Skip to main content

Ethics and the Orator

The Ciceronian Tradition of Political Morality

For thousands of years, critics have attacked rhetoric and the actual practice of politics as unprincipled, insincere, and manipulative. In Ethics and the Orator, Gary A. Remer disagrees, offering the Ciceronian rhetorical tradition as a rejoinder. He argues that the Ciceronian tradition is based on practical or “rhetorical” politics, rather than on idealistic visions of a politics-that-never-was—a response that is ethically sound, if not altogether morally pure.

Remer’s study is distinct from other works on political morality in that it turns to Cicero, not Aristotle, as the progenitor of an ethical rhetorical perspective. Contrary to many, if not most, studies of Cicero since the mid-nineteenth century, which have either attacked him as morally indifferent or have only taken his persuasive ends seriously (setting his moral concerns to the side), Ethics and the Orator demonstrates how Cicero presents his ideal orator as exemplary not only in his ability to persuade, but in his capacity as an ethical person. Remer makes a compelling case that Ciceronian values—balancing the moral and the useful, prudential reasoning, and decorum—are not particular only to the philosopher himself, but are distinctive of a broader Ciceronian rhetorical tradition that runs through the history of Western political thought post-Cicero, including the writings of Quintilian, John of Salisbury, Justus Lipsius, Edmund Burke, the authors of The Federalist, and John Stuart Mill.


“Gary Remer’s very fine new book could not be more familiar or more central to contemporary politics. . .Remer’s  analysis is subtle and thoughtful.”

Perspectives on Politics

“Remer rarely loses sight of the potential contemporary value of his historical material, and herein lies his most significant contribution. Ethics and the Orator succeeds admirably in showing how the study of Cicero’s political thought, which charts a path between an unrealistic moral idealism and an amoral world where politics is unleavened by morality, can still be relevant for modern debates in political philosophy, during a time marked by cynicism about politics and politicians. It deserves to be read widely by classicists, historians of political thought, and political theorists working on issues related to rhetoric, political deliberation, and political morality.”

Political Theory

Ethics and the Orator is clear, well written, and erudite. As impressive as Remer’s command of the texts and literature on Cicero is, he is never a pedant. Moreover, he uses his Cicero to address questions of continuing saliency. Most of all his account well illustrates ways in which Cicero was perhaps the classical political thinker most concerned with the transcendence of the common good.”

The Review of Politics

“Speech is central to political life, but it isn’t central to the contemporary study of politics. That wasn’t true in the ancient world, where writers like Aristotle and Cicero produced treatises on rhetoric. In this major scholarly work, Remer describes the tradition they began, where rhetoric wasn’t primarily about how to speak but rather about what to say (or not say). This is rhetoric as political morality. Moving from Cicero forward, Remer vividly describes a way of thinking about prudence and decorum in the pursuit of political goals that seems especially valuable today when these virtues are so radically absent.”

Michael Walzer, professor (emeritus) of social science, Institute for Advanced Study

“In this fascinating and historically expansive discussion, Remer demonstrates not only Cicero’s enduring importance, but also his relevance to our own thinking about rhetoric and politics. As a response to our own rhetorical age that paradoxically distrusts rhetoric, Remer shows how Cicero embeds practical morality in rhetoric, providing timely insights into our current debates about democracy.”

Dean Hammer, author of Roman Political Thought: From Cicero to Augustine

“Is the art of persuasion inherently immoral? Can a person who speaks well be counted on to use that skill in an ethical manner? These are questions that have animated debate among political and moral thinkers from Greco-Roman antiquity up to the present day. Working through the lens of the great Roman politician, rhetorician, and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero, Remer directly responds to these quandaries in a book of exceptional vision and profundity. Remer both makes a substantial contribution to the study of the history of Western political thought and offers a highly relevant reflection on the situation in which modern democracies find themselves at this moment in time.”

Cary J. Nederman, Texas A&M University

“Few groups are as widely distrusted in democratic societies as politicians. Even as this is the case, political theorists and philosophers have sought to show that political morality is not a contradiction in terms. In this timely, original, and well-argued book, Remer turns to Cicero—and the Ciceronian tradition —to show how the Roman orator-philosopher’s understanding of the interrelationship between rhetoric and morality can inform contemporary discussions of political morality. Few scholars are as well-suited to the task as Remer, and he pulls it off superbly. Engaging an impressive range of rhetoric, philosophy, classics, and political theory scholarship, Remer convincingly shows that Cicero’s defense of rhetoric’s intrinsic morality can help to resolve our own worries about rhetoric and politics.”

Daniel J. Kapust, University of Wisconsin-Madison

"Remer’s book is highly recommended not just to those who want to know more about Cicero’s influence on a range of significant political theorists...but also to those who seek an introduction to some significant and difficult to grapple with early modern works on how emotion can be used and misused to manipulate us by and through our politicians."

Siobhán McElduff | Polis

Table of Contents


Prologue: Quintilian and John of Salisbury in the Ciceronian Tradition
1          Rhetoric, Emotional Manipulation, and Morality: The Contemporary Relevance of Cicero vis-à-vis Aristotle
2          Political Morality, Conventional Morality, and Decorum in Cicero
3          Rhetoric as a Balancing of Ends: Cicero and Machiavelli
4          Justus Lipsius, Morally Acceptable Deceit, and Prudence in the Ciceronian Tradition
5          The Classical Orator as Political Representative: Cicero and the Modern Concept of Representation
6          Deliberative Democracy and Rhetoric: Cicero, Oratory, and Conversation



Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press