Quintilian's Institutes of Oratory
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Book 2 - Chapter 12

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Why the ignorant often seem to speak with more force than the learned, § 1-3. They attack and are less afraid of failure, 4, 5. But they cannot choose judiciously, or prove with effect, 6. Their thoughts sometimes striking, 7. Apparent disadvantages of learned polish, 8. Unlearned speakers often vigorous in delivery, 9, 10. Occasionally too much admired by teachers of oratory, 11, 12.

1. I MUST not forbear to acknowledge, however, that people in general adopt the notion that the unlearned appear to speak with more force than the learned. But this opinion has its origin chiefly in the mistake of those who judge erroneously and who think that what has no art has the more energy, just as if they should conceive it a greater proof of strength to break through a door than to open it, to rupture a knot than to untie it, to drag an animal than to lead it. 2. By such persons a gladiator, who rushes to battle without any knowledge of arms, and a wrestler, who struggles with the whole force of his body to effect that which he has once attempted, is called so much the braver, though the latter is often laid prostrate by his own strength, and the other, however violent his assault, is withstood by a gentle turn of his adversary's wrist.

3. But there are some things concerning this point that very naturally deceive the unskilful; for division, though it is of great consequence in pleadings, diminishes the appearance of strength; what is rough is imagined more bulky than what is polished; and objects when scattered are thought more numerous than when they are ranged in order.

4. There is also a certain affinity between particular excellences and faults, in consequence of which a railer passes for a free speaker, a rash for a bold one, a prolix for a copious one. But an ignorant pleader rails too openly and too frequently, to the peril of the party whose cause he has undertaken and often to his own. 5. Yet this practice attracts the notice of people to him, because they readily listen to what they would not themselves utter.

Such a speaker, too, is far from avoiding that venturesomeness which lies in mere expression and makes desperate efforts, whence it may happen that he who is always seeking something extravagant may sometimes find something great; but it happens only seldom, and does not compensate for undoubted faults.

6. It is on this account that unlearned speakers seem sometimes to have greater copiousness of language, because they pour forth every thing, while the learned use selection and moderation. Besides, unlearned pleaders seldom adhere to the object of proving what they have asserted; by this means they avoid what appears to judges of bad taste the dryness of questions and arguments, and seek nothing else but matter in which they may please the ears of the court with senseless gratifications.

7. Their fine sentiments themselves, too, at which alone they aim, are more striking when all around them is poor and mean, as lights are most brilliant, not amidst shades as Cicero says, but amidst utter darkness. Let such speakers therefore be called as ingenious as the world pleases, provided it be granted that a man of real eloquence would receive the praise given to them as an insult.

8. Still it must be allowed that learning does take away something, as the file takes something from rough metal, the whetstone from blunt instruments, and age from wine; but it takes away what is faulty, and that which learning has polished is less only because it is better.

9. But such pleaders try by their delivery to gain the reputation of speaking with energy, for they bawl on every occasion and bellow out everything with uplifted hand, as they call it, raging like madmen with incessant action, panting and swaggering, and with every kind of gesture and movement of the head. 10. To clap the hands together, to stamp the foot on the ground, to strike the thigh, the breast, and the forehead with the hand, makes a wonderful impression on an audience of the lower order, while the polished speaker, as he knows how to temper, to vary, and to arrange the several parts of his speech, so in delivery he knows how to adapt his action to every variety of complexion in what he utters; and, if any rule appears to him deserving of constant attention, it would be that he should prefer always to be and to seem modest. But the other sort of speakers call that force which ought rather to be called violence.

11. But we may at times see not only pleaders, but what is far more disgraceful, teachers, who, after having had some short practice in speaking, abandon all method and indulge in every kind of irregularity as inclination prompts them, and call those who have paid more regard to learning than themselves foolish, lifeless, timid, weak, and whatever other epithet of reproach occurs to them. 12. Let me then congratulate them as having become eloquent without labor, without method, without study; but let me, as I have long withdrawn from the duties of teaching and of speaking in the forum, because I thought it most honorable to terminate my career while my services were still desired, console my leisure in meditating and composing precepts which I trust will be of use to young men of ability and which, I am sure, are a pleasure to myself.

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