On Oratory takes the form of a dialogue, though it is fictional: It is merely a vehicle for Cicero to state his theory of public speaking, supported by the views of some other famous orators of his time. These are Licinius Crassus, Marcus Antonius, Sulpicius Rufus, and Caius Aurelius Cotta. Others participate in sections of the book; the most notable of them is Quintus Mucius Scaevola, the elderly lawyer and Stoic.
In book 1, Cicero offers On Oratory as his principal contribution to the discussion of rhetoric (the art of persuasion in all of its forms), indicating that it is to supersede all of his earlier statements on the subject, and that it is prompted by his brother Quintus’s inquiry about the matter. Great orators are rare, says Cicero, not owing to a dearth of men of ability but because of the difficulty of the art itself, in spite of its great rewards, both in compensation and in fame. Cicero calls for a liberal education (a wide general knowledge), mastery—not just fluency—in the language, psychological insight and sophistication, wit (sharpness of intellect), humor, excellent delivery (voice and gesture), and outstanding memory. All of these demands are to be satisfied if the speaker is merely to be competent to meet the usual demands of public life; leadership requires that they be mastered to a high degree, and that the speaker must first have attained a knowledge “of all important subjects and arts.”
“There is, to my mind,” says Crassus, “no more excellent thing than the power, by means of oratory, to get a hold on assemblies of men, win their good will, direct their inclinations wherever the speaker wishes or divert them from whatever he wishes.” In every free society that has enjoyed the fruits of peace and prosperity, the art of rhetoric has always flourished and reigned supreme; it is indeed puzzling that so few men have been given the power to use language to move others. Scaevola objects that Crassus values rhetoric too highly and proposes that its main uses are to be...
(The entire section is 835 words.)