o understand Professor of Classics and current Kenneth O. Bjork Distinguished Professor James May, it certainly helps to understand Cicero. A prominent Roman orator, Cicero lived from 106 BCE to 43 BCE. His theories on the art of rhetoric, his speeches and other works have proven hugely influential to important figures, ranging from St. Augustine to John Adams. For much of his life, May has studied this man and the rhetoric he used, and has been inspired by and the Latin and Greek he spoke. This is May’s 40th and final year at St. Olaf; when he leaves, the college will be losing a dynamic professor, as well as a former Provost and Dean who served from 2002-2011.
Before all of his contributions to classical studies and St. Olaf College, May grew up in a single-mother home in eastern Ohio. His exposure to and interest in Latin started early and never wavered, as he started reciting Latin as an altar boy around age six. He started studying the language in junior high, continued in high school and quickly decided his profession.
“When we read the first ‘In Catilinam’ oration [a widely studied speech in which Cicero denounces Catiline, a conspirator against the Roman government, in the Roman senate], I just thought it was the greatest thing in the world,” May said. “When I was able to read Cicero in the original Latin and see how eloquent he could be and learn about rhetorical devices, I got so excited I thought ‘I want to be a Latin teacher.’”
May went to college at Kent State University, earned a Bachelor of Science in Education in English and Latin and went on to earn a Ph.D. in classics at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. May was partly driven to be a professor at the encouragement of Kent State professors who saw his gifts in Latin and Greek. He came to St. Olaf in the fall of 1977 immediately after earning his degree. Before this, he had never ventured west of the Mississippi.
“I had never heard of St. Olaf College, but when I met people interviewing from the college, they talked to me about the college and about teaching in a way most of my other interviewers didn’t. Most were interested in giving me a second doctoral oral exam,” May said. “I remember going home and saying to my wife in North Carolina, ‘I hope this St. Olaf place calls back.’”
Thus began May’s first – and only – teaching job, and the start of a long career. May has written many articles, book chapters and textbooks, including two with fellow St. Olaf classics professor Anne Groton. His most recent book, “How to Win an Argument: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Persuasion,” was released by Princeton University Press this September. The book features selections from Cicero’s rhetorical treatises, translated by May, and uses passages from Cicero’s speeches as examples of the rhetorical devices and skills discussed. It has been heavily promoted by its publishers, in part because of its release in conjunction with the 2016 presidential election. As a result, May has been interviewed by radio stations in New Hampshire and Detroit, and been asked to write blog entries about what Cicero would advise going into a debate or an argument. The goal of the book was to popularize the ancient art of rhetoric for a modern audience, and so far it has succeeded.
“The thing about this is there are only so many ways that you can persuade people,” May said. “The Greeks basically figured it out; everything since then has been some sort of development of their thought or so forth. The basic premises haven’t changed and won’t change, and the tactics that were useful in antiquity are still relevant today.”
Now that May is wrapping up his final year, he will have more time for his many hobbies – from woodworking to restoring antique tractors. Yet he said he will miss many things about teaching – partially the rhythm of the academic calendar, but especially getting to introduce new students to the classics. He thinks St. Olaf students are “great human beings,” and also highly esteems the department he has worked in for 40 years.
“I feel really privileged to have a great career at St. Olaf and to be a member of a department like ours,” May said. “It’s one of the best, most highly recognized classics departments in the country for undergraduate education. All classicists in the country know about St. Olaf because of the work we’ve done together. I’ve been privileged to work with my colleagues and build what we’ve built, and I hope that it will continue long after I’m gone.”
In his honor, the classics department will host an annual James M. May Endowed Lecture in Classics beginning on March 27, 2017. The topic will be “Isocrates and Cicero,” and it will serve as a fitting tribute for May and his contributions as a professor and administrator.