Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.10.39 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.10.39

Gary Remer, Ethics and the Orator: The Ciceronian Tradition of Political Morality.   Chicago; London:  The University of Chicago Press, 2017.  Pp. xii, 291.  ISBN 9780226439167.  $55.00.  

Reviewed by Joanna Kenty, University of New Hampshire (


“An advocate may sometimes defend what looks like the truth, even if it is less true” (Cic. Off. 2.51, tr. Griffin). This may seem like a shameless declaration (or even a confession) that the advocate operates without much regard for morality. However, in his new book, Gary Remer argues not only that Cicero’s corpus advances a moral code for advocates and for politicians, but that Cicero’s morality has been (and deserves to be) a formative influence on ethical thinkers, consistently from antiquity to the present. In Remer’s reading, focused mostly on De Officiis and De Oratore, Cicero argues that the orator and the politician (as a user of rhetoric) must try to maintain a difficult balance between moral principles on the one hand, and doing their utmost to serve their clients and their communities on the other. It seems impossible to generalize about what that balance will look like, because the orator’s choices will depend on their circumstances.

In the introduction, Remer points out that modern political scientists and philosophers continue to debate the nature of morality in politics, without realizing that they are reproducing arguments made by Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. This book brings Cicero in particular back into the discussion (4). The bibliography includes a wide variety of scholarship in classics, political science, philosophy, rhetoric, and other related fields. Remer’s project is aimed at shining a spotlight on Cicero primarily as an influence on later Western thinkers, or rather on the Ciceronian tradition, not on Cicero himself, and Remer’s methods are not those a classicist would use. Cicero is treated almost entirely in translation (almost all from the Loebs). The discussion of Cicero generalizes about his ideas and activities, sometimes too much, without much discussion of his biography or the historical context of his various works. Still, the book will be of interest to classicists interested in classical receptions and in broad questions about political ethics. In particular, Remer offers a precis of scholarly perspectives on rhetoric in his introduction which I think would be useful to classicists. Ethical thinkers from Plato to Kant have condemned rhetoric as manipulative and deceitful, but there is a case to be made in favor of rhetoric – or rather, there are two cases. The “weak” case for rhetoric allows that rhetoric is an amoral (but not an immoral) art which can be used for good or evil, depending on the user’s intentions. The “strong” case posits that rhetoric is essential to politics. Making arguments for others to evaluate, criticize, and choose from is a public service, one vital part of the political process.1 According to the strong case for rhetoric, Cicero’s endorsement of defending (some) guilty clients can be interpreted not as a deflection of moral responsibility, but as one component of a system of ethics particular to the orator which allows him to do his job responsibly as well as successfully. Remer’s is a book that takes this idea of Ciceronian morality seriously, not as a lawyer’s cavilling but as a real attempt to balance the demands of politics with adherence to ethical principles.

The chapters are fairly self-contained, and in fact several appeared first as individual articles in Rhetorica, Philosophy and Rhetoric, and Journal of Politics. The first chapter, a prologue to the rest, compares Quintilian and John of Salisbury (ca. 1120-1180) as readers of Cicero. Remer uses these two as examples of the Ciceronian tradition between Cicero’s lifetime and the revival of interest in Cicero associated with the Renaissance, to demonstrate that Cicero’s influence was alive and well in the interim (30). Both Quintilian and John of Salisbury, Remer argues, adopt Cicero’s view that users of rhetoric are torn between what is morally admirable (honestum) and what is practical (utile). Like Cicero, they both appeal to the public good as the primary criterion of what the rhetorician should or should not do: the end may justify the means, within reason. For John, for example, if a courtier pretends to be wicked in order to fit in better with other courtiers so that he can gain access to the prince and give the prince moral, beneficial advice, such dissimulation is morally justified, because it is intended to have positive results. Remer also introduces the Ciceronian criterion of decorum in this prologue, which he argues is crucial to understanding Cicero’s political morality. Decorum, in his view, consists of playing by the rules of one’s community, in a moral sense. This concept gives Cicero’s political morality its situational, contingent quality: actions are not innately immoral or moral, in Cicero’s logic, but only become so in context. In Chapter 1, Remer turns to the question of whether it is ethical or not to play on an audience’s emotions to persuade them, comparing how Aristotle and Cicero approach the topic. Remer compares Aristotle and Cicero on persuasion through ethos and pathos, and argues that Aristotle does not explain the ethical boundaries of emotional manipulation or offer a system of ethics specific to the politician, as opposed to a general human moral code. In De Oratore, however, Cicero attempts to do so (through his interlocutors). An argument is made that the orator is merely giving his audience what they want by stirring their emotions, and that it is therefore decorous and moral to do so – in fact, it would be immoral not to, since it would prevent the orator from persuading his audience, and thus from bringing about any benefit to his community. If he were living in the ideal society imagined in De Legibus, or if the Roman republic were not facing the threat of extinction, such histrionics would be unnecessary, and therefore immoral. Situational decorum thus determines morality.

In Chapter 2, Remer returns to the notion of an ethical code specific to politicians, a “two-tiered morality” often associated with Machiavelli, of which he discovers an earlier instance in Cicero’s De Officiis. While our identity as humans and the “law of nature” may dictate a universal moral code, the role of a politician necessarily dictates rather different moral criteria. If something is done for the public good – and if the public later agrees that it was good – then it is ethical. This is the logic Cicero employs in defending the senatus consultum ultimum, and in explaining away his exile, for example. For me, this idea of the two-tiered ethical system also raised the question of whether Cicero’s works in different genres could be said to advance different moralities: is morality in De Officiis the same as morality in De Oratore or in the orations? In Chapter 3, Remer addresses the relationship between Machiavelli and Cicero more directly. Ultimately, Remer concludes, both Machiavelli and Cicero call on politicians to do what is both honestum and utile, as much as possible, rather than choosing one over the other. In fact, choosing either one at the expense of the other usually turns out to be self-defeating. The chapter ends with a critique of Machiavelli: “unlike Cicero, 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 violated Ciceronian standards of decorum, and also defied a basic human desire to behave ethically. Because Cicero offers a more complicated but more humane idea of political ethics and recognizes its situational dimension, he is the more useful and appealing author to think with, Remer argues. In Chapter 4, Remer focuses on another example of a thinker who found inspiration in Cicero’s ethical thought: Justus Lipsius (1547-1606), a Dutch humanist. Lipsius’ exhortation to prudence – good judgment of what is worth attempting under specific circumstances – draws explicitly on Cicero (if sometimes wrongly or out of context) and defends the morality of the variability of Cicero’s position. Like Cicero, Lipsius allows the politician to act in ways which might be immoral for others, including the use of deceit.

In Chapter 5, Remer turns to the question of political representation, and the precise nature of the relationship between a republican politician and the mass of citizens. Although representation is a modern invention by most accounts (Remer focuses on Rehfeld and Pitkin2), and although Cicero does not have a word for representation in the modern sense, Remer argues that Cicero’s notion of the rector rei publicae and the statesman as a procurator of the citizens (in De Republica and De Oratore) contain the same basic elements. Edmund Burke, the authors of the Federalist Papers, and John Stuart Mill all continue this Ciceronian tradition in their descriptions of the statesman’s obligations to the citizens. As in these later works, in Cicero’s treatises the statesman is portrayed as intellectually superior to the citizens and better able to perceive what is beneficial for them, but he is also obliged to serve them, and submits to their demands and their judgment. Chapter 6 sets Cicero in dialogue with modern proponents of deliberative democracy as a superior political model (Habermas, Benhabib, Gutmann & Thompson3), wherein citizens gather to discuss and debate their values. Remer links this model to Cicero’s descriptions of elite conversation (sermo), especially philosophical dialogues. These conversations are not action-oriented or agonistic but collegial, and are supposed to proceed through rational inquiry free from emotional persuasion. However, Remer argues that this is not a realistic way for most citizens to engage in politics, and so argues that Cicero’s model of deliberative oratory is actually the preferable one for republican politics. This model does not purport to separate emotion from reason, which is an unattainable (and perhaps undesirable) ideal in politics, and allots authority to experts and specialists.

In the conclusion, Remer returns to Cicero’s “two-tiered” morality and its relevance for today, and continues to argue that Ciceronian ethics offer us a good model: “by recognizing a separate role morality for politicians, Cicero avoids the Scylla of absolutist moralism and the Charybdis of amoral expediency” (203). Cicero’s account of the role of rhetoric in society is practical and realistic, admitting some latitude for “dirty hands” in politics as well as fulfilling the basic human desire for moral constraints. His concept of decorum introduces an element of accountability, so that the rhetorician is not just playing by whatever moral rules he chooses for himself, but has to answer ultimately to an external entity. Remer also argues that Cicero’s call for decorum and obedience to the sensus communis is less stubbornly conservative than one might think. The takeaway throughout the book seems to be that Cicero refused to commit to any extreme position and embraced the tensions and contradictions inherent in his line of work, admitting that the rhetorician was just going to have to do his best in any given situation, without universal rules. This may not seem like a strong ethical argument, but it is an eminently realistic one, and Remer makes a persuasive case for it, although his notion of a moral dimension of decorum remains a slippery concept. I suspect that detractors of rhetoric (or rhetoricians) may not find it to be a satisfying, stable model of political ethics. However, even skeptics will find that this book offers a clear synthesis of ancient and modern ideas, tackling important theoretical controversies in an approachable and thoughtful way.


1.   Lanham, Richard A. 2010. The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts. University of Chicago Press; Leff, Michael. 1998. “Cicero’s Pro Murena and the Strong Case for Rhetoric.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 1 (1): 61–88.
2.   Rehfeld, Andrew. “Towards a General Theory of Political Representation,” The Journal of Politics 68, No. 1 (Feb. 2006), pp. 1-21. Pitkin, Hannah. 1967. The Concept of Representation. University of California Press.
3.   Habermas, Jürgen. 1989. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. tr. Thomas Burger. MIT Press; and Habermas, Jürgen. 1996. “Three Normative Models of Democracy: Liberal, republican, procedural.” Questioning Ethics: Contemporary Debates in Continental Philosophy. ed. Mark Dooley, Richard Kearney. Routledge. Benhabib, Seyla. 1996. “Toward a Deliberative Model of Democratic Legitimacy.” In Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundaries of the Political, ed. Seyla Benhabib. Princeton University Press. Gutmann, Amy, and Dennis Thompson. 1996. Democracy and Disagreement. Princeton University Press.

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