Sunday, 25 October 2020

Bye Bye MTC - 43BC

I took a break from the news and listened to an audiobook that was written nearly 200 years ago about a major public figure from 2,000 years ago. It is about a politician who had been openly hostile to Julius Caesar’s imperialist ambitions, but who had to tone down after Caesar took over the country. After Caesar’s assassination, the politician championed, through writings, a return to republican principles and ran a smear campaign against the new top strongman, Mark Anthony. Despite the effort, within three years the republic was finished and in its place was the colonialist, imperialist, Roman Empire.

Cicero by W Lucas Collins.


Cicero by W Lucas Collins was a good book to read during this intense lead-up to the 2020 USA Presidential elections. I had already read two books providing insight into the Trump presidency and every now and then catch up on Brexit, the tension between India and China; Taiwan and China, and global responses to the impact of COVID-19. I have also been brought into awareness of the separate interests of persons who affiliate themselves with the ADOS and FBA movements (American Descendants of Slavery and Foundational Black Americans) versus the general POC grouping, Person of Colour, which includes dark skinned people from the Caribbean like myself.


The book has helped me to pull away from current affairs for awhile and return with a longer range viewpoint.


I have not overlooked that Marcus Tullius Cicero started his professional life as an advocate in about 90BC, and that Collins was an academic and Anglican clergyman who started his professional life in 1840.


The appeal of this work is that Cicero’s writing gives us a look into the mind of a leading political actor during a tumultuous time in human history and Collins was able to explain, summarise and put the historical text into context for an era closer to my own. Cicero wrote about 2,310 years ago, and this book was published 180 years ago.


Cicero is worthy of reading as not only does he add to earlier ideas of personal duty and role of the state, but he was a wordsmith who excelled in rhetoric. Collins repeats that English translations do not carry the beauty of the poetry and literary prose of the languages Cicero used, which is Greek and Latin; I have to accept, take note and move on.


During Cicero's time it was, according to Collins, the culture of Romans that their primary fidelity was to the state, then to their families, friends and other associations. Cicero himself wrote that every stage of life has its duty. Collins quotes from Treatise on Moral Duties, which was written with Cicero’s son in mind, "As justice consists in no abstract theory, but in upholding society among men, --- as "greatness of soul itself, if it be isolated from the duties of social life, is but a kind of uncouth churlishness" --- so it is each citizen's duty to leave his philosophic seclusion of a cloister, and take his place in public life, if the times demand it..."

The book notes that the political culture of Ancient Rome was influenced by an earlier Greek culture, but in significant ways, departed from it. Collins notes of Cicero, “What he loved in the Greeks, then, was rather the grandeur of their literature and the charm of their social qualities… he had no respect whatever for their national character.” Views are that Cicero appropriated statuary as furniture and was not a true lover of art. These glimpses into Cicero’s character is entirely racist and still too common throughout cultures; societies like the music and dance and food of one set of people, but not the company of the people; this bigotry has passed into our own time.    


On the matter of democracy and the concept of one citizen, one vote, Cicero lived through dramatic changes. His rural grandfather did not support the view that all citizens should have a ballot for all offices in the annual elections, and denounced it as yet another corrupting Greek idea. Cicero has written that he agrees with the one citizen one vote concept, but not to have the vote cast privately. He says that secrecy, "enables men to open their faces, and to cover up their thoughts; it gives them licence to promise whatever they are asked, and at the same time to do whatever they please." In those times, there seems to have been a system where votes may have been tied to an elite, which to me, has cast a long shadow to the current Electoral College of the USA. I could also add, the political parties that we see today tie our votes to them. A few years after Cicero died, voting for the leader of the state was abolished and the danger that he worked his life to prevent became real, the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire.

My major takeaway from the book is how Collins describes how legacies are judged. More than 800 writings by Cicero himself have come down to the present time. These include publications and speeches and his official and private letters. He presented himself to different people in different ways and his personal thoughts on a range of ideas were freely put to paper to his confidantes.


Collins says: "If we know too much of Cicero to judge him merely by his public life, as we are obligated to do with so many heroes of history, we also know far too little of those stormy times in which he lived, to pronounce too strongly upon his behavior in such difficult circumstances....His character was full of conflicting elements, like the times in which he lived, and was necessarily in a great degree moulded by them.


   "The egotism which shows itself so plainly alike in his public speeches and in his private writings, more than once made him personals enemies, and brought him into trouble, though it was combined with great kindness of heart and consideration for others."

Then there is this sentence from the mind of Collins that would be condemned today.

"There is one comprehensive quality which may be said to have been wanting in his nature, which clouded his many excellences, led him continually into false positions, and even in his delightful letters excites in the reader, from time to time, an impatient feeling of contempt. He wanted manliness." LoL, I wish Collins were here so that I could ask him what that means, but I believe he means that Cicero could be indecisive where perhaps a clear, firm statement and actions were needed.


At age 37, Cicero achieved the top public office as Consul, which was like a shared one-year presidency of the Roman Republic and then he went on to serve in other areas. At age 62 he was called back as a political schemer in the leadership struggle for Rome between Consul Mark Anthony age 39, and the grandnephew and heir of Julius Caesar, Octavius age 19. Cicero denounced the character of Mark Antony across 14 scathing articles now known as The Philippics. The propaganda so enraged Mark Anthony that he ordered Cicero’s death, but the damage had been done, and Mark Anthony lost the support of his generals and sought refuge with his babymother, the Queen Cleopatra who well knew the political value of a Roman General in her bed chamber. For clarity, Cleopatra had been the mistress of Julius Caesar from 46BC and was in Rome when Caesar was killed in 44BC. She and Mark Anthony were a couple from 41BC to 30 BC when they both died as the result of ongoing military belligerency with Octavius. Three years later, he was Emperor.


My other interest in this book is that Collins also looked at the thoughts of Cicero and religion and presented his handpicked references of this pre-Christian era to Christian thought. He quotes a Stoic poet who is said to have been quoted by St Paul who was previously Saul of Tarsus, an educated Roman citizen. Collins also spoke about another poet Persius who speaks about self-surrender, fidelity to duty, sacrifice for others, which are hallmarks of the Christian faith and apparently also how Romans felt about their marvellous republic. Collins seems to suggest that Christian salvation, when aligned with Roman state culture of duty, sacrifice, and absorption of other cultures, promoted Christianity into a widely dispersed movement, even though the religion was not legalized in Rome until 313.


Cicero was a pagan, but Christianity gives him a pass because his writings show that he was searching for the best way to live a human life, and he died in 43BC before salvation through Jesus was available to all.


This is a book for anyone who has a general interest in the archaic and in public affairs.

I was able to appreciate this book thanks to the Gutenberg project.