A trick of the trade?

Many years ago, I read Cicero’s essay on friendship. To be honest I couldn’t finish it as it just seemed too sanctimonious and dull. But it was an interesting exercise in rhetoric.

For starters, he did used Laelius a long dead Roman friend of the late Scipio Africanus (who defeated Hannibal) as his mouthpiece. This sort of appropriation was quite common in the ancient world. Speeches were frequently written for and put into the mouths of long dead men of lasting reputations.

Along the way, Laelius is made to say,

In this point I notice three opinions, with none of which I agree. One is that we should love our friend just as much as we love ourselves, and no more; another, that our affection to friends, should exactly correspond and equal theirs to us; a third, that a man should be valued at exactly the same rate as he values himself.

Now the first two may be open to debate and differing opinions, but third is a straw man. What kind of fool values people as much as the people value themselves? Such a man would be prey to every self-inflated egotist in the city. I have never met such an idiot, I don’t think you have and I don’t believe Cicero had either. So why mention it at all?

Well, Cicero was one of the greatest orators of all time. He spent hours and even days polishing his statements. He would not have left something so lying about for no reason. So, one possibility is that after introducing two somewhat debatable ideas and before explaining either of them he has thrown down a straw man which everyone can beat. By the end of the sentence you have found at least one point (and that too the last) on which you can agree with Cicero on. With that agreement in mind, you may be more amenable to listen to his reasons for the other two propositions as well.



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