Friday, March 04, 2005

The Writings of Cicero

Cicero lived through the degeneration of the Roman republic into dictatorship. When you read about the barbarities of autocrats like Sulla and Caesar, what they got up to in war time, and how they undermined democratic institutions, it’s all the more marvellous to read the elegant prose of Cicero.

The most successful lawyer of his day, Cicero retreated from public life during bad political times to concentrate on his writings. The appendix lists all the various topics he wrote on. Not everything remains, some of his essays and studies come down to us in fragments.

On The Good Life is basically a selection of Cicero’s writings. As the introduction states, philosophy in the days of antiquity was used more as a guide book to proper living, much like today’s self help books. Whereas today’s philosophical arguments are more mind boggling and complex.

The chapters of the book are divided into topics like On Friendship, On the Orator, On Duties. The first chapter, Discussions at Tusculum, (Tusculum was one of Cicero’s favourite properties), talks about how you can only be truly happy by being truly moral. Written as a dialogue between friends, there are objections that, for example, if someone was undergoing torture, then surely a moral person could not be happy. Yet Cicero argues – or this is how I basically interpret it – that surely the moral person would be better equipped to deal with these slings of outrageous fortune. On the other hand, the person with no philosophical outlook would surely suffer far more greatly.

Here is a quote explaining what he means.

‘All good things are enjoyable. What is enjoyable deserves credit and pride; that is to say, it is glorious: and, if so, it must be praiseworthy. What is praiseworthy has to be morally good: therefore goodness means moral goodness.’

In other chapters Cicero talks about the virtues of poverty, and the benefits of eschewing all worldly goods. These notions of self-abnegation are even applied to food. Food will taste better if you go without it for longer periods. Cicero describes Socrates being asked why he is spending so much time walking about, and he replies, In order to build up my appetite. It made me think of trying to market some sort of ancient philosopher’s diet. Let’s face it, these days anything goes.

One of the chief pleasures of Cicero is that he is such an elegant writer. You get seduced by his prose straight away, and when I read the following quote I thought, every writer will surely want this as a banner at the top of their computer monitor.

‘To have no job, to devote one’s time to literature, is the most wonderful thing in the world.’
If Oscar Wilde had uttered the above, it would have been taken as one of his flippant sayings. Cicero is not been smart here. Idleness is seen as a virtue!

The section On The Orator I found very instructive as well. Cicero says that in order to be a good and fluent speaker it is necessary to be widely read. If you are not, even when you are discussing subjects that don’t call on a broad range of knowledge, your limited education will show through in a halting and disjointed performance. I couldn’t agree more. It’s like Doctor Johnson says, you need to turn over a library before you can write a book.

Here is what Cicero has to say on the benefits of being a writer, and how it can improve your performance as a speaker.

‘These are the things that can earn a good speaker shouts of applause and admiration. But, however strenuously one may have practised extempore speech-making, the only way to achieve this acclamation is by writing and by continuing to write. Anyone who comes to oratory from long experience as an author brings with him a great advantage: even when he is improvising, what he says will be as good as if he had written it down first. Furthermore, if, in the course of a speech, he has to introduce written evidence, he will be able, after he has finished reading the document out, to continue speaking without any abrupt change of style.’

Another interesting point for those interested in etymology, when Cicero was translating from Greek to Latin he had to invent new words to covey his meaning. When you use the following words, thank Cicero! He invented such terms as quality, individual, vacuum, moral, property, induction, element, definition, notion, difference, comprehension, infinity, appetite, instance, science, species, image.

In his own words he describes this process.

‘Afterwards, when I was grown up, I adopted a different practice; I used to declaim free translations of speeches by leading Greek orators. The advantage of this method was that by rendering in Latin what I had read in Greek I not only found myself using the best words, familiar though they might be, but also, by imitating Greek terms, I invented new Latin forms of my own, which, provided they were accurate, constituted additions to our language.’

In the end political instability caught up with Cicero. He was executed. He proffered his neck to his executioner, as gladiators did, rather than run for his life. This was considered a noble way to die. He was in his sixties.

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