Your RDA of Irony

The Origin of Specious

Speechwriting is not a new profession. It only seems novel because we writers no longer practice discretion. Now, speechwriters verge on megalomania. “Peggy Noonan presents Ronald Reagan!” “Today, George W. Bush will be reciting the words of Mike Gerson!” We are the world’s loudest ventriloquists. Yet, speechwriters have been quietly working for centuries. Did you really think that the Renaissance Popes wrote their encyclicals? Our profession has a long and covert history, but I am about to divulge our origins.

In ancient Greece, both rhetoric and politics evolved, and the art of one lent itself to the artifice of the other. To govern a volatile populace, statesmen found rhetoric to be cheaper than terror and easier than competence. When Pericles had to address a grieving Athens about its casualties in the Peloponnesian War, he preferred to speak of patriotism rather than the ineptitude of his generals. Such beguiling manipulation is implicit in the word “rhetoric;” it is Greek for “flowing art.”

The Sophists now are remembered only as an epithet, but they were highly regarded and richly rewarded as teachers of speech. Every educated Greek was expected to master the correct manner and effective ploys for public speaking. Plato lamented that the study of rhetoric emphasized persuasion rather than truth. The Sophists retorted that truth is a fickle perception, and its plausibility depends upon the craft of persuasion.

Aristotle continued the debate, expounding that rhetoric required standards for logic and sincerity. The pedantic philosopher had rules for everything, but his precepts of rhetoric do not mention originality. There was no need to do so, and the Sophists would have agreed. The pagan Greeks believed in many things, but not the existence of ghostwriters. A speaker always composed his own oration.

Rome conquered Greece and succumbed to it-in infatuated imitation and shameless plagiarism. Every patrician and ambitious plebeian mastered rhetoric. Of course, praising Caesar was always the safest topic for an oration. If Cicero had remembered that, it would have saved him a decapitation. The emperors encouraged the teaching of rhetoric, endowing schools with chairs in the gliberal art. Even as Rome’s legions were increasingly unreliable, at least the Empire was assured of a steady supply of educated sycophants.

Yet, those florid hypocrites did have one scruple: they composed their own speeches. The Roman culture could abide most crimes and any depravity, but not ghostwriting. Of course, when the Empire fell, so did literary standards. Amidst the invasions and the chaos of the sixth century, rhetoric became a commodity. The pioneer of speechwriters was a sly scalawag named Flavius Cassiodorus. A Roman patrician, he survived the barbarians by serving them. The Ostrogoths had conquered Italy, but they had little idea how to govern it. They relied on Cassiodorus (c. A.D. 490-585) to translate German demands into Latin compliance. He was more than just a flunky and a traitor; he was a media consultant.

If hypocrisy is an art, then Cassiodorus was a prodigy. While still a teenager, his unctuous eloquence had earned him the position of orator at the Ostrogoth court. In his eulogy for an obscure kinsman of the king, Cassiodorus stole the attention from the corpse. With dazzling histrionics, he embellished the mundane and glorified the trivial.

The Germanic nobles barely understood the Latin oration but they deferred to the more ostentatious culture. Theodoric (A.D. 454-526), the king of the barbarians, realized that the young orator could be of great use. The warlord hoped to reconcile the Italians to their servitude, and Cassiodorus had the audacity to do it.

Yet Cassiodorus knew the limits of Italian tolerance. His countrymen usually were quite indifferent to their rulers. They had ignored an unpleasant assortment of Emperors: five centuries of thugs and buffoons. But each of those tyrants had the redeeming virtue of being Roman. The Ostrogoths were unforgivably foreign. If those German warriors hoped to rule a passive Italy, they had to undergo instant assimilation. How does one imbue a thousand years of civilization into a horde of illiterate barbarians? Cassiodorus managed this miraculous metamorphosis by faking it.

As the royal secretary, Cassiodorus created a new personality for the king of the Ostrogoths. Theodoric was presented as a man of sublime refinement, more of a connoisseur than a conqueror. This cosmetic conversion began in the year 507, when Theodoric suddenly became fluent in Latin. Read aloud by heralds throughout Italy, His majesty’s edicts and proclamations now flaunted eloquence and erudition. A zoning ordinance would include a discourse on aquatic life or the etymology of sports terms. Consider this sampling of the new Theodoric, translated by the British historian Thomas Hodgkin. (My knowledge of Latin consists of four years of high school French.)

“We delight to live after the laws of the Romans, whom we seek to defend with our arms; and we are as much interested in the maintenance of morality as we can possibly be in war….Let other kings desire the glory of battles won, of cities taken, of ruins made; our purpose is, God helping us, so to rule that our subjects should grieve the they did not earlier acquire the blessings of our domain.”

“The wandering birds love their own nests; the beasts haste to their lodging in the brake; the voluptuous fish, roaming the fields of ocean, returns to its own well-known cavern. How much more should Rome be loved by her children!”

Theodoric apparently was a philosopher king and a paragon of classical culture. In fact, the warlord could neither read nor write, but he was no fool. If this chicanery would placate the Italians, he was prepared to indulge the theatrics of Cassiodorus. The Italians may not have been completely gulled by the metamorphosis, but they politely accepted the gesture. Otherwise, history would have noted the massacre of an audience and the execution of Cassiodorus. In fact, the Italians grew to appreciate the “assimilated” Theodoric. He actually was a very good ruler, possibly the best one that Italy has had in the last sixteen centuries.

Cassiodorus served and survived four Ostrogoth monarchs, retiring a rich man and living to be 95. His ingratiating talents probably helped him in the next world as well. A patron of the arts and charity, he was an early investor in his cousin Benedict’s franchise of monasteries. Yes, that Benedict. Cassiodurus always had friends in the highest places. His legacy is both our profession and predicament. We speechwriters still work for barbarian kings who want to sound “classy.”

  1. Alan Perlman says:


    Could you send me that post in downloadable form? Excellent, concise summary, and if I use it, I will be sure to credit you.

    You might want to check out my latest rant on The Decider (my most recent post).

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