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One of the finest advocates in history

Paul Mark Sandler//June 7, 2023

One of the finest advocates in history

By Paul Mark Sandler

//June 7, 2023

Demosthenes was one of the most remarkable advocates in ancient Greece and perhaps in history. To overcome a stutter, Plutarch wrote that Demosthenes retreated to a cave and placed pebbles in his mouth. This demonstrates that we can always improve upon our persuasive abilities.

During the time, Phillip of Macedon was waging war against Athens, diluting its democracy. Demosthenes’ voice rang out with numerous speeches in eloquent opposition. These speeches are known to this day as the Philippics. A Philippic is now known as a stirring aggressive speech.

Consider this excerpt from the first Philippic, circa 350 B.C., when Demosthenes was trying to rouse the citizens of Athens to resist the attacks of Phillip:

What is the worse aspect of your political situation from the past is the best for the future? What is this? It is the fact that your affairs are in a bad way because you have not done your duty in any way …

When then, Athenians, when will you do your duty? What must first happen? When there is a need for it? What then should we consider? What is now happening? For in my opinion the greatest ‘need’ is a sense of shame in the political situation. Or do you want me to go around and ask each other ‘is there any news?’

As unique and eloquent as his Philippics may be, Demosthenes’ most notable oration is known as “On the Crown.” It was an actual case! As a result of Demosthenes’ rousing Philippics, Ctesiphon, a friend of Demosthenes, in 336 B.C., sug­gested that Demosthenes be honored by Athens and presented with a Golden Crown — a very high honor indeed.

Achiness, a bitter rival of Demosthenes, initiated a prosecution against Ctesiphon for having violated the law in presenting the crown to Dem­osthenes, claiming that the award of the crown violated requirements that were not fulfilled by Demosthenes.

Demosthenes defended Ctesiphon and uniquely used the defense as a way to challenge those who were comfortable with peace and Macedonian rule, and those who may have looked upon him with disfavor. Demosthenes’ eloquence is preserved to this day. The theme of his oration was that although Athens could be defeated, it is far better to suffer defeat in a struggle for independence than to peacefully surrender the heritage of freedom. Ctesiphon was acquitted, and Achiness went into exile.

Consider this brief excerpt from Dem­osthenes’ oration:

Let me begin, men of Athens by beseeching all the Powers of Heaven that on this trial I may find in Athenian hearts such benevolence towards me as I have ever cherished for the city and the people of Athens My next prayer is for you, and for your conscience and honor. May the gods so inspire you that the temper with which you listen to my words shall be guided, not by my adversary…

From the very first, I chose the straight and honest path in public life: I chose to foster the honor, the supremacy, the good name of my country, to seek to enhance them, and to stand or fall with them.

Demosthenes’ speeches reveal a style of passion, eloquence, and arrangement. Bear in mind demonstrative aides did not exist in those days. It is said that Demosthenes exuded enthusiasm and emotions, spoke clearly, and emphatically used metaphors and similes to great success. For example, he compares Philip to a “fever which strikes even those who fear that they are at safe distance from him.” Demosthenes’ speeches are replete with rhetorical questions and imaginary dialogues with his listeners:

What time or what opportunity, Athenians, do you seek better than the present one? When will you do your duty, if not now? Has not the Fellow (Philip) already seized all our strongholds, and if he becomes master of this territory, will not your disgrace be abso­lute? Are not those people now at war whom we promise that we would save if they went to war? Is he not our enemy? Does he not hold what is ours? Is he not a barbarian? Is he not anything that you want to call him?

We learn from Demosthenes that skill in advocacy can be accom­plished by practice (although not necessarily with pebbles in our mouths), and that the words we use — our style—are important in persuasion. His arguments reflect techniques worthy of emulation today.

Demosthenes forcefully substantiated his assertions with evidence and facts. He followed each assertion with a presentation and conclusion, often using short, precise sentences.

For more reading about Demosthenes, consider “Plutarch, Parallel Lives” (2d Century A.D.); “Demosthenes’ On the Crown,” edited by James J. Murphy (Ran­dom House, 1967); “Demosthenes Statesman and Orator,” edited by Ian Worthington (Routledge, 2000); “Orations of Demosthenes” (The Colonial Press, 1900); and, of course, Plutarch on Demosthenes.

Paul Mark Sandler, trial attorney and author, can be reached at [email protected].








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