Thoughts from Cicero

I try not to play the token Classicist in the room too often  (along with Elizabeth, that is). However, I felt I had to mention that it was with a real sense of dread that, coming off of a seminar spent puzzling over what Jakobson and Burke might think that terms “metaphor” and “metonym” mean, I turned to my assignment for my survey of Latin literature for this week: Cicero’s De Oratore, Book III. The tortured syntax of this last sentence might give some idea of why the task of trying to figure out what Cicero meant to say about metaphor and metonym was not immediately appealing to me.

The process did, however, reward me with some interesting comparative material. Cicero, or rather Cicero in the persona of L. Lucinius Crassus (not the triumvir), devotes considerable space in this dialogue to ornatus orationis, the decoration or elaboration of speech. In his discussion of tropes, he insists on a distinction between those elements of ornatus that arise from single words (singulis verbis) and those which arise on larger syntactical levels (oratione id est continuatione verborum). To the former belong trans-latio (i.e. meta-phor) and immutatio (metonym, I think), in their various forms. To the latter belongs a trope that Cicero seems not to name explicitly, though his formulation aliud dicatur, aliud intellegandum est (“one thing is said, another is to be understood”) might gloss the Greek ἀλληγορία. For Cicero, these all seem to be special cases, or applications of, the larger category of translatio.

At risk of being anachronistic, one could say that Cicero approximately anticipates Jakobson’s axis of selection (verbis singulis) and his axis of continuity (continuatione verborum), and implies that allegory – or, what we might call extended metaphor, conceit, irony (?), is a sustained transfer of contingent selections projected across an axis of continuity – if that makes sense.

These are not complete thoughts, just some off-the-cuff reflections. I’m not sure how what Cicero says here in his de Oratore stacks up against what he says in his other rhetorical treatises, how all of that compares to other ancient Greek and Roman treatises on rhetoric and style, and what other intervening texts would have mediated the early modern reception of these classical terms. Cicero must be in the mix somewhere so I thought I’d share – though it’s worth noting that he frames this text as more of a practical than a theoretical enterprise. When you see how many different people have in different contexts tried to fix the slippery terms of metaphor and metonym over the years, you begin to understand why it is so hard to employ them consistently. Which brings me back, again, to what I hope is not too harsh a question: how well are these terms working for us as units of analysis?

Will Dingee

Leave a Reply