Historical Rhetorics/Cicero's Public and the Greek Tradition/Goodwin, Jean. "Cicero's Authority." ''Philosophy & Rhetoric'' 34 (2001): 38-60.
Goodwin, Jean. "Cicero's Authority." Philosophy & Rhetoric 34 (2001): 38-60.
In this essay Jean Goodin explores the interaction of speaker and audience and the role of ethos as a means of persuasion. As a case study, Goodin focuses on Cicero’s representation of a man named Sulla, who is a defendant in a conspiracy trial. In his official capacity as Roman Consul, Cicero had previously investigated the same conspiracy that eventually led to the execution of five conspirators. In this case, by defending another charged in the same conspiracy, Cicero is now batting from the other side of the plate. In today’s legal world, bar officials would undoubtedly censure him for violating ethical standards prohibiting conflict of interest. Despite this apparent ethical dilemma, Cicero bases his defense of Sulla, not on the evidence, but on the merit of Cicero’s own reputation. In essence, the defense he raises is ‘you should find Sulla not guilty because I tell you he is not guilty. Trust me.’
After describing the prosecution’s attack on Cicero’s situation (that his conflict of interest cancels his ethos) Goodin carefully evaluates the considerations facing the jury members in context of the concept of ethos as it existed in ancient Rome. By Roman standards, a respected public figure must be given credibility and respect until there is proof that the respect and authority has been forfeited. In the same way the presumption of innocence gives and accused an advantage in a criminal trial, the orator with the best reputation is given a presumption of believability. Unless there is good reason to question the great one’s ethos, the audience should defer to his or her judgment. To do otherwise would show disrespect and invite public disfavor.
Cicero counters the prosecution’s attack on his ethos by serving up and even bigger dose of ethos by arguing ‘would I be so mad as to risk my reputation, to sully my grand achievements to act falsely in this case.’ In other words, would anyone in Cicero’s position be crazy enough to risk everything for anything other than a just cause. Would such an argument prevail in a modern courtroom? No. In fact such an argument would not be allowed because it is considered irrelevant. Was the argument effective in Sulla’s case? Suffice it to say the jury found Sulla not guilty.