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Persuasion — Ancient Wisdom for Modern Leaders


We’re used to email and powerpoint so it’s hard for us to imagine the important role oratory played in the ancient world. In those days speaking to a crowd was essential. “But when Cicero talks about an orator,” Philip Freeman writes in his most recent book How to Run a Country: An Ancient Guide for Modern Leaders, “he means so much more than someone who gives speeches. To him an orator was above all a statesman who was able to express the power of an idea to the public based on knowledge and wisdom.”

Cicero writes:

Indeed oratory involves much more than people realize and depends on a wide range of skills and abilities. The fact that so few are good at it is not due to a shortage of eager learners or teachers or even a lack of natural talent. There are an infinite variety of interesting cases available, and the rewards of success can be splendid. Why then are there so few who succeed? Because an orator must master an enormous number of difficult subjects.

If a person has not acquired a deep knowledge of all the necessary disciplines involved in oratory, his speech will be an endless prattle of empty and silly words. An orator must be able to choose the right language and arrange his words carefully. He must also understand the full range of emotions that nature has given us, for the ability to rouse or calm a crowd is the greatest test of both the understanding and the practical ability of a speaker. An orator also needs a certain charm and wit, the cultured ways of a gentleman, and the ability to strike fiercely when attacking an opponent. In addition he needs a subtle grace and sophistication. Finally, an orator must have a keen mind capable of remembering a vast array of relevant precedents and examples from history, along with a thorough knowledge of the law and civil statutes.

I’m sure I don’t need to say much about the actual delivery of a speech. This includes the way in which an orator carries himself, how he uses gestures, the expressions on his face, the use of his voice, and making sure he is not monotonous. Pay special attention to that last one. You can see how important it is by looking at less serious art, by which I mean acting. For even though actors work very hard on their expressions, voices, and movements, there are precious few I would want to watch for long.

What shall I say about memory, that treasure house of all we know? Our minds hold all the words and ideas we use when thinking and speaking. Without a sharp memory, even the most carefully planned speech will be worthless.

So you can see why true orators are a rare breed. They must command a wide range of skills, though mastering even one of them would be considered quite an achievement. So let us urge our sons and anyone else whose reputation and glory matter to us to appreciate the magnitude and complexity of this task. They must not suppose they can become fine orators simply by following rules or finding a good teacher or going through some common exercises. They might have the ability to achieve their goal, but they must do much more.

I believe that no one can become a truly great orator unless he has a solid foundation in the whole range of human knowledge. This knowledge will ground and enrich everything he has to say. If an orator doesn’t have this kind of background and learning, all he says will be vain and childish. Of course I’m not saying that an orator has to know everything, especially amid the hustle and bustle of modern life, but I am convinced that anyone who calls himself an orator must be able to competently handle any subject that comes his way, so that both the form and substance of his speeches will be of high quality. . . .

What could be more pleasing to the ear and to the mind than a beautiful speech adorned with wise thoughts and words carefully chosen? Think of the amazing power a single orator has to move an audience, to sway the verdict of jurors, or to shape the opinion of the senate. What could be more noble, more generous, more beautiful? An orator has the power to rescue supplicants, to lift the downtrodden, to bring deliverance to those in need, to free the oppressed from danger, and to stand up for the rights of citizens. . . .

I declare that the highest achievement of oratory is that it alone was able to bring together scattered people into one place, to start a wild and intemperate race on the road to human civilization, to establish communities, and to furnish them with laws that guarantee rights and justice. I could go on forever, but instead I will simply say that when a wise and moderate orator speaks well, he brings not only honor to himself, but also salvation to his fellow citizens and indeed to his whole country.

In addition to How to Run a Country, Freemon also selected and translated How To Win An Election.