WWCD: What Would Cicero Do?

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Godzilla as CiceroThroughout his career, Marcus Tullius Cicero fought tyranny, stood up to dictators and bullies, defended the Republic, and paid for his principled stand with his life. He put himself in harm’s way frequently by openly challenging and even suing the elites, the rich, and the powerful who were controlling — or trying to control — Rome and its empire for their own personal benefit and enrichment. I wonder what he would do if he were alive today, facing the same threats to our government and way of life by the emergence of tyrants and fascists attempting to control the government?

I read his works these days and wonder how would a modern Cicero respond to the authoritarians and fascists like Putin, Trump, Poilievre, Harper, Modi, Orban and the others of their ilk who want to — and some who are actively attempting to — destabilize and overthrow democracies worldwide? On a local scale, how would he have judged Collingwood’s much-despised former mayor, who wasted more than $10 million of taxpayer’s money paying sole-sourced lawyers and consultants in pursuit of his personal vendetta? What would Cicero do today? Would he still stand up against rightwing tyranny? Rail against the growing fascist movement undermining our democracies? I like to think so.

Cicero believed that politics was a science that should be taught and learned before people are allowed to govern (The Republic, Books 5 and 6). He also believed that the point of governing was to improve the lives of everyone, not merely to enrich oneself at their expense (The Republic, Book 6). Governing was meant to be a duty, an obligation, not a grift. He believed that we all had moral and social obligations to one another (De Officiis, or On Obligations) and to the state; that politicians were not there simply to make their own lives more comfortable but to see to everyone’s welfare.

Can you imagine Trump or PoiLIEvre campaigning for social responsibility? Or for anything but greed and self-interest? No, that’s an unimaginable fantasy.

Cicero was no defender of democracy, mind you: he would have been appalled by what we know as democracy, with its rights, freedoms, and votes for everyone, including women and the poor. Cicero’s Rome was run by men in a complicated but for the time reasonably effective system of elected and appointed bodies. Cicero recognized its problems and frequent corruption, but believed it a better system than one run by dictators, their families, and their cronies. For all his ethical posturing, Cicero was defending his Republic, a far more restrictive, patriarchal form of government than we have. Still, it was better than a dictatorship by the oligarchs.*

Cicero spoke and wrote his principled views in numerous speeches and books, but he also served in politics, even as consul at the head of Roman government, where he attempted to put his beliefs into practice.

We have today some whose principled and critical voices can be heard or read, warning us about the threat of fascism, dictatorship, and rightwing lies. Robert Reich, Rachel Gilmore, David Frum, Rachel Maddow, and Charles Adler come to mind as contemporary practitioners of parrhesia (speaking truth to power); there may be others I cannot offhand recall but they are sorely outnumbered by the myriad of rightwing bloviators who continually spread misinformation, disinformation, conspiracies, and far too often outright lies.

That the premier of a Canadian province would not only welcome Tucker Carlson, a toxic American who egregiously promotes Putin’s agenda with lies, but be photographed with him and two of the other worst humans on the planet shows how open the rightwing has become about spreading its propaganda and agenda.

Four of the nastiest humans on the planet
Four of the worst humanity has to offer: three toxic rightwing spreaders of lies and disinformation with the premier of Albertabama. Canada deserves better.

However, to the best of my knowledge, none of these defenders of democracy have actually served in office as Cicero himself did. (Nor have any of the rightwing critics or party shills like Rex Murphy, Bill Ivision, and Conrad Black have served in office either.) The harridans on the right shilling for the parties and the extremists far outnumber those on the left or centre. And with most media in the hands of CONservatives, the right has a far larger platform for expression.

In The Republic, Book 5.5, Cicero wrote his belief that political leaders will have “taken the trouble to find out about justice and laws and will certainly have studied their foundations.” Can you imagine Trump or PoilLIEvre actually reading and studying how governments and courts work, instead of simply lying and spreading disinformation?**

In 5.11 Cicero added, “Nothing in a state should be so free from corruption as a vote and a verdict.” Imagine Trump saying that after his attempted insurrection to overthrow a vote, and his subsequent refusal to accept judicial verdicts against him. Trump is defiant because he’s rich and can afford to be. In Cicero’s speech Against Verres I, he warned that “even the worst criminal will never be convicted provided that he has money.” The same seems true today.

Cicero captured Trump and his master Putin perfectly in The Republic Book 6.1:

…our lusts are set over our thoughts like cruel mistresses ordering and compelling us to do outlandish things. As there is no way in which they may be appeased or satisfied, once they have inflamed a person with their seductive charms they drive him to every sort of crime.**

Cicero also commented in Book 3 that the “art of government” could be improved by “further study and … anyone who has supplemented his natural and practical qualifications by learning of this kind.” Can you imagine Trump or PoiLIEvre studying? Neither can I. Facts would disrupt their narrative, debunk their lies.***

In On The State VI, Cicero imagined that “the best” politicians would try to avoid “dishonour and disgrace” and would act properly to avoid shame. The “greatest and noblest” achievement of a person directing a state would be to create “a happy life for his citizens,” not personal enrichment or power. And that a statesman who corrupted someone “by what he erroneously states in a speech” was committing “a graver crime than the man who does so by bribery.” Just cast your thoughts to the rallies of Trump and PoiLIEvre and the lies they tell their followers. Consider how both encouraged the insurrectionists in their countries.***

Cicero wrote in On Obligations that the “foundation of justice is good faith” which meant “truthfully abiding by our words and agreements.” Can you even slightly equate good faith with the insults, the accusations, the disinformation, or the lies of either Trump or PoiLIEvre? Nor can I.****

Great deeds, Cicero wrote in On Old Age, “are not done by strength or speed or physique; they are the products of thought and character, and judgment.” Can you imagine a thoughtful or ethical Trump or PoiLIEvre doing “great deeds” that weren’t selfish or destructive to democracy? Neither can I. Both subscribe to the “might is right” philosophy where only power matters and ethics and morality are insubstantial attributes for the weak.

“Those who would be guardians of such important principles must be people of great courage, great ability, and great resolve. For among the crowds are those who would destroy our country through revolution and upheaval… because they are deranged enough to long for sedition and civil discord,” Cicero wrote in his defence of Publius Sestius. How then did the Repugnican and CONservative parties pick such awful, despotic, petty demagogues as their leaders who have openly supported insurrection to bring down their nation’s governments?

Perhaps I’m naive to turn to classical authors like Cicero looking for some guidance today. Maybe I’m just foolish to think we can still learn from him. But despite the distance in time, his words give me hope that contemporary commentators who stand up for democracy against the rising flood of right-wing fascism can help effect its subsidence back under the rocks where such a political movement belongs.

And I hope that Canadians and Americans alike might heed the voices of reason and truth, might look at the facts, and not just listen to the loud disinformative shrieks and lies of the rightwing commentators. We cannot afford to have our democracies lost to them.

Notes:

* What we know as democracy in 2024 is really a product of the 20th century, and only came about through considerable struggle by leftwing parties to extend rights to everyone, not just a privileged few. Women didn’t get to vote in most Western nations until after WWI, and even then there were often restrictions on it, such as being a war widow or owning property. Aboriginal peoples in the USA couldn’t vote until 1965 and in Canada status Indians couldn’t vote in federal elections until 1960.
Barely a century after women’s suffrage was achieved here, democracy is under siege by rightwing parties and their toxic, self-obsessed leaders. They want to return to governments ruled by generally male elite and privileged autocrats. To help them achieve this, they have built large followings of conspiracy-addled gullibles unable to recognize the loss of their freedoms that would come through this change. They use age-old tactics of spreading disinformation and polarizing every issue Cicero would recognize all too well.
And it’s not just the extremists: many (or, arguably, most if not all) of what were once moderate conservative parties — like the Repugnicans of the USA and the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) —have shed their support for democracy, chosen to side with Putin’s anti-democracy agenda, and shifted to the far right in support of authoritarian and even fascist ideologies. What would Cicero do?

** From Cicero: The Republic and The Laws, translated by Niall Rudd, Oxford World Classics, 2008.

*** From Cicero: On Government, translated by Michael Grant, Penguin Classics, 1993.

**** From Cicero: On Obligations, translated by P.G. Walsh, Oxford World Classics, 2000. Other sources used above include Cicero: On Living and Dying Well, translated by Thomas Habinek, Penguin Classics, 2012 and Cicero: Selected Works, translated by Michael Grant, Penguin Classics, 1971, and How to Run a Country: An Ancient Guide for Modern Leaders. Selected pieces from Cicero translated by Philp Freeman, Princeton University Press, 2013.

 

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