History of Rhetoric, Weeks 8-12: Cicero, Quintilian, and the Roman tradition

As we move from ancient Greece to Rome, we see a number of shifts in how rhetoric is talked about and taught. While ancient Athenian rhetoric’s value was debated for its ability to have citizens participate in civic life, Roman rhetoric was oriented more towards the administration of the empire. While both applications of rhetoric would hope to be practiced virtuously, the Romans give much greater attention to figuring out the nuts and bolts of rhetoric. Many texts on rhetoric were written during this period, usually with the tone of a “how-to” guide for constructing and delivering speeches. While reading through Cicero, the Rhetorica ad Herennium, and later contributors who build on concepts such as stasis theory or the canons of rhetoric, my overall impression of this period was that while rhetoric enjoyed further proliferation and circulation, the actual movement forward of the field tended to be minute from text to text; writing a new handbook of rhetoric mostly meant adding a step or two to an existing process for writing and delivering a speech, for example, or defining an additional few levels of stasis theory, or distinguishing different contexts in which one might give a speech of praise. In practically every case, each subsequent text adds to and complicates previous rhetoricians’ work, rather than simplifying it. All this had the effect of making the Romans a bit of a blur to me, honestly, with their preoccupation with procedure and minutiae.

I feel bad giving such short and general shrift to the great Cicero and other founders of rhetoric, but things didn’t really start getting interesting for me with the Romans until we hit Quintilian. I felt an incredible kinship with Quintilian, who in the Institutes of Oratory seems to be looking for a balance between rhetorical theory, practice, and pedagogy. He’s one of the first rhetoricians to be writing in continuity with a tradition that was influenced by the likes of Cicero and Isocrates, while also attempting to push rhetoric in different directions.

I’ll admit, some of my affinity for Quintilian might also be the circumstances under which I was reading him – it was the night of November 8th, 2016, sitting in my kitchen reading about how Quintilian was writing and thinking about rhetoric’s importance in the decline of the empire, while the results of the US presidential election were being reported on in the background. In Quintilian’s time, rhetoric had become even further diminished and changed from earlier conceptions, so that it was now seen mostly as a tool for training future administrators and magistrates of the empire. While rhetoric enjoyed imperial endowments that allowed it to continue, it was being put to more and more instrumental ends and becoming less and less about empowering individual citizens to participate in civic life. This is the state of affairs in which Quintilian was working, but also, I think, hoping to push back against. Rhetoric as a course of study was to be a lifelong endeavor, under Quintilian’s proposed system of rhetorical education; boys were to be sent to a teacher as soon as he “shall have attained such proficiency in his studies as to be able to comprehend what we have called the first precepts of the teachers of rhetoric.”  The study of rhetoric would foster the culture of a family, with a relationship akin to a parent and child existing between the teacher and student – students would “love their tutors not less than their studies, and regard them as parents, not indeed of their bodies, but of their minds.”

Quintilian’s model of education stresses the need for doing that also allows for reflection. Rhetoric is not simply the ability to speak – responding to Aristotle’s claim that oratory, as a practice that everyone engages in, precedes art, that then it is not an art itself, Quintilian writes: “Everything which art has brought to perfection had its origin in nature […] So if any kind of speaking whatever is to be called oratory, I will admit that oratory existed before it was an art; but if every one that speaks is not an orator, and if men in early times did not speak as orators, our reasoners must confess that an orator is formed by art, and did not exist before art.” Further, Quintilian defends rhetoric as a virtue, and it is traditionally from Quintilian that we receive the definition of rhetoric as “a good man speaking well.” As the importance of eloquence becomes elaborated in Cicero and the Roman rhetoricians, Quintilian again links the ability to speak well with a virtuous character, describing “the true dignity of eloquence.”

Going forward, the relationship between rhetoric and virtuous character will return to prominence as Christianity begins to adopt and create its own rhetorical practices. Join us next time as we elide centuries of Church history!


Author: Phil Choong

PhD student in the Department of English at Indiana University. Working between critical and literary theory, rhetoric, and pedagogy.

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