[journal entry] on Cicero’s De Oratore (315-339)

Book III (as excerpted in B&H) of De Oratore is probably one of my favorite sections of this entire anthology, since in it Cicero has Crassus discuss Greek philosophy, the ideal of the orator as philosopher, and lament that what was once joined so fruitfully (philosophy and rhetoric) are now separated.

Crassus speaks of Athenian philosophers he can recommend to orators as authorities, but then laments,

However, the streams of learning flowing from the common watershed of wisdom, as rivers do from the Apennines, divided in two, the philosophers flowing down into the entirely Greek waters of the Eastern Mediterranean with its plentiful supply of harbors, while the orators glided into the rocky and inhospitable Western seas of our outlandish Tuscany, where even Ulysses himself lost his bearings. (337a)

Crassus’ description reminds me of the beginnings of Weaver’s “Language is Sermonic,” in which he points out that the teacher of writing or rhetoric used to have to be someone of outstanding gifts and maturity (1351). For Weaver the emphasis is on ethics (Platonist-based ethics), but it conveys a similar longing for a past ideal. It seems as if things were always better in the past, especially for rhetoric.

Also like Weaver, Crassus wants to make sure Antonius realizes that if he lets go of philosophy in order to cling to rhetorical rules and formulas, he is “making the orator abandon a vast, immeasurable plain and confine himself to quite a narrow circle” (337b). For Weaver, this “narrow circle” would be the small realm given to rhetoric under the reign of what he calls “scientism,” the belief that science can explain everything through logic (ignoring emotion or aesthetics), including human beings and their communities and problems. Again, for Cicero, the issue is a loss of basis for rhetoric (knowledge, invention), while for Weaver it is a loss of a goal for rhetoric (ethical rhetoric which inspires and leads readers to their highest good).

And Crassus wouldn’t disagree with Weaver. Crassus tells Antonius that “the old masters down to Socrates used to combine with their theory of rhetoric the whole of the study and the science of everything that concerns morals and conduct and ethics and politics” (337b).

[P]hilosophers looked down on eloquence and the orators one wisdom, and never touched anything from the side of the other study except what this group borrowed from that one, or that one from this; whereas they would have drawn from the common supply indifferently if they had been willing to remain in partnership of early days. 337b

It’s hard not to lament the separation in 21st century universities, the split between English and philosophy departments. I guess that means I’m in good company: we rhetoricians like to lament the ideal past. But on the positive side, Cicero’s vision provides a goal for the future (and for my term papers).


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