Surprising Cicero 

Surprising Cicero

I've really enjoyed teaching Cicero toward the end of the seminar that was mostly on Aristotle's Ethics.

(The course in general has been an absolute delight--for me a bit like coming back from the dead).

Cicero "On Duties" is in three parts. The first part talks about different ways of life, above all philosophic vs. political (similarly, I would say, to Socratics in general); and then, within "political," calmer administrative civil life rather than military life. Cicero the hero, rather than the generals.

The second part is about how to make oneself useful, and how to make others useful to oneself. The key turns out to be the art of rhetoric--Cicero again, who practised as a lawyer, then made his name as a political orator in the Roman Republic.

The third book opens with a warning that he is now speaking about vulgar or common virtue, not true or philosophic virtue. Then there is a long sermon about the necessity to do the morally right thing, if there is something apparently more advantageous tempting one elsewhere. Much of this anticipates Aquinas, or more generally Catholic natural law, in which one is guided by one's conscience to discover and live by rules that are not difficult for sane people to figure out. He even distinguishes ius gentium from ius civile--although not in connection with international law, where it is most likely to come up now. He spends a lot of time on private business transactions, and the moral necessity of disclosing what you know rather than take advantage of the other party. I guess some of this, and the incipient sense of human rights/international law, would appeal to left-wingers today. Capitalism seems to be more of a dangerous temptation than, say, sex.

International law, including keeping oaths, applies between lawful entities, more or less sovereign countries or cities with legitimate or recognized governments. It doesn't apply at all to "pirates"; Bushies might find support here for Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo as a response to terrorists.

There are lots of Roman examples, some presented as highly moral, others as not quite moral enough. A guy named Regulus was taken prisoner by the Carthaginians. He was freed on his "parole," his promise to return. He also promised to persuade the Romans to give up a bunch of prisoners. Instead, back at Rome, he successfully argued that Rome should keep the prisoners--blatantly violating this part of his oath. The most dangerous, even suicidal part of the promise--the promise to go back, where he was in fact tortured to death, is the part he was faithful to.

Remarkably, after hundreds of pages, towards the very end of the whole book, Cicero says actually the suicidal return of Regulus, apparently faithfully keeping a promise, is not as impressive as it seems at first. The way Rome was in those days, "he had no choice." There are a few brief indications of what this means: the censors, and perhaps special courts of priests, had powers of life and death, based on fear both of themselves and of the gods. Had Regulus stayed, he would not have enjoyed a quiet private life--he would have been stripped of titles, property, probably his life. He had "no choice" but to go back to Carthage--this seems to mean that if he had tried to live in exile, he would have been hunted down and killed.

I suggested in class that Cicero shows he thinks his best students could use rhetorical skills like his to make the citizens of a great republic useful--to persuade them to practice honesty, as earlier Romans did, but without the crude and sometimes unreliable religion they practised. A more rational and consistent morality, perhaps. This might appear to mean: "an enlightened citizen body." But again, Cicero has said all of this is merely vulgar, second-rate virtue. In Socratic terms, the city is still a cave, and a philosopher, apparently including Cicero, has a real sense of descending into a gloomy, uncertain space when he turns his attention to politics.

Of course, Cicero unlike Socrates seems to have regarded the life of action, not the life of contemplation, as Plan A. The same may have been true of Xenophon, and Thucydides. Wise people may come in more than one shape and size.

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