Wednesday, 28 May 2014

The Orator and the Mechanic: Images of Rhetorical Practice in De Oratore

What do you need to know to change the world?

I am not the only one who has asked that question; it has been the central quandary for many philosophers, politicians, reformers, and preachers for most of the recorded history of thought. As Richard Weaver writes, we are all "born into history, with an endowment of passion and a sense of the ought. There is ever some discrepancy . . . between the situation man is in and the situation he would like to realize. His life is therefore characterized by movement towards goals." We want to make the world better, and make life richer, fuller, and more worth living. How do we do that?

Well, one central element is that we cannot do it alone; we need help from others. In order to help, they have to be persuaded through words that the endeavor is worth it. That is why Weaver goes on to claim, "It is largely the power of rhetoric which influences and governs that movement" towards goals. So what do you need to know to get others to enlist in such a cause? Is it enough to know which buttons to press, how do make people feel certain emotions or get certain desires? Will marketing and style do? What about the larger ideas about human nature and what builds and moves societies, what some people may call philosophy, what about them?

Marcus Tullius Cicero plays out this dispute elegantly in his dialogue between Crassus and Antonius in De Oratore. At the outset of De Oratore, Cicero references an important disagreement with his brother Quintus on the nature of eloquence: Cicero espouses that "eloquence is dependent upon the trained skill of highly educated men" whereas Quintus says "it must be separated from the refinements of learning and made to depend on a sort of natural talent and . . . practice" (290). These competing views (high education vs. practice) are then fully played out in the ensuing dialogue between Crassus and Antonius, yet they are not as far apart as they seem. The central argument is based on different perspectives of a similar idea: Crassus is normative and describes a "lofty ideal" of the Orator (320), whereas Antonius is descriptive and performs the Socratic work of defining and delimiting the strict boundaries of oratory (311). As such, it is logical that their definitions of the issue will be conflicting, with Crassus pursuing the greatest eloquence and Antonius cutting the craft of the orator to its barest minimum. What we see playing out in the dialogue is an artful display of an argument on the stasis of definition, where Cicero is able to instruct us about the nature of eloquence and oratory, and their roles in society from both idealistic and descriptive perspectives.

One of the main disagreements is about what and how much the orator needs to study in order to become an orator. Antonius limits the sphere of an orator to the law courts and public debates (311), and claims that although the orator may "taste" much which belongs to other fields of knowledge, he does not need to acquire it as his own (312). Philosophy in general is especially useless, since such ideas and precepts espoused by the likes of Plato are too far removed from reality to be of any utility (320). The one possible exception here is Aristotle, whose theory may be useful to more advanced students of rhetoric (326) but not to novices. What an orator needs is to be attuned to "the thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and hopes of his fellow-citizens and of any men whom on any issue he would fain win over by his word" (313) since the oratory needs to be adapted to the ears of the audience (326).

Crassus, on the other hand, argues that an orator should seek after knowledge widely, since eloquence without it is empty (292) and cannot achieve excellence (294). Especially philosophy which deals with human life and manners must be mastered by the orator (299). Nor is oratory restricted to law courts and public debates. Oratory brings people together, creates and sustains civilization, law, and order, and brings pleasure and safety: "the wise control of the complete orator is that which chiefly upholds . . . the safety of countless individuals and of the entire State" (293-294). It is also the general art to which every specialist must come in order to convince people and gain consensus and support for any cooperative venture (298). As he concludes towards the end: "an orator cannot have sufficient cogency and weight if he lacks the vigor that public speaking demands, and cannot be adequately polished and profound if he lacks width of culture" (339). As for rhetoric, the education of the orator, they both agree that it is not an art in the strict "Greek" sense, but that it still has utility and value (309). The Isocratean tradition is clearly the most useful to rhetorical novices, but Aristotle and some other philosophers may have occasional helpful points to offer (338).

In my opinion both perspectives have value: Antonius' "mechanistic" perspective is helpful in order to settle the boundaries of rhetoric as an academic field, and Crassus' views show the potential reach of oratory which "embraces the origin and operation and developments of all things" (338). Oratory, as Crassus defines it, is the only way leadership can be practiced in a democratic society, and it is often the only way people can change the course of the world.