So I am more and more coming to the realization that I will likely have to learn at least Latin, if not Greek, in the coming years. My Latin is tolerable enough to work through small passages, but I admit to being reliant on translations. Reading Cicero in preparation for my graduate seminar this week, I was struck by what I believe to be a telling anachronism in a passage from J. S. Watson's 1970 translation:
For the proper concern of an orator, as I have already said, is language of power and elegance accommodated to the feelings and understandings of mankind. (20)
It was that last word that really struck me--mankind, since, to my knowledge, the Greeks did not have such a conception (this, I realize is a difficult statement--certainly, Plato and Isocrates, via Idealism and Hellenism, approach the concept, but I don't want to engage that fight here). Now I realize that Cicero is a Roman--but the opening section of his De Oratore is a pragmatic response to Plato's treatment of rhetoric. Essentially, Cicero argues that Plato, sitting in his corner (an allusion to Aristophanes' The Clouds), discusses important matters in dead, lifeless, bloodness, dry, academic language. The power of the orator comes in injecting life into this language--imbuing it with an animating passion.
It was this celebration of language that got my spider sense tingling--because, beyond the direct Enlightenment language of "mankind," I also hear an 18th century preference for understanding over passion. Readers of Addison and Samuel Johnson will be familiar with such an echo. To confirm my suspicion, I checked a few other [free, electronic] translations of the passage. First, from the 1904 E. N. P. Moor translation:
For the special province of the orator is, as I have said already more than once, to express himself in a style at once impressive and artistic and comfortable with the thoughts and feelings of human nature.
I hear in this one a remnant of Ramus--a reduction of oratory from style (I can't get into it here--but Cicero is suspicious of the term rhetoric, linking it to books, and prefers the term oratory, stressing the performative elements. Style has a default logography to it. Hmm.
From the 1822 Guthrie translation:
For, as I have often said, the province of an orator is to talk in a language that is proper, graceful, and suited to the affections and understandings of mankind.
"Proper" and "graceful" here are powerful Enlightenment concepts--connected to the Order of the Beautiful. A bit of interpretive induction suggests that the orators' power isn't suitable to the occassion, but rather to the Truth of Mankind. Again, I am reading beyond the lines, but I believe such a reading is productive.
Now, like I said, my Latin is rusty and was never close to fluent. But here's the original Latin:
hoc enim est proprium oratoris, quod saepe iam dixi, oratio gravis et ornata et hominum sensibus ac mentibus accommodata.
Rather than transform "hominum sensibus" as some form of "understanding of mankind"--which seems to [theoretically] universalist and [philologically] sloppy--I chose to go with a more literal representation of the words: one that captures sensibus as feeling/perception in connection with the senses. Additionally, let accommodata ring with its sense of "suitability" or "propriety." So, my amateur interpretation would look something like this:
For the particular being of oratory is, as said, weighty/pregnant speech furnished by a perceiving mind and adaptable disposition/soul.
While the use of soul might seem odd here, remember that this is Cicero's most direct response to Platonic censure. It is quite likely that he might want to tease out soul here--a way of exorcising Platonic spirits and celebrating rhetorical souls. Pregnant is a possible meaning for gravis--and I personally like it here, since it reminds us that the purpose of speech isn't transference, but growth. The notion of a[hu]mankind is proper to a transcendental, idealist, dualism which Cicero here, and in other places, resists. For Cicero, the orator is responsible, first and foremost, to the people surrounding her.
In historical rhetorical studies, theorists such as Poulakos and Vitanza often get accused of reading ancient texts with a postmodern bias (which they, and I, do). I wonder, however, if closer study of all translations wouldn't reveal the extent to which the texts we teach in graduate classes aren't, in ways that often escapes our attention, written from an extreme default modernity. There's a Levinasian slant to my reading--one drenched in a postmodern feminine [pregnant] ethic of responsibility, accountability, singularity, and transience. I think we can see in Cicero a celebration of the saying's power, a dedication to enacting change in the polis, and a skepticism of knowledge for knowledge's sake.
NOTE: I am working from a coffee shop today. I have found 4 other translations available at the USF library, so I will check those tomorrow.