BMCR 2001.08.28

Demosthenes: Statesman and Orator

, Demosthenes : statesman and orator. London: Routledge, 2000. 1 online resource (xiv, 289 pages). ISBN0203256093 $25.95.

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This is a collection of essays, written by a group of scholars from the major English-speaking countries, about various aspects of Demosthenes’s life and career: historical background (Chapters 1-3), his relationship to his rival Aeschines (Chapter 4), his value as a source for the social historian (Chapter 5), his speeches, both private and public (Chapters 6-7), his rhetorical reputation in antiquity (Chapter 8), and his Nachleben in the modern world (Chapter 9). There is a brief introduction by the editor in which he states that “the purpose of this book is to evaluate Demosthenes’ political and oratorical career from a variety of viewpoints, and to try to decide what sort of man he was: patriot or opportunist, or both” (3). There is also a fairly extensive bibliography, which, nevertheless, omits some important works such as Gilberte Ronnet’s Étude sur le style de Démosthène dans les discours politiques, an old but still useful book.

It has been said that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. The Demosthenes that emerges from this volume looks somewhat like a camel. The assessment of his basic motivation is the most incoherent aspect of the various views of the orator presented in these chapters, particularly the early ones. Ernst Badian, for example, in the first chapter, “The Road to Prominence,” which traces Demosthenes’s life to 351, sees him as an extremely ambitious politician who was, more than anything, seeking a cause with which to advance his political career. He says of the “Hellenic” speeches and the First Philippic : “They were all patently devoid of real conviction. [This is in strong contrast to Milns, who later in the book says of the First Philippic that the “passion leaps out from the printed page” (210).] He wanted to become a leader in glorious action, but had no basic policy of his own, no assessment of political and strategic priorities” (36). This may very well be; however, it is jolting to read in the first paragraph of the next chapter, “Demosthenes and Philip II,” by T.T.B. Ryder, that “Demosthenes used his oratorical and diplomatic skills in support of his unrelenting belief that Philip was a dire threat to the freedom of the Greek world in general and of the Athenians in particular and should be resisted” (45). In the third chapter, “Demosthenes'(In)Activity during the Reign of Alexander the Great,” by Ian Worthington, we see a return to the more negative view espoused by Badian. Demosthenes, according to Worthington, had used Philip “as a means of attaining and maintaining power” (107). He had misrepresented Philip and used “scare-tactic rhetoric” (94). However, once Philip was dead and Alexander was in Persia and there was, consequently, no longer “an actual Macedonian king active in Greece, Demosthenes was perhaps robbed of the one thing that he needed to make his fiery oratory work” (94). Therefore, he adopted a “more subtle, compromising diplomatic policy” (108) that Worthington argues was ultimately more successful. Thus, we see in these three chapters of historical background three different views of Demosthenes, as a political opportunist, as a Greek patriot, and as a savvy, pragmatic politician. Perhaps one did evolve into the others, but the breaks seem abrupt. Moreover, this sort of variety can be interesting to a mature scholar; however, to a young student exploring Demosthenes for the first time it must be very perplexing. And I assume that students are the primary audience of this book.

The view of Demosthenes in Chapter 4, “Demosthenes and Aeschines,” by John Buckler, is almost a caricature of the shady politician: “Neither Demosthenes nor Aeschines was a high-minded man whose ideals transcended the political cause that he espoused at the moment. Both men were mean, meretricious, and scurrilous” (114-15). However, Aeschines comes off much better than Demosthenes in this, to me at least, very tendentious comparison of the two. In his treatment of the Third Sacred War, for example, Buckler describes Demosthenes as stupid, “hopelessly incompetent,” and fatuous (126); Aeschines, he argues, had a “far clearer, more realistic, and more intelligent view of the situation” (126). [Contrast the much more balanced opinion of Hammond, A History of Greece to 322 B.C., 2nd edition, 554-55.] In discussing their respective reports to the Boule after the embassy to Philip in 346, Buckler describes Aeschines as “honest enough to summarize the situation bluntly and coldly,” while Demosthenes, he argues, “once slips (19.159-60), thus revealing the truth” (130). In discussing their criticisms of each other in the speeches On the False Embassy, Buckler says: “Although Demosthenes’ remarks about Glaucothea [Aeschines’s mother] were mere obloquy, Aeschines’accusation [about Demosthenes’s mother] actually had a political point” (137). Some of the criticism seems gratuitous: “Demosthenes’ sarcasm about a policy complementary to his own suggests envy because the idea was not his” (117). A reference to his “malicious ends” (131) seems overtly hostile, and the statement that “Demothenes’ argumentation is no exercise in Aristotelian logic” (135), naïve. This bold contrast between the two orators, which informs the entire chapter, is simply too stark to be believable.

Similar to the incongruity of the various views of Demosthenes that emerge from this work, there are also great differences in tone among the various chapters. Ryder’s essay on Demosthenes and Philip, for example, is serious, almost somber. Mark Golden’s essay “Demosthenes and the Social Historian” (Chapter 5) has the tone of an after-dinner address, replete with slightly off-color comments (“Its appeal builds on the fantasies of the middle-aged Athenian male, nikê and nooky,” 166) and jokes about Richard Nixon (163). I find this the strangest chapter in the book, not because of the jokes, which I enjoyed, but because of the organization. The first half examines, in a very general way, whether a social historian can accept evidence from orators like Demosthenes. Golden argues that, by using what is basically the ancient argument from probability, he can, but he must be skeptical. The discussion is interesting, but it seems to me that Golden belabors a point that is fairly obvious. In the second half of the essay he examines what the speeches reveal about the world of athletics. The focus thus changes abruptly from very broad to very narrow. Golden’s thesis is that the athletic references in the speeches are a response to athletic images in Aeschines, on which Demosthenes put a “democratic spin” (175): “Demosthenes joins the mass of Athenians who do not compete in athletics (or at any rate not at a very high level), but have a lively interest in those who do” (173). This, Golden claims, allows him to project an image of himself as a “regular guy” (175). This all sounds to me too much like modern American politics. I have always assumed, like Ronnet (169-70), whose discussion of athletic images in the speeches Golden does not cite, that those images grow out of “cet instinct belliqueux que nous avons décelé dans l’âme de Démosthène” (169) and that they reinforce the call to struggle. In general, I found this chapter disappointing.

The next chapter, however, “Demosthenes as Advocate: The private speeches,” by David Mirhady, is, I think, the best in the book. Mirhady argues that one of the secrets of Demosthenes’s success in forensic oratory was his mastery of the technical aspects of Athenian law, especially “his employment of the various forms of documentary evidence that were available to the Athenian logographer” (182), and he relates this to a “pronounced shift away from the unbridled popular sovereignty of the Assembly to one checked by the sovereign authority of law” (183). This is connected to the tendency, completed in the 370s, to use written rather than oral testimony in court. This is an interesting idea, well argued by Mirhady, and one that I have never seen before. It also helps to explain the frequent use of documentary evidence and factual material in the deliberative speeches, particularly in light of Lionel Pearson’s argument ( The Art of Demosthenes, 33, 64, 122) that Demosthenes transferred to deliberative oratory many of the techniques that he had developed in his forensic speeches.

Chapter 7, “The Public Speeches of Demosthenes,” by R.D. Milns, is a competent overview of a complex topic, which draws heavily on work by Pearson. There are, however, some problems. First, Isocrates is not cited by Dionysius as a representative of the grand style (210). Like Plato, he represents the middle; Gorgias and Thucydides are exemplars of the grand. Secondly, it is an overstatement to say that the proemium to the Third Philippic is written in a Thucydidean style (211). There are Thucydidean elements in it, to be sure, but the syntax is much less “convoluted and broken” (211) than in Thucydides, as Dionysius himself points out (10). In his view of Demosthenes as a politician, Milns is at odds with ideas presented earlier in the book: “In my opinion, Demosthenes was correct in his assessment of the threat posed by Philip, at least from 351 onwards, as were more and more of his fellow citizens; and it would be absurd to think of him as a mere opportunist, trying to create fear and hostility for his own advantage” (218).

The last two chapters deal with Demosthenes’s reputation as an orator in the ancient world (“Philosophers, Politics, Academics: Demosthenes’ rhetorical reputation in antiquity,” by Craig Cooper) and as an orator and as a politician since antiquity (“Demosthenes in the Underworld: A chapter in the Nachleben of a rhêtor,” by Phillip Harding). Cooper deals mainly with Demosthenes’s reputation among philosophers during the Hellenistic period, particularly the Peripatetics, who were generally hostile to him. The discussion is interesting but very narrowly focussed and thus not truly representative of ancient attitudes toward Demosthenes, particularly as an orator. Harding’s essay is much more balanced and complete, and it is a sound and interesting account, although, as Harding himself indicates in the second footnote, it is ground that has been well covered before. I find in it, however, the following statement, which must be wrong. Harding comments on a speech given, he says, by George Canning in 1789: “He was, of course, referring to the conquests of Napoleonic France” (263). Those conquests, however, did not take place until a decade later.

In the preface Worthington gives as the rationale for this book that “the time is long overdue for a new treatment of Demosthenes within the one set of covers” (viii). There is not a lot in this book that is new; however, it is a reasonably sound survey of many different aspects of Demosthenes’ life that have never been brought together “within two covers” (viii). The book, therefore, does achieve one of its goals, if not the other.