Coffee with Cicero


CiceroCan you imagine what it would be like today to be able to meet the Roman philosopher, Cicero, for coffee and spend an hour chatting? Or meeting up at a local pub and settling down to a beer or glass of wine? How great would that be to spend an hour with one of the world’s great thinkers?

What would you talk about? What wouldn’t you? Just imagine having the opportunity to share your thoughts on politics, religion, justice, philosophy, morals, friendship… the scope of what Cicero wrote about means you can talk about almost anything.

Okay, maybe not our gawking-at-celebrities culture, or the latest ad-riddled TV sitcom, or how well a vastly-overpaid sports star or team is doing this season (I would pay teachers, firefighters and police first, before any sports celebrity, but I don’t get that choice). To which he might respond, O tempora, o mores! (O, the times, O, the customs!) which he said in his First Speech Against Catilina. It sums up every older generation’s view of the upcoming generations’ lifestyles, I expect.

I’m sure Cicero spoke among his friends of the trivialities, too, just didn’t write much about them, at least in what of his works remain. But why waste that hour with such irrelevancies?

No, you’d have the chance to engage in stuff of consequence: big ideas, embrace the range of humanity and its behaviour, grab at issues that affect the tides of culture, the meaning of life, and the ebb and flow of politics. A real conversation, it would be, even perhaps a debate in which his famous rhetorical skills might come into play as he challenged you, parried your points and argued you into a corner.

(There’s a book in this: what would you talk about if you could have coffee with a dozen of the world’s great thinkers? I need to get back to writing for print…)

Marcus Tullius Cicero, like Michel de Montaigne a millennium-and-a-half later, was a prolific writer whose reach in thought and topics was substantial. And like Montaigne, he put his thoughts on paper, leaving behind a large body of work, much of which survives today.

And also like Montaigne, a lot of what Cicero wrote has relevance – or at least resonance – today, in both life and politics (Montaigne actually didn’t much like Cicero, probably because he was forced to study Cicero at an early age, but they shared many similar beliefs, such as “To philosophize is to learn to die,” as Cicero wrote in his Tusculan Disputations). Which is a worthy subject for another post.

For example, here are Cicero’s words every politician – including local ones – will appreciate:

“Injuries often come through trickery of some sort, or through malicious, overly clever interpretation of the law. This is the source of the expression: the greater the right, the greater the potential for wrong.”*

Is there any politician alive who has not suffered such injuries from trickery or maliciousness? Certainly several of us on council today know that sting. In fact, the whole town has suffered from the malicious trickery that hurt our reputation and our standing. But we’ve recovered and we’re doing well, despite it.

Cicero believed in the greater good. He was a staunch republican and didn’t like the special interest groups and families that tried to run the Roman government. Nor should we cater to them, today. He said these words which all politicians should also heed:

Non nobis solum nati sumus: We are not born for ourselves alone.
De Officiis – On Duties, Book I, section 22

All politicians should treat their position as service, not a goal of ambition for power and rank. Similarly, in his work, Of Laws (De Legibus.), Cicero proclaimed:

Salus populi suprema lex esto: Let the welfare of the people be the ultimate law.

When laws, policies and actions are crafted for the greater good – the welfare of all the people, not just a small special-interest group – then politicians serve the people best. The Roman historian, Sallust, wrote in the Conspiracy of Catiline, that management is a servile task. The elected are there to serve the people, not the other way around. But the whole electorate is our master – not just a small, vocal group.

In On Duties, Cicero also added more sagacity that some candidates for public office should ponder:

In anger nothing right nor judicious can be done.
Book I, section 37.

Running for office should be to serve, with vision, integrity, humility and belief in doing what is best for all. Running because of anger over past decisions is injudicious and will lead to no good in government. Beware of those who run for selfish, angry reasons.

And in De divinatione, he wrote:

Non enim omnis error stultitia est dicenda: We must not say that every mistake is a foolish one.

Humans make mistakes. Everyone does, everyone will. It is impossible to avoid making some mistakes because that is integral to the nature of being human. Only gods don’t make mistakes. We can only strive to do what we believe is the best, knowing we are flawed by our humanity.

And by the very nature of politics and government, sometimes the best intentions later appear the wrong choices or choices that might have been made through more polished processes. It is inevitable that our 20-20 hindsight will focus the flaws in our past. Who among us cannot make better choices once others have struggled and made them before us?

What matters most is that we learn and we move on the better things, to better governance and a better future that benefits the greater good.To dwell on past mistakes instead of moving forward is to belittle our collective humanity.

After all, as Cicero also wrote,

“Omnium Rerum Principia Parva Sunt:” Everything has a small beginning.
(On the Ends of Good and Evil, Book V, Chapter 58).

From small seeds – even from mistakes – we can grow greater things, accomplish larger goals, expand to broader visions. Good, wise and engaged politicians move forward, not dwell on the past.

But Cicero wrote of many more things than politics.He also wrote about the value of friendship in one’s life:

“…friendship provides advantages almost to great for me to describe. In the first place, how can a life be ‘fully alive…’ without the serenity provided by the mutual good will of a friend?… What good would there be in success if you had no one who could share your enjoyment?.. friendship shines the light of hope into the future and keeps the spirit from becoming weak or stumbling.”

Life is good when you have simple, basic things, he wrote:

Si hortum in bibliotheca habes, nihil deerit: If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.

A home without a library is just a shell, a mere living space, but one may make up for that emptiness somewhat by using a public library. While on the campaign trail, the saddest words I heard from a resident were “I’ve never been in the library.” I can only hope that woman had a rich, full collection of books at home to compensate for that void in her experience.

Were I a voter, I would ask candidates what use they made of our public facilities, our recreational and cultural facilities like the pool, library, and our trails. I would be suspicious of any candidate who admitted to never having visited them.

And, Cicero asked, who among us doesn’t think we deserve to live forever, or at least longer than we do?

Nemo enim est tam senex qui se annum non putet posse vivere: No one is so old as to think that he cannot live one more year. from On Old Age.

But that, too, belongs in another post, one about how we feel about and faith the inevitable end of life.

What would I talk about in an hour with Cicero? Everything, I suspect. An hour would not be enough.

* On Duties, trans. by Thomas Habinek, from Cicero: On Living and Dying Well, Penguin Classics, London, UK, 2012. I suffer temporarily from a paucity of Cicero’s works in my own library, having only the above book, The Basic Works of Cicero ed. Moses Hadas (Modern Library, 1951) and The Republic and The Laws, trans. Niall Rudd, (Oxford World Classics, 2008). However, that is being remedied by several recent purchases online to expand my personal library of Ciceronian texts.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

One comment

  1. 5 Reasons We Should Still Read Cicero

    Cicero was an amazing writer who has influenced a monumental amount of people throughout history. The state of Missouri’s motto to this day is a quote from Cicero’s work On Laws: “Let the good of the people be the supreme law.” John Locke used the very same quote as his epigraph in his Second Treatise on Government. His writings are an important tool in any lover of freedom’s arsenal.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to Top