An Essay Picked by blupete

"Character of Lord Chatham" 1

Lord Chatham's [William Pitt's] genius burnt brightest at the last. The spark of liberty, which had lain concealed and dormant, buried under the dirt and rubbish of state intrigue and vulgar faction, now met with congenial matter, and kindled up "a flame of sacred vehemence" in his breast. It burst forth with a fury and splendour that might have awed the world, and made kings tremble. He spoke as a man should speak, because he felt as a man should feel, in such circumstances. He came forward as the advocate of liberty, as the defender of the rights of his fellow-citizens, as the enemy of tyranny, as the friend of his country, and of mankind. He did not stand up to make a vain display of his talents, but to discharge a duty, to maintain that cause which lay nearest to his heart, to preserve the ark of the British constitution from every sacrilegious touch, as the high priest of his calling, with a pious zeal. The feelings and the rights of Englishmen were enshrined in his heart; and with their united force braced every nerve, possessed every faculty, and communicated warmth and vital energy to every part of his being. The whole man moved under this impulse. He felt the cause of liberty as his own. He resented every injury done to her as an injury to himself, and every attempt to defend it as an insult upon his understanding. He did not stay to dispute about words, about nice distinctions, about trifling forms. He laughed at the little attempts of little retailers of logic to entangle him in senseless argument. He did not come there as a debating club, or law court, to start questions and hunt them down; to wind and unwind the web of sophistry; to pick out the threads, and untie every knot with scrupulous exactness; to bandy logic with every pretender to a paradox; to examine, to sift evidence; to dissect a doubt and halve a scruple; to weigh folly and knavery in scales together, and see on which side the balance preponderated; to prove that liberty, truth, virtue, and justice were good things, or that slavery and corruption were bad things. He did not try to prove those truths which did not require any proof, but to make others feel them with the same force that he did; and to tear off the flimsy disguises with which the sycophants of power attempted to cover them. -- The business of an orator is not to convince, but persuade; not to inform, but to rouse the mind; to build upon the habitual prejudices of mankind, (for reason of itself will do nothing,) and to add feeling to prejudice, and action to feeling. There is nothing new or curious or profound in Lord Chatham's speeches. All is obvious and common; there is nothing but what we already knew, or might have found out for ourselves. We see nothing but the familiar every-day face of nature. We are always in broad day-light. But then there is the same difference between our own conception of things and his representation of them, as there is between the same objects seen on a dull cloudy day, or in the blaze of sunshine. His common sense has the effect of inspiration. He electrifies his hearers, not by the novelty of his ideas, but by their force and intensity. He has the same ideas as other men, but he has them in a thousand times greater clearness and strength and vividness. Perhaps there is no man so poorly furnished with thoughts and feelings but that if he could recollect all that he knew, and had all his ideas at perfect command, he would be able to confound the puny arts of the most dexterous sophist that pretended to make a dupe of his understanding. But in the mind of Chatham, the great substantial truths of common sense, the leading maxims of the Constitution, the real interest and general feelings of mankind, were in a manner embodied. He comprehended the whole of his subject at a single glance -- every thing was firmly rivetted to its place; there was no feebleness, no forgetfulness, no pause, no distraction; the ardour of his mind overcame every obstacle and he crushed the objections of his adversaries as we crush an insect under our feet. -- His imagination was of the same character with his understanding, and was under the same guidance. Whenever he gave way to it, it "flew an eagle flight, forth and right on;" but it did not become enamoured of its own motion, wantoning in giddy circles, or "sailing with supreme dominion through the azure deep of air." It never forgot its errand, but went strait forward, like an arrow to its mark, with an unerring aim. It was his servant, not his master.

To be a great orator does not require the highest faculties of the human mind, but it requires the highest exertion of the common faculties or our natures. He has no occasion to dive into the depths of science, or to soar aloft on angels' wings. He keeps upon the surface, he stands firm upon the ground, but his form is majestic, and his eye sees far and near: he moves among his fellows, but he moves among them as a giant among common men. He has no need to read the heavens, to unfold the system of the universe, or create new worlds for the delighted fancy to dwell in; it is enough that he sees things as they are; that he knows and feels and remembers the common circumstances and daily transactions that are passing in the world around him. He is not raised above others by being superior to the common interests, prejudices, and passions of mankind, but by feeling them in a more intense degree than they do. Force then is the sole characteristic excellence of an orator; it is almost the only one that can be of any service to him. Refinement, depth, elevation, delicacy, originality, ingenuity, invention, are not wanted: he must appeal to the sympathies of human nature, and whatever is not founded in these, is foreign to his purpose. He does not create, he can only imitate or echo back the public sentiment. His object is to call up the feelings of the human breast; but he cannot call up what is not already there. The first duty of an orator is to be understood by every one; but it is evident that what all can understand, is not in itself difficult of comprehension. He cannot add any thing to the materials afforded him by the knowledge and experience of others.

Lord Chatham, in his speeches, was neither philosopher nor poet. As to the latter, the differences between poetry and eloquence I take to be this: that the object of the one is to delight the imagination, that of the other to impel the will. The one ought to enrich and feed the mind itself with the tenderness and beauty, the other furnishes it with motives of action. The one seeks to give immediate pleasure, to make the mind dwell with raptures on its own workings -- it is to itself "both end and use:" the other endeavours to call up such images as will produce the strongest effect upon the mind, and makes use of the passion only as instruments to attain a particular purpose. The poet lulls and soothes the mind into a forgetfulness of itself, and "laps it in Elysium:" the orator strives to awaken it to a sense of its real interests, and to make it feel the necessity of taking the most effectual means of securing them. The one dwells in an ideal world; the other is only conversant about realities. Hence poetry must be more ornamented, must be richer and fuller and more delicate, because it is at liberty to select whatever images are naturally most beautiful, and likely to give most pleasure; whereas the orator is confined to particular facts, which he may adorn as well as he can, and make the most of, but which he cannot strain beyond a certain point without running into extravagance and affectation, and losing his end. However, from the very nature of the case, the orator is allowed a greater latitude, and is compelled to make use of harsher and more abrupt combinations in the decoration of his subject; for his art is an attempt to reconcile beauty and deformity together: on the contrary, the materials of poetry, which are chosen at pleasure, are in themselves beautiful, and naturally combine with whatever else is beautiful. Grace and harmony are therefor essential to poetry, because they naturally arise out of the subject; but whatever adds to the effect, whatever tends to strengthen the idea or give energy to the mind, is of the nature of eloquence. The orator is only concerned to give a tone of masculine firmness to the will, to brace the sinews and muscles of the mind; not to delight our nervous sensibilities, or soften the mind into voluptuous indolence. The flowery and sentimental style is of all others the most intolerable in a speaker. -- I shall only add on this subject, that modesty, impartiality and candour, are not the virtues of a public speaker. He must be confident, inflexible, uncontrolable; overcoming all opposition by his ardour and impetuosity. We do not command others by sympathy with them, but by power, by passion, by will. Calm inquiry, sober truth, and speculative indifference will never carry any point. The passions are contagious; and we cannot contend against opposite passions with nothing but naked reason. Concessions to an enemy are clear loss: he will take advantage of them, but make us none in return. He will magnify the weak sides of our argument, but will be blind to whatever makes against himself. The multitude will always be inclined to side with that party, whose passions are the most inflamed, and whose prejudices are the most inveterate. Passion should therefore never be sacrificed to punctilio. I should indeed be governed by prudence, but it should itself govern and lend its impulse and direction to abstract reason. Fox was a reasoner, Lord Chatham was an orator. Burke was both a reasoner and a poet; and was therefore still farther removed from that conformity with the vulgar notions and mechanical feelings of mankind, which will always be necessary to give a man the chief sway in a popular assembly.



1 Hazlitt's "Character of Lord Chatham," first written in 1807, is to be found in Political Essays (1819).


Found this material Helpful?

[TOC -- Hazlitt's Page]
[Hazlitt's Works]
[General Essays]
[Round Table]
[Political Essays]
[The Spirit of the Age]
[The Plain Speaker]

2011 (2020)

Peter Landry