Occasionally in history, genius and a crisis in human affairs unite to produce a person whose name rings down through the ages long after the particular events have faded into the dimness of antiquity. Such a person was Demosthenes. Almost every educated person has heard of him and knows that he was a famous Greek orator. The events and the crisis in ancient Greece that helped make him famous, however, are unknown except to students of ancient history.
As an Athenian lawyer and orator, Demosthenes might have won little fame had it not been for Philip of Macedon, whose ambition was to conquer and rule as much of the world as he could. When the danger to Athens became great, Demosthenes did all he could to arouse his fellow Athenians to the defense of their city-state. Such crises have recurred in various forms throughout history. On one hand was Philip of Macedon, a tyrant who sought control of many lands and peoples; on the other was Demosthenes, a believer in democracy and local sovereignty who did all that one person could to arouse his contemporaries to fight against Philip and, later, Philip’s son, Alexander the Great. In this conflict between democracy and tyranny there is no doubt of Demosthenes’ sincerity; it rings out from his orations almost as clearly today as it must have more than two thousand years ago.
By common consent of his contemporaries and later generations, Demosthenes was the greatest of the Greek orators, in a culture that produced a great many with ability in rhetoric and oratory. Scholars of all periods have praised his speeches, and the number of manuscripts found in Egypt containing fragments of his speeches has been second only to papyri containing fragments of the Homeric epics. In modern times it is difficult to appreciate the greatness of the speeches from the standpoint of formal rhetoric as the ancient Greeks knew and used it. What Cicero praised in the orations is now to be found only by the serious student of Greek language and culture.
Modern readers, however, may find in the speeches what Demosthenes’ admirers in the ancient world seem to have overlooked or ignored. Readers can see that Demosthenes was an able and sincere statesman laboring for democratic ideals at a time when his fellow citizens in Athens were inclined to do little to oppose the forces of tyranny led by Philip of Macedon. Demosthenes knew human nature as he knew his art, and he employed his knowledge of both to speak out forcefully for what he believed in. He spoke out not for the sake of his rhetoric but for the sake of Athens; he spoke not to a select group, to no aristocracy, but to all Athenians. He wished to persuade them to rise to the defense of their city and the way of life and government that it represented. There is little flamboyance in the orations, at least as they are translated. Demosthenes spoke plainly and sincerely; his art was like all great art, hiding beneath the cloak of apparent simplicity, reflecting great care and preparation. Demosthenes’ tone is serious, befitting his topic.
As in the case of so many ancient authors, the authenticity of work supposedly done by Demosthenes is open to question. More than sixty orations, as well as some letters and poems,...
(The entire section is 1324 words.)