BMCR 2023.11.26

Response: Woolf on Fott on Gilbert, Graver and McConnell, Power and persuasion in Cicero’s philosophy

Response to 2023.08.38

Response by

I would like to thank David Fott for his discussion of my chapter ‘Cicero on Rhetoric and Dialectic’, in the course of his review of Power and Persuasion in Cicero’s Philosophy (BMCR 2023.08.38), and to address some misapprehensions that seem to underlie that discussion. Fott claims that I am led via two ‘mistakes’ to posit a ‘false dilemma’ about Cicero’s position. The dilemma I raise is that Cicero appears to advocate both the arousing of emotion in others as part of the orator’s toolkit and the freeing of others from emotion as part of the correct philosophical approach. My mistakes according to Fott are that ‘(1) Cicero expects the orator to pursue that difficult “philosophical” goal [sc. of freeing the audience from emotion] and (2) a Ciceronian philosopher expects the same freedom from emotional disturbance in others as he expects in himself.’

Now it is not as obvious to me as it is perhaps to Fott that (1) is false, given that Cicero, firstly, at times speaks of the orator as having the power to allay emotion and, secondly, thinks that good oratory ought to incorporate elements from philosophy. But regardless of one’s view of its truth, (1) is not a claim I make in the chapter. I speak not of a tension within the orator’s practice but between Cicero’s advocacy of two apparently contradictory goals. I am indeed explicit, though one would not glean this from Fott’s discussion, that this is a clash between ‘the goal of the philosopher and that of the orator’ (p. 23). It is true of course that philosopher and orator are distinct roles. But if the same individual advocates both goals, and in regard to the treatment of the emotions the goals pull in opposite directions, then prima facie that individual is faced with a dilemma, one that is, to be sure, made more acute by Cicero’s favouring, in the Tusculan Disputations (e.g. I.7, IV.9), of the use of rhetoric in furtherance of that work’s philosophical aims.

This brings us to Fott’s (2), which would now pin the alleged falsity of the dilemma on the supposedly mistaken idea that a Ciceronian philosopher expects others to be as free from emotional disturbance as he is himself. Now note that (2) is in fact considerably stronger than is needed to establish the dilemma in question: for that, all one needs to show is that Cicero advocates for others to be free from emotional disturbance. But even (2) as stated, far from being mistaken, seems to me, at least with regard to the Tusculans, to be indisputable. To expand a little on a passage I discuss in my chapter, at Tusc. IV.58 the Ciceronian ‘M’ character voices his suspicion that his anonymous interlocutor ‘A’ is interested less in the sage than in A himself being free from distress, whence M tells A at the start of IV.59: ‘to you therefore my whole speech is now to be directed’ (ad te igitur mihi iam convertenda omnis oratio est), a speech that advocates methods of relief from distress, in particular as provided by philosophy. M’s commitment here to A’s achieving freedom from emotional disturbance flatly contradicts the hypothesis that M has less expectation of his interlocutor’s capacity to attain such freedom than he does his own.

With these misapprehensions cleared up, I hope the reader will go on to appraise (as Fott does not) my attempt in the remainder of the chapter to assess the resources that Cicero has for tackling his dilemma.