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The Other Eight: Aeschines

Mere Rhetoric

Release Date: 09/06/2017

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Don’t you love those group adventure movies? You know, the ones with a ragtag group of misfits who each have their special skill--Ocean’s 11, the Great Escape, Power Rangers? Rhetoric had that too and they were called the Canon of Ten of the Ten Attic Orators. Like most canonical lists, they weren’t clumped together until they well and dead. Aristophanes of Byzantium and Aristarchus of Samothrace compiled what’s called the Alexandrian Canon including these ten hotshots of the 5th and 4th century BCE. Later, a scholar who was probably not Plutarch, called the Psuedo-Plutarch, wrote “The Lives of the Ten Orators” to chronicle the Rat Pack of Classical Greek rhetoric. A couple of these ten will be familiar to you--Demosthenes and Isocrates. Demosthenes and Isocrates are like the George Clooney and Brad Pitt of the Ten Attic Orators, getting most of the screen time and most of the glory. We’ve have individual episodes on each of them as well as individual episodes on some of the works they’ve written. Mere Rhetoric isn’t alone in emphasizing these super stars of the Canon of Ten: the Psuedo Plutarch spends almost 3500 words on Demosthenes and a paltry 392 on Aeschines. So, to make it up to them, we’re going to dedicate eight episodes of Mere Rhetoric to the  other members of the Canon of Ten, the Bernie Macs and Casey Afflecks of Classical Greek Rhetoric.

 

And today we’re going to start with the anti-Demosthenes, Aeschines.

 

Aeschines hated Demosthenes. The most famous peice he ever wrote was a legal argument called Against Ctetisphon (k’tes-i-fawn), which really could have been “Against Demosthenes and His Stinkin’ Friend.”

 

First, some background. Aeschines came from a modest background. He wasn’t destitute, certainly but it is “generally doubted that his father could have afforded to provide him with an education in rhetoric” and he had to marry up to enter a public career (9). The Pseudo Plutarch describes him as “neither nobly born nor rich.”  Demosthenes, on the other hand, was born to privilege and had a first-rate education. Demosthenes was educated at the schools os Isocrates and maybe Plato; Aeschines was taught by someone named Leodamas, whose reputation in history is partially that he was a mathematician and partially that Plato may have taught him math. Not a particularly impressive training for a future political rhetor.

 

Aeschines was a good performer and did a stint as an actor, and while this wasn’t as shameful as it would become in later centuries, Demosthenes accuses Aeschines of being a bad actor, which is pretty shameful (10). Unlike Demosthenes, he never was a professional speechwriter--every speech we have is about his own political concerns, and all three of them may be all that there is to have--nothing seems to have been lost (12). The best of these three, “Against Ctetisphone,” requires a little political history.

 

Demosthenes, as we’ve discussed in our earlier episode, was a rabble rouser against King Philip, the father of Alexander the Great, and the aggressor of the Hellenistic cities like Athens. He defeated them and then ruled over them in something called the League of Corinth, sort of a loose confederation of vassal states. Demosthenes did not like that and called for activism, which was pretty popular. Aeschines on the other hand favored peace and capitulatoin with Macadonia and King Philip. He was badly let down, though, as were the rest of the pragmatists because they received no gains or special treatment from the partnership. Defiant Demosthenes gained all the cultural capital and Aeschines looked like a collaborator.

 

Demosthenes’ friend, Ctetisphon, seeks to give a public award to Demosthenes, kind of a lifetime acheivement award from the state, with some real money attached. This “Golden Crown” was a civic and almost religious honor : As Thomas Leland points out, “To give this transaction the greater solemnity, it was moved that the ceremony should be performed in the theatre of Bacchus during the festival held in honor of that god, when not only the Athenians, but other Greeks from all parts of the nation were assembled to see the tragedies exhibited in that festival.”  So everyone would be fawning over Demosthenes, not just the Athenians. Aeschines just can not. Ctesiphon gives public crown to Demosthenes, Aeschines brings suit against him, and, like an animal to a trap, Demosthenes shows up in person as a “speaker for Ctesiphon.”

 

So there you have it, head-to-head, Aeschines and Demosthenes in the courtroom arguing about whether Demosthenes is a public hero or an extravagant wastrel and war profiteer. Opposition political parties, opposite managerial styles, opposite backgrounds. You can kind of feel Aeschines boiling over in this oration. One scholar points out that “Against Ctesiphon” disorganized, uneven, although powerful in some places.”

 

But Aeschines makes three main claims that range from the reasonable to the vitriolic.

 

First off, there is the location. The law specifically says that the award is presented in assembly and nowhere else, certainly not at the theater! How humiliating, Aescheines says if “He confers this honor, not while the people are assembled, but while the new tragedies are exhibiting; not in the presence of the people, but of the Greeks; that they too may know on what kind of man our honors are conferred.”  Okay, I could see that.

 

Also, that the award being given to Demosthenes is a little preemptive. Aeschines complains about giving Demosthenes the crown--there hadn’t been a full investigation into his full character.

 

But finally, Aeschines says, the award is supposed to be for people who have excellent character and Demosthenes, he argues, is the opposite of excellent. He is not shy about it: “Say, then, Ctesiphon, when the most heinous instances of this man's baseness are so incontestably evident that his accuser exposes himself to the censure, not of advancing falsehoods, but of recurring to facts so long acknowledged and notorious, is he to be publicly honored, or to be branded with infamy? ”Demosthenes, as a senator, doesn’t acknowledge diplomats, and he led a lot of soldiers to their certain death in an ill-fated military campaign. Aeschines even attacks Demosthenes’ private life because “He who acts wickedly in private life cannot prove excellent in his public conduct: he who is base at home can never acquit himself with honor when sent to a strange country in a public character.”

 

At the beginning, he says,“An examination of Demosthenes’ life would be  too long a speech, why should I tell it all now…” then he does, tells tale of primary, nepotism, violence, heart of it though “the worst of the crimes” was his greed for a cut of the peace with Philip, benefitted from war profiteering and perjury, sacrificing the lives of the young soldiers “as yourselves whether the relatives of the dead will shed more teachers over the tragedies and sufferings of the heros that will be staged after this or at the city’s insensitivity” (152). He holds, even, his bad luck against him, because in ancient Greece, bad luck in a leader was as indefensible as stupidity.

 

Look, I’m team Demosthenes and fighting for independence is always going to sound better than capitulating to an occupying force and this speech is so venomous and spiteful that it’s hard not to just dismiss it because it is so angry, but Aeschines does make a lot of good points, and he’s mostly pointing out that we don’t make exceptions for Demosthenes, which could also be interpreted as “no one is above the law,” which I find quite reassuring. The law is a big deal for Aeschines--makes sense, this is a legal case, and he praises it throughout the speech. Aeschines proclaims how excellent the law is, how excellent the assembly is: “A noble institution this a truly noble institution, Athenians!” he declares.

 

I’m also sympathetic when Aeschines alleges the Demosthenes just wants to shut him up. “He compares me to the Sirens, whose purpose is not to delight their hearers, but to destroy them. Even so, if we are to believe him, my abilities in speaking, whether acquired by exercise or given by nature, all tend to the detriment of those who grant me their attention. I am bold to say that no man has a right to urge an allegation of this nature against me; for it is shameful in an accuser not to be able to establish his assertions with full proof.” You shouldn’t want to shut up your opposition--that leads to all kinds of tyrany.

 

But then again, Aeschines dishes it out again back at Demosthenes, “But when a man composed entirely of words, and these the bitterest and most pompously labored when he recurs to simplicity, to artless facts, who can endure it? He who is but an instrument, take away his tongue, and he is nothing.”

 

In the end, I think the jurors had the same unpleasant taste in their mouths that we do reading it--Aeschines comes across and a squirming, angry little man trying whatever he can to stop his wildly popular rival from getting praise. In the result of the trial, Ctesiphon was acquitted and Aeschines failed to get ⅕ of the votes. Aeschines was humiliated for having brought the lawsuit to the courts, and, because of the unsuccessful suit, he was slapped with a  “fine of 1000 drachmas and (probably) loss of the right to bring similar action again” to the court. Aeschines left Athens in shame, and ending up as a rhetoric teacher in Rhodes.  As a rhetoric teacher myself, I don’t think of this as that much of a crushing ignobility, and, really, history has looked fondly on him, including him, with his bitter enemy, on the list of the Ten Attic Orators.