Cicero – De Oratore – Book I

Cicero – De Oratore

Book I:

  • The question of ‘When does rhetoric operate at it’s “highest” is directly engaged by C. at the beginning of this dialogue – He is writing a treatise on oratory and rhetoric at a time of intense political strife just before the dawn of Empire.
  • C. notes that it is interesting that despite the fact that rhetoric is by classical definition a public art, there is little proof of remarkable orators through the ages . . . this is in contradistinction to the more private studies of other disciplines.  (5-6)
  • C. notes that oratory is a hard study and requires a wide knowledge of many things, style, arrangement, attendance to audience, humour, and refined manner (among other things) (7-8).  This might account for the difficulty in achieving fame.
  • His intention is not to make a handbook, but more of a thoughtful reflection/treatise on rhetoric and oratory (10).
  • Cicero notes that the intellectual heritage of the Greeks is actually “public property” (10).
  • Rhetoric as civic: “This art of all others has ever found its fullest development in every free community, and more especially in states enjoying peace and tranquility and has ever exercised a dominant influence” (12-13).   Oratory as central to the protection of the citizenry/state: “my deliberate opinion is, that the controlling influence and wisdom of the consummate orator is the main security, not merely for his own personal reputation, but for the safety of countless individuals, and the welfare of the country at large” (14).
  • Scaevola challenges Crassus’ history or oratory by posing other possible reasons for the rise of civilization: religious rites, wisdom, military conquests, and “gifts attaching to the personality of the speaker”etc.  Crassus replies that the greatest orators must also have a skill/expertise on the subject they are discussing – rhetoric offers a certain “style” that brings people to action (20-1) or a style that is “at once impressive and artistic and comformable with the thoughts and feelings of human nature” (22).
  • Crassus notes that he spent some time studying rhetoric in Athens with his buddy Marcus Marcellus.
  • Oratory/rhetoric as meta-discipline (25) “yet if anyone wishes to elucidate such subjects rhetorically, he must apply for aid to the rhetorical faculty.”
  • The great orator will speak “on this [whatever subject at hand] with judgment, in harmonious language, in perfect style, and with accuracy, all combined in a certain dignity of delivery” (27).
  • The conduct of oratory is divided into three parts: the investigation of the secrets of nature (content/subject specific information), the subtleties of dialectic (rhetorical syllogisms, rhetorical techniques, and the like), and the study of life and morals (moral science – one of  the most important elements for Cicero and a core component of the “Good man speaking well” dictum advanced later by Quintillian).  (27).
  • C. notes that the orator needs a wide, liberal education to be an effective speaker (29).  S. notes that Crassus has bested him in the discussion of the orator but also praises C. for being kind enough to also recognize the legitimacy of the other disciplines as well.
  • Antonius chimes in to note that the ideal orator or the orator who knows not only oratory but also all of the other subjects would be impossible.  A. goes on to note that he believes that there is no “systematic art of rhetoric” and that without an extensive knowledge of the “profoundest philosophy” one couldn’t be an artistic or powerful speaker (37).   After naming the qualities of the disertus (easy-speaking person with the ability to discuss things on a medium level) and the eloquens (who, perhaps is Crassus and is able to speak in public using his mind and memory) the conversation turns back to Crassus as ideal orator.
  • It is at this point that Sulpicius and Cotta join the conversation, begging for the wisdom of Crassus as speaker (who they know through Drusus).  Sulpicius goes as far as to ask if there is an “art of rhetoric”?  (40).
  • In response Crassus answers that there isn’t really an art to rhetoric because it is dynamic and full of ambiguities – it is contextual and kairotic (those are my words, not Crassus’).  In other words, it is not “scientific”; however, if technical intriciacies of the practice of rhetoric have been codified in handbooks and the like then there might be considered an “art” of rhetoric.  NOTE THE DYNAMISM OF THE DEFINITION FROM CRASSUS.  (43).
  • Interestingly Crassus notes how he is actually terrified before most speeches – for this he gains praise from the other folks at the small party.
  • C. notes that the ideal orator will have the “thoughts of the philosopher, the language almost of the poet, the memory of the lawyer, the voice of the tragedian, the gestures I may add of the consummate actor” (48).  This is the reason why a perfect orator is so hard to find.
  • After some Q-n-A from Sulpicius and Cotta, Crassus deigns to explain to them the ideal qualities of rhetoric itself.  He notes that audience consideration is extremely important and that there are three classes of speeches: juridical, deliberative, and epideictic.  He also delineates the five canons of rhetoric (invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery) as well as the argumentative structure laid out in the Rhetorica ad Herennium (exordium, narration, divisio, confirmatio, confutatio, and conclusion. (52-56).
  • Crassus next tells Sulpicius and Cotta about the importance of practice, highlighting how writing is actually fundamental to the development of the ideal rhetor (56).  The process of translating from Greek to Latin (and vice-versa) as well as a wide-ranging knowledge of literature, drama, politics, and law are also important to the orator.  (55-60).
  • In the sections on Civil Right we get a great picture of how important Cicero felt informed participation and acceptance of the state laws are – he even attributes philosophy to the province of civil right.
  • Anitnous responds to Crassus by arguing that a deep and wide knowledge isn’t necessarily for a great orator; rather, what is necessary is convincing speaking ability.  He also notes that a deep knowledge of philosophy isn’t needed, nor is a deep knowledge of the law; rather, only a general knowledge of law and extended, repeated practice are necessary to become a great orator.


1.  Is the extended section on civic law a recognition of the contextual nature of truth in society?  Obviously this section by Crassus points out Cicero’s own desire to think about rhetoric for civic ends. . . what kind of epistemological significance can we draw out of this section?

2.  What do we make of Antonius’ discussion of “rivulets and fountainheads” in Book II, 114-120a?  He states here that “This procedure my indeed be more suitable for training young men, so that, as soon as a case is put before them, they know where to go, and from where they can fetch readymade arguments immediately.  Nevertheless, it is the slow-witted who follow the rivulets but fail to see the sources, while it is fitting for people who have attained our age and experience to derive what we wish from the fountainhead, and to discern the place from which all things flow.”  He is discussing the “commonplaces” in the first example; however, the “fountainheads” can only be reached through thinking out, unfolding, and polish.  So, how does invention work in this section?

Start the Discussion!Leave a Reply