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Cicero on the art of oration

June 25, 2012


I have always held in great regard the men and women who have been able to move their peers and contemporaries with what they verbally spewed. I recall my own first baptism of fire into the pantheon of legends. The year was 2004, and I was in had just at the beginning of my post high school international diploma and was canvassing for the SRC vice-presidency gig. I stood up at the school auditorium, which ironically is architecturally set out very much like the old Greek and Roman ones. Let’s just say confidence and eloquence did not come so naturally to my young self.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr giving his now immortal “I have a dream” oration

Under pressure I choked and was hardly audible. I was not ready. That failure has since sparked my interest in this now lost art. I thought Barack Obama had revived it momentarily, but I was disappointed to find out that he uses a teleprompter all most all the time he speaks. Still he is above the fray should you compare him to any public figures around the world today.

I still find it appalling that many leaders do not work at improving their persuasion and public speaking repertoire. How many politicians do we see daily on TV who fumble for words and lack eloquence and poise? Too many. I mean  who of the current crop of politicians remotely reminds of  the rhetorical skill of Martin Luther King? none.

What then is Cicero’s theory of oratory? And what according to him are the necessary qualifications of the perfect orator? The briefest possible answer this question would be – if we may be allowed to say so without disrespect to the memory of Cicero – ‘Let a man do exactly as I, Cicero, have done, and he will thus only, achieve the desired result.’

The orator is the man who not only not only knows everything there is to be known, but also can speak on everything there is to be known, but can also speak on everything there is to be known, but can also speak on every subject with power to persuade and convince. This is a large claim to make to make may for the orator, but it may also be said that Cicero, for his age and times fully satisfied it.

Careful and preliminary training is paramount, the devotion of a lover to one’s art. This training must consist in the critical study of the best authors, Greek and Roman, in declamation exercises, both in extempore and prepared, in physical exercises for the management of the voice and the limbs; and above all in much written composition.

Whatever then his subject may be, to whatever science it may belong and whatever kind, the orator, if he has studied it will speak on it with more skill and in a better language than even the man who has made some original discovery or has technical skill in that special line.

What is needed is a certain agility of thought and mind, so as to ensure readiness of invention, richness of expression and style, and strength and permanence of memory.

Mobility of tongue; tone of voice; power of lung; physique; certain confirmation of feature and general pose of limb.

The better the speaker, the more painfully is he conscious of the difficulty of speaking, of the uncertainty of the effort of his speech, and of the expectations of his audience. It is the orator’s duty in a way to win the assent of his audience.

The whole activity and faculty of the orator falls under the five heads; first he is to think of what is to be said, secondly, he must not only tabulate his thoughts, but marshal and arrange them in order with due regard to their relative weight and importance, and thirdly clothe them in artistic language, fourthly fix them in memory, fifthly and lastly deliver them with grace and dignity of gesture.

We must begin winning the favorable attention of our audience; then we must state the facts of the case, then determine the point at issue, then establish the charge we are bringing, then refute the arguments of our opponent, and finally in our peroration amplify and emphasize all that can be said on our side of the case, and weaken and invalidate the points which tell for the opposite.

Eloquence is not produced by art, but the art has sprung from the practice of eloquence.

The main thing however, which to tell the truth, we very rarely do, for it involves considerable trouble and that most of us avoid, is to write as much as possible. The pen is the best and most effective artist and teacher of speech.

When a young man, I used to set myself some piece of poetry the most impressive I could find, or read some speech, as much of it as I could retain in my memory, and then deliver the speech on the same subject, choosing for far as I could other words to describe the same subject.

I conceive an orator as a man who in all questions such commonly arise in public life, can command at once the language to which it is pleasant to listen, and sentiments which are calculated to convince, and I expect him also to have a good voice and delivery and certain gift of humor.

The language of the orator, however, is directed to exaggerating and intensifying the horror of those of those evils which in ordinary life are regarded as ills to be avoided, and in the same way to magnifying and enhancing the value of those good things which one popularly regarded as blessings to be desired.

What we want is man of clear intelligence, of good parts both natural and acquired, able to detect with unerring sagacity what are the thoughts, feelings, opinions, and expectations of his own fellow citizens, or any audience of men when whom wishes to convince by the power of words.

He must have his finger on the pulse of every class, age, and rank, and must divine the thoughts and feelings of those before who he is going to speak, or is likely to do so.

Another absolute necessity for an orator is a good voice. But no student of oratory will, on my recommendations give the same servile attention to his voice as the tragic actors of Greece, who not only practice sedentary declamation for several years, but as a daily routine before playing in public, lie on a sofa and gradually increase the pitch of their voice, and then after the performance is over, sit down, and drop their voice again from the highest to the lowest note.

Let him devote laborious nights and days almost exclusively to this one pursuit. Let him follow the example of that great man who is unhesitatingly acknowledged by all to be the chief of all orators, the Athenian Demosthenes, whose enthusiasm and perseverance, we are told, first by careful and overcame his natural impediments unremitting diligence, and though he had a lisp and could not pronounce the first letter of the very art which he was studying, succeeded by practice in the reputation of being the most distinct of all speakers.

Moreover, though he suffered much from shortness of breath, he effected such an improvement by holding in his breath while speaking, that in a single rhetorical period, as can be seen in the extend of his speeches, we find comprised two raising and two lowering of the voice. He also according to a well known story used to put pebbles in his mouth and repeat long extracts from poets at the top of his voice and in one breath; and that too, not standing still in one position, but while he was walking up and down; and even climbing down a steep ascent.


From → Legends

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