Cross the sociopolitical range and capacity for abstract thought of Hannah Arendt with the erudite engagement in Roman republican dynamics of Elizabeth Rawson. Add a profound commitment to contemporary discourse both within and outside the academy, and its relationship to life lived now. You will have some sense of the passionate complexity, the radiant relevance, of Joy Connolly’s remarkable book.
At the heart of this book lies a reading of the rhetorical theories of the late republic —principally those of Cicero—in the light of the political exigencies of the day. This in itself is somewhat novel, that a reading of rhetorical theory should look not inward, towards the improvement of the self, but outwards, towards the very foundations of political engagement. Connolly also expands her reading of primary texts back into the second century BCE and forward into the first century CE. Her wider context lies in political theory ranging from the early modern to the contemporary, with particular emphasis on that pertaining to the foundation of the American republic.
Connolly firmly counters the Platonic master narrative of transcendent ideality, and situates civil responsibility and republican ideals in the bodies that perform and voice them and in the slowly shifting mores of communitarian life. This valuing of the community dynamic places sociality at the forefront of interpretation. It also positions Roman rhetorical theory as something rich and interesting—a product of intense thought and lived experience—not a weak simulacrum or adaptation of Greek thought.
Connolly is constantly alert to concerns in her texts not to demarcate concepts but to bridge and blend. By the end of her book, she has earned the right to offer democratic prescriptions for the here and now—and so she does, as we shall see.
Connolly lays out clearly in her Introduction what is important to her. She defends reading for ‘relevance’; she makes a plea for, and justification of, civic engagement; she commits herself to Charles Taylor’s fruitful notion of ‘webs of interlocution’. This is a deeply ethical mode of reading—and like all ethical undertakings, it begins from an acknowledgement of both imperfection and imperfectibility. Complacency stifles ethics. Connolly says, ‘My main motive is to lift out of a historically grounded reading of Roman rhetorical texts questions that remain relevant today, questions about what it means to be a citizen’ (16). She goes on to ask, ‘What if civic and personal identity worked itself loose from traditional national boundaries, from ethnic and religious ties, or even, through modern communication technologies, from the physical communities in which everyday life is lived?’ But the question is a false one: for Connolly, this deracination is already a given; and only in a revived commitment to a true and open public discourse can we begin to root ourselves again.
Connolly’s capacious first chapter ponders the founding of the ‘state of speech’—as she reminds us (76), the term ‘state’ comes from the phrase ‘status rei publicae’. Here she contemplates middle republican rhetorical practice, with the help of the fragmentary surviving speeches, and the delicate power balances engaged by Cicero in his early De Inventione and by the Auctor ad Herennium. Here, Connolly addresses the complex and important question of how the populace is complicit in a political order in which they are largely excluded from power—and juxtaposes it with the insistence of the elite on ruling as if appeals to the will of the people were meaningful. Political difference, she argues, was rewritten as moral difference (59), and thus citizens were empowered as moral judges in a compensatory gesture for their lack of political equality. The foregrounding of moral authority helps to explain the importance of how a speech was performed, and of the body performing it. And the words of the speech, beautifully chosen and logically ordered, performed in the moment the creation of a shared identity—the ideal of the res publica. Connolly summarizes the moves, drawing once again on Cicero and the Auctor : ‘stylized speech is presented in terms of dialogue; dialogue implies a kind of equality; equality, a kind of liberty; liberty, security; security, communal concord; concord, shared identity’ (75).
This is the most exhilarating point of the book, a heady moment of idealism which gives way to a clear-eyed discussion of the pragmatics, the peculiarities, and the impossibilities contained in the ideal. The master narrative, in chapters two through five, is Cicero’s, and it is a sad one; for it tells of the increasingly hopeless formulation of these ideals against the realities of late republican trauma. ‘[T]he living web of communal virtue is always, somewhere, being torn apart by human vice and mortality; . . .the basis for legitimacy is slowly eroding;’ and so ‘the best orator. . .remains eternally absent’ (14), for the orator inevitably ’embodies the central tensions of republican citizenship’ (19). These tensions are respectively those around the unnatural nature of the state (chapter 2), around the body as a link between self and community (chapter 3), around the place of passion in oratory (chapter 4), and around the tricky relationship between masculinity and rhetorical performance (chapter 5). Each chapter is grounded in readings from Cicero’s rhetorical theory ordered broadly chronologically; thus we end with the ‘frustrated acknowledgement [of De Re Publica and Brutus ] of the warping of public speech in a republic where the rule of law was crumbling’ (235).
Each of these chapters is bold and original, but two sections seem to me especially noteworthy. In each case they refresh a discussion that has become trite by attending to the civic and political context in which texts were generated. In chapter 4, Cicero’s ideal of ‘decorum’—his notion of the appropriate in oratory—is glossed as an ‘enactment of civic love’ arising from ‘natural sociability’ (169). This leads to a gratefully fresh reading of Catullus who, Connolly argues, is preoccupied with the social fissures that Cicero tries to close; and Catullus’ ‘preoccupation with sentiment places him at the center of republican concerns’ (174). Just as the orator did, the Catullan circle put on a social and emotional performance, ‘looking and loving the right way’ (182). (Just how problematic ‘loving the right way’ could be for Cicero can been seen painfully played out in his letters. Look at the declarations of love to Caesar in Fam. 7.5, once Cicero had finally accepted the inevitable and switched his allegiance. Read against C’s notion that love underpins propriety and concord , they are revealed as anguished wishful thinking: perhaps if Cicero thus declares his love for Caesar, propriety and concord will ensue.) Reading these texts that are normally cordoned off as ‘literary’ in a political context brings exciting results; I can’t wait to see Connolly doing more of this.
The other especially noteworthy contribution comes in Connolly’s discussion of the relation between gender performance and rhetoric. We have heard much of late about the troubled performance of masculinity and about the way in which the artificium of rhetoric is associated with unmasculine properties. Connolly starts from here and then changes the terms completely—thanks, once again, to her attentiveness to political context. She argues that rhetoric’s ‘gender panic’ arises not from gender essentialism but from ‘anxiety about the stability and coherence of a political regime’ that is based on the ‘ artificium‘ of virtue. (Once again, the unnatural nature of the state—the fact that the appearance of naturalness is based on the repression of nature—is at the fore.) Rome had never been homogeneous, ever since ‘its founding in thievery, kidnapping, and rape’ (213), and the ongoing anxiety about its heterogeneity was, Connolly argues, played out around femininity. Civic identity itself—not specifically masculine or feminine identity—was ‘unstable, contradictory, fractured’; against this background, women were not criticized qua women, but as representing lack of full freedom, authority, and so on. This may not seem an important shift of terms with reference to a society in which women were, as a matter of fact, not citizens; but it is hugely important for Connolly’s program in the present, as will be seen.
In Connolly’s account of its complex, risky, and unstable nature, the republic can only survive through constant repetition and reiteration. Caesar’s statement that ‘nihil esse rem publicam’ (‘the republic is a nonentity’, 241) therefore tears at the fabric of that necessary illusion and anticipates a reordering of rhetoric’s relevance. Connolly’s final chapter (ch. 6) explores what might be called the mannerist stage of Roman rhetoric, when its repetitious nature topples into parody under the autocratic regimes that succeed the republic: the age of the declaimers. As described in Seneca Contr. and Suas., the declaimers are flamboyant verbal risk-takers, but ineffectual in actual law courts. Quintilian ‘models a social order reinforced through language’ in his Institutio Oratoria (255), but small wonder that the ethical power of language starts to flow inward, committed to molding the self in the attempt to ‘live a virtuous life under autocracy’ (261) rather than to influencing the course of external events.
This is, in the best sense, a very American book—thoughtful, historically aware, yet infused with optimism and vigor and deep republican ideals. (Given my place of work, I should make clear that this is not a moment of nationalist narcissism: I am an English transplant.) Against the current American political scene, its conclusions read as nothing short of prescient. Building on Arendt’s observation that ‘speech is the actualization of the human condition of plurality’ ( Human Condition 178; 272 here) and her own reading of late republican rhetorical dynamics, Connolly demonstrates the ongoing link between language and the vita activa, and calls for the revival of deliberative democracy. Cicero’s notion of ‘civility’ can, she argues, be translated to our current political climate; even (sic) women, slaves, and actors may be models of decorum. The ideal citizen is articulate yet adaptable, and a model of easy self-control (270). Am I the only person who reads this description and thinks of President Obama?
Consider these words from Obama’s inaugural address. ‘[Earlier generations] understood that our power alone cannot protect us, not does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use. Our security emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.’ Is not this the body of the citizen (and, indeed, the citizen body) as ‘a privileged site of ethical imagination and improvement’ (134)? Consider, from the peroration of the same address, ‘with hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents’: does this not take us back to Cicero’s model that virtue is a suitable goal for each citizen to pursue in practice (95)? Consider the use of town-hall meetings and modes of electronic community-building: can this be the revival of the contio (explained, 47)? Finally, consider the recent reports of the Obamas’ ‘classlessly classy’ behavior in London this month (see A. A. Gill in the New York Times). When Connolly wrote that a ‘historically enriched view of civility’ (273) should be our starting point for a reengagement with democracy, Obama would only recently have begun his long-shot bid for the Democratic nomination, and thence for the U. S. Presidency. Perhaps that reengagement is indeed beginning; for the ‘historical enrichment’ part, you should read this book.