Book Review: How To Win An Argument

How To Win An Argument, by Marcus Tullius Cicero

This book is a strange and interesting small volume. It appears as if this book is being aimed simultaneously at two very different audiences. One of these audiences is made of people who do not want to read the entirety of Cicero’s various writings on rhetoric, both those that discuss him dealing with his approach in a theoretical manner as well as the recorded speeches and other writings of his that demonstrate his rhetorical approach in action, especially in his letters as well as his speeches in front of the Senate on behalf of various people and laws and the cause of republican virtue in general and in particular. The other audience is made of people who are willing and able to read, in Latin, Cicero’s writings on matters of rhetoric for themselves. Strangely, this book seems to miss an entire (and presumably large) audience of people who would need Cicero in translation because their Latin isn’t very strong but at the same time are willing to read more detailed discussion of Cicero’s rhetoric explained with some complexity.

This book is about 250 pages, but it feels both shorter and longer at the same time. The book begins with a preface and a brief sketch of Cicero’s life to set the context for his material on rhetoric. After that the book discusses how to win an argument. This begins with the origins of eloquent and persuasive speech in nature, art, and practice on the one hand, and rhetoric and truth on the other. After this the author talks about the parts of rhetoric, including invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. After this comes a look at the value of imitating good models of speaking, the value of writing in order to prepare for effective speaking, as well as the requirements and education of the ideal speaker, who is supposed to be able to address the common person but also be knowledgeable about a great many subjects in order to effectively bring up useful material to prove one’s point or refute one’s opponents. This takes up a bit less than 150 pages, and it is clear that a book this short would not be published, at least in the contemporary publishing climate, and so at this point there is a brief cheat sheet for effective speaking from Cicero’s writings, and then the rest of the book is mostly made up of Latin texts without translation that go on for about 80 pages. Then, at this point, we have the glossary, suggestions for further reading, and text credits.

All in all, this book is a relatively short one and an easy enough one to appreciate, even if its appeal is rather limited and divided. I find it hard to imagine that the same readers who will love the book’s focus on Latin are going to be as enamored with the fact that the book’s quotations from Cicero are so limited in nature and the depth of discussion about them is so surface-level as well. Likewise, it seems hard to imagine those whose interest in this book is most focused on the superficial discussion of rhetoric are going to be interested in reading the lengthy Latin quotations that make up the second part of the book. It just seems as if this book needs a third section in the middle to bridge the gap between the material that seems made for politicians who can only read short things and Latin classicists who want to tear into the subtlety of Cicero’s language. Perhaps other readers can help me to figure out how these two very different reading audiences are being served and whether the whole book can be appreciated easily by the same people. It is puzzling to see a book that switches so abruptly from one sort of book to another without any warning.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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