December 23, 2019 | Brian Chappell

De Oratore

Unlike Socrates, Plato, and Caesar, Marcus Tullius Cicero may not be a household name. But what makes him famous, beyond his resistance to Caesar, is his carrying on of a tradition that began centuries before in Athens. In Cicero’s Rome, all the kids wanted to grow up to be crack orators. A public life was the highest ideal. Moreover, Cicero is writing De Oratore during a period of upheaval and political transition. Telling the truth truthfully is really important during moments such as these. And like his Greek predecessors, Cicero knew that telling the truth was a meticulous task.  

De Oratore occupies interesting territory in terms of genre. Like Plato’s dialogues, it is not a treatise. Unlike the dialogues, however, the genre of the personal letter/memoir opens more space for Cicero to discourse on his subject, without abandoning the personal touch. Therefore his definition of a successful orator resonates with more personal urgency:

NAY, in my opinion, no man can deserve the praise of an accomplished orator, without a perfect knowledge of all the arts, and every thing that is great: for it is from this acquaintance with the world that eloquence must receive its flow and its embellishments. Without this, let a subject be ever so well considered and understood by an orator, there will be still somewhat poor, and almost childish in his expression.

Cicero builds on Socrates’ understanding of rhetoric as applicable to all fields of discourse and inquiry. He advances from Socrates’ positions by articulating the stakes for the orator himself: in order to discourse successfully on any topic, you have to really know your topic, with a sensitivity that transcends the superficial. Therefore, in order to have knowledge and sensitivity, you must have a capacious stance toward the world. The accomplished orator is cosmopolitan, open, flexible, and well-studied. He or she must have a true “acquaintance with the world,” the whole world. Otherwise you speak before you really know, and you sound like a child.

Who speaks like a child today? Indeed is it not this Ciceronian definition of childishness that is prized? A century after Cicero, Quintilian would define an accomplished orator as simply a “good [person] speaking well.” A smaller ambition, perhaps, than Plato’s Philosopher King/Queen. But this is where we are. As our educational landscape continues to shrink, and the humanities are simultaneously pushed out and commoditized as mere business acumen, fewer of us, young and old, are asking ourselves (1) what it means to be a good person, and (2) what it means to speak well. No easy answers to those questions, in an era when we only have enough time to be simple.