Quintilian's Institutes of Oratory
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Book 2 - Chapter 17

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Oratory is manifestly an art, § 1-4. Yet some have denied that it is and said that its power is wholly from nature, 6-8. Examples from other arts, 9, 10. Every one that speaks is not an orator, 11-13. Opinion of Aristotle, 14. Other charges against oratory, that it has no peculiar subject or matter, and that it sometimes deceives, 15-18. Refutation of these charges, 19-21. Unfairly objected to it that it has no proper end, 22-26. Not pernicious because it sometimes misleads, 27-29. Another objection, that it may be exerted on either side of a question, and that it contradicts itself; answered, 30-36. Oratory is sometimes ignorant of the truth of what it asserts; but the same is the case with other arts and sciences, 36-40. Confirmation of its being an art, 41-43.

1. THERE would be no end if I should allow myself to expatiate and indulge my inclination on this head. Let us proceed, therefore, to the question that follows, whether oratory be an art. 2. That it is an art, every one of those who have given rules about eloquence has been so far from doubting, that it is shown by the very titles of their books that they are written on the oratorical art. Cicero also says that what is called oratory is artificial eloquence. Not only orators have claimed this distinction for themselves (since they may be thought, perhaps, to have given their profession something more than its due), but the philosophers, the Stoics, and most of the Peripatetics agree with them. 3. For myself, I confess that I was in some doubt whether I should look upon this part of the inquiry as necessary to be considered, for who is so destitute, I will not say of learning, but of the common understanding of mankind, as to imagine that the work of building, or weaving, or molding vessels out of clay, is an art, but that oratory, the greatest and noblest of works, has attained such a height of excellence without being an art? Those, indeed, who have maintained the contrary opinion I suppose not so much to have believed what they advanced as to have been desirous of exercising their powers on a subject of difficulty, like Polycrates, when he eulogized Busiris and Clytaemnestra. He is said also to have written the speech that was delivered against Socrates, nor would that indeed have been inconsistent with his other compositions.

5. Some will have oratory to be a natural talent, though they do not deny that it may be assisted by art. Thus Antonius, in Cicero's De Oratore, says that oratory is an effect of observation, not an art; but this is not advanced that we may receive it as true, but that the character of Antonius, an orator who tried to conceal the art that he used, may be supported. 6. But Lysias seems to have really entertained this opinion, for which the argument is that the ignorant, barbarians, and slaves, when they speak for themselves, say something that resembles an exordium; they state facts, prove, refute, and (adopting the form of a peroration) deprecate. 7. The supporters of this notion also avail themselves of certain quibbles upon words, that nothing that proceeds from art was before art, but that mankind have always been able to speak for themselves and against others; that teachers of the art appeared only in later times, and first of all about the age of Tisias and Corax; that oratory was therefore before art and is consequently not an art. 8. As to the period, indeed, in which the teaching of oratory commenced, I am not anxious to inquire. We find Phoenix, however, in Homer as an instructor, not only in acting but in speaking, as well as several other orators; we see all the varieties of eloquence in the three generals and contests in eloquence proposed among the young men, and among the figures on the shield of Achilles are represented both lawsuits and pleaders. 9. It would even be sufficient for me to observe that everything which art has brought to perfection had its origin in nature, else, from the number of the arts must be excluded medicine, which resulted from the observation of what was beneficial or detrimental to health and which, as some think, consists wholly in experiments, for somebody had, doubtless, bound up a wound before the dressing of wounds became an art and had allayed fever by repose and abstinence, not because he saw the reason of such regimen, but because the malady itself drove him to it. 10. Else, too, architecture must not be considered an art, for the first generation of men built cottages without art; nor music, since singing and dancing, to some sort of tune, are practiced among all nations. 11. So, if any kind of speaking whatever is to be called oratory, I will admit that oratory existed before it was an art; but if every one that speaks is not an orator, and if men in early times did not speak as orators, our reasoners must confess that an orator is formed by art and did not exist before art. This being admitted, another argument which they use is set aside, namely, that that has no concern with art which a man who has not learned it can do, but that men who have not learned oratory can make speeches. 12. To support this argument, they observe that Demades, a waterman, and Aeschines, an actor, were orators, but they are mistaken, for he who has not learned to be an orator cannot properly be called one, and it may be more justly said that those men learned late in life than that they never learned at all, though Aeschines, indeed, had some introduction to learning in his youth, as his father was a teacher; nor is it certain that Demades did not learn, and he might, by constant practice in speaking, which is the most efficient mode of learning, have made himself master of all the power of language that he ever possessed. 13. But we may safely say that he would have been a better speaker if he had learned, for he never ventured to write out his speeches for publication, though we know that he produced considerable effect in delivering them.

14. Aristotle, for the sake of investigation, as is usual with him, has conceived, with his peculiar subtlety, certain arguments at variance with my opinion in his Gryllus; but he has also written three books on the art of rhetoric, in the first of which he not only admits that it is an art, but allows it a connection with civil polity, as well as with logic. 15. Critolaus and Athenodorus of Rhodes have advanced many arguments on the opposite side. Agnon, by the very title of his book in which he avows that he brings an accusation against rhetoric, has deprived himself of all claim to be trusted. As to Epicurus, who shrunk from all learning, I am not at all surprised at him.

16. These reasoners say a great deal, but it is based upon few arguments; I shall therefore reply to the strongest of them in a very few words that the discussion may not be protracted to an infinite length. 17. Their first argument is with regard to the subject or matter, "for all arts," they say, "have some subject," as is true, "but that oratory has no peculiar subject," an assertion which I shall subsequently prove to be false. 18. The next argument is a more false charge, for "no art," they say, "acquiesces in false conclusions, since art cannot be founded but on perception, which is always true; but that oratory adopts false conclusions, and is, consequently, not an art." 19. That oratory sometimes advances what is false instead of what is true, I will admit, but I shall not for that reason acknowledge that the speaker acquiesces in false conclusions, for it is one thing for a matter to appear in a certain light to a person himself and another for the person to make it appear in that light to others. A general often employs false representations, as did Hannibal, when, being hemmed in by Fabius, he tied faggots to the horns of oxen, and set them on fire, and driving the herd up the opposite hills in the night, presented to the enemy the appearance of a retiring army. But Hannibal merely deceived Fabius; he himself knew very well what the reality was. 20. Theopompus, the Lacedaemonian, when, on changing clothes with his wife, he escaped from prison in the disguise of a woman, came to no false conclusion concerning himself, though he conveyed a false notion to his guards. So the orator, whenever he puts what is false for what is true, knows that it is false and that he is stating it instead of truth; he adopts, therefore, no false conclusion himself, but merely misleads another. 21. Cicero, when he threw a mist, as he boasts, over the eyes of the judges in the cause of Cluentius, was not himself deprived of sight; nor is a painter, when, by the power of his art, he makes us fancy that some objects stand out in a picture and others recede, unaware that the objects are all on a flat surface.

22. But they allege also that "all arts have a certain definite end to which they are directed, but that in oratory there is sometimes no end at all, and at other times, the end which is professed is not attained." They speak falsely, however, in this respect likewise, for we have already shown that oratory has an end and have stated what that end is, an end which the true orator will always attain, for he will always speak well. 23. The objection might, perhaps, hold good against those who think that the end of oratory is to persuade, but my orator and his art, as defined by me, do not depend upon the result; he indeed who speaks directs his efforts towards victory, but when he has spoken well, though he may not be victorious, he has attained the full end of his art. 24. So a pilot is desirous to gain the port with his vessel in safety, but if he is carried away from it by a tempest, he will not be the less a pilot and will repeat the well-known saying, "May I but keep the helm right!" 25. The physician makes the health of the patient his object, but if, through the violence of the disease, the intemperance of the sick person or any other circumstance, he does not effect his purpose, yet if he has done everything according to rule, he has not lost sight of the object of medicine. So it is the object of an orator to speak well, for his art, as we shall soon show still more clearly, consists in the act and not in the result. 26. That other allegation, which is frequently made, must accordingly be false also, that an art knows when it has attained its end, but that oratory does not know, for every speaker is aware when he has spoken well.

They also charge oratory with having recourse to vicious means, which no true arts adopt, because it advances what is false and endeavors to excite the passions. 27. But neither of those means is dishonorable when it is used from a good motive and, consequently, cannot be vicious. To tell a falsehood is sometimes allowed, even to a wise man; and the orator will be compelled to appeal to the feelings of the judges, if they cannot otherwise be induced to favor the right side. 28. Unenlightened men sit as judges who must, at times, be deceived, that they may not err in their decisions. If indeed judges were wise men; if assemblies of the people, and every sort of public council, consisted of wise men; if envy, favor, prejudice, and false witnesses had no influence, there would be very little room for eloquence, which would be employed almost wholly to give pleasure. 29. But as the minds of the hearers waver, and truth is exposed to so many obstructions, the orator must use artifice in his efforts and adopt such means as may promote his purpose, since he who has turned from the right way cannot be brought back to it but by another turning.

30. Some common sarcasms against oratory are drawn from the charge that orators speak on both sides of a question, hence the remarks that "no art contradicts itself, but that oratory contradicts itself"; that "no art destroys what it has itself done, but that this is the ease with what oratory does"; that "it teaches either what we ought to say or what we ought not to say, and that in the one ease, it cannot be an art because it teaches what is not to be said, and in the other, it cannot be an art because when it has taught what is to be said, it teaches also what is directly opposed to it." 31. All these charges, it is evident, are applicable only to that species of oratory which is repudiated by a good man and by virtue herself, since, where the cause is unjust, there true oratory has no place, so that it can hardly happen, even in the most extraordinary case, that a real orator, that is, a good man, will speak on both sides. 32. Yet, since it may happen, in the course of things, that just causes may, at times, lead two wise men to take different sides (for the Stoics think that wise men may even contend with one another, if reason leads them to do so), I will make some reply to the objections and in such a way that they shall be proved to be advanced groundlessly and directed only against such as allow the name of orator to speakers of bad character. 33. For oratory does not contradict itself; one cause is matched against another cause, but not oratory against itself. If two men who have been taught the same accomplishment contend with one another, the accomplishment which they have been taught will not, on that account, be proved not to be an art, for if such were the case, there could be no art in arms, because gladiators, bred under the same master, are often matched together, nor would there be any art in piloting a ship, because in naval engagements, pilot is often opposed to pilot, nor in generalship, because general contends with general. 34. Nor does oratory destroy what it has done, for the orator does not overthrow the argument advanced by himself, nor does oratory overthrow it, because by those who think that the end of oratory is to persuade, as well as by the two wise men whom, as I said before, some chance may have opposed to one another, it is probability that is sought; and if, of two things, one at length appears more probable than the other, the more probable is not opposed to that which previously appeared probable, for as that which is more white is not adverse to that which is less white, nor that which is more sweet contrary to that which is less sweet, so neither is that which is more probable contrary to that which is less probable. 35. Nor does oratory ever teach what we ought not to say or that which is contrary to what we ought to say, but that which we ought to say in whatever cause we may take in hand. 36. And truth, though generally, is not always to be defended, the public good sometimes requires that a falsehood should be supported.

In Cicero's second book, De Oratore, are also advanced the following objections: that art has place in things which are known, but that the pleading of an orator depends on opinion, not on knowledge, since he both addresses himself to those who do not know and sometimes says what he himself does not know. 37. One of these points, whether the judges have a knowledge of what is addressed to them, has nothing to do with the art of the orator; to the other point, that art has place in things to which are known, I must give some answer. Oratory is the art of speaking well, and the orator knows how to speak well. 38. But it is said he does not know whether what he says is true; neither do the philosophers, who say that fire, or water, or the four elements, or indivisible atoms are the principles from which all things had their origin, know that what they say is true; nor do those who calculate the distances of the stars, and the magnitudes of the sun and the earth, yet every one of them calls his system an art; but if their reasoning has such effect that they seem not to imagine, but from the force of their demonstrations, to know what they assert, similar reasoning may have a similar effect in the case of the orator. 39. But, it is further urged, he does not know whether the cause which he advocates has truth on its side; nor, I answer, does the physician know whether the patient, who says that he has the headache, really has it, yet he will treat him on the assumption that his assertion is true, and medicine will surely be allowed to be an art. Need I add that oratory does not always purpose to say what is true, but does always purpose to say what is like truth? But the orator must know whether what he says is like truth or not. 40. Those who are unfavorable to oratory add that pleaders often defend, in certain causes, that which they have assailed in others, but this is the fault, not of the art, but of the person.

These are the principal charges that are brought against oratory. There are others of less moment, but drawn from the same sources.

41. But that it is an art may be proved in a very few words, for whether, as Cleanthes maintained, an art is a power working its effects by a course, that is by method, no man will doubt that there is a certain course and method in oratory; or whether that definition, approved by almost everybody, that an art consists of perception consenting and cooperating to some end useful to life, be adopted also by us, we have already shown that everything to which this definition applies is to be found in oratory. 42. Need I show that it depends on understanding and practice, like other arts? If logic be an art, as is generally admitted, oratory must certainly be an art, as it differs from logic rather in species than in genus. Nor must we omit to observe that in whatever pursuit one man may act according to a method, and another without regard to that method, that pursuit is an art; and that in whatever pursuit he who has learned succeeds better than he who has not learned, that pursuit is an art.

43. But, in the pursuit of oratory, not only will the learned excel the unlearned, but the more learned will excel the less learned, otherwise there would not be so many rules in it or so many great men to teach it. This ought to be acknowledged by every one, and especially by me, who allow the attainment of oratory only to the man of virtue.

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