Home  »  Letters Pliny the Younger  »  XVIII. To Nepos

Pliny the Younger (A.D. 62?–c.A.D. 113). Letters.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

XVIII. To Nepos

THE GREAT fame of Isæus had already preceded him here; but we find him even more wonderful than we had heard. He possesses the utmost readiness, copiousness, and abundance of language: he always speaks extempore, and his lectures are as finished as though he had spent a long time over their written composition. His style is Greek, or rather the genuine Attic. His exordiums are terse, elegant, attractive, and occasionally impressive and majestic. He suggests several subjects for discussion, allows his audience their choice, sometimes to even name which side he shall take, rises, arranges himself, and begins. At once he has everything almost equally at command. Recondite meanings of things are suggested to you, and words—what words they are! exquisitely chosen and polished. These extempore speeches of his show the wideness of his reading, and how much practice he has had in composition. His preface is to the point, his narrative lucid, his summing up forcible, his rhetorical ornament imposing. In a word, he teaches, entertains, and affects you; and you are at a loss to decide which of the three he does best. His reflections are frequent, his syllogisms also are frequent, condensed, and carefully finished, a result not easily attainable even with his pen. As for his memory, you would hardly believe what it is capable of. He repeats from a long way back what he has previously delivered extempore, without missing a single word. This marvellous faculty he has acquired by dint of great application and practice, for night and day he does nothing, hears nothing, says nothing else. He has passed his sixtieth year and is still only a rhetorician, and I know no class of men more single-hearted, more genuine, more excellent than this class. We who have to go through the rough work of the bar and of real disputes unavoidably contract a certain unprincipled adroitness. The school, the lecture-room, the imaginary case, all this, on the other hand, is perfectly innocent and harmless, and equally enjoyable, especially to old people, for what can be happier at that time of life than to enjoy what we found pleasantest in our young days? I consider Isæus then, not only the most eloquent, but the happiest, of men, and if you are not longing to make his acquaintance, you must be made of stone and iron. So, if not upon my account, or for any other reason, come, for the sake of hearing this man, at least. Have you never read of a certain inhabitant of Cadiz who was so impressed with the name and fame of Livy that he came from the remotest corner of the earth on purpose to see him, and, his curiosity gratified, went straight home again. It is utter want of taste, shows simple ignorance, is almost an actual disgrace to a man, not to set any high value upon a proficiency in so pleasing, noble, refining a science. “I have authors,” you will reply, “here in my own study, just as eloquent.” True: but then those authors you can read at any time, while you cannot always get the opportunity of hearing eloquence. Besides, as the proverb says, “The living voice is that which sways the soul;” yes, far more. For notwithstanding what one reads is more clearly understood than what one hears, yet the utterance, countenance, garb, aye and the very gestures of the speaker, alike concur in fixing an impression upon the mind; that is, unless we disbelieve the truth of Aeschines’ statement, who, after h had read to the Rhodians that celebrated speech of Demosthenes, upon their expressing their admiration of it, is said to have added, “Ah! what would you have said, could you have heard the wild beast himself?” And Aeschines, if we may take Demosthenes’ word for it, was no mean elocutionist; yet, he could not but confess that the speech would have sounded far finer from the lips of its author. I am saying all this with a view of persuading you to hear Isæus, if even for the mere sake of being able to say you have heard him. Farewell.