Remer, Gary. “Rhetoric as a Balancing of Ends: Cicero and Machiavelli.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 42.1 (2009): 1-28. Print.


The author compares and contrasts the role of rhetoric in the political philosophies of Cicero and Niccolo Machiavelli. The moral character of glory and a commitment to the good and beneficial in the politics of Cicero are analyzed. The author suggests that Machiavelli is aware that citizens desire honorable rulers and therefore asserts that rulers must always appear honorable. The author concludes that glory is a moral duty for Cicero and that Machiavelli’s notion of glory is rooted in an understanding of ancient heroism that predates Cicero.

Keywords: roman rhetoric, ancient rhetoric, machiavelli, Cicero, renaissance rhetoric, virtue, ethics, humanism, political rhetoric, morality, glory


  • R. begins by highlighting the ways that Cicero argued for the ends of rhetorical work (usually oratory in his time) as both good and honorable while at the same time useful or expedient (1).  For Machiavelli the ends weren’t both good and useful; rather, “Machiavelli accepts the impossibility of simultaneously upholding the morally good and the useful” (1).  In other words, the Machiavellian rhetor must choose the useful or expedient (utile) over the good (honestum).
  • When considering virtue, both C. and M. argue for a fairly “flexible” rhetorical orientation.  This flexibility, according to Remer, puts both on an equal playing field and doesn’t subsume Cicero’s contradictory stance toward the good and the useful under the Machiavellian position of the importance of ends (2).
  • The author argues that because Cicero’s oratorical precepts have a “good” element that extends into the public life he abides by the rhetorical principle of “decorum” which “obliges orators to adapt themselves to context” (2).  For the author, Cicero’s adherence to decorum is an important moral duty that makes his rhetoric more ethical than Machiavelli’s – a rhetoric that violated decorum because of the “attempt to resurrect a heroic ideal that disappeared long ago” (2).
  • Relying on Kahn and Barlow, R. argues that while Cicero argued for the moral component of rhetoric, Machiavelli was “more deeply rhetorical” than other humanists of the period because he didn’t consider the orator bound by specific truth claims of ideological values (3).
  • The fact that Machiavelli’s virtue is in doubt (or at least a moving target as seen in the comparison between Agothecles and Caesar Borgia) is actually quote synonymous with Cicero’s conception of virtue; in fact, while Cicero maintains that the ends must be good and useful, he actually argues quite strongly for the self-interested advancement of personal benefit throughout De officiis (7).  So, while Cicero does argue for what is good and useful, those good and useful things/actions are good and useful in the context of the orator and the audience – not in a universal context.  Hence, even Cicero’s virtu isn’t as clear cut as it might seem.
  • Machiavelli pursues justice out of a self-interested motive; further, the good ruler must even be capable of trickery (at any time) because of the naturally avaricious nature of man (10).  In this sense, Machiavelli chooses a “pagan, political morality” over the Christian, humanist morality.
  • On glory: Cicero balances the ideals of honor and benefit with the public and private in his conception of glory.  Machiavelli understands glory as purely beneficial and public (11).  R. chalks up the transition Cicero made from public to public and private glory to the influence of Greek stoic philosophy in his life (13-4).
  • Machiavelli attempts to resuscitate “glory” from the classical tradition; however, he manages to do so without considering a central element of the classical tradition: decorum (17).  Because he pursued public fame so doggedly, Machiavelli ignored the honestum and the moral virtues required of the Ciceronian orator (18).
  • R. closes by drawing attention to the ways that our current political situation looks a lot more Machiavellian than Ciceronian . . . which is part of the problem.  We should adhere to the “moral sense” that is relative to our communities but guides us toward the communal interest (22).

Key Quotes:

Despite their similarities, however, Cicero and Machiavelli differ from each other in that Cicero, in contrast to Machiavelli, openly affirms that politics is incomplete without a dual commitment to the good and the beneficial. I examine Machiavelli’s focus on the useful and public as opposed to Cicero’s additional commitment to the honorable and to the private. I analyze, in particular, the pursuit of glory in Machiavelli as it derives from early classical culture, which was preoccupied with appearances and the search for immortality. I argue that Cicero, while not abandoning the quest for

glory, also vests this concept (under Stoic influence) with a private, moral character. In doing so, Cicero adheres to the rhetorical principle of decorum, which obliges orators to adapt themselves to context. This principle, I maintain, is not only a matter of expediency for Cicero but also a moral

duty. While Cicero accommodates himself to a Roman world in which private morality was already an important part of one’s life, Machiavelli violates decorum, attempting to resurrect a heroic ideal that disappeared long ago. (2)

Colish’s claim that the useful dominates all oversimplifies Cicero in De officiis . Cicero does not assimilate the honorable to the useful any more than he fulfills his own claim to subordinate the useful to the honorable. Cicero’s intermingling of the categories “honorable” and “useful” (and of exceptions to these categories) produces the same effect as Machiavelli’s inability to commit himself to any one version of virtù: to suggest that words and actions must be decided by circumstance. The consequence of Cicero’s definitional inconstancy is to make Cicero more rhetorical. Without either the honorable or the useful—individual or social—determining the outcome

a priori, rhetors must decide for themselves. Unlike Machiavelli, who limits himself to deciding actions according to the principle of utility, Cicero is committed to balancing the honorable and the useful, not only against each other but from within each end. The upshot is that the absolute categories become more liquid, with the rhetor having to decide contextually. (8)

By grounding his speech and actions in his community’s values, Cicero delineates a more complex “glory”—one that includes the honorable—than Machiavelli’s. As discussed earlier, Cicero, more generally, blurs the lines between morality and usefulness. The political actor, for Cicero, not only must balance between the honestum and the utile but must also consider what to do in a world in which the lines between (and within) the honestum and utile are unclear. (19-20)

Cicero, particularly Cicero’s rhetoric, influenced Machiavelli. Machiavelli, however, broke with Cicero on the political role of the honestum. In contrast to Cicero, who embraced the honestum and the utile (with the honestum as the ultimate end), Machiavelli rejected the possibility of adhering to both. Instead, he argued that leaders must be guided by the useful; successful rulers cannot permit themselves to be hamstrung by moral considerations. I maintain, however, that Cicero’s adherence to the moral sense of his community is consistent with the rhetorical principle of decorum. Machiavelli’s abandonment of the honestum and his apotheosis of ancient heroic ideals set him at odds with the values of his own day, and thus, unlike Cicero, he rejects decorum’s obligation to follow the established customs and conventions of one’s community. (21)

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