In my career I often used to write
computer textbooks and instruction sheets.
In all that time it never crossed my mind
that, after two millennia had slipped away,
my penmanship of theory and technique
was still regarded as the standard text.
Yet that is just what can be said
of Rhetorica ad Herennium –
Cicero’s limpid work of robust sense
is still the leading textbook in
a discipline which many years ago
was shattered into isolated bits.
Rhetoric was once a major topic:
one of the Trivia: the crucial Three Ways
of a mediaeval university
before we had such things as Legal Aid –
now put beyond the reach of common folk –
vital for arguing your case in court.
Now Rhetoric itself is fragmented –
buried in the ground, like ancient pots;
a few shards gathered up and put to work
for topics as diverse as Literature,
Philology, Psychology, and Law,
Logic, Grammar, News and Advertising.
Exceptional quotations from the book:
“You ought to eat to live, not live to eat.”
“I don’t write poems because I cannot write
the sort of poems I want:
nor do I want to write
the sort of poems I can.”
Today it’s scarcely possible to read
Romeo and Juliet without a smile
for it is absolutely stiff with cliches.
But I’ve a clue that Ad Herennium
exerts its lure upon my English mind
for reasons which, at heart, are much the same…
When English as a language was upgraded
from peasant gab of cows and boundaries,
drunken feasts and hilltop sacrifice,
to language fit for wise and cultured folk,
Cicero’s undying masterpiece
was, by and large, imported word-for-word.