Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Cicero Superstar

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Cicero Superstar

Article excerpt

More rare than adiletes who have played bodi baseball and football in the major leagues are individuals who have achieved great distinction in bodi politics and philosophy, the vocations that Aristode deemed most choiceworthy. Marcus Tullius Cicero, however, would hold a place of honor on any list of political and philosophical superstars. If he had never risen to eminence as a Roman orator, senator, and consul, he still would be remembered for his contributions to the great Greco-Roman synthesis at the base of Western civilization. And if he had never written on philosophy, he still would be honored for his courageous efforts to preserve the rule of law in the last years of the Roman Republic.

Cicero shared Aristode's view diat statesmanship and the pursuit of knowledge were the highest callings for those who have the talent to pursue them. But he parted company with the audior of the Politics on which was the superior choice. A true Roman, he never lost his desire for public honor and never relinquished his conviction that a life of public service was "the course that has always been followed by the best men."

No philosophical discourse is so fine, he maintained, "that it deserves to be set above the public law and customs of a well-ordered state." Following Aristode, he held diat moral excellence is a matter of practice, but it seemed evident to him that its most important field of practice was in the government of the state. Philosophers, he said, spin dieories about justice, decency, restraint, and fortitude, but statesmen are the ones who must actually set the conditions to foster the virtues that are necessary to a weU-functioning polity. "There can be no doubt," he maintained, "that the statesman's life is more admirable and more illustrious, even though some people think that a life passed quiedy in the study of die highest arts is happier."

Cicero's ideal statesman was the man whose actions are wuminated by philosophy, by which he meant mainly ethics and political theory. The best statesman of all, at least for Rome, would be someone steeped in the city's history, someone who combined civilized values with "intimate knowledge of Roman institutions and traditions and die theoretical knowledge for which we are indebted to the Greeks." In other words, someone like Marcus Tullius Cicero.

Although philosophy, as he told his son, was "indispensable to everyone who proposes to have a good career," it was always, for Cicero, a handmaiden to politics. Even philosophers, he said, have an obligation to concern themselves with public affairs, not only out of civic duty, but also for the sake of philosophy itself, which requires certain conditions to flourish.

In times when he was excluded from political life or overcome with personal sorrow, Cicero plunged into his philosophical studies with prodigious energy. On those occasions, he could not help casting a glance down the padi not taken. "Now that power has passed to diree uncontrolled individuals," he wrote to his friend Atticus during the Triumvirate of Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus, "I am eager to devote all my attention to philosophy. I only wish I had done it from the outset." And in his dialogue De República, die main protagonist muses, "Of what value, pray, is your human glory, which can barely last for a tiny part of a single year? If you wish to look higher . . . you will not put yourself at the mercy of the masses' gossip nor measure your long-term destiny by the rewards you get from men. Goodness herself must draw you on by her own enticements to true glory. ... In no case does a person's reputation last for ever; it fades with the death of die speakers, and vanishes as posterity forgets."

For an ambitious young man whose birth did not guarantee him entry into the circles of power, and who was not inclined toward a military career, the path to eminence lay through law and oratory. And die law courts were a proving ground. Cicero was the precocious firstborn son of a prosperous landowner in the country town of Arpinum, some seventy miles southeast of Rome. …

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