One of the most disquieting facts that history teaches is the inability of the most enlightened and patriotic men to “discern the signs of the times”. To us the collapse of the Greek city-states seems natural and inevitable. Their constant bickerings and petty jealousies justly drew down upon them the armed might of the ambitious and capable power which destroyed them. Their fate may fill us with pity and our admiration for those who fought in a losing cause may prejudice us against their enslavers. But just as the Norman Conquest in the long run brought more blessing than misery, so the downfall of the Greek commonwealths was the first step to the conquering progress of the Greek type of civilisation through the whole world. Our Harold, fighting manfully yet vainly against an irresistible tendency, has his counterpart in the last defender of the ancient liberties of Greece.
Demosthenes was born in 384 of a well-to-do business man who died eight years later. The guardians whom he appointed appropriated the estate, leaving Demosthenes and his sister in straitened circumstances. On coming of age the young man brought a suit against his trustees in 363, of whom Aphobus was the most fraudulent. Though he won the case, much of his property was irretrievably lost. Nor were his first efforts at public speaking prophetic of future greatness. His voice was thin, his demeanour awkward, his speech indistinct; his style was laboured, being an obvious blend of Thucydides with Isaeus, an old and practised pleader. Yet he was ambitious and determined; he longed to copy the career of Pericles, the noblest of Athenian statesmen. The stories of his self-imposed exercises and their happy issue are well known; his days he spent in declaiming on the sea-shore with pebbles in his mouth, his nights in copying and recopying Thucydides; the speeches which have come down to us show clearly the gradual evolution of the great style well worthy of the greatest of all themes, national salvation.
It will be necessary to explain a convention of the Athenian law courts. A litigant was obliged to plead his own case; if he was unable to compose his own speech, he applied to some professional retailer of orations who would write it for him. The art of these speech-writers was of varying excellence. A first-class practitioner would not only discover the real or the supposed facts of the dispute, he would divine the real character of his client, and write the particular type of speech which would seem most natural on such a person's lips. Considerable knowledge of human nature was required in such an exciting and delicate profession, although the author did not always succeed in concealing his identity. Demosthenes had his share of this experience; he wrote for various customers speeches on various subjects; one concerns a dowry dispute, another a claim for compensation for damage caused by a water-course, another deals with an adoption, another was written for a wealthy banker. Assault and battery, ship-scuttling, undue influence of attractive females on the weaker sex, maritime trickery of all kinds, citizen rights, are all treated in the so-called private speeches, of which some are of considerable value as illustrating legal or mercantile or social etiquette.
Public suits were of the same nature; the speeches were composed by one person and delivered by another. Such are the speech against Androtion for illegal practices, against Timocrates for embezzlement and the important speech against Aristocrates, in which for the first time Demosthenes seems to have become aware of the real designs of Macedonia. The speech against the law of Leptines, delivered in 354 by Demosthenes himself, is of value as displaying the gradual development of his characteristic style; in it we have the voice and the words of the same man, who is talking with a sense of responsibility about a constitutional anomaly.
But for us the real Demosthenes is he who spoke on questions of State policy. This subject alone can call out the best qualities in an orator as distinct from a rhetorician; the tricks and bad arguments which are so often employed to secure condemnation or acquittal in a law court are inapplicable or undignified in a matter of vital national import. But before the great enemy arose to threaten Greek liberty, it happened that Fortune was kind enough to afford Demosthenes excellent practice in a parliamentary discussion of two if not three questions of importance.
In 354 there was much talk of a possible war with Persia. Demosthenes first addresses the sword-rattlers. “To the braggarts and jingoes I say that it is not difficult—not even when we need sound advice—to win a reputation for courage and to appear a clever speaker when danger is very near. The really difficult duty is to show courage in danger and in the council-chamber to give sounder advice than anybody else.” His belief was that war was not a certainty, but it would be better to revise the whole naval system. A detailed scheme to assure the requisite number of ships in fighting-trim follows, so sensible that it commands immediate respect. The speaker estimates the wealth of Attica, maps it out into divisions, each able to bear the expense of the warships assigned to it. To a possible objection that it would be better to raise the money by increased taxation he answers with the grim irony natural to him (he seems to be utterly devoid of humour).
“What you could raise at present is more ridiculous than if you
raised nothing at all. A hundred and twenty talents? What are they
to the twelve hundred camels which they say carry Persia's revenues?”
He refuses to believe that a Greek mercenary army would fight against its country, while the Thebans, who notoriously sided with Persia in 480, would give much for an opportunity of redeeming this old sin against Greece.
“The rest of the Greeks, as long as they considered the Persian
their common enemy, had numerous blessings; but when they began to
regard him as their friend they experienced such woes as no man could
have invented for them even in his curses. Whom then Providence and
Destiny have shown useless as a friend and most advantageous as a foe,
shall we fear? Rather let us commit no injustice for our own sakes and
save the rest from commotion and strife.”
Such is the outline of the speech on the Navy-boards. Two years later he displayed qualities of no mean order. Sparta and Thebes were quarrelling for the leadership. Arcadia had revolted from Sparta, the centre of the disaffection being Megalopolis; ambassadors from the latter city and from Sparta begged Athenian aid. In the heat of the excitement men's judgments were not to be trusted. “The difficulty of giving sound advice is well known,” says the orator.
“If a man tries to take a middle course and you have not the
patience to hear, he will win the approval of neither party but
will be maligned by both. If such a fate awaits me, I would rather
appear to be talking nonsense than allow any party to deceive you
into what I know is not your wisest policy.”
The question was, should Athens join Thebes or Sparta, both ancient foes?
“I would like to ask those who say they hate either, whether they
hate the one for the sake of the other or for your sake. If for the
sake of the other party, then you can trust neither, for both are mad;
if for your sake, why do they try to strengthen one of these two
cities unduly? You can with perfect ease keep Thebes weak without
making Sparta strong, as I will prove. You will find that the main
cause of woe and ruin is unwillingness to act with simple honesty.”
After a rapid calculation of possibilities he suggests the following plan.
“War between Thebes and Sparta is certain. If Thebes is beaten to
the ground, as she deserves to be, Sparta will not be unduly powerful,
for these Arcadian neighbours will restore the balance; if Thebes
recovers and saves herself, she will still be weak if you ally
yourselves with Arcadia and protect her. It is expedient then in
every way neither to sacrifice Arcadia nor let that country imagine
that it survives through its own power or through any other power than
The calm voice of the cool-headed statesman is everywhere audible in this admirable little speech.
The power of discounting personal resentment and thinking soberly is apparent in the speech for the Freedom of Rhodes, delivered about this time. Rhodes had offended Athens by revolting in the Social war of 357-5 with the help of the well-known Carian king Mausolus. For a time that monarch had treated Rhodes well; later he overthrew the democracy and placed the power in the hands of the oligarchs. When Queen Artemisia succeeded to the throne of Caria the democrats begged Athens to aid them in recovering their liberty. Deprecating passion of any kind, Demosthenes points out the real question at issue. The record of the oligarchs is a bad one; to overthrow the democracy they had won over some of the leading citizens whom they banished when they had attained their object. Their faithless conduct promised no hope of a firm alliance with Athens. The Rhodian question was to be the acid test of her political creed.
“Look at this fact, gentlemen. You have fought many a war against
both democracies and oligarchies, as you well know. But the real
object of these wars perhaps none of you considers. Against
democracies you fight for private grievances which cannot be settled
in public, or for territory or boundaries or for domination. Against
oligarchies you fight for none of these things, but for your
constitution and freedom. I would not hesitate to say that I consider
it more to your advantage should become democratic and fight you than
turn oligarchic and be your friends. I am certain that it would not
be difficult for you to make peace with freeconstitutions; with
oligarchies your friendship would not even be secure, for it is
impossible that they in their lust for power could cherish kindness
for a State whose policy is based on freedom of speech.”
“Even if we were to say that Rhodes richly deserves her sufferings,
this is the wrong time to gloat. Prosperous cities ought always to
show that they desire every good for the unfortunate, for the future
is dark to us all.”
His conclusion is this.
“Any person who abandons the post assigned to him by his commander
you disfranchise and exclude from public life. Even so all who desert
the political tradition bequeathed you by your ancestors and turn
oligarchs you ought to banish from your Council. As it is you trust
politicians who you know for certain side with your country's enemies.”
These three speeches indicate plainly enough the kind of man who was soon to make himself heard in a more important question. Instead of a frothy and excitable harangue that might have been looked for in a warm-blooded Southern orator we find a dignified and apparently cool-headed type of speech based on sound sense, full of practical proposals, fearless, manly and above all noble because it relies on righteousness. An intelligence of no mean order has in each case discarded personal feeling and has pointed out the one bed-rock fact which ought to be the foundation of a sound policy. More than this; for the first time an Attic orator has deliberately set to work to create a new type of prose, based on a cadence and rhythm. This new language at times runs away with its inventor; experience was to show him that in this matter as in all others the consummate artist hides the art whereof he is master.
By 352 Greece had become aware that her liberties were to be threatened not from the East, but from Macedonia. Trained in the Greek practice of arms and diplomacy, her king Philip within seven years had created a powerful military system. His first object was to obtain control of a seaboard. In carrying out this policy he had to reduce Amphipolis on the Strymon in Thrace, Olynthus in Chalcidice, and Athenian power centralised in Potidaea, a little south of Olynthus, and on the other side of the Gulf of Therma in Pydna and Methone. Pydna he secured in 357 by trickery; Amphipolis had passed under his control through inexcusable Athenian slackness earlier in the same year. Potidaea fell in 356 and Methone, the last Athenian stronghold, in 353. Pagasae succumbed in 352; with it Philip obtained absolute command of the sea-coast.
In the same year a Macedonian attempt to pass Thermopylae was met by vigorous Athenian action; a strong force held the defile, preventing a further advance southward. In the next year the Athenian pacifist party was desirous of dropping further resistance. This policy caused the delivery of the First Philippic. It is a stirring appeal to the country to shake off its lethargy. Nothing but personal service would enable her to recover the lost strongholds. “In my opinion,” it says, “the greatest compelling power that can move men is the disgrace of their condition. Do you desire to stroll about asking one another for news? What newer news do you want than that a Macedonian is warring down Athens? Philip sick or Philip dead makes no difference to you. If he died you would soon raise up for yourselves another Philip if you continue your present policy.”
With statesmanlike care Demosthenes makes concrete proposals for the creation of a standing force of citizens ready to serve in the ranks; at present their generals and captains are puppets for the pretty march-past in the public square. He estimates the cost of upkeep and shows that it is possible to maintain a force in perfect efficiency; he lays particular stress on creating a base of operations in Macedonia itself, otherwise fleets sailing north might be checked by trade winds. “Too late” is the curse of Athenian action; a vacillating policy ruins every expedition.
“Such a system was possible earlier, but now we are on the razor's
edge. In my opinion some god in utter shame at our history has
inspired Philip with his restlessness. If he had been content with
his conquests and annexations, some of you would be quite satisfied
with a position which would have branded our name with infamy and
cowardice; as it is, perhaps his unceasing aggressions and lust for
extension might spur you—unless you are utterly past redemption.”
He grimly refutes all those well-informed persons who “happen to know” Philip's object—we had scores of them in our own late war.
“Why, of course he is intoxicated at the magnitude of his successes
and builds castles in the air; but I am quite sure that he will
never choose a policy such that the most hopeless fools here are
likely to know what it is, for gossipers are hopeless fools.”
It should be remembered that these are the words of a young man of thirty-four, unconnected with any party, yet capable of forming a sane policy. That they are great words will be obvious to anyone who replaces the name of Philip by that of his country's enemy; the result is startling indeed.
The last and most formidable problem Philip had yet to solve, the destruction of Olynthus, the centre of a great confederation of thirty-two towns. Military work against it was begun in 349 and led at once to an appeal to Athens for assistance. The pacifists and traitors were busy intriguing for Philip; Demosthenes delivered three speeches for Olynthus. The First Olynthiac sounds the right note.
“The present crisis all but cries aloud saying that you must tackle
the problem your own selves if you have any concern for salvation.
The great privilege of a military autocrat, that he is his own
Cabinet, Commander-in-Chief, and Chancellor of the Exchequer, that
he is everywhere personally in service with his army, gives him an
enormous advantage for the speedy and timely performance of military
duties, but it makes him incapable of obtaining from Olynthus the
truce he longs for. Olynthus now knows she is fighting not for glory
or territory but to avoid ejection and slavery. She has before her
eyes his treatment of Amphipolis and Pydna. In a word, despotism is
a thing no free country can trust, especially if it is its neighbour.”
He warns his hearers that once Olynthus falls, there is nothing to hinder Philip from marching straight on Athens.
A definite policy is then suggested.
“Carping criticism is easy; any person can indulge in it; but only
a statesman can show what is to be done to meet a pressing difficulty.
I know well enough that if anything goes wrong you lose your tempers
not with the guilty persons, but with the last speaker. Yet for all
that, no thought of private safety will make me conceal what I believe
to be our soundest course of action.”
By a perfectly scandalous abuse, the surplus funds of the State Treasury had been doled out to the poor to enable them to witness plays in the theatre, on the understanding that the doles should cease if war expenses had to be met. In time the lower orders came to consider the dole as their right, backed by the demagogues refused to surrender it. This theatre-fund Demosthenes did not yet venture to attack, for it was dangerous to do so. He had no alternative but to propose additional taxes on the rich. He concludes with an admirable peroration.
“You must all take a comprehensive view of these questions and
bear a hand in staving off the war into Macedonia. The rich must
spend a little of their possessions to enjoy the residue without
fear; the men of military age must gain their experience of war
in Philip's country and make themselves formidable defenders of
their own soil; the speakers must facilitate an enquiry into their
own conduct, that the citizen body may criticise their policy
according to the political situation at the moment. May the result
be good on every ground.”
The Second Olynthiac strikes a higher note, that of indignant protest against the perfidy of Macedonian diplomacy.
“When a State is built on unanimity, when allies in a war find
their interests identical, men gladly labour together, bearing
their troubles and sticking to their task. But when a power like
Philip's is strong through greed and villainy, on the first pretext
or the slightest set-back the whole system is upset and dismembered.
Injustice and perjury and lies cannot win a solid power; they
survive for a brief and fleeting period and show many a blossom of
promise perhaps, but time finds them out; their leaves soon wither
away. Houses or ships need foundations of great strength; policies
require truth and righteousness as their origin and first principles.
Such are not to be found in Philip's career.”
A history of Macedonian progress shows the weak places in the system.
“Success throws a veil over these at present, for prosperity shrouds
many a scandal. If he makes one false step, all his vices will come
into the clearest relief; this will soon become obvious under
Heaven's guidance, if you will only show some energy. As long as a
man is in health, he is unaware of his weaknesses, but when sickness
overtakes him, his whole constitution is upset. Cities and despots
are the same; while they are invading their neighbours their secret
evils are invisible, but when they are in the grip of an internal war
these weaknesses all become quite evident.”
An exhortation to personal service is succeeded by a protest against a parochial view of politics which causes petty jealousies and paralyses joint action. The whole State should take its turn at doing some war duty.
In the Third Olynthiac Demosthenes takes the bull by the horns. The insane theatre-doles were sapping the revenues badly needed for financing the fight for existence. Olynthus at last was aware of her danger; she could be aided not by passing decrees, but by annulling some.
“I will tell you quite plainly I mean the laws about the
theatre-fund. When you have done that and when you make it safe
for your speakers to give you the best advice, then you may expect
somebody to propose what you all know is to your interest. The men
to repeal these laws are those who proposed them. It is unfair that
they who passed them should be popular for damaging the State while
a statesman who proposes a measure which would benefit us all should
be rewarded with public hatred. Before you have set this matter right
you cannot expect to find among you a superman who will violate these
laws with impunity or a fool who will run his head into a manifest
With the same superb courage he tackles the demagogues who are the cause of all the mischief.
“Ever since the present type of orator has appeared who asks
anxiously, 'What do you want? What can I propose? What can I give
you?' the city's prestige has melted in compliment; the net result
is that these men have made their fortunes while the city is
A bitter contrast shows how the earlier popular leaders made Athens wealthy, dominant and respected; the modern sort had lost territory, spent a mint of money on nothing, alienated good allies and raised up a trained enemy. But there is one thing to their credit, they had whitewashed the city walls, had repaired roads and fountains. And the trade of public speaking is profitable. Some of the demagogues' houses are more splendid than the public buildings; as individuals they have prospered in exact proportion as the State is reduced to impotence. In fact, they have secured control of the constitution; their system of bribery and spoon-feeding has tamed the democracy and made it obedient to the hand. “I should not be surprised,” he continues,
“if my words bring me into greater trouble than the men who have
started these abuses. Freedom of speech on every subject before you
is not possible—I am surprised that you have not already howled me
The doles he compares to the snacks prescribed by doctors; they cannot help keep a patient properly alive and will not allow him to die. Personal service and an end of gratuities is insisted upon.
“Without adding or taking away, only slightly altering our present
chaos, I have suggested a uniform scheme whereby each man can do
the duties fitted to his years and his opportunities. I have nowhere
proposed that you should divide the earnings of the workers among
the unemployable, nor that you should slack and amuse yourselves and
be reduced to beggary while somebody else is fighting for you—for
that is what is happening now.”
What a speech is here! Doles, interruptions of men who tell the truth, organised democratic corruption, waste of public money on whitewash are familiar to the unhappy British tax-payer. Where is our Demosthenes who dare appeal to the electorate to sweep the system and its prospering advocates back into the darkness?
Having captured Olynthus in 348 and razed it to the ground, Philip attacked Euboea. A further advance was checked by a disgraceful peace engineered by Philocrates and Aeschines in 346. The embassy which obtained it was dodged by Philip until he had made the maximum of conquest; he had excluded the Phocians from its scope, a people of primary importance because they controlled Thermopylae, but a week after signing the peace he had destroyed Phocian unity and usurped their place on the great Council which met at Delphi. This evident attack on the liberty of southern Greece raised a fever of excitement at Athens. The war-party clamoured for instant action; strangely enough Demosthenes advised his city to observe the peace. In contrast with his fiery audience he speaks with perfect coolness and calm. He reviews the immediate past, explains the shameful part played by an actor Neoptolemus who persuaded Athens to make the peace, then realised all his property and went to live in Macedon; he describes the good advice he gave them which they did not follow, and bases his claim to speak not on any cleverness but on his incorruptibility.
“Our true interest reveals itself to me in its real outlines as I
judge the existing situation. But whenever a man throws a bribe
into the opposite scale it drags the reason after it; the corrupt
person will never afterwards have any true or sane judgment about
In the present case the real point at issue is clear enough. It is a question of fighting not Philip but the whole body of states who were represented at the Delphic Council, for they would fly to arms at once if Athens renounced the Peace; against such a combination she could not survive, just as the Phocians could not cope with the combined attack of Macedonia, Thessaly and Thebes, natural enemies united for a brief moment to achieve a common end. After all, a seat on the Delphic Council was a small matter; only fools would go to war for an unsubstantial shadow.
Firmly planted in Greece itself, Philip started intriguing in Peloponnesus, supporting Argos, Megalopolis and Messene against Sparta. An embassy to these three cities headed by Demosthenes warned them of the treacherous friendship. Returning to Athens in 344 he delivered his Second Philippi, which contains an account of the speeches of the recent tour. Philip acted while Athens talked.
“The result is inevitable and perhaps reasonable; each of you
excels in that wherein you are most diligent—he in deeds, you
Hence comes the intrigue against Sparta. He can dupe stupid people like the Thebans, or the Peloponnesians; warning therefore is necessary. To the latter he said:—
“You now stare at Philip offering and promising things; if you
have any sense, pray you may never see him practising his tricks
and evasions. Cities have invented all kinds of protections and
safeguards such as stockades, walls, trenches—all of which are
made by hand and expensive. But men of sense have inherited from
Nature one defence, good and salutary—especially democrats against
despots—namely, mistrust. If you hold fast to this, you will never
come to serious harm. You hanker after liberty, I suppose. Cannot
you see that Philip's very title is the exact negation of it? Every
king or despot is a foe to freedom and an adversary of law. Beware
lest while seeking to be quit of a war you find a master.”
He then mentions the silly promises of advantages to come which induced Athens to make the infamous Peace, and quotes the famous remark whereby the traitor gang raised a laugh while in the act of selling their country. “Demosthenes is naturally a sour and peevish fellow, for he drinks water.” Drawing their attention to this origin of all their trouble, he asks them to remember their names—at the same time remarking that even if a man deserved to die, punishment should be suspended if it meant loss and ruin to the State.
The next three years saw various Macedonian aggressions, especially in Thrace. That country on its eastern extremity formed the northern coast of the Dardanelles, named the Chersonese, important as safeguarding the corn supplies which passed through the Straits. It had been in the possession of Miltiades, was lost in the Peloponnesian war and was partly recovered by Timotheus in 863. Diopeithes had been sent there with a body of colonists in 346. Establishing himself in possession, he took toll of passing traders to safeguard them against pirates and had collided with the Macedonian troops as they slowly advanced to the Narrows. Philip sent a protest to Athens; in a lively debate on the Chersonese early in 341 Demosthenes delivered a great speech.
First of all he shows that Diopeithes is really the one guarantee that Philip will not attack Attica itself. In Thrace is a force which can do great damage to Macedonian territory.
“But if it is once disbanded, what shall we do if Philip attacks the
Chersonese? Arraign Diopeithes, of course—but that will not improve
matters. Well then, send reinforcements from here—if the winds allow
us. Well, Philip will not attack—but there is nobody to guarantee
He suggests that Diopeithes should not be cast off but supported. Such a plan will cost money, but it will be well spent for the sake of future benefits.
“If some god were to guarantee that if Athens observes strict
neutrality, abandoning all her possessions, Philip would not attack
her, it would be a scandal, unworthy of you and your city's power
and past history to sacrifice the rest of Greece. I would rather die
than suggest such action.”
He then turns to the pacifists, pointing out that it is useless to expect a peace if the enemy is bent on a war of extermination. None but fools would wait till a foe admits he is actually fighting if his actions are clearly hostile. The traitors who sell the city should be beaten to death, for no State can overcome the foe outside till it has chastised the enemy within. The record of Macedonian duplicity follows; the hectoring insolence of Philip is easily explained; Athens is the only place in the world in which freedom of speech exists; so prevalent is it that even slaves and aliens possess it. Accordingly Philip has to stop the mouths of other cities by giving them territory for a brief period, but Athens he can rob of her colonies and be sure of getting praise from the anti-national bribe-takers. He concludes with a striking and elevated passage describing the genuine statesman.
“Any man who to secure your real interests opposes your wishes and
never speaks to get applause but deliberately chooses politics as
his profession (a business in which chance exercises greater
influence than human reason), being perfectly ready to answer for
the caprices is a really brave and useful citizen. I have never had
recourse to the popular arts of winning favour; I have never used
low abuse or stooped to humour you or made rich men's money public;
I continue to tell you what is bound to make me unpopular among you
and yet advance your strength if only you will listen-so unenviable
is the counsellor's lot.”
A deep and splendid courage in hopelessness is here manifest.
A little later in the same year was delivered the last and greatest of all the patriotic speeches, the Third Philippic. Early in the speech the whole object of the Macedonian threat is made apparent—the jugular veins of Athens, her trade-routes.
“Any man who plots and intrigues to secure the means of my capture is
at war with me, even if he has not fired a shot. In the last event,
what are the danger-spots of Athens? The Hellespont, Megara and Euboea,
the Peloponnese. Am I to say then that a man who has fired this train
against Athens is at peace with her?”
Then the plot against all Greek liberty is explained.
“We all recognise the common danger, but we never send embassies to
one another. We are in such a sorry plight, so great a gulf has been
fixed between cities by intrigue that we are incapable of doing what
is our duty and our interest; we cannot combine; we can make no
confederation of mutual friendship and assistance; we stare at the
man as he grows greater; each of us is determined to take advantage
of the time during which another is being ruined, never considering
or planning the salvation of Greece. Every one knows that Philip is
like a recurring plague or a fit of some malevolent disease which
attacks even those who seem to be out of his reach. Remember this;
all the indignities put on Greece by Sparta or ourselves were at least
the work of genuine sons of the land; they may be likened to the wild
oats of some heir to a great estate—if they were the excesses of some
slave or changeling we all would have considered them monstrous and
scandalous. But that is not our attitude to Philip and his diplomacy,
though he is not a Greek or a relation; rather he is not born even of
decent barbarian parents—he is a cursed wretch from Macedonia which
till recently could not supply even a respectable servant.”
The bitterness of this is intense in a man who generally refrains from anything undignified in a public speech.
The cause of this disunion is bribery. In former times
“it was impossible to buy from orators or generals knowledge of the
critical moment which fortune often gives to the careless against the
industrious. But now all our national virtues have been sold out of
the market; we have imported in their place the goods which have
tainted Greek life to the very death. These are—envy for every
bribe-taker, ridicule for any who confesses his guilt, hatred for
every one who exposes him. We have far more warships and soldiers and
revenue to-day, but they are all useless, unavailing and unprofitable
owing to treason.”
To punish these seems quite hopeless.
“You have sunk to the very depth of folly or craziness or I know not
what. Often I cannot help dreading that some evil angel is persecuting
us. For some ribaldry or petty spite or silly jest—in fact, for any
reason whatsoever you invite hirelings to address you, and laugh at
He points to the fate of all the cities whom Philip flattered.
“In all of them the patriots advised increased taxation—the traitors
said it was not necessary. They advised war and distrust—the traitors
preached peace, till they were caught in the trap. The traitors made
speeches to get votes, the others spoke for national existence. In
many cases the masses listened to the pro-Macedonians not through
ignorance, but because their hearts failed them when they thought they
were beaten to their knees.”
The doom of these cities it was not worth while to describe overmuch.
“As long as the ship is safe, that is the time for every sailor and
their captain to be keen on his duties and to take precautions against
wilful or thoughtless upsetting of the craft. But once the sea is over
the decks, all zeal is vain. We then who are Athenians, while we are
safe with our great city, our enormous resources, our splendid
reputation—what shall we do?”
The universal appeal of this white-hot speech is its most noteworthy feature. The next year the disgraceful peace was ended, the free theatre-tickets withdrawn. All was vain. In 338 Athens and Thebes were defeated at Chaeroneia; the Cassandra prophecies of the great patriot came true. In 330 one more triumph was allowed him. He was attacked by the traitor Aeschines and answered him so effectively in his speech on the Crown that his adversary was banished. A cloud settled over the orator's later life; he outlived Alexander by little more than a year, but when Antipater hopelessly defeated the allies at Crannon in 322 he poisoned himself rather than live in slavery.
Of all the orators of the ancient world none is more suitable for modern use than Demosthenes. It is true that he is guilty of gross bad taste in some of his speeches—but rarely in a parliamentary oration. Cicero is too verbose and often insincere. Demosthenes is as a rule short, terse and forcible. It is the undoubted justice of his cause which gives him his lofty and noble style. He lacks the gentler touch of humour—but a man cannot jest when he sees servitude before the country he loves. With a few necessary alterations a speech of Demosthenes could easily be delivered to-day, and it would be successful. Even Philip is said to have admitted that he would have voted for him after hearing him, and Aeschines after winning applause for declaiming part of Demosthenes' speech told his audience that they ought to have heard the beast.
Yet all this splendid eloquence seems to have been wasted. The orator could see much that was dark to his contemporaries, and spoke prophecies true though vain. But the greatest thing of all was concealed from his view. The inevitable day had dawned for the genuinely Greek type of city. It was brilliant but it was a source of eternal divisions in a world which had to be unified to be of any service. Its absurd factions and petty leagues were really a hindrance to political stability. Further, the essential vices of democracy cried aloud for a stern master, and found him. Treason, bribery, appeals to an unqualified voting class, theft of rich men's property under legal forms, free seats in the theatre, belittlement of a great empire, pacifism, love of every state but the right one—these are the open sores of popular control. For such a society only one choice is possible; it needs discipline either of national service or national extinction. Its crazy cranks will not disappear otherwise. Modern political life is democratic; those who imagine that the voice of the majority is the voice of Heaven should produce reasons for their belief. They will find it difficult to hold such a view if they will patiently consider the hard facts of history and the unceasing warnings of Demosthenes.
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No account of Greek literature would be complete without a mention of the influence which has revolutionised human thought. It is a strange coincidence that Aristotle was born and died in the same years as Demosthenes. His native town was Stagira; he trained Alexander the Great, presided over the very famous Peripatetic School at Athens for thirteen years and found time to investigate practically every subject of which an ancient Greek could be expected to have any knowledge.
His method was the slow and very patient observation of individual facts. He is the complement of Plato, who tended to neglect the fact for the “idea” or general law or type behind it and logically prior to it. Deductive reasoning was Plato's method—that of the poet or great artist, who worships not what he sees but the unseen perfect form behind; inductive reasoning was Aristotle's method—that of the ordinary man, who respects what he sees that he may by patience find out what is the unseen class to which it belongs. This latter has been the foundation-stone of all modern science; in the main the resemblance between Aristotle's system of procedure and that of the greatest liberators of the human mind, Bacon and Descartes, are more valuable than the differences.
It would be difficult to mention any really great subject on which Aristotle has not left some work which is not to be lightly disregarded. His works are in the form of disjointed notes, taken down at his lectures by his disciples. As a rule they are dry and precise, though here and there rays of glory appear which prove that the master was capable of poetic expression even in prose. A rather fine hymn has been ascribed to him. As we might expect, he is weakest in scientific research, mainly because he could not command the use of instruments familiar to us. That a human being who possessed no microscope should have left such a detailed account of the most minute marks on the bodies of fish and animals is an absolute marvel; so perfect is his description that it cannot be bettered to-day. Cuvier and Linnaeus are great names in Botany; Darwin said that they were mere schoolboys compared with Aristotle—in other words, botanical research had progressed thewrong way.
Many works have appeared on Ethics and Philosophy; few of them are likely to survive as long as Aristotle's Ethics and Metaphysics Sometimes our modern philosophers seem to forget their obligation to resemble human beings in their writings. We hear so much of mist and transcendentalism, problems, theories, essays, critiques that a book of Aristotle's dry but exact definition seems like the words of soberness after some nightmare. The man is not assaulting the air; his feet are on firm ground. This is how he proceeds. “Virtue is a mean between excess and defect.” In fact, his object appears to have been to teach something, not to mystify everybody and to cover the honourable name of philosophy with ridicule.
It is the same story everywhere. Do we want the best book on Rhetoric or Politics? Aristotle may supply it, mainly because he took the trouble to classify his instances and show the reason why things not only are of such a kind, but must inevitably be so. A course of Aristotelian study might profitably be prescribed to every person who thinks of talking in public; he would at least learn how to respect himself and his audience, however ignorant and powerful it may be; he would tend to use words in an exact sense instead of indulging in the wild vagueness of speech which is so common and so dangerous. This dry-as-dust philosopher who cut up animals and plants and wrote about public speeches and constitutions found time to give the world a book on Poetry. Modern scientists sometimes deny their belief in the existence of such a thing as poetry, or scoff at its value; no poetic treatise has yet appeared from them, for it seems difficult for modern science to keep alive in its devotees the weakest glimmerings of a sense of beauty. Herein their great founder and father shows himself to be more humane than his so-called progressive children. His Poetics was the foundation of literary criticism and shows no sign of being superseded.
Turning his eyes upwards, he gave the world a series of notes on what he saw there. Not possessing a telescope, he could but do his best with the methods available. Let us not jeer at his results; rather let us remember that this same astronomer found time to observe the heavens in addition to revolutionising thought in the brief compass of sixty-two years.
For the miracle of miracles is this man's universality of outlook. It makes us ashamed of our own pretentiousness and swollen-headed pride when we reflect what this great architectonic genius has performed. Just as our bodies have decreased in size with the progress of history, so our intelligences seem to have narrowed themselves since Aristotle's day. Great as our modern scientists are, there is not one of them who would be capable of writing an acknowledged masterpiece on Ethics, Politics, Rhetoric, Poetry, Metaphysics as well as on his own subject.
Nor have we yet mentioned this stupendous thinker's full claim to absolute predominance in intellectual effort. His works on Medicine were known to and appreciated by the Arabs, who translated them and brought them to Spain and Sicily when they conquered those countries. Averroes commented on them and added notes of his own which contributed not a little to the development of the healing art. More than this, and greatest of all, during the later Middle Ages Aristotle's system alone was recognised as possessing universal value; it was taken as the foundation on which the most famous and important Schoolmen erected their philosophies—Chaucer mentions a clerk who possessed twenty books, a treasure indeed in those days; it provided a European Church with a Theology and the cosmopolitan European Universities with a curriculum. Greater honour than this no man ever had or ever can have. Thus, although the Greek city-state seemed to perish in mockery with Demosthenes, yet the Greek spirit of free discussion which died in the great orator was set free in another form in that same year; leaving Aristotle's body, it ranged through the world conquering and civilising. If in our ignorance and bigotry we try to kill Greek literature, we shall find that, like the hero of the Bacchae, we are turning our blows against our own selves, to the delight of all who relish exhibitions of perfect folly.