Alcidamas : On the Sophists

    - translated by LaRue Van Hook

The Greek text of this declamation by Alcidamas, as edited by F.Blass, can be found in

The English translation is no longer available in its original location on the web at Therefore it has been copied here for ease of reference, with minimal alterations. The translation is taken from The Classical Weekly, VOL. XII, NEW YORK, JANUARY 20, 1919 No. 12.

[1] Since certain so-called Sophists are vainglorious and puffed up with pride because they have practised the writing of speeches and through books have revealed their own wisdom, although they have neglected learning and discipline and are as inexpert as laymen in the faculty of speaking, and since they claim to be masters of the whole of the art of rhetoric, although they possess only the smallest share of ability therein-- since this is the case, I shall essay to bring formal accusation against written discourses.

[2] This I shall do, not because I think they possess an ability which I myself have not, but for the reason that I pride myself more on other matters; I believe that writing should be practised as an ancillary pursuit. I am, therefore, of opinion that those who devote their lives to writing are woefully deficient in rhetoric and philosophy; these men, with far more justice, may be called poets rather than Sophists.

[3] In the first place, one may condemn the written word because it may be readily assailed, and because it may be easily and readily practiced by any one of ordinary ability. To speak extemporaneously, and appropriately to the occasion, to be quick with arguments, and not to be at a loss for a word, to meet the situation successfully, and to fulfil the eager anticipation of the audience and to say what is fitting to be said, such ability is rare, and is the result of no ordinary training.

[4] On the contrary, to write after long premeditation, and to revise at leisure, comparing the writings of previous Sophists, and from many sources to assemble thoughts on the same subject, and to imitate felicities cleverly spoken, to revise privately some matters on the advice of laymen and to alter and expunge other parts as a result of repeated and careful excogitation, verily, this is an easy matter even for the untutored.

[5] Whatsoever things are good and fair are ever rare and difficult to acquire, and are the fruits of painful endeavor; but the attainment of the cheap and trivial is easy. Thus it is that, since writing is easier than speaking, we should rightly consider the ability to compose a meaner accomplishment.

[6] Further, every sensible person will admit that the clever speaker, by changing somewhat his natural point of view, will be able to write well, but no one would believe that it follows that this same power will make the clever writer a clever speaker; for it is reasonable to suppose that, when those who can accomplish difficult tasks devote their attention to the easy, they will readily perform them. On the other hand, the pursuit of the difficult is an arduous and repellent undertaking for those who have been subjected to gentle training. This may be seen from the following examples.

[7] He who can lift a heavy burden has no difficulty in raising a light one, but the man of feeble powers cannot carry a heavy load. Again, the speedy runner easily distances his slower competitor, while the sluggish runner cannot keep pace with his speedier antagonist. Furthermore, the javelin-thrower or the archer who can accurately hit the distant mark easily strikes the one near at hand, while the athlete of feeble powers falls short of the remote target.

[8] The analogy holds true in speeches, namely, that the master of extempore speaking, if given time and leisure for the written word, will excel therein, but it is evident that the practised writer when he turns to extemporaneous speaking will suffer mental embarrassments, wanderings, and confusion.

[9] I think, too, that in human life the ability to speak is always a more useful accomplishment, but the writing of speeches is seldom of opportune value. Every one knows that the ability to speak on the spur of the moment is necessary in harangues, in the courtroom, and in private conversation. It often happens that unexpected crises occur when those who can say nothing seem contemptible, while the speakers are seen to be honored by the listeners as possessors of god-like minds.

[10] Whenever the need arises to admonish the erring, to console the unfortunate, to mollify the exasperated, to refute sudden accusations, then it is that the ability to speak can be man's helpful ally. Written composition, however, demands leisure and consequently gives aid too late to save the day. Immediate help is demanded in trials, but the written word is perfected leisurely and slowly. What sensible man, therefore, is envious of this ability to compose speeches--an ability which fails so completely at the critical moment.

[11] Would it not be ludicrous if, when the herald announces, `Who of the citizens wishes to speak?', or, when the water-clock in the courtroom is already flowing, the orator should proceed to his writing-tablets to compose and memorize his speech? Verily, if we were tyrants of cities, we should have the power to convene the courts and give counsel relative to public affairs so as to call the citizens to the hearing after we have had time to write our speeches. But, since others have this power, is it not silly for us to practise aught save extemporaneous speech?

[12] The truth is that speeches which have been laboriously worked out with elaborate diction (compositions more akin to poetry than prose) are deficient in spontaneity and truth, and, since they give the impression of a mechanical artificiality and labored insincerity, they inspire an audience with distrust and ill-will.

[13] And the greatest proof is this, that those who write for the lawcourts seek to avoid this pedantic precision, and imitate the style of extempore speakers; and they make the most favorable impression when their speeches least resemble written discourses. Now, since speeches seem most convincing when they imitate extemporaneous speakers, should we not especially esteem that kind of training which shall readily give us ability in this form of speaking?

[14] I think that for this reason also we must hold written speeches in disesteem, that they involve their composers in inconsistency; for it is inherently impossible to employ written speeches on all occasions. And so, when a speaker in part speaks extemporaneously, and in part uses a set form, he inevitably involves himself in culpable inconsistency, and his speech appears in a measure histrionic and rhapsodic, and in a measure mean and trivial in comparison with the artistic finish of the others.

[15] It is strange that the man who lays claim to culture, and professes to teach others, if he possess a writing-tablet or manuscript, is then able to reveal his wisdom, but lacking these is no better than the untutored; strange, too, that, if time be given him, he is able to produce a discourse, but, when a proposal is submitted for immediate discussion, he has less voice than the layman, and, although he profess skill in eloquence, he appears to have no ability whatsoever in speaking. So true it is that devotion to writing conduces to utter inability in speaking.

[16] When one becomes accustomed to slow and meticulous composition, with extreme care rhythmically connecting phrases, perfecting style with slow excogitation, it inevitably follows that, when he essays extemporaneous speech to which he is unaccustomed, he is mentally embarrassed and confused; in every respect he makes an unfavorable impression, and differs not a wit from the voiceless, and through lack of ready presence of mind is quite unable to handle his material fluently and winningly.

[17] Similarly, just as those who are loosed after long confinement in bonds are unable to walk normally, but still must proceed in the same fashion and manner as when previously inhibited, so, the practice of writing, by making sluggish the mental processes, and by giving the opposite sort of training in speaking, produces an unready and fettered speaker, deficient in all extemporaneous fluency.

[18] To learn extemporaneous speeches is, in my opinion, difficult, and the memorizing likewise is laborious, and to forget the set speech in the trial of a case is disgraceful. Everyone would agree that it is harder to learn and commit to memory details than main heads, and similarly many points than few. In extemporaneous speech the mind must be concerned only with reference to the main topics, which are elaborated as the speaker proceeds. But, where the speech is previously written, there is need to learn and carefully to commit to memory, not merely the main topics, but words and syllables.

[19] Now the main topics in a speech are but few, and they are important, but words and phrases are numerous and unimportant, and differ little one from another. Then, too, each topic is brought forward once only, but words, often the same ones, are used again and again. Thus it is that to memorize topics is easy, but to learn by heart an entire speech, word by word, is difficult and onerous.

[20] Furthermore, in extemporaneous speaking forgetting involves no disgrace, since the flow of speech runs smoothly on, as the fixed and precise order of the words is not essential; if the speaker forgets a topic he can easily pass it by, and proceed to the next in order, and so avoid embarrassment; later on, if the omitted topic be recalled, it can then easily be elucidated.

[21] But it is different with the speakers of prepared discourse, since, if the slightest detail be omitted or spoken out of place, perturbation, confusion, and a search for the lost word inevitably follow, and there ensues loss of time--sometimes, indeed, abrupt silence and infelicitous, ludicrous and irremediable embarrassment.

[22] I believe, too, that extemporaneous speakers exercise a greater sway over their hearers than those who deliver set speeches; for the latter, who have laboriously composed their discourses long before the occasion, often miss their opportunity. It happens that they either weary their listeners by speaking at too great length, or stop speaking while their audience is fain to hear more.

[23] Indeed, it is difficult, if not impossible, for human foresight accurately to estimate the disposition of an audience as to the length of a speech. But the extemporaneous speaker has the advantage of being able to adapt his discourse to his audience; he can abbreviate or extend at will.

[24] Aside from these considerations, extemporaneous speakers and those who deliver set speeches can not, in the same way, handle arguments which arise in the course of lawsuits. The former, if they get a point from their opponents, or themselves think of one while intently considering the situation, may easily introduce it; since extemporaneous speech is used exclusively, elaboration does not involve them in inconsistency or confusion.

[25] It is otherwise as regards those who contend with prepared discourses in suits, for, if any argument not previously thought of occurs to them, it is a difficult matter to fit it in and make appropriate use of it; for the finished nature of their precise diction does not permit improvised interpolations, so that either the new arguments which fortune gives them cannot be used at all, or, if they are used, the elaborate edifice of their speech falls to pieces and crashes to the ground. And, since part of the speech is delivered after careful preparation, and part is spoken at random, a confused and discordant style results.

[26] What sensible person, then, would approve of a practice which militates against the use of the help which fortune gives, and is at times a meaner ally to contestants than luck itself? Other arts are wont to be helpful coadjutors to man; this one stands in the way of advantages that come of themselves.

[27] Written discourses, in my opinion, certainly ought not to be called real speeches, but they are as wraiths, semblances, and imitations. It would be reasonable for us to think of them as we do of bronze statues, and images of stone, and pictures of living beings; just as these last mentioned are but the semblances of corporeal bodies, giving pleasure to the eye alone, and are of no practical value,

[28] so, in the same way, the written speech, which employs one hard and fast form and arrangement, if privately read, makes an impression, but in crises, because of its rigidity, confers no aid on its possessor. And, just as the living human body has far less comeliness than a beautiful statue, yet manifold practical service, so also the speech which comes directly from the mind, on the spur of the moment, is full of life and action, and keeps pace with the events like a real person, while the written discourse, a mere semblance of the living speech, is devoid of all efficacy.

[29] It may, perhaps, be alleged that it is illogical for one to condemn written discourse who himself employs it in the present written essay, and to disparage a pursuit through the employment of which he is preparing to win fame among the Greeks. Furthermore, it may be thought inconsistent for a philosopher to commend extemporaneous discourses, thereby deeming chance to be of more worth than forethought, and careless speakers to possess greater wisdom than careful writers.

[30] In reply let me first say that I have expressed my views as I have, not because I altogether contemn the ability to write, but because I esteem it of lesser worth than extemporaneous speaking, and am of opinion that one should bestow the greatest pains upon the practice of speaking. Secondly, I am myself employing the written word, not because I especially pride myself therein, but that I may reveal to those who plume themselves on the ability to write that with a trivial expenditure of effort I myself shall be able to eclipse and destroy their discourses.

[31] Furthermore, I am now essaying the written word because of the display orations which are delivered to the crowd. My customary listeners I bid test me by that usual standard whenever I am able to speak opportunely and felicitously on any subject proposed. To those, however, who only now at last have come to hear me (never once having heard me previously) I am attempting to give an example of my written discourse. The latter are accustomed to hear the set speeches of the rhetors and, if I spoke extemporaneously, they might fail to estimate my ability at its real worth.

[32] Apart from these considerations, it is possible, from written discourses, to see the clearest evidence of the progress which it is fitting that there should be in thinking; for it is not easily discernible whether my extemporaneous speeches are now superior to those I formerly delivered, as it is difficult to remember speeches spoken in times gone by. Looking into the written word, however, just as in a mirror, one can easily behold the advance of intelligence. Finally, since I am desirous of leaving behind a memorial of myself, and am humoring my ambition, I am committing this speech to writing.

[33] It must distinctly be understood that I am not encouraging careless speaking when I say that I esteem the ability to speak extemporaneously more highly than the written word. My contention is that the orator must prepare himself in advance in ideas and their arrangement, but that the verbal elaboration should be extemporaneous; this extemporaneous verbal exposition, in its timeliness, is of greater value to the orator than the exact technical finish of the written discourse.

[34] In conclusion, then, whoever wishes to become a masterly speaker rather than a mediocer writer, whoever is desirous of being a master of occasions rather than of accurate diction, whoever is zealous to gain the goodwill of his auditor as an ally rather than his ill-will as an enemy, nay, more, whoever desires his mind to be untrammeled, his memory ready, and his lapses of memory unobserved, whoever has his heart set upon the acquisition of a power of speaking which will be of adequate service in the needs of daily life, this man, I say, with good reason, would make the practice, at every time and on every occasion, of extemporaneous speaking his constant concern. On the other hand, should he study written composition for amusement and as a pastime, he would be deemed by the wise to be the possessor of wisdom.

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