Many of us who publish in Academic Questions are emeritus professors with memories of our work and concerns about the future of scholarship. So it is exciting to witness the youthful energy and methodological experiments of the newer hires at AQ’s parent organization, the National Association of Scholars. David Randall, who joined the NAS staff in 2015 and became Director of Research two years later, recently got my attention as a bumptious, risk-taking writer when he tried the sonnet mode with two poems in the summer, 2019 issue, “Conversation” and “The Concept of Conversation.” These skillful exercises persuaded me to look at his scholarly work on the same topic of polite and rational “conversation” that is just out, The Concept of Conversation: From Cicero’s Sermo to the Grand Siècle’s Conversation.
Now Randall is busy producing long reports and other communications for NAS.1 But at some point he did the quiet work on this book and its forthcoming sequel, about the fate of classical rhetoric, especially the distinction Cicero makes between “oratory” and “sermo,” or conversation. I am neither a scholar of rhetoric nor a classicist (Randall seems strongly prepared in both areas), but I am always interested in the epistemology of truth.
Randall explains what it means to write “a history of the ‘concept of conversation’”: This is the history of several attributes that were originally applied to, or allied with, actual conversations in the ancient world. These attributes were abstracted early on as, in essence, a conversational style that could be applied in circumstances other than actual conversation, and to literary genres such as the letter and the dialogue. I trace the evolving nature of these conversational attributes, styles and genres—as well as the broadening use of conversation as a metaphor and the social matrices which articulated these aspects of conversation. At its heart, however, the history of the concept of conversation is the history of the application of conversational style to ever wider portions of the European intellectual world.
This is the history of several attributes that were originally applied to, or allied with, actual conversations in the ancient world. These attributes were abstracted early on as, in essence, a conversational style that could be applied in circumstances other than actual conversation, and to literary genres such as the letter and the dialogue. I trace the evolving nature of these conversational attributes, styles and genres—as well as the broadening use of conversation as a metaphor and the social matrices which articulated these aspects of conversation. At its heart, however, the history of the concept of conversation is the history of the application of conversational style to ever wider portions of the European intellectual world.
Cicero himself was a very canny writer and teacher. We would say “academic,” but I think his main academy was the Roman Senate. We might add that about the same time and at the summit of what Randall calls the “Classic,” Saul of Tarsus, who became Saint Paul, was working in an equally profound way with his own rhetoric of letter writing and theology. That point of the “Classic” two thousand years ago in our human history is the point where the narrative that Randall develops opens. Cicero always wanted to win. He was competitive and wanted victory, in the courts and in the Senate. He knew what a great tool language was, and the tool for victory was what he called “oratory.” He knew, also, that this victory was far from truth. The winning football team in our lives is not the “true” football team. It is just the winner. Cicero’s elaborate anatomy of oratory carried exactly this practicality and cynicism. At the same time, Cicero was able to describe another mode for language: “sermo” or intelligent conversation and discourse among bright men. An interesting facet in the history is that, as it came to be pursued later, sermo opened widely to include women. The gender issue is a large and separate subtopic for Randall. I am more interested in the epistemology. And in sermo, truth, rather than victory, was the objective.
We might note that the theology of blood sacrifice, going back to the Hebrews of Leviticus (see 4:32-35 and 16: 11-17) as well as back to other religions, was elemental, primitive, and had little to do with language. The dramatic expression of blood sacrifice brings victory, but not truth. (Cicero himself, ironically, suffered the blood sacrifice of final victory at the hands of the young Augustus, when he had lost in the Senate and had to offer his own head for execution.)
Blood sacrifice is pretty grim, and it does make sermo seem attractive by comparison. But the job of pinning down the reality of truth beyond the realm of bloody victory has been a project for mankind continually. Randall has the Whiggish hope that it can be accomplished with discourse, with sequential narrative, with the hard work of sermo. This “agon,” or agony, of the distinction between victory and truth in modern times seems to have been handled particularly well by Scottish writers (David Hume and Adam Smith) and by Irish writers (Jonathan Swift) in English—perhaps because they feel like outsiders. Also, the women in the salons and in the letter writing of sermo, as well as much later in the political arena of newspapers and magazines, were also “outsiders.” Randall’s work points toward all those Enlightenment heroes, but this first volume focuses on the several centuries prior to the Enlightenment. The story he tells from Cicero opens up again with Petrarch and the early Renaissance; and since sermo is capable of and invites rapid change, Randall’s narrative details the changes in genre that sermo encourages—dialogue, letter writing, newspapers, journal essays, salons, talk. His main work here is the exposition of how the careful distinctions in Cicero were “dismembered and hollowed out [in the Middle Ages] to be revived by [the early Renaissance] humanists.” (3) Always the notion is that more and more talk, more and more of what Adam Smith labels doux commerce (the polite conversation that is enabled by fluid economic growth) will get us closer to the truth of things. This is the Whig teleology that seems always to start from perfect confidence in all the detailed adaptations that talk can create and that the historian can map.
At the same time, the combative urge for victory, or for closure, inserts itself. Just like Hume, Smith, and his other heroes, and like some of the women, Randall is always nervous for victory. This volume stops at the end of the seventeenth century. By that time, and bolstered by many changes and treatises on the nature of sermo, the grandest manifestation of conversation was seen in the salon culture in French-dominated Europe, although at the same time a less monarchy-centered set of conversations developed that Randall labels the Republic of Letters. It was out of this latter tradition that the Enlightenment and American writers such as James Madison grew, which is the subject of the second volume. His navigation through these troubled waters is always interesting. Referring to Pierre Bayle, a forerunner of the Encyclopedists, Randall writes that “we may perceive in the contrast between the salons and Bayle a reiteration of . . . [Bayle’s notion that sermo] is a principle for destroying not for building.” (162-163)
In this first of two volumes, Randall is polite and fulsome in the salon tradition, I think, but always a bit self-deprecating. I suspect when he gets to the next volume and is dealing with Madison and other of our founders he will become more decisive and forceful. But I do like self-deprecation and irony. My own great hero in this continual agon of teleology versus closure is Jonathan Swift. With all his wit and wonderfully effective writing in sermo (journalism. letters, tracts), Swift went mutely insane at the end. Randall is no Swift, of course, but he does show some amusing agonies in this struggle to be polite, humane, and hopeful while at the same time a part of the Republic of Letters, as Bayle and other early-Enlightenment thinkers were.
In a carefully crafted “Introduction,” Randall acknowledges how big the history of sermo is and waxes almost funny in his gratitude and in his awareness of the peril of arguing just for victory: “To describe rhetoric as oratory [that is to hold Cicero only to his tactics for winning], no matter with what fulsome intentions, is to anticipate its obsequies.” (3) So death dominates his description of Cicero.
But the other large, ruling metaphor in this very detailed scholarly book is birth. Both images come from nature, as it should be in a discussion of sermo, not from dogma. Randall concludes his otherwise tidy and information-filled volume with the image of generation and birth. The sequel will detail the sermo leading up to James Madison, the Federalist, and the birth of the American experiment. I look forward to that second volume, also from Edinburgh. But what nature generates in its continual fecund birth energy is hardly predictable. Saints and Yahoos, even newts and salamanders, seem equally favored as we talk about fecundity and birth, even the possibility of destruction that Pierre Bayle highlights. Fortunately, this will include more Randall.