Quintilian's Institutes of Oratory
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Book 10 - Chapter 7

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Of the ability of speaking extempore; necessity for it, § 1-4. How it is to be acquired, 5-23. How we must guard against losing it, 24-33.

1. BUT the richest fruit of all our study, and the most ample recompense for the extent of our labor, is the faculty of speaking extempore, and he who has not succeeded in acquiring it will do well, in my opinion, to renounce the occupations of the forum and devote his solitary talent of writing to some other employment. For it is scarcely consistent with the character of a man of honor to make a public profession of service to others which may fail in the most pressing emergencies, since it is of no more use than to point out a harbor to a vessel to which it cannot approach unless it be borne along by the gentlest breezes. 2. There arise indeed innumerable occasions where it is absolutely necessary to speak on the instant, as well before magistrates, as on trials that are brought on before the appointed time. If any of these shall occur—I do not say to any one of our innocent fellow-citizens, but to any of our own friends or relatives—is an advocate to stand dumb and, while they are begging for a voice to save them and are likely to be undone if succor is not instantly afforded them, is he to ask time for retirement and silent study till his speech is formed and committed to memory, and his voice and lungs are put in tune? 3. What system of pleading will allow an orator to be unprepared for sudden calls? What is to be done when we have to reply to an opponent? For that which we expected him to say, and in answer to which we composed our speech, often disappoints our anticipations, and the whole aspect of the cause is suddenly changed. Just as the pilot has to alter his course according to the direction of the winds, so must our plan be varied to suit the variation in the cause. 4. What profit does much writing, constant reading, and a long period of life spent in study bring us if there remains with us the same difficulty in speaking that we felt at first? Assuredly, he who has always to encounter the same labor must admit that his past efforts were to no purpose. Not that I make it an object that an orator should prefer to speak extempore; I only wish that he should be able to do so.

This talent we shall most effectually attain by the following means. 5. First of all, let our method of speaking be settled, for no journey can be attempted before we know to what place and by what road we have to go. It is not enough to know what the parts of judicial causes are or how to dispose questions in proper order, though these are certainly points of the highest importance. But we must know what ought to be first, what second, and so on, in each department of a pleading, for different particulars are so connected by nature that they admit no alteration of their order, nor allow anything to be forced between them, without manifest confusion. 6. But he who shall speak according to a certain method will be led forward, most of all, by the series of particulars, as by a sure guide, and hence even persons of but moderate practice will adhere with the greatest ease to the chain of facts in their narratives. They will also know what they want in each portion of a speech and will not look about like persons at a loss; nor will they be distracted by ideas that present themselves from other quarters, nor mix up their speech of ingredients collected from separate spots, like men leaping hither and thither, and resting nowhere. 7. They will likewise have a certain range and limit, which cannot exist without proper division. When they have treated, to the best of their ability, of everything that they had proposed to themselves, they will be sensible that they have come to a termination.

These qualifications depend on art, others on study. Thus we must acquire, as has been already directed, an ample store of the best language. Our style must be so formed by much and diligent composition that even what is poured forth by us unpremeditatedly may present the appearance of having been previously written, so that after having written much, we shall have the power of speaking copiously 8. For it is habit and exercise that chiefly beget facility, and if they are intermitted, even but for a short period, not only will our fluency be diminished, but our mouth may even be closed. 9. Of course, we need such natural activity of mind that we may be arranging what is to follow while we are uttering what is immediately present to our thoughts, and that thought preconceived and put into shape may always be ready for our voice. Yet scarcely could either nature or art fix the mind on such manifold duties as that it should suffice at once for invention, arrangement, delivery, for settling the order of our matter and words, for conceiving what we are uttering, what we must say next, and what is to be contemplated still further on, while its attention is given, at the same time, to our tone, pronunciation, and gesture. 10. Our activity of mind, indeed, must stretch far in advance and drive our subject, as it were, before it. Whatever portion of our matter is consumed in speaking, an equal portion must be brought forward from that which is to follow, so that, until we arrive at the end, our prospect may advance no less than our step, unless, indeed, we are content to stop and stumble at every phrase and throw out short and broken expressions like persons sobbing out what they have to say.

11. There is accordingly a certain unreflecting and mechanical habit, which the Greeks call ἄλογος τριβή (alogos tribē), in which the hand runs on in writing and the reading eye sees several lines at once, with their turns and transitions, and perceives what follows before the voice has uttered what precedes. Hence the possibility of those wonderful tricks of performers on the stage with balls and of other jugglers, whose dexterity is such that one might suppose the things which they throw from them to return into their hands of their own accord, and to fly whithersoever they are commanded to go. 12. But such habit will be of advantage to us only where the art, of which we spoke, has preceded it, so that that which is done without reflection may yet have its origin in reflection. For he only seems to me to speak who speaks connectedly, elegantly, and fluently; otherwise he appears only to utter noisy gabble. 13. Nor shall I ever admire a stream of fortuitous eloquence which I hear in abundance, even among women when they are quarrelling, though it often happens that when ardor and animation carry a speaker along, no study can equal the success of his extemporary efforts. 14. When such a flow of language occurred, the old orators, as Cicero observes, used to say that some god had inspired the orator. But the cause of the fluency is evident, for strongly conceived thoughts and images rising fresh in the mind bear us along with uninterrupted rapidity, when they would sometimes, if retarded by the slowness of writing, grow cool and, if put off, would never return. When to this, too, is added an unhappy scrupulousness about words, and the progress of the speaker is thus stopped at every step, the impulse of eloquence can have no free course; and even though his choice of particular words may be extremely happy, the combination of them will proceed with no natural ease, but will appear like the laborious construction of art.

15. Those images, therefore, to which I have alluded, and which, I observed, are called ϕαντασίαι (phantasiai) by the Greeks, must be carefully cherished in our minds, and everything on which we intend to speak, every person and every question, and all the hopes and fears likely to be attendant on them, must be kept full before our view, and admitted as it were into our hearts, for it is strength of feeling, combined with energy of intellect, that renders us eloquent. Hence even to the illiterate, words are not wanting if they are but roused by some strong passion. 16. Our attention must also be fixed, not merely on any single object, but on several in connection, just as, when we cast our eye along a straight road, we see everything that is on it and about it, commanding a view of not only the end, but the whole way to the end.

17. The fear of failure, moreover, and the expectation of praise for what we shall say gives a spur to our exertions, and it may seem strange that though the pen delights in seclusion and shrinks from the presence of a witness, extemporal oratory is excited by a crowd of listeners, as the soldier by the mustering of the standards. For the necessity of speaking expels and urges forth our thoughts, however difficult to be expressed, and the desire to please increases our efforts. So much does everything look to reward that even eloquence, though it has the highest pleasure in the exercise of its own powers, is yet greatly incited by the enjoyment of praise and reputation.

18. But let no one feel such confidence in his talents as to hope that this power will come to him as soon as he attempts oratory. As I directed with regard to meditation, in cultivating facility in extemporary speaking, we must advance it by slow degrees, from small beginnings to the highest excellence, but it can neither be acquired nor retained without practice. 19. It ought, however, to be attained to such a degree that premeditation, though safer, may not be more effective, since many have had such command of language, not only in prose, but even in verse, as Antipater of Sidon and Licinius Archias (we must rely on Cicero's authority with regard to them both; not that in our own times some have exercised this talent and still exercise it). I mention the acquirement, however, not so much because I think it commendable in itself (for it is of no practical value, nor at all necessary), but because I consider it a useful example for those who wish to be encouraged in attaining such facility and who are preparing for the forum.

20. Nor, again, would I ever wish, for my own part, to have such confidence in my readiness to speak, as not to take at least a short time, which may almost always be had, to consider what I am going to say. Time indeed is always allowed both on trials and in the forum. No one, assuredly, can plead a cause which he has not studied. 21. Yet a perverse kind of ambition moves some of our declaimers to profess themselves ready to speak as soon as a case is laid before them, and what is the most vain and theatrical of all their practices, they even ask for a word with which they may commence. But Eloquence, in her turn, derides those who thus insult her, and those who wish to appear learned to fools are decidedly pronounced fools by the learned.

22. Yet if any chance shall give rise to such a sudden necessity for speaking extempore, we shall have need to exert our mind with more than its usual activity. We must fix our whole attention on our matter and relax, for the time, something of our care about words, if we find it impossible to attend to both. A slower pronunciation, too, and a mode of speaking with suspense and doubt, as it were, gives time for consideration; yet we must manage so that we may seem to deliberate and not to hesitate. 23. We may adhere to this cautious method of delivery as long as we are clearing the harbor, should the wind drive us forward before our tackle is sufficiently prepared. Afterwards, as we proceed on our course, we shall fill our sails and arrange our ropes by degrees, and pray that our canvas may be filled with a prosperous gale. This will be better than to launch forth on an empty torrent of words, so as to be carried away with it as by the blasts of a tempest, whichever way it may wish to sweep us.

24. But this talent requires maintenance with no less practice than it is acquired. An art, indeed, once thoroughly learned, is never wholly lost. Even the pen, by disuse, loses but very little of its readiness, while promptitude in speaking, which depends on activity of thought, can be retained only by exercise. Such exercise we may best use by speaking daily in the hearing of several persons, especially those for whose judgment and opinion we have most regard, for it rarely happens that a person is sufficiently severe with himself. Let us however rather speak alone than not speak at all. 25. There is also another kind of exercise, that of meditating upon whole subjects and going through them in silent thought (yet so as to speak as it were within ourselves), an exercise which may be pursued at all times and in all places, when we are not actually engaged in any other occupation. It is in some degree more useful than the one which I mentioned before it, for it is more accurately pursued than that in which we are afraid to interrupt the continuity of our speech. 26 Yet the other method, again, contributes more to improve other qualifications, as strength of voice, flexibility of features, and energy of gesture, which of itself, as I remarked, rouses the orator, and, as he waves his hand and stamps his foot, excites him as lions are said to excite themselves by the lashing of their tails.

27. But we must study at all times and in all places, for there is scarcely a single one of our days so occupied that some profitable attention may not be hastily devoted during at least some portion of it to writing, or reading, or speaking (as Cicero says that Brutus used to do). Caius Carbo, even in his tent, was accustomed to continue his exercises in oratory. 28. Nor must we omit to notice the advice, which is also approved by Cicero, that no portion of even our common conversation should ever be careless, and that whatever we say and wherever we say it should be as far as possible excellent in its kind. As to writing, we must certainly never write more than when we have to speak much extempore, for by the use of the pen, a weightiness will be preserved in our matter, and that light facility of language which swims as it were on the surface will be compressed into a body, as farmers cut off the upper roots of the vine (which elevate it to the surface of the soil) in order that the lower roots may be strengthened by striking deeper. 29. And I know not whether both exercises, when we perform them with care and assiduity, are not reciprocally beneficial, as it appears that by writing we speak with greater accuracy, and by speaking we write with greater ease. We must write, therefore, as often as we have opportunity. If opportunity is not allowed us, we must meditate; if we are precluded from both, we must nevertheless endeavor that the orator may not seem to be caught at fault, nor the client left destitute of aid. 30. But it is the general practice among pleaders who have much occupation to write only the most essential parts, and especially the commencements, of their speeches; to fix the other portions that they bring from home in their memory by meditation; and to meet any unforeseen attacks with extemporaneous replies.

That Cicero adopted this method is evident from his own memoranda. But there are also in circulation memoranda of other speakers which have been found, perhaps, in the state in which each had thrown them together when he was going to speak, and they have been arranged in the form of books. Among these, for instance, are the memoranda of the causes pleaded by Servius Sulpicius, three of whose orations are extant; but these memoranda, of which I am now speaking, are so carefully arranged that they appear to me to have been composed by him to be handed down to posterity. 31. Those of Cicero, which were intended only for his particular occasions, were collected by his freedman Tiro, and in saying this, I do not speak of them apologetically, as if I did not think very highly of them, but suggest to the contrary that they are more worthy of admiration for that reason.

Under this head, I express my full approbation of short notes and of small memorandum books which may be held in the hand and on which we may occasionally glance. 32. But I do not like the method which Laenas recommends, of reducing what we have written into summaries or into short notes and head, for our very dependence on these summaries begets negligence in committing our matter to memory and disconnects and disfigures our speech. I even think that we should not write at all what we design to deliver from memory, for if we do so, it generally happens that our thoughts fix us to the studied portions of our speech and do not allow us to try the fortune of the moment. Thus the mind hangs in suspense and perplexity between the two, having lost sight of what was written, and yet not being at liberty to imagine anything new. For treating on the memory, however, a place is appointed in the next book; but it cannot be immediately subjoined to these remarks because I must speak of some other matters previously.

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