Cicero and the Art of Rhetoric

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BCE) has, historically, been among the most influential people from the ancient world. This is due, in large part, to the wide variety of his interests and the fact that an enormous amount of his writings that have survived. Indeed, more writings survive from Cicero than from any other single person from the Ancient Rome. Cicero was a statesman, orator, and philosopher. A self-made man from a modest background who rose to the highest offices in the Roman Republic in the age of ambitious men like Julius Caesar, Sulla, and Pompey. His outlook on the practical utility of the liberal arts, grounded in his own experience, served as a foundation for the development of the humanities over the centuries. The term ‘humanities’ derives from the Latin ‘humanitas’ (‘human nature,’ civilization, ‘kindness’), a term used and popularized by Cicero. Cicero was perhaps the greatest orator who ever lived and the greatest humanist before Petrarch.

“The beginnings of all things are small.” -Cicero

A self-made man from a rather modest background, Cicero relied heavily on skill development to advance his career. He read widely, becoming familiar with both Roman and Greek authors. Cicero mastered what would eventually become known as the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric). He understood and appreciated logical reasoning skills but was, ultimately a realist. He understood that people are not convinced by rational argument but are driven primarily by emotion. His outlook on rhetoric, delineated in his writings, was based in winning arguments by appealing to the emotions of his audience. As a lawyer, he spoke in public (trials were a popular form of entertainment in ancient Rome) on numerous occasions. He made a name for himself as a talented orator defending Sextus Roscius and lambasting Verres (Pro Roscio Amerino (80 BCE) and In Verrem (70 BCE)), two notable early cases in which Cicero was a central figure. Cicero appealed to emotions through use of visual props, prominent hand gestures to go along with his speeches (a necessity for speakers to hold the attention of large crowds for long periods of time), mudslinging, and fearmongering. It should be noted, however, that his emphasis on appealing to emotion was not to service a general mob mentality. Cicero was a well-read man, influenced by the philosophy of Stoicism. He was no demagogue. He just understood rhetoric from a perspective based in human nature rather than abstract principles. Cicero was interested in using oratory effectively but also in servicing a greater good. He, in fact, died defending the Roman Republic against people like Mark Antony in the aftermath of Julius Caesar’s assassination.

Cicero grappled with the complexities of oratory in writings throughout his life. He recognized that a terribly-written speech delivered well would be far more successful than a well-written speech not delivered well. However, he also wrote in his treatise De oratore (55 BCE) “I should prefer uneloquent good sense to loquacious folly.” Cicero strove to use reason to strengthen his outlook while recognizing that most people are far more given to emotional responses. Stoicism is a practical philosophy which emphasizes the use of reason to strengthen the individual in the face of obstacles one may encounter throughout one’s life. A true Stoic will focus on improving those areas of his life over which he has control while striving not to worry about those elements which are out of his control. This is not the perspective most people have. Disciplined minds, such as those of people like Cicero, struggle with this. Cicero’s political outlook, a conservative one based in personal responsibility and a mixed constitution, dovetails quite nicely with his complex understanding of oratory. The ultimate value of oratory is as a tool for the sovereign individual to strengthen society, focusing on the greater good (justice) while necessarily having to appeal to baser desires (appeals to emotion) in order to get there.

“Injustice often arises also through chicanery, that is, through an over-subtle and even fraudulent construction of the law. This it is that gave rise to the now familiar saw, “More law, less justice.” -Cicero, De officiis (44 BCE)