From the east side of the pond, Charlotte Higgins labels Barack Obama the “new Cicero.” Count that as something other than a benign comparison, and begin worrying.
Cicero ranks as an essential figure in the history of rhetoric. Almost all of us who teach rhetoric as a subject in institutions of higher education deal with hothouse rhetoric, a rhetoric divorced from the ugliness of the street, the political backrooms, the alleys where persuasion fails and faces are smashed, appendages snapped. Most teachers of rhetoric, as well as many historians, look past Cicero’s murders, his status as a Roman millionaire, his compromises to keep his own head, his Greenblattian self-fashionings, his allegiances to the ruling class, his slippery claims that he cannot be held accountable for what he says as a lawyer, as in his “Defense of Aulus Cluentius Habitus.” Most of us adopt the picture of Cicero as Cicero painted it. It would do some of us well, before thinking that calling someone a “new Cicero” is a compliment, to read more about Cicero.
From a rhetorical perspective, Obama has proven to be troublesome for people who want to praise his oratory. It cannot be oratory lumped into the same category as his former associate Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Obama cannot afford (yet?) Wright’s kind of theater. Obama probably does not want to betray his own sobriety, his evenness, his sophrosyne, in contrast to something like Howard Dean’s singular (perceived) outburst (the so-called “Dean scream”) that caused people to abandon Dean in the 2004 election. Obama’s sophrosyne has been noted by several prominent comedians who have found Obama inaccessible for the stuff of humor. This might have larger, more interesting implications in light of Anne Carson’s essay “The Gender of Sound.” Here is a relevant passage from Carson’s conclusion: “Lately I have begun to question the Greek word sophrosyne. I wonder about this concept of self-control and whether it really is, as the Greeks believed, an answer to most questions of human goodness and dilemmas of civility. I wonder if there might not be another idea of human order than repression, another notion of human virtue than self-control….”
Like Higgins, Carson knows her classics.