Quote: Style and the linguistic bases of Roman rhetorical devices

I decided recently to brush up on my Latin (it has been a damp week in Ireland so far), and so dug out old grammars, dictionaries, and anthologies. I turned to Cicero (kik-er-oh I keep reminding myself), as the flavour of some of the orations seemed appropriate to the times, and thus perhaps I was more likely to drive on with my revision. O tempora! O mores! I have a copy of J.B. Greenough and G.L. Kittredge’s Select Orations of Cicero (New York, 1896) which I picked up for a song somewhere, sometime (but html version here, and pdf here). Reading the introduction, I came across the following passage:

Of course he is not always at his best, but it is never safe to criticise his compositions without a careful study of the practical necessities of the occasion.

Thus Cicero’s style is often criticised as redundant and tautological, a criticism which must proceed either from ignorance or inattention. One of the great arts of the public speaker is to keep before his audience a few points in such a way that they cannot be lost sight of. To accomplish this, these points must be repeated as many times as possible, but with such art that the fact of repetition shall not be noticed. Hence the same thing must often be said again and again, or else dwelt upon with a profusion of rhetoric, in order to allow time for the idea to gain a lodgement. […] Literary tautology is in fact a special oratorical virtue. A spoken word you hear but once unless it is repeated, and there are things which have to be heard many times before they can have their effect.

Again, apart from “repetitional” tautology, it must be remembered that the Latin language was in a sense a rude tongue, lacking in nice distinctions. Such distinctions must be wrought out by a long-continued effort to express delicate shades of thought. Hence it often becomes necessary in Latin to point the exact signification of a word or phrase capable of several meanings, either by contrasting it with its opposite, or else by adding another word which has an equally general meaning, but which, like a stereoscopic view, gives the other side of the same idea, and so rounds out and limits the vagueness of the first. Thus the two together often produce as refined distinctions as any language which has a larger and more precise vocabulary. [‘Cicero as an Orator’, p. xliv]

This strikes me as a singularly incisive, hermeneutic overview of the myriad ways which a language can function. On the first level, it gives an explanation for those rhetorical devices I have long read about, and wondered how something so artificial, so formal, could be accepted by a listener. Surely the auditor would hear the first part of this figure of speech, and get bored. “Yes, I know what you mean, you don’t need to say it twice or thrice.” This passage shows up the condescending (not to say anachronistic) nature of my long-held assumptions.

Beyond this, it nicely distinguishes between formal and informal logics, the appropriateness of both, and the reasons for one being used rather than the other. We delve a little deeper into language, beyond the stage of it being spoken, towards the theatre machinery of the entire language’s vocabulary and grammar, and beyond this into the box office and foyer to the point of content with the outside world. We see language as it works, where it comes from, and what is beyond its remit or outside its control. Might be worth while drawing attention to the related figures hendiatris and hendiadys here, as the editors do further on.


3 thoughts on “Quote: Style and the linguistic bases of Roman rhetorical devices

  1. Well done. In this way, speech acts are analyzed in the context of a rhetorical ecology that considers historical/material instantiations alongside tropes and semantic content.

    • I would incline more towards Gadamer’s hermeneutic fusion of horizons (dodgy translation of Horizontverschmelzung) as it is more coherently articulated and more deeply theorized than the various examples of (knowledge) ecologies that are currently being developed, but I agree with your agreement!

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