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Philosophy and Rhetoric 34.1 (2001) 38-60

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Cicero's Authority

Jean Goodwin

On a stray planet in an out-of-the-way corner of the universe live odd beings with patterns of behavior odder still. It can be frequently observed that one of them stands before another, moving its limbs or producing some sounds, and the other responds--apparently quite as the first expected. But why? Why should these feeble motions have such force?

This puzzle or wonder is presented to us conspicuously in the phenomenon we know as authority. Authority is exercised most starkly in transactions similar to the following:

The speaker says: "Do [or, believe] this."

Her auditor replies: "Why?"

And the speaker replies in turn: "Because I say so, that's why!"

--and that seems enough said. Police officers might thus address traffic violators; parents, children; expert paleobotanists, the ignorant; and senior colleagues, junior. In each case, the speaker's simply being who she is, and her saying something, is enough to justify or, indeed, compel the auditor's response. This transaction seems doubly odd. We find here mere sounds exerting significant social force. Moreover, we find the participants themselves wondering about this force: They question authority. Political philosophers, after all, have doubted the legitimacy of political authority, and logicians have declared the appeal to authority a fallacy. Police, parents, experts, seniors--and those subject to them--all may deny that the words exert, or ought to exert, force. So authority raises even more pointedly the basic question: Why, if at all, should one person's say-so force another to follow?

To answer this and similar questions must be a central task for rhetoric--at least when the mysterious arm waving or noise making occurs in a [End Page 38] civic setting. Social scientific investigations of authority have, of course, offered invaluable perspectives on the psychological, cultural, and social contexts that support or inhibit dialogues like the one above. To pursue a rhetorical inquiry into the subject means to begin within the transaction itself (Black 1978, 134). In this essay, I propose to develop a specifically rhetorical model of how one person brings her authority to bear on another. I will attempt to account for why her being who she is, and the fact that she says something, leads so expectably to her auditor's doing what she wants. To put this another way, I will attempt here to lay out the practical reasoning that accounts for this dyadic behavior: the reasons why the auditor of the appeal considers himself forced to follow and (correlatively) the reasons why the speaker of the appeal can expect just this response.

The general subject of the persuasive force of persons was originally opened in classical rhetorical theory under the heading of ethos. This very inclusive concept Aristotle proposed to cover all the sorts of proof arising from the character or identity of the speaker (Rhet. 1.2.4). But the philosopher did not carry his insight much further, and the textbooks of rhetoric after his pioneering work were even less clear on this important topic (Wisse 1989, chap. 2.5). It was, instead, in the actual practice of civic oratory that an understanding developed about the diverse strategies available for deploying the force of character--including the strategy we call authority. It is, therefore, to the record of this practice that I turn.

In particular, I draw the transactions that form the basis for this study from the authorities on authority: the ancient Romans. Indeed, it was, as Hannah Arendt has noted, among the Romans "that the word and concept of authority originally appeared" (1993, 121). In his magisterial survey of classical rhetoric, George Kennedy placed the appeal to authority among the defining features of all Roman oratory (1972, 100-101). Richard Leo Enos has gone on to demonstrate the intimate association of the Roman concept with all the other god-terms of Roman politics (Enos and Schnakenberg 1994, 203-4). And the work of James May (1988) has traced the appeal throughout the extensive corpus of forensic speeches surviving from the late republican...


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