The Greatest Orator

Born in Athens, Greece, 394BCE, though orphaned at the age of 7, Demosthenes had a speech impediment: an inarticulate and stammering pronunciation. According to Historian, Plutarch, he had a weakness in his voice of a perplexed and indistinct utterance and a shortness of breath, which, by breaking and disjointing his sentences much obscured the sense and meaning of what he spoke.

Determined to overcome his impediment and motivated by the important message that he was passionate about imparting to his fellow Athenians, Demosthenes undertook a disciplined program to overcome these shortcomings and improve his elocution. He worked on his diction, his voice and his gestures. Eventually, though his greatest political opponent, Aeschines, would continue to taunt him and referred to him in his own speeches by the nickname Batalos, meaning stammerer, in ancient Greek, Demosthenes has become the most famous orator of all time.

Starting out as a logographer, a speech-writer, Demosthenes became an accomplished lawyer and political activist. He wrote and delivered a series of famous speeches called The Philippics warning his countrymen of the disasters Athens would suffer, if they continued to remain idle and indifferent to the challenges of their times, in particular King Philip of Macedonia.

On one of his Philippics he wrote: While the vessel is safe, whether it be a large or a small one, then is the time for sailor and helmsman and everyone in his turn to show his zeal and to take care that it is not capsized by anyone's malice or inadvertence; but when the sea has overwhelmed it, zeal is useless.

During his long political career Demosthenes urged his countrymen to defend their city and to preserve their freedom and their democracy against Philip of Macedonia and later Philip’s son, Alexander the Great, who even demanded that the orator be placed in exile.

In 336 BC, the orator Ctesiphon proposed that Athens honor Demosthenes for his services to the city by presenting him, according to custom, with a golden crown. This proposal became a political issue and, in 330 BC, Aeschines prosecuted Ctesiphon on charges of legal irregularities.

In his most brilliant speech On the Crown, Demosthenes effectively defended Ctesiphon and vehemently attacked those who would have preferred peace with Macedon. He was unrepentant about his past actions and policies and insisted that, when in power, the constant aim of his policies was the honor and the ascendancy of his country; and on every occasion and in all business he preserved his loyalty to Athens.

The man who deems himself born only to his parents will wait for his natural and destined end; the son of his country is willing to die rather than see her enslaved, and will look upon those outrages and indignities, which a commonwealth in subjection is compelled to endure, as more dreadful than death itself.

And it was in On the Crown that Demosthenes fiercely assaulted and finally neutralized and defeated Aeschines, his formidable political and lifelong opponent.

You stand revealed in your life and conduct, in your public performances and also in your public abstinences. A project approved by the people is going forward. Aeschines is speechless. A regrettable incident is reported. Aeschines is in evidence. He reminds one of an old sprain or fracture: the moment you are out of health it begins to be active.

Throughout history On the Crown is considered to be by scholars the greatest speech ever written and Demosthenes' fame has continued down through the ages. The scholars at the Library of Alexandria carefully edited the manuscripts of his speeches, and Roman schoolboys studied his art as part of their own oratorical training. They inspired Cicero's speeches against Mark Antony, also called The Philippics.

Plutarch drew attention in his Life of Demosthenes to the strong similarities between the personalities and careers of Demosthenes and Marcus Tullius Cicero: I think there can hardly be found two other orators, who, from small and obscure beginnings, became so great and mighty; who both contested with kings and tyrants; both lost their daughters, were driven out of their country, and returned with honor; who, flying from thence again, were both seized upon by their enemies, and at last ended their lives with the liberty of their countrymen.

During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Demosthenes had a reputation for eloquence. He has been read more than any other ancient orator; only Cicero offering any real competition. In modern history his ideas and principles survived, influencing prominent politicians and movements of our times.

Great orators including Henry Clay, 8th, 10th and 13th Speaker of the United States House of Representatives would mimic Demosthenes' technique and he constituted a source of inspiration for the authors of the Federalist Papers (The series of 85 articles arguing for the ratification of the United States Constitution) and for the major orators of the French Revolution. French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau was among those who idealized Demosthenes and wrote a book about him. During World War II, the fighters of the French Resistance identified themselves with Demosthenes, and Hitler in the role of Philip.

The Demosthenian Literary Society at The University of Georgia is named after Demosthenes, as a tribute to his oratorical ability and the manner in which he improved his speaking ability. They believe that speech impediments can be overcome and there is no reason that a person determined to become a good speaker, will not be able, with perseverance, to become one.

Without exception the most valuable skill a person can learn to develop is to influence and inspire others. A person in business must be involved with the art of marketing and advertising themselves and their business through the art of oratory.

Advertising legend, David Ogilvy, sums up the importance of this very aptly by citing Demosthenes as the model for creating persuasive advertising, saying:

When Aeschines spoke, they said, ‘How well he speaks.’
But when Demosthenes spoke, they said, ‘Let us march against Philip.’

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