The Relationship Between Biblical Prophet and Roman Orator: The Limits of Preaching and Prudence

Gary Remer

Abstract: The biblical prophet and Roman orator are here seen as representing two distinct types of rhetoric: the prophet represents a “rhetoric of purity,” or truthful speech uncompromised by practical concerns; the orator, a “rhetoric of prudence,” in which speech is accommodated to context. These two rhetorical paths point to the particular characters of these speakers’ two societies. Because the religious character of Hebrew society dictated that wisdom is ultimately based on divine revelation, biblical prophets did not subordinate their speech or action to earthly wisdom or prudence. The Romans, in turn, were committed to human wisdom and practical, this-worldly ends, which impelled ancient orators to comport themselves with decorum and prudence. The contrasting approaches to speech adopted by prophet and orator yield diverse political results, with advantages and disadvantages to each. In their imprudence, biblical prophets spoke forthrightly and uncompromisingly but rarely succeeded in persuading their kings or people to change their hearts or actions. Roman orators affected policy decision making primarily by moving the public with their words, but political necessity pressed them to strike a bargain between truth and deception, principle and expediency.

Biography: Gary Remer is an associate professor of political science at Tulane University, who teaches the history of political thought. He is the author of Humanism and the Rhetoric of Toleration (Pennsylvania State University, 1996) and co-editor of Talking Democracy: Historical Perspectives on Rhetoric and Democracy (Pennsylvania State University, 2004). He has published numerous articles in journals such as Political Theory, History of Political Thought, Journal of Political Philosophy, Philosophy and Rhetoric, Review of Politics, and Polity.

Volume 4, Number 1 (Winter 2009) pp. 25-55