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.

Wallace and Education

I found this recording of the famous post-modern novelist, cultural critic, essayist, and educator David Foster Wallace delivering a commencement speech at Kenyon College. The words are all the more haunting knowing that Wallace hanged himself Sept. 12, 2008 after a lifelong struggle with depression. The main focus of the speech is the “human value” of a liberal arts education. For Wallace, an ideal education provides “awareness” of our world and our way of processing the world.

David Foster Wallace (1962-2008), image courtesy of Salon.com
David Foster Wallace (1962-2008), image courtesy of Salon.com

With this in mind, two passages in particular struck me. The first deals with the potential dangers of the mind. As Wallace says:

Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about ‘the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.’

As someone who suffered from depression, Wallace clearly understood the tyranny of a mind mastering reality, the way it warps and weaves impressions into a gloomy, self-destructive haze, leaving one alone in a world of friends.

But equally destructive is the closed-minded comfort that creates destructive prejudices or what Wallace calls our “default setting”: the self-focused way we narrate, judge, and arrange our life. In itself, this is innocuous, but when we start to think our reality is the norm or the “right” way of doing things, a process called “normative hubris,” we can become destructive.

As the blog and book You Are Not So Smart argues, our “rational” or “informed” opinions are often biased rationalizations. Some of these biases may be cultural or biological, but many are self-created, or at the very least, they can be self-controlled.

This, argues Wallace, is the goal of the liberal arts education: the ability to recognize this hubris and ignorance and do our best, if possible, to keep it in check. It grants us the ability to recognize the most basic thing, the way we explain reality.

Wallace is not the only person to say this. It rings with the self-conscious ignorance of Socrates and echoes Albert Camus’ dictum from his notebooks: “An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself.” Its view of education also mirrors what astronomer Carl Sagan said in his final interview about science: “Science is more than a body of knowledge: It’s a way of thinking.”

Wallace’s unique addition is the painful awareness he has over his own limitations and the poignant, almost Zen-like awareness that the simplest, most pervasive things are the most hidden. Wallace opens the speech with a didactic story about two young fish swimming. Coming the opposite direction, an older fish swims by them saying, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” The two younger fish keep going, and eventually one of the fish turns to the other and asks, “What the hell is water?” The very fabric of their existence is far from obvious.

This parable returns toward the speech’s conclusion in a pointed restatement of the theme:

[T]he real value of a real education [has] almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

‘This is water.’

‘This is water.’

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime.

As someone who works as a T.A. for a freshman composition class and in a writing center that aids students with the composition process, I’ve come to reach a similar point of view–I hesitate to call it a conclusion. Now on the other side of the desk, where I’m supposed to provide “knowledge” or “guidance” to new students, I painfully recognize the subjectivity of it all, the hubris of trying to “teach” someone how I see the world.

Instead, I just want to make them aware–aware of the world around them, with its conversations and conventions, and how they fit into it. What their own voice has to say. Or what their own voice has misidentified, misunderstood, or overgeneralized. But I often feel torn between the immediate goals of polishing up their arguments, correcting their grammar, or getting them a good grade and this much more idealistic, long-term longing. Moreover, I often struggle with normative hubris or unaware auto pilot in myself.

Most of the time, I’m not the older fish who sees the water. Most of the time, I’m simply the younger one, asking, “What the hell?”