Ancient Election Wisdom


I recently came across this piece by Marcus Tullius Cicero (one of my favourite classical authors) on the Sententiae Antiquae website (a good source of classical Latin and Greek translations), taken from Cicero’s oration Pro Murena (35-36). Lucius Licinius Murena was elected as his election as consul in 62 BCE but was subsequently accused of bribery. He was defended by  Cicero, who recorded his speech for posterity. Here’s what Cicero said about elections in general:

What strait or what channel do you imagine has as many currents, twists, and tide changes as the disturbances in the breaking waves produced by elections? A missed day or extra night often changes everything and a small whisper of a rumor can transform public opinion.
Often too, something happens without any clear reason and and you notice how the people are frequently amazed at what happened, as if they didn’t do it themselves! Nothing is more uncertain than a mob; nothing is less clear than what people want; nothing is more obscure than the whole logic of elections!*

And in a similar vein, Seneca the Younger wrote in De Vita Beata (“On the Happy Life,” written circa 58 CE to his older brother) this comment about elections:

But now the people—in defense of their own wickedness—act against reason indeed. And so, as unstable fancy flits full circle, that same thing happens as in elections in which those who selected people for office are also shocked that those very people are in office!
We approve the same things we criticize! This is the outcome of every judgment which gives preference to the majority.*

Seems like nothing much has changed in the two millennia since Cicero and Seneca wrote those words. It’s often said that in a democracy, people get the government they deserve. I can only hope that my hometown deserves a much better council in the upcoming municipal election than we have now.

* You can read the Latin itself on the site above if you are capable of translating it for yourself. Sadly, despite my continued efforts to teach myself Latin, and the shelf full of textbooks and dictionaries mean to guide me, I remain stubbornly unable to do so. As Chaucer wrote in The Parliament of Fowles, “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.”

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