1. Education

Pliny's Letter to Tacitus

Book I Letter XX

By

Tacitus

Tacitus

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The Younger Pliny Reproved, colorized copperplate print by Thomas Burke (1749 - 1815) after Angelica Kauffmann; c. 39 x 45 cm

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1. XX. -- To Cornelius Tacitus.

Contents

I am constantly having arguments with a friend of mine who is a learned and practised speaker, but who admires in pleading nothing so much as brevity. I allow that brevity ought to be observed, if the case permits of it; but sometimes it is an act of collusion to pass over matters that ought to be mentioned, and it is even an act of collusion to run briefly and rapidly over points which ought to be dwelt upon, to be thoroughly driven home, and to be taken up and dealt with more than once. For very often an argument acquires strength and weight by being handled at some length, and a speech ought to be impressed on the mind, not by a short, sharp shock, but by measured blows, just as a sword should be used in dealing with the body of an opponent. Thereupon he plies me with authorities, and flourishes before me the speeches of Lysias among the Greeks, and those of the Gracchi and Cato from among Roman orators. The majority of these are certainly characterised by conciseness and brevity, but I quote against Lysias the examples of Demosthenes, Aeschines, Hyperides, and a multitude of others, while against the Gracchi and Cato I set Pollio, Caesar, Caelius, and, above all, Marcus Tullius, whose longest speech is generally considered to be his best. And upon my word, as with all other good things, the more there is of a good book, the better it is. You know how it is with statues, images, pictures, and the outlines of many animals and even trees, that if they are at all graceful nothing gives them a greater charm than size. It is just the same with speeches, -- even the mere volumes themselves acquire a certain additional dignity and beauty from mere bulk.

These are but a few of the many arguments I usually employ to establish my point; but there is no pinning my friend down in an argument. He is such a slippery fellow that he wriggles off the pin and declares that these same orators, whose speeches I instance, spoke at less length than their published addresses seem to show. I hold the contrary to be the case, and there are many speeches of many orators in favour of my opinion, as, for example, the Pro Murena and the Pro Vareno of Cicero, in which he indicates by side-heads alone, and quite barely and briefly, how he dealt with certain charges against his clients. From these it is clear that he actually spoke at much greater length and left out a considerable number of passages when he published the addresses. Cicero indeed says that in his defence of Cluentius "he had simply followed the ancient custom and compressed his whole case into a peroration," and that in defending Caius Cornelius "he had pleaded for four days." Hence it cannot be questioned that after speaking somewhat discursively for several days, as he was bound to do, he subsequently trimmed and revised his oration and compressed it into a single book -- a long one, it is true, but yet a single book.

But, argues my friend, a good indictment is a different thing from a good speech. I know some people hold that view, but I -- of course I may be wrong -- feel persuaded that though it is possible to have a good indictment without a good speech, it is not possible for a good speech not to be a good indictment. For a speech is the exemplar of an indictment -- one might even call it its archetype. Hence in every first-class oration we find a thousand extempore figures of speech, even in those which we know to have been carefully edited. For example, in the Speech against Verres: -- " -- some artist. What was his name? Yes, you are quite right. My friends here tell me it was Polycletus." It follows, therefore, that the most perfect indictment is that which most resembles a spoken speech, provided only that sufficiently adequate time is allowed for its delivery. If it is not, then the orator is not at fault, but the presiding magistrate is very much to blame. My opinion receives support from the laws, which are lavish in the amount of time they place at a pleader's disposal. They do not inculcate brevity among counsel, but exhaustiveness -- that is to say, they give them time for a painstaking statement of their case, and this is quite incompatible with brevity, except the most unimportant actions. I will add also what experience has taught me, and experience is the finest master. I have constantly acted as counsel, as presiding magistrate, and as one of the consulting bench. Different people are influenced by different things, and it often happens that unimportant details have important consequences. Men do not think alike, nor have they the same inclinations, and hence it comes about that though people have listened together to the same case being tried, they often form different opinions about it, and sometimes, though arriving at the same conclusion, they have been influenced by very different motives. Moreover, each one has a bias in favour of his own interpretation, and thus, when a second party enunciates an opinion which he himself has arrived at, he takes it for gospel and holds to it firmly. Consequently, a pleader should give each member of the jury something that he may get hold of and recognise as his own opinion.

Regulus once said to me when we were in Court together: "You think you ought to follow up every single point in the case: I lose no time in getting a view of my opponent's throat, and consider only the easiest way of cutting it." (I must admit that he does cut it when he gets hold of it, but often in trying to get a hold he makes a mistake.) Here was my answer to him: "Yes, but sometimes what you think is the throat is only the knee, or the shin bone or the ankle. As for myself, I may not be quick at getting a clear view of my enemy's throat, but I keep feeling for a grip and try him at every point. In short, as the Greeks say, 'I leave no stone unturned.'" I am like a husbandman, I look carefully after not only my vineyards but my orchards, not only my orchards but my meadows, while in the meadows I set seed for barley, beans, and other vegetables, as well as for spelt and the best white wheat. So when I plead in the Courts I scatter my arguments like seeds with a lavish hand, and reap the crop that they produce. For the minds of judges are as obscure, as little to be relied upon, and as deceptive as the dispositions of storms and soils.

Nor do I forget that in his eulogy of that consummate orator, Pericles, the comedy-writer Eupolis used the following language: -- "But besides his keenness, Persuasion sate upon his lips. So he charmed all ears and, alone of all our orators, left his thrill behind him in his hearer's minds." But even Pericles would not have possessed the persuasion and charm of which Eupolis speaks merely owing to his conciseness or to his keenness, or to both (for they are different attributes), unless he had also possessed consummate oratorical power. In order to delight and carry conviction an orator must have ample time and room allowed him, for he alone can leave a thrill in his hearers' minds who plants his weapon besides merely puncturing the skin. Again, see what another comic poet writes of the same Pericles: "He lightened, he thundered, he turned Hellas upside down." Such metaphors as thunder, lightning, and chaos and confusion could not be used of abbreviated and compressed oratory, but only of oratory on a sweeping scale, pitched in a lofty and exalted key.

But, you say, the mean is the best. Quite so, but the mean is as much neglected by those who fail to do justice to their subject as by those who overdo it, by those who wear a bearing rein as by those who give themselves their heads. And so you often hear the criticism that a speech was "frigid and weak," just as you hear that another was "overloaded and a mass of repetition." The one speaker is said to have over-elaborated his subject, the other not to have risen to the occasion. Both are at fault; one through weakness, the other through too much strength, and the latter, though he may not show the more refined intellect, certainly shows the more robust mind. When I say this it must not be supposed that I am approving Homer's Thersites -- the man who was a torrent of words -- but rather his Ulysses, whose "words were like snow-flakes in winter," though at the same time I admire his Menelaus, who spoke "Few words, but well to the point." Yet, if I had to choose, I should prefer the speech that is like the winter snow-storm -- viz. fluent, flowing, and of generous width; and not only that, but divine and celestial. It may, I know, be said that many people prefer a short pleading. No doubt, but they are lazy creatures, and it is ridiculous to consult the tastes of such sloths as though they were critics. For if you take their opinion as worth anything, you will find that they not only prefer a short pleading, but no pleading at all.

Well, I have told you what I think. I shall change my opinion if you do not agree with me, but in that case I beg of you to give me clear reasons for your disagreement; for although I feel bound to bow to a man of your judgment, yet in a point of such importance, I consider that I ought to give way rather to a reasoned statement than to an ipse dixit. But even if you think I am right, still write and tell me so, and make the letter as short as you like -- for you will thus confirm my judgment. If I am wrong, see that you write me a very long letter. I feel sure I have not estimated you wrongly in thus asking you for a short note if you agree with me, while laying on you the obligation of writing at length if you disagree. Farewell.

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