Cicero’s Lessons for Life

Cicero denouncing Cataline by John Leech. (1852)

My high school Latin teacher, Mr. McPherson, passed away recently, before his time.  Joe’s death brought back memories of our class more than forty years ago translating Cicero, Ovid, Catullus and other Roman writers.

Those old Latin lessons have a way of returning in new forms.  Buried deep in the collective past are valuable fragments of insight about the present.  Studying ancient Rome is certainly no antidote for contemporary woes.  Yet discerning patterns of human motivation – rationality, ambition, greed – across the ages can yield some illuminations of who we are.

Studying the classics has fallen prey to overwrought notions of the tyranny of the Western canon.  The ancients are far removed from today’s identity politics.  If you don’t want to start with Latin or Greek, study Sanskrit, Hebrew or classical Mandarin.  The point is to explore our collective cultural past in other languages if possible.

Our high tech culture is another force driving us away from the humanities.  But we should find time for both studying an ancient Roman codex and learning to code.

In my school days, we used to quip behind Joe’s back, “Latin is dead, dead as can be; first it killed the Romans, and now it’s killing me.”  Sure, it was sometimes a slog to do sight translations of Cicero’s orations, but it was an ennobling exercise.

Deciphering classical texts gave us a window on history and literature, and also paid utilitarian dividends by honing our basic grammar skills for others languages including in English.

Cicero seems particularly resonant these days when so many of us are struggling with the political and social turbulence in our own republic. Marcus Tullius Cicero started as a lawyer and became a leading politician, twice serving as an elected consul of the Roman Republic.  Cicero tried to uphold the constitutional order whilst Roman society was gradually being torn apart by class strife, factional rivalries and military over-extension.

Cicero was schooled in a tradition of comity called mos maiorum, or “the way of the elders.”  This entailed respect for precedent and institutions and was a building block for the rule of law.  Cicero saw these values crumbling.

Today we can hear echoes of Cicero’s valiant struggles to defend the center ground against polarizing strife and creeping dictatorship.  First, impeachments were not uncommon.  Private prosecutors could go after officials for breach of the public trust.  In fact, Cicero’s political career was launched by his takedown of a despotic governor of Sicily for corruption.  For years to come, Cicero would outmaneuver powerful rivals by dint of his smarts and magisterial rhetorical skill.

Second, Cicero recognized that populist tactics – whether from the redistributionist “left” or the militarist “right” – posed a grave threat to the republic’s survival.  Indeed, Rome’s downfall arguably began when members of the patrician class, who should have known better, used bloated promises to rally the masses and vicious lies to rouse mobs against rivals.

Third, Rome was vastly overstretched.  Contrary to its name, the republic had become an empire with far-flung foreign provinces as far as Gaul and Syria long before it had titular emperors.  These colonies increased the republic’s wealth and prestige but also placed enormous burdens on the treasury to finance Rome’s forever wars.

Cicero – a brilliant but fallible figure – was himself overstretched.  He compromised his independence, borrowing heavily from Rome’s richest men such as Crassus and Pompey to improve his household’s living standards.  Cicero also overreached in his efforts against rivals, resorting to thuggish tactics he had earlier abhorred.  He ultimately lost his fight when an authoritarian triumvirate including the ambitious general Julius Caesar seized power.  The republic would not last.

We are not Rome.  Yet, despite the manifold differences including dazzling technological sophistication, we can see traces of ourselves – the continuity of human nature – in the mirror of the classics.

Requiescat in pace, Joe.

Mark Medish, a lawyer in Washington, D.C, is a former senior White House and Treasury official in the Clinton Administration.