A waste of Cicero

Dear Hannah,

One time, when Cicero was in the middle of an argument with Metellus Nepos, Nepos questioned Cicero's nobility by repeatedly asking who Cicero's father was.  Cicero, knowing that Nepos's mother was easy, replied I'd ask you the same question, but your mother's made it very difficult to answer.

If anyone's going to quote Cicero this is the best place to start.  There are of course many other famous instances of his wit and many more important uses of it, and I advise any man who's interested in freedom to be familiar with them.  What I don't advise anyone to do is to quote them at length like Ted Cruz did in our Senate. And going even further than this, I wouldn't advise anyone to quote them in our Senate until the Senate is literally on fire.

There's a reason why this incident is worth bringing up a year after it happened.  What Cruz had the indecency to mimic, the speeches against Catiline, was originally spoken at a moment when Rome was about to be sacked by traitors.  Catiline was ready to murder the most important men in Rome, to burn the city to ashes, and to have an actual army establish a new and tyrannical order.  He was followed by mobs of effeminate hipsters, was popular with prostitutes, and openly associated with every kind of domestic villainy.

Cruz, on the other hand, wasn't uncovering a conspiracy.  He was quoting, in very unhelpful terms, Cicero's uncovering of a completely unrelated conspiracy.  Cruz wasn't saving America by having his spies follow Obama.  He was quoting the results of Cicero's spying on Catiline.  There was no masterful attempt, at the risk of Senator Cruz's own life, to recover a Republic from the precipice of despotism.  He was quoting someone else who was risking his own life to save another country from it -- and quoting for the purpose of assailing a President who'd been popularly elected, and for deriding a law that had been passed by the legislature.  In short, there was absolutely nothing in Cruz's "speech" which proved Cruz's eloquence, erudition, or bravery; and yet to our embarrassment Republicans were excited that Cruz was "channeling" Cicero.

To be fair to Senator Cruz, his misuse of Cicero worked -- because today nobody knows anything about Cicero.  Almost all of us are familiar with Cicero's name, but very few of us are familiar with his life.  Today he's admired for patriotism and making speeches, despite the obvious fact that less Americans are patriotic than ever before, and even fewer of them are good at oratory.  For this reason Cruz strikes me as especially sad, not for celebrating a person, but an entire aspect of Western civilization that's gone missing.  In praising Cruz for mangling Cicero, we might as well celebrate that our politicians today have no talent.

I once opened the first volume of a collection, The World's Greatest Orations, only to find an introduction, written in 1906, about the (recently ended) age of oratory never ending.  Apparently the editor had forgotten that the Dark Ages followed the fall of Rome, and St. Chrysostom, the so-called "golden tongued," whose sermons have bored theology students for centuries, followed men like Pericles and Cicero.  Nobody imagines that his own grandchildren will be dumber than him -- even though children are born stupid, and only become great by carefulness and diligence.  Nobody seems to think, despite a widespread belief in the merciless process of evolution, that it's possible for certain branches or talents of a species to die off entirely. Our children may be dumber than us.  They may be weaker than us.  They may also be greater than us, by doing the things that we thought would be dumb or weak.  And what we forget is that this is all only partially up to us.  Train them as we may, the most of it is up to them.

Cicero was born like any of the rest of us -- completely illiterate.  He also had a weak voice and bad digestion, which made him not only skinny, but sickly and frail.  He had everything in his power to keep himself this way.  But the difference between Cicero the boy and Cicero the man was ambition.  Voice lessons and exercise, combined with serious study in philosophy and oratory, led to his emergence in the courts of Rome, which led to his emergence in a life of politics. Young Winston Churchill spoke with a lisp, and his earlier letters show no signs of future brilliance.  Demosthenes, known for being the greatest orator of ancient Greece, a man whom Cicero himself worshiped, was born with bad diction, and spoke with stones in his mouth until he found his voice and wooed the world.  The closest humanity will ever come to equality is in our infancy.  Our ideals and our ambitions are our evolution, and divide the leaders from the led, the winners from the losers, and the heroes from the cowards.

The question is why nobody in the age of information speaks as well as Cicero, and beyond this why nobody seems to miss him.  It could be because we've confused access to information with wisdom.  Perhaps eloquence has gone out of fashion as the sophists went out of fashion. Maybe too many people used a good thing in too many bad ways, and now we associate good speeches with bad people.  It's also possible that our educational system, being obviously and overwhelmingly allied with the American left, has made right-wingers think that book-learning is unmanly, unnecessary, and unAmerican*.  Barack Obama's speeches prove that the Democrats, at least, believe that their best ideas deserve the best of deliveries -- a mastery of arts which is the only reason the Democrats are winning, if not always in oratory, then nearly always in cinematics.  Why the Republicans believe otherwise, and throw their support behind the most embarrassing and least romantic candidates, has yet to be explained.  Hopefully before we actually get a Cicero -- and he's murdered by the tyrants he'll be trying to stop.

Your father,

*George Orwell, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist (and an actual democratic socialist, not the ridiculous Bernie Sanders welfare-statists masquerading as democratic socialists), bitterly complained that all the English intelligentsia, who were leftists, were weak-kneed and effeminate, while all the beefy right-wing jingoes were almost totally lacking in polished manners and education.  Orwell, like the smartest Republicans, pined for the days when manly willpower and intelligence weren't mutually exclusive.  Montaigne, who complained almost identically of the limp-wristed and useless French "philosophers" in his essay On Pedantry, noted that when the barbarians finally sacked Rome, they decided to leave the libraries and literature intact, believing that the influence of an education would ensure the effeminacy (and thus the subjugation) of the remaining Roman citizens.

A quick glance at our founding fathers proves that no such division between manliness and learning is necessary.  Nobody who knows anything about Alexander Hamilton could say that his pursuit of education made him effeminate -- even if it was said he was somewhat feminine.  The existence of men like Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, gives greater credence to the barbarian theory.  Every one of us has a chance to improve our brains and our brawn. Sadly, and without any good reason, the majority of Americans have chosen to be lopsided.


  1. "Nobody who knows anything about Alexander Hamilton could say that his pursuit of education made him effeminate -- even if it was said he was somewhat feminine."

    As I understand it, it's not at all that Hamilton was in any way effeminate, but rather that he was so physically attractive that the word "handsome" did not do him justice. He had a slight frame, and he was "beautiful"; these traits are more associated with women than with men.

  2. I think you would appreciate the book Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. It covers many of the aspects you touched upon in this blog post.


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