Reading Cicero Otherwise

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.


Casey said...

This is really interesting, and well worth your time, I suspect.

I like what you're shooting for -- making hominmum sensibus as perceiving mind, or something like that. Go with the more literal.

BUT: one major note of caution: isn't your translation the only one that doesn't make reference to two different categories (i.e., the speaker and the listeners)?

In the earlier translations, language is for mankind. In your translation, it seems, the important aspect of language is that it is [composed] by a perceiving mind.

You've changed "mankind" to "perceiving mind," which is good and interesting -- but don't change the role of the hominmum sensibus: it was described in this passage as the audience, originally, wasn't it?

So, taking your translation (borrowing terms from Guthrie's), it is important that language be uttered out of affections and understandings of mankind. But I think the original suggests that it is important that language be uttered in accordance with affections and understandings of mankind.

Am I wrong? This is a major difference, but I can't tell if I'm wrong in my reading...

colualiu said...

While I don't claim to know Latin, it seems obvious that the cited translations are colored by the times in which they were written (For example, the idea of mankind, while not directly present in Greek society, was prevalent in the 70's coming out of "The Great Society" from the previous decade). Once you point it out, it seems to be an obvious reminder that translations are never as good as the original, especially for such a simple yet colorful language as Latin.

When I read the passage (with a little dictionary help) I read "...oratory that is weighty and ornate and human feeling and yet accommodating oneself to [one's own] inner thoughts". This doesn't seem all that different from the cited translations with the "coloring of the times" stripped away; however, each word obviously has a deeper meaning than can be stated so simply and I'm obviously reading it out of context and very much word for word, but this seems to say to me at least that proper oratory is purposeful/meaningful and decorative/polished. It also feels human/normal to the audience and yet is tailored to the thoughts/intent of the orator.

All of the translations seem to take this beyond the direct relationship between the orator and his immediate audience so it doesn't seem odd that yours does as well. Possibly this is due to the context and honestly I feel incapable of making a proper translation without the context. But it would take a perceiving mind and an adaptable nature for an orator to be in tune with his audience. I like where that idea goes.

Regardless, I can see why this would be a statement often repeated. I will definitely try to remember these four ideas when I write and speak in the future.

SpiritQuickens said...

I want so badly to learn Latin, just because of how cool it sounds. Being able to read the Church Fathers in the original language would also be nice.

I'm still very confused about exactly Levinas is trying to do in his work. Except for an emphasis on relationality (and maybe embodiment?) that Heidegger neglected, I'm having trouble understanding the significance of his departure. And some of his stuff just seems downright wacky.