[presentation] on Cicero’s De Oratore

Cicero’s De Oratore
The question: To what extent ought the orator also be a philosopher?

Orators are rare because oratory requires comprehensive knowledge (290, also 291b and 292a)

Crassus’ view:
1.    Crassus echoes Cicero’s view by praising the rare power of the rhetorician: “For what is so marvelous as that, out of the innumerable company of mankind, a single being should arise, who either alone or with a few others can make effective a faculty bestowed by nature upon every man?” (293b)
2.    Oratory extends well beyond law and politics (295)
3.    Oratory requires both philosophy and eloquence, for “excellence in speaking cannot be made manifest unless the speaker fully comprehends the matter he speaks about” (296a) and, vice versa, excellence in knowledge cannot be made manifest when non-orators speak in “spiritless and feeble fashion” (296b).
4.    The orator must gain a wide knowledge, in the same way ball-players must work up dexterity and strength in the gymnasium. (299b)

Antonius’ view:
1.    Wide knowledge is difficult to come by (300a), and most orators, in fact, haven’t attained it. (301b)
2.    A lot of what orators deal with is actually doubtful and uncertain, anyway, and that kind of knowledge is almost impossible to nail down absolutely. (302a)

Crassus’ response:
1.    Crassus now agrees that public language cannot be exact; it depends on the situation. (304a)
2.    Natural talent is the “chief contributor” to one’s ability to learn oratory. (305a)  Some men (sic) just aren’t cut out to be orators.
3.    The ideal orator is humbled and frightened of the difficulty of oratory.  Crassus admits, “I turn pale at the outset of a speech, and quake in every limb and in all my soul” (306a).

Antonius’ response:
1.    Orators are afraid because 1) often times speeches don’t come out the way they wanted them to, and 2) they are afraid of being judged stupid, if they make a mistake (as orators are judged more harshly than others). (306)
2.    Antonius adds that an orator is rare because “in an orator we must demand the subtlety of the logician, the thoughts of the philosopher, a diction almost poetic, a lawyer’s memory, a tragedian’s voice, and the bearing almost of the consummate actor” (306-07).

The training of the orator (Crassus):
1.    Ought to begin with enthusiasm and “something like the passion of love” (307).
2.    Diction ought to clear, lucid, and elegant (308-09).
3.    Practice makes perfect (309a). The best practice is through writing not extempore speaking (309b). Translation of Greek speeches helped Crassus develop his diction (310).

Antonius returns to the original question:
1.    He repeats his contention that orators do not need philosophy proper. The orator “ought to feel the pulses of every class, time of life, and degree, and to taste the thoughts and feelings of those before whom he is pleading or intending to plead any cause; but his philosophical books he should keep back for a restful holiday” (313b).
2.    Sometimes good orators must use tactics that a philosopher would not approve of. (314a)
3.    And oratory is more important, ultimately, than philosophy.  After all, even Socrates, so great a philosopher, was condemned “for the offense of inexperience in oratory” (315a).

Can you imagine Plato, Socrates, or Aristotle being nervous about speaking in public or about writing a speech? Why or why not?

How much background knowledge ought we to give or require of our composition students before we have them write a paper?


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