How to Win an Argument: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Persuasion
by Marcus Tullius Cicero,
translated and edited by James M. May.
Princeton University Press, 2016.
Hardcover, 288 pages, $17.

Reviewed by David G. Bonagura, Jr.

It is no secret that American public discourse has been radically transformed by the Information Age. Today throngs of eager listeners turning out just to hear an oration are as common as the knee-breeches that men once wore to such occasions. Gone, too, are the days of newspapers printing the full-length speeches of senators or other public figures. Instead, we have four-second soundbites of speeches or press conferences playing on the radio and on television, all carefully selected to convey not the essential points, but what the news outlet wants us to hear. And then there is Twitter, whose original 140-character format, commandeered for verbal bomb dropping, has rendered traditional oratory a secondary tool for anyone seeking public office or favor.

The last vestiges of our once venerable oratory tradition can be found at campaign rallies, on weekend political talk shows, and in quadrennial presidential debates. But all of these, having forsaken substance for style in the hope that several contrived questions and ninety-second responses will satisfy the public’s appetite for rational inquiry, diverge from the traditional speech format. Sustained arguments may work within the confines of courtrooms and high school debate leagues, but they have nearly vanished from public hearing.

Why, then, should our modern world return to Marcus Tullius Cicero, greatest of the Roman orators, to learn the art of persuasion as the ancients understood and practiced it? Are Cicero’s lengthy speeches, some of which Latin students have slogged through for centuries, really the right approach for today’s minuscule attention spans?

James M. May, who has gathered and arranged selections from Cicero’s several treatises on the art of rhetoric in How to Win an Argument: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Persuasion, contends that, aside from being interesting in their own right, Cicero’s instructions “enunciated millennia ago still make sense and have great relevance for those who would speak convincingly today.” Even if contemporary audiences are more given to instant gratification, those seeking or wielding influence, as imposing as their social media presence may be, still hope to speak convincingly when interacting with others. Enter Cicero to provide some tried and true advice.

This slim volume contains over forty selections from Cicero ranging in length from a single paragraph to several pages, and each one is preceded by a brief explanation penned by May. The selections are arranged according to the “parts of rhetoric, or activities of the orator.” These five parts are invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery.

According to Cicero, invention, or the discernment of the key issues and the gathering of evidence, hinges on diagnosing, like a doctor, the disposition of the audience: “When I set out to work upon the emotions of the jurors in a difficult and uncertain case, I carefully concentrate all of my thoughts on considering, on scenting out as keenly as I can, what their feelings, their opinions, their hopes, and their wishes are, and in what direction my speech may most easily lead them.” When arranging the speech, Cicero advises that “it is often useful to digress from the proposition you are arguing in order to stir the emotions.” Style can be plain, “middle,” or grand, depending on the needs of the audience and the subject matter at hand, and this style was to be presented through a memorized speech. It is delivery that is “the one dominant factor in oratory. Without it, even the best orator cannot be of any account at all, while an average speaker equipped with this skill can often outdo the best orators.”

May employs two different types of Cicero’s works to explain and to exemplify these five parts. The explaining comes from Cicero’s two works on the art of rhetoric: the On Invention, which Cicero wrote at age seventeen, and the more mature dialogue On the Ideal Orator; the exemplifying comes from a smattering of Cicero’s many speeches, a few of which would be encountered in university Latin classes, such as Against Catiline, In Defense of Milo, and In Defense of Archias. Reading these excerpts in succession, readers gain a feel for Cicero’s style and approach, and may even glean a technique or two to enhance their own speaking and writing—such as polysyndeton (the repeated use of the same conjunction) or tricolon (the presentation of related items in a group of three).

One brief example from May’s deft translation of Cicero’s In Defense of Rabirius unveils the captivating power of Cicero’s grand style of oratory:

“If, therefore, it is the mark of a good consul, when he sees all the supports of the Republic shaken and torn apart, to bring aid to the country, to rush to secure the welfare and fortunes of all, to plead for the loyalty of the citizens, and to consider the public welfare before his own; it is also the mark of good and courageous citizens, such as you have shown yourselves in all crises of the Republic, to consider that supreme power resides with the consuls, and supreme deliberative power with the Senate, and to judge that he who has adhered to these principles is worthy of praise and honor rather than condemnation and punishment. Wherefore, while the task of defending Rabirius is chiefly mine, eagerness to save him will have to be shared by me along with you.”

In addition, May offers other selections that present Cicero’s advice on the proper education and preparation of an orator, along with counsel on how to practice. After finding outstanding orators to imitate, Cicero insists that “it is the pen, the pen, that is the best and most eminent teacher and creator of speaking” because “writing perfects the ability of actually arranging and combining words, not in a poetic, but in a kind of oratorical measure and rhythm.” In his pre-passage commentaries, May mentions more than once that the first three parts of rhetoric apply equally to the art of writing, a skill that today may be more relevant than oratory.

At the age of just seventeen, Cicero remarked that it was the art of persuasion that prompted men with disparate desires to come together to form a civilized society. Today, when our own nation is as polarized as ever, May’s adroit presentation of Cicero’s best work on persuasion may do more than teach us oratorical techniques: it may remind us how to use the power of speech to unite us as one nation under God. 

David G. Bonagura, Jr. teaches classical languages at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York.