Cicero’s Dialogue on the Ideal Orator: A Brief Summary of Book II

Cicero begins Book 2 by telling his brother Quintus that “anyone who has ever achieved success and pre-eminence in eloquence can only have done so by relying on the whole of wisdom, not just on rhetorical rules” (126). In other words, eloquence isn’t about following a set of pre-prescribed rules, but about seeking and coming to know wisdom. That is, to some degree, why Isocrates was the father of eloquence. Then Cicero continues the story he told in Book 1.

The Conversation Continued
Catulus and Caesar join the previous day’s group, and all decide to continue the earlier discussion. Antonius begins by extolling eloquence, saying that the orator can speak well on any topic that belongs to the other arts. When he is finished, Catulus and Crassus act surprised, because what he says today seems to conflict with what he said yesterday, but Antonius explains his change of attitude: yesterday he was trying to refute Crassus, but today he’s trying to express his own opinions. Antonius then divides oratory and discusses judicial and deliberative oratory, historiography, and general, philosophical questions. The books we read, he says, influence our speech patterns. And when we learn the harder things, the easier things follow naturally. Catulus says that the hardest things to talk about are the gods, but Antonius disagrees.

[To some degree, it seems to me as if Antonius is sort of restating parts of Crassus’ speech of the previous day, or at least agreeing with parts of it.]

Antonius then discusses talent, natural abilities, and training. The orator should be a good man, cultured, and almost divine. In training, a learner must find someone to imitate, then reproduce the chosen model. We learn by practicing, and especially by writing.

Antonius then discusses invention, summarizing stasis theory. Oratory consists in three means of persuasion: “proving that our contentions are true, winning over our audience, and inducing their minds to feel any emotion the case may demand (153-154). Antonius’ method is based on three procedures: 1) “to win people over,” which requires gentleness, 2) “to instruct them,” which requires intellectual acumen, and 3) “to stir their feelings,” which requires vigor (157). Invention involves intellectual ability, method, and diligence, and diligence is “the single virtue on which all over virtues depend” (162). Aristotle wrote about the topics or commonplaces from which arguments come, and Antonius then lists several: definition is useful if people don’t know what a thing is, and there are also topics like connected terms, genus, species, similarity, difference, opposite, attendant circumstances, consistencies, antecedents, contradictions, causes, results, greater, lesser, equal. [These remind me of Kenneth Burke’s innate forms of the mind in Counter-Statement. They are things all human beings have the capacity to recognize. Cf. The Metaphors We Live By and The Meaning of the Body.] But Antonius rushes through these things quickly so he can come to “more important matters” (170)—the character of the speaker and the emotions.

As for character, people are won over by a person’s accomplishments, prestige, and reputation. “Such things are easier to embellish if present than to fabricate if totally lacking, but at any rate, their effect is enhanced by a gentle tone of voice on the part of the orator, an expression on his face intimating restraint, and kindliness in the use of his words” (171). Also “generosity, mildness, dutifulness, gratitude, and of not being desirous or greedy. Actually all qualities typical of people who are decent and unassuming, not severe, not obstinate, not litigious, not harsh, really win goodwill, and alienate the audience from those who do not possess them” (171). Good speakers often speak quietly, and in a gentle, low-key manner. Character “often has more influence than the case itself. Moreover, so much is accomplished by speaking thoughtfully and with a certain taste, that the speech may be said to mold an image of the character of the orator. Employing thoughts of a certain kind and words of a certain kind, and adopting besides a delivery that is gentle and shows signs of flexibility, makes speakers appear as decent, as good in character—yes, as good men” (171-172). I have quoted these passages in full because they seem to me to be key.

Poets call speech “soul-bending, the queen of all the world” (172). The hearer cannot feel emotion that the orator does not show in “words, thoughts, voice, face” (173). We act out our own character, and loyalty, moral duty, and diligence are important. Orators should not use oratorical firebrands for insignificant matters. A speech should have humanity to it.

Caesar’s Excursus on Wit
Then comes Caesar’s excursus on wit. Wit can accomplish good. Joking shouldn’t detract from authority, though but laughter is power. It can refute some arguments that can’t otherwise be easily refuted. Joking must be used with restraint, however. The orator “must give proof of his own good manners and modesty by avoiding dishonorable words and obscene subjects” (188). The orator is distinguished from the buffoon because he takes into account the occasion and exercises restraint and moderation, as well as tries to achieve some purpose with them instead of just being funny. Topics for humor can be topics for seriousness, such as observations, resemblances, similarities in words, puns, and ambiguity.

But not everything that is funny is also witty. For example, clowns may be funny, but orators should not try to imitate clowns, nor should they be in any way “peevish, superstitious, suspicious, boastful, [or] stupid” (191). Orators also shouldn’t be obscene or distort their face, like some comedians do. Humor can also come from many topics or commonplaces such as fables, similarity, exaggeration, insinuation, irony, calling something disgraceful by an honorable name, censuring stupidity, the unexpected turn, friendly advice, pointing to something that seems to fit a person’s character, pointed remarks, impossible wishes, or the unexpected.

Antonius Concludes

After Caesar finishes his excursus on laughter and humor and wit, Antonius takes control again and begins talking about arrangement: choice and distribution of arguments, character, and emotion. Orators must be good judges of situations. The audience’s expectations should be met as quickly as possible, even in the first few words of the introduction. The speech should charm and attract the hearer right away, and the following narration should be pleasant, after which comes the proposition, the argumentation, and finally the conclusion. Antonius mentions the deliberative and laudatory genres, and concludes his speech by discussing memory: since understanding a thing’s order improves its retention in the mind, one way to remember things is to form mental images of a related object or place and use that object or place to recall things in the speech. The purpose of the art of speaking is not to create something from scratch what isn’t present in us, “but to rear and develop what has already been born and created within us” (220). Antonius concludes, and the morning’s discussion ends with everyone anticipating what will be Crassus’ afternoon discussion of style and delivery.

Links to Additional Brief Summaries of On the Ideal Orator (De Oratore)
Book I  |  Book II  |  Book III

“M-T-Cicero” by original: Gunnar Bach Pedersen; for that version: Louis le Grand – Image:Thorvaldsen Cicero.jpg.
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

One thought on “Cicero’s Dialogue on the Ideal Orator: A Brief Summary of Book II

  1. Thanks for these wonderful summaries of a difficult read! I am researching for an academic paper, "Cicero as Clinton's 'Spin Doctor'", and do not have time to read the entire De Oratore. I promise not to plagiarize and WILL CITE!! 🙂

    -Cheers, txprowriter

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