Hannah and Papa J

Hannah and Papa J

Friday, April 8, 2016

A waste of Cicero

Dear Hannah,

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



If anyone's going to quote Cicero this is the best place to start: with a pointed joke about Nepos's mother.  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, was not uncovering a conspiracy.  He was quoting, in very unhelpful terms, Cicero's uncovering of a completely unrelated conspiracy.  Cruz was not saving America by having his spies follow Barack 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 slavery -- and quoting for the purpose of assailing a President who had been popularly elected, and of deriding a law that had been passed with a legislative majority.  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 very excited that Cruz was "channeling" Cicero.

To be fair to Senator Cruz, his injudicious use of the ancient Roman may have been embarrassing to a few; but in the present state of education it may have been even more politically convenient with the many.  Almost all of us are familiar with Cicero's name, but very few of us are familiar with his life.  He appears in the present age to be admired for patriotism and oratory, despite the obvious fact that less Americans are patriotic than ever before, and even fewer are appreciative of eloquence.  For this reason Cruz strikes me as especially sad, not for celebrating a person, but an entire aspect of Western civilization that's apparently gone missing.  It's almost like celebrating the days when women used to be pretty.  In praising Cruz for mangling Cicero, we might as well celebrate that our politicians are ugly.

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 -- not to speak too ill of any ridiculous optimist -- was unacquainted with the fact that the Dark Ages followed the fall of Rome, and St. Chrysostom (the "golden tongued"), whose homilies 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 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.  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 appear not only skinny, but sickly and frail.  He had everything in his power to keep himself this way.  But the difference between Cicero the youth and Cicero the man was ambition.  Voice lessons and exercise, combined with serious study in philosophy and oratory, led to his reemergence 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 is upset about his absence.  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.  It's also possible that our educational system, being obviously and overwhelmingly allied with the American left, has made us think that erudition is unmanly, unnecessary, and unAmerican*.  Barack Obama's speeches, along with their almost rabidly excited reception, 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,
-J

*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 right-wing jingoes, represented by the likes of thick-necked men like Colonel Blimp, 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 such a division isn't only unnecessary, but unhelpful to the cause of civilization.  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.

3 comments:

  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.

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  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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