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Aristides' defense of oratory


Statue of a sophist from the reign of Septimius Severus. Archaeological museum of Izmir (Turkey).
Statue of a sophist from the reign of Septimius Severus (Izmir)
In his Gorgias, the famous Athenian philosopher Plato (427-348 BCE) had attacked the study of oratory with several arguments, which all boiled down to the suspicion that capable rhetors were able to persuade people to bad behavior. More than five centuries later, the attack was repeated by some philosophers, belonging to the Cynic school. The famous rhetor Publius Aelius Aristides (117-187 CE), suffering from a severe illness, replied with an essay called To Plato, in defense of oratory. (Also known as the 'second declamation', although the essay is too long to have been a speech.) This apology was written after 145 CE. The fragments are translations by C.A. Behr.
 

Oratory as a weapon against oppressors (206-211)

[206] I believe that all, who could, would agree that men are not born equal; but that they fall into two categories, one which uses force and gets the larger share, which might be called the superior -I do not mean those better in virtue but I mean the stronger-, and one which is inferior and yields contrary to its wish through an inability of stopping the other, which we recognize to be the weaker.

[207] I think it was this state which caused men, or the gods on their behalf, to discover, in their defense, that which could curtail force, and would be as it were a surety of equality and justice for all, both expedient for the people and for those whose disposition is toward violence. For not even the latter would escape the wages of their unjust and evil acts; but when the weakest first had been gradually destroyed by the others, and in this way those left were always being removed, it remained that in the end they turn against themselves, just as they say the Sown men [from a myth] did, if the myth hints at this. If I must here digress, it seems to me very much to have this meaning. It has depicted their original birth from dragon's teeth, and says that they arose as fully armed men, and that their reaping was the care of Ares instead of Hermes. [208] Then, as I said, what at the start seemed to be good fortune in the end was not going to profit those who excelled in power, but it was left for them to perish by that very attribute in which they were superior, or rather thought that they were. So human affairs were going to ruin. [209] Some general curative must be found for the race, expedient alike for all, the strong, the inferior and the decent: thus to restrain the first acts of injustice or to punish them because of these; to provide for the second the power to live without fear, and for the last, all who have voluntarily honored justice, a fitting reward.

[210] From those causes then oratory was discovered and entered on the scene as an amulet for justice and as the bond of maintaining life for mankind, so that matters should not be decided for anyone by force, weapons, anticipation, numbers, size, or any other inequality; but that reason should calmly determine justice. [211] This is the beginning and nature of oratory, the desire to save all men and to repel force through persuasion.
 
 

Oratory enables the survival of humankind (395-399)

[395] When human beings and the other animals had just been born, there was a great disturbance and confusion upon the earth. Men neither knew what to do with themselves -for there was nothing which brought them all together, but the bigger led the smaller-, nor could they maintain themselves against the other animals. For in every way they were inferior to all of them, to some at one time, to others at another; inferior to all the birds in swiftness, - thus it used to happen that all men then suffered from the predatory birds what Homer said the Pygmies suffer from the cranes. Again in strength they were far inferior to lions, boars, and many other animals. Thus they quietly perished. [396] Indeed, in the fitting out of their body they were inferior not only to sheep, but also to snails, since none of them was self-sufficient.

While the race was perishing in this fashion and gradually diminishing, [the creator god] Prometheus beheld it, and ever being in some way benevolent, he went up to heaven as an ambassador on mankind's behalf, not dispatched by mankind, -for then there was not even the knowledge of sending ambassadors- but of his own accord. [The supreme god] Zeus, much impressed by Prometheus' just remarks, when he had considered the matter by himself, ordered Hermes, one of his sons, to go to mankind with the art of oratory.

[397] Prometheus had formerly fashioned the senses and the other limbs of the body for every person, yet he ordered Hermes not to divide oratory as if it were a distribution of the festival fund, so that all in turn might share it, as in eyes, hands, and feet; but to select the best, the noblest and those with the strongest natures, and to hand the gift to them, so that at the same time they could save themselves and others.

[398] When oratory had come in this way from the gods to mankind, men were able to escape the harsh life with the beasts, and all men everywhere stopped being the enemies of one another, and they discovered the beginning of the community. When they had descended from the mountains, they came together in various parts of the world, at first living in the open air; and afterwards, when reason prevailed, they built cities, and were not distinguished as formerly by chance, but according to the organizations of their communities, and they established laws as the governors and rulers of their cities, and developed a belief in political science.



And they brought thank offerings to the gods, the initial ones being the first fruits of their speeches, in which, reason proves, even now the gods much delight, because first from that source they came to recognize the gods.

[399] So man was raised up to be great from his weak and rotten beginnings; and, formerly scorned as nothing, from that time he has had the power to use the things on earth as he wishes, making reason his shield instead of some other means of protection.

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Revision: 1 June 2009
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