May 25, 2016
Crisis looms in ancient Rome: the uneasy triumvirate between Caesar, Pompey and Crassus rests on thin bonds that seem inevitable to break. The Senate supports Pompey, but Caesar has successfully (and illegally) conquered Gaul, winning wide-spread military support. Everything seems primed for disaster. In fact, in less than a decade, the Great Civil War, the death gasp of the Republic, will spread across the whole breadth of the empire, changing forever the political and social life of Romans. This, of course, is the best time to write a treatise on rhetoric.
Or it is if you happen to be Cicero. Cicero, a political player as well as rhetorician, saw in the dis-ease of Rome a need for leaders who could be well-informed about the issues, but also know how to effectively persuade those around them to order and peace. The risks are high and the need is pressing, both for the empire in general and for Cicero in general—he’s been exiled, his home has been destroyed by political thugs and his life is in danger for criticizing high-ranking leaders, including Ceasar. But he also knows that this isn’t the first time that the Roman world has been rocked by political instability and needed strong leaders versed in rhetoric. So when he sits down to write his rhetorical treatise, he sets it not in the current period (far, far too risky!) but back fifty years ago, just before another civil war would destroy the peace of the Roman Republic.
The dialogue is written almost dramatically as three historical figures gather together in the peace of a patrician home “during the days of the Roman Games”: Lucius Crasses, Marcus Antonius, and Scaevola. They are joined by the young men Sullpicius and Gaius Cotta. Cotta suggests that in this peace “Crassus, why do we not imitate Socrates as he appears in the Phaedrus of Plate? For your plane tree has suggested this comparison to my mind, casting as it does, with its spreading branches, as deep a shade over this pot, as that one cast whose shelter Socrates sought “ (I. vii.28). You might remember from our Pheadrus podcast that Socrates normally engages in dialogues in the city, in the market or gymnasium or private people’s houses, but in the Phaedrus, Socrates gets a little topsy-turvey by going out in nature, giving long speeches instead of dialectic and—most shockingly of all—defending rhetoric. Well, looks like Crassus and Antoius are going to be similarly inspired by the setting to break with tradition—these are powerful Roman men who take action in politics and war and the business of running an empire. They are manly men, not like the Greek philosophers—the unmanly ninny GReekling-- who unambitiously ponder the meaning of things like philosophy and rhetoric instead of taking over the known world. In fact, Crassus seems to even have to describe rhetoric in terms of what it can do in terms of political power. And he starts by telling the most important creation story of the history of rhetoric.
This story, as the legand goes and Crassus relates, starts with “brute creation” and the point that while human beings are slower, and weaker and less deadly than other animals they do have one advantage—they can discourse. So the orator created “our present condition of civilization as men and as citizens, or after the establishment of social communities, to give shape to laws, tribuals and civic rights?” (I.viii.33). Even today, Crassus says, the orator upholds his own dignity and the safety of “countless individuals and of the entire state.” Scaevola the cynical points out that orators also have caused great disaster to the state.
So the discussion quickly turns to how to educate the orator to be the best kind of person, morally and intellectually, to lead the state towards greatness. Crassus (Cicero stand-in) and Antonio (C’s brother’s stand-in) debate requirements for the good rhetor—is it art or natural ability? It’s less of a clear-cut debate than you’d think, and Antonius sort of switches positions between the first and second book. Generally, both of the agree that “Good speakers bring, as their peculiar possession, a stule that is harmonious, graceful, and marked by a certain artistry and polish. Yet this style, if the underlying subject matter be not comprehended and mastered by the speaker, must inevilably be of no account or even become the sport of universal derision” (I.xi.50). That sport, incidentally, being the fruitless apolitical sophistry of the Greeklings that these political Romans despise.That’s what Crassus calls “Greeklings who are fonder of argument than of truth” But if there’s good content to oratory, then that’s worth while—that’s something that can actually DO something.
But this education, to know everything you speak on, is hard to come by. Should orators be generalists or specialists? All of this takes a lot of “zeal and industry and study” (475), to be “he who on any matter whatever can speak with fullness and variety” (I. xiii.59) because “it is nearer the truth to say that neither can anyone be eloquent upon a subject that is unknowen to him. “ That means lots and lots of study—of Roman laws, above all else, but also on physiology, trade, astronomy grammar, all of it. Antonius, again the fly in the ointment, points out that it would be impossible to develop the kind of breadth that Crassus describes: “I cannont deny that he would be a remarkable kind of man and worth of admiration; but if such a one there should be or indeed ever has been or really ever could be, assuredly you would be that one man.” (I.vxi.) Wow. Ancient Romans had really mastered the art of the compli-insult. Okay, so what is rhetoric, then? Is it a specialized skill that only a few experts master or is it something added on to these other skills? Besides, Antonius observes “not a single writer on rhetoric has been even moderately eloquent” (I.xx.91). that’s a good burn, too, and one that you still here in rhetoric: we study this stuff all the time, so why aren’t we giving the speeches that inspire the world? How can we be so dull when we’re supposed to be experts in this stuff?
Crassus points out that he’s talking about an ideal and that ideal is hard to achieve, maybe even impossibly, but it is important to have the idea “picture to ourselves in our discourse an orator from whom every blemish has been taken away and one who moreover is rich in every merit”—what would that look like? First there would be some physical characteristics—the orator who can’t speak, and speak loudly and clearly, won’t got far. And there whould be a “natural state of looks, expression and voice” for oratory (I.xxvvii.126) and good memory.There should be natural talent, but also passion and willingness to work to improve. This passion for betterment is critical, Crassus muses “What else do you suppose young Cotta, but enthusiasm and something like the passion of love? Without which no man will ever attain anything in life that is out of the common” (I. xxix.134). And even if someone doesn’t have all of these natural abilities, their training can help them to do a little better. “those on whome these gifts have been bestowed by nature in smaller measure, can none the less acquire the power to use what they have with propriety and discernment and so as to show now lack of taste.” (I.xxvii.132). Even if you aren’t the ideal orator, you can get much better with practice.
The next day, the group is joined by Quintus Catulus and Gaius Julius Ceasar. Catulus for his part, argues that Oratorys “derives from ability, but owes little to art” in other words, it’s just a knack after all. This time Antonius fights back, kind of reversing his previous position. Antonius points out that “there are some very clever rules” that can make an audience friendly to a speaker and establish goodwill. But soon the whole conversation focuses back on the importance of being widely educated, especially in law and civil right.
So what are the takeaways from The Orator? Over all it’s a long description of the importance of eloquence.
“Eloquence is dependent upon the trained skill of highly educated men” (7) and “no one should be numbered with the orators who is not accomplished in all those arts” of the well-educated (53), because “excellence in speaking cannot be made manifest unless the speaker fully comprehends the matter” (37). Good will and delivery also emphasized. To educate, imitation comes first (265), then gradually more serious argumentation, although there are rhetorical geniuses. Performance should have genuine emotion behind it (335). There are a variety of acceptable styles (II. 23). (which we’ll talk about in a later episode) and different parts to speech and preparing a speak—and I know it sounds like we’re deferring, but we’ll talk about those in the future too. We have an entire episode prepared for talk about these parts of preparing a speech. Generally, thought, this treatise argues that over all Eloquence “is one of the supreme virtues” (II.43)
But the fact that this treatise talks so seriously about rhetoric and its philosophy is in some way worth remarking on in itself. There’s some jingoistic feelings that manly Roman empire-building is much cooler than sissy Greekling philosophizing going around the culture and De Oratore is no exception that. I always think it’s funny how the speakers in this dialogue go out of their way to insist that they aren’t really sitting around philosophizing, and if they are, it’s only because it’s a state vacation and they kind of have to. The comparison with Plato’s Phaedrus are apt: here are Roman politicians who are acting out of character because of the circumstances and talking like philosophers. But while Cicero has his characters insist that the via activa is paramount, the circumstances suggest otherwise. These politicians are all doomed—the crisis in the Republic is about to reach full swing and soon many of the participants will be dead or exiled. Their political influence will be only fleeting, but Cicero’s dialogue invoking them keeps them relevant. The same could be said for Cicero himself in his own time: a brilliant politician, he was unable to stem the tide of violence as the republic descended into autocracy. Cicero was eventually exiled and then murdered.
He wasn’t just murdered but he was also posthumously beheaded, his hands chopped off and his tongue repeated stabbed with a hairpin. Sort of an ignomous end to a great politician. But Cicero the rhetorician seemingly had no end—the impact of his treatises, including de Oratore, dominated medieval and renaissance rhetoric. So for all of the insistence that sitting around theorize isn’t as important as the work of government, it turns out that theory has the longest-lasting influence. Situating de Oretore in the real violence of the Roman republic demonstrates not only the sometimes futile work of rhetoric, but also how high the stakes are in developing rhetors who are well-educated, balanced, virtuous and eloquent.