CCR 634: Cicero, Part 2

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.

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CCR 634: Cicero, part 1

While reading Cicero’s De Oratore, I noticed a few tensions. First, the dispute on the “ideal orator.” Crassus and Cicero seem to value an ideal orator with a sound knowledge of all things (particularly law in Crassus’ case). For example, Cicero says the following:

“In my opinion, indeed, no man can be an orator possessed of every praiseworthy accomplishment, unless he has attained the knowledge of every thing important, and of all liberal arts, for his language must be ornate and copious from knowledge, since, unless there be beneath the surface matter and understood and felt by the speaker, oratory becomes and empty and almost puerile flow of words.”

This seems to echo some of the dialogue in Gorgias and Phaedrus, as well as some of what Isocrates says about needing to know something to speak about it effectively–if I remember correctly. Crassus’ focus on law and his elevation of it, considering the Twelve Tables the most important books the orator needs to know, emphasizes a civic component, but he, too, also values a general knowledge. And as the discussion moves forward, the content of this knowledge ranges from more philosophical wisdom, to psychological insight, to the various subject matters one may speak on, like military strategy.

But Crassus still seems to emphasize psychological insight and customs or laws, as when he says, “For the proper concern of an orator. . . is language of power and elegance accommodated to the feelings and understandings of mankind” (20). Or, more definitively, when Crassus breaks up philosophy into three parts–physics, logic, and “the “knowledge of life and manners”–he assigns the third discipline to orators. This theoretical knowledge, deep as well as wide, seems as essential for Crassus as the knowledge of rhetoric that he discusses, such as the Five Canons and the anatomy of a typical speech.

Antonius tends to take a more practical approach, emphasizing early on that he’s not drawing from books but from his own experience in the courts. He seems to value eloquence in itself, though in Book II he also emphasizes that one should study and learn the content of a particular case or disputation. Antonius argues the Crassus’ ideal may be too difficult for most orators, turning them away or getting them stuck studying philosophy outside the forums and courts of more relevant experience. He also values exposure to various things–“that the orator should be a knowing man”–but again, this doesn’t require the rich knowledge that Crassus desires (66).

Instead, Antonius defines the orator in one of my favorite definitions as “one who can use words agreeable to hear, and thoughts adapted to prove, not only in causes that are pleaded in the forum, but in causes more generally” (64). I love the subtle richness of this definition. “Agreeable to hear” points to the role of style and eloquence, which Antonius views as essential to oration. This ability to produce agreeable language sets the orator apart from other experts. And the “thoughts adapted to prove” connects well to the sort of invention practice that Antonius discusses later on. As he notes, he always tries to clarify–in a stasis-like manner–what the issue is, the nature of it, the area of doubt, and how he can best make his proof. This also includes how he wants to emotionally predispose his audience, describing how he leads them through emotional arcs, seeming to ripen them for persuasion.

Indeed, Antonius shows that just because one knows things, like Socrates, one isn’t necessarily persuasive. He points out that the “dry” and “concise” language of the logician differs from the orator who must speak “to the ear of the multitude” (127). And, as he puts it:

“in oratory, whether it be an art or an attainment from practice only, he who has acquired such ability that he can, at his pleasure, influence the understandings of those who listen to him with some power of deciding, on questions concerning public matters, or his own private affairs, or concerning those for or against whom he speaks” (101)

This emphasis on eloquence and “practice” leads to another major tension in the piece: what the “art” of oration is. Here, Crassus makes a nice dichotomy: if dealing with general content, it is not an art; but in terms of methods about speaking, it is. Antonius seems to secure himself more on the latter with his emphasis on eloquence. But even among this, emphasis of art as method, other questions arise, like the role of knowledge as discussed above, the role of genius and natural ability (which both Crassus and Antonius value), the role of humor (a long discussion in Book II), the “labor” of training one’s voice and body (44), the role of model cases and writing (42), or the sort of training one should get more generally.

For example, Antonius  argues that his “first precept” is for students, who have ability, to find someone they want to imitate, but he also discusses that some have a natural originality and don’t sound like others (107-110).

Reading these texts, I’m always struck by their connection–despite differences–between past and present. In light of my focuses above, I find the question of content and the role of individual ability particularly relevant, as both continue to carry into the discipline today, though they are framed more through questions of assessment and not philosophy and art. The qualifying and meta-discussions of rhetoric that characterize many of these texts and scholarship in the 20th and 21st Century seems to thread, like Daedalus’ golden spool, through the often serpentine labyrinth of what Lauer called our “dappled discipline,” past to present.

CCR 633: Memory and Platonic Print

One of the main things I get from reading Walter Ong’s “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought” is his primary thesis: that writing–particularly non-oral alphabetic discursive literacies–not only offer tools for communication but change how we think and communicate in fundamentally “noetic” way. As he writes, “Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does, not only when engaged in writing but even when it is composing its thoughts in oral form” (24).

Ong’s point connects to the ongoing discussion of whether technology or artifacts have politics, though in this case, it focuses more on the way that technology affects our thinking.

One way writing changes us is through memory. As we noted from Rickert–who drew from Hayles–people have tended to build “smarter” technology to help with memory. This could include the early tokens of Mesopotamia, as Denise Schmandt-Besserat discussed, and their capacity to track goods. It could also include the various  reminder and calendar apps that populate smart phones and computers. All of these keep track of other things so we don’t have to.

On the one hand, this is positive. Answering a few Doodle polls this past week to schedule meetings, I’ve consulted the calendar on my smart phone. I also use a more low-tech near-daily inventory of general to-dos. All of these keep my working memory from getting too cluttered.

But Socrates, via Plato–whom Ong cites–criticizes these technologies, particularly the technology of writing. As Socrates says, in the apparent voice of King Thamus, “You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality.” The person who writes something down, he goes on, is relying on extrinsic things–an extrinsic system of signs, materials outside the body, etc.–and is only creating a later sign-post to return to an earlier thought. The writer is not actually holding onto and engaging with the thought. They can’t defend it either. The thought is orphaned, isolated, and silent.

This leads Socrates to characterize writing as something static, like a visual image. As he  says, “The offsprings of painting stand there as if they are alive, but anyone asks them anything, they remain most solemnly silent. The this is true of written words. You’d think they were speaking as if they had some understanding, but if you question anything that has been because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever.” I find the turn to the visual to be an interesting shift, but it makes sense, as visuals are more static if we take an oral view of language.

This characterization made more sense as Ong took it up, connecting the static quality that Socrates ascribes to print to the static “being” of Platonic forms.  As Ong argues, “Platonic form was form conceived of by analogy precisely with visible form. Despite his touting of logos and speech, the Platonic ideas in effect modelled intelligence not so much on hearing as on seeing” (29). We see this with his discussion in the Protagorus, as they dissect a poem, which would be hard to do without a static referent.

Indeed, print is a visual medium, a series of squiggles carried through some medium–captured through handwriting, type-faces, or pixels. It is silent, like a fresco, and in a Platonic sense, it’s non-material. But this silent, non-material Being of writing, as Ong notes, “assures its endurance and its potential for being resurrected into limitless living contexts by a limitless number of living readers” (31). It gets “spoken” in our heads or through bodies and machines, but as the word-iself, it feels permanent.  Parmenides has triumphed over Heraclitus.

This non-material sense of writing brings me back to one of my teachers in Classical Philosophy who drew a triangle on the board. “What is this?” he asked. “A triangle,” we said. “No,” he replied, “it’s some chalk dust smudged a certain way.” He then wrote out the definition; we fell into the same trap. “No,” he replied, “it’s the definition of a triangle.” The triangle-in-itself is only mediated into existence, never actually existing as a material being.

With this Platonic view of writing, I think we are somewhat trapped in all the distancing that Ong ascribes to writing. It’s a somewhat long litany, but he often focuses on the growing divide between the “lifeworld” and the abstract, as writing makes our own thinking more abstracted from everyday life. We discuss more the idea of things than the things in themselves. Time and space also distance. We become more artificial in out being, though, as Ong paradoxically notes, it’s natural for humans to be artificial through technology. Technology, itself, is natural.

But I don’t think we need to be Platonic. As Heidegger argues–and Rickert–regarding the fourfold, dwelling assumes a lifeworld of both matter and meaning. “Hammer,” as word, is deeply stitched into the material of the hammer-object and the action of human-hammering, and in-turn, this layered ontology of the object, withdrawing and presencing as the situation changes, fits into the broader world of relations. So, to me, there is nothing Platonic about a hammer or the word hammer.

The same for visuals. I think here of Lauri Gries’ work. Following the Obama Hope image with a New Materialist underpinning, she highlights the “vital materiality” of the image. As she writes, “rhetoric transforms and transcends across genres, media, and forms as it circulates and intra-acts with other human and nonhuman entities. Rhetoric also moves in nonlinear, inconsistent, and often unpredictable ways within and across multiple networks of associations” (7).  Seeing the networked and networking threads and ripples of beings–both human and nonhuman, concrete and nonmaterial–something that feels “distant” or “dead” is very much alive.

Embodied Borders

“Not only does Roman society depend upon moral codes being as stable as Latin morphology, but it also demands that those codes emerge in visible, easily detectable signs. By using notions of the body simultaneously to create and reinforce social distinctions, the elite in Rome could check the power of marginalized groups such as women and ambitious politicians from outside Rome.”

-Anthony Corbeill, Nature Embodied

The distinction that the Romans had regarding “nature” v. training seems to represent a tangled area. Discussing delivery, for example, Quintillian writes,  “without the least reluctance, I allow that the chief power rests with nature,” although nature can be “assisted by art” (Institutes of Oratory, III.12). In other words, one must have a certain set of skills initially in order to build upon–like a good memory, a strong voice, etc. While one can certainly improve upon these qualities, both Cicero and Quintilian seem to stress the importance of a latent sound body and mind.

Complicating this, however, both Cicero and Quintillian describe ornate hand gestures, ways of planting the feet, modes of walking, etc., that lead to a “natural” delivery.  While some of these might sound inherently natural, like pointing, others are less intuitive, with specific placement of fingers in unnatural patterns.  Taking command of these gestures and setting the semiotic bridges of signifier and signified, training could construct these seemingly “natural” gestures.  Such codification creates stability and comprehension, but such stability, just like any monolingual intervention, often leads to exclusion.

As Anthony Corbeill writes, “tacit understanding between speaker and audience ultimately works to distinguish between bodies that accurately convey a speaker’s mind by moving in accordance with nature and those that can be marked as unnatural and therefore in some way deviant.” Constructing signs that constitute the norm, the “natural” within proper rhetorical discourse, instruction can be a powerful tool for exclusion.

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