The Power of Orators

Thursday, March 4th, 2010

Writing in England in 1859, Andrew Bisset expresses concern over the power of orators:

Even in a government like that of England, the power of orators has been great for the last 200 years. How much greater it would become if that government were assimilated much more than it is at present to the Athenian democracy, may be inferred from the known power of the orators in the latter days of Athenian independence. Socrates, in Plato’s Dialogues, uses the word Orator as equivalent sometimes to Sophist, and sometimes to Despot. He represents orators as men having, without being either wise or just men, the absolute power of life and death, confiscation and ruin, over their fellow citizens.

If the field for the exercise of rhetoric and sophistry in the deliberative national assembly of England were effectually checked, the extension of the suffrage might be a safe and a beneficial measure. But if such a measure is carried out to any considerable extent before the other measure of preventing the rhetorical sophists from working their mischief, we shall only exchange one set of bad and dangerous rulers for another set of rulers still worse and still more dangerous.

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