(384-322 B. C.)


Modern critics are fond of discriminating between talent and genius. The fire of genius, it seems, will flame resplendent even in spite of an unworthy possessor's neglect. But the man with talent which must be carefully cherished and increased if he would attain distinction by its help—that man is the true self-helper to whom our hearts go out in sympathy. Every schoolboy knows that Demosthenes practised declamation on the seashore, with his mouth full of pebbles. This description of the unlovely old Athenian with the compelling tongue is Plutarch's contribution to the literature of self-help.

From Plutarch's "Lives of Illustrious Men."

The orator Callistratus was to plead in the cause which the city of Oropus had depending; and the expectation of the public was greatly raised, both by the powers of the orator, which were then in the highest repute, and by the importance of the trial. Demosthenes, hearing the governors and tutors agree among themselves to attend the trial, with much importunity prevailed on his master to take him to hear the pleadings. The master, having some acquaintance with the officers who opened the court, got his young pupil a seat where he could hear the orators without being seen. Callistratus had great success, and his abilities were extremely admired. Demosthenes was fired with a spirit of emulation. When he saw with what distinction the orator was conducted home, and complimented by the people, he was struck still more with the power of that commanding eloquence which could carry all before it. From this time, therefore, he bade adieu to the other studies and exercises in which boys are engaged, and applied himself with great assiduity to declaiming, in hopes of being one day numbered among the orators. Isaeus was the man he made use of as his preceptor in eloquence, though Isocrates then taught it; whether it was that the loss of his father incapacitated him to pay the sum of ten minae, which was that rhetorician's usual price, or whether he preferred the keen and subtle manner of Isaeus as more fit for public use.

Hermippus says he met with an account in certain anonymous memoirs that Demosthenes likewise studied under Plato, and received great assistance from him in preparing to speak in public. He adds, that Ctesibius used to say that Demosthenes was privately supplied by Callias the Syracusan and some others, with the systems of rhetoric taught by Isocrates and Alcidamus, and made his advantage of them.

When his minority was expired, he called his guardians to account at law, and wrote orations against them. As they found many methods of chicane and delay, he had great opportunity, as Thucydides says, to exercise his talent for the bar. It was not without much pain and some risk that he gained his cause; and, at last, it was but a very small part of his patrimony that he could recover. By this means, however, he acquired a proper assurance and some experience; and having tasted the honour and power that go in the train of eloquence, he attempted to speak in the public debates, and take a share in the administration. As it is said of Laomedon the Orchomenian, that, by the advice of his physicians, in some disorder of the spleen, he applied himself to running, and continued it constantly a great length of way, till he had gained such excellent health and breath that he tried for the crown at the public games, and distinguished himself in the long course; so it happened to Demosthenes, that he first appeared at the bar for the recovery of his own fortune, which had been so much embezzled; and having acquired in that cause a persuasive and powerful manner of speaking, he contested the crown, as I may call it, with the other orators before the general assembly.

In his first address to the people he was laughed at and interrupted by their clamours, for the violence of his manner threw him into a confusion of periods and a distortion of his argument; besides he had a weakness and a stammering in his voice, and a want of breath, which caused such a distraction in his discourse that it was difficult for the audience to understand him. At last, upon his quitting the assembly, Eunomous the Thriasian, a man now extremely old, found him wandering in a dejected condition in the Piraeus, and took upon him to set him right. "You," said he, "have a manner of speaking very like that of Pericles, and yet you lose yourself out of mere timidity and cowardice. You neither bear up against the tumults of a popular assembly nor prepare your body by exercise for the labour of the rostrum, but suffer your parts to wither away in negligence and indolence."

Another time, we are told, when his speeches had been ill-received, and he was going home with his head covered, and in the greatest distress, Satyrus, the player, who was an acquaintance of his, followed and went in with him. Demosthenes lamented to him, "That though he was the most laborious of all the orators, and had almost sacrificed his health to that application, yet he could gain no favour with the people; but drunken seamen and other unlettered persons were heard, and kept the rostrum, while he was entirely disregarded." "You say true," answered Satyrus, "but I will soon provide a remedy, if you will repeat to me some speech in Euripides or Sophocles." When Demosthenes had done, Satyrus pronounced the same speech; and he did it with such propriety of action, and so much in character, that it appeared to the orator quite a different passage. He now understood so well how much grace and dignity action adds to the best oration that he thought it a small matter to premeditate and compose, though with the utmost care, if the pronunciation and propriety of gesture were not attended to. Upon this he built himself a subterraneous study which remained to our times. Thither he repaired every day to form his action and exercise his voice; and he would often stay there for two or three months together, shaving one side of his head, that, if he should happen to be ever so desirous of going abroad, the shame of appearing in that condition might keep him in.

When he did go out on a visit, or received one, he would take something that passed in conversation, some business or fact that was reported to him, for a subject to exercise himself upon. As soon as he had parted from his friends, he went to his study, where he repeated the matter in order as it passed, together with the arguments for and against it. The substance of the speeches which he heard he committed to memory, and afterward reduced them to regular sentences and periods, meditating a variety of corrections and new forms of expression, both of what others had said to him, and he had addressed to them. Hence, it was concluded that he was not a man of much genius, and that all his eloquence was the effect of labour. A strong proof of this seemed to be that he was seldom heard to speak anything extempore, and though the people often called upon him by name, as he sat in the assembly, to speak to the point debated, he would not do it unless he came prepared. For this many of the orators ridiculed him; and Pytheas, in particular, told him, "That all his arguments smelled of the lamp." Demosthenes retorted sharply upon him, "Yes, indeed, but your lamp and mine, my friend, are not conscious to the same labours." To others he did not pretend to deny his previous application, but told them, "He either wrote the whole of his orations, or spoke not without first committing part to writing." He further affirmed, "That this shewed him a good member of a democratic state; for the coming prepared to the rostrum was a mark of respect for the people. Whereas, to be regardless of what the people might think of a man's address shewed his inclination for oligarchy, and that he had rather gain his point by force than by persuasion." Another proof they gave us of his want of confidence on any sudden occasion is, that when he happened to be put into disorder by the tumultuary behaviour of the people, Demades often rose up to support him in an extempore address, but he never did the same for Demades.…

Upon the whole it appears that Demosthenes did not take Pericles entirely for his model. He only adopted his action and delivery, and his prudent resolutions not to make a practice of speaking from a sudden impulse, or on any occasion that might present itself; being persuaded that it was to that conduct he owed his greatness. Yet, while he chose not often to trust the success of his powers to fortune, he did not absolutely neglect the reputation which may be acquired by speaking on a sudden occasion; and if we believe Eratosthenes, Demetrius the Phalerean, and the comic poets, there was a greater spirit and boldness in his unpremeditated orations than in those he had committed to writing. Eratosthenes says that in his extemporaneous harangues he often spoke as from a supernatural impulse; and Demetrius tells us that in an address to the people, like a man inspired, he once uttered this oath in verse:

By earth, by all her fountains, streams, and floods! …

As for his personal defects, Demetrius the Phalerean gives us an account of the remedies he applied to them; and he says he had it from Demosthenes in his old age. The hesitation and stammering of his tongue he corrected by practising to speak with pebbles in his mouth; and he strengthened his voice by running or walking uphill, and pronouncing some passage in an oration or a poem during the difficulty of breath which that caused. He had, moreover, a looking-glass in his house before which he used to declaim and adjust all his motions.

It was said that a man came to him one day, and desired him to be his advocate against a person from whom he had suffered by assault. "Not you, indeed," said Demosthenes, "you have suffered no such thing." "What," said the man, raising his voice, "have I not received those blows?" "Ay, now," replied Demosthenes, "you do speak like a person that has been injured." So much in his opinion do the tone of voice and the action contribute to gain the speaker credit in what he affirms.

His action pleased the commonalty much; but people of taste (among whom was Demetrius the Phalerean) thought there was something in it low, inelegant, and unmanly. Hermippus acquaints us, Aesion being asked his opinion of the ancient orators and those of that time, said, "Whoever has heard the orators of former times must admire the decorum and dignity with which they spoke. Yet when we read the orations of Demosthenes, we must allow they have more art in the composition and greater force." It is needless to mention that in his written orations there was something extremely cutting and severe; but in his sudden repartees there was also something of humour.…

When a rascal surnamed Chalcus attempted to jest upon his late studies and long watchings, he said, "I know my lamp offends thee. But you need not wonder, my countryman, that we have so many robberies, when we have thieves of brass [chalcus] and walls only of clay." Though more of his sayings might be produced, we shall pass them over, and go on to seek the rest of his manners and character in his actions and political conduct.

He tells us himself that he entered upon public business in the time of the Phocian war, and the same may be collected from his Philippics. For some of the last of them were delivered after that war was finished; and the former relate to the immediate transactions of it. It appears, also, that he was thirty-two years old when he was preparing his oration against Midias; and yet at that time he had attained no name or power in the administration.…

He had a glorious subject for his political ambition to defend the cause of Greece against Philip. He defended it like a champion worthy of such a charge, and soon gained great reputation both for eloquence and for the bold truths which he spoke. He was admired in Greece, and courted by the king of Persia. Nay, Philip himself had a much higher opinion of him than the other orators; and his enemies acknowledged that they had to contend with a great man. For Aeschines and Hyperides, in their very accusations, give him such a character.

I wonder, therefore, how Theopompus could say that he was a man of no steadiness, who was never long pleased either with the same persons or things. For, on the contrary, it appears that he abode by the party and the measures which he first adopted; and was so far from quitting them during his life that he forfeited his life rather than he would forsake them.…

It must be acknowledged, however, that he excelled all the orators of his time, except Phocion, in his life and conversation. And we find in his orations that he told the people the boldest truths, that he opposed their inclinations and corrected their errors with the greatest spirit and freedom. Theopompus also acquaints us that when the Athenians were for having him manager of a certain impeachment, and insisted upon it in a tumultuary manner, he would not comply, but rose up and said, "My friends, I will be your counsellor whether you will or no; but a false accuser I will not be how much soever you may wish it.…"

Demosthenes, through the whole course of his political conduct, left none of the actions of the kin of Macedon undisparaged. Even in time of peace he laid hold on every opportunity to raise suspicions against him among the Athenians, and to excite their resentment. Hence Philip looked upon him as a person of the greatest importance in Athens; and when he went with nine other deputies to the court of that prince, after having given them all audience, he answered the speech of Demosthenes with greater care than the rest. As to other marks of honour and respect, Demosthenes had not an equal share in them; they were bestowed principally upon Aeschines and Philocrates. They, therefore, were large in the praise of Philip on all occasions, and they insisted, in particular, on his eloquence, his beauty, and even his being able to drink a great quantity of liquor. Demosthenes, who could not bear to hear him praised, turned these things off as trifles. "The first," he said, "was the property of a sophist, the second of a woman, and the third of a sponge; and not one of them could do any credit to a king."

Afterward, it appeared that nothing was to be expected but war; for, on the one hand, Philip knew not how to sit down in tranquillity; and, on the other, Demosthenes inflamed the Athenians. In this case, the first step the orator took was to put the people upon sending an armament to Euboea, which was brought under the yoke of Philip by its petty tyrants. Accordingly he drew up an edict, in pursuance of which they passed over to that peninsula, and drove out the Macedonians. His second operation was the sending succor to the Byzantians and Perinthians, with whom Philip was at war. He persuaded the people to drop their resentment, to forget the faults which both those nations had committed in the confederate war, and to send a body of troops to their assistance. They did so, and it saved them from ruin. After this, he went ambassador to the states of Greece; and, by his animating address, brought them almost all to join in the league against Philip.…

Meantime Philip, elated with his success at Amphissa, surprised Elatea, and possessed himself of Phocis. The Athenians were struck with astonishment, and none of them durst mount the rostrum; no one knew what advice to give; but a melancholy silence reigned the city. In this distress Demosthenes alone stood forth, and proposed that application should be made to the Thebans. He likewise animated the people in his usual manner, and inspired them with fresh hopes; in consequence of which he was sent ambassador to Thebes, some others being joined in commission with him. Philip, too, on his part, as Maryas informs us, sent Anyntus and Clearchus, two Macedonians, Doachus the Thessalian, Thrasidaeus the Elean, to answer the Athenian deputies. The Thebans were not ignorant what way their true interest pointed, but each of them had the evils of war before his eyes; for their Phocian wounds were still fresh upon them. However, the powers of the orator, as Theopompus tells us, rekindled their courage and ambition so effectually that all other objects were disregarded. They lost sight of fear, of caution, of every prior attachment, and, through the force of his eloquence, fell with enthusiastic transports into the path of honour.

So powerful, indeed, were the efforts of the orator that Philip immediately sent ambassadors to Athens to apply for peace. Greece recovered her spirits, whilst she stood waiting for the event; and not only the Athenian generals, but the governors of Boeotia, were ready to execute the commands of Demosthenes. All the assemblies, as well those of Thebes as those of Athens, were under his direction: he was equally beloved, equally powerful, in both places; and, as Theopompus shows, it was no more than his merit claimed. But the superior power of fortune, which seems to have been working at revolution, and drawing the liberties of Greece to a period at that time, opposed and baffled all the measures that could be taken. The deity discovered many tokens of the approaching event.