Part Two: Cicero and the Art of Writing

Ian Mosley, Director of Curriculum Development, Sager Classical Academy

Last time I said I would justify the study of Latin through Latin itself – that is, through an appeal to what authors who wrote in Latin had to say about education. In this part, I want to introduce our first such quote, which comes from a work of Cicero’s called De Oratore (On the Orator). Cicero (106-43 BC) was one of the most eminent speakers and writers among the ancient Romans, as well as a power player in the politics of the late republic, just as it was slipping away into the empire. His works are still prized as models of how to write elegant Latin, and so his dialogue De Oratore, which aims to describe what is required to become a true orator, is of special interest. By an “orator,” Cicero means something more than a mere public speaker, someone who can deliver a decent speech at a wedding or a political rally. Rather, he means someone who is a master of the art of communication.

There was a lively debate in the ancient world about whether there was such a thing as “the art of communication.” Plato famously argued that there was no such thing. To communicate something, the only requirement was to know that thing, so that to become an expert on some topic by definition meant to be able to communicate that knowledge.

But Cicero makes some very sensible objections to this claim. To explain his point, I’ll use a modern example. Here is a paragraph from NASA about the history of their organization:

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), is responsible for unique scientific and technological achievements in human spaceflight, aeronautics, space science, and space applications that have had widespread impacts on our nation and the world. Forged in response to early Soviet space achievements, NASA was built on the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), and other government organizations, as the locus of U.S. civil aerospace research and development.

As paragraphs go, this is a pretty good one. I’m sure it’s written by people with a good deal of experience with and knowledge about the organization, and so I don’t mean to criticize its writing or to put it down. I would like, however, to show a different approach to a similar subject:

This book grew out of some ordinary curiosity. What is it, I wondered, that makes a man willing to sit on top of an enormous Roman candle, such as a Redstone, Atlas, Titan, or Saturn rocket, and wait for someone to light the fuse? I decided on the simplest approach possible. I would ask a few astronauts and find out. So I asked a few in December of 1972 when they gathered at Cape Canaveral to watch the last mission to the moon, Apollo 17. I discovered quickly enough that none of them, no matter how talkative otherwise, was about to answer the question or even linger for more than a few seconds on the subject at the heart of it, which is to say, courage.

The author Tom Wolfe here is obviously writing in a mode that might not be the appropriate choice for He is writing from an unabashedly personal point of view (even using that first person pronoun dreaded by teachers of composition), and relating his topic to fundamental human concerns (namely, the theme of courage). It’s obvious, however, that Tom Wolfe is also a master of the art of communication. His use of metaphor and imagery serves not just to inform us, but to compel our interest in his topic, to make us relate to his material emotionally and to care about it.

Tom Wolfe is, in other words, a great modern example of Cicero’s orator, a master of the art of communicating. Though he is far from the world’s foremost expert on astronauts, few are better qualified than he to lead us into this world. When classical education talks about the art of rhetoric, this is foremost the ability we’re looking to cultivate: the ability to communicate not just clearly but in a way that is vivid and moving, that leads people to act and to feel and to love. But how do you teach that? We’ll consider this question in the next part through what Cicero himself had to say about teaching this art.