On the Ideal Orator and the way I straddle the void

Posted: July 21, 2009 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

Primarily, I am here today to write about Cicero, about the first 100 pages of De Oratore. But thinking about Cicero makes me think about my own past. About the void, the separation, between rhetoric and philosophy. Now, I do rhetoric. In college and my first Master’s degree, I did philosophy. So I straddle the void.

Cicero wanted to bring this gap closed; it’s one of the reasons I like him. He wrote passages like “those who were styled rhetoricians and taught rules of speaking had no clear understanding of anything, and that no one could acquire skill in speaking unless he had first learned about the ideas of philosophy” (84). So the best orators are also philosophers. This means the best rhetoricians are philosophers (since oratory and rhetoric in ancient texts seems almost interchangeable).

But there is a difference between writing and speaking, as Cicero reminds me. They are connected, but not the same thing. Cicero says that “What is most fundamental, however, is [. . .] writing as much as possible. It is the pen, the pen, that is the best and most eminent teacher and creator of speaking” (150). Cicero believes that “whoever comes to oratory after much practice in writing brings this ability along: even when he is improvising, what he says will still turn out to resemble a written text” (152). I can certainly agree with this. Writing helps speaking, speaking helps writing, and reading helps everything.

The importance of reading is pretty clear in Cicero. He says that “we must read poetry, acquire a knowledge of history, and select teachers and writers of all the noble arts, read them attentively, and, for the sake of practice, praise, expound, correct, criticize, and refute them. We must argue every question on both sides, and on every topic we must elicit as well as express every plausible argument” (158, my emphasis). Has there been no other point in this book, this is where Cicero would win me over.  By saying that every good orator (and hence every good rhetorician) needs to be able to argue both sides is a critical point to me. When I teach argument, it’s the main point I try to get across. When I was in philosophy, it was how I made the strongest arguments.

Skipping out on the other side is not a strategy to strengthen your own argument. By ignoring the opposition, you leave them open to offer even their weakest argument as something that you did not (and hence could not) refute. But by suggesting the opponent’s arguments, by making “the case you are pleading, whatever it is, [. . .] seem stronger, [. . .] your speech will have the most power to persuade” (44), and by presenting the other case with more persuasive power, and then refuting it, you garner yourself even greater persuasive power.

It’s like the way Cicero suggests a speaker work. First, he says, you must win over the audience. Then you present the case, then the point of contention. You make your claims, refute your opponent’s, and finally make your side look the best and their side the worse (143). The first part is purely a matter of delivery. If you deliver well, you will make people like you. Then you can start actually arguing.

And how do we make people like us? Cicero says that “it is essential to possess a certin esprit and humor, the culture that befits a gentleman, and an ability to be quick and concise in rebuttal as well as attack, combined with refinement, grace, and urbanity” and we must pay attention to “the movement of the body, by gesture, by facial expression, and by inflecting and varying the voice” (17-18).

Cicero is talking about the ideal orator, who has read everything of relevance (18), and who is possessd of a great natural talent (113). In fact, “a certain quickness of the mind and intellect is required, which displays itself in the keenness of its thoughts, in the richness with which it unfolds and elaborates them, and in the strength and retentiveness of its memory” (113-114). So a quick wit, a strong memory, and a keen mind. All required for the ideal orator.

But that’s not all. The ideal orator has to be “a little less than shameless” (119), and “we have to demand the acumen of a dialectician, the thoughts of the philosopher, the words, I’d almost say, of a poet, the memory of a jurisconsult, the voice of a tragic performer, and gestures close to those of a consummate actor” (128). It’s a hefty list of requirements.

Of course, Cicero says that there is no such thing as the perfect (ideal) orator. We must instead satisfy ourselves with finding those closest to the ideal in as many ways as possible. But I would like to point out that here, again, we see the combination of rhetoric and philosophy. Cicero wants to bring them together, and I can’t say I blame him.

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Comments
  1. asegbeloyin babajide says:

    this is laudable,with an aggravating need to probe more into the path to acquire the power of oratory.Using one of the early fathers of oratory, helps create a great width of synopsis

  2. Olivia says:

    I am a twelve year old orator who has just begun orating in tournaments and other competitions and I have been loving every minute of it. This article was inspiring and left me with a great sense of determination. I hope to employ some of the useful ideas in my next tournament. All I have to say is “thank you” for putting this great man’s words into a form that is easy to understand and applicable to every speech I make. Oratory is a lot of work, yet very rewarding and I am looking forward to winning some trophies soon! Thanks for your help!

  3. cogitas says:

    Well, I’m glad I could help. Good luck with your tournaments.

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