Categories: History of PR / Political spin

4 January 2015

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Cicero and the limits to spin and rhetoric

One would think that because everybody can speak, everybody could master rhetoric and the refined arts of influencing others (read public relations). But that’s not quite how it is. Cicero’s great work Oratory and Orators describes how Rome produced many more talented poets and commanders of the army than persuasive orators of note.

As Cicero’s own life proved, a good mastery of eloquence could open the door to a wealthy but non-aristocratic citizen even to the near-all-powerful position of consul, which was once reserved for patricians. So Rome’s wealthy, educated youth called upon the inventors of rhetoric to teach them the methods of persuasion. Given the help of their imported Greek tutors, and the motivation of the elite, there was no lack of brains or application. But Cicero says, Rome produced few great orators, arguably for the reason that remains valid today, because of the nature of the challenge itself:

The art of eloquence is something greater, and collected from more sciences and studies than people imagine. For who can suppose that, amid the greatest multitude of students, the utmost abundance of masters, the most eminent geniuses among men, the infinite variety of causes, the most ample rewards offered to eloquence, there is any other reason to be found for the small number of orators than the incredible magnitude of the art? [Cicero on Oratory and Orators]

Jack of all arts

As Cicero suggests, the subject matter of rhetoric, PR and politics is, well, everything. And few of us are capable of mastering the knowledge required to become well-enough informed to be usefully influential on more than a few topics. (Of course, any fluent fool can influence the foolish, and empty articulacy can be a very giddy power.) The challenge of mastering rhetoric doesn’t get any easier if we stick to developing a high-level of expertise on just one subject. He explains:

A knowledge of a vast number of things is necessary, without which volubility of words is empty and ridiculous; speech itself is to be formed, not merely by choice, but by careful selection of words; and all emotions of the mind, which nature has given to man, must be intimately known; for all the force and art of speaking must be employed in allaying or exciting the feelings of those who listen. To this must be added a certain portion of grace and wit, learning worthy of a well-bred man, and quickness and brevity in replying as well as attacking, accompanied with a refined decorum and urbanity. [Cicero on Oratory and Orators]

Cicero adds that unless an orator attains the knowledge of everything important, including all the liberal arts, no one can become possessed of praiseworthy accomplishments in oratory. He further warns that language must be informed and fully understood beneath the surface matter by the orator. Otherwise the words of the speaker become an almost empty and puerile flow. Much of what passes for PR today, unfortunately, falls into that camp, I suggest.

So I concur with Cicero that one cannot but admire those who acquire the polymathic knowledge and honed skills required to master rhetoric properly (think PR in an elevated sense).

But while Cicero is certainly one of my all-time heroes, it is worth critiquing him to see how well-refined rhetorical (PR and propaganda) ability is not the decisive factor in the battle of ideas.

Notwithstanding his genius, Cicero made a habit of backing losers such as Pompey against Julius Caesar, Octavian against Mark Antony and then finally he sided with Decimus Brutus against both Marc Antony and Octavian. It was the threat posed by Cicero’s command of mass opinion and the senate that, I contend, partly explains why Marc Antony and Octavian eventually ordered Cicero’s murder.

Cicero caught between factions

After Julius Caesar’s death at the hands of assassins, Cicero acted as peacemaker and elder statesman in cooperation with Antony. However when Antony tried to use his newly acquired position of consul to seize more power and territories for himself, he was thwarted by Rome’s senate, but obliged by its assembly. This created a constitutional crisis that pitted Rome’s two great ruling bodies against each other.

In the eyes of Cicero, the assembly’s backing of Antony’s demands destroyed the possibility of sustaining a constitutionally sound republican government. Yet instead of making a principled and brave stand in favour of the constitution, Cicero left Rome for Pompeii and Syracuse because he believed the cause of ordered government was beyond redemption.

But his flight from Rome could not have been more mistimed. Antony’s position was not secure. Debate was still possible and the plot was about to thicken.

Back in Rome, Antony was fearful of the mob. This drove him back to the senate to seek permission to have Brutus and Cassius, the murderers of Caesar, declared legally absent from Rome. Only Cicero’s long-time opponent, Lucius Calpurnius Piso, father in-law of Caesar, opposed Antony. Had Cicero been there and backed Piso, the senate might not have backed Antony so decisively, if at all. We’ll never know.

How struggle influences the influencers

What we do know is that by the time Cicero returned to Rome, Antony had a better grip on power and had turned on him. He denounced Cicero in the senate. In response, Cicero defended himself.

At first he did so moderately and rationally. Then his rhetoric became hysterical after Antony delivered more than one furious attack casting aspersions on the reasons for Cicero’s trip to Pompeii. Under this pressure, Cicero abandoned the rhetoric of persuasion in favour of the rhetoric of invective and character assassination. There was no longer any substance to his arguments; it was merely ethos, pathos and declamation.

Cicero made a series of speeches. And he produced a series of pamphlets known collectively as the Philippes, which made clear that Cicero was not interested in negotiation or appeasement. The second of the 14 Philippes, which was never delivered in the senate, but was widely known, was a pack of lies.

It attacked Antony’s sexual perversions, his drunkenness and debauchery. In it Cicero gives a graphic account of Antony vomiting. He accuses Antony of being complicit in the murder of Caesar and of plotting to save his own life before the crime was committed. He accuses him of stealing large sums of money from the temple of Ops as well as launching a lucrative business selling fake memoranda and autographs of Caesar. Supposedly, says Cicero, Antony also stole money from Caesar’s home after the latter was killed.

Sticking the knife in deeper, Cicero said that Rome’s civil war was solely the responsibility of Antony; though Antony had been too cowardly to fight in it. Yet that loathsome behaviour didn’t stop Antony, said Cicero, from profiting from Pompey’s defeat by rigging a property auction. Cicero denounced Antony as a sick and dangerous child playing at being Caesar. [see: M. Tullius Cicero, Orations, The fourteen orations against Marcus Antonius (Philippics) C. D. Yonge, Ed]

In other words, Cicero made up his own tabloid-type story – Pages 1-7, centre page spread, complete with special supplemental splashes for inclusion in magazines. His series of speeches directed at Antony coined the word Philippic, “a discourse or declamation full of bitter condemnation”. Cicero’s outrageous spin was ineffective. It isolated him in the senate and then helped to ensure his downfall and execution.

Insights into Cicero’s failings

Some things never change. Today, as in the past, we have to depend upon teamwork and our wits to overcome the limitations of individuals. Put another way, no one person has everything it takes to be a truly effective communicator. But there’s something of much greater significance to extract than that seemingly obvious observation.

In his masterful The Art of Rhetoric in the Roman World 300 BC-A.D300, George Kennedy says of Mark Antony, he was a “man who was neither a great general nor a great orator, but yet used force and persuasion to conquer the world” (page 272). Ironically, though, it was Octavian who proved to be the master politician and the big winner of the battle for power.

Within two days of forming the Second Triumvirate of Rome in BC 43, Octavian – at Antony’s behest – ordered Cicero’s murder. Later Octavian decisively destroyed the Triumvirate by defeating first Marcus Aemilius Lepidus and then Antony in a series of bloody battles. Then Octavian, whom Cicero said should be “praised, honoured and tossed aside”, surpassed Cicero, Lepidus and Antony with his use of propaganda, statutes, games and festivals, poetry and religion to rule Rome unopposed.

Summing up Cicero’s career, George Kennedy says that he was the greatest Roman orator. But, ultimately, he was flawed politician:

He was almost equally adept at argument, at presentation and destruction of character, and at emotional appeals….It has been estimated that his speeches were successful 82 percent of the time. As became clear in his dispute with the neo-Atticists, he always regarded rhetoric as a practical art to be judged by its effectiveness with the audience. (Kennedy, The Art of Rhetoric in the Roman World 300 BC-A.D300, pages 275/6)

Cicero’s observation of the rarity of people equipped to be good orators (read PR pros and politicians of real influence) and rhetors remains relevant. Not only is there always more for us to learn, but the basic rules of communication remain the same.

Concluding observations

The conclusion I draw from reading about Cicero’s life and times is that what really determines outcomes – and always has done – is not merely the power of persuasion, by either spin or, unfortunately, the truth well told. No, historically what matters nearly always most is the balance of power at any given moment. In that bigger game, PR (read rhetorical strategy and words as weapons of persuasion and influence) is but one major player. And in that struggle, the art of rhetoric is a neutral methodology available to everybody.

There is no commitment to truth in rhetoric. One needs to know the facts, partly to put them well, but also to find those which are convenient to one’s case and dodge round those which aren’t. The skills of rhetoric are as handy when one’s case is bad as when it is good.

There is no correlation between the quality of rhetoric and the merits of the case it puts. Two opposed barristers, or politicians, or great leaders, or philosophers may be putting diametrically opposed views with equal rhetorical talents. One or other of the sides may be plain evil, and perhaps all the more evil for the very plausibility it presents.

Indeed the modern obsessions – like the ancient ones – with “plausibility” and engineering the appearance of “authenticity” and “empathy”, are almost by definition about disguising untruths. So it is not rhetoric which keeps things honest, but human agency.

[See also: my Assessing PR’s debt to Cicero]

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