2-Hour Rhetorical Theory Exam

Summarize Socrates' critique of rhetoric in the Gorgias. Then consider De Oratore as Cicero's response to this critique. In your view, is Cicero's response adequate to the objections Socrates has to oratory?

In this brief essay, I will bring Socrates’ critique of rhetoric to bear on Cicero’s De Oratore, suggesting that Cicero offers a viable alternative to the Sophists’ conceptualization of rhetoric. I argue that, to an extent, Cicero shares Socrates’ (and Plato’s) reservations about approaches to rhetoric and instruction in rhetoric and provides a useful corrective in his notion of eloquence. In both the Gorgias and the Phaedrus, Plato critiques contemporary rhetorical practice and instruction in rhetoric. He is responding to the Sophists’ approach to rhetoric and to rhetorical pedagogy, which I will review. The Sophists were fairly relativistic in the way they viewed truth; instead of one high, ideal truth that negates other accounts of a phenomenon (such as a war or a crime), they saw truth as contingent. For example, while it could be argued that “beauty” has one true meaning – a thing is or is not beautiful – the Sophists might argue that a thing could be beautiful or ugly depending on the viewer or the circumstances.

In keeping with their view of truth, the Sophists did not see any particular problem with arguing either side of an issue; the speaker does not necessarily have to believe the argument he or she is making. The Dissoi Logoi declared that every issue has two sides, both of which are arguable. The Sophists were proud of their ability to make the stronger case appear the weaker and of their ability to use rhetoric in an instrumental fashion, as a means to an end, with persuasion and pleasing the audience as the only goals. The most famous example of making the stronger case appear the weaker is Gorgias’ Encomium of Helen, in which Gorgias praised the vilified Helen.

Finally, the Sophists, who made their living teaching rhetoric (another objection made against them by their critics), made the art of rhetoric rather prescriptive – a step-by-step set of rules and formulae their students could use. Packaged in such a way, rhetoric becomes instrumental and loses much of its epistemological thrust. It is reduced for easy teachability, the way one person can teach another how to make a cake. In the Phaedrus, Plato critiques rhetoric (sophistic rhetoric, rather, as the sophistic view represents the state of the discipline at this particular time) for its lack of knowledge of the souls of the audience and for its view of truth as contingent, but in the Gorgias, Plato’s critique centers on the moral obligation of orator to audience and the prescriptive, rule-governed state of rhetoric. Rhetoric is, Socrates argues, formulaic and too concerned with prescription. Instruction in rhetoric uses a cookbook approach and, by privileging form and technique over knowledge and content and focusing on pleasing the audience (and satisfying the orator), elides the reasons interlocutors engage in argument and dialectic in the first place: to discover truth. Rhetoric, Socrates argues, misses the point entirely.

We can see these rules in treatises including Aristotle’s Rhetoric and in technes such as Rhetorica ad Herennium: rules for how to move an audience’s emotions, how to arouse such emotions as calmness in an audience. We can see them still today in writing textbooks and some assessment rubrics. In De Oratore, Cicero shares Plato’s conviction that rhetoric is too rule-governed – instead of looking to persuasion at whatever cost as the goal of oratory (who cares if, say, the outcome of the argument is that a murderer goes free? You won, that’s all that matters.), Cicero advances eloquence as the highest ideal in oratory.

Eloquence, to Cicero, is an intangible quality; it cannot be achieved by following a set of rules. Eloquence requires natural intelligence and ability as well as rigorous education. The eloquent orator must have “maximalistic” knowledge: comprehensive knowledge of any subject that pertains to oratory, including the law, philosophy, government, art, and science. The eloquent orator must be of strong moral character (a corrective to the Sophists’ comparative lack of concern with virtue and what is right). This means the orator should not meet the audience on their moral level, but raise the audience to his level. The orator must be diligent and devoted to the subject of the speech, and he or she must have the ability to speak on any subject; the orator must know what he or she is talking about. Although to Cicero, all aspects of eloquence are equally important, knowledge of the subject is crucial. The Sophists, while they certainly did not have a problem with knowledge, were of the mind that any lack of knowledge of the subject matter could be made up for in the speaker’s knowledge of the tricks of oratory. In other words, a speaker does not have to know the subject matter all that well as long as he or she knows how to argue about it.

Cicero reveals the importance of creativity and innovation in oratory, concepts lacking in a rule-governed, prescriptive approach to rhetoric and instruction in rhetoric. In Cicero’s view, orators bring their individual talents and strengths to composing and delivering speeches; he points out that speakers each have special qualities that make them great orators. One might have a strong, pleasing voice, another might use his or her physical presence especially well, and still another might have a gift for humor. A formulaic approach encourages the mechanical application of rules; it does not encourage the cultivation of individual talent, not does it encourage a critical reading of the suitability and appropriateness of the speech for its circumstances.

To be sure, Cicero values techniques. In Book 3 of De Oratore, he presents a plethora of techniques, including stylistic techniques (figures of speech and thought) and delivery techniques such as how to make one’s voice convey lamentation or anger. However, a crucial distinction exists: Whereas in sophistic rhetoric, the techniques are presented as rules, steps to a result, in Ciceronian rhetoric, the techniques are presented as just that, techniques: observations of what is effective in oratorical practice. What to do with the techniques is up to the orator. The implication is that in sophistic rhetoric, the speaker has little rhetorical agency. Little thought is required. In Ciceronian rhetoric, the speaker has more freedom and more challenges. Cicero reveals the epistemological and ethical complexities involved in the act of speaking.