Along the Appian Way
"Far and away the best creator and professor of eloquence is the pen; and it is not hard to see why. For when we really invest a great deal of work and concentration in an argument, then all the evidence we could possibly need for what we want to say (facts and examples derived from our studies or from the natural workings of our intelligence) will automatically surge forward and present themselves ready all ready for use. That is how to make all the most brilliant thoughts and expression crowd on the point of a pen like water spurting from an aqueduct."
--Cicero, On the Orator, 10.3
Perhaps my love for classical rhetoric is ancestral. My paternal name derives from Laurentum, the original capital of Latium, where Aeneas sought refuge from his epic wanderings. By the time of the Caesars, this laurel-shaded retreat had become a prosperous if sprawling suburb for lawyers, civil servants, and engineers. My maternal side of the family is from Sicily, the birthplace of Western rhetoric. All Sicilians are incorrigible and word-drunk sophists—from Empedocles, who convinced himself he was immortal before jumping into Mt. Etna, to Guido the used car salesman, who insists he sells only the best "pre-owned" vehicles.
Not surprisingly, then, classical rhetoric shapes the way I teach Argument (WRTG-20100) and Humorous Writing (WRTG-33400):
- My argument course, "Voices in the Forum," focuses on the enduring relevance of the Roman heritage in contemporary rhetoric and argumentation, mixing excerpts from Cicero's speeches and oratorical treatises with modern essays that attempt to define the dialogical nature of the American republic. What exactly did the Founding Fathers mean when they called America the "New Rome," and is that a good or a bad thing? These readings are balanced with historical and literary texts about the role and character of Roman oratory and its relationship to the rise and fall of Roman democracy, including Plutarch's Lives, Shakespeare's Coriolanus and Julius Caesar, and Edith Hamilton's The Roman Way. I also show video clips of speeches from the BBC series I, Claudius as well as Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather trilogy. Although I teach the structure and technique of classical argument, even adapting suasoriae and controversiae, Roman oratorical exercises, as writing assignments, I also criticize classical argument, pointing out the less savory aspects of the Roman heritage, its sexism, racism, militarism, and imperialism, and its contributions to the rhetoric and discourse of demagoguery and totalitarianism, past and present. After all, Cola Rienzi and Benito Mussolini also sought to create the "New Rome," and we deconstruct the rhetoric of their regimes in class.
- Satire is the obverse of Roman rhetoric and history. Quintilian considered it a purely Latin creation, along with the antipasto platter. ("Satura tota nostra est," he bragged.) For us modern Italians, this art form is the true Cosa Nostra, not the Mafia, which is why I focus exclusively on satire my humor course, "The Snarky Muse: Forms and Functions of Satire." As a teacher of exposition and a published satirist, I feel more comfortable teaching this critical, thesis-driven form of creative writing. More to the point, college students tend to enjoy satire because it validates their outrage over injustice and absurdity. Together we trace the development of this genre from Horace and Juvenal to Pope and Swift to Saturday Night Live and The Kids in the Hall. Young writers discover that their grousing is part of a 2,000-year-old tradition and find that the structural rigors of formal satire—taking a position, analyzing one's adversarial relationship to one's audience, creating an engaging persona, and building a cohesive argument—can deepen and broaden their own work.The course teaches some dozen satirical forms and balances excerpts from classic texts with contemporary essays and film clips, comparing, say, Petronius's "Dinner with Trimalchio" with the Hollywood luncheon scene from L.A. Story.
Clearly, the Roman tradition, both solemn and sarcastic, remains valid and instructive for contemporary writing students—particularly in these days of imperial pride and Neronean excess. If only Tactius anchored the CBS news and Horace hosted Late Night!