Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Eloquence was created before the rules of rhetoric, as the languages are formed before grammar.

Nature renders men eloquent under the influence of great interests or passions. A person much excited sees things with a different eye from other men. To him all is the object of rapid comparison and metaphor. Without premeditation, he vivifies all, and makes all who listen to him partake of his enthusiasm.

A very enlightened philosopher has remarked that people often express themselves by figures; that nothing is more common or more natural than the turns called tropes.

Thus, in all languages, the heart burns, courage is kindled, the eyes sparkle; the mind is oppressed, it is divided, it is exhausted; the blood freezes, the head is turned upside down; we are inflated with pride, intoxicated with vengeance. Nature is everywhere painted in these strong images, which have become common.

It is from her that instinct learns to assume a modest tone and air, when it is necessary. The natural desire of captivating our judges and masters; the concentrated energies of a profoundly stricken soul, which prepares to display the sentiments which oppress it, are the first teachers of this art.

It is the same nature which sometimes inspires lively and animated sallies; a strong impulse or a pressing danger prompts the imagination suddenly. Thus a captain of the first caliphs, seeing the Mussulmans fly from the field of battle, cried out, “Where are you running to? Your enemies are not there.”

This speech has been given to many captains; it is attributed to Cromwell. Strong minds much oftener accord than fine wits.

Rasi, a Mussulman, captain of the time of Mahomet, seeing his Arabs frightened at the death of their general, Derar, said to them, “What does it signify that Derar is dead? God is living, and observes your actions.”

Where is there a more eloquent man than that English sailor who decided the war against Spain in 1740? “When the Spaniards, having mutilated me, were going to kill me, I recommended my soul to God, and my vengeance to my country!”

Nature, then, elicits eloquence; and if it be said that poets are created and orators formed, it is applicable only when eloquence is forced to study the laws, the genius of the judges, and the manners of the times. Nature alone is spontaneously eloquent.

The precepts always follow the art. Tisias was the first who collected the laws of eloquence, of which nature gives the first rules. Plato afterwards said, in his “Gorgias,” that an orator should have the subtlety of the logician, the science of the philosopher, almost the diction of the poet, and the voice and gesture of the greatest actors.

Aristotle, also, showed that true philosophy is the secret guide to perfection in all the arts. He discovered the sources of eloquence in his “Book of Rhetoric.” He showed that logic is the foundation of the art of persuasion, and that to be eloquent is to know how to demonstrate.

He distinguished three kinds of eloquence: the deliberative, the demonstrative, and the judiciary. The deliberative is employed to exhort those who deliberate in taking a part in war, in peace, etc.; the demonstrative, to show that which is worthy of praise or blame; the judiciary, to persuade, absolve, condemn, etc.

He afterwards treats of the manners and passions with which all orators should be acquainted.

He examines the proofs which should be employed in these three species of eloquence, and finally he treats of elocution, without which all would languish. He recommends metaphors, provided they are just and noble; and, above all, he requires consistency and decorum.

All these precepts breathe the enlightened precision of a philosopher, and the politeness of an Athenian; and, in giving the rules of eloquence, he is eloquent with simplicity.

It is to be remarked, that Greece was the only country in the world in which the laws of eloquence were then known, because it was the only one in which true eloquence existed.

The grosser art was known to all men; sublime traits have everywhere escaped from nature at all times; but to rouse the minds of the whole of a polished nation — to please, convince, and affect at the same time, belonged only to the Greeks.

The Orientals were almost all slaves; and it is one of the characteristics of servitude to exaggerate everything. Thus the Asiatic eloquence was monstrous. The West was barbarous in the time of Aristotle.

True eloquence began to show itself in the time of the Gracchi, and was not perfected until the time of Cicero. Mark Antony, the orator Hortensius, Curion, Cæsar, and several others, were eloquent men.

This eloquence perished with the republic, like that of Athens. Sublime eloquence, it is said, belongs only to liberty; it consists in telling bold truths, in displaying strong reasons and representations. A man often dislikes truth, fears reason, and likes a well-turned compliment better than the sublimest eloquence.

Cicero, after having given the examples in his harangues, gave the precepts in his “Book of the Orator”; he followed almost all the methods of Aristotle, and explained himself in the style of Plato.

It distinguishes the simple species, the temperate, and the sublime.

Rollin has followed this division in his “Treatise on Study”; and he pretends that which Cicero does not, that the “temperate” is a beautiful river, shaded with green forests on both sides; the “simple,” a properly-served table, of which all the meats are of excellent flavor, and from which all refinement is banished; that the “sublime” thunders forth, and is an impetuous current which overthrows all that resists it.

Without sitting down to this table, without following this thunderbolt, this current, or this river, every man of sense must see that simple eloquence is that which has simple things to expose, and that clearness and elegance are all that are necessary to it.

There is no occasion to read Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian, to feel that an advocate who begins by a pompous exordium on the subject of a partition wall is ridiculous; it was, however, the fault of the bar until the middle of the seventeenth century; they spoke with emphasis of the most trivial things. Volumes of these examples may be compiled; but all might be reduced to this speech of a witty advocate, who, observing that his adversary was speaking of the Trojan war and of Scamander, interrupted him by saying, “The court will observe that my client is not called Scamander, but Michaut.” The sublime species can only regard powerful interests, treated of in a great assembly.

There may still be seen lively traces of it in the Parliament of England: several harangues partook of it which were pronounced there in 1739, when they debated about declaring war against Spain. The spirits of Cicero and Demosthenes seem to have dictated several passages in their speeches; but they will not descend to posterity like those of the Greeks and Romans, because they want the art and charm of diction, which place the seal of immortality on good works.

The temperate species is that of those preparatory discourses, of those public speeches, and of those studied compliments, in which the deficiency of matter must be concealed with flowers.

These three species are often mingled, as also the three objects of eloquence, according to Aristotle: the great merit of the orator consists in uniting them with judgment.

Great eloquence can scarcely be known to the bar in France, because it does not conduct to honors, as in Athens, Rome, and at present in London; neither has it great public interests for its object; it is confined to funeral orations, in which it borders a little upon poetry.

Bossuet, and after him Fléchier, seem to have obeyed that precept of Plato, which teaches us that the elocution of an orator may sometimes be the same as that of a poet.

Pulpit oratory had been almost barbarous until P. Bourdaloue; he was one of the first who caused reason to be spoken there.

The English did not arrive at that art until a later date, as is avowed by Burnet, bishop of Salisbury. They knew not the funeral oration; they avoided, in their sermons, all those vehement turns which appeared not to them consistent with the simplicity of the Gospel; and they were diffident of using those far-fetched divisions which are condemned by Archbishop Fénelon, in his dialogues “Sur l’Éloquence.”

Though our sermons turn on the most important subjects to man, they supply few of those striking parts which, like the fine passages of Cicero and Demosthenes, are fit to become the models of all the western nations. The reader will therefore be glad to learn the effect produced by M. Massillon, since bishop of Clermont, the first time that he preached his famous sermon on the small number of the elect. A kind of transport seized all the audience; they rose involuntarily; the murmurs of acclamation and surprise were so great as to disturb the orator; and this confusion only served to augment the pathos of his discourse. The following is the passage:

“I will suppose that this is our last hour, that the heavens open over our heads, that time is past, and that eternity commences; that Jesus Christ is going to appear to judge us according to our works, and that we are all here to receive from Him the sentence of eternal life or death: I ask you, overwhelmed with terror like yourselves, without separating my lot from your own, and putting myself in the same situation in which we must all one day appear before God our judge — if Jesus Christ were now to make the terrible separation of the just from the unjust, do you believe that the greater part would be saved? Do you believe that the number of the righteous would be in the least degree equal to the number of the sinners? Do you believe that, if He now discussed the works of the great number who are in this church, He would find ten righteous souls among us? Would He find a single one?”

There are several different editions of this discourse, but the substance is the same in all of them.

This figure, the boldest which was ever employed, and the best timed, is one of the finest turns of eloquence which can be read either among the ancients or moderns; and the rest of the discourse is not unworthy of this brilliant appeal.

Preachers who cannot imitate these fine models would do well to learn them by heart, and deliver them to their congregations — supposing that they have the rare talent of declamation — instead of preaching to them, in a languishing style, things as common-place as they are useless.

It is asked, if eloquence be permitted to historians? That which belongs to them consists in the art of arranging events, in being always elegant in their expositions, sometimes lively and impressive, sometimes elaborate and florid; in being strong and true in their pictures of general manners and principal personages, and in the reflections naturally incorporated with the narrative, so that they should not appear to be obtruded. The eloquence of Demosthenes belongs not to Thucydides; a studied harangue, put into the mouth of a hero who never pronounced it is, in the opinion of many enlightened minds, nothing more than a splendid defect.

If, however, these licences be permitted, the following is an occasion in which Mézeray, in his great history, may obtain grace for a boldness so approved by the ancients, to whom he is equal, at least on this occasion. It is at the commencement of the reign of Henry IV., when that prince, with very few troops, was opposed near Dieppe by an army of thirty thousand men, and was advised to retire into England, Mézeray excels himself in making a speech for Marshal Biron, who really was a man of genius, and might have said a part of that which the historian attributes to him:

“What, sire, are you advised to cross the sea, as if there was no other way of preserving your kingdom than by quitting it? If you were not in France, your friends would have you run all hazards and surmount all obstacles to get there; and now you are here, they would have you depart — would have you voluntarily do that to which the greatest efforts of your enemies ought not to constrain you! In your present state, to go out of France only for four-and-twenty hours would be to banish yourself from it forever. As to the danger, it is not so great as represented; those who think to overcome us are either the same whom we shut up so easily in Paris, or people who are not much better, and will rapidly have more subjects of dispute among themselves than against us. In short, sire, we are in France, and we must remain here; we must show ourselves worthy of it; we must either conquer it or die for it; and even when there is no other safety for your sacred person than in flight, I well know that you would a thousand times rather die planted in the soil, than save yourself by such means. Your majesty would never suffer it to be said that a younger brother of the house of Lorraine had made you retire, and, still less, that you had been seen to beg at the door of a foreign prince. No, no, sire — there is neither crown nor honor for you across the sea; if you thus demand the succor of England, it will not be granted; if you present yourself at the port of Rochelle, as a man anxious to save himself, you will only meet with reproaches and contempt. I cannot believe that you would rather trust your person to the inconstancy of the waves, or the mercy of a stranger, than to so many brave gentlemen and old soldiers, who are ready to serve you as ramparts and bucklers; and I am too much devoted to your majesty to conceal from you, that if you seek your safety elsewhere than in their virtue, they will be obliged to seek theirs in a different party from your own.”

This fine speech which Mézeray puts into the mouth of Marshal Biron is no doubt what Henry IV. felt in his heart.

Much more might be said upon the subject; but the books treating of eloquence have already said too much; and in an enlightened age, genius, aided by examples, knows more of it than can be taught by all the masters in the world.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01