In one of my classes, we have been reading about the Roman notion of persona, and the conscious exploitation of appearances among rhetoricians. The Romans had little problem with masks, and Cicero confirms this in several places, including De Oratore:
A memory for the concrete is the unique possession of the orator; we are able to imprint this memory on our minds when the individual masks [singulis personis] have been well ordered, so that we assimilate ideas by means of images and their sequence by means of places (2.359).
Carlin Barton, the historian, makes this more plain in her book Roman Honor:
As a mortal, what one risked in the contest was one’s ‘face.’ Latin facies (from facere, to be effective, to pose, place, make) was not like our ‘face,’something one was born with; it was something that one made, that one willed into existence. It was the manifestation of one’s being, the thing presented to view, the spectacle (56).
The classicist Maud Gleason in Making Men: Sophists and Their Self-Presentation in Ancient Rome tells us that “Dio Chrysostom, for example, frequently adopted the personae of great persons of the past in his orations and showed a particular fondness for presenting himself in the guise of Diogenes, Socrates, or Odysseus” (151).
In an article from Friday’s Guardian by John Hooper, he explains that Amanda Knox and her legal advisors apparently did not realize that the Italy of Cicero’s time corresponds in some interesting ways to the Italy of the present, especially in terms of attachments to appearances. Hooper puts it this way: “But then she [Amanda Knox] is a daughter of the US west coast, with its laid-back, be-yourself ethos, so very different from that of provincial Italy where the accent is on figura (appearances).”
Matthew Fox book on Cicero
Charlotte Higgins was kind enough to respond to my comments about her post on Barack Obama as the new Cicero. She suggested that I do some reading, a book about which I am ignorant, but I will find the Matthew Fox book on Cicero and adjust my views accordingly. As part of my appreciation for Charlotte Higgins taking the time to provide edification, I have added a link to her blog on this site. Not every blogger pays attention to the readers, and someone working for a major newspaper has far less time for interaction than most. Maybe I can help to bring to her blog an extra reader or two from this side of the pond.
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.
Statue of Cicero in Rome
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.