Cicero: A Tongue of Gold
By Gabriel Blanchard
Cicero exemplifies alike the intellectual and moral virtues the CLT seeks to cultivate.
Not many of us, except professional Classicists, could claim much familiarity with Cicero today, but his influence is profound. In the fields of philosophy, prosody, and politics, not many figures have had a greater or more lasting impact on the development of the western tradition.
Born in the late second century BC, Cicero was highly active in the tumultuous politics of his day, as the Roman Republic was breaking down and transitioning to the early Empire; and he ultimately lost his life to that transition, having made an enemy of Mark Antony by approving the assassination of Julius Caesar—though Caesar’s own adoptive son Augustus argued in Cicero’s defense. His speeches against Catiline, a senator who conspired with several others to take over the government (and to murder a large number of his fellow senators and destroy their estates in the process), remain famous to this day, both as expressions of his political loyalty to the Roman constitution and for their rhetorical style. Indeed, a little like Shakespeare today, all Latin prose after Cicero’s time was thought of largely as either a reaction against or a return to his style—right down to the Middle Ages, which preserved more writings by Cicero than by any other non-Christian Latin author.
Philosophically, Cicero presents something of a puzzle to our usual contemporary categories: he was a skeptic and therefore a conservative. Roughly summarized, his reasoning was that, since it is difficult if not impossible to know things, it is best to follow tradition rather than innovate (since tradition has proven its worth by surviving). Whatever the validity of that argument, it has played a role in a number of political and philosophical debates since then.
One of his most important works, the De Officiis or “On Duties,” is an attempt to provide a comprehensive guide to virtuous conduct. The work is divided into three books: in the first, he examines public and private virtue, and in the second, he discusses pragmatics and personal advantage; in the third, he tries to bring the two spheres together and give rules for making decisions when practicality and virtuous conduct seem to be incompatible. Among other things, Cicero here argues that what is apparently expedient can never take precedence over the requirements of justice and honor. A “problem case” that he cites is that of Marcus Atilius Regulus, a statesman from an earlier generation who was captured by the Romans’ Carthaginian enemies. They released him for the purpose of negotiating a peace settlement with Rome; in order to preserve both his national and his personal honor, he advised his countrymen to refuse the terms of the settlement, and then returned to Carthage to be executed.
Cicero’s formulation of ethics was a major influence on both the Christian tradition and the sometimes anti-Christian Enlightenment, helping to form minds as diverse as those of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Locke, Voltaire, and Thomas Jefferson. Few authors in our collection loom quite so large as he, or over so many incompatible schools of thought. Perhaps we would do wisely to return to a fountain that has watered so many so well.