Why We Need Tacitus

The recent Kairos Call for Webtexts has me interested. The CFW says, “we focus on the connections between classical Greek and Roman rhetoric and contemporary digital communication” — and yet the CFW’s three examples (Plato, Aristotle, Isocrates) are all Greek.

Composition doesn’t like the Romans, and especially not the Romans under Empire. (In our disciplinary literature, though not in Classics scholarship, Quintilian gets a pass for his collusion with brutality.) And I wonder whether seeing the rhetorical impulses of a massively powerful and deeply conservative agrarian world power makes teachers uncomfortable. The Greeks were about knowledge; the Romans, power. Questions of true and false versus questions of right and wrong. With such polarities, of course the Sophists might seem like more appealing allies with which to rhetorically align ourselves.

But if you look at Roman rhetoric under the stresses of imperium, you start to see a much more significant connection to the way words work in the world today. You start to see Leo Strauss as the contemporary theorist of the vicious and amoral Roman delatores, and the hopeful rhetoric of the Greek Sophists as an ultimate instantiation of contemporary critical relativism — and perhaps a reason why rhetoric as theorized in relation to power functions differently from rhetoric as theorized in relation to knowledge.

So what might we learn from imperial Rome contra democratic Greece? First: the Sophistic privileging of knowledge (and today as it functions in composition) is naïve under imperium. Like the later Romans — like Tacitus, like Juvenal, like Pliny, like Plutarch — we need a discourse that concerns itself with rhetoric’s relation to power. American rhetoric today carries an impulse towards stripped-down forthrightness characteristic of the early rhetoric under Augustus. Certainly, the style of Tacitus is glittering and pointed, breathtaking in its compression (ask any amateur who’s ever tried to translate him and for pages sought a verb), but unique for its time in its elisions. Most other imperial rhetoric carried a style that lectured and hectored and said what it meant, because it was able to, because it held no political importance. The rhetoric of empire was literary, and fraught with epideictic qualities, because — under imperium — it could not be deliberative.

I figure it’s clear where I’m going with this, and the parallel I’m drawing. The problem is just that imperium, now, is distributed and in fact enacted through distributed rhetorics. Could it be, though, that lecturing and hectoring in the American rhetorical mode that privileges so-called “plain speech” is forthright because it’s easy to oppose? What if we use Tacitus to turn Strauss on his head and argue for a difficult political discourse, an ambiguous political discourse, a problem-posing political discourse that asks questions rather than answers them?

Why We Need Tacitus
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One thought on “Why We Need Tacitus

  • April 16, 2006 at 7:26 pm

    More on this topic, if you could. What comprises rhetoric? Does it include advertising? Marketing? Branding? Spectacle? What of the counter-rhtorics of the oppressed? Uncle Remus, parables, fairytales, rap? I note that your final move is to invoke “questions” rather than “answers.” Again, isn’t that to position rhetoric with knowledge? Wouldn’t the drift of your discourse be towards upsetting power relations, destabliizing them, rather than just posing questions? I am sure that insubordination will go over well next year in the Chain of Command.

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