Cicero Essay - Critical Essays


For many readers, the most interesting of Cicero’s works are his letters to Titus Atticus, the Roman philosopher and patron of literature, who was perhaps his closest friend; to his brother Quintus; or to Marcus Junius Brutus, the principal assassin of Caesar. For others, his philosophical works have a special interest, since they expound a fundamentally Stoic position and address such topics as friendship, old age, duty, the good, the nature of the gods, and the goals of life and politics. Yet for those interested in rhetoric and oratory, his three treatises—On Oratory, Brutus, and The Orator—constitute a major investigation and analysis of those subjects. These three works have justified placing Cicero in the company of Aristotle and Quintilian as the three great classical writers on the subject of public speaking. In many ways, Cicero’s On Oratory is the most important of his three books: It gives full consideration to all the aspects of the subject, and it lacks the self-justification of the more epistolatory Brutus. On Oratory is the theoretical study, Brutus is the exemplification, and The Orator is a consideration of the ideal, as one critic has phrased it. On Oratory is written in three books and is offered as a reconsideration of earlier thoughts and writings on public speaking; it was intended as edification for his brother Quintus, who had inquired about the functions of the orator. In addition, it defends Cicero’s view that the good speaker is a well-educated person.

For centuries, the very term “Ciceronian” suggested everything that was elevated and admirable in the art of rhetoric, whether written or spoken. Cicero was the consummate stylist, the model advocate. His strengths in the use and manipulation of language were admitted by all, and his weaknesses or defects were few or trifling. Whether speaking for the prosecution or for the defense, his advocacy was considered exemplary. Hugh Blair, an eminent eighteenth century critic who was professor of rhetoric and belles lettres at the University of Edinburgh, offered his appraisal of Cicero in one of his Lectures on Rhetoric (1783): “He is always full and flowing, never abrupt. He is a great amplifier of every subject; magnificent, and in his sentiments highly moral. His manner is on the whole diffuse, yet it is often happily varied, and suited to the subject.” Blair thought that some of Cicero’s great achievements were his ability to gain the attention of his audiences and to influence them, his ability to arrange his arguments with the greatest force and propriety, and his reluctance to bring the emotional proofs into force before he had prepared the way with logical conviction. Blair concluded that “no man knew the power and force of words better than Cicero.” Yet even Blair discerned certain weaknesses in Cicero, and he proposed that they amounted to a predilection for show (for “eloquence” in the old terminology), which had the effect of leaving on the minds of both readers and hearers “the impression of a good man, but withal, of a vain man.”

Over the years, concepts of appropriate style have changed somewhat, and today “Ciceronian” implies the use of long and elaborate sentences—usually of the periodic form—that end with great force and climax. The term also suggests parenthetical elements, doubled elements, appositives, such tropes as triads, and periphrasis. Yet in his many great speeches he knew how and when to use the demotic, the conversational, and the formal styles to serve the purpose of the occasion. Their amalgam in his magnificent speeches on Milo and Catiline, for...

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