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Cicero on Rhetoric and Political Judgment

Jed Atkins

Duke University

A vital feature of democratic politics in ancient and modern societies alike, rhetoric has been subjected to powerful attacks, with the most effective targeting its efficacy for promoting political judgment.  Plato’s Gorgias illustrates the dangers of the orator pandering to or manipulating the people in order to maintain power.  Thomas Hobbes argued that rhetoric, insofar as it stirs up the mind’s passions, perverts the judgments of the people, thereby undermining popular government and requiring regulation by a single sovereign authority.  Finally, there is the perspective of “deliberative democracy,” most forcefully expounded by Jürgen Habermas and used by Morstein-Marx (2004: 15-33) in his classic account of the contio to critique the rhetoric of the Roman Forum.  Deliberative democrats hold that, absent an “ideal speech situation” in which all participants of equal standing are able to engage in and consider rational argumentation, rhetoric is unable to meet the standards of rationality and equality necessary for legitimate democratic deliberation and judgment about the public good.  In this paper, I argue that Cicero’s De oratore (supplemented occasionally with Cicero’s other works on rhetoric) furnishes an account of the relationship of rhetoric to political judgment that meets the challenges of Plato, Hobbes, and deliberative democrats.  Cicero construes rhetoric as a type of dramatic performance in which judgment is made possible by the character roles assumed by speaker and audience.   

The paper begins by reviewing the criticisms of rhetoric by Plato, Hobbes, and Habermas, and showing how the characters in De oratore raise Plato’s criticisms (cf., e.g., 1.36, 1.38, 1.225). 

The second section of the paper discusses Cicero’s account of political judgment.  In De oratore Cicero suggests that political judgment depends on ethos and pathos along with logos.  Viewed from Cicero's perspective, contemporary deliberative democratic accounts of rhetoric would be unrealistically utopian and, ironically, insufficiently democratic.  Most people judge according to the emotions (2.178), which makes traditional rhetoric widely accessible (vulgus; 3.223).  However, unlike Plato and Hobbes, Cicero does not suggest that emotional appeals pervert popular judgment.  Even the inexperienced crowd possesses by nature the ability to make judgments, so that there is little difference between the expert and commoner (3.195-97; cf. Brutus 195).   

The third section relates Cicero’s confidence in popular judgment to the indispensable role that ethos or character plays in matters of judgment for both the speaker and audience.  The former judges what arguments will be persuasive given the character of his audience; the latter judges whether the speaker is trustworthy.  One of the terms that Cicero uses for character—persona—evokes the idea of an actor playing a role in a theater (see esp. Orator 70-74).  Oratory is conceived as a type of drama in which both speaker and audience play parts informed by what I refer to as a script.  The script has two main sources.  The first is nature, which provides all human beings by virtue of their humanity with the capacity to perceive when words, thoughts, and actions are discordant with human society (De inventione 2.161; De oratore 3.195; cf. De oratore 2.115, 2.159; De officiis 1.107-115).  The second consists of the Republican constitution, institutions, and customs that maintain and uphold Roman political culture (De oratore 1.35, 1.44, 1.193-96; cf. De inventione 2.162).  This script provides a common basis for judgment for the speaker and audience, and prevents the inevitability of pandering (the absolute rule of audience over orator) or manipulation (the absolute rule of orator over audience).  In the resulting political drama, the audience is moved by the speaker, and the speaker is bound to the audience, but according to a loose script that promotes judgment rather than in the arbitrary or inflexible ways that according to cotemporary philosophers make judgment impossible (see Beiner 1983).  Finally, Cicero’s performative and theatrical account of rhetoric utilizes auditory and visual stimuli to aid judgment in ways not open to the ideal of rational argumentation championed by deliberative democrats. 

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Use and Power of Rhetoric

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