I have been thinking about the Roman orator and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero lately. Like many people of my generation, my first recollection when hearing the name “Cicero” is of interminable Latin sentences where the critical word is parked like a caboose about thirty words later than you would have expected it, and in a gerundive construction suggesting causation or obligation. Or was it a double dative? In any event, in school Cicero was someone to be deciphered rather than understood. He didn’t like Catiline, whoever that was, but what has that to do with the market in ablative absolutes?
Now that I look back to Cicero’s life and work, however, few figures from any age seem as searingly pertinent to our own social and political life.
There is a reason Cicero’s work made such a profound impression on the American Founders. John Adams, reacting to a biography of Cicero, cut to the chase: “I seem to read the history of all ages and nations in every page — and especially the history of our own country for forty years past. Change the names and every anecdote will be applicable to us.”
Consider this passage from Cicero’s On Duties:
Whoever governs a country must first see to it that citizens keep what belongs to them and that the state does not take from individuals what is rightfully theirs. … As for those politicians who pretend they are friends of the common people and try to pass laws redistributing property and drive people out of their homes or champion legislation forgiving loans, I say they are undermining the very foundations of our state. They are destroying social harmony, which cannot exist when you take away money from some to give it to others. They are also destroying fairness, which vanishes when people cannot keep what rightfully belongs to them. For as I have said, it is the proper role of government to guard the right of citizens to control their own property.It’s hard to believe that was written circa 44 BC, not the day before yesterday.
I intend to come back to Cicero at greater length on another occasion. For now, I simply want to wave the Ciceronian flag a little and suggest that his magnificent attacks on corruption and the abuse of state power have many lessons for Americans at the dawn of the twenty-first century.