In a speech yesterday at the annual Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) conference being held in Oxford, Prime Minister Gordon Brown used a quotation about Cicero and Demosthenes that sparked my interest. Though attributed to Plutarch, I haven’t been able to find it in any of Plutarch’s writings; the earliest usage I have found is in the preface to an anthology of speeches by William Jennings Bryan. This quotation has been used and misused ever since.
Here is Brown’s quotation:
It is said that in Ancient Rome that when Cicero spoke to his audiences, people used to turn to each other and say about Cicero, ‘Great speech.’ But it is said that in Ancient Greece when Demosthenes spoke to his audiences, people turned to each other and didn’t say ‘Great speech.’ They said, ‘Let’s march.’ We should be marching towards a global society.
Note that Brown doesn’t give a speech that makes people want to march; instead, someone needs to give a speech that makes people want to march. I (and perhaps the audience at TED) would have preferred the former rather than the latter. Only in an age of irony could Brown make such a statement.
More importantly, compare Brown’s version with the original Bryan version (from The World’s Famous Orations  and “Lincoln as Orator” ):
The object of public speaking usually is to persuade. Some one [sic], in describing the difference between Cicero and Demosthenes, remarked: “When Cicero spoke people said: ‘How well Cicero speaks!’ but when Demosthenes spoke they said, ‘Let us go against Philip.’”—the difference being that Cicero impressed himself upon the audience, while Demosthenes impressed his subject upon them. Whether or not this comparison be a fair one, it at least presents an important truth. It is a compliment to a public speaker that the audience should discuss what he says rather than his manner of saying it; more complimentary that they should remember his arguments, than that they should praise his rhetoric. The orator should seek to conceal himself behind his subject. If he presents himself in every speech he is sure to become monotonous, if not offensive. If, however, he focuses attention upon his subject, he can find an infinite number of themes and, therefore, give variety to his speech.
Notice the distinction that Brown makes between Cicero’s speech, which is rhetoric for rhetoric’s sake, and Demosthenes’s speech, which is rhetoric for action’s sake. That is, Cicero’s “mere rhetoric” vs. Demosthenes’s “action.” Bryan, however, was making a more subtle point about the concealment of art: ars est celare artem. The merits of Brown’s distinction notwithstanding, it’s interesting to see how Forbes picked it up and likened Cicero’s rhetoric with President Obama’s, something Adlai Stevenson did with JFK in 1960.
The genealogy of the quotation is of interest as well. Before Brown used it, it had found its way into such business books as Sue Hershkowitz-Coore’s 2008 How to Say It to Sell It (115), Noel M. Tichy and Warren G. Bennis’s 2007 Judgment (14), and Michael Heppell’s 2004 How to Be Brilliant (134), though Tichy and Bennis change “Demosthenes” to “Caesar.” They all misuse the quotation to demonstrate the emptiness of rhetoric and the fullness of action. One wonders from which of these books tomes Brown’s speechwriter borrowed the quotation.
Before it found its way into business books, the quotation in question was cited in several books of quotations, the most notable of which was The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. And notably it was misused by by Dinesh D’Souza in a 1999 biography of Ronald Reagan (though, unlike Obama, Reagan was the heir to Demosthenes, not Cicero).
Therefore, it unfortunately appears that the tired opposition between rhetoric and reality, between words and action, between saying and doing is alive and well. Brown’s speechwriter, a practitioner of rhetoric, should know better.