Demosthenes

, one of the greatest orators of antiquity, was born at Athens, in the second year of the 101st olympiad; or about 370 years before Christ. He was first placed under Plato and Euclid of Megara to study philosophy; but, observing with what applause Callistratus pleaded before the people, he applied to the study of oratory, under Isocrates and Isa3us. He was left fatherless when very young, and much neglected and defrauded by his guardians; on which account he pleaded against them at seventeen years of age, and with so much success, that they were condemned to pay him 30 talents; but, it is said, he forgave them. This was the first time that he distinguished himself by his eloquence, which at length he improved to such perfection, that Philip said “it was of more weight against him, than all the fleets and armies of the Athenians” and that “he had no enemy but Demosthenes” and Demetrius Phalereus and Eratosthenes said, “he actually appeared like one inspired.” He could | present an object in any light he pleased, and give it whatever colouring best answered his purpose; and where he found it difficult to convince the judgment, he knew how to seduce the imagination. He was not perhaps so universal an orator as Cicero, not so powerful in panegyric, nor had he his turn for raillery; and Longinus says, whenever he attempted to jest, the laugh was sure to turn upon himself. But then he had a force of oratory, which, as Longinus observes, bore down, like a torrent, all before it. He opposed Philip of Macedon with his full strength, and Alexander after him. Alexander requested of the Athenians to have Demosthenes given up to him, but this was refused; yet when Antipater his successor made the same request afterwards, after his victory, these same Athenians, as the price of their pardon, were obliged to sacrifice Demosthenes and the orators of the same party. On the motion of Demades, a decree having passed condemning them to death, Demosthenes took sanctuary in the temple of Neptune at Calauria, but apprehending that attempts would be made to seize him, he provided himself with poison; and when taken by an emissary of Antipater, he retired to the interior part of the temple, and swallowed the dose. Immediately turning to Archias, the messenger of Antipater, who had been a player, he said, “Now you may perform the part of Creon as soon as you please, and cast out this carcase unburied.” Then turning to the altar, he exclaimed, “O gracious Neptune! I depart alive from thy temple without profaning it, which the Macedonians would have done by my murder.” Staggering as he attempted to retire, he fell by the altar, and expired at the age of fifty-nine, in the year B. C. 322. The Athenians not long after, erected his statue in brass, and decreed that the eldest of his family should be maintained at the public expence.

Although the regard that has been paid to the memory of Demosthenes has chiefly been on account of his eloquence, he was likewise a very able statesman, and a patriot; and, from the accounts we have of the embassies and expeditions, the treaties and alliances, and other various negotiations in which he was employed, together with the zeal and integrity with which he acted in them, we may conclude that he excelled as much in those capacities, as in that of an orator; though it must be confessed that his eloquence was the foundation of his advancement in | other respects. But though he arrived to such perfection in this arc, he set out under great disadvantages; having an impediment in his speech, which for a long time would not suffer him to pronounce the letter R. He had likewise a weak voice, a short breath, and a very uncouth and ungracious manner, yet by dint of resolution and infinite pains, he overcame all these defects. He accustomed himself to climb up steep and craggy places to facilitate his breathing, and strengthen his voice; he declaimed with pebbles in his mouth, to remedy the imperfection in his speech; he placed a looking-glass before him, to correct the awkwardness of his gesture; and he learned of the best players the proper graces of action and pronunciation, which he thought of so much consequence, that he made the whole art of oratory in a manner to consist of them. But whatever stress he laid upon tt;e exterior part of speaking, he was also very careiul about the matter and the style, the latter of which he formed upon the model of Thucydides, whose history, for that purpose, he transcribed eight several times. He was so intent upon his study, that he would often retire into a cave of the earth, and shave half his head, so that he could not with decency appear abroad till his hair was grown again. He also accustomed himself to harangue at the seashore, where the agitation of the waves formed to him an idea of the commotions in a popular assembly, and served to prepare and fortify him against them. From this strict discipline, which he imposed upon himself, he became an instance how far parts and application may go towards perfection in any profession, notwithstanding the strongest natural impediments.

With respect to his character as a man of integrity and a patriot, Philip was not wanting in endeavours to corrupt him, as he had endeavoured to corrupt, and with success, most of the other leading men in Greece; but Demosthenes withstood all his offers; and Plutarch says, that all the gold of Macedonia could not bribe him. And yet, as inflexible as he was to Philip, he became more pliable in the reign of his successor, and gave occasion to his enemies to accuse him of bribery; for which he was fined and imprisoned, and afterwards banished; but the charge has by some been thought groundless and malicious, and the rather because he was not allowed to justify himself‘. That accomplished scholar and lawyer, Mr. Charles Yorke, is | said to have written a dissertation upon this subject, in which all the evidence supplied by the writers of antiquity is carefully collected, and judiciously examined, and in which Mr. Yorke’s decision is in favour of Demosthenes. It is to be regretted that this curious dissertation is still allowed to remain unpublished. Another circumstance in. the character of Demosthenes is more singular. He who with such constancy and intrepidity opposed all the measures of the foreign and domestic enemies of his country, and who so often at the hazard of his life braved the madness of the people in their assemblies, was yet unable to stand an enemy in the field. He chose, says Plutarch, to swear by those who fell at Marathon, though he could not follow their example; yet he afterwards refused life when it was offered him, and died with great fortitude. With all this mixture of character, however, Demosthenes did more service to the state than any of his contemporaries, and was the chief bulwark, not only of Athens, but of Greece in general, and almost the only obstacle to Philip’s designs of enslaving it.

In his Olynthiacs and Philippics, which are his capital orations, he had a fine field for the display of his talents, the object he had in view being to excite the indignation of his countrymen against Philip, and to guard them against the insidious measures by which that crafty prince endeavoured to lull them into security. In the prosecution of this, he adopts every proper method for animating a people once renowned for justice, humanity, and valour, but in many instances now become corrupt and degenerate. He boldly taxes them with their venality, indolence, and indifference to the public cause; whilst with consummate art, he calls to their remembrance the glory of their ancestors, and leads them to consider that they were still a flourishing and powerful people, the natural protectors of the liberty of Greece, and that they only wanted the inclination to exert themselves, in order to make Philip tremble. With his contemporary orators, who were in the interest of Philip, or who persuaded the people to peace, he keeps no measures, but reproaches them as the betrayers of their country. Phocion was of this number; he on all occasions opposed the violence of the people; and when Demosthenes once told him that the Athenians would some day murder him in a mad fit, he answered, “And you too, perhaps, in a sober fit.” These orations are strongly | animated, and abounding with the impetuosity and fire of public spirit. The figures which he uses rise naturally from the subject, and are employed sparingly, for splendour and ornament do not distinguish the compositions of Demosthenes. His character, as an orator, depends upou an energy of thought peculiar to himself, which elevates him above all others. Things, and not words, appear to be the objects of his attention. He has no parade and ostentation; no methods of insinuation; no laboured introductions; but like a man fully possessed by his subject, after preparing his audience by a sentence or two for hearing plain truths, he enters directly on business, warming the mind, and impelling to action.

His style, says Dr. Blair, whom we have already partly followed, “is strong and concise, though sometimes, it must not be dissembled, harsh and abrupt. His words are very expressive; his arrangement is firm and manly; and though far from being unmusical, yet it seems difficult to find in him that studied but concealed number and rhythmus, which some of the ancient critics are fond of attributing to him. Negligent of these lesser graces, one would rather conceive him to have aimed at that sublime which lies in sentiment. His action and pronunciation are recorded to have been uncommonly vehement and ardent: which, from the manner of his composition, we are led to believe. The character which one forms of him, from reading his works, is of the austere, rather tban the gentle kind. He is, on every occasion, grave, serious, passionate, taking every thing in a high tone; never lets himself down, nor attempts any thing like pleasantry. If any fault can. be found with his admirable eloquence, it is that he sometimes borders on the hard and dry. He may be thought to want smoothness and grace; which Dionysius of Halicarnassus attributes to his imitating too closely the manner of Thucydides, who was his great model for style. But these defects are far more than compensated, by that admirable and masterly force of masculine eloquence, which, as it overpowered all who heard it, cannot, at this day, be read without emotion.” However just this remark, it must be received with some limitation. No modern reader, and no modern nation can now be so affected with mere eloquence as to be sensible of the effects produced by that of Demosthenes, which after all, like the merits of a great player, must rest principally on historical | evidence. Demosthenes is said to have composed sixty-five orations, of which a small proportion has reached our tirfies; nor has he been so fortunate in his editors as the majority of the classic writers. The best editions are those of Wolfius, Francfort, 1604, folio; of Taylor, vols. II. and III, Cambridge, 1748 57, 4to; the first volume never appeared; and of Reiske, Leipsic, 1770, 12 vols. 8vo. The best English translations are those of Dr. Leland and Mr. Francis. 1

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Plutarch in vit. Demost. Gen. Dict. Blair’s Lectures. Beloe’s Herodotus. —Saxii Onomast.