Spectacle and pity in Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria
Book 6 is especially significant in Institutio Oratoria because it commemorates the recent death of Quintilian’s son. Following the personal disclosure in the preface, Quintilian says: “I have no desire to flaunt my woes in the public gaze nor to exaggerate the cause I have for tears”(377). Coincidentally, the book’s subject is the rhetorical function of appealing to the emotions. Perhaps the reason for his caution when divulging his son and wife’s deaths in this academic text is because he is conscious that philosophers “regard susceptibility to emotion as a vice” and consider appeal to emotion as immoral distraction (387. However, through his use of the figures of lists, oxymoron, and metonymy Quintilian contests the philosophical tradition and contends that emotion and its close associate, image, can actually constitute legitimate grounds for truth even as he acknowledges its potentially deceptive character.
Quintilian describes the customary practice of appealing to the court’s pity with physical exhibitions. “Blood stained swords, fragments of bone taken from the wound, and garments spotted with blood… wounds stripped of their dressings, and scourged bodies bared to view” serve as “cruel facts” of suffering that motivate the court to convict the accused (403). The exhibitions reconstruct the scene of hostility before the expectant court and implicate the jury as witnesses of the act, such that they cannot deny the physical vestiges of suffering before their own eyes. Quintilian uses a list structure to mimic the exposition of the array of physical exhibitions in the courtroom, inviting the reader to participate in the viewing of the exhibit. The parallel arrangement between the structure of the text and the subject of the text blurs the distinction between the reader and the court, such that the force of the exhibits is equally experienced by the reader.
By listing the objects sequentially, the reader conjures the exhibits in spatial contiguity, thus emphasizing the mounting spectacle of morbidity. From left to right, the exhibitions increase in proximity to the supposed victim’s body: the first presented is the sword, held at length, followed by the detached bone fragment, the garment worn on the skin, the wound, and finally culminating in the whole body itself. Paradoxically, the spectacle becomes increasingly intimate with each added exhibition, arousing the sympathy of the court as it suggests that through the acts of “stripping” and “baring” of physical injury the defendant is exposing a manifest truth. Each of the objects thus associates the physical injury of the bearer with moral or ethical injury and thus motivates the court to pity the accuser.
However, Quintilian’s qualification of the exhibitions as cruel facts nearly duplicates the bare facts afforded by a rational explication of events, suggesting that while the exhibits appear carefully curated to elicit a particular response they do ultimately incarnate tangible truths (403, 399). Yet by repeating the word facts in describing rational and visual narratives Quintilian accentuates the parallels between the two. Sensibly speaking, a blood-stained sword no more suggests that its wielder was victim or aggressor; a wound blights the accused or accuser equally. The deception lies in the presentation of the exhibits rather than in the exhibits themselves, a danger equally present in rational explication. The partial repetition of the phrase emphasizes the change in the modifying adjective before the noun. The change in the adjectives modifying the two instances of the word facts forces us to carefully compare them. Bare here simply indicates unembellished or uncovered. On the other hand, cruel is twofold: in the modern sense it denotes a thing that willfully causes suffering or pain to another, but it derives from the Latin crudelis, which is related to crudus, meaning rough or raw. This lends to two conflicting interpretations. The previous usage of cruel in the book, “the cruel tyranny of fortune,” suggests that the word is employed in its modern sense (381). Thus, the oxymoron “cruel facts” suggests that the exhibits glean their force from their deceptively objective appearance though devised to arouse vicarious suffering. However, given that the text was originally written in Latin the second sense is more likely. It is possible that images are being qualified as raw or authentic fact, essentially paralleling the bare facts disclosed by the rational. As cruel facts, the visual exhibitions are authentic yet no more impartial than oral, textual, or purportedly rational reports.
Figuring image as constant but visual experience as refracted by the human eye helps illuminate the justification cited above, “the cause I have for tears.” The phrase employs metonymy since the tears represent the public’s pity. By effectively replacing pity with tears, Quintilian reduces emotion to physical expression, thus suggesting that emotion can be equated with embodied, subjective physical expression. The gesture is repeated in the maxim, “there is good reason for saying that nothing dries so quickly as tears” (401). Once again, tears are a metonym for emotional response or persuasion through pity. The adverb quickly emphasizes the ephemeral quality of emotion, suggesting that it decays like organic material. This is in contrast with reason, which in the dualist philosophical tradition is experienced through the irreducible soul, and in line with his stipulation of tactile, embodied learning in Book 1.
If Quintilian’s woes are to be under the public gaze then they are to be visible things. As Quintilian reduces emotional appraisal to its physical expression, he figures pity as both a highly visible act and contingent on visual pleas. This associates the public gaze with public emotional appraisal. Embodied sight enables the court to vicariously experience or conversely pierce spectacles of suffering. By virtue that the same organ enables sight and tears there is an immediate association between image and emotion, both grounded in the body. The pre-emption before the metonymic phrase, “there is good reason” justifies public emotional response as a valid and justifiable, if not absolutely rational, approach to social truths, the undercurrents of court law.
In conclusion, Quintilian questions the hierarchy of theoretical over embodied judgments through list, anaphora, and metonymy. Ultimately, he contends that a disinterested truth in the context of the court is impossible, but the body, in its appraisal of emotion and image, brings us quite close.
Quintilian, Marcus Fabius., and H. E. Butler. Institutio Oratoria. London: Heinemann, 1920.