James May: What would Cicero think of oratorical style in election 2016?

Election 2016

by James May

For me, it’s always a good thing to see references to Rome’s greatest orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero, in the contemporary press. Indeed, those of us living in the twenty-first century stand to learn much from him and other great thinkers and writers of antiquity. In that regard, I thank Ms. Zauzmer for drawing a comparison between some of Donald Trump’s rhetorical techniques and those that Cicero recommends in his theoretical works on rhetoric and oratory in her recent article in the Washington Post entitled, Donald Trump, the Cicero of 2016.

To be sure, Trump, like most people who attempt to persuade others, resorts to the use of many standard, rhetorical devices—such as praeterition, rhetorical question, and others mentioned by Zauzmer—devices that were the staple of not only Cicero’s technical writings on rhetoric, but those written by the Greeks centuries earlier, which inspired and influenced him. In fact, as I pointed out a few weeks ago in a piece entitled How Donald Trump Wins Arguments, Trump seems to be following Ciceronian advice by grounding most of his attempts at persuasion in arguments based on the presentation of character, what the Greeks and Romans called ethos, (his own, but mostly the denigration of his opponent’s character), and on stirring the emotions of his audience (i.e., pathos). But, having spent a half-century reading and studying the works of Cicero, I must paraphrase an erstwhile vice-presidential candidate when I declare, I knew Cicero, and Donald Trump is no Cicero.

From boyhood on, Cicero’s entire life and education were spent in preparation for the Roman forum, i.e., the political arena of ancient Rome. As a youth, he studied not only rhetoric and oratory, but also poetry, literature, history, law, and philosophy. He wrote extensively in several of these genres. And while it is true that he broke into Roman politics as an outsider (what the Romans called a novus homo), his political aims, what we might call his “platform,” was to preserve the tried and true customs of Rome, what the Romans called the mos maiorum, or the tradition of the ancestors; rather than breaking the system, he wanted to restore and uphold it.

In oratorical terms, Cicero would gasp to have one of his polished orations compared to a speech by Trump (or for that matter, a speech by Ms. Clinton). The care, polish, and near perfection of a Ciceronian oration is a beauty to behold, and sadly few public utterances today can come close to its eloquence. And it is not only in terms of “courtesy,” as Ms. Zauzmer certainly tongue-in-cheek indicates in her conclusion, that Trump and Cicero differ. Consider what Cicero has to say about one of the virtues of oratorical style, appropriateness:

The foundation of eloquence, just as of everything else, is wisdom. In a speech, just as in life, nothing is more difficult than to discern what is appropriate…The speaker must pay attention to appropriateness not only in his thoughts but also even in his words…Although a word has no force apart from the thing, the same thing is still often either approved or rejected depending on its being expressed by one word or another. And in all cases, the question must be, ‘How far?’ For, although each subject has its own limits of appropriateness, too much is generally more offensive than too little.

That said, Cicero’s use of negative character description to describe his opponent can cross the line as inappropriately as do some of the utterances of today’s politicians about their opponents. Consider what he says about his enemy, Mark Antony, in his Second Philippic:

But let us pass over his acts that are of a more hardy sort of wickedness; rather let’s talk about his most profligate brand of worthlessness. You, with those jaws of yours, those sides of yours, and with that overall bodily strength similar to a gladiator’s, guzzled so much wine at Hippia’s wedding that you were forced to vomit the next day in the sight of the Roman people. Oh, a disgusting thing not merely to see, but even hear about! If this had happened to you at dinner in one of your drinking binges, who would have not thought it scandalous? But in an assembly of the Roman people, while carrying on public business, a master of the horse, for whom it would have been disgraceful even to belch, vomited up chunks of what he had been eating that stunk of wine, filling his own lap and the whole tribunal.

“Crooked Hillary” seems rather tame in comparison. Perhaps Donald Trump did learn a few tricks from Cicero!?

CiceroJames M. May is professor of classics, the Kenneth O. Bjork Distinguished Professor, and former provost and dean at St. Olaf College. An award-winning teacher, he is a widely recognized expert on Cicero and classical rhetoric and has written and edited many books on these topics. He is the translator of How to Win an Argument: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Persuasion by Marcus Tullius Cicero.

This post is part of a series, explore additional posts here<< Michael Chwe: Can democracy be saved by those who have been historically excluded?