By Marcus Tullius Cicero

ISBN 978-0-691-16770-1  Princeton  $16.95


By Marcus Tullius Cicero

ISBN 978-0-691-16433-5 Princeton  $16.95

reviewed by Alan Dent


            Cicero, born in 106 BC, was 62 when he wrote the first of these books, though he has Marcus Cato act his mouthpiece and his age is recorded as 82. Perhaps both these books have never been more timely; the first because in the wealthier countries we are, for the time being at least, living longer and the second because the decline in oratory is so steep that a man who can barely put together a recursive sentence can be elected President of the U.S.A. and most politicians can’t make a five-minute speech without notes. The ability to speak for an hour without notes or an auto-cue, not long ago commonplace, has virtually disappeared. Every feature of human language is present in the communication systems of other animals except one: recursiveness. Not only is public speech propped by notes or prompters, but it tends towards clipped, non-recursive utterances: “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”; “Standards not structures”; “Make America great again”. Language is recursive because it evolved for thought. Non-recursive language is mindless.

            Cicero is a fine antidote to those narcissistic commentators on ageing and death, Joan Bakewell chief amongst them, for whom their own accumulating years and impending demise provide a mere excuse to do what they’ve always done: draw attention to themselves. He eschews self-regard and finds what is objectively important.

                        “I follow nature as the best guide and obey her as a god,” he writes early on.

            Perhaps this is what distinguishes him from the modern mentality which is afflicted by an unwillingness to accept limits. He is insistent that old  age can be as good if not better than youth and middle-age. What matters is character. A young person can be reckless and wanton and thus destroy the delight of youth. An old person who is wise, courageous and accepting can delight in old age. This is hard for us to take. The characteristic personality of our time is the narcissist and narcissists hate and fear ageing. Pop stars on their way to eighty dye their hair, as if it is shameful to have grey. Film stars of ninety go to the gym as if physicality is all.

                        “Where lust rules,” writes Cicero, “there is no place for self-control.”

            Self-control ? Our culture is organised around self-abandonment; the tabloids are full of images of gross display by shameless celebrities; people take “selfies” of their drunken debauchery; teenagers “sext” one another. Of course, this serves a political purpose; as Cicero points out, “..in the kingdom of self-indulgence there is no room for decency.” The assault on decency which has characterised politics for the past three decades requires that restraint and reason be undermined. Little wonder, therefore, that we live in societies which venerate youth and denigrate old age.

            Cicero celebrates old age because there is “no drunkenness, no indigestion”. It is the time when sensual pleasures recede and consequently people are able to behave more rationally and reasonably. He quotes Sophocles, who when asked if he still enjoyed sex replied: “I have gladly escaped that cruel and savage master.” We live in the age of perpetual youth where folk of eighty-five try to keep up with the young rather than setting an example of more constrained behaviour. Would many  present-day Americans echo Sophocles’ words?

                        “Surely” Cicero speculates, “there can be no greater pleasure than the pleasure of the mind.”

            His argument is that old age can be delightful if in youth and middle-age we have paid attention to the development of our minds. Everything depends on character. Old people should not be admired just because they have lived many years:

                        “Wrinkles and gray hair cannot suddenly demand respect.”

            Respect is demanded by character and its development is a life-long matter. Character and virtue go hand in hand. He quotes Terence’s Adelphi Brothers, one crabbed, one pleasant.

                        “Sourness of disposition is never a virtue,” he says.

Old people are not morose or ill-tempered because of age but because of faults of character. He sees life in the round. The wise person doesn’t fear death for without it life is not possible. It is as much a part of life as birth. The death of a young person is tragic, but when death comes at the end of a long life well lived, it is fitting.

                        “What youth longs for old age has attained,” he muses.

            Cicero accepts limits. Perhaps the worst fault of our age is its hubris in denying them. As we face the truth that we have polluted our planet to the edge of ruin and the demand that we change our ways, we elect men who deny the facts and refuse to modify their behaviour. That some of them are old points, as Cicero says, not to a fault inherent in age but in character.

            We seem a long way from a recognition that the greatest pleasure is that of the mind. The internet is weighted with pornography. Shamelessness is the norm. Perhaps this should be a set book in our secondary schools.


            Great orators, Cicero point out, are very rare. Much rarer than great musicians or painters and as for actors, well, acting is a paltry skill compared to that of the public speaker. The range of talents and discipline required to be a great orator makes it a very sparse capacity. Even in the best of times. Today, in Britain, we do not have even one great orator. We have demagogues who can manipulate opinion through selective soundbites; parliamentarians who can drone from prepared scripts but seem to lack the ability to speak for even five minutes without notes; slick operators who know who to parry questions with well-placed ambiguity in interviews; but an orator who can speak from memory to crowds of thousands and raise them to heights of moral and emotional strenuousness: not one.

                        “The easiest way to become a wretched speaker is to speak wretchedly.”

            Cicero insists on discipline and practice. He essays a brief explanation of the origins of eloquence, unconvincing in the light of modern anthropology, linguistics and neuroscience, but that doesn’t prevent him being wise:

                        “…wisdom without eloquence does too little for the good of communities, but eloquence without wisdom, is in most instances, extremely harmful…”

            Too many of our public figures are neither wise nor eloquent. Our discourse is marred by ugly journalistic terms like “Brexit” and mindless slogans: “take back control”. Control of what ? When was it lost ? “Stronger together”: stronger than what ? Together with whom ? Verbless advertising straplines are a sure sign no thinking is going on.

            Cicero adopts Aristotle’s  “logos, ethos, pathos”: rational argument, presentation of character, arousal of emotion in the listener. This is a view of public speaking which respects the audience; people are capable of following a rational argument, they know character when they see it and their emotions can be lifted. Much of current public speaking rests on evasion, manipulation and condescension. Usually, a speech is delivered in the hope of attracting votes. As our democracy has descended to seeing people as voting fodder, there is little need for the respect Aristotle implies.

            There are five parts of rhetoric: invention, arrangement, style, memory and delivery. This combination is not possible when you are reading lines penned by a speechwriter late at night in a hotel room. When Demosthenes was asked what the most important quality of public speaking was he answered, delivery. And the second ? Delivery. And the third? Delivery. Someone should tell Jeremy Corbyn.

            The ubiquitous autocue has robbed us of speakers who can rely on memory; men and women who can get to their feet and talk for an hour without a prompt because they have thought through their argument, put it in order, found the words to give it form, made them memorable and individual, committed them to memory and are able to deliver them with confidence, at the correct pace and with authenticity.

            In the same way, when do we hear a speech divided into exordium, narratio, confirmatio, refutio and conclusio ? Rather we hear the disjointed ramblings of Donald Trump which never amount to an argument, are repeated as if for an audience of half-wits, and are designed, if that is not too exorbitant a claim, to defeat thought and depress feeling.

            Narration, according to Cicero, should display brevity, clarity and persuasiveness. The four virtues of style are clarity, ornamentation, appropriateness and correct use of language. Speakers must also choose between plain, middle and grand style. All this points not merely to a high degree of talent and discipline in forming it, but also to a demanding moral orientation.

            There is a clever insight which offers a warning to orators: the greatest pleasure borders on aversion and those things which most stir our senses positively are quickest to lead to negativity. Orators must, therefore, stop short of satiety.

            A good speech needs order for, as Simonides argued, it is order which brings light to memory. It is hard to imagine a less ordered speaker than the President-elect of the U.S.A. . A good book needs good readers and a good speech needs good listeners. That people in their millions are willing to respond to such poor oratory is a measure of our intellectual, social, political and moral decline. There is a glib explanation: people are fed up of political elites and wanted to protest; but much more than that is at work. Politics no longer demands good listeners and thinkers, just like low-grade fiction no longer demands good readers. Cicero is interested in how eloquence allows us to win arguments, but our public discourse has lost debate and become mere ideological contest. Politicians don’t debate, they spin  a line.

            Both books are dual language. You need high level Latin to understand the original, but the translations read fluently. No doubt it is vain to hope they will be widely read, but it’s not to conclude that it would be greatly beneficial if they were.