Æschylus is the one who gave birth to tragedy. He is sublime, and grave, and often pompous to a fault. But his plots are mostly ill-contrived and as ill-conducted. For which reason the Athenians permitted the poets who came after him to correct his pieces and fit them for the stage, and in this way many of these poets received the honor of being crowned.
Sophocles and Euripides
Sophocles and Euripides brought tragedy to greater perfection; but the difference in their manner has occasioned dispute among the learned as to their relative poetic merits. For my part, I shall leave the matter undecided, as having nothing to do with my present purpose. It must be confest, nevertheless, that the study of Euripedes will be of much greater value to those who are preparing themselves for the bar; for besides the fact that his style comes nearer the oratorical style, he likewise abounds in fine thoughts, and in philosophic maxims is almost on an equality with philosophers, and in his dialog may be compared with the best speakers at the bar. He is wonderful, again, for his masterly strokes in moving the passions, and more especially in exciting sympathy.
There have been many famous writers of history, but all agree in giving the preference to two, whose perfections, tho different, have received an almost equal degree of praise. Thucydides is close, concise, and ever pressing on. Herodotus is sweet, natural, and copious. One is remarkable for his animated expression of the more impetuous passions, the other for gentle persuasion in the milder: the former succeeds in harangues and has more force; the other surpasses in speeches of familiar intercourse, and gives more pleasure.
A numerous band of orators follows, for Athens produced ten of them, contemporary with one another. Demosthenes was by far the chief of them, and in a manner held to be the only model for eloquence; so great is his force; so closely together are all things interwoven in his discourse, and attended with a certain self-command; so great is his accuracy, he never adopting any idle expression; and so just his precision that nothing lacking, nothing redundant, can be found in him. Æschines is more full, more diffusive, and appears the more grand, as he has more breadth. He has more flesh, but not so many sinews.
Lysias and Isocrates
Lysias, older than these, is subtle and elegant, and if it is enough for the orator to instruct, none could be found more perfect than he is. There is nothing idle, nothing far-fetched in him; yet is he more like a clear brook than a great river. Isocrates, in a different kind of eloquence, is fine and polished, and better adapted for engaging in a mock than a real battle. He was attentive to all the beauties of discourse, and had his reasons for it, having intended his eloquence for schools and not for contentions at the bar. His invention was easy, he was very fond of graces and embellishments, and so nice was he in his composition that his extreme care is not without reprehension.
Among philosophers, by whom Cicero confesses he has been furnished with many resourceful aids to eloquence, who doubts that Plato is the chief, whether we consider the acuteness of his dissertations, or his divine Homerical faculty of elocution? He soars high above prose, and even common poetry, which is poetry only because comprised in a certain number of feet; and he seems to me not so much endowed with the wit of a man, as inspired by a sort of Delphic oracle.
What shall I say of Xenophon's unaffected agreeableness, so unattainable by any imitation that the Graces themselves seem to have composed his language? The testimony of the ancient comedy concerning Pericles, is very justly applicable to him, "That the Goddess of Persuasion had seated herself on his lips."
Aristotle and Theophrastus
And what shall I say of the elegance of the other disciples of Socrates? What of Aristotle? I am at a loss to know what most to admire in him, his vast and profound erudition, or the great number of his writings, or his pleasing style and manner, or the inventions and penetration of his wit, or the variety of his works. And as to Theophrastus, his elocution has something so noble and so divine that it may be said that from these qualities came his name.
In regard to our Roman authors, we can not more happily begin than with Vergil, who of all their poets and ours in the epic style, is without any doubt the one who comes nearest to Homer. Tho obliged to give way to Homer's heavenly and immortal genius, yet in Vergil are to be found a greater exactness and care, it being incumbent on him to take more pains; so that what we lose on the side of eminence of qualities, we perhaps gain on that of justness and equability.
I proceed to our orators, who likewise may put Roman eloquence upon a par with the Grecian. Cicero I would strenuously oppose against any of them, tho conscious of the quarrel I should bring upon myself by comparing him with Demosthenes in a time so critical as this; especially as my subject does not oblige me to it, neither is it of any consequence, when it is my real opinion that Demosthenes ought to be particularly read, or, rather, committed to memory.
I must say, notwithstanding, that I judge them to be alike in most of the great qualities they possest; alike in design, disposition, manner of dividing, of preparing minds, of proving, in short in everything belonging to invention. In elocution there is some difference. The one is more compact, the other more copious; the one closes in with his opponent, the other allows him more ground to fight in; the one is always subtle and keen in argument, the other is perhaps less so, but often has more weight; from the one nothing can be retrenched, neither can anything be added to the other; the one has more study, the other more nature.
Still ought we to yield, if for no other reason than because Demosthenes lived before Cicero, and because the Roman orator, however great, is indebted for a large part of his merit to the Athenian. For it seems to me that Cicero, having bent all his thoughts on the Greeks, toward forming himself on their model, had at length made constituents of his character the force of Demosthenes, the abundance of Plato, and the sweetness of Isocrates. Nor did he only, by his application, extract what was best in these great originals, but by the happy fruitfulness of his immortal genius he himself produced the greater part, or rather all, of these same perfections. And to make use of an expression of Pindar, he does not collect the water from rains to remedy a natural dryness, but flows continually, himself, from a source of living waters, and seems to have existed by a peculiar gift of Providence, that in him eloquence might make trial of her whole strength and her most powerful exertions.
For who can instruct with more exactness, and move with more vehemence? What orator ever possest so pleasing a manner that the very things he forcibly wrests from you, you fancy you grant him; and when by his violence he carries away the judge, yet does the judge seem to himself to obey his own volition, and not to be swept away by that of another? Besides, in all he says there is so much authority and weight that you are ashamed to differ from him in opinion; and it is not the zeal of an advocate you find in him, but rather the faith and sincerity of a witness or judge. And what, at the same time, is more admirable, all these qualities, any one of which could not be attained by another without infinite pains, seem to be his naturally; so that his discourses, the most charming, the most harmonious, which possibly can be heard, retain, notwithstanding, so great an air of happy ease that they seem to have cost him nothing.
With good reason, therefore, is he said by his contemporaries to reign at the bar, and he has so far gained the good graces of posterity that Cicero is now less the name of a man than the name of eloquence itself. Let us then keep him in view, let him be our model, and let that orator think he has made considerable progress who has once conceived a love and taste for Cicero.
If Cæsar had made the bar his principal occupation, no other of our orators could better have disputed the prize of eloquence with Cicero. So great is his force, so sharp his wit, so active his fire, that it plainly appears he spoke with as much spirit as he fought. A wonderful elegance and purity of language, which he made his particular study, were a further embellishment of all these talents for eloquence.