Quintilian's Institutes of Oratory
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Book 12 - Chapter 11

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The orator must leave off speaking in public before he fails through old age, § 1-4. How his time may be employed after he has retired, 5-7. Quintilian hastens to conclude his work; he shows that students have ample time for acquiring all the qualifications, as far as nature will allow, that he has specified, 8-20. He proves, from the examples of great men, how much may be done, and observes that even moderate attainments in eloquence are attended with very great advantages, 21-29. Exhortation to diligence, and conclusion, 30, 31.

1. AFTER displaying these excellences of eloquence on trials, in councils, at the assemblies of the people, in the senate, and in every province of a good citizen, the orator will think of bringing his labors to an end worthy of an honorable man and a noble employment, not because it is ever time to leave off doing good or because it is improper for one endowed with such understanding and talents to spend the longest possible time in so dignified an occupation, but because it becomes him to take care that he may not speak worse than he has been in the habit of speaking. 2. The orator does not depend merely on knowledge, which increases with years, but on strength of voice, lungs, and constitution, and if these are weakened or impaired by age or ill health, he must beware lest something of his usual excellence is missed, lest he should be obliged to stop from fatigue, lest he should perceive that what he says is imperfectly heard, and lest he should not recognize his former in his present self. 3. I myself saw Domitius Afer, by far the most eminent orator of all whom it has been my fortune to know, losing daily, at an advanced period of life, something of the authority which he had so justly acquired. Though it may well be thought disgraceful, when this man who had doubtless once been the prince of the forum was speaking, some laughed, while others blushed for him, and his inefficiency gave occasion to the remark that "he had rather faint than leave off." Yet his pleading, such as it was, was not bad, but inferior in energy to what it had been. 4. The orator, therefore, before he falls into the grasp of old age, will do well to sound a retreat and gain the harbor while his vessel is still undamaged.

Nor, when he has done so, will less honorable advantages from his acquirements attend on him. He will transmit the history of his own times to posterity, explain points of law to those who consult him (as Lucius Crassus expresses his intention to do in the books of Cicero), compose a treatise on eloquence, or set forth the finest precepts of morality in a style worthy of the subject. 5. In the meantime well-disposed youth, as was customary with the ancients, will frequent his house and will consult him, as an oracle, on the best mode of attaining eloquence. As a father in the art, he will form them, and as an old pilot on the ocean of oratory, he will give them instruction respecting coasts and harbors, showing them the signs of tempests and how to manage a ship under favorable or adverse winds. He will be induced to do so by not only the common obligations of humanity, but by his love for his profession, for no man would like the art in which he himself has been great to fall into decay. 6. What, indeed, can be more honorable to a man than to teach that of which he himself has a thorough knowledge? Cicero says Caelius was brought to him by his father for this reason, and likewise, like a master, he exercised Pansa, Hirtius, and Dolabella, daily speaking and listening to them. 7. And I know not whether an orator ought not to be thought happiest at that period of his life when, sequestered from the world, devoted to retired study, unmolested by envy, and remote from strife, he has placed his reputation in a harbor of safety, experiencing, while yet alive, that respect which is more commonly offered after death and observing how his character will be regarded among posterity.

8. For my own part, I know that, as far as I could, with my moderate ability, I have imparted, candidly and ingenuously, whatever I previously knew and whatever I could discover in furtherance of my present work, for the improvement of such as might wish to learn. It is enough for an honorable man to have taught what he knows. 9. Yet I fear that I may be thought not only to require too much in expecting a man to be at once good and eloquent, but also to specify too many qualifications, by giving, in addition to so many accomplishments necessary to be gained in youth, precepts on morals, and enjoining a knowledge of civil law, not to mention the rules which I have laid down concerning eloquence. And I am apprehensive that even those who allow that all these requirements were necessary to my design should nevertheless dread them as too oppressive and despair of fulfilling them before they proceed to a trial. 10. But let those who think thus, reflect, in the first place, how great the power of the human mind is and how capable of accomplishing whatever it makes its object, since even arts of less importance than oratory, though more difficult of attainment, have been able to effect voyages over the ocean, to discover the courses and number of the stars, and to measure almost the whole universe. Next, let them consider how honorable is the end they desire to attain and that no labor should be spared when such a reward is in view. 11. If they allow such conceptions to have due weight with them, they will the more easily be induced to believe that the way to eloquence is not impracticable or indeed extremely difficult, for that which is the first and more important point—that an orator should be a good man—depends chiefly on the will, and he who shall sincerely cherish a resolution to be good will easily attain those qualifications that support virtue. 12. The duties incumbent upon us are not so complex or so numerous that they may not be learned by the application of a very few years. What makes it so long a labor is our own reluctance. The ordering of an upright and happy life is but a short task, if we but give our inclination to it. Nature formed us for attaining the highest degree of virtue, and so easy is it, for those who are well disposed, to learn what is good,that to him who looks fairly on the world, it is rather surprising that there should be so many bad men. 13. As water, indeed, is suitable to fishes, as the dry land to terrestrial animals, and the air that surrounds us to birds, so it ought to be more agreeable to us to live conformably to nature than at variance with her.

As to other qualifications, although we should include in our estimate of life, not the years of old age, but merely those of youth and manhood, it is apparent that there is time enough for acquiring them, for order, method, and judgment will shorten all labor. 14. But the fault lies, first, with teachers who love to retain under them those whom they have taken in hand, partly from covetousness, in order to be longer in receipt of fees, partly from vanity, to make it appear that what they profess is very difficult, and partly perhaps from ignorance or neglect of the proper mode of teaching. The second fault is in ourselves, who are fonder of dwelling on what we have learned than of learning what we do not yet know. 15. To confine myself chiefly to oratorical studies, what advantage is it to declaim so many years in the schools, as is customary with many (to say nothing of those by whom a great portion of life is wasted in that exercise), and to bestow so much labor on imaginary subjects when it is possible to gain, in but a short time, a sufficient notion of real pleading and of the rules of oratory? 16. In making this remark, I do not intimate that exercise in speaking should ever be discontinued, but only signify that we should not grow old in one species of exercise. We may be gaining general knowledge, learning the duties of ordinary life, and trying our strength in the forum, while we are still scholars. The course of study is such that it does not require many years, for any of those sciences to which I have just alluded may be comprised in a few treatises, so far are they from requiring infinite time and application. All else depends on practice, which will soon increase our ability. 17. Our knowledge of things in general will daily increase, though it must be admitted that the perusal of many books, by means of which examples of things may be gained from historians and of eloquence from orators, is necessary for great advancement in it. It is requisite also that we should read, as well as some other things, the opinions of philosophers and eminent lawyers.

All this knowledge we may acquire, but it is we ourselves that make time short. 18. For how much time do we seriously devote to study? The empty ceremony of paying visits steals some of our hours, leisure wasted in idle conversation others, public spectacles and entertainments others. Take into consideration also our great variety of private amusements and the extravagant care which we bestow on our persons. Let travelling, excursions into the country, anxious meditations on our losses and gains, a thousand incentives to the gratification of the passions, wine, and the corruption of the mind with every species of pleasure claim their several portions of our time, and not even that which remains will find us in a proper condition for study. 19. But if all these hours were allotted to study, our life would seem long enough, and our time amply sufficient, for learning, even if we take into account only our days, while our nights, of which a great part is more than enough for all necessary sleep, would add to our improvement. We now compute, not how many years we have studied, but how many we have lived. 20. Nor does it follow, if geometricians, grammarians, and professors of other sciences have spent all their lives, however long, in their respective pursuits, that we should require several lives to learn several sciences, for they did not continue adding to knowledge in these sciences to the time of old age, but were content with having merely learned them and spent that great number of years rather in practicing than in acquiring.

21. To say nothing of Homer, in whom either instruction or at least indisputable indications of knowledge in every kind of art are to be found. Nor to make no mention of Hippias of Elis, who not only professed a knowledge of every liberal science, but used to make his dress, ring, and shoes all with his own hand and had so qualified himself as to require no one's assistance in anything. Gorgias, even in extreme old age, was accustomed to ask his auditors in his lecture room to name the subject on which they wished him to speak. 22. What knowledge, of any value for literature, was wanting in Plato? How many lives did Aristotle spend in learning, so as not only to embrace within his knowledge all that relates to philosophers and orators, but to make researches into the nature of all animals and plants? Those great men had to discover branches of knowledge which we have only to learn. Antiquity has provided us with so many teachers and so many models that no age can be imagined more eligible for us, in regard to being born in it, than our own for the instruction of which preceding ages have toiled.

23. If we look to our own countrymen, we see that Marcus Cato the Censor, an orator, a writer of history, eminently skilled alike in law and agriculture, amidst so many occupations in war and so many contentions at home, and in an unpolished age, learned the Greek language in the very decline of life, as if to give an example to mankind that even old men may acquire what they desire to learn. 24. How much has Varro told us or, let us rather say, has he not told us almost everything? What qualification for speaking was deficient in Cicero? But why should I multiply examples, when even Cornelius Celsus, a man of but moderate ability, has not only written on all literary studies, but has besides left treatises on the military art, on husbandry, and on medicine? Well worthy was he, if only for the extent of his design, to enjoy the credit of having known everything on which he wrote.

25. But it may be said that to accomplish such a task is difficult, and no one has accomplished it. I answer that in the first place, it is sufficient for encouragement in study to know that it is not a law of nature that what has not been done cannot be done and, in the second place, that everything great and admirable had some peculiar time at which it was brought to its highest excellence. 26. Whatever luster poetry received from Homer and Virgil, eloquence received equal luster from Demosthenes and Cicero. Whatever is best had at one time no existence. But though a man may despair of reaching the highest excellence (and yet why should he despair who has genius, health, aptitude, and teachers?), it is honorable, as Cicero says, to gain a place in the second or third rank. 27. If a man cannot attain the glory of Achilles in war, he is not to despise the merit of Ajax or Diomede. If he cannot rival the fame of Homer, he is not to condemn that of Tyrtaeus. If men, indeed, had been inclined to think that no one would be better than he who was best at any given time, those who are now accounted best would never have distinguished themselves. Virgil would not have written after Lucretius and Macer, Cicero would not have pleaded after Crassus and Hortensius, nor would others, in other pursuits, have excelled their predecessors.

28. Even though there be no hope of excelling the greatest masters of eloquence, it is yet a great honor to follow closely behind them. Did Pollio and Messala, who began to plead when Cicero held the highest place in eloquence, attain but little estimation during their lives or transmit but little reputation to posterity? The advancement of the arts to the highest possible excellence would be but an unhappy service to mankind if what was best at any particular moment was to be the last. 29. It may be added that moderate attainments in eloquence are productive of great profit, and if an orator estimates his studies merely by the advantage to be derived from them, the gain from inferior oratory is almost equal to that from the best. It would be no difficult matter to show, as well from ancient as from modern instances, that from no other pursuit has greater wealth, honor, and friendship, greater present and future fame, resulted to those engaged in it, than from that of the orator. But it would be dishonorable to learning to look for such inferior recompense from one of the noblest of studies, of which the mere pursuit and acquirement confer on us an ample reward for our labor, for to be thus mercenary would be to resemble those philosophers who say that virtue is not the object of their pursuit, but the pleasure that arises from virtue.

30. Let us then pursue, with our whole powers, the true dignity of eloquence, nothing better than which has been given to mankind by the immortal gods. Without it, all nature would be mute and all our acts would be deprived alike of present honor and of commemoration among posterity. Therefore, let us aspire to the highest excellence, for by this means, we shall either attain the summit or at least see many below us.

31. Such are the observations, Marcellus Victor, from which I thought the art of oratory might, as far as was in my power, derive some assistance from me. Attention to what I have said, if it does not bring great advantage to studious youth, will at least excite in them what I desire even more—a love for doing well.

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Lee Honeycutt (honeycuttlee@gmail.com) Last modified:1/15/07
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