Recently, I picked up the novel St. Elmo by Augusta Jane Evans. Part of me wonders whether it stands as the first harlequin romance-style novel, since it certainly has the woman-who-tames-savage-man plot. You might call it The Fifty Shades of Grey of the 19th century: this novel was the third bestselling novel of 19th century America behind Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur. However, St. Elmo has a deeper understanding of tragedy and sorrow and is far more elevated than Fifty Shades of Grey.
So elevated, in fact, that most modern Americans can’t enjoy the book. The reviews on Goodreads revealed a common note of frustration with the Ciceronian periods, les belles lettres, and Classical and Medieval allusions. They put down the book rather than subject themselves to being tortured by someone with a Classical education for over 450 pages. That Americans are not given the same education as their ancestors places a barrier to enjoying the works of Western Civilization. And so, fewer and fewer people read Classic novels.
A while back, I had the pleasure of completing Loeb’s edition of Demosthenes’ speeches. One is struck by the utter simplicity of the problems facing Athens. The correct path can often simply be found by letting conscience guide one’s decision. Very few speeches of Demosthenes rely upon persuading Athens to accept the better of two good choices. The moral force of one position usually suffices to deny the other path as a legitimate choice.
And that scenario allows Demosthenes’ speeches to excel. Whenever he perceives the corruption and cowardice of his political enemies, he unleashes beautiful and trenchant rhetoric condemning their position. His greatest opponents happened to be Athenian agents of King Philip or peace-at-any-price orators who attempted to lull Athens into false security concerning Philip’s ambitions. But, Demosthenes always countered them with evidence of Philip’s greed and treachery, claiming that true peace could only be built upon truth and justice. Eventually, Demosthenes did convince Athens to act, but it was too late to prevent the Macedonian conquest of the Greek world. At any rate, one simply must read Demosthenes’ “On the Crown,” his most stunning rhetorical achievement.
I wish that politics were as cut and dried in our own day. On the one hand, sometimes simple problems do come before Congress. On the other hand, politicians themselves introduce complications, are beholden to different special interest groups, and the world itself is much more complex than just fifty years ago. This makes deciding the right course so much more difficult. Yet, I can still wish for a modern Demosthenes to arise so that he can defend the rights of the citizens and denounce injustice.
Patrick Henry was at least a little similar to Demosthenes.