Saturday, July 28, 2012

Cicero: The Power of Speech and Ancient Wisdom



I recently finished reading Cicero's "On Oratory and Orators".  Written around 55 B.C, this book embodies much of the political wisdom of the era.  I found myself impressed with the scale of knowledge and wisdom demonstrated on a variety of topics.

While there are many tangents, the main thrust of the book is the discussion of public speaking.  I found this especially poignant since, as a public offical, I have occasions to speak and also to be spoken to in a public setting.

If you are a public official, public speaker or thinking of becoming either, here are some timeless nuggets of wisdom to live by:

"Men generally come to assume offices and the duties of public administration unarmed and defenseless; prepared with no science, nor any knowledge of business."
 
"For all the force and art of speaking must be employed in allaying or exciting the feelings of those who listen."

"To this must be added a certain portion of grace and wit, learning worthy of a well bred man, and quickness and brevity in replying as well as attacking, accompanied with a refined decorum and urbanity."

It is never better "to be fonder of argument than of truth."

"There can be no true merit is speaking, unless what is said is thoroughly understood by him who says it." (Emphasis added)

"For what savors so much of madness, as the empty sound of words, even the choicest and most elegant, when there is no sense or knowledge contained in them?"

"The orator therefore must take the most studious precaution not merely to satisfy those whom me must necessarily satisfy but to seem worth of admiration to those who are at liberty to judge disinterestedly."

"But the speaker who has no shame (as I see to be the case with many) I regards as deserving, not only of rebuke, but of personal castigation."  

"But if any fault is found in a speaker, there prevails forever, or at least for a very long time, a notion of his stupidity."

"He does not wish to appear so very wise among fools as that his audience should...feel uneasy that they themselves are but idiots."

"He must penetrate the inmost recesses of the mind of every class, age, rank, and ascertain the sentiments and notions of those before whom he is pleading."

"Take one time for premeditation and another for speaking."

"I must have a well cultivated genius, like a field not once plowed only, but again and again, with renewed and repeated tillage, that it may produce better and larger crops, and the cultivation here required is experience, attentive hearing of others, reading, and writing."

"For there is nothing...of more importance in speaking than that the hearer should be favorable to the speaker, and himself so strongly moved that he may be influenced more by impulse and excitement of mind than by judgement or reflection.  For mankind make far more determination through hatred, or love, or desire, or anger, or grief, or joy, or hope, or fear, or error, or some other affection of mind, than from regard to truth, or any settled maxim, or principle of right, or judicial form, or adherence to the laws."

"But the qualities that attract favor to an orator are a soft tone of voice, a countenance of expressive of modesty, a mild manner of speaking, so that if he attacks any one with severity, he may seem to do so unwillingly and from compulsion.  It is of peculiar advantage that indication of good-nature, of liberality, of gentleness, of piety, of grateful feelings, free from selfishness and avarice should appear in him; and everything that characterizes men of probity and humility, not acrimonious, nor pertinacious, nor litigious, nor harsh, and very much conciliates benevolence, and alleviates the affections from those in whom such qualities are not apparent...the contrary to these, therefore, are to be imputed to your opponents."

"Ignorant people can more easily blame what you say injudiciously, than praise you for what you discreetly leave unnoticed."

"For it is the part of a wise man to deliver his opinion on momentous affairs, and that of a man of integrity and eloquence, to be able to provide for other by his prudence, to confirm by his authority, and to persuade by his language."

"In speech, few notice the beginnings, but almost all the closes."

"It is wonderful, when there is a wide interval of distinction betwixt the learned and the illiterate in acting, how little difference there is in judging."

"Great care in managing the eyes is therefore necessary; for the appearance of the features is not to be too much varied, lest we fall into some absurdity or distortion."

"But in everything appertaining to action there is a certain force bestowed by nature herself; and it is by action accordingly that the illiterate, the vulgar, and even barbarians themselves are principally moved.  For words none but those who are associated in a participation of the same language; and sensible thoughts often escape the understandings of sensible men; but action, which by its own powers displays the movements of the soul, affects all mankind; for the minds of all men are excited by the same emotions which they recognize in others, and indicate in themselves by the same tokens."

ON VILIFYING THE RICH BY SAYING OF THEIR WEALTH: "That they are not the acquisitions of virtue, that they have been gained perhaps by vice and crime and that however honorable or imposing they may appear no merit was ever so high as the insolence of mankind and their contumelious disdain."

"At whom do they utter exclamations? - Him who speaks distinctly, explicitly, copiously, and luminously, both as to matter and words; who produces in his language a sort of rhythm and harmony; who speaks as I call it gracefully."
 
"As is this power, which, comprehending a knowledge of things, expresses the thoughts and purposes of the mind in such a manner, that it can impel the audience whithersoever it inclines its force and the greater is its influence, the more necessary it is that it should be united with probity and eminent judgement; for if we bestow the faculty of eloquence upon persons destitute of these virtues, we shall not make them orators, but give arms to madmen."

"...and if I had to choose one of the two, I should prefer uneloquent good sense to loquacious folly."

The book also contains some very insightful comments on the subjects of virtue, science, self improvement, and what I would term metaphysics:

"Virtue, which is ever and alone free, and which, though our bodies be captured in war, or bound with fetters, yet ought to maintain its rights and liberty inviolate of in all circumstances."

"I, for my part, imagined that virtue was instilled in mankind (if it can be instilled by any means) by instruction and persuasion, not by menaces, and force, and terror."

"The wise man seeks for honor, not for spoil, as the reward of virtue." - Roscius

"Diligence; a single virtue, in which all other virtues are comprehended."

"That all the learning of these liberal and polite departments of knowledge is linked together in one bond of union; for when the power of that reason, by which the causes and event of things are know, is once thoroughly discerned, a certain, wonderful agreement and harmony, as it were, in all sciences is discovered."

"Turn your thoughts now to the shape and figure of man; or even that of animals; you find no part of the body fashioned without some necessary use, and the whole frame perfected, as it were, by art, not by chance."

"But as in most things, so in language, nature herself has wonderfully contrived, that what carries in it the greatest utility, should have at the same time either the most dignity, or as it often happens, the most beauty."

"Oh, how fallacious are the hopes of mortals, how frail is our condition, and how insignificant all our ambitious efforts, which are often broken and thrown down in the middle of their course, and overwhelmed as it were in their voyage, even before they gain a sight of the harbor!"

"I am indeed of opinion that you, Crassus, received as well as your birth as your death from the peculiar appointment of divine providence, both on account of the distinction of your live and the season of your death."

"I esteem repose to be the most agreeable solace in the late stage of life."

"For he does not seem to me to be a free man who does not sometimes do nothing."

"Men envy chiefly their equals or inferiors when they perceive themselves left behind, and are mortified that the others have outstripped them."

"The master of the gladiators is now in the extremity of age, yet daily meditates upon the improvement of his science."

"But it is pleasant to be constantly learning if we wish to be thoroughly masters of anything."

I hope you have enjoyed and can use this rather lengthy recitation of quotes.  This represents about three months of reading.  May we learn from the wisdom of Cicero for the benefit of our fellow men.

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