How to Win an Argument: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Persuasion

How to Win an Argument: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Persuasion

by Marcus Tullius Cicero


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Timeless techniques of effective public speaking from ancient Rome's greatest orator

All of us are faced countless times with the challenge of persuading others, whether we're trying to win a trivial argument with a friend or convince our coworkers about an important decision. Instead of relying on untrained instinct—and often floundering or failing as a result—we’d win more arguments if we learned the timeless art of verbal persuasion, rhetoric. How to Win an Argument gathers the rhetorical wisdom of Cicero, ancient Rome’s greatest orator, from across his works and combines it with passages from his legal and political speeches to show his powerful techniques in action. The result is an enlightening and entertaining practical introduction to the secrets of persuasive speaking and writing—including strategies that are just as effective in today’s offices, schools, courts, and political debates as they were in the Roman forum.

How to Win an Argument addresses proof based on rational argumentation, character, and emotion; the parts of a speech; the plain, middle, and grand styles; how to persuade no matter what audience or circumstances you face; and more. Cicero’s words are presented in lively translations, with illuminating introductions; the book also features a brief biography of Cicero, a glossary, suggestions for further reading, and an appendix of the original Latin texts.

Astonishingly relevant, this unique anthology of Cicero’s rhetorical and oratorical wisdom will be enjoyed by anyone who ever needs to win arguments and influence people—in other words, all of us.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691164335
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 10/04/2016
Series: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 137,868
Product dimensions: 4.60(w) x 6.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

James M. May is professor of classics, the Kenneth O. Bjork Distinguished Professor, and former provost and dean at St. Olaf College. An award-winning teacher, he is a widely recognized expert on Cicero and classical rhetoric and has written and edited many books on these topics. He lives in Northfield, Minnesota.

Read an Excerpt

How to Win An Argument

An Ancient Guide to the Art of Persuasion

By Marcus Tullius Cicero, James M. May


Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-8335-6



The Origins Of Eloquent And Persuasive Speech

Nature, Art, Practice

The precise nature of eloquent and persuasive speech was fiercely debated in antiquity. Is rhetoric an actual art, or merely a skill, a knack? Does it require natural ability, or can it be mastered merely through the acquisition of certain techniques and the memorization of a body of rules and precepts? Generally, the ancient theorists spoke of a requisite triad: natural ability or inborn talent, mastery of the art of speaking as outlined in rhetorical treatises (called artes in Latin), and diligent application of one's talent and training through practice. In his earliest published work, De inventione, or On Invention, written when he was about 17 years old, Cicero offers an explanation of the origin of eloquence.

And if we wish to consider the origin of this thing that is called eloquence — whether it be an art or a study or some sort of skill or a faculty bestowed by nature — we will discover that it was born from most honorable causes and continued its development for the best of reasons. For there was a time when people wandered in the fields far and wide, like beasts, and preserved their existence relying on uncultivated food; no rational system of religion or of societal obligation was yet practiced; no one had witnessed legitimate marriage, nor had anyone looked upon children whom he knew for certain to be his own, nor had they realized what advantages an equitable code of law might provide. So, because of their own error and ignorance, a blind and reckless passion controlled them, and, in order to satisfy itself, continually misused bodily strength, the most dangerous of servants.

At this point in time, a man — great and wise to be sure — came to recognize the innate potential and the boundless opportunity for great accomplishments residing in the human spirit, if only someone could draw it out and improve it through instruction. He systematically assembled the people in one place; scattered in the fields and living hidden in their woodland shelters, he brought them together, introducing them to every useful and honorable pursuit. At first, because of the novelty of the thing, they strongly objected; but then, as they began to listen more earnestly, he transformed them through reason and speech from wild, savage creatures into tame and gentle people.

To me, at least, it does not seem possible that mute wisdom, devoid of speaking ability, was suddenly able to turn people from their accustomed ways and lead them to different modes of living. What is more, once cities had been established, how could it have happened that people learned to honor faith and uphold justice, and became accustomed to obeying others willingly, and judged that they must not only take on great tasks for the sake of the common good but even sacrifice their lives, unless others had been able to persuade them by eloquence of those things that they had discovered by reason? Certainly, no one who was endowed with great physical strength would have willingly and without violence submitted himself to the law, allowing himself to be put on an equal footing with those over whom he could excel, abandoning voluntarily a most agreeable custom — especially a custom that had through the course of time already acquired the force of a law of nature —, had he not been moved by speech both powerful and persuasive.

Eloquence, then, seems initially to have originated in this way, and to have advanced to greater development, and likewise subsequently, in the most important matters of peace and war, to have been involved with the highest interests of humankind. (De inventione 1.2–3)

Some 30 years later, Cicero wrote De oratore (On the Ideal Orator), a masterful treatise in which he constructs a portrait of his ideal speaker. The work is composed as a dialogue between several of the leading orators of the generation previous to Cicero's; the two main characters of the dialogue are Lucius Crassus and Marcus Antonius, Cicero's boyhood mentors and the greatest orators of Rome at that time. In the following passage, the interlocutor Crassus refers to these same origins of eloquence; he extols the capacity for speech as one of the most powerful and efficacious of all human gifts, and encourages his young protégés to master the art of eloquence:

Actually, I think nothing is more admirable than being able, through speech, to take hold of human minds, to win over their inclinations, to drive them at will in one direction, and to draw them at will from another. It is this ability, more than anything else, that has ever flourished, ever reigned supreme in every free nation and especially in quiet and peaceful communities. What could be so wonderful as when out of an infinite crowd one human being emerges who — alone or with very few others — is able to use with effect the faculty that is a natural gift to all? Or what is so pleasing to the mind and to the ear as speech distinguished and refined by wise thoughts and impressive words? Or what so powerful and so splendid as one man's speech transforming the impulses of the people, the scruples of jurors, or the authority of the Senate? Again, what is so regal, so generous, so magnanimous, as lending aid to those in distress, raising up the afflicted, offering people safety, freeing them from dangers, saving them from exile? At the same time, what is so vital as always having the weapons available with which you can shield yourself and challenge the wicked or take revenge when attacked? But really, let us not always be preoccupied with the forum, with the court-benches, the rostra, and the Senate House: if we consider our leisure time, what can be more pleasant or more properly human than to be able to engage in elegant conversation and show oneself a stranger to no subject? For the one thing that most especially sets us above animals is that we converse with one another, and that we can express our thoughts through speech. Who, then, would not rightly admire this ability, and would not think that he should take the greatest pains in order to surpass other human beings in the very thing that especially makes humans themselves superior to beasts? But let us now turn to what is surely the most important point of all: what other force could have gathered the scattered members of the human race into one place, or could have led them away from a savage existence in the wilderness to this truly human, communal way of life, or, once communities had been founded, could have established laws, judicial procedures, and civic rights? And to avoid enumerating still more points (they are actually almost numberless), let me summarize everything in a few words: I assert that the leadership and wisdom of the perfect orator provide the chief basis, not only for his own dignity, but also for the safety of countless individuals and of the State at large. Therefore, young men, continue your present efforts and devote all your energies to the pursuit you are following, so that you can bring honor to yourselves, service to your friends, and benefit to the State. (De oratore 1.30–34)

Cicero, while obviously keenly aware and knowledgeable of the rules contained in the typical rhetorical treatises of his day, was highly critical of mere "handbook learning." In fact, in De oratore (On the Ideal Orator), he routinely criticizes the hackneyed precepts of the handbooks. They perhaps serve a foundational purpose, but the ideal orator must, in addition to knowledge of rhetorical rules, possess a vast knowledge of all the humane arts, including history, literature, law, and philosophy (see later, 126–134). Such knowledge, along with natural ability, study, and diligent practice are essential for winning an argument.

... there exists a kind of observation of what is effective in speaking; but if this could make people eloquent, then everybody would be eloquent. For who would not be able to master this easily, or at least in some way or other? But in my view, such rules are powerful and useful, not because art can lead us to discover what to say, but because, when we have learned a proper point of reference, rules may assure us of the soundness, or make us see the weakness, of whatever we accomplish by means of our own natural ability, our study, and our training. (De oratore 2.232)

Rhetoric and Truth

The power wielded by a skillful speaker, who knows how to persuade through artful speech and appeal to human emotions, is, as outlined earlier, a powerful weapon. It is, in fact, a two-edged sword, one that can be employed for good or for ill. We need only to consider two extraordinarily effective twentieth-century orators who were embroiled in the same conflict, Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler, to illustrate this point graphically. In such a context, it is easy to see why the word "rhetoric" often carries with it today a negative connotation. In ancient Greece, after the creation of a rhetorical system that was based largely on the principle of argumentation founded on probability, teachers of rhetoric emerged who rejected the ideal sphere of pure reason and absolute truth in favor of the probable and relative, who extolled the power of the word, and who sometimes endeavored to make the worse seem the better cause. Philosophers like Socrates and Plato, on the contrary, searching for final and absolute ends, championed truth uncovered through dialectical inquiry. Thus, the so-called quarrel between rhetoric and philosophy emerged, a quarrel that would endure, in varying manifestations and in varying levels of intensity, down to Cicero's time. The opening paragraph of Cicero's De inventione (On Invention) reveals his thoughts on the matter:

Often and much have I pondered the question of whether fluency of speech and a consuming devotion to eloquence have brought more good or evil to people and their communities. For when I consider the injuries done to our Republic, and review in my mind the ancient calamities of prominent communities, I see that no little part of their misfortunes was brought about through the agency of men who were highly skilled in speaking. On the other hand, when I set out on a search in the annals of literature for events that, because of their antiquity, are removed from our generation's memory, I find that many cities have been founded, the flames of very many wars have been extinguished, the firmest alliances and the most hallowed friendships have been formed not only by the mind's power of reason but also more easily by eloquence. And after reflecting on it for a long time, that same power of reason leads me to form this opinion first and foremost: wisdom without eloquence does too little for the good of communities, but eloquence without wisdom is, in most instances, extremely harmful and never beneficial. If, then, anyone exerts all of his energies in the practice of oratory to the neglect of the highest and most honorable pursuits of reason and moral conduct, he is reared as a citizen useless to himself and harmful to his country; but the person who arms himself with eloquence in such a way that enables him not to assail the interests of his country, but rather assist them, this man, in my opinion, will be a citizen most helpful and most devoted both to his own interests and those of the public. (Cicero, De Inventione 1. 1)

Several decades later, in his De oratore, Cicero will speak in more detail concerning the quarrel and will strive to effect a reconciliation or synthesis, combining philosophy, not so much with rhetoric, but with eloquence. Cicero's ideal orator is an oratorical philosopher, or a philosophical orator. Nonetheless, it is clear to anyone familiar with Cicero's oratorical career that on several occasions he defended clients whom he knew to be guilty. In fact, a later teacher of rhetoric, Quintilian, reports to us that Cicero once boasted that, in his defense of a client named Cluentius, he "threw dust in the eyes of the jury." Addressing his son near the end of his life, Cicero has something to say about defending guilty clients; it appears that our notion of granting every defendant a fair trial has at least some of its foundation in Cicero's way of thinking:

And this precept of moral duty must be assiduously maintained: never lodge in court a capital charge against an innocent person; indeed, there is no way this can be done without making oneself a criminal. For what is more inhuman than to turn one's eloquence, a gift bestowed by nature for the safety and preservation of our fellow humans, to the destruction and ruin of good people? Nevertheless, while this practice must be avoided, we need not be overly scrupulous about defending a guilty person, provided he is not abominably wicked — people want this; custom sanctions it; humanity accepts it. In court cases, it is always the duty of the juror to pursue the truth; it is sometimes the duty of the advocate to defend what is similar to the truth, even if it be less than the truth. (De officiis 2.51)

The Parts of Rhetoric, or Activities of the Orator

Those who in antiquity taught and wrote about the art of persuasion regularly identified three genres of oratory, or types of cases: "judicial," suited to seeking justice in courts of law; "deliberative," whose goal is to argue what is most beneficial or expedient in a public meeting or before an assembly; and "epideictic" or "demonstrative," the oratory of praise or blame, perhaps best illustrated by the funeral oration or eulogy. Handbooks tended to concentrate on the judicial genre, as perhaps being most crucial and as lending itself best to systematic exposition. Ancient theorists organized their presentation around five parts, or activities of the orator: "invention" (discovering, that is, thinking out the material), "arrangement" (ordering the material), "style" (putting the ordered material into appropriate words), "memory" (memorizing the speech), and "delivery" (including directives about voice, facial expression, and gesture). These parts or activities parallel the process through which a speaker proceeds when composing and delivering a speech. Instruction in English composition, even in modern times, continued to endorse this process, at least through the first three stages; those composing a speech or a detailed argument today will still find these activities effective means for organizing and presenting their points.

Invention: Identifying and Classifying the Question at Issue According to the Stance of Argument, and Discovering the Sources of Proof

Invention (Latin inventio) is concerned with finding and thinking out the subject matter of the speech; the process chiefly involves identifying and classifying the question at issue according to a specific stance of argument, as well as discovering the most promising sources of proof for persuading one's audience.

Status (Stances of Argument)

In a judicial controversy, the charge of the prosecution and the counter-claim by the defense crystallize the question at issue, that is, the matter under judgment, which in turn is classified according to one of four "stances of argument" (Latin status or constitutio), that is, according to the stand that is assumed by the defense. Cicero succinctly outlines this system in De inventione 1.10:

Every subject that contains in itself some controversy situated in speech and debate involves a question about a fact, or about a definition, or about the nature or quality of an act, or about legal processes. Therefore, we call the question from which the whole case arises the status, or "issue." The "issue" is the first conflict of pleas that arises from the defense of the accusation, in this manner: "You did it"; "I did not do it," or "I was justified in doing it." When the dispute is about a fact, the issue is called "conjectural," because the plea is supported by conjectures or inferences [for example, "you did it"; "I did not"]. When, however, the issue is about a definition, it is called the "definitional" issue, because the meaning of the term must be defined in words [for example, "you did it"; "yes, but it wasn't theft"]. When the nature or quality of the act is examined, the issue is called "qualitative," inasmuch as the controversy concerns the value of the action and its class or quality [for example, "you did it"; "yes, but I didn't mean to," or "I had to"]. But when the plea depends on the circumstance that it seems the right person does not bring the case, or that he brings it against the wrong person, or before the wrong court, or at the wrong time, under the wrong statute, or for the wrong charge, or with the wrong penalty, the issue is called "translative" because the actions appears to require a transfer to another court or a change in the form of pleading. One of these issues is necessarily applicable in every kind of case; for where none applies, there can be no controversy.


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Table of Contents

Preface vii

Cicero’s Life: A Brief Sketch xiii

How to Win an Argument 1

The Origins of Eloquent and Persuasive Speech 1

Nature, Art, Practice 1

Rhetoric and Truth 8

The Parts of Rhetoric, or Activities of the Orator 12

Invention: Identifying and Classifying the Question at Issue According to the Stance of Argument, and Discovering the Sources of Proof 13

Arrangement 40

Style 69

Memory 103

Delivery 110

The Value of Imitating Good Models of Speaking 118

The Value of Writing to Prepare for Effective Speaking 122

The Requirements and Education of the Ideal Speaker 126

A Ciceronian Cheat Sheet for Effective Speaking 135

Latin Texts 141

Glossary 223

Further Reading 243

Text Credits 247

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"How to Win an Argument provides a very good, user-friendly overview of ancient rhetoric—clearly and thoughtfully arranged, well translated, and with excellent brief introductory essays. It also admirably links ancient and modern practice. James May's extensive expertise is reflected throughout."—Ann Vasaly, Boston University

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