The gift of oratory is something that we all desire to possess- making an erudite and eloquent speech in front of a large assembly gives you a soaring feeling, akin to being on top of the world. Throughout history, there have been many great speeches by famous personalities, such as Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, Winston Churchill’s World War II address to the House of Commons, and Martin Luther’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. These soul-stirring speeches have served as an inspiration for the downtrodden and those afflicted with despair, have been a motivation to instill hope, to fight for civil liberties and to rouse humanity to its self-awakening. The roots of oratory can be traced way back to ancient Greece, where distinguished statesmen, philosophers and high-thinkers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle set the tone for intellectual prowess and mastery in public speaking. Today, we will talk about Demosthenes- a Greek statesman and orator in ancient Athens, who despite suffering from a speech impediment became one of the greatest orators ever in history. Let’s see how we can take inspiration from his life.
Birth and Early Childhood
Demosthenes was born in Athens, Greece, in 384 BC. His father was an affluent weapon maker, who unfortunately passed away when Demosthenes was only seven. Now an orphan, he was placed under the guardianship of his father’s trustees. Demosthenes childhood wasn’t too wonderful- he had a frail physique that prevented him from participating in sports or any strenuous physical activity, had an unflattering appearance, and suffered from a speech impediment. He couldn’t pronounce the letter ‘r’ and also had an occasional stutter. If we translate that to vernacular Hindi terms, he was a ‘totla’ as well as a ‘hakla’. Sounds like a complete disaster, no? Enough to plunge an average person into depression. But Demosthenes was a determined and industrious fellow. No way was he going to give up.
Onset of Youth and a Lawsuit
Demosthenes’ delicate physique, while disallowing him to participate him in sporting activities, compelled him to channel his energies elsewhere viz. the study of oratory. When he was around 20, he found out that the men entrusted with his father’s fortune had squandered it away. Reasonably furious, he sued them and won the case. Though his inheritance was only partially restored, Demosthenes’s speech and rhetorical skills made a mark among the wealthy and powerful. In ancient Athens, all the speaking and arguing in court was done by the citizen who filed the case. Demosthenes had a speech impediment, so how did he manage not only to win the case but also impress his potential clientele?
Overcoming His Speech Defect
There are many things that can inspire us in life. It can be the achievements of others- maybe a young girl from a small village who has made it big in sports or the resourceful son of the local vegetable vendor who has managed to crack the Civil Services exam; it can be personal failure- not succeeding in doing a particular task or attaining your goal, or subtle taunts from peers for not excelling enough to be on their level. For Demosthenes, the trigger to study legal rhetoric and pursue oratory was his desire to see the scoundrels who had wasted his father’s wealth be punished.
Apart from his speech defect, Demosthenes also had weak lungs and a spastic shoulder. He used to stammer and whatever came out of his mouth seemed like inarticulate, incoherent sentences.
To overcome these problems, Demosthenes embarked on a self-improvement program. He kept pebbles in his mouth to practice his speech, which forced him to clearly enunciate what he was speaking, instead of being a rushed mess. He also practiced speaking before a large mirror- a time-tested advice that still holds well today, and also practiced reciting verses while running or out of breath. To strengthen his lungs, he ran on hills and on the stairs of famous Greek buildings.
Practice, practice, and more practice is what all Demosthenes did. Through his resolute nature, he was soon able to overcome his stuttering and develop a strong voice- a trait absolutely essential in an era with no microphones.
Initial Failure and Eventual Success
Despite his self-improvement program, Demosthenes first attempts in public speaking were disastrous, with the audience jeering and laughing him off. He realized that not only confidence, but also solid content was necessary to win over the audience. He began writing lengthy, meaningful speeches that would be important in convincing the court.
When he finally presented his arguments in the lawsuits, Demosthenes finally attained the success he so coveted- suing his guardians and winning the case. More importantly, it also taught him about the speaking strategy and how persuasive arguments can be presented.
His speech having impressed the high and mighty, Demosthenes pursued a career as a speech writer and later on gained enough credibility in political circles.
His first major political speech was made in 354 BC, when he addressed the Athenian assembly- a loosely-knit group of around 6,000 men who would shout down and ridicule their rivals. Through his oratory skills and invoking patriotism, Demosthenes was able to convince the Athenians to build up their naval fleet to show their willingness to defend themselves. His speaking skills grew manifold with time and he soon became one of the most respected orators of the era. Through his speeches, Demosthenes demonstrated his love for democracy, patriotism and intense dislike for tyrants.
To quote Wikipedia:
“The Alexandrian Canon compiled by Aristophanes of Byzantium and Aristarchus of Samothrace recognized Demosthenes as one of the ten greatest Attic orators and logographers. Longinus likened Demosthenes to a blazing thunderbolt, and argued that he “perfected to the utmost the tone of lofty speech, living passions, copiousness, readiness, speed”. Quintilian extolled him as lex orandi (“the standard of oratory”), and Cicero said about him that inter omnis unus excellat (“he stands alone among all the orators”), and he also acclaimed him as “the perfect orator” who lacked nothing.”
Lessons from the life of Demosthenes
- Your background does NOT matter, nor does your childhood. Even if you suffered physical or financial disadvantages, NOTHING can stop you from achieving your goals if you are determined.
- No one is born a genius. Only a few individuals in history e.g. Leonardo Da Vinci can be categorized as such. Hard work and regular practice are the only things that matter.
- Demosthenes used unconventional methods to overcome his speech impediment- like putting pebbles in his mouth and all. You have access to modern techniques and programs that can help you become a skilled orator in a way shorter duration. For instance, enrolling into one of the courses offered by Pep Talk India is a great chance to discover the ‘new you’.
All the best!