Historical Rhetorics/Cicero's Public and the Greek Tradition/Zerba, Michelle. "The Frauds of Humanism: Cicero, Machiavelli, and the Rhetoric of Imposture." ''Rhetorica'' 22.3 (2004): 215-240

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  • Zerba begins by explaining that, contrary to the “tamed Machiavelli” (217) that has dominated the better part of the last century, critics are currently reviving an image of Machiavelli as “the bad-boy of the Elizabethans” (217); with this shift comes revived debate about Machiavelli’s humanism, specifically, “Does the teaching about fraud set out in Chapter 18 of The Prince constitute the scandalous break from the classical tradition that critics have typically claimed it has? In articulating it, is Machiavelli departing from the precepts of others, or does the example of Chiron the centaur confirm an ancient commitment to educating leaders-to-be on both the rational and bestial sides of their nature?” (217).
  • Zerba claims that in order to answer these questions, we must look to “works by the Roman author from whom Machiavelli in all likelihood drew the simile of the lion and the fox: Cicero” (217), and, more specifically than that, Zerba says that the case for Machiavelli’s anti-humanism usually overlooks “a politics of intense competition and personal rivalry [that] has inhabited the humanist vision from antiquity, producing an ethics of expediency and pantomimic morality, which seeks to mask its alertness to advantage behind the guise of integrity and service” (219); this is where Zerba says we can (and should) make connections to Cicero’s De Oratore, whose “strain of civic humanism…has yet to be fully appreciated in discussions of Machiavelli” (220).
  • Here, however, Zerba makes a distinction between The Prince and De Oratore: Cicero, she explains, “speaks to individuals who are politicians of the Roman state, and he assumes that their chief role is persuasion rather than the use of military force” (220) although “techniques of persuasion were pervasively intertwined with state-sanctioned violence” (220) (she uses Cicero’s own rhetorical attempts “to present the blood-steeped, autocratic struggles of Julius Caesar as those of a man who had the restoration of the Republic at heart” [221], explored in depth later on, as examples of this); on the other hand, Machiavelli “addresses a prince who, above all else, controls the army” and “rhetoric is the skill that allows the prince to manipulate this might with political effectiveness” (221), especially in terms of public perception.
  • Zebra focuses first on The Prince, explaining Machiavelli’s idea that “a prince is obligated to shape what people think” (223) and in doing so, should know how to “whitewash” his conduct; but Zerba points out that far from trying to “whitewash” his examples (such as Cesare Borgia), Machiavelli “unmasks” “cold-blooded yet effective means of pursuing acquisitive ends,” (224) and, indeed, Zerba says that according to Machiavelli, these tactics are practices not only of princes but also of leaders of republics, notably those of the Roman republic (225). The key point of comparison between De Oratore and The Prince is both Cicero’s and Machiavelli’s unmasking of a mystification of power, which is constructed through not only an acceptance but an “appreciation of rhetorical truth as constructed” (226).
  • In her focus on De Oratore, Zerba uses the setting (Crassus’ Tuscan villa) and the interaction of the speakers, notably a pattern of imitation, competition, and invidiousness (226), to explain the ways Cicero allows us to see the strategies of ethos and pathos (or the pull of opinion) in carrying arguments. Both Machiavelli and Cicero convey the myth of power, “of power as something made or rather always in the making, deeply dependent on trapping, display, and adorned language” (240), but whereas Cicero begins “with the orator in splendid array” and “pulls back only so much of the regalia as to allow stateliness to be retained” (240), Machiavelli’s value lies in the fact that he “boldly drops the pretty talk and blows away the soft aura of Cicero’s Tusculan sun because they double the lie” (240), revealing sacrificial rhetoric as a technique to mask often dangerous motives.