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 –

Two Scholars On Reading Well

What does it mean to read something well? What sources can you think of that discuss reading well?

One source from the Appendix in Wayne Booth’s Critical Understanding: The Powers and Limits of Pluralism. Booth was a scholar of literary criticism and rhetoric. The Appendix to this book is called “A Hippocratic Oath for the Pluralist,” and in it, Booth gives what he calls five “ordinances” for achieving good criticism, saying at the end that if we kept them, “we would experience a renewed sense that our critical sanity does not depend on ‘covering’ as many works as possible” (352). Here is what he says:

1. We shouldn’t publish anything about anything we’ve read all the way through at least once.
2. We’ll try to not publish anything about anything that we haven’t totally understood.
3. We’ll not believe other critics unless they convince us that they’ve abided by the first 2 rules.
4. We won’t take on a project that has us violate principles 1-3.
5. We won’t judge others’ “inevitable violations” of the first 4 principles worse than we judge our own.

Isn’t that interesting?

Another source on reading well comes from C.S. Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism. Lewis was a medieval and renaissance scholar who became Christian apologist later in life. In Chapter 4 of An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis gives 5 characteristics of bad readers, but I’ll sum them up into 3 categories:

1. Bad readers only read narratives.
2-3. Bad readers have no ears and are wholly unconscious of style.
4-5. Bad readers enjoy narratives that are reduced to the minimum and are action-packed.

What do you think about these guidelines for reading well?
What sources have you found about good reading and bad reading? And what does it mean to read well?

Music and Its Influence According to Shakespeare’s Lorenzo

On a calm evening with a bright moon, “When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees / and they did make no noise” (Merchant of Venice, 5.1.1-2), Lorenzo sends for musicians, who come and begin to play for him and Jessica. 

Title page from Wikipedia Commons.

Then Lorenzo begins to comment on the influence of music on its listeners. He says that when a herd of wild colts, whose natural tendency is to pretty much just go crazy, neigh loudly, and anxiously race about, whenever they hear “any air of music,” they immediately stop to listen, and their nature is changed by its sweetness. Indeed, Lorenzo continues, the poet Ovid once wrote a fictional story about the legendary musician Orpheus who had such musical power that he could allure trees, rocks, and waters. Here is the passage:

For do but note a wild and wanton herd
Or race of youthful and unhandled colts,
Fetching mad bounds, bellowing and neighing loud,
Which is the hot condition of their blood,
If they but hear perchance a trumpet sound,
Or any air of music touch their ears,
You shall perceive them make a mutual stand,
Their savage eyes turned to a modest gaze
By the sweet power of music. Therefore the poet
Did feign that Orpheus drew trees, stones, and floods,
Since naught so stockish, hard, and full of rage
But music for the time doth change his nature. (70-81)

But it gets even more interesting. Lorenzo then concludes with the famous statement that the person who has no appreciation for good music and cannot feel its harmonic melodies must therefore have affections as dark the place of shadow between the earth and Hades, the Greek Erebus:

The man that hath no music in himself, 
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music. (82-87)

For Lorenzo in these passages (which are actually just two parts of the same passage) music has a massive amount of influence on humans and on animals. Could we translate this into modern speech? Let’s try to do it.

First, what exactly does Lorenzo mean by music? Well, his statement in line 82, “The man that hath no music in himself,” is repeated in different words in line 83, “Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds.” In other words, to have music in oneself means something like having a capacity to be “moved with concord of sweet sounds.” So, just hearing music, what Lorenzo is calling the “concord of sweet sounds” is not enough. The word moved is important. One must be moved by music. 

Next, what does it mean to be moved? To move is to go from one place or state to another. In this particular case, I think we are not talking about moving in the physical sense, but moving in a symbolic sense, where symbolic, could mean emotional or spiritual. I use the word spiritual because Lorenzo uses the word spirit in line 85 when he says that the person that isn’t moved by music has a spirit whose motions are “dull as night.” And I use the word emotional here because Lorenzo says that this person who isn’t moved by music has “affections dark as Erebus” (86 emphasis added). 

Let’s also briefly discuss “concord of sweet sounds.” Concord means harmony. So “concord of sweet sounds” would become something like “harmonious or melodic sweetness.” We left out the word sound just now, but the word melodic denotes sound, so we’re good. Harmony is the one in the many and the many in the one.

While we’re talking about harmony, let’s cite Paul Woodruff, who teaches philosophy and ethics at the University of Texas at Austin. In his book First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea he writes that harmony is the agreement that human beings make to live together even though all of us are not exactly the same. In terms of music, “Harmony,” he says, “is not singing one note; it is singing different notes in a way that makes one texture of music” (99). Musical harmony is symbolic (or synecdochic) of political harmony. 

So, we can now translate Lorenzo’s Elizabethian iambic pentameter to modern day speech this way: “The person that is not emotionally moved by harmonious or melodic sweetness is dangerous to society because that person cannot feel–and thus cannot understand–the necessary political principle of harmony.” That person is hence “not to be trusted” and is thus “fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils.” Furthermore, if we recall the herd of wild colts that Lorenzo mentioned earlier, we note that the herd is actually better off than this person who has no capacity to be moved by music because the wild colts, though their natural condition includes a savage gaze and untamed craziness, at least understand–and submit to–the principle of harmony. 

Cognitive Dissonance and a Snickers Bar

According to social psychologist Leon Festinger, human beings are motivated by something he calls cognitive dissonance, which is essentially a fancy name for disharmony among or within our thought processes, beliefs, and/or opinions (A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance 3). Human beings thus have a drive to produce consistencies, reduce inconsistencies, and avoid situations that might produce inconsistencies. Cognitive dissonance comes from receiving new information, which can also be manifest in new events (4-5).

Cognitive dissonance is implicit whenever we have a decision to make, when we choose between two or more options. These options are dissonant–they’re not in harmony–because they cannot be done at the same time and in the same moment.
Let’s look at a trivial but revealing example. Let’s say I am sitting at my desk, busily working on a project. I am focusing on my work when all of a sudden I have a problem–I receive some new information: my stomach growls, I start salivating, and I think about the Snickers bar that’s in the vending machine down the hall. At this new information, I have cognitive dissonance, an inconsistency, and one my nature drives me to resolve. I am hungry and I want to eat, but I also want to continue to do what I’m doing because if I get up to go get that Snickers bar, I will lose much (or all) of my concentration. (I also already know that Snickers bars aren’t very good for my health, which means that eating one is going to create another kind of dissonance.) But I have to make a choice. I cannot make both choices at the same time, and both choices have some consequences that I do not want–no Snickers on the one hand, a loss of focus on the other. The choices are dissonant because each choice will take me in a slightly different direction than the other. But when I do make a decision, and since both options have undesirable consequences, I must justify the resulting dissonance from that choice. If I choose to eat the Snickers bar, I’ll argue to myself that once in a while is okay (studies have said that chocolate is good for your health!), I needed a break anyway and will be able to focus better after I get a snack, and, besides, it just tastes so good that it’ll be worth it. On the other hand, if I choose to stay at my desk, my justification would be that I don’t need all those calories or all that fat and sugar (I’ll just have to exercise them off!), I’m getting so much done that I cannot risk losing my focus right now, and, besides, I find pride in not stooping so low to give in to my cravings–mind over matter, right?
In my own mind, the problem has been resolved. For now.

Arguments, Broadly Discussed Part III: Actions

This series of posts has been discussing how an argument is an assertion based on reasons, and its first two posts were about how speech acts and thoughts are arguments. This post will discuss actions.

An Example of an Actions as an Argument
Let’s say I’m sitting on a bench playing the piano, and my stomach growls. So, I go into the kitchen and make myself a peanut butter and honey sandwich. Then I eat it.

It’s not a peanut butter sandwich, but he is eating.

Am I making an argument here? At first glance, we’ll be tempted to say, “No, of course not! How on earth can eating a peanut butter and honey sandwich–as good as they are–how can this be an argument?” I certainly haven’t said anything out loud by my actions. I haven’t spoken any words, but I have “said” something by acting. Let’s analyze this action and see if it’s an assertion based on reasons.

While we could summarize the story by saying, “I ate because I was hungry,” an argument that follows the enthymematic form from Aristotle, the statement, “I ate because I was hungry,” is an argument because we’ve already discussed the argumentative nature of statements in our first post on this subject. And we’re not here to talk about statements in this post, but actions. We’re here to talk about eating, and that means that we can only talk about the act of eating.

So, to say that eating is an argument is to say that eating

  1. is an assertion
  2. is based on reasons

To make the following discussion easier, let’s break the analysis up into these two parts. We’ll first talk about number 2, the reasons for eating, and then we’ll talk about number 1, eating as an assertion. Once we’ve done that, we’ll see that eating is an argument. When that’s over, we’ll talk about why we should care in the first place.

Reasons for Eating
The most obvious reason for eating is because I am hungry. But there are other reasons for eating, for just because I am eating does not mean that I am hungry. In the above story, I eat because I am hungry–assuming, of course, that my stomach growling is the same thing as being hungry. But we might also eat because we like the taste of food. Maybe we’re in the mood for a snack. Or perhaps we are stressed and have our own sort of comfort food that makes us feel good. Maybe we have an eating disorder and eating (or not eating) does something to our mental functions and behaviors. Or perhaps everybody around us is eating, and, since we want to fit in, we eat. These are some reasons for eating even if we are not hungry. But usually, we eat because we are hungry.

Eating as an Assertion
To eat something means to place something into my mouth, chew it up, and swallow it. So, when I eat, I assert a whole bunch of things, the simplest and most general of which is the fact that I am the kind of being that has the capacity to eat.  And by eating, I assert that I have the ability, the power, the faculty to do these things: I have a mouth, a jaw, a throat, and a stomach. I can control my lips and jaw, making them open and close at will, and I can bite, chew, grind, and masticate (now there’s a word we don’t often use) my food. A tongue may not be absolutely necessary, but it does help to move the food around in my mouth. It also, thanks to those taste buds, allows me to taste my food, which is a reason why I choose to eat some foods over (and instead of) others. I believe eating asserts all these things, including and perhaps especially the fact that I am an embodied creature.

Let’s go one more further. Besides the fact that I am eating asserts that I have the capacity to carry out the act, it also asserts, in most cases, that I have the will to carry out the act. And after I have finished eating, I may say, “I ate.” My evidence for my statement is an act in the past tense.

Last point about eating. Note that the act is made up of smaller actions just as assertions are made up of smaller assertions as we noted in Part I. It isn’t hard to see the common ground acts, speech, and arguments have with one another. And speech is a type or a subset of action.1

Actions as Arguments, Generally
Acting asserts that I am a certain kind of being. It asserts that I have the capacity to do whatever it is I am doing. I am capable because I do. Then, after I’ve done something, I am capable because I did. From this last statement, my being capable now becomes a new assertion, with my past action as the evidence. And there we have a nested argument.

What else? Action is embodied. And the reasons for my actions include appetites, desires, passions, emotions, and expectations. I act in a certain way because I choose to, and I choose to because I believe it is good for me to do.

So wait. Why should we care? I wrote about eating as an argument not to show only that eating is an argument, but, more importantly, that actions are arguments. Eating is one example of any other action we could have analyzed. We can use the same logic we’ve used in this post on any other action because acting asserts that I am a being that has the capacity to act. We could do this same analysis with anything. Playing the piano. Driving to work. Sitting down to watch a movie. Washing clothes or dishes. We could go on, but I don’t think there’s a need for it.

From the cover of The Essential Wayne Booth

Wayne Booth, a literary critic and philosopher, wrote something that applies here. He said,

“Would you not agree, friends of truth that you are, that reality, although it appears to us in diverse forms, is all somehow unified? Discriminate realities as you will, you must finally admit that everything is related to everything else, really related, in some important sense, and that it is thus more important to work on recognizing new similarities beneath differences than to make distinctions where none were before” (Critical Understanding 94).

I believe this information is valuable because knowing what arguments our actions make help us to know who we are. They also help us to know who others are. Philosopher Robert Solomon writes about emotions, but what he says applies to our actions (he did, after all, believe that emotions were actions, but that’s another post for another day). He wrote that it is “a reflection of one’s self. It shows or betrays who one is” (True to our Feelings 218-219).

But I feel like now I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Could we go one step further and say that my very being also asserts the “statement,” “I did,” because my being is capable? (That’s a mouthful of a sentence.) In other words, can things make arguments?

That will be the subject of the next post.

1. See Kenneth Burke’s The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology.

2. The picture of Booth comes from the cover of The Essential Wayne Booth, Ed. Walter Jost.

Risk: A Once-a-year Tradition

My friend Kyle has an annual (for me it’s annual, for him it’s semi-annual) New Year’s Day Axis and Allies game.

Image couresy of

Basically, Axis and Allies, a strategy board game based on World War II (hence the name), is a game that is notorious for taking forever to play. In the version we played, Kyle was Germany, I was Japan, and we fought against the United States, U.K., and Soviet Union. We started the game at about 10 or 10:15 and finished at about 4:00. Yeah. It took forever.

Not only that, but believe it or not, we didn’t actually finish the game. We got tired of it. And it helped that Kyle and I had already captured 9 out of the 10 required capital cities, had completely obliterated the Soviets (I had half of Russia, he had the other half), and had a considerable economic advantage, thanks to the countries we had taken control of. By the end of the game, I found myself just glad that the game was over. Good thing it’s only once a year.

But as I climbed into my car and turned the ignition, I couldn’t help but think, “Why do I play this game?” Sure, it was kind of fun, especially for me as Japan to take over Canada and invade Alaska and capture Los Angeles. It makes me wonder about the state of the world and consider the degree to which things could be different from what they now are. What would have happened? Thinking about the game this way, it was kind of interesting. But it was also a huge time commitment. “Why do I play this game, if even for once a year?”

I don’t have an answer to that question just yet, and I probably won’t find the answer before I finish typing this post. But I do wonder if, during this conflict that ended approximately 70 years ago, either side asked themselves some of the following similar questions: Why are we doing this? What are we really getting out of it? Is it worth it?

Strange as it is to play a game that takes several hours to play, after the first few hours, the game doesn’t really feel like a game anymore. It becomes a form of work. It’s no longer fun to think, to plan, to strategize. It’s not easy to keep going, and I can’t help but think that this feeling of fatigue is a microcosm of what was actually felt when the war dragged on for weeks, months, years.

Why do I do the things I do? What am I really getting out of it? Is it worth it?

Being Actors

[The following is a post that was written on June 23, 2011.]

Don’t read this unless you want to be put to sleep.

. . .

Okay. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. (Don’t worry–it’s not that bad.)

Most people would agree that the more you practice something, the better you get at it. Aristotle wrote,

For the things which we have to learn before we can do them we learn by doing: men become builders by building houses, and harpists by playing the harp. Similarly, we become just by the practice of just actions, self-controlled by exercising self-control, and courageous by performing acts of courage. (Nicomachean Ethics II.1)

Ralph Waldo Emerson is attributed to have said, “That which we persist in doing becomes easier for us to do, not that the nature of the thing is changed, but that our power to do is increased” (I can’t find the reference to this anywhere in his works; let me know if you know where it is). And even the more recent Malcom Gladwell, in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, writes about how experts are those which have done something–practiced at it–for 10,000 hours. We become better at what we do.

But we can also be defined by what we do. Let me explain. Being embodied creatures that have the ability to choose, we necessarily choose some things over other things. Aristotle wrote that “every action and choice, seem to aim at some good” (Nicomachean Ethics 1.1). His statement suggests that we do what we do because we believe that it will, in some way, make us happy.

But we can go a step further. Kenneth Burke reminds us that “a focus upon object A involves a neglect of object B” (Permanence and Change 49). And to choose something is to focus one’s time on doing a thing for a period of time. And by focusing our time on one thing in a given situation, we become the kind of person that is doing the kind of thing that we have chosen to do in the moment that we choose to do it. We become that kind of person during that specific moment, and we can be defined by the kind of person that would do what we have chosen–because we have chosen what we have chosen. We become the kind of person that, having chosen A, has not chosen B, C, D, E, F, G, etc. for the moment in which we are doing A. In other words, you are what you do, and what you do also defines, to a degree, what you are.