The Ethos of Freedom

"That's just rhetoric!" So we dismiss statements we have little respect for. Readers of Tacitus' Dialogue on Orators will remember that the Roman historians thought that eloquence is a sign of a free state. There was a time when the speeches of Burke and Canning, of Daniel Webster and Abraham Lincoln were studied in school and sat in stately volumes on the bookshelves of educated readers. What would Tacitus think of the state of public speaking today?

As William Butler Yeats made his own persona a key element in his poetry, so the great Roman orator Cicero (103-43 B.C.) molded an ethos that developed over time and yet provided a basis for persuasion and great literature. As with Yeats, the persona was based on reality. In Trials of Character, Professor James M. May provides students with the first thorough investigation into the interaction of fact and fancy in Cicero's life and works that produced some of the most brilliant speeches ever delivered. Since Cicero's carefully wrought persona was rooted in his changing status as he climbed the Roman ladder of success to the top, May's book often amounts to a biography of Cicero from the perspective of his literary art. May's painstaking analyses of important orations make it clear that a literary technique often associated with literary modernism was used by a master craftsman in the ancient world to create...

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