Quintilian's Institutes of Oratory
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Book 12 - Chapter 2

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An orator must study to maintain a high moral character, § 1, 2. Tendencies to virtue implanted by nature may be strengthened by cultivation, 3-9. Division of philosophy into three parts, natural, moral, and dialectic; remarks on the last kind, 10-14. On moral philosophy, 15-20. On natural philosophy, 21-23. Observations on the different sects of philosophers; an orator need not attach himself to any sect in particular, but may be content with learning what is good wherever it is to be found, 24-31.

1. SINCE an orator, then, is a good man, and a good man cannot be conceived to exist without virtuous inclinations, and virtue, though it receives certain impulses from nature, requires notwithstanding to be brought to maturity by instruction, the orator must above all things study morality and must obtain a thorough knowledge of all that is just and honorable, without which no one can either be a good man or an able speaker. 2. Unless, indeed, we feel inclined to adopt the opinion of those who think that the moral character is formed by nature and is not at all influenced by discipline. They acknowledge that manual operations, and even the meanest of them, cannot be acquired without the aid of teachers, but say that we possess virtue—a gift that more than anything has raised man nearer to the immortal gods—unsought and without labor, simply because we are born. 3. But will that man be temperate who does not even know what temperance is? Or will that man be possessed of fortitude who has used no means to free his mind from the terrors of pain, death, and superstition? Or will that man be just who has entered into no examination of what is equitable and good, and who has never ascertained from any dissertation of the least learning the principles either of the laws which are by nature prescribed to all men, or of those which are instituted among particular people and nations? Of how little consequence do they think all this, to whom it appears so easy! 4. But I shall say no more on this point; no man who has tasted learning, as they say, with but the slightest touch of his lips will entertain the least doubt about it.

I pass on to my second proposition, that no man will ever be thoroughly accomplished in eloquence who has not gained a deep insight into the impulses of human nature and formed his moral character on the precepts of others and on his own reflection. 5. It is not without reason that Lucius Crassus, in the third book of De Oratore, asserts that everything that can come under discussion respecting equity, justice, truth, goodness, and whatever is of an opposite nature, are the proper concerns of the orator, and that the philosophers, when they inculcate those virtues with the force of eloquence, use the arms of the orator and not their own. Yet he admits that the knowledge of these subjects must now be sought from philosophy, because philosophy, apparently, seems to him to be more fully in possession of them. 6. Also, in many passages both of his books and of his letters, Cicero remarks that the power of eloquence is to be derived from the deepest sources of wisdom, and that accordingly the same persons were for a considerable time the teachers at once of eloquence and of morality.

This exhortation of mine, however, is not designed to intimate that I should wish the orator to be a philosopher, since no other mode of life has withdrawn itself further from the duties of civil society and all that concerns the orator. 7. Which of the philosophers, indeed, ever frequented courts of justice or distinguished himself in public assemblies? Which of them ever engaged even in the management of political affairs, on which most of them have given such earnest precepts? But I should desire the orator, whom I am trying to form, to be a kind of Roman wise man who may prove himself a true statesman, not by discussions in retirement, but by personal experience and exertions in public life. 8. But because the pursuits of philosophy have been deserted by those who have devoted their minds to eloquence, and because they no longer display themselves in their proper field of action and in the open light of the forum, but have retreated, at first into the porticoes and gymnasia, and after into the assemblies of the schools, the orator must seek that which is necessary for him, and which is not taught by the masters of eloquence, among those with whom it has remained, by perusing with the most diligent application the authors that give instruction in virtue, that his life may be in conformity with a thorough knowledge of divine and human things. How much more important and noble would these things appear if they were taught by those who could discourse on them with the highest eloquence? 9. Perhaps a day will come when some orator, perfect as we wish him to be, may vindicate to himself the study of philosophy (which has been rendered odious by the arrogant assumptions and vices of those who have disgraced its excellent nature) and, by a reconquest, as it were, annex it again to the domain of eloquence!

10. As philosophy is divided into three parts, physics, ethics, and dialectics, by which of the three is it not allied with the business of the orator?

To consider them in the order contrary to that in which I have named them, no man can surely doubt whether the last, which is wholly employed about words, concerns the orator, if it is his business to know the exact significations of terms, to clear ambiguities, to disentangle perplexities, to distinguish falsehood from truth, and to establish or refute what he may desire. 11. However, we shall not have to use these arts with such exactness and preciseness in pleadings in the forum, as is observed in the disputations of the schools, because the orator must not only instruct his audience, but must move and delight them. To effect that object there is need of energy, animation, and grace, and the difference between the orator and the dialectician is as great as that in the courses of rivers of an opposite character, for the force of streams that flow between high banks, and with a full flood, is far greater than that of shallow brooks with water struggling against the obstructions of pebbles. 12. And as teachers of wrestling do not instruct their pupils in all the attitudes, as they call them, that they may use all that they have learned in an actual struggle with an adversary (for more may be effected by weight, and firmness, and ardor), but that they may have a large number of artifices, one or two of which can be adopted as occasion may require, 13. so the art of logic, or disputation, if we had rather give it that name—though it is often of the greatest use in definitions and deductions, in marking differences and in explaining ambiguities, in distinguishing and dividing, in perplexing and entangling—will, if it assumes to itself the whole conduct of a cause in the forum, prove but a hindrance to what is better than itself and will waste, by its very subtlety, the strength that is divided to suit its niceties. 14. We may accordingly see that some people, extremely acute in disputations, are, when they are drawn beyond the sphere of cavilling, no more able to support any important exertion of eloquence than certain little animals, though active enough to escape being caught in a small space, can prevent themselves from being seized in an open field.

15. As to that part of philosophy which is called moral, the study of it is certainly wholly suited to the orator, for in such a variety of causes (as I have remarked in the preceding books) in which some points are ascertained by conjecture, others are settled by definition, others are set aside by the law, others fall under the state of exception, others are determined by syllogism, others depend on a comparison of different laws, and others on explanations of ambiguous terms, scarcely a single cause can occur in some part of which considerations of equity and morality are not concerned. Who does not know, also, that there are a number of cases which depend entirely on the estimation of the quality of an act, a question purely moral? 16. In deliberative oratory, also, what means would there be of exhortation unconnected with questions of honesty? As to the third kind of oratory, too, which consists in the duties of praising and censuring, what shall be said of it? It is assuredly engaged about considerations of right and wrong. 17. Will not an orator have to speak much of justice, fortitude, abstinence, temperance, and piety? Yet the good man, who has a knowledge of these virtues, not by sound and name only, not as heard merely by the ear to be repeated by the tongue, but who has embraced them in his heart and thinks in conformity with them, will have no difficulty in conceiving proper notions about them and will express sincerely what he thinks.

18. Again, as every general question is more comprehensive than a particular one, as a part is contained in the whole, while the whole is not included in a part, no one will doubt that general questions are intimately connected with that kind of studies of which we are speaking. 19. As there are many points also that require to be settled by appropriate and brief definitions (whence one state of causes is called the definitive), ought not the orator to be taught this by those who have given most attention to that department of study? Does not every question of equity depend either on an exact determination of the sense of words, or on the consideration of what is right, or on conjecture respecting the intention of the author of something written? Of all such questions, part will rest on logical and part on ethical science. 20. All oratory, therefore, naturally partakes of these two departments of philosophy. I mean all oratory that truly deserves the name, for mere loquacity, which is ignorant of all such learning, must necessarily go astray, as having either no guides or guides that are deceitful.

But the department of natural philosophy, besides affording so much wider a field for exercise in speaking than other subjects, inasmuch as we must treat of divine in a more elevated style than of human things, embraces also the whole of moral science, without which, as I have just shown, there can be no real oratory. 21. For if the world is governed by a providence, the state ought surely to be ruled by the superintendence of good men. If our souls are of divine origin, we ought to devote ourselves to virtue and not to be slaves to a body of terrestrial nature. Will not the orator frequently have to treat of such subjects as these? Will he not have to speak of auguries, oracles, and of everything pertaining to religion, on which the most important deliberations in the senate often depend, at least if he is to be, as I think that he ought to be, a well qualified statesman? What sort of eloquence can be imagined, indeed, to proceed from a man who is ignorant of the noblest subjects of human contemplation?

22. If what I say were not evidently supported by reason, we might nevertheless believe it on the authority of examples, for it is well known that Pericles—the power of whose eloquence (though no visible proofs of it have come down to us) is mentioned by not only historians, but the old comic writers, a class of men not at all inclined to flattery—was a student of Anaxagoras, the great natural philosopher, and that Demosthenes, the prince of all the Greek, attended the lectures of Plato. 23. As to Cicero, he frequently declares that he owed less to the schools of rhetoricians than to the gardens of the Academy. Nor indeed would so wonderful a fertility of mind have displayed itself in him if he had circumscribed his genius by the limits of forum and not allowed it to range through all the domains of nature.

But from these reflections arises another question: what sort of philosophers will contribute most to the improvement of eloquence? It is a question which will concern but small number of sects. 24. Epicurus, in the first place, excludes us from all communication with him, as he directs his disciples to flee from all learning with the utmost speed at which they can sail. Nor does Aristippus, who makes the chief happiness to consist in the pleasures of the body, encourage us to support the fatigues of study. As to Pyrrho, what concern can he have with our labor, he who is not certain whether there are judges to whom he speaks, or a defendant for whom he pleads, or a senate in which his opinion is to be given? 25. Some think the Academy most serviceable to eloquence, as its practice of disputing on both sides of a question is closely allied to the exercises preparatory to pleading in the forum, and they add as a proof of their opinion that that sect has produced men extremely eminent in eloquence. The Peripatetics also boast that they have a strong bearing upon oratory, as the practice of speaking on general questions for the sake of exercise had its origin chiefly among them. The Stoics, though they must allow that copiousness and splendor of eloquence have been wanting in most of their eminent men, assert that no philosophers can either support proofs with greater force or draw conclusions with greater subtility. 26. But this is a notion among themselves, who, as if bound by an oath or influenced by some superstitious obligation, think it criminal to depart from a persuasion which they have once embraced.

27. But an orator has no need to bind himself to the laws of any particular sect, for the office to which he devotes himself and for which he is, as it were, a candidate, is of a loftier and better nature, since he is to be distinguished as well by excellence of moral conduct as by merit in eloquence. He will accordingly select the most eloquent orators for imitation in oratory, and for forming his moral character, will fix upon the most honorable precepts and the most direct road to virtue. 28. He will indeed exercise himself on all subjects, but he will attach himself most to those of the highest and noblest nature, for what more fertile subjects can be found, indeed, for grave and copious eloquence than dissertations on virtue, on government, on providence, on the origin of the human mind, and on friendship? These are the topics by which the mind and the language are alike elevated: what is really good, what allays fear, restrains cupidity, frees us from the prejudices of the vulgar, and raises the mind towards the heaven from which it sprung.

29. Nor will it be proper to understand only those matters comprehended in the sciences of which I have been speaking, but still more to know and to bear continually in mind the noble deeds and sayings which are recorded of the great men of antiquity and which certainly are nowhere found in greater number or excellence than in the annals of our own commonwealth. 30. Will men of any other nation give better lessons of fortitude, justice, honor, temperance, frugality, or contempt of pain and death than a Fabricius, a Curius, a Regulus, a Decius, a Mucius, and others without number? For as highly as the Greeks abound in precepts, the Romans abound quite as much in examples, which are far more important. 31. If any man does not think it sufficient to regard merely the present age and the passing day, but considers any honorable remembrance among posterity a just sequel to a life of virtue and the completion of a career of merit, he will feel himself in a manner impelled by the biography of his country to a similar course of conduct. From this source let the orator whom I would form derive strong encouragements to the observance of justice, and let him show a sense of liberty drawn from hence in his pleadings in the forum and in his addresses to the senate. Nor will he indeed ever be a consummate orator who has not both knowledge and boldness to speak with sincerity.

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