- Atticus Finch
- Harper Lee
- Professional Conduct
The Atticus Finch of Attorneys have so dearly loved Atticus Finch that in 2010 the American Bar Association playfully removed him from the running for their list of the twenty-five greatest fictional lawyers. Thane Rosenbaum, With over forty million copies sold, some estimate that as many as 70 percent of American high school students are assigned the novel. Alexandra Alter, AmicusCuriae200, Notwithstanding the prevailing adulation for Atticus, serious challenges have been raised to the character’s position as role model—even before the publication of
Attorneys have so dearly loved Atticus Finch that in 2010 the American Bar Association playfully removed him from the running for their list of the twenty-five greatest fictional lawyers. Thane Rosenbaum,
With over forty million copies sold, some estimate that as many as 70 percent of American high school students are assigned the novel. Alexandra Alter,
Notwithstanding the prevailing adulation for Atticus, serious challenges have been raised to the character’s position as role model—even before the publication of
The evidence necessary to support this claim—the claim that Atticus’s speech is worthy of emulation and therefore should be better understood—lies in the power of his speech as it plays out within the novel. But the character’s name gives additional evidence of the importance of Atticus’s use of words, and this evidence proves essential to understanding—rather than merely observing and admiring—the full contribution of Atticus to his fictional town and of Harper Lee to the American attorneys who model themselves after Atticus. This article argues that Lee named Atticus Finch, specifically the Atticus Finch of The only exception that the author has been able to find is Brooke Richelle Holland’s
The only exception that the author has been able to find is Brooke Richelle Holland’s
Atticus’s rhetoric—standing in opposition to the passion-arousing style typically associated with the most negative stereotype of the courtroom attorney—connects the optimistic vein running through This is not to claim that all ethics requirements are intuitive; even Atticus Finch might consult the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct for guidance on more technical questions. M
This is not to claim that all ethics requirements are intuitive; even Atticus Finch might consult the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct for guidance on more technical questions. M
This argument proceeds in three parts. The first part makes the case for why a literary figure should be studied to improve legal ethics and then makes the case for a need in improvement of ethics in the American bar. Even after a century of articulating and rearticulating standards of ethics, professionalism, and civility, legal ethics should turn to literature because the profession continues to struggle with both a perceived decline in ethics and fundamental fault lines that have haunted attorney identity for centuries.
The second part makes the case for Atticus Finch as a salutary literary role model whose specific strengths address both concerns about a decline in general civility and the potential for attorney identity to splinter amidst the sometimes conflicting duties governing an attorney’s professional and personal life. Atticus not only carries out the duties imposed by the profession, he does so—without raising his voice—while navigating profound potential for conflict among his duties. As a comparison of his character to the aspirational Preamble of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct demonstrates, Atticus illustrates how the seemingly incompatible expectations placed on an attorney by the traditions of the profession can be fulfilled under difficult circumstances.
The third part connects Atticus’s holistic, civil fulfillment of his duties as an attorney to his rhetoric, arguing that analysis and understanding of his rhetorical style reveal both the tools that permit Atticus to successfully fulfill his role as attorney and the underlying beliefs that permit him to do so even under circumstances where it might appear that his duties and interests are in conflict with one another. Lee named Atticus after the ancient, Attic school of rhetoric, so it is not surprising that the characteristics of this school’s rhetoric—particularly when compared to more bombastic and passionate styles—unlock the logic behind the character’s integrity. Cicero described and critiqued Attic rhetoric at length, describing its simple strengths but also arguing that it lacked the power exhibited in the speech of the greatest orators. Despite his critique, Cicero’s descriptions of the clear, rational elegance of Attic rhetoric demonstrate how this style exemplifies the fulfillment of an attorney’s simultaneous duties to truth, justice, civility, and his or her client’s interests. Thus, Atticus’s rhetorical style points to a resolution of the seeming conflict between an attorney’s duties to client and to the court, justice, and personal integrity.
In closing, I focus on the consistency of Atticus’s rhetoric across the many aspects of his life—as an attorney, as a citizen, and as a father. In the final analysis, Atticus’s Attic rhetoric—as Cicero’s discussion of rhetoric will have made clear—proves a key component of more than his skill as an attorney. His rhetorical style is grounded in honesty and respect for the ultimate deliberative capacity of others. Coupled with the courage for which he has long been admired, Atticus’s honest yet restrained use of speech (his greatest weapon) contains a microcosm of the restraint that members of the judiciary and bar should exhibit in relationship to the greater whole—the democracy within which they reside.
Attorneys lead their lives amid a forest of duties, not least important among them the duties that guide and control the practice of law itself: the canons, rules, regulations, culture, and expectations that shape the conduct of an attorney. The twentieth century witnessed a great increase in the formality and enforceability of ethical duties governing attorneys, but the extent to which the formal pronouncements, whether enforceable or aspirational, improve attorney behavior is itself a contended issue. Some cheer the articulation of enforceable codes of conduct, arguing that enforcement of detailed rules is the only path to an ethical bar.
Heather M. Kolinsky, Thomas Gibbs Gee & Bryan A. Garner, Austin Sarat,
Heather M. Kolinsky,
Thomas Gibbs Gee & Bryan A. Garner,
Culture shifts and virtue-enhancing attorney education may initially appear hopelessly unattainable, but advocates point to the potential for firm mentoring and shadowing programs, stress-management training, and expanded law-school and continuing-legal-education curricula.
Aaronson, Aaronson, Literature may, for example, help legal scholars grapple with complex scientific and medical issues that are accompanied by legal quandaries. David Caudill, Philip Kissam,
Literature may, for example, help legal scholars grapple with complex scientific and medical issues that are accompanied by legal quandaries. David Caudill,
Even more than mentoring relationships, literature by its very nature translates theory and maxim to concrete application.
Luyster, Literature can assist in the formulation of what “law” is, helping attorneys to explore the “tension between positive law and natural law.” Luyster, Legal scholars have noted that literature provides an opportunity to study the relationship between the public and private lives of attorneys. Menkel-Meadow, More generally, some argue that literary theory offers legal reasoning a rich resource for understanding how texts mean and how they can legitimately be interpreted. Gary Minda,
Literature can assist in the formulation of what “law” is, helping attorneys to explore the “tension between positive law and natural law.” Luyster,
Legal scholars have noted that literature provides an opportunity to study the relationship between the public and private lives of attorneys. Menkel-Meadow,
More generally, some argue that literary theory offers legal reasoning a rich resource for understanding how texts mean and how they can legitimately be interpreted. Gary Minda,
Given these advantages to studying law through fiction, to say nothing of the pleasure thereby afforded, it is not surprising that a literature both deep and wide has developed.
Menkel-Meadow, Patrick Glen, Frank Kermode, Scott Hershovitz, Caudill, Menkel-Meadow, Huston, supra note 17, at 179.
Huston, supra note 17, at 179.
Scholarship on the origins of American legal ethics tends to commence with one particular landmark figure, George Sharswood, author of Carol Rice Andrews, Andrews,
Carol Rice Andrews,
Since the adoption of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, legal ethics has seen two additional movements take shape: in addition to the ethics norms found in the professional rules, some jurisdictions have developed professionalism and civility standards.
David A. Grenardo, Grenardo, Grenardo, Michael Ariens, Richard, Richard, Grenardo, Grenardo, Grenardo,
David A. Grenardo,
Despite the efforts at improvement illustrated by this history of near-constant standard scrutiny and rule writing, the bar continues to struggle to maintain ethical, professional, and civil standards of behavior.
Kolinsky, Pearce, Gee & Garner, Pearce, Daicoff,
Gee & Garner,
But scholars focused on the longstanding nature of ethics concerns have pointed to more fundamental, centuries-old tensions within the practice of law in the adversarial system, a system that limits—but also requires—advocacy on behalf of litigants.
The term “common good,” chosen above as a kind of generic placeholder, may be understood to entail any or all of a set of professional and personal duties that can be in competition (or seeming competition) with the interests of a client. They can include, for example, the judiciary, justice, and personal integrity. Indeed, duties owed to the court generally have placed a limit on some duties, like zealous advocacy, owed to the client.
Daicoff, Pearce, Ronald J. Gilson & Robert H. Mnookin,
Ronald J. Gilson & Robert H. Mnookin,
Whatever the root cause of the behavior problems, scholars have united in arguing that failures in attorney comportment threaten the bar’s ability to fulfill its social and political function—the facilitation of peaceful, just dispute resolution. Rational deliberation is at the heart of law, and rational deliberation requires the moderate, civil use of language.
Aaronson, Harris, Cramer, Drake & Diggins, Campbell, Gee & Garner,
Cramer, Drake & Diggins,
Gee & Garner,
In the argument that follows, “ethics” will be employed in its broadest sense to include both the enforceable ethics rules and the aspirational norms (sometimes articulated in rules of professionalism and civility, sometimes left implicit and expressed through the opinions and behavior of members of bench and bar) that regulate the practice. The thesis of this article is that the rhetoric of Atticus Finch provides an example that meets our expectations for an ethical attorney. Moreover, because of his particular circumstances, he reveals how the seeming tensions or conflicts among attorney duties can be reconciled through the use of a particular way of employing speech—Attic rhetoric. Also through his Attic rhetoric, his character’s performance as an attorney underscores the value of civility to the judiciary and to the ability of the judiciary to play its role within our polity.
The preamble of the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct sets forth the three primary identities of an attorney: advocate, officer of the court, and citizen. The preamble then indicates—albeit in germ form—the potential for conflict between duties to client, to court, to society, and also to self—the same conflicts that scholars point to as the source of tension in attorney duties. The preamble thus provides a standard that is both generally accepted and sensitive to the potential for ethical tensions.
According to the preamble an American attorney is and should be “ a representative of clients,  an officer of the legal system and  a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice.”
According to the preamble, as a representative of clients, an attorney has two functions: an attorney (1) “zealously asserts a client’s position under the rules of the adversary system” and (2) serves as an advisor counseling a client about legal rights and “their practical implications.”
From the start Atticus evinces the intent to live up to the zealous advocacy standard by doing everything legally permissible for a client who faces dishonest accusers and a stubbornly prejudiced jury.
Elizabeth Keyes remarks that Atticus’s example of zealous advocacy motivates “anyone who ever wanted to become a lawyer while reading L L
Elizabeth Keyes remarks that Atticus’s example of zealous advocacy motivates “anyone who ever wanted to become a lawyer while reading
Atticus maintains this zeal in the face of high personal costs and a distaste for the type of litigation that Tom’s defense entails. Much less does this case offer Atticus a particular legal or intellectual appeal to counterbalance its obvious downsides: since his very first case ended with the execution of his clients, he has suffered from a “profound distaste” for criminal law.
Some of Atticus’s clients are rural farmers with no cash because of the Great Depression. Therefore Atticus, like other professionals in town, is also “cash poor.” His sister, Alexandra, and his friend, Miss Maudie Atkinson, discuss how other professionals who agree with Atticus will not take public steps similar to his for fear of losing the business of those who disagree.
Some of Atticus’s clients are rural farmers with no cash because of the Great Depression. Therefore Atticus, like other professionals in town, is also “cash poor.”
His sister, Alexandra, and his friend, Miss Maudie Atkinson, discuss how other professionals who agree with Atticus will not take public steps similar to his for fear of losing the business of those who disagree.
When Tom’s trial commences, Atticus continues to make evident that he is not merely going through the motions of providing legal representation. To identify Atticus’s zeal at trial, one must distinguish between volume and effectiveness. Although Atticus retains his calm and courteous manner, his daughter—who has frequently observed him in the courtroom—recognizes the indications of his zeal operating within his characteristic self-control. Two stages of the trial bear particularly clear signs of Atticus’s zeal: his cross-examination of the alleged rape victim, Mayella Ewell, and his closing statement.
During his cross-examination of Mayella, Atticus persists (despite his own, more delicate inclinations) in revealing the witness’s dishonesty.
During her father’s closing arguments, Scout discerns how the gravity of his client’s situation has propelled Atticus to appeal, still calmly, but profoundly to the fellow citizens who have prejudged his client: she describes him standing as if “stark naked,” his “voice having lost its aridity, its detachment, and he was talking to the jury as if they were folks on the post office corner.”
Despite his zeal, the predictable verdict arrives after only a few hours’ deliberation.
Knowing that the success of his appeal is uncertain, Tom is soon killed while attempting to escape from prison.
As an officer of the court, conformity to the law is requisite in all facets of an attorney’s life: legal, professional, and personal.
Atticus, an attorney whose client will not prevail despite the justice of his defense, is the most sympathetic of attorneys when it comes to the difficulty of fulfilling the function of an officer of the court. His client’s cause is just, but his client will lose the trial and very likely his life. What greater temptation exists for overstepping the bounds of the law and of respect for the law? Nonetheless, Atticus expresses the utmost respect for the court and the judge. Yet he does not gloss over the injustice dealt his client. Rather than make either of these opposing mistakes, Atticus’s speech—in and out of the courtroom—analytically identifies the source and even the dire degree of injustice while affirming the strengths of the judiciary that do deserve respect.
Atticus demonstrates respect for the judge and upholds process in the courtroom through his eminently civil bearing and speech. Unlike the prosecutor—who uses acrimony in an attempt to sway—Atticus proceeds steadily, inflecting little emotion and no acrimony into his voice: “So far, things were utterly dull: nobody had thundered, there were no arguments between opposing counsel, there was no drama.”
Yet Atticus is not complacent. In his closing, he educates the jury about the critical nature of their role in the workings of the justice system. Supporting legal process (both Tom’s trial and the jury’s more general respect for the judiciary) without flinching in the face of the jury’s greatest weakness (the individuals on whose integrity that process must rely) Atticus manages to simultaneously challenge the injustice about to occur and affirm the justice system within which it is about to occur.
“I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system—that is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality. Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up.”
Not only does Atticus show marked respect for the trial, the judge, and the witnesses, but when the verdict threatens his children’s respect for the legal system he teaches them to understand its flaws without scorning its underlying principles. When they first hear the verdict, Atticus concedes to his son, Jem, that Atticus does not understand how the jury could convict Tom: Atticus admits that “they’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again.”
In addition to demonstrating respect for the judiciary and upholding legal process, being an “officer of the court” entails maintaining actual lawful behavior.
Atticus does not lie to save Jem. He agrees to the proposed deception (on his part a deception by silence) only after Sheriff Tate convinces him that it is Boo Radley—not Jem—who killed Bob Ewell and thus saved his children.
“I never heard tell that it’s against the law for a citizen to do his utmost to prevent a crime from being committed, which is exactly what [Boo Radley] did, but maybe you’ll say it’s my duty to tell the town all about it and not hush it up. Know what’d happen then? All the ladies in Maycomb includin’ my wife’d be knocking on his door bringin’ angel food cakes. To my way of thinkin’, Mr. Finch, taking the one man who’s done you and this town a great service an’ draggin’ him with his shy ways into the limelight—to me, that’s a sin. It’s a sin and I’m not about to have it on my head.”
As the scene draws to a close, Lee has made clear that Atticus consents to silence for the sake of Boo Radley, the man who saved his children. Moreover, Lee has made equally clear that Sheriff Tate, the official who will investigate Bob Ewell’s death and come to his own conclusion, cannot be shaken by Atticus’s preference for honesty. As a practical matter, there is little that Atticus can accomplish, and his comportment as an officer of the court remains at least reasonable in its most questionable moment.
An attorney has duties as a public citizen with a special responsibility for the quality of justice: “As a public citizen, a lawyer should seek improvement of the law, access to the legal system, the administration of justice and the quality of services rendered by the legal profession.”
M L L
When one asks why Atticus takes on these duties as a public citizen, the following paragraph of the preamble provides a clear answer echoed by the novel: an attorney must be guided by conscience.
“[I]t’s not fair to you and Jem, I know that, but sometimes we have to make the best of things, and the way we conduct ourselves when the chips are down—well, all I can say is, when you and Jem are grown, maybe you’ll look back on this with some compassion and some feeling that I didn’t let you down. This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience—Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man.”
“[B]efore I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
As Atticus’s situation illustrates and the preamble concedes, “In the nature of law practice . . . conflicting responsibilities are encountered.”
M L M
But the potential for conflict among an attorney’s duties is even more profound than revealed by the rule’s reference to earning a satisfactory living: Atticus struggles to obey his conscience (which demands that he defend Tom zealously) without sacrificing the emotional wellbeing and safety of his children. Hence, without wavering from his decision to zealously defend Tom as his conscience dictates, Atticus suffers at the prospect of the potential damage to his children: he teaches them to deal with the playground bullies and snubbing neighbors,
The tensions among Atticus’s duties are most acute, however, when he steps beyond the role of client representative and—as a public citizen—takes personal responsibility for Tom’s safety. Warned by Sheriff Tate of the potential for a lynch mob, Atticus sits and reads—apparently unarmed—in front of the jail.
But then Scout steps into the circle of menacing farmers, followed by Jem and their friend Dill, and Atticus’s face shows the “plain fear” that he had not beforehand displayed.
Ultimately, the situation is diffused when Scout manages to strike up a conversation with one of the would-be lynchers.
Insofar as Atticus zealously represents his client and remains within legal bounds while demonstrating respect for the law under difficult circumstance (at considerable emotional and financial cost), he is a sound role model. Insofar as he does this while simultaneously speaking the truth about and attempting to repair the injustices within the system, he is that much more worthy a model. But his actions as the representative of his client and an officer of the court do not fully explain the degree of admiration rightly directed to Atticus. His fulfillment of the public-citizen aspect of attorney identity sets him apart from the crowd of potential examples. As a public citizen—not as a client representative or an officer of the court—Atticus risks the lives of his children to improve the quality of justice in Maycomb.
All this, and he never once raises his voice.
Lee’s naming of her hero indicates that one should focus on his rhetoric to understand how he is able to navigate tension so admirably. Attic rhetoric adheres to simple, rational, and restrained techniques, techniques that reveal the honesty and therefore the integrity of the speaker across venues, between audiences, and over time. After exploring Attic oratory more fully, it will be possible to trace its effectiveness for Atticus.
Attic rhetoric is notable for its simplicity, its focus on reason and evidence rather than passion, and its adherence to the same word choice and expression regardless of audience. In sum, Attic rhetoric—named after the Attic Greeks but practiced by a minority of both Ancient Greek and Roman orators—eschews the arousal of the passions, favoring instead concise and controlled communication. David Hume’s D
Hume’s description should not be mistaken for praise: he critiques this style for failing to incorporate—when the audience or situation called for it—either the pathetic or the sublime.
With what a blaze of eloquence must such a sentence be surrounded to give it grace, or cause it to make any impression on the hearers? And what noble art and sublime talents are requisite to arrive, by just degrees, at a sentiment so bold and excessive: To inflame the audience, so as to make them accompany the speaker in such violent passions, and such elevated conceptions: And to conceal, under a torrent of eloquence, the artifice, by which all this is effectuated!
These ancient paragons created “vehemence of thought,” in part, by accompanying their passionate appeals with violent gestures, including stomping their feet.
Taking a cue from Hume, one finds in Cicero’s prolific writings a wealth of elaboration on the features and importance of Attic rhetoric.
Cicero was a Roman philosopher, orator (and sometimes litigator), and politician in the first century B.C. Rex Stem, Cecil W. Wooten, Jeffrey Henderson, Henderson,
Cicero was a Roman philosopher, orator (and sometimes litigator), and politician in the first century B.C. Rex Stem,
Cecil W. Wooten,
Cicero responded to the Attici by pointing to the superlative example of Demosthenes—a Greek of the Attic period with whom Cicero’s rhetorical style was more consistent.
Looking past complications in nomenclature, the debate between Cicero and the Attici produced something most useful to the modern scholar: a reason for Cicero to dwell on the distinctions between Attic rhetoric and his own style (and that of Demosthenes). In sum, Cicero’s aggregate portrait of Attic rhetoric has three key features: (1) a spare, simple word choice, (2) a preference for restrained, even-toned, logical argument over elaborate, passionate appeal, and (3) a uniformity in style regardless of topic, audience, or occasion.
In his C C C Laughton, C
Notwithstanding its rejection of anything grand and ornate, however, there is “refinement” in the “plain” Attic style.
Laughton, Laughton, C
Nonetheless, Cicero’s critique of the minimalism of Attic speech is firm. Continuing the athletic analogy, he argues that the “prize-winners, though free from all diseases, are not content with mere good health, but seek strength, muscles, blood, and even as it were an attractive tan.”
Andrew M. Riggsby, Robert Hariman,
Andrew M. Riggsby,
Cicero admitted that the restrained Attic style had its own charm. Indeed, because of its simplicity, even those who cannot employ it effectively will have the impression that they can imitate the Attic style with success.
In contrast to the precision and restraint of the Attic orator, Cicero argues that the best orators vary their voices to move their audiences: “The perfect orator ... will use certain tones according as he wishes to seem himself to be moved and to sway the minds of his audience.”
Compared to this visceral appeal lauded by Cicero, the Attic orator’s “style lacks the vigor and sting necessary for oratorical efforts in public life.”
The divergence between the two styles in their focus on reason versus passion is particularly prominent in Cicero,
Through skillful employment of voice and word choice, the best orators persuade by commanding the passions of their audience.
Michael Frost, Gary Remer,
In his descriptions and praise of the best oratory, Cicero argues that optimal persuasion requires adjustment for topic, audience, and occasion.
Cicero elaborates on this quality of the best orators throughout the Cicero, Daniel J. Kapust & Michelle A. Schwarze, Cicero, Remer,
Daniel J. Kapust & Michelle A. Schwarze,
As a practical matter, this approach dictates that the orator shift style “in any way which the case requires.”
These are not tactics that the Attic orator is willing to embrace. They defy the very definition of Attic rhetoric. As Cicero views it, the Attic orator’s insistence on simple, accurate language and rational discourse undermines the orator’s very purpose—persuasion. Without either the ability or the willingness to use the most powerful weapons of persuasion, Attic orators opt instead for a reserve that dooms them to make futile—if accurate, reasonable, and honest—appeals to their audiences.
Analysis of Lee’s intent invariably runs into a serious obstacle: She shunned public view, and she seems to have left as little external evidence about her book as possible.
Garrison Keillor, The author of the last biography published in Lee’s lifetime, Marja Mills, claimed to have Lee’s approval, but Lee publicly released a letter with the following blanket statement: “Rest assured, as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood.” Steven Levingston, Jennifer Crossley Howard, Bosman, Howard, Alexandra Alter & Serge F. Kovaleski, For example, the first and the best known biography, Charles J. Shields’s
The author of the last biography published in Lee’s lifetime, Marja Mills, claimed to have Lee’s approval, but Lee publicly released a letter with the following blanket statement: “Rest assured, as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood.” Steven Levingston,
Jennifer Crossley Howard,
Alexandra Alter & Serge F. Kovaleski,
For example, the first and the best known biography, Charles J. Shields’s
In one obscure interview, given in 1962 to the Ramona Allison, “ Shields,
Ramona Allison, “
Among those who have attempted to explain the origin of Atticus’s name, there seem to be two opinions. Some vaguely tie the name to its ancient origins, connecting the character to the republican principles either of Attic Greece or of Rome.
Maureen E. Markey, Steel, Steel,
Maureen E. Markey,
Some see in Lee’s father, Amasa Coleman Lee, a model for the character of Atticus. Shortly after the publication of Talmage Boston, C The first chapter, where Crespino covers Amasa’s early career, is a good example of this quality.
The first chapter, where Crespino covers Amasa’s early career, is a good example of this quality.
In sum, both Amasa Coleman Lee and Titus Pomponius Atticus appear to claim rightful status as partial sources from which Lee created the Atticus Finch of
Looking to the book she left to the public—rather than prying into the life she clearly tried to shield from public view—one finds a more important connection between character and real-world inspiration. With the features of Attic rhetoric in mind, one has the power to unlock Atticus’s ability to wield the most important tool of the lawyer with the utmost power, integrity, and respect for others. Atticus Finch uses Attic rhetoric to represent and counsel his client, to serve as a respectful but challenging officer of the court, and—with the lives of three children in the balance—to defend one man’s right to trial in the face of a lynch mob. Through Atticus, Lee demonstrates that Attic rhetoric is more than useful: it is necessary in the moments when attorney duties are in tension with each other. Through Attic rhetoric an attorney uses his most fundamental tool to navigate ethical duties to client, to court, and to justice—and thus also to his own conscience. Through Attic rhetoric an attorney has a path to wholeness.
Lee underscores the Attic qualities of Atticus’s speech throughout the novel, but the character’s Attic qualities become most apparent when one compares how his accurate, rational approach pervades his speech regardless of topic, audience, and occasion. Whether with his children or in court, he uses his legal vocabulary, but in both contexts he refrains from embellishment, distraction, and drama. His tone is conversational and level in both contexts, and no listener could doubt that logic and accuracy bear more of his attention than delivery. A man who thus speaks accurately, simply, calmly, and rationally as father and defense attorney can hardly help but qualify as an Attic orator. Cicero would doubtless disagree, but
Atticus’s lawyerly word choice when speaking to his children may at first seem to defy categorization as Attic. For example, when he refuses to spit-shake with his daughter after they reach a compromise, he tells her, “We’ll consider it sealed without the usual formality.”
Atticus speaks to his children using his professional language, but can this style be described as simple, accurate, and rational? Although it may not immediately be evident, the answer to this question is “yes” because Atticus explains the world to his children in the simplest possible
Because he speaks to his children as if they were adults, Atticus is able to honestly explain the realities of life in their racist town, the dictates of his conscience, and the complexities of the law to his children with only the complexity that reality requires. He never diverts their youthful attention or sacrifices honesty to innocence. Hence, Atticus’s lawyerly speech with his children supports his categorization as an Attic orator because his speech bears the hallmark adherence to the simplest accurate style regardless of audience, topic, and context. As Scout explains to her neighbor, Miss Maudie, Atticus’s behavior is the same in private and public: “Atticus don’t ever do anything to Jem and me in the house that he don’t do in the yard.”
Once Atticus steps into the courtroom his simple accuracy and focus on logic—which can be difficult to grasp in the context of conversation with a child—becomes apparent. As a litigator, Atticus is the model of simplicity, restraint, precision, and logical appeal. As detailed in II.B., he refuses to thunder, employing the language and tone of his daily life.
By the end of the trial, Scout has shown us a concise, sometimes detached, reasonable man handling what he has earlier told his daughter will be the most trying case of his life. In his closing argument, he remains—as he has been throughout—moderate, logical, and straightforward.
Atticus was speaking easily, with the kind of detachment that he used when he dictated a letter. He walked slowly up and down in front of the jury, and the jury seemed attentive: their heads were up and they followed Atticus’s route with what seemed to be appreciation. I guess it was because Atticus wasn’t a thunderer.
Atticus Finch is an Attic orator through and through. In the moment when his address to the jury becomes the most impassioned (if one can even use that word), it simply becomes more like his private tone: “‘Gentlemen,’ he said. Jem and I again looked at each other: Atticus might have said, ‘Scout.’”
Atticus’s simple, direct, and even-toned speech is also logical, precise, and wise. If ever Atticus reveals the elegance and spare beauty of the Attic approach, it is in his closing statement when he patiently instructs the jury on the necessity of equality in the courtroom. Knowing full well the bigotry of the jury, he nonetheless looks these fellow citizens in the eye and addresses them as rational human beings—as peers who can reason their way through the logical explanation that he sets before them in black and white.
We know all men are not created equal in the sense that some people would have us believe—some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they’re born with it, some men make more money than others, some ladies bake better cakes than others—some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of most men.
But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal—there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States or the humblest J.P. court in the land, or this honorable court which you serve. Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.
Of course, Atticus’s honest logic loses the trial at the heart of
This difficult question is at the heart of the tension between an attorney’s simultaneous duties of zealous advocacy and as an officer of the court and as a citizen with responsibility for the quality of justice. No less, this question strikes at the heart of democratic deliberation and the potential for reason to prevail over passion. It also touches on the potential for an attorney to maintain integrity and honesty while serving the client’s best interests. Faced with a situation like that of Atticus, attorneys can make the legal system better by appealing to reason and trusting the rational capacity of their fellow citizens. Or they can make it worse by stirring vicious passions, feeding on human bias, and failing to maintain honesty with the court and all present. What Atticus told the jurors in his plea to their reason—that the integrity of the system depends on those who make it up—is no less true for attorneys than for jurors.
Lee confirms this interpretation by revealing the conversion of the one juror won over by Atticus Finch.
Atticus loses the trial, but—because he is the same man in and out of court, before his children and before the town and jury—he wins the mind of one juror, one citizen, and one neighbor to his side of the issue. Atticus’s integrity, an integrity incompatible with the passionate, ever-changing persuasion of the Ciceronian orator, changes one citizen and thereby makes Maycomb that much closer to a just society. Nonetheless, as advocates, as officers of the court, and as citizens, we are left asking whether this is enough. The answer that each individual gives to this question dictates their rhetorical choices and the extent to which they find the courage not only to admire but also to emulate the Attic rhetoric of Atticus Finch.
This interpretation is further confirmed by consideration of Lee’s own literary choices in the style of
Finding the origin of Atticus’s name does more than solve the mystery of the hero’s unusual title. Atticus Finch’s Attic rhetoric is key to understanding how he so inspiringly fulfills an attorney’s ethical obligations while retaining his own self-respect. It provides the logic underpinning Lee’s many descriptions of Atticus’s words and demeanor so that Atticus’s position as a model attorney can be more justly reevaluated. As an attorney, Atticus is “a representative of clients, an officer of the legal system and a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice.” His Attic example demonstrates the mutual compatibility of these constituent elements of an attorney’s identity. Similarly, Atticus’s speech allows him to harmonize the duties of honesty and integrity that coexist with the duties of zealous advocacy for his client. As an individual, the integrity dictated by his Attic approach to speech enables him to navigate treacherous times without sacrificing his conscience to practical expediency. Atticus’s speech shows us how all this is possible. Never overwhelming the intellect of his listener with passionate appeal, reasoning honestly and equally with all, and humbly offering his client (and his children and neighbors) the benefit of his razor-sharp intelligence, Atticus’s Attic rhetoric is the answer to many seeming quandaries about the ethical boundaries of the lawyer’s life.
Cicero and Hume dismissed the Attic orator’s logic as relatively weak, recommending instead reliance on the orator’s ability to play skillfully on the passions of the audience. But Atticus reveals that Attic orators are necessary if the judiciary is to function as intended: as a rational dispute-resolution process. Atticus thereby serves as a role model for those attorneys who wish to pursue the common good with honesty and integrity. Even-toned Atticus thus provides a healthy counterpoint to the profession’s fears of ethical incoherence. His Attic rhetoric offers us a path to issue-focused, rational, and respectful dialogue between adversaries.