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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Cicero: The Most Important Writer You’ve Never Read


I’ve horribly neglected this blog.  It’s been a tough year with plenty of ups and downs and dramatic demands on what little time I have.  I’m doing my best to get back at it, and I think a good way to start is with this post.  I’m willing to bet dollars to donuts that you haven’t read anything by the author I’m about to mention.  Nonetheless, he may be the most important author of the last twenty-one hundred years, or maybe ever.  (I’m speaking from a secular perspective.  Clearly, those who penned the main holy books have had a greater impact on civilization for both the bad and the good, but in many cases, just barely.)

Target: College
Type: Ancient Literature
Listen Up: All of My Reviews Are Loaded with Spoilers.

I’m talking about Marcus Tullius Cicero.  See; I told you that you haven’t read his works.  It’s amazing, too.  If you had to read only one work of Cicero’s, I recommend the Cataline Orations. (They go by many names, depending on which stuffy scholar is referencing them.  A Google search on “Cicero Cataline” will get you to the speeches.)

The One Sentence Plot

Cicero speaks against another Roman senator who plots violence for political gain.

Why Cicero Is Required Reading

I said a moment ago that you probably haven’t ever read him, and I said it was amazing.  I said that because more than one societal, literary, and historical expert believes Cicero was responsible for the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.  Since he’d been dead for more than thirteen-hundred and sixteen hundred years, respectively; you can imagine what that says about his written works.  The Catholic Church declared him a “righteous pagan.”  That meant his works, although secular in some cases and pagan in others, were preserved along with the Scriptures.  Despite this, I didn’t even hear about him (except as a character in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar) until my third year in college when I took a classical rhetoric class.  Unfortunately, what I believe should be required reading in junior high or high school is really only required reading in advanced college courses.

But Is It Any Good?

Good doesn’t cover it.  His ability to string words together was so incredible that popular tradition holds that Mark Antony’s wife repeatedly jabbed needles through his tongue while his severed head was on display after his death.  Listen the very opening of one of his powerful speeches against the senator plotting against Rome.

When, O Catiline, do you mean to cease abusing our patience? How long is that madness of yours still to mock us? When is there to be an end of that unbridled audacity of yours, swaggering about as it does now? Do not the nightly guards placed on the Palatine Hill—do not the watches posted throughout the city—does not the alarm of the people, and the union of all good men—does not the precaution taken of assembling the senate in this most defensible place—do not the looks and countenances of this venerable body here present, have any effect upon you? Do you not feel that your plans are detected? Do you not see that your conspiracy is already arrested and rendered powerless by the knowledge which every one here possesses of it? What is there that you did last night, what the night before— where is it that you were—who was there that you summoned to meet you—what design was there which was adopted by you, with which you think that any one of us is unacquainted?
Shame on the age and on its principles! The senate is aware of these things; the consul sees them; and yet this man lives. Lives! aye, he comes even into the senate. He takes a part in the public deliberations; he is watching and marking down and checking off for slaughter every individual among us. And we, gallant men that we are, think that we are doing our duty to the republic if we keep out of the way of his frenzied attacks.
You ought, O Catiline, long ago to have been led to execution by command of the consul. That destruction which you have been long plotting against us ought to have already fallen on your own head.
What? Did not that most illustrious man, Publius Scipio, the Pontifex Maximus, in his capacity of a private citizen, put to death Tiberius Gracchus, though but slightly undermining the constitution? And shall we, who are the consuls, tolerate Catiline, openly desirous to destroy the whole world with fire and slaughter? For I pass over older instances, such as how Caius Servilius Ahala with his own hand slew Spurius Maelius when plotting a revolution in the state. There was—there was once such virtue in this republic, that brave men would repress mischievous citizens with severer chastisement than the most bitter enemy. For we have a resolution 2 of the senate, a formidable and authoritative decree against you, O Catiline; the wisdom of the republic is not at fault, nor the dignity of this senatorial body. We, we alone,—I say it openly, —we, the consuls, are waiting in our duty.

Cicero was quite possibly the greatest orator of all time.  He also proposed that the power of speech was so profound that no person should undertake to learn it without first being a “good” person.  (Take a look at charismatic people in our history, at the evil they were able to accomplish by swaying a populace if you doubt that.)

Granted, with my background in rhetoric, I’m biased.  Still, five stars isn’t enough for Cicero.

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