‘Classical’ texts, or at least those we consider classical that have come to us from Greco-Roman antiquity, are texts that have managed to outlive the immediate historical context or even wider culture for which they were originally intended, attracting ever-new audiences down the ages. At times, such texts are simply read because they have been accorded the status of ‘classical’ at some point in the past. This, however, is a rather weak justification for continuing to read them — it might imply being in thoughtless thrall of choices that earlier generations have made for us. It is, therefore, always a good idea to ponder what makes the Greek or Latin text you have been asked to read (or happen to be reading: no need to stick to the syllabus) particularly relevant in the here-and-now. The following offers some suggestions of why at present Philippic 2 might be particularly good to think with.
3.1 Extremist Politics and the Rhetoric of Crisis
Philippic 2 bears witness to a desperately divided political community (and in particular its ruling elite), in which different interest groups struggled over the definition of facts and figures in increasingly polarized ways. At issue was, not least, the interpretation of Caesar and his assassination: was he a tyrant justly slain by a group of determined freedom fighters or a benefactor murdered by a bunch of treacherous ingrates? Or was there perhaps a middle way — the possibility of amnesty and reconciliation, rather than retaliation and further bloodshed? In this embittered battleground over the meaning of recent events, Cicero uses Philippic 2 to position himself as an extremist voice. In the first half of the speech he flatly denies the possibility of a middle ground when it comes to assessing the assassins (§§ 30–31). And in the second half (and the rest of the corpus) he opts for a ‘rhetoric of crisis’ that precludes compromise and furthers confrontation. As Wooten (1983: 58) explains:
One of the most striking characteristics, therefore, of the rhetoric of crisis is the clarity and simplicity with which the orator views the situation that he faces. To him the contest is black and white, the struggle of good against evil; and what is at stake, he argues, is the very existence of the civilization that he is defending. He tries to convince the members of his audience that the history of their state has reached a fundamental crisis in which its very existence as they know it and everything that it represents are in danger. He then presents the situation as a clear choice between mutually exclusive and fundamentally opposed systems by means of what may be called the disjunctive mode.
Increasingly polarized political discourse, the attendant loss of a middle ground that cultivates commonly shared views and values as basis for compromise, and the rhetoric of crisis and existential emergency are phenomena that many political pundits also see on the rise in contemporary society and politics. One particularly intriguing question here again involves the power of rhetoric: to what extent does the language of crisis help produce — rather than react to — the problem it tries to fight?
3.2 Hate Speech
In a recent monograph on Cicero, Tahin draws a comparison between the public use of language in Greco-Roman antiquity and today (Tahin 2016: 1).
It is crucial to state that a Greek or Roman orator was not bound by any modern standard of rationality, logic or rhetorical measure unless the circumstances of a particular case demanded it in order to win the case. Forms of argument (such as personal abuse, distortion or omission of facts, malicious slander, irrelevant details or sequences of narrative, logical non sequitur, counter accusations) which today are considered fallacious or inadmissible elements of reasoning in any rational discourse (e.g. court hearings) were widely accepted tools of persuasion so long as they served the purposes of the orator.
The thought that we moderns live in a more enlightened and civilized age than the Greeks and the Romans is reassuring. And it is true that we possess libel laws. But recent developments may well prompt us to wonder about ‘modern standards of rationality, logic or rhetorical measure’, which may indeed be ruled out of court, but seem to thrive in the Blogosphere and on Twitter — as well as more generally. The protocols of public discourse seem to have become more fluid in recent years, the boundary between the sayable and the unspeakable are shifting. We seem to have a heightened awareness of the fact that words can hurt, that there is a need for sensitive use of language and safe spaces, yet all the while crudity and extremism proliferate in public discourse, including the criminalization of adversaries: judges who come up with an inopportune ruling are labelled ‘enemies of the people’, politicians who beg to differ from the party line run the risk of being turned into ‘traitors’.
Throw in the phenomenon of factoids and invented facts broadcast as news and parallels worth pondering between late-republican Rome and contemporary politics are not all that hard to come by, especially when it comes to abusive language (or hate speech). Invective blurs the distinction between truth and lies, reality and fiction. Much of what Cicero says in Philippic2 is ‘fake news’ or malicious spin, served up in the service of a higher truth, a code of civic ethics. Does the end justify the means?
3.3 The Power of Eloquence and Post-Truth Politics
Cicero conceived of the Philippics as monumental oratory — his rhetorical testament as it were: ‘Invoking the dangers he submits to as well as his contempt for death, a Leitmotiv in the Philippics, Cicero not only amplifies and dramatises the contemporary political situation, but he refashions it into the time-transcending narrative of a man desperately but resolutely fighting for his convictions. Thus Cicero ensures that his speeches would be read long after the conflict had been resolved and, more importantly, even in case Antony prevailed’ (Scheidegger-Lämmle 2017: 34).
While he failed in his efforts to restore republican freedom to the Roman commonwealth, he certainly succeeded in bequeathing his vision (of himself, of Antony, of the world) to posterity. What remains are his writings: they articulate an (arguably tragic) vision of resistance against (perceived) tyranny and constitute a type of political activism and civic commitment in a time of chaos, when constitutional safeguards and institutions, legal procedures and republican norms arguably no longer guaranteed the survival of the senatorial commonwealth. (What do you think: does Cicero take a courageous stance against tyranny here or is he a deluded and self-righteous warmonger who tries to rip Antony’s heart out while shooting himself in the foot?)
As a (now classical) speech-act of universalizing import, Philippic2 invites questions of a trans-historical nature: about the judgment of the author, the secrets of persuasive oratory, the power of spin, the divisive impact of hate-speech and its relation to physical violence, to name a few. Cicero was a master of (re-)defining reality — indeed inventing it — whenever the facts did not suit his purpose. In the Philippics, he generated a largely imaginary character portrait and corresponding curriculum vitae of Antony, which he embedded within a narrative on Roman politics to produce a moment of existential crisis, of bare survival, of life or death for each individual and the civic community at large — a favourite script of his, in which he invested throughout his career. The text to be studied is both a sensational exercise of dragging someone’s reputation through the sewer and a fantastic illustration of how Cicero managed to make an impact on, indeed invent, reality through his rhetorical skills and the powers of his imagination. Cicero’s approach in Philippic 2 thus arguably has certain affinities with contemporary variants of ‘post-truth’ politics, in which decency, respect for one’s opponents, and cultivation of civilized language give way to polarizing abuse. In Cicero’s case, the abuse has become classical — should it continue to inspire?