What ever happened to Rhetoric? Cicero revisited

Thomas DeGirolami

‘Rhetoric’ is a dirty word today. Media outlets, pundits, and even scholars often use it to describe meaningless bluster. For example, former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe recently referred to President Joseph Biden’s comments about China as “empty rhetoric”. But rhetoric also means something darker in the modern world. President Donald Trump was criticized for irresponsible and “inflammatory rhetoric” on several occasions, suggesting that rhetoric functions in irrational or even malignant ways. We are sometimes told “to separate the rhetoric from the reality”, as if there is a difference between the fake or surface-level manner of our speech and its real, deeper, or hidden substance.

Our views about rhetoric are connected to a larger sense of futility about political speech, whether of our leaders or our own. We think of speech in public as an instrument to ‘own’, to ‘flex’, and to ‘gaslight’ our adversaries (especially on social media), not as a method of human exchange that helps us to live well together. We are suspicious of the persuasive use of words for political ends. Rhetoric is a term of abuse: at best it is something insubstantial, and at worst it is self-serving, partisan, and even sinister.

Empty podium versus empty rhetoric.

This modern understanding of rhetoric is in fact only a fragment of one side of a multifaceted and complex debate existing since antiquity. Like us, the Ancient Greeks were divided on the uses of speech in society. The Sophists believed that rhetoric was a crucial skill to enhance one’s political career and advance the strongest political programs. With training, the Sophists believed, anybody could become an effective speaker and use the persuasive power of words for political control. For Plato (428/7–348/7 BC), by contrast, rhetoric was a kind of empty flattery, and Sophistic rhetorical training was harmful in making verbal craftiness, rather than true wisdom, the focus of politics. Plato’s Gorgias (c. 380 BC), in particular, is well known for its attack on rhetoric and its clean division between the skill of persuasion and the pursuit of justice.[1] In this debate, we seem today to have taken Plato’s side on the issue of rhetoric without also adopting his views about justice.

But there was a third and very different perspective on rhetoric in the ancient world that has not survived. It was exemplified in the thought of Cicero (106–43 BC) and expressed in his mature philosophical reflections on rhetoric, especially his De Oratore and Brutus. Recognizing that rhetoric without more can be dangerous, Cicero’s solution was to place rhetoric within a larger framework of public activity, practical training, and moral wisdom. That was oratory. For Cicero, being a ‘good speaker’ was not enough to be a good speaker. His position in this ancient debate can provide a fresh perspective for us in understanding how the wise and eloquent use of words can contribute to the public good.

A woodcut allegory of Rhetoric from Gregor Reisch’s Margarita Philosophica (“Pearl of Philosophy”, 4th ed., Basel, 1517). Cicero, depicted near the bottom left, is described as “Tullius eloque(n)ci(a)e pat(er)” (“Tully, Father of eloquence”).

In a memorable passage from De Oratore (written 55 BC), Cicero describes the separation of philosophy and oratory in the metaphor of a bifurcated river flowing down a mountain.[2] Moral philosophy and oratory originated from a common source at the mountain’s peak, what he calls “wisdom” (sapientia), but then split into separate streams. Oratory descended far lower than philosophy, but both fields suffered from their mutual division.[3] Cicero’s project was to reunify them: oratory would benefit, but it would also teach philosophy something about practical moral action in the world.

Cicero argued that if orators were truly to act for the benefit of larger society, they must first come to know what is truly morally correct. One cannot act well, or indeed speak well, without knowing what it is to be good. Cicero’s own moral understanding was heavily influenced by Platonic eudaimonism – the belief that well-being is the most crucial human objective, which can be reached by the exercise of the virtues. What Cicero added was a greater emphasis on the communal or social aspect of Plato’s philosophy. In his Catilinarian orations (63 BC), he criticizes himself for past failures to be worthy of the common eudaimonia as a public rhetorician, saying: “I hope, senators, that I seem merciful; I hope that I do not seem neglectful to the great dangers of the Republic, but I now condemn myself for laziness and ineptitude” (In Cat. 1.4).

Aristotle (c. 384–322 BC) had a profound influence on Cicero’s views of oratory as well, but, again, Cicero adapted what he learned in order to create something new. Aristotle had divided the art of speaking – pistis (πίστις, “persuasion”) – into ethos (ἦθος, “character”), pathos (πάθος, “emotion”), and logos (λόγος, “pure reason”). Pathos might take the form of an appeal to fear, and logos might today look like a claim supported by uncontested statistical evidence. Ethos is more complicated: for Aristotle, it referred to the ability of the audience to make rational moral judgements about the speaker’s character, something between pathos and logos. Cicero further blurred the line between emotional appeal and rational judgement, contending that the orator should engage the emotions of the audience, and especially the shared cultural background of speaker and listener, in persuading others to adopt the proper moral course. This common deposit of mens, mos, disciplina (“spirit, custom, and general education”) provided genuine points of connection between orator and audience that allowed the latter to make informed judgments and ensured that oratory avoided the descent into mere flattery.

Cicero’s statue outside the Palace of Justice, Rome, Italy.

Although Cicero was influenced by Greek views about rhetoric, he was also critical of them. He believed that Plato and the Sophists made the mistake first of separating morality and rhetoric, and then of sometimes focusing too much on private life and virtue. Socrates consistently disparages public speech, while the Sophists regard it as instrumentally valuable for achieving power of various kinds, but both deemphasize rhetoric’s important role in the advancement of the common good of the polity. Cicero the statesman meant to correct this in the oratory of the Roman Republic, combining components of technical, philosophical, and practical knowledge. Cicero’s ideal orators would blend old and new as practical moral philosophers – learned speakers promoting eudaimonia in Roman public life.

How would they do this? Cicero emphasizes three principal ways, in each of which orators served as a bridge between the social classes, thereby promoting Republican rule. First, orators were the Roman Republic’s legal interpreters and lawyers. The historian Livy later observed that imperia legum potentiora quam hominum – “the dominions of laws are more powerful than those of men” (Ab Vrbe condita 2.1.1)[4] – and Cicero meant for orators to hold a kind of dominion over Roman law. Because much of Roman law was unwritten and rooted in ancient custom, orators were the bearers of public memory, reminding the people of their own traditions while performing the necessary role of updating legal policy.

Second, orators were to perform a kind of public reasoning function, creating a channel of communication between the Optimates and the Populares (Rome’s aristocratic and populist factions), translating laws and policies into a language that the people – who were in theory the ultimate holders of power in Republican Rome – could understand and evaluate. In the anonymous work on rhetoric (written perhaps in the 80s BC, when Cicero was active), Rhetorica ad Herennium, the author writes: Oratoris officium est de iis rebus posse dicere quae res ad usum civilem moribus et legibus constitutae sunt – “It is the duty of the orator to be able to discuss those matters which are set by customs and laws for the communal welfare” (Rhet. 1.2). Cicero says much the same thing. Orators made Republican rule more transparent and open than it otherwise would have been, enabling the public to make at least some of its own judgments about the exercise of political power.

Third, Cicero contended that orators should be teachers of the next generation of public speakers, and, to do this more effectively, he instituted the regular practice of writing his speeches down. In the Brutus (46 BC), Cicero traces the history of the written speech and chides fellow orators for failing to see the educational advantages of reaching a potentially limitless audience, in the future as well as the present, through writing. It was through this systematic transmission of knowledge inter-generationally that Cicero believed orators could learn from their errors and better serve the people.

The opening of Cicero’s De Oratore in a fifteenth-century manuscript (Florence Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. 50.46, 3r).

It is tempting today to dismiss Cicero’s somewhat optimistic views about what his reimagined theory of oratory could really do for Republican rule. After all, his oratorical ideal did not save the Republic then, and perhaps would be even less effective today to restore confidence in public and political speaking. Moreover, Cicero himself failed to live up to his own principles on several occasions. He could be vain, self-involved, and even cowardly.

Yet the power of his ideal remains. In a society that is as fragmented politically as ours is today, it can be hard to find anything to say to people with different views from our own. That can breed cynicism about our capacity even to speak with one another at all, let alone to find ways to listen to and persuade each other. We construct bubbles in which we hear ever cruder versions of our own views parroted back at us. But we do not think about how to use the power of words to create a common political project. Cicero’s oratorical ideal, which unified the streams of philosophy and rhetoric, offers a serious and attractive (even if difficult and flawed) model for what public speech can do to bridge the increasing distance among people who see the political world very differently.

Thomas DeGirolami is a high school senior at the Hackley School in Tarrytown, New York, where he studies Latin and Ancient Greek. He is particularly interested in Classical political thought. He is grateful to his teacher, Mr Chris Sheppard, for helping to develop the ideas in this piece.

Further Reading

Jed W. Atkins, Roman Political Thought (Cambridge UP, 2018).

George A. Kennedy, The Art of Rhetoric in the Roman World (Princeton UP, 1972).

Elaine Fantham, The Roman World of Cicero’s De Oratore, (Oxford UP, 2004).


1 The text can be read, in Greek and English, here.
2 The three books of this treatise can be read in Latin here, and in English here.
3 De Or. 3.69.
4 The passage can be read in Latin and English here.