Quintilian's Institutes of Oratory
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Book 2 - Chapter 20

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Whether rhetoric be a virtue, as some call it, § 1-4. Proofs of this according to the philosophers, 5-7. Other proofs, 8-10.

1. IT is a question of a higher nature whether oratory is to be regarded as one of those indifferent arts, which deserve neither praise nor blame in themselves, but become useful or otherwise according to the characters of those who practise them, or whether it is, as many of the philosophers are of opinion, a positive virtue.

2. The way, indeed, in which many have proceeded and still proceed in the practice of speaking, I consider either as no art, ἀτεχνία (atechnia), as it is called (for I see numbers rushing to speak without rule or learning, just as impudence or hunger has prompted them), or as it were a bad art, which we term κακοτεχνία (kakotechnia), for I imagine that there have been many who have exerted, and that there are some who still exert, their talent in speaking to the injury of mankind. 3. There is also a kind of ματαιοτεχνία (mataiotechnia), a vain imitation of art, which indeed has in itself neither good nor evil, but a mere frivolous exercise of skill, such as that of the man who sent grains of vetches, shot from a distance in succession, and without missing, through a needle, and whom Alexander, after witnessing his dexterity, is said to have presented with a bushel of vetches, which was indeed a most suitable reward for his performance.

4. To him I compare those who spend their time with great study and labor in the composition of declamations, which they strive to make as unlike as possible to anything that happens in real life.

But that oratory which I endeavor to teach, of which I conceive the idea in my mind, which is attainable only by a good I man and which alone is true oratory, must be regarded as a virtue. 5. This is an opinion which the philosophers support by many subtle arguments, but which appears to me to be more clearly established by the simpler mode of proof which follows and which is peculiarly my own. What is said by the philosophers is this: If it is a quality of virtue to be consistent with itself as to what ought to be done and what ought not to be done (that quality, namely, which is called prudence), the same quality will have its office as to what ought to be said or not to be said. 6. And if there are virtues, for the generation of which, even before we receive any instruction, certain principles and seeds are given us by nature (as for that of justice, of which some notion is manifested even in the most ignorant and the most barbarous), it is evident that we are so formed originally as to be able to speak for ourselves, though not indeed perfectly, yet in such a manner as to show that certain seeds of the faculty of eloquence are in us. 7. But in those arts which have no connection with virtue there is not the same nature. As there are two kinds of speech, therefore, the continuous, which is called oratory, and the concise, which is termed logic (which Zeno thought so nearly connected that he compared the one to an open hand and the other to a clenched fist), if the art of disputation be a virtue, there will be no doubt of the virtue of that which is of so much more noble and expansive a nature.

8. But I wish the reader to understand this more fully and plainly from what is done by oratory, for how will an orator succeed in eulogy unless he has a clear knowledge of what is honorable and what is disgraceful? Or in persuasion, unless he understands what is advantageous? Or in judicial pleadings, unless he has a knowledge of justice? Does not oratory also demand fortitude, as the orator has often to speak in opposition to the turbulent threats of the populace, often with perilous defiance of powerful individuals and sometimes, as on the trial of Milo, amidst surrounding weapons of soldiers? So that if oratory be not a virtue, it cannot be perfect.

9. If, moreover, there is a sort of virtue in every species of animals in which it excels the rest, or the greater number, of other animals, as force in the lion and swiftness in the horse, and it is certain that man excels other animals in reason and speech, why should we not consider that the distinctive virtue of man lies as much in eloquence as in reason? Crassus in Cicero justly makes an assertion to this effect: "For eloquence," says he, "is one of the most eminent virtues," and Cicero himself, in his own character, both in his epistles to Brutus and in many other passages of his writings, calls eloquence a virtue. 10. But it may be alleged, a vicious man will sometimes produce an exordium, a statement of facts, and a series of arguments in such a way that nothing shall be desired in them. So we may answer, a robber will fight with great bravery, yet fortitude will still be a virtue, and a dishonest slave will bear torments without a groan, yet endurance of pain will still merit its praise. Many other things of the same nature occur, but from different principles of action. Let what I have said, therefore, as to eloquence being a virtue, be sufficient, for of its usefulness I have treated above.

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