise, and under the disadvantages of a translation, will enter into all the sources of those amazing effects of eloquence which he had often felt, and perhaps practised, without being sensible of the cause to which they were owing.
Learning therefore may be called the auxiliary of good sense, and all learning that has not this in view is a pursuit unworthy of the care, and below the attention of reason. Good sense may subsist without learning, but this its aim is more uncertain, and its effects more irregular than when it has the assistance of the examples, the sentiments and the precepts of the greatest men of former ages. If we carry this observation further, we find that as the learning which has not the improvement of good sense ultimately in view is childish, so the good sense which has not virtue for its end, is dangerous. It was owing to the conviction of this great maxim that the Romans arose to such a height of power under many disadvantages of their constitution. It was this maxim that directed them to engraft arts upon government, and by that means each communicated strength and vigour to the other, till the loss of their virtue proved the ruin of both. Arts did indeed survive liberty, but their duration was but faint, and they but too frequently proved destructive to their possessors.
Let us now apply this observation to my author. He lived in a state where the radical power was in the people, and the people communicated dignity to every other branch of government. The genius of their constitution on the other hand inclined to monarchy; and the people, with the most embittered aversion to the name, were perpetually leaning to the thing. It was owing, more than once, to the senate and their magistrates, that they did not relapse into regal power; their own demands had ultimately this tendency; for the extremes of democracy border more nearly than any other form of government to the beginnings of tyranny. The wiser among the senate saw this, and eloquence was the only means of stemming or rather diverting the torrent of popular passions. This was the foundation of the great esteem which eloquence had always under the republican government of Rome; no other engine could have been applied with equal success. The people had found by the effects of their secessions from the senate, that though the balance of property was in favour of the senate and nobility, yet that power could command property. Good sense, directed them to find out this truth, a truth which after-ages and governments have affected to keep as a secret; and every people who are sensible of it will be able to retain their liberties. In short, if we consider the history of Rome through all the struggles betwixt the people and the senate, we find it no other than a struggle betwixt property which was vested in the senate, and power which lay in the people. The acquisitions obtained by the people were wrested from the senate, upon the great principle of the safety of the people being the first law in government, and that no positive institution could take place or stand in the way, of this great principle. Upon this principle they succeeded; but their success brought them to the brink of ruin: it is easy to raise a spirit in a people; but to know where to fix the proper bounds of that spirit is difficult. The passions of a people, though right and virtuous, may be corrupted by the private views of artful men; and it is commonly found that the people never reflect they have gone too far, till they find the lengths they have gone are irretrievable.
Things were drawing to this crisis when our author appeared upon the stage of life; and nothing can give the reader so high an idea of the power of that eloquence, which is so well described in the following Conferences, as by reflecting that for some time it was capable of balancing the contending parties of the Roman state; and had such a command over the passions of the people, as to keep the fate of the public for some time in suspense. But though it was perhaps happy for Rome that our author lived at that particular juncture, yet it was unhappy for himself. Had he lived in an age sooner than he did, and been endowed with the same temper and abilities, he might have saved his country from the miseries that afterwards befel her: had he on the other hand begun to live at the period when he fell, he might have passed his days in a splendor, dignity, and ease more agreeable to his own cast of mind; and though he could not have recovered the liberty of Rome, yet he might have found the means of making her chains sit lighter than they afterwards did. To prove the first of these propositions one needs but to reflect upon the fate of the Gracchi, and the consequences with which their ruin was attended. Both of them had great abilities, great qualities, great eloquence, and, so far as we are at liberty to judge from history, honest intentions. The people of Rome had never seen men of eloquence equal to theirs, espouse their interests. Eloquence till that time was almost monopolized, it was an arcanum imperii, an instrument of government in the hands of the senate. The senate used all precautions to keep it in this tract, and, as I observed before, it was the only engine that diverted the tide of popular passion, and weakened it so as not to beat too high upon their order and possession of their own authority. The Gracchi broke the enchantment, nay turned the artillery of the senate against itself. I shall not enter into the dispute at present, which were in the right—it is foreign to my purpose. I will however venture to say, that though the Gracchi fell in the struggle, yet they left several valuable legacies to the liberty of their country. These must have prolonged the duration of the Roman state, had not the faction by which the Gracchi fell, set a fatal precedent to teach succeeding times by melancholy experience, that when the sword is drawn by a government under the plea of necessity, the same sword will one time or other be successfully employed for subverting the government itself.
The necessities of the people justify an alteration of any positive act of government; but the necessities of government never can justify the weakening the security which the people have, either from their lives or properties. The death of the Gracchi introduced a set of maxims till that time unknown in Rome; the life of Cicero was spent in a continual struggle, on the one hand with the designs of artful men, who had cloaked their own ambition with the specious pretext of the people’s good, and on the other hand with the exercise of power vested in men, who by means of that pretext proved too powerful for the constitution. A tenderness for the safety of Roman citizens was the living spirit of the Roman laws; this tenderness was shocked by the death of the Gracchi; and the fates of the conspirators in the case of Catiline, though warranted by the strongest circumstances of necessity, served as a handle for driving our author into exile, and heightening his punishment with several aggravating marks of severity and ignominy.
The interlocutors of the following Conferences were principal actors in those scenes of deep distress that preceded our author’s appearance in public life. Their conduct was the model of his; their principles were adopted, and their learning improved by him. This work is the memorial of their virtues and abilities; and Cicero has preserved a scrupulous propriety in representing their several characters. I shall only anticipate my reader’s pleasure by prefixing any account of them in this preface; I will only add, that they are such as may be met with in the present age, and such as resemble those which may be found in our own country.
After what I have observed upon the importance of eloquence in the Roman republic the reader will not be surprised that our author has in their own persons brought in men of the greatest dignity in the state, as canvassing the subtleties and niceties of this art, and that in a manner which has ever since been confined to schools and academies. But we are to look upon eloquence in the days of our author as a political accomplishment. The lessons here delivered are lessons of government as well as of eloquence; and the practice here recommended, is a practice in the art of civil polity: an art by which the passions of the greatest people that ever existed were kept within the bounds of moderation, and the interests of the greatest empire that ever was founded were directed.
Having thus taken a short view of the importance of the art which is the subject of the following sheets, as it was practised in the great exigencies of the Roman government in the times of the republic, and endeavoured to give my reader a slight idea of the circumstances that concurred to render it so necessary; I come now to consider it as practised at the bar, when cases of private property were depending.
The possession of private property in old Rome was perhaps more precarious than it was in any state we read of; it depended so totally upon the judge, and power came to be so much engrossed by men of eloquence, that the man who was the advocate for property was its guardian, and generally either wholly, or in part came in the end to inherit it. Hence it came that the term they used to signify a counsel, or an advocate, was a patron: and it is from them, that to this day parties at law are called clients. Thus superiority and dependancy were the consequences of being an advocate and a party at law; and that advocate looked upon himself as having a right, not to a fee, but to the whole, or a part of that property which he recovered or defended. The reader may judge from this what prodigious advantages the practice of eloquence gave to the citizens of Rome; and how almost impossible it was, unless a man rose by arms, to get either power, reputation, or riches, but by means of this art.
As to the effect which eloquence had in the decision of cases as to life or death, these but seldom happened. Capital cases did not, as now, always affect the life of the party, but every case that affected his liberty, or reputation, was capital. By the Roman laws this was often the consequence of civil actions; and therefore I shall make no other remark upon the use that eloquence was of under this head, than that all I have said upon the former is applicable to this, and exists à fortiori.
I come now to consider the relation in which the art here treated of stands to our own country and constitution, and in order to do this more regularly, I shall pursue the same review I have made of the Roman state, but without taking the same liberties in reflecting upon either the principles or the execution of our government.
In England any man who knows the least of our laws and constitution, may perceive that every act of the legislature, every enacting measure that binds either the whole, or a part of the public, and every decision upon the life or the liberty of a subject must pass through an assembly of the people, either in their representative, incorporate, or collective capacity. There is no man who is endowed with a share of property, without any legal disqualification, who may not some time be a member of either the one or the other, and he is then a member of an assembly, in which the art of speaking, the art of reasoning, and that of judging, becomes absolutely necessary.
The highest assembly of the commons we know of in this country is an assembly in which every measure, and every decision is subjected to free and impartial debate. In subordinate assemblies no man is precluded from delivering his sentiments with freedom upon every measure under their deliberation; and the man who speaks well, if he does not always meet with success, is sure never to miss of applause. But, in order to succeed, natural abilities require the assistance of art; and though the knowledge of the art will never qualify a man for a speaker without a fund of good sense, yet good sense joined to art is of infinitely greater weight and efficacy than when it stands by itself, unassisted and unattended by art.
It is ridiculous to imagine that art imposes any fetters upon genius; so far from it, that she assists and reason directs it. It is owing to the study of eloquence being reduced to cramped and crabbed systems, that from being an useful art in government, it is become a pedantic jargon in schools. But the reason why it has now degenerated from its noble and generous station in the arts, is connected with the reason why the greatest part of mankind, who are not savages, are slaves. In free countries, such as old Rome once was, and ours is now, eloquence had objects worthy all her powers, and all her charms. She had then to operate upon the passions, the reason, and the sentiments of a people; but when tyranny abolished liberty those objects no longer existed; they were contracted into the will, the ambition, the whim, the caprice, or the vanity of a single man; of one who perhaps by the meanest, and most scandalous means, rose to be judge and master of the lives, the liberties, and properties of his fellow subjects. Such an object was unworthy of attention, unworthy the powers of eloquence; her force, which used to govern the passions of thousands, which used to spread a contagious tenderness through assemblies of the bravest people upon earth, must now be checked, it must be suppled, it must dwindle into adulation, it must creep in the strain which this person loves, and for which alone he has any feeling. In a free state the passions are strong, under tyranny they must appear languid. The preserving this appearance of languor renders them at last what they only seemed to be before. Eloquence by this means loses her noblest object; she labours to raise the dead, or the insensible, she loses both her power and their effects; and from being a manly study degenerates into a servile accomplishment.
It is therefore only from the precepts and practice of those who lived under free states, that we can expect to know the virtues and beauties of this divine art. But of all the free states we know or read of, that of Rome was supported by the most general passion for the public good; the virtues that made her great, were radical in her constitution, inseparable from the idea of her government, and subsisted for some time after the spirit of liberty was extinguished. This may seem a paradox; it may seem romantic; but our reflecting upon one circumstance of the Roman polity will clear it up.
The passions of the Romans for their country led them not to be confined to the study of arms, or the immediate arts of government, in order to make her great and powerful. They found the means of drawing the whole circle of the arts within their favourite system of public good. None stood single and by itself, they all were connected with, they all terminated in the public. None were valued as possessed in speculation; and all were despised that did not tend to enhance the glory or power of their country. Poetry, the most bewitching of all arts, was valued only as it had an influence upon the morals of mankind; the poetry that touched the tender passions was almost unknown in Rome till the beams of a court had melted their virtue, and softened their affections to take any impression which the art of the poet was pleased to bestow. Architecture did not then, as afterwards, employ all the magnificence of order, and the grace of harmony upon the buildings of private persons; their public buildings, the temples, their roads, their aqueducts, and other works of public utility; such works as might be compatible with the dignity of their empire, were erected and embellished by this art. Sculpture was employed in adorning the places of public meeting, and exhibited to the views of the people the representations of personages whose virtues rendered them the most worthy objects of their imitation. I might run on to exemplify this observation in other arts: I shall now confine myself to that which is the subject to my present undertaking.
In the following sheets the reader will easily perceive how much our author despises eloquence considered as detached from the purposes of civil life, and what a contemptible idea he raises of its speculative professors. No merit, no laughing, no genius in this way, though ever so great, could rescue the possessors from contempt, unless they were in a capacity to apply their talents to the service of the public. Even the condition of slavery was but seldom relieved by the most consummate merit in this art, since that condition disqualified the person from applying it to the service of Rome.
It was no wonder then if a government, which acquired so many accessions of strength and dignity from the arts, should rise to a greater pitch of power and majesty than other states who were deprived of these advantages. This is a character in which the Roman polity differed from all other states; even Greece was defective in this point. Her people had an exquisite sensibility, and were too apt to be bewitched by the charms of the arts, detached from civil uses. This enchantment made them indulge a passion for retirement and leisure; and hence it was that they honoured the speculative and the sedentary. Since the revival of learning in later ages, this mighty, this important secret, has not been found out, at least has not been attended to. To this inattention it is owing, that, even in our own country, some princes who have been the greatest patrons of liberty have neglected or despised the patronage of the arts; while others have but too successfully employed them in lulling mankind asleep, and enchanting the world, while they were prosecuting and executing the most pernicious designs against public liberty.
As history is the great instructer of public life, we may hope to see a time when this excellency of the Roman government shall be added to many others, in which Great Britain either equals or excels the Romans themselves. With regard to the art which we are now considering, this is not only practicable, but may be necessary. For though a particular taste in particular arts may prevail in most countries, yet eloquence being founded on reason, which is every where the same, and operating upon the passions of mankind, which differ only in their degrees of strength and weakness, its precepts are universal and eternal. Our author in laying down the rules contained in the following work derived advantages from helps and objects, of which we in this country and age are deprived. His genius was so comprehensive, that he exhausted his subject, so that all that has since appeared on this head are not improvements, but comments upon these excellent Conferences. It is from them that each species of eloquence has been derived; the rules contained in them are equally applicable to the practice of the senate, the bar, or the pulpit; they are equally fit for the many or the few; they teach how to reason as well as how to move, and to affect the head, as well as to touch the heart. They are so far from being impracticable, that every man of sense who speaks in public practises them in a greater or a less degree, and they are not founded upon any hypothesis, but reduced into a system from the reputed and unvarying experience of their effects. In short, though they are adapted to the use of mankind in general, yet they are most useful to the people, who, of all mankind, in their government and enjoyment of their civil rights and liberties, have the nearest resemblance to the people, for whose use they were most immediately intended.
I shall only add while I am upon this subject, that the following are adapted not only for the use of a speaker, but for that of a hearer. They are fitted to enable one to judge as well as to speak. It is through them that the mist vanishes, that the glare disappears which rhetoric knows how to throw upon truth and reason. It is from the precepts contained here, that we can trace causes from their effects; it is by them alone that we can fortify our affections against the enchantment of words, and the artful attacks of eloquence. Through them we can be pleased without being deceived, and in one sense they contain the whole art of imposing upon others without being imposed upon ourselves.
We are therefore to consider our orator as a workman, who knowing the powers of matter and mechanism, finished several machines which produced surprising and unaccountable effects; and this performance as an analysis, or explanation of those properties, and that disposition by which all this amazing power was exerted. We may consider him in another light—in that of a statesman, and this as his political confession laying open all the art which kept the vessel of government so long from oversetting, after it had been abandoned by the wiser and most skilful of its pilots.
As to my own performance in the following work, I rest its merit entirely upon the judgment of the public. My motives for attempting it before I went further in the translation of his other works, were, because it is a key to unfold the beauties that lie unobserved in the Orations. It was with this view, next to that of the public service, that our author composed this work; and the English reader will after reading it, enter with double pleasure upon the Orations.