How To Win An Argument by Cicero: Summary & Notes

Front cover of How To Win An Argument by Cicero.

In short

How To Win An Argument is a collection of Cicero’s writing on argumentation and oratory. Cicero himself was of course one of Rome’s most gifted orators, in a society in which verbal persuasion and rhetoric was critical to political and daily life. How To Win An Argument shows his advice on persuasive speaking, building an argument, convincing audiences, and – in the end – winning the rhetorical fight. Overall it’s interesting to read, but since it’s only a selection of Cicero’s writing on the subject you might be better served by reading the full, original texts.

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Book Summary & Notes

All text between quotation marks is taken directly from the book.

“I think that nothing is more admirable than being able, through speech, to take hold of human minds, to win over their inclinations, to drive them at will in one direction, and to draw them at will from another. It is this ability, more than anything else, that has ever flourished, ever reigned supreme in every free nation and especially in quiet and peaceful communities.”

“Wisdom without eloquence does too little for the good of communities, but eloquence without wisdom is, in most instances, extremely harmful and never beneficial. If, then, anyone exerts all of his energies in the practice of oratory to the neglect of the highest and most honorable pursuits of reason and moral conduct, he is reared as a citizen useless to himself and harmful to his country; but the person who arms himself with eloquence in such a way that enables him not to assault the interest of his country, but rather assist them, this man, in my opinion, will be a citizen most helpful and most devoted both to his own interests and those of the public.”

“We need not be overly scrupulous about defending a guilty person, provided he is not abominably wicked – people want this; custom sanctions it; humanity accepts it. In court cases, it is always the duty of the juror to pursue the truth; it is sometimes the duty of the advocate to defend what is similar to the truth, even if it be less than the truth.”

Aristotle divided proofs into artistic and nonartistic – the latter being things that are not invention (documents, witness statements, et cetera). Artistic proof is made by the speaker using his art, and be related to “logos (rational argumentation), ethos (the presentation of character), and pathos (the arousal of emotions in the audience.” Cicero used the same division.

“Just as you cannot find every sort of crop or tree growing in every sort of soil, so every kind of life does not give birth to every kind of crime. The city breeds prodigality, and from prodigality greed necessarily develops, and from greed audacity bursts forth, from which all crimes and evil deeds are born. On the other hand, this rustic sort of life, which you call countrified, is the teacher of thriftiness, diligence, and justice.”

“Every argument is refuted in one of these ways: if one or more of its assumptions is not granted; or if the assumptions are granted, it is denied that a conclusion can be drawn from them; or the actual form of argument is shown to be fallacious; or a strong argument is countered by an equally strong or stronger.”

“[T]he saying attributed to Demosthenes, who, when asked what the primary consideration in peaking, replied “delivery”; what was second, “delivery”; and again, what was third, “delivery.” No other thing penetrates the mind more deeply, fashions, forms, and flexes it, and causes speakers to seem such persons as they themselves wish to seem.”

“What is most fundamental, however, is something that, to be honest, we do least of all (for it involves a great deal of effort, which most of us try to avoid) – I mean writing as much as possible. It is the pen, the pen, that is the best and most eminent teacher and creator of speaking. And I am saying this with very good reason: if extemporaneous and random speech is easily surpassed by preparation and reflection, the latter, in turn, will certainly be outdone by constant and diligent writing.”

Rem tene, verba sequentur / “Grasp the subject, the words will follow.” – Cato the Elder

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