Mary Ann Glendon has a delightful essay on Cicero at First Things. It is part historical, part assessment of the Roman’s contribution to civilization, and part an explanation of his political & philosophical pursuits. We dealt with the philosophical aspects of Cicero last year: see here and here.
Glendon emphasizes that Cicero believed in the political life as the life most worth living. This is certainly debatable, and Glendon provides evidence against such a claim. However, Cicero did spend much of his life in politics, and he turned to philosophy as a pursuit (in terms of writing) only when he was in exile. It is possible that Glendon is correct after all. But, Cicero himself seemed to prefer the philosophic life. Some passages:
Cicero shared Aristotle’s view that 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 author 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 Aristotle, he held that 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 theories 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 well-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 quietly in the study of the highest arts is happier.”
But in exile?
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 path not taken. “Now that power has passed to three 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 Republica, the 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 the speakers, and vanishes as posterity forgets.”
Cicero was effective at both statesmanship and philosophy–although some of his philosophical writings seem rushed, and his death cut short any polishing he might have done on them. His De re Publica is largely lost. Still, he was a most learned statesman, especially when compared to modern politicians.
The political intrigue surrounding his last few years is quite harrowing. but his defense of the republic was manly. He stood against Catiline and Verres. The first was his greatest moment. But, soon, the people came not to love their republic, and chose to allow its systematic destruction under first Caesar and then Augustus. The names of those who sided against the republic are few, but known–Pompey (the most republican of them all, and who seemed to understand losing the republic would be a bad thing), Crassus, and Lepidus. Cicero was asked at least twice to join the Triumvirate, and both times he turned them down. When it came down to Augustus and Anthony, he cared for neither, but as a matter of prudence chose Augustus (Octavian). He then took on a very public campaign against Anthony in the Philippics. When Augustus and Anthony patched things up (for the moment) Anthony had Cicero murdered and his head and hands placed on pikes in the Fora. Perhaps siding with Augustus was not prudent after all. But Anthony would get his.
It makes one wonder what would have happened had the republicans had a better plan. What if after the Ides of March had they not left Rome? What if they put into place a form of rule that would have calmed the waters over a very popular Caesar (executed in Pompey’s Theatre–the Senate was being rebuilt)? Cicero, who was not a part of the conspiracy to murder Caesar, wished at some point they would have taken out Anthony too. We shall never know all these “what ifs,” but at least we have many of Cicero’s writings, and the history’s from Plutarch and Appian to tell us how it all ended. It’s enough for us to say, “Hail Cicero!”