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Cicero, Eloquence, and the Practicality of Rhetoric

Definitions: 

Eloquence – The idea of eloquence is central to Cicero’s discourse on rhetoric, with various theories offered as to the nature of eloquence, whether or not it is possible to teach or copy, or if it is something with which one is born. Modern definitions point toward the concept of eloquence as being powerful, persuasive discourse, a quality certainly of great importance to Cicero’s profession and subsequent text. Within Cicero’s excerpted writings, it is clear the power to which he ascribes eloquence, describing it as having “so potent a force that it embraces the origin and operation and developments of all things, all the virtues and duties, all the natural principles governing the morals and minds and life of mankind, and also determines their customs and laws and rights, and controls the government of the sate, and expresses everything that concerns whatever topic in a graceful and flowing style” (338). This also speaks to Cicero’s belief (or observation) that language has the power to make and decide the course of human actions and history, thus his privileging of oratory as a supremely powerful practice, and eloquence as the prime director of that power.

Stoics– A school of philosophy popular at the time of Cicero that taught that through

Zeno of Citium

wisdom and logic one can transcend destructive or intense emotional states. The Stoics are brought up several times within Cicero’s writings, often as an example of an opposite state from what Cicero proposes, or as an acknowledgement that their philosophy is a popular influence in Roman culture. Though he admires many aspects of Stoic philosophy, he notes that the “eminent Stoic is of no help to us, since he does not teach me how to discover what to say; and he actually hinders me, by finding many difficulties which he pronounces quite insoluble, and by introducing a kind of diction that is not lucid, copious and flowing, but meager, spiritless, cramped, and paltry … [that is]… unsuitable to an orator” (325). The Stoics, with their avoidance of strong, fiery emotional states, is not a suitable philosophic foundation for the eloquence described by Cicero.

Regarding Orators:

“For indisputably it is a noble art, extending far and wide and touching the concerns of many, while it has ever been held in the highest repute, and even now the most illustrious citizens are the leaders in that field” (315).

“Socrates robbed them of this general designation, and in his discussions separated the science of wise thinking from that of elegant speaking, though in reality they are closely linked together” (335).

In “De Orator,” though Cicero praises the wisdom of the Greek philosophers, especially Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, he also criticizes the separation of philosophy and rhetoric, as well as the lowered status of rhetoric within these philosophies of Greece. It is clear that he understands the placement within the hierarchy of knowledge ascribed to rhetoric by the Greeks he admires, and that he differs in opinion on this point, though finds much of their writing useful. He even notes that “what impressed me so deeply about Plato in that book[1] was, that it was when making fun orators that he himself seemed to me to be the consummate orator” (296). Though not stated outright, Cicero insinuates the contradictory position of the Greek philosophers in denigrating rhetoric to a position lower than demonstration or dialectic, yet do so using the very same techniques of rhetoric they decry as a means to present their arguments. In addition, unlike Plato, Cicero does not eschew writing, but rather recommends it as a means of perfecting one’s skill, saying that one should “write as much as possible. The pen is the best and most eminent author and teacher of eloquence” (309).

Cicero, it seems, attempts to appropriate the systemic study of rhetoric and reapply it to his own culture and time in pragmatic ways that “work” within his profession. By erasing or ignoring the ways that Aristotle and Plato looked down upon oratory, Cicero attempts to elevate it to a higher status, working perhaps upon his own experiences of rising to the top of Roman culture because of his oratory prowess, despite not being born into the highest elite class. In addition, it may be a means of justifying this rise and legitimizing his elevated status within Roman society, despite his birth into a lower class. This class difference is apparent in Cicero’s writing, in that he does not uphold the same bias against the practice of rhetoric described by Plato and Aristotle. Cicero actually used rhetoric in his everyday life and is discussing the practice of it, rather than only addressing its abstract study and theory. Whereas Plato and Aristotle could afford to disdain rhetoric and claim to only study it in a theoretical sense, Cicero must actually utilize these devices in order to earn a living, putting him in a much different social and class position from which to examine this field.

These pragmatic leanings are clear in his discussion of the importance of ethos and pathos with an argument; logos, the much-cherished heart of rhetoric for Aristotle, is tellingly downplayed in Cicero’s discussion on the means of persuasion and ways of eloquence. Though Cicero offers multiple examples of topics that provide different conventions for presenting proofs (326-327), he does not spend the time or attention on this aspect of his presentation that he then applies to emotional and character appeals, nor does he present these proofs as a privileged form of “truth” or “logic,” but rather as another device for presenting an argument. Additionally, these proofs are presented in a very systematic, yet seemingly cursory and formulaic manner, and he admits that “I have sketched these things as shortly as possible… so I know these indications of proofs, which reveal to me their whereabouts when I am looking for them; all the rest is dug out by dint of careful consideration” (327).

The discussion is primarily centered upon the importance of character presentation and appeals to emotions, and how carefully, artistically, and skillfully an orator must apply these appeals appropriately in any given situation. Compared to logic, “men decide far more problems by hate, or love, or lust, or rate, or sorrow, or joy, or hope, or fear, or illusion, or some other inward emotion, than by reality, or authority, or any legal standard, or judicial precedent, or statute,” thus the study of how to shape, control, and influence these emotions are imperative for a successful orator (328).  The opinion of both the orator and whomever he is discussing/defending is likewise important as “for by means of particular types of thought and diction, and the employment besides of a delivery that is unruffled and eloquent of good-nature, the speakers are made to appear upright, well-bread and virtuous men” (329).

It is interesting to note that eloquence, the primary point of discussion and demystification for this piece by Cicero, is directly linked to the establishment of ethos and pathos for the orator, though not in his discussion of logos. This power to persuade through the establishment of emotional and character appeals so downgraded by Aristotle, is primary in Cicero’s presentation of rhetoric. This difference in perspective likely arises from Cicero’s actual use of these devices in his work and his economic/social need for effectiveness from the techniques he regularly employs. Not only should a good orator inspire these feelings in others, but he should also take them on himself, and he states that “it is impossible for the listener to feel indignation, hatred, or ill-will, to be terrified of anything, or reduced to tears of compassion, unless all those emotions, which the advocate would inspire in the arbitrator, are visibly stamped or rather branded on the advocate himself” (330). Unlike the Stoics who were popular at the time, or Aristotle who valued pure logic over all else, Cicero promotes a view where the orator not only inspires strong emotions, but actually experiences them while speaking. Instead of remaining in a state of detached, unemotional logic, Cicero suggests that feeling emotions is integral for effective persuasion, and is of great importance to the acquisition of eloquence.

Within Cicero’s system, then, a different set of values emerges, ones that perhaps arise from a divergent class and culture than that of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Cicero definitely values this system of rhetoric, and connects the ability to speak and persuade as “our greatest advantage over brute creation” and sees “the highest achievements of eloquence” as the “power…strong enough… to gather scattered humanity into one place, or lead it out of its brutish existence in the wilderness up to our present condition of civilization as men and as citizens, or, after the establishment of social communities, to give shape to laws, tribunals, and civic rights” (293-4). The ability to articulate ideas and to persuade others to agree has huge implications for the organization of humanity into collective social groups and underlies all culture and achievement. In Cicero’s system, rhetoric is elevated to the highest possible level within humanity as the force that creates civilization, the basis for the philosophy and science privileged over rhetoric by the Greeks. Even among humanity’s other accomplishments, Cicero notes that “if anyone should wish by speaking to put these same arts in their full light, it is to oratorical skill that he must run for help” (298). Unlike the contradiction of Plato and Aristotle, who disdained rhetoric while simultaneously employing it, Cicero is aware of how oratory promotes and disseminates these discourses and thus the reliance of these fields upon it.

Eloquence, then, is the primary force that creates culture, and the orator, if he can train himself toward the state postulated in Cicero’s writing as the “Ideal Orator,” is a fundamental influence in this creative process. He contends that, though Socrates created a divide between the fields, “the old masters[2] had intended there to be a marvelously close alliance between oratory and philosophy” (338). This attempt to reconcile rhetoric and philosophy demonstrates Cicero’s perspective regarding the importance of oratory in shaping culture, as well as his belief that, at least in an idealized situation, the diligent practice of oratory has the capability of cultivating the mind/soul to a level on par with the philosophic desires of his predecessors. He believes that “the foundation of eloquence, as of everything, is wisdom” and that the study of eloquence and the ability to persuade is the basis of the formation of culture (339). This view of rhetoric is simultaneously more idealistic and more pragmatic that those proposed by Plato or Aristotle, and likely reflects the particular perspective of Cicero and the cultural, political, economic, social, and professional situation in which he found himself. Though based upon Greek discourses on rhetoric, Cicero alters these to reflect the culture of his time and his place within that, attempting to bridge the divide he sees as being erroneously established by philosophers who came before. In doing this, he elevates rhetoric to a level equal to philosophy, and the orator as the equal of the philosopher.

(Cicero. “De Oratore” and “Orator.” The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. 2nd Ed. Ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2001. 283-343.


[1] Cicero refers to Gorgias in this passage.

[2] Cicero does not go into detail regarding who these “old masters” might be or how he arrives at this belief, though it is clear from his writing that he personally holds philosophy and rhetoric as two branches of the same tree.

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One comment on “Cicero, Eloquence, and the Practicality of Rhetoric

  1. This is awesome! I thank you for all the work you must have put into all this. It was truly an educational experience.

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