Cicero: In the Beginning, the Word.

By David Trumbull COPYRIGHT, 2005

If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body. Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body. --James iii. 2.

The Apostle of Chirst was thinking primarily of the harm an unbridled tongue brings on the speaker and hearer, and Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 B.C.) presents as a warning on intemperate and untimely speech. Cicero was known for his wit, but he often used it injudiciously. According to Plutarch, "he excited much ill feeling by his readiness to attack anyone for the sake of a jest...[and] by this habit he made himself odious with many people." (Life of Cicero, 27-28) In that regard Cicero deserves the over-, and often wrongly-, used epithet, tragic for, it was indeed his powerful, clear, and prescient pronouncments against tyranny that earned him the disfavor of tyrants and cost him his head.

However, we were amiss to dwell on Cicero's failure to preserve the Republic. The Republic was already far gone in the 60s and 50s B.C. The Senate and rich men of Rome blocked every reasonable attempt at reform so that even a Cicero advocating sound constitutionalism with the most persuasive rhetoric could little avail in the face of massive self-willed ignorance on the part of the "best men." And Cicero had the bad luck to lack capable partners in his quest for restoration of the ancient system of checks and balances. Indeed, the most capable Roman of the period, Caius Julius Caesar, was, from a Ciceronian perspective, the problem, not a fellow-worker in the solution.

Yes, Cicero saw the faults in the Roman Republic. Further, he developed a sophisticated theory of constitutional government aimed at mending the faults and tirelessly, and at great personal peril, advocated for reform. His monuments are the modern (eighteenth century to today) western democracies. John Adams wrote that "all the ages of the world have not produced a greater statesman and philosopher united in the same character." Our American constitution was created not for an unmitigated democracy as Athens of the fifth century B.C., nor for the Caesarism of the Roman Empire, but for a Ciceronian Republic.

Cicero was not the richest, the most powerful, the most well-connected, or the most naturally endowed man in Rome. In a militaristic culture, he was not a man of action on the field of honor. Wealthy Crassus or financially inventive Caesar easily out-spent Cicero in throwing public entertainments. He was morally incapable of sinking to the then nearly universal practice of bribing voters. Yet he rose to the highest office, consul, and guided Rome safely through her gravest internal convultion, the conspiracy of Catiline, a bankrupt and reckless noble who plotted nothing short of complete destruction of the established order.

This remarkable career was supported on two grand pillars: his unshakeable belief that a man's duty is to search out what wants doing and do it, and his devotion to the right use of rhetoric to teach and lead the people in the way they should go.

For as soon as he was of an age to begin to have lessons, he became so distinguished for his talent, and got such a name and reputation amongst the boys, that their fathers would often visit the school, that they might see young Cicero, and might be able to say that they themselves had witnessed the quickness and readiness in learning for which he was renowned...And afterwards, when he applied himself more curiously to these accomplishments, he had the name of being not only the best orator, but also the best poet of Rome. And the glory of his rhetoric still remains.. --Life of Cicero, 2.

He studied philosophy seriously and emerged as a synthesizer and popularizer of Greek learning. While he was not the most original thinking of the ancient world, he was one of the most influential as he summed up the accumulated centuries of philospohical and political thought and presented his summations in a compelling manner. In Athens he sought out voice teachers and instructors in the arts of rhetoric to train his voice and mind for public speaking. And as an advocate arguing cases in Rome he perfected the arts of pursuasion. (Life of Cicero, 3-4)

His brilliance as pleader at the bar and his justice while holding office of judge won Cicero the support of the commons and the aristocracy alike. (Life of Cicero, 9-10) As a relatively young man, with little prior experience, and little by way of money or connections to advance him, Cicero was elected to the highest office in Rome. As consul, or chief magistrate, Cicero exposed and put down the Catilinian conspiracy, saved Rome, and was proclaimed Father of his Country. (Life of Cicero, 11-23)

Well, as the opening quotation has it "If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man," and Cicero, being human was imperfect. He was overly vainglorious and more than a bit of a braggard.

...he created himself much envy, and offended very many, not by any evil action, but because he was always lauding and magnifying himself. For neither senate, nor assembly of the people, nor court of judicature could meet, in which he was not heard to talk of [Cicero's vanquishing of] Catiline and Lentulus. Indeed, he also filled his books and writings with his own praises, to such an excess as to render a style, in itself most pleasant and delightful, nauseous and irksome to his hearers; this ungrateful humor, like a disease, always cleaving to him. --Life of Cicero, 24.

His "ribbing" of others --sometime just criticism; sometimes (to borrow a phrase from Dorothy Parker /1/) simply calisthenics with words, set powerful men against Cicero. Wealthy Crassus had been an important ally in exposing and routing out the conspiracy in 63 B.C., but Crassus' wealth was not always honorably gotten and Cicero censured him, thus creating, in the richest man in Rome, a formidable enemy. Cicero, needing powerful friends, attached to Julius Caesar, but, flattered by the disreputable and destructive Clodius, he deserted Caesar, who, feeling ill-used turned against Cicero and, in turn, turned Pompey against Cicero as well. This left Cicero with the most powerful men in Rome all arrayed against him. (Life of Cicero, 30)

He did manage to restore a friendship with Pompey the Great, at the time Rome's most successful general. But by then Pompey's star was sinking as Caesar's rose and the alliance merely further separated Cicero from the powerful Caesar. Pompey made not much use of Cicero in any event. And Cicero's old habit of wise-cracking popped up again, hindering his advance in Pompey's service. (Life of Cicero, 38)

When, in 48 B.C., Caesar defeated Pompey at Battle of Pharsalia and entered Rome as sole ruler, Cicero retired to teach philosophy. (Life of Cicero, 39-40) He soon answered once agaion the call of public life in one of the most dramatic episodes in the history of Rome.

He had no concern in the design that was now forming against Caesar, although, in general, he was Brutus's most principal confidant, and one who was as aggrieved at the present, and as desirous of the former state of public affairs, as any other whatsoever. But they feared his temper, as wanting courage, and his old age, in which the most daring dispositions are apt to be timorous. --Life of Cicero, 42.

In the general confusion following the assassination, Cicero, in his favorite role of presiding in the senate, restored order, saw to getting Brutus and Cassius sent off to administer far-flung provinces and so averted, for the time, civil war. But when Antony presented himself as sole rule to replace Caesar, and Octavian arrived presenting his claims as Caesar's heir, Cicero attached himself to Octavian, believing him less a threat to Roman liberties than the passionate and unruly Anthony. Sadly, Cicero miscalculated. Octavian did not believe himself strong enough to take on Antony at that time, nor weak enough to need flee and abandon his claim. Rather, Ocatvian, with Antony and Lepidus formed the Second Triumvirate and set out to carve up Rome amongst themselves. Antony wanted Cicero killed and Octavian, while having offered token resistant, yielded and agreed to desert Cicero. (Life of Cicero, 43-46)

Perhaps it was just one-too-many "cracks" about his drinking that drove Antony to have the weak and elderly Cicero hunted down and killed on December 17, 43 B.C. History records that after chopping off Cicero's head, Antony's henchmen cut off the hand that wrote the Philippics against Antony. Antony's wife drove a pen through the orator's eloquently piercing tongue. In death, the reputation of Cicero quickly rose, as Plutarch obversed:

Some long time after, Caesar [Octavian], I have been told, visiting one of his daughter's sons, found him with a book of Cicero's in his hand. The boy for fear endeavored to hide it under his gown; which Caesar [Octavian] perceiving, took it from him, and turning over a great part of the book standing, gave it him again, and said, "My child, this was a learned man, and a lover of his country." --Life of Cicero, 49.

And across the centuries, that tongue has spoken clearly to those who would hear his admonition "You see the situation. Now consider what ought to be done" (Cicero, In Defense of the Manilian Law). And Cicero's writings have survived as guides for those who ask, and welcome the answer to, the question, "how shall we live our lives?"

Here Ends Trumbull's Summary of the Life of Cicero.


/1/ The complete quotation is, "Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words."