Reading Cicero this week, with the emphasis on arrangement, memory, style, and delivery, I found a few threads that struck me.
First, particularly with Crassus’ interlude, I noticed the return of philosophy. Again, Crassus’ ideal orator feels like a polymath who can also vary their delivery depending on their situation. They have the knowledge of the philosopher, but can also convey that knowledge in ways that philosophers cannot. As Crassus concludes:
“if we are looking for the one thing that surpasses all others, the palm must go to the orator. If they [philosophers] allow that he is also a philosopher, then the quarrel is over. If, however, they keep the two distinct, they will be inferior in that their knowledge is present in the perfect orator, while the knowledge of the philosophers does not automatically imply eloquence” (266).
While Crassus does seem to treat the ideal orator as somewhat Platonic, a goal we can strive toward more than attain, the role of knowledge feels particularly significant. His tracing of philosophical schools tries to tie his own (rhetorical) craft into these deeper traditions. The space his seeming “digression” takes up is substantial. And, this theme comes up regularly in the overall text. So, I want to focus on the role of knowledge.
For one, as Crassus notes, the content that one knows must be harmonious with the form one conveys it through, which Antonius seems to agree with somewhat, though the orator’s knowledge does not need to be so capacious in his case.
This relationship between knowledge and form seems to grow from a deeper relationship between ideas and words. As Crassus says, “the individual words that we employ are either the proper and, as it were, the specific names of things, which were practically born together with the things in themselves; or they are used metaphorically, and as it were, put in a place that is not their own; or they are coined and created by us” (268). Detailing these categories, Crassus describes how rhetoric often tries to find clever, effective ways to convey ideas. While clear language may be important, the joy and craft of eloquence demands creative language-use. A sort of play exists between the desired signified and the possible signifiers that may point to it.
Crassus stresses the role of sense-strong metaphors and the careful balance between overwrought metaphors and provocative ones. He also notes the paradox of using another word to describe something else: “even with things that have a copious supply of words belonging to them, people still take much more delight in words drawn from elsewhere” (271). Using metaphors, one must often “leap over what is lying before one’s feet” (271), he says.
Once again, I’m struck by the relation between rhetoric and poetics, and their connection to the meaning of language (or “the thing in itself” that a word points to). Here, I think Cicero is treading on engaging philosophical territory.
Initially Derrida comes to mind from “Structure, Sign, and Play.” Describing the “rupture” from a metaphysical “center,” he notes, “The concept of centered structure is in fact the concept of a freeplay based on a fundamental ground, a freeplay which is constituted upon a fundamental immobility and a reassuring certitude, which is itself beyond the reach of the freeplay” (248). In other words, a sort of grounding or centering –as I read it, a fundamental axiom or assumption of what “is” is–stabilizes and gives definition to the “freeplay” and wobbly arbitrariness of language.
But, with this rupture, Derrida argues, “it was probably necessary to begin to think that there was no center, that the center would not be thought in the form of a being-present, that the center had no natural locus, that it was not a fixed locus but a function, a sort of non-locus in which an infinite number of sign-substitutions came into play” (260). One sees beyond the painted veil into the functioning of centering and its connection to freeplay.
While this may be terrifying on the one hand–I’m struck, for instance, by Nietzsche’s description of “the horizon of the infinite” of a bird drifting over a landless ocean in The Gay Science–Derrida also seems to ascribe a positive. As he writes, “If totalization no longer has any meaning, it is not because the infinity of a field cannot be covered by a finite glance or a finite discourse, but because the nature of the field—that is, language and a finite language—excludes totalization” (260). The “floating signifier”and recurrent, non-centered center allows one to focus more on play and less on limitation, as I read it, bringing a center into being from relation, instead of the other way around.
And, if anything, metaphor is based on relation. And here, Shelley’s “A Defense of Poetry” feels pertinent. Distinguishing between “synthesis” (which he pairs with the Greek to poiein or “making”) and “analysis” (logizein or “reasoning”), he argues that poetry is more firmly grounded in the former, with the poet vocalizing and inventing new relations across words or ideas. Much as modern research seems to argue with non-lateral thinking, Shelley argues that for poets, “Their language is vitally metaphorical; that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things and perpetuates their apprehension” (512). This usage, itself, gives life to language, bringing out new connections and “categories.”
Heidegger argues similarly, though in a different way, contrasting techne and cultiver with poeisis. He emphasizes a “bringing forth” and building. One can either “enframe” and impose being on things through the imposition of a technocratic usage of language, or one can”dwell poetically” through the fourfold flowering of concept and material, diffused through actants beyond the human alone.
As another connection, I can see the connection between early Wittgenstein and other logic-driven, positivist philosophers of language and late Wittgenstein with his “language games.” As the Frege-Geach problem shows, our language and language-based systems, from ethics to epistemology, are messy without set connections. They are, in a way, always metaphorical. As Nietzsche writes in On Truth and Lie, “We believe that we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers; and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things — metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities.” For Nietzsche, metaphor is epistemic.
Cicero, then, evokes the freedom of language through the flexibility of metaphor. Language, like any game, is procedural, but also like any game, freedom exists within those procedures. And more importantly, I think that rhetorical freedom allows the poetic (in the Greek sense of “bringing forth” or “building”) quality of language. Threading the sounds, syntax, rhythm, and cultural links of language together in new ways, the rhetor breathes live in language and builds new language.
To me, this play is what truly distinguishes the rhetor and logician.