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Title: Eloquence
Original Title: Eloquence
Volume and Page: Vol. 5 (1755), pp. 529–531
Author: [François-Marie Arouet] de Voltaire
Translator: Theodore E. D. Braun [University of Delaware (emeritus professor),]
Subject terms:
Original Version (ARTFL): Link

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Citation (MLA): Voltaire, [François-Marie Arouet] de. "Eloquence." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Theodore E. D. Braun. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2004. Web. [fill in today's date in the form 18 Apr. 2009 and remove square brackets]. <>. Trans. of "Eloquence," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 5. Paris, 1755.
Citation (Chicago): Voltaire, [François-Marie Arouet] de. "Eloquence." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Theodore E. D. Braun. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2004. (accessed [fill in today's date in the form April 18, 2009 and remove square brackets]). Originally published as "Eloquence," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 5:529–531 (Paris, 1755).

Eloquence, [1]. The following article was sent to us by M. de Voltaire, who, while contributing to the perfection of the Encyclopédie by his work, would like to set an example to all the men of letters who are citizens [of the Republic of Letters] of the true interest they ought to take in this work. In the letter with which he honored us on this subject, he modestly calls this article a simple sketch; but what a great master painter looks on as a simple sketch is a precious painting for others. Thus we expose this excellent article to the public just as we received it from its illustrious author: would we have been able to touch it without diminishing its quality?

Eloquence , says M. de Voltaire, was born before the rules of rhetoric, just as languages were formed before grammar. Nature makes men eloquent in matters of great interest to them and in their great passions. Whoever is strongly moved sees things with a different eye than do other men. Everything is for him an object of rapid comparison and of metaphor: without noticing it, he animates everything, and he fires up those who listen to him with some of his own emotion. An enlightened philosopher has noted that even ordinary people use figures of speech to express themselves; that nothing is more widespread, more natural than the turns of phrase we call tropes . Thus in every language one's heart burns, one's courage is fired up, one’s eyes sparkle, one’s spirit is burdened: it is divided, it is worn out; one’s blood freezes, one’s head is turned around; one is inflated with pride or drunk with vengeance. Nature is painted everywhere in these strong images that have become commonplace. [2]

It is an instinct of Nature that teaches us to adopt a modest tone or appearance with those we depend on. The natural desire to captivate one's judges and superiors, the meditation of a soul that has been profoundly moved, and which is preparing to give expression to the emotions that are acting on it, those are the first teachers of art.

Nature is also sometimes the source of vivid and animated outbursts; a powerful passion, a pressing danger evoke imagination in an instant: thus the captain of the earliest califs, seeing his Muslims flee, called out, Where are you running? that's not where the enemy is! You've been told that the calif has been killed. Is it important if he is numbered among the living or the dead? God is alive and is watching you. March on! [3]

Nature created eloquence ; and if it has been said that poets are born and orators learn their art, [4] it was said at a time when eloquence was forced to study the laws, the genius of the judges, and the method of the time.

Precepts have always come after art. Tisias [5] was the first person to put together the laws of eloquence of which Nature had given the first rules.

Later, Plato said in his Gorgias that and orator must have the subtlety of dialecticians, the knowledge of philosophers, almost the diction of poets, the voice and the gestures of the greatest actors. [6]

After him, Aristotle showed that true philosophy is the secret guide of the mind in all the arts. He indicated the sources of eloquence in his book On Rhetoric ; he demonstrated that dialectics is the foundation of the art of persuasion, and that being eloquent means knowing how to prove one's point.

He distinguished between three genres, the deliberative, the demonstrative, and the judiciary. Deliberative eloquence stresses exhorting those who are deliberating to decide in favor of war or peace, or to take a stand on public administration, etc.; demonstrative eloquence is concerned with indicating what is worthy of praise or blame; judiciary eloquence has as its object persuading, absolving, or condemning, etc. It is clear that these three genres are often overlapping.

He then goes on to discuss the passions and the customs or manners that every orator must know.

He examines what proofs ought to be used in each of these three genres of eloquence . Finally he discusses in depth elocution, without which everything languishes; he demands above all suitability or appropriateness, and propriety or decorum. All of his precepts breathe, manifest the enlightened soundness of thought of a philosopher and the politeness of an Athenian; and while promulgating the rules of eloquence , he is himself eloquent with simplicity. [7]

It should be noted that Greece was the only place on Earth where, at that time, the laws of eloquence were known, because it was the only place where true eloquence existed. A rough art existed in every nation; elements of the sublime escaped from Nature at every epoch: but the ability to move the spirits of an entire polished nation, to convince and to touch at one and the same time, that was given only to the Greeks. The people of the Orient were virtually all slaves: a characteristic of slavery is to exaggerate everything; Asiatic eloquence was therefore monstrous. The West was barbarian in Aristotle's day.

True eloquence began to be manifest in Rome at the time of the Greeks, and was not perfected until the age of Cicero. Marc Antony the orator, Hortensius, [8] Curio, [9] Caesar, and several others, were all eloquent men.

This eloquence perished with the Republic as it had done in Athens. Sublime eloquence is said to exist only where freedom reigns; the reason for this is that freedom essentially consists in the ability to speak harsh truths, to make visible strong reasons and powerful images. A master often does not like truth, fears reasons, and prefers a delicate compliment to great brush strokes. [10]

Cicero, having given examples in his speeches, gave precepts in his book De oratore ; he makes use of almost the entirety of the method of Aristotle, and explains it in the style of Plato.

He distinguishes the simple, the temperate, and the sublime genres. Rollin followed this division in his Traité des études ; and, which Cicero does not say, he avers that the temperate genre is a beautiful stream shaded by verdant forests on either side; the simple genre, a table properly set with all the dishes of an excellent taste, from which all refinement has been banished; and that the sublime strikes with thunder and lightning, that it is an impetuous river that knocks over everything that resists its force. [11]

Without sitting down at that table, and without following that thunder and lightning, that river and that stream, every man of good sense can see that simple eloquence is the one which has simple things to expose, and that clarity and elegance are all that is appropriate to it. One does not have to have read Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilien to sense that a lawyer who begins with a pompous introduction in a case concerning a party wall is ridiculous: this was nevertheless the vice of barristers until the middle of the 17th century; [12] trivial things were pronounced with emphasis; volumes of examples could be cited: but they all come down to this word of a lawyer, a man of wit, who, seeing that his adversary was speaking of the Trojan War and of Scamandres, interrupted him saying, the Court will observe that my client's name is not Scamandres, but Michaut. [13]

The sublime genre can only be concerned with powerful interests debated in a great assembly. Some vivid traces of this can still be seen in the English Parliament; a number of major speeches were pronounced there in 1739, when there was a question of declaring war on Spain. The spirit of Demosthenes and of Cicero dictated several parts of these speeches; but they will not be passed on to posterity as did the Greek and Roman models, because they lack that art and that charm of diction that puts the seal of immortality on the best works. [14]

The temperate genre is used for those ceremonial speeches, those public discourses, those studied compliments, in which the meaninglessness of the matter at hand must be covered over with flowers.

These three genres often enough overlap, just like the three objects of eloquence considered by Aristotle, and the great merit of the orator is to mix them appropriately.

Great eloquence has been unknown in the courts of justice in France because it has not led to great honors as it did in Athens, in Rome, and today in London, and has not had as its object important public interests: it has taken refuge in funeral orations, where it somewhat resembles poetry. Bossuet, and after him Fléchier, seem to have heeded Plato's precept, according to which an orator's elocution must sometimes be that of a poet. [15]

Until the time of Father Bordaloue, pulpit eloquence had been almost barbarian; [16] he was among the first to make reason speak.

The English came to this only later, as Bishop Burnet of Salisbury admits. They were unfamiliar with funeral orations; they avoided in their sermons those powerful passages which seemed to them not to be aligned with the simplicity of the Gospels; and they did away with the affectations that Archbishop Fénelon condemns in his Dialogues on eloquence . [17]

Although our sermons deal with the most important subject to man, nevertheless few striking passages can be found in them which, like the beautiful passages in Cicero and Demosthenes, have become models for all Western nations. The reader will however be pleased to find here what happened the first time that Father Massillon, who since has become the Bishop of Clermont, preached his famous sermon on the small numbers of the elect: at one point a vivid emotion seized the entire congregation; almost everyone stood halfway up in an involuntary movement; the murmur of acclamation and surprise was so strong that it disturbed the preacher, and this disturbance only raised the level of emotion of this passage: here it is. ‘I imagine that the last hour has come for all of us, that Heaven will open up above our heads, that time has ended and eternity is beginning, that Jesus Christ will appear before us to judge us according to our works, and that we are all here to await from him the judgment of eternal life or eternal death: I ask you, struck with terror like you, not separating my fate from yours, and putting myself in the same situation we will be in when we must all appear one day before God our judge: if Jesus Christ, I say, appeared right now to separate the just from the sinners, do you believe that the greatest number would be saved? do you believe that the number of the just would at least equal that of the sinners? do you believe that if he now examined the works of the majority of those now in this church, he would find even ten of the just among us? even one? etc. ' (There are several different editions of this sermon, but the all of them repeat basically the same words.) [18]

This figure, the boldest one ever used and at the same time the most appropriate, is one of the most beautiful examples of eloquence that can be read in modern or ancient letters; and the rest of the sermon is not unworthy of this very salient point. Similar masterpieces are indeed rare, everything furthermore has become commonplace. Preachers who cannot imitate these great models would be better off learning them by heart and reciting them to their congregations (supposing of course that they possess the extremely rare talent of declamation), than preaching in a languishing style about matters as well-worn as useful.

Are historians permitted the use of eloquence ? The eloquence proper to their profession consists in the art of preparing the events, in their exposition which must be neat and elegant, now vivid and rushed, then stretched out and flowery, painting with truth and strength general mores and the principal characters, and incorporating naturally into the narrative their reflections, which must not appear to be added to it. The eloquence of Demosthenes is not that of Thucydides; a speech put in the mouth of a hero who never delivered it is at best a beautiful defect.

However, this license could occasionally be permitted; here is an example in which Mézeray in his great history seems to win the approbation of the ancients; he is up to their level at least in this place: it is at the beginning of the reign of Henri IV when this prince, with very few troops, was besieged by an army of 30,000 men, and he was advised to withdraw to England. Mézeray rises above himself when he has Marshal de Biron, who was furthermore a man of genius who could very well have said a part of what the historian attributes to him.

‘Sire, are you being advised to take flight by sea, as though there were no other means of preserving your kingdom than to desert it? If you were not in France, you would have to break through every obstacle and take every risk to get there: and now that you're here, you're being asked to leave? and your friends are counseling you to do of your own free will what the greatest effort of your enemies would never be able to force you to do? In your present situation, leaving France for only twenty-four hours would be going into permanent exile. Besides, the danger is not as great as it has been pictured; The very people who think they are surrounding us are the same people that we had guarded so lightly in Paris, or people who are not any better than them, people who have more squabbles among themselves than they do against us. We are, after all, Sire, in France, they’ll have to bury us here: it is a question of a kingdom, we have to win this battle or lose our lives; and even if there were no other safe way out for your sacred being than fleeing, I know well that you would prefer to die fighting than to save yourself by this means. Your Majesty would never permit it to be said that a junior member of the House of Lorraine had made you lose ground; even less that you were seen begging at the door of a foreign prince. No, no, Sire, there is neither a crown nor any honor for you across the sea; if you go begging for help from England, your honor will diminish; if you go to the port of La Rochelle like a man in full retreat, you will find only scorn and reproaches. I cannot believe that you would rather entrust your person to the uncertainties of the sea and throw yourself at the mercy of a stranger than to call on the support of so many brave gentlemen and so many veteran soldiers who are waiting to serve as ramparts and as shields: and I am too much a servant of Your Majesty to dissimulate from you that if you sought your safety elsewhere but in their virtue, they would feel obliged to look for their own elsewhere than in yours’. [19]

This speech makes an more beautiful effect in that Mézeray puts in Biron's mouth what Henri IV felt in his heart.

There would be many more things to say on the subject of eloquence , but books already say too much about it; and in an enlightened century, genius aided by examples knows much more about the subject than all the masters can say about it. [20] See Locution.


1. . See "Elegance," n. 1. The mention of the “simple sketch” in the introductory paragraph of this article might well be a reminder of the letter of May-June 1754 to d'Alembert (D5832), speaking of essays to be rewritten, which the editors strongly opposed.

2. . For Voltaire eloquence is not simply the art of speaking well, but rather the art of winning over the listener; it also resembles fits of enthusiasm and the inspiration of genius (see Naves, Le Goût de Voltaire , p. 262, 292). It is a gift of nature, according to D'Alembert (in the article ‘Elocution' in the Encyclopédie ), who stresses even more than Voltaire this sensibility aspect of the word.

Here Voltaire summarizes in broad terms Dumarsais's Des Tropes (first article of Part I, (‘General idea of figures of speech'). He owned this work (BV [ Bibliothèque de Voltaire ], no. 1142) and in particular mentioned this author in the ‘Catalog of writers’ in the Siècle de Louis XIV and in the articles ‘A’, ‘Figure’, and ‘Philosophy’ in the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie .

3. . Abu Bakr as Saddiq, born ca. 573, father-in-law of the Prophet, the first of the orthodox califs (632), died in Medina in 634. His troops were under the command of Omar Abu Hafssah ibn al Khatab, who succeeded him. (See the Notebooks , Voltaire, Complete Works , vol. 82, p. 442.)

4. . Voltaire is referring to the Roman adage, ‘Poeta nascitur, non fit'; cf. Cicero, De oratore , I.(vi).20, II.(xlvi).194, and especially Boileau, Art poétique , I.4.

5. . Tisias of Syracuse (5th century B.C.), rhetorician.

6. . This is a somewhat loose summary of what is contained in the discourse on rhetoric. The orator is described there as being more persuasive than a physician for unlearned people, because he (the orator) is a flatterer.

7. . In a few sentences Voltaire summarizes a long work from which he omits some important parts in order to accent others, such as suitability or appropriateness, and propriety or decorum. He owned the translation of F. Cassandre (Lyon 1691) but did not annotate it (BV, no. 103).

8. . Quintus Hortensius Hortalus (114-50 BC), soldier, quaestor, aedile, praetor, and consul, at one time an enemy of Cicero; although his speeches are not extant, we know from Cicero and other sources that he was an outstanding orator, and that his speeches were better heard than read.

9. . Caius Scribonius Curio (?-49 BC), soldier and lieutenant of Caesar whose life he is said to have saved, and close friend of Marc Antony. A tribune of the plebe, defender of the people, he was known as an outstanding orator. He was also a playwright, and is credited with devising a wooden predecessor of the amphitheater (50 BC). He died a year later leading a failed military expedition in North Africa during the Civil Wars.

10. . Voltaire insisted in his notebooks on this incompatibility of eloquence and autocracy; see also his Essai sur les moeurs , chapter 82 ( Essai , I.768).

11. . Voltaire is paraphrasing Charles Rollin's Traité des études (1726). The Traité distinguishes the genres in three paragraphs: ‘Des trois différents genres ou caractères'. Voltaire owned the most recent edition of De la manière d’enseigner et d’étudier les belles lettres (Paris 1748-1755; BV, no. 3007). Concerning this work, see the ‘Catalogue des écrivains’ in the Siècle de Louis XIV , Le Temple du Goût , and the article ‘Langues’ in the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie .

12. . D'Alembert claimed (in the article ‘Elocution' of the Encyclopédie , V.520-26), that it was enough to appeal to the emotions of Roman judges, but that one had to convince French judges. ‘Cicero would have lost in the high court most of the cases he had won’, he said, ‘because his clients were guilty’(p. 526).

13. . Is this anecdote a memory of Voltaire's youthful years under Master Alain (i.e., the lawyer the young Arouet studied law under)? Among similar examples from this period, we must cite ‘my client is a shoemaker', attested in the chapter ‘Lawyers"of the Historiettes of Tallement des Réaux, and Jean Racine’s Les Plaideurs , III.iii.

14. . Voltaire was probably made aware of these speeches in the collection published by John Torbuck, A collection of parliamentary debates in England, from the year MDCLXVIII to the present time (Dublin, London, 1739-1741; BV, no. 3318); see also the Siècle de Louis XIV , chapter 8.

15. . In the Gorgias , 501d-502d.

16. . Cf., e.g., the Siècle de Louis XIV , ‘Catalogue des écrivains', and chapter 12; and D9754.

17. . See the Siècle de Louis XIV , chapter 34; D9754; the Notebooks (Voltaire 82, p. 680). On G. Burnet, see the Histoire de la réformation de l'Eglise d'Angleterre , II (Geneva 1693; BV, no. 592). See also Fénelon, Dialogues sur l’éloquence , II, and La Bruyère, Caractères , ‘De la chaire’.

18. . This is a rather free transcription when we compare it to the ‘Sermon pour le lundi de la troisième semaine de carême. Sur le petit nombre des élus' (Sermon for the Monday of the third week of Lent. On the small number of the elect), Sermons de M. Massillon, évêque de Clermont (Paris 1759), Carême , II.302-304 (BV, no. 2347), which perhaps explains his remark at the end of the paragraph. On Massillon, see the Défense de Louis XIV , D9754 and D15735. The anecdote on the collective emotion was perhaps orally transmitted.

19. . Voltaire is citing vol. III, p. 843 of the Histoire de France depuis Faramond of Mézeray (Paris 1685), but with some inexactitude. It is true that Voltaire's ‘corrections' improve the text and make it more eloquent. More than once he himself made use of this kind of eloquence in historical matters. One thinks of Biron’s speech to Henri IV ( La Henriade , III), the Histoire de Charles XII and even La Pucelle d’Orléans . Voltaire used two editions of F. E. de Mézeray, Abrégé chronologique de l’histoire de France (Amsterdam 1673-1674, 1701; BV no. 2443, 2444).

20. . Some fifteen years separate the publication of this article in the Encyclopédie and its revised version in the Questions sur l'Encyclopédie . There are two important variants in the articles: an addition and a subtraction. In the first case, Voltaire tries to lend to a quotation a universality which proves the truth of the article. The removal of a passage allows Voltaire to shorten an article that is already quite long, and to remain silent on an exception to the general rule which he has just evoked. This exception, furthermore, has a double flaw: it takes up more pages than the rule itself, and the example chosen is completely French, thus working against the universality of the subject. The result is that in the Questions sur l'Encyclopédie this article, more universal in its application, is better equipped to attain its goal with the reader.