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This webpage reproduces a section of
Institutio Oratoria


published in Vol. IV
of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1920

The text is in the public domain.

This text has not yet been proofread.
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(Vol. IV) Quintilian
Institutio Oratoria

Book XII

Chapter 11

 p449  11 After employing these gifts of eloquence in the courts, in councils, in public assemblies and the debates of the senate, and, in a word, in the performance of all the duties of a good citizen, the orator will bring his activities to a close in a manner worthy of a blameless life spent in the pursuit of the noblest of professions. And he will do this, not because he can ever have enough of doing good,  p497 or because one endowed with intellect and talents such as his would not be justified in praying that such glorious labours may be prolonged to their utmost span, but for this reason, that it is his duty to look to the future, for fear that his work may be less effective than it has been in the past. 2 For the orator depends not merely on his knowledge, which increases with the years, but on his voice, lungs and powers of endurance. And if these be broken or impaired by age or health, he must beware that he does not fall short in something of his high reputation as a master of oratory, that fatigue does not interrupt his eloquence, that he is not brought to realise that some of his words are inaudible, or to mourn that he is not what he once was. 3 Domitius Afer was by far the greatest of all the orators whom it has been my good fortune to know, and I saw him, when far advanced in years, daily losing something of that authority which his merits had won for him; he whose supremacy in the courts had once been universally acknowledged, now pleaded amid the unworthy laughter of some, and the silent blushes of others, giving occasion to the malicious saying that he had rather "faint than finish."​79 4 And yet even then, whatever his deficiencies, he spoke not badly, but merely less well.

Therefore before ever he fall a prey to the ambush where time lies in wait for him, the orator should sound the retreat and seek harbour while his ship is yet intact. For the fruits of his studies will not be lessened by retirement. Either he will bequeath the history of his own times for the delight of after ages, or will interpret the law to those who seek his counsels, as Lucius Crassus proposes  p499 to do in the de Oratore80 of Cicero, or compose some treatise on the art of oratory, or give worthy utterance to the sublimest ideals of conduct. 5 His house will, as in the days of old, be thronged by all the best of the rising generation, who will seek to learn from him as from an oracle how they may find the path to true eloquence. And he as their father in the art will mould them to all excellence, and like some old pilot will teach them of the shores whereby their ships must sail, of the harbours where they may shelter, and the signs of the weather, and will expound to them what they shall do when the breeze is fair or the tempest blows. Whereto he will be inclined not only by the common duty of humanity, but by a certain passion for the task that once was his, since no man desires that the art wherein he was once supreme should suffer decay or diminution. 6 And what can be more honourable than to teach that which you know surpassing well? It was for this that the elder Caelius brought his son to Cicero, as the latter​81 tells us, and it was with this intent that the same great orator took upon himself the duties of instructor, and trained Pansa, Hirtius and Dolabella by declaiming daily before them or hearing them declaim. 7 And I know not whether we should not deem it the happiest moment in an orator's life, when he has retired from the public gaze, the consecrated priest of eloquence, free from envy and far from strife, when he has set his glory on a pinnacle beyond the reach of detraction, enjoys, while still living, that veneration which most men win but after death, and sees how great shall be his renown amid generations yet unborn.

8 I can say with a good conscience that, as far as  p501 my poor powers have permitted, I have published frankly and disinterestedly, for the benefit of such as might wish to learn, all that my previous knowledge and the researches made for the purpose of this work might supply. And to have taught what he knows is satisfaction enough for any good man. 9 I fear, however, that I may be regarded as setting too lofty an ideal for the orator by insisting that he should be a good man skilled in speaking, or as imposing too many subjects of study on the learner. For in addition to the many branches of knowledge which have to be studied in boyhood and the traditional rules of eloquence, I have enjoined the study of morals and of civil law, so that I am afraid that even those who have regarded these things as essential to my theme, may be appalled at the delay which they impose and abandon all hope of achievement before they have put my precepts to the test. 10 I would ask them to consider how great are the powers of the mind of man and how astonishing its capacity for carrying its desires into execution: for has not man succeeded in crossing the high seas, in learning the number and the courses of the stars, and almost measuring the universe itself, all of them accomplishments of less importance than oratory, but of far greater difficulty? And then let them reflect on the greatness of their aims and on the fact that no labour should be too huge for those that are beckoned by the hope of such reward. 11 If they can only rise to the height of this conception, they will find it easier to enter on this portion of their task, and will cease to regard the road as impasasable or even hard. For the first and greatest of the aims we set before us, namely that we shall be good  p503 men, depends for its achievement mainly on the will to succeed: and he that truly and sincerely forms such resolve, will easily acquire those forms of knowledge that teach the way to virtue. 12 For the precepts that are enjoined upon us are not so complex or so numerous that they may be acquired by little more than a few years' study. It is repugnance to learn that makes such labour long. For if you will only believe it, you will quickly learn from the principles that shall lead you to a life of virtue and happiness. For nature brought us into the world that we might attain to all excellence of mind, and so easy is it for those to learn to seek for better things, that he who directs his gaze aright will rather marvel that the bad should be so many. 13 For as water is the natural element of fish, dry land for creatures of the earth and the circumambient atmosphere for winged things, even so it should be easier to live according to nature than counter to her will. As regards other accomplishments, there are plenty of years available for their acquisition, even though we measure the life of man not by the span of age, but by the period of youth. For in every case order and method and a sense of proportion will shorten our labour. 14 But the chief fault lies with our teachers, in that they love to keep back the pupils they have managed to lay their hands on, partly from the desire to draw their miserable fees for as long as possible, partly out of ostentation, to enhance the difficulty of acquiring the knowledge which they promise to impart, and to some extent owing to their ignorance or carelessness in teaching. The next most serious fault lies in ourselves, who think it better to linger over what we have learned  p505 than to learn what we do not yet know. 15 For example, to restrict my remarks mainly to the study of rhetoric, what is the use of spending so many years, after the fashion now so prevalent (for I will say nothing of those who spend almost their whole lives), in declaiming in the schools and devoting so much labour to the treatment of fictitious themes, when it would be possible with but slight expenditure of time to form some idea of what the true conflicts are in which the orator must engage, and of the laws of speaking which he ought to follow? 16 In saying this, I do not for a moment mean to suggest that we should ever omit to exercise ourselves in speaking. I merely urge that we should not grow old over one special form of exercise. We have been in a position to acquire varied knowledge, to familiarise ourselves with the principles that should guide our life, and to try our strength in the courts, while we were still standarding the schools. The theory of prospecting is of such a nature that it does not demand many years for its acquisition. For any one of the various branches of knowledge which I have mentioned will, as a rule, be found to be comprised in a few volumes, a fact which shows that instruction does not require an indefinite amount of time to be devoted to it. The rest depends entirely on practice, which at once develops our powers and maintains them, once developed. 17 Knowledge increases day by day, and yet how many books is it absolutely necessary to read in our search for its attainment, for examples of facts from the historians or of eloquence from the orators, or, again, for the opinions of the philosophers and the lawyers, that is to say, if we are content to read merely what is useful without  p507 attempting the impossible task of reading everything? 18 But it is ourselves that make the time for study short: for how little time we allot to it! Some hours are passed in the futile labour of ceremonial calls, others in idle chatter, others in staring at the shows of the theatre, and others again in feasting. To this add all the various forms of amusement, the insane attention devoted to the cultivation of the body, journeys abroad, visits to the country, exact calculation of loss and gain, the allurements of lust, wine-bibbing and those remaining hours which are all too few to gratify our souls on fire with passion for every kind of pleasure. 19 If all this time were spent on study, life would seem long enough and there would be plenty of time for learning, even though we should take the hours of daylight only into our account, without asking any assistance from the night, of which no little space is superfluous even for the heaviest sleeper. As it is, we count not the years which we have given to study, but the years we have lived. 20 And indeed even although geometricians, musicians and grammarians, together with the professors of every other branch of knowledge, spend all their lives, however long, in the study of one siege science, it does not therefore follow that we require several lives more if we are to learn more. For they do not spend all their days even to old age in learning these things, but being content to have learned these things and nothing more, exhaust their length of years not in acquiring, but in imparting knowledge.

21 However, to say nothing of Homer, in whom we may find either the perfect achievements, or at any rate clear signs of the knowledge of every art,  p509 and to pass by Hippias of Elis, who not merely boasted his knowledge of the liberal arts, but wore a robe, a ring and shoes, all of which he had made with his own hands, and had trained himself to be independent of external assistance, we accept the universal tradition of Greece to the effect that Gorgias, triumphant over all the countless ills incident to extreme old age, would bid his hearers propound any questions they pleased for him to answer. 22 Again in what branch of knowledge worthy of literary expression was Plato deficient? How many generations' study did Aristotle require to embrace not merely the whole range of philosophical and rhetorical knowledge, but to investigate the nature of every beast and plant. And yet they had to discover all these things which we have only to learn. Antiquity has given us all these teachers and all these patterns for our imitation, that there might be no greater happiness conceivable than to be born in this age above all others, since all previous ages have toiled that we might reap the fruit of their wisdom. 23 Marcus Cato was at once a great general, a philosopher, orator, historian, and an expert have in law and agriculture, and despite his military labours abroad and the distractions of political struggles at home, and despite the rudeness of the age in which he lived, he none the less learned Greek, when far advanced in years, that he might prove to mankind that even old men are capable of learning that on which they have set their hearts. 24 How wide, almost universal, was the knowledge that Varro communicated to the world! What of all that goes to make up the equipment of an orator was lacking to Cicero? Why should I say  p511 more, since even Cornelius Celsus, a man of very ordinary ability, not merely wrote about rhetoric in all its departments, but left treatises on the art of war, agriculture and medicine as well. Indeed the high ambition revealed by his design gives him the right to ask us to believe that he was acquainted with all these subjects.

25 But, it will be urged, to carry out such a task is difficult and has never been accomplished. To which I reply that sufficient encouragement for study may be found in the fact, firstly, that nature does not forbid such achievement and it does not follow that, because a thing has never been done, it therefore never can be done, and secondly, that all great achievements have required time for their first accomplishment. 26 Poetry has risen to the heights of glory, thanks to the efforts of poets so far apart as Homer and Virgil, and oratory owes its position to the genius of Demosthenes and Cicero. Finally, whatever is best in its own sphere must at some previous time have been non-existent. But even if a man despair of reaching supreme excellence (and why should he despair, if he have talents, health, capacity and teachers to aid him?), it is none the less a fine achievement, as Cicero​82 says, to win the rank of second or even third. 27 For even if a soldier cannot achieve the glory of Achilles in war, he will not despise fame such as fell to the lot of Ajax and Diomede, while those who cannot be Homers may be content to reach the level of Tyrtaeus. Nay, if men had been obsessed by the conviction that it was impossible to surpass the man who had so far shown himself best, those whom we now regard as best would never have reached such distinction, Lucretius  p513 and Macer would never have been succeeded by Virgil, nor Crassus and Hortensius by Cicero, nor they in their turn by those who flourished after them. 28 But even though we cannot hope to surpass the great, it is still a high honour to follow in their footsteps. Did Pollio and Messala, who began to plead when Cicero held the citadel of eloquence, fail to obtain sufficient honour in their lifetime or to hand down a fair name to posterity? The arts which have been developed to the highest pitch of excellence would deserve but ill of mankind if that which was best had also been the last of its line. 29 Add to this the further consideration that even moderate eloquence is often productive of great results and, if such studies are to be measured solely by their utility, is almost equal to the perfect eloquence for which we seek. Nor would it be difficult to produce either ancient or recent examples to show that there is no other source from which men have reaped such a harvest of wealth, honour, friendship and glory, both present and to come. But it would be a disgrace to learning to follow the fashion of those who say that they pursue not virtue, but only the pleasure derived from virtue, and to demand this meaner recompense from the noblest of all arts, whose practice and even whose possession is ample reward for all our labours. 30 Wherefore let us seek with all our hearts that tru majesty of oratory, the fairest gift of god to man, without which all things are stricken dumb and robbed alike of present glory and the immortal record of posterity; and let us press forward to whatsoever is best, since, if we do this, we shall either reach the summit or at least see many others far beneath us.

 p515 31 Such, Marcellus Victorius, were the views by the expression of which it seemed to me that I might, as far as in me lay, help to advance the teaching of oratory. If the knowledge of these principles proves to be of small practical utility to the young student, it should at least produce what I value more, — the will to do well.

The Translator's Notes:

79 By "finish" is meant "retire from pleading."

80 de Or. I.XLII.190.

81 pro Cael. iv.10.

82 Or. i.4.

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