Attic vs. Asiatic Literary Style

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Attic style in Greek literature and art was replaced, for a time, by the more decorative and florid Asiatic style. Attic would resurface again, as the ideal, suggesting a more ascetic, brief, and witty concise style. Both styles influenced writers and speakers in Rome, and much later in Britain. Writers like Matthew Arnold made use of an Attic prose style, while the more florid Asiatic style had its proponents as well. In the Roman era, Cicero analyzed these styles and suggested there were several Attic styles and the simple style was not the only one. Cicero became embroiled in the Attic-Asiatic debate; he was said to be an Asiatic writer by those who wanted to discredit him.
Cicero wrote a treatise on rhetoric. Rhetoric is the art of meaning, speech, writing, and language. Roman rhetoricians, such as Cicero and Quintilian, used Aristotelian concepts in their writings, as would later commentators. Cicero’s works served as a link between Aristotle and later generations, carrying ideas through the Hellenistic age which otherwise would be lost to us: “They furnish, accordingly, some notion, incomplete to be sure but nevertheless valuable, of the ideas about government which passed from Greece to Rome in the three centuries before the Christian era and produced such profound effects upon Roman law” (Cicero 40).
Cicero’s works influenced St. Augustine in the Middle Ages. Before converting to Christianity, Augustine taught rhetoric. Augustine revived interest in rhetoric–an important contribution, after the early Christians foreswore it as a pagan art. He embodied rhetorical concepts in his writings and teachings and argued that preachers needed to be able to teach, delight, and move–the same notions held by Cicero. Augustine said paying attention to the rules of effective expression was necessary to accomplish the aims of Christianity. And such rules were to be used only in service of the truth and so revitalized the philosophic basis of rhetoric (Bizzell and Herzberg 382-383).
As noted, some saw Cicero as more Asiatic than Attic, one of these people being Francis Bacon. Francis Bacon argued for world empirical examination by promoting a revival of secular knowledge. He rejected fables, myths, and other narratives as highly inaccurate. His definition of rhetoric suggests he attempted to bring the language power under rational control. Bacon also furthered the rhetorical scientific approach; his ideas were important in three strands of modern rhetorical thought–epistemological, belletristic, and elocutionist (Foss, Foss, and Trapp 8). Rejecting Ciceronian ornamentation, Bacon developed his own complexities by framing thought in aphoristic sentences (Bizzell and Herzberg 624).
Cicero paid particular attention to oratorical writing. Arthur Patch McKinlay considers Cicero’s view on clarity. He holds the idea that Cicero believed planning was an essential requirement:
He [Cicero] holds that a man who cannot apply the outline in every particular is entirely incapacitated to excel as an orator, and that no amount of understanding can make up for a lack of organization. In this unequivocal language does Cicero state the case for an outline. (McKinlay 245-246)
The Attic ideal strives for simplicity and clarity. Cicero may have been mistaken as Asiatic because he divided stylistic principles into “diversity of structure and embellishment of thought. He lays great stress on the need of variety in composition. He calls that quality a distinguishing trait of the orator” (McKinlay 246). However, there was considerable difference between florid prose and the variety sought by Cicero, who was noted for using situations, digressions, characters, and humor in speech. Cicero holds “that wit is peculiarly a gift of nature” (McKinlay 248). Wit has long been thought to be an Attic characteristic in epigram writing. Views that Cicero was too florid in his speech may have come from certain annoyed Atticists, as G.M.A. Grube writes:
It was his condescending estimate of Calvus, the leader of the Atticists, who had recently died, which probably embittered the dispute. (Grube 183)
Feeling Cicero had not shown proper respect for their leader, they decided he was an Asiatic writer and disseminated the idea.
Grant Showerman considers the elements of Cicero’s style, noting that one trait stands out above all else: “This quality is simply a marvelous fluency. Whether in oration, essay, or formal epistle, Ciceronian eloquence is a full-flowing, unceasing current. It streams-smoothly, steadily, reposefully” (Showerman 181). Showerman believes fluency not only lives in language but in thought as well. He says, “thinking which streams easily and continuously, and there is thinking which leaps, or halts, or strays and loses time in getting back again, or never gets back” (Showerman 181). This idea suggests the prose is simple and easy to follow, clean in line and without linguistic diversions compared to the more florid prose. Showerman describes Cicero’s prose style as the Attic ideal:
Few writers so effectively conserve the energy of the reader by leading him gently and noiselessly and effortlessly from the beginning to the end of his thought. There are no haltings, no leaps and jerks, no lacunae or ellipses. All is amplitude and fullness. Cicero does not scruple to use all the words he needs. (Showerman 182)
Linguistic devices Cicero uses have been cited as showing Asiatic style, such as repetition, word series, and rhythmical quality. However, as Showerman notes, when Cicero uses these devices, he does so for greater clarity and to guide the listeners understanding (Showerman 183). And this is why no absolute distinction can be made between Attic and Asiatic style.
Eric Laughton refers to the Asianism-Atticism controversy as he considers how well Cicero knew Greek orators who had gone before him. Laughton shows the two issues are related when he writes,
The attitude of the Atticist reactionaries at Rome was plainly wrong-headed, and for our purpose its chief importance was that it drew forth from Cicero, during his later years, a voluminous counterblast, which included many, indeed the majority, of his recorded remarks on the Greek orators. (Laughton 27)
The Romans always made a distinction between the orator and the rhetorician, while the Greeks had one word for both roles. Romans considered the orator a man of action and responsibility–one whose words influenced events–while the rhetorician was a teacher of rhetoric. Cicero’s rhetorical hero was Pericles, the Attic politician and orator “in whom eloquence was combined with integrity, wisdom, and statesmanship, and who for forty years guided the destinies of Athens, both in domestic affairs and in the conduct of war” (Laughton 29).
The Attic-Asiatic controversy, developed around Cicero, was somewhat different from the Attic-Asiatic debates that emerged at different times and were waged by various neo-classicists in the seventeenth century. The latter were writers who chose one particular style to define them. The controversy around Cicero was created by those who wanted to define him and who would not accept his rhetoric or stylistic views. To a degree, this became a political debate melding the political and literary in a way that is not usually seen today. Cicero wrote extensively about his vision of proper oratory and effective speech writing and delivery; these works show an Attic rather than Asiatic disposition.
People tend to want to classify writers as either Attic or Asiatic. But Cicero has shown that this is not a black and white distinction and one must consider the shades of gray in between.
Works Cited
Bizzell, Patricia and Bruce Herzberg. The Rhetorical Tradition. Boston: Bedford Books, 1990.
Cicero. On the Commonwealth. New York: Macmillan, 1976.
Grube, G.M.A. The Greek and Roman Critics. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett, 1995.
Laughton, Eric. “Cicero and the Greek Orators.” The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 82, No. 1 (Jan., 1961), 27-49.
McKinlay, Arthur Patch. “Cicero’s Conception of Literary Art.” The Classical Journal, Vol. 21, No. 4 (Jan., 1926), 244-259.
Showerman, Grant. “Cicero the Stylist: An Appreciation.” The Classical Journal, Vol. 8, No. 5 (Feb., 1913), 180-192.

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