How to Run a Country

How to Run a CountryPhilip Freeman’s second book has been billed as a “sequel to How to Win an Election” reviewed here in an earlier post. Like the first book, this is a short (132 pages in a small format) book with a mix of English and Latin content derived from the writing of Marcus Cicero. I personally don’t feel it lives up to the first in either layout or content. But it has its strengths.

The first book juxtaposed the Latin and English texts on alternating pages, making it reasonable for anyone who might want to attempt to translate the former themselves or just for curiosity’s sake. However, the second book lumps the Latin at the end of the book, making readers all too aware that only slightly more than than half the little work is in English. And anyone wanting to attempt translation and compare their translation to Freeman’s,  has to jump back and forth to do so.

Where the first book was one cohesive piece of writing (a single letter by Quintus Cicero, to his older brother, Marcus), this one is a mix of bits and pieces from the elder Cicero’s letters, speeches and texts.

The actual amount of Cicero is itself minimal. Freeman selects snippets – sometimes as little as a single paragraph – from Cicero’s volumes of writing. He cobbles his translations together under a dozen themed categories – natural law, leadership, persuasion, war, tyranny and so on – and introduces each category with a brief note on either Cicero’s life or Roman history and politics.

Most annoying is that the translations lack citations to identify the source – you need to hunt through the Latin original to find out what original document Freeman is drawing from. For someone like me, who wants to see the entire work (or learn if it is in one of my existing translations), it means paging around to get all the information.

There is a lot to learn from reading the classical authors, but care has to be taken not to turn them into some sort of Nostradamus, making every quotable line into a prediction. Hindsight does that to us. We want to have the past mirror the present to justify our acts, our decisions and our perspectives (this is why tacking words like “ancient” and “traditional” onto quack medical products gives them an air of legitimacy).

While some of their words are timeless, the writing of people like Cicero was mostly about contemporary times, events and politics, and has a specific context. It’s far too easy to lift quotes from that context and drop them into current events as if the original context and the new were the same. Cicero’s Rome and the modern world have things in common, but many more differences.

Reviewing the book in The National, Jonathan Gornall wrote,

One clear point to be taken from books such as this is that, given sufficiently self-serving decontextualisation and manipulation, almost any example of ancient “wisdom” can be co-opted in the service of a modern cause.
Examine selected elements of the book through the prism of modern Middle Eastern politics, for example, and it can appear to shed new light on the machinations of the Arab Spring – of which, one could easily claim, Cicero would not have approved.
“Among the crowds are those who would destroy our country through revolution and upheaval,” he writes, “either because they feel guilty about their own misdeeds and fear punishment, or because they are deranged enough to long for sedition and civil discord.”

For the modern reader with a gnat-like attention span, perhaps any short, readable introduction to the prolific and – by today’s standards – verbose Cicero is a good thing. But to me it’s like being offered a mere dozen salted peanuts from a jar brimming with them. No matter how tasty those few are, I crave more; I want a handful all to myself. Too few is far more unsatisfying than too many.

And that’s how I feel about this book: too few nuggets dug from the mother lode. Sure, some are shiny bits, but surely there must be more to mine than these. Cicero had a lot to say about so many things. I am left craving more of his words.

And as for its advice on governance: Freeman’s introduction with his list of ten principles Cicero followed is the only part that really offers concise comment on governance (and the words are Freeman’s views, not Cicero’s). The rest are just really parts of larger pieces from Cicero’s corpus, some little more than epithets, and sometimes unrelated to governance entirely.

The Bryn Mawr review noted:

Freeman arranges his excerpts – some no more than a few sentences, others a few pages – thematically rather than chronologically, and allows them to stand alone with little or no historical context… The passages themselves provide an interesting mix of approaches: some are quite abstract or general, while others show Cicero’s interactions with specific people and events; some passages will be well-known to readers familiar with Cicero, and others are more obscure.

Another annoyance: the chapters that follow the introduction do not always match Freeman’s ten precepts. For example, Freeman writes in precept number 5:

Intelligence is not a dirty word. Those who govern a country should be the best and the brightest of the land. As Cicero says, if leaders don’t have a thorough knowledge of what they’re talking about, their speeches will be a silly prattle of empty words and their actions will be dangerously misguided.

True enough (and I heartily agree with that headline), but the corresponding translations are labelled “persuasion” not intelligence, and the text is a piece on the art and skill of oratory (from Cicero’s book, On the Orator). This book was meant to teach the techniques of persuasion (and what we would today call propaganda) through the use of words, style, stance and rhetoric. He describes several models for speakers depending on context and content (Cicero expounded further on this in his later work, Orator).

Yes, Cicero maintains that the best orators must have an ethical and moral philosophy, but the book is not about the intelligence of leaders, their vision, or their farsightedness. And to compound it, the art of oratory today – what little there is – is not what it was in Roman times when it was one of the foremost skills of any politician. Several competing schools developed around different modes of oratory and rhetoric; their differences and relevance are today almost meaningless except to academics.

And where Freeman’s precept that “immigration makes a country stronger” may be true (likely his own political view), the quote from Cicero (from In Defence of Cornelius Balbus) relates to the granting of Roman citizenship – which was not necessarily tied to immigration and could be granted to people and communities outside the nominal (and shifting) boundaries of the empire for political reasons or the result of a treaty.

As much as I enjoy reading any translation of Cicero, I sometimes had to stop and wonder what the point was in some of the excerpts. Cicero seems to ramble on, off-topic now and then – but I realize that it only seems so because I am reading the excerpt out of context.

No matter how fulsome the jacket reviews are, no one will get an introduction to Cicero’s political views here, merely a patina of them. These are intellectual snacks, not the main course. Perhaps, as the Bryn Mawr review concludes,

Freeman’s book is an entry-point, an introduction; while it is simply too short (the translations occupy 67 pp.) to provide much traction for students in a typical college course, I certainly hope it will be successful in introducing Cicero to a wider audience.

As do I.

While I don’t think this volume lives up to the standards of the first, I like Freeman’s translations. He has a nice, easy touch and a colloquial feel – most of my current translations are 19th-century works and have that verbal density that makes readers balk at trying to digest them. For nothing else, anyone unfamiliar with Cicero should read this book and get a sense of him.

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