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Cicero, the Roman Republic, and all that.


Cicero is one of the intellectual founders of the West. Of interest to Montagu/e-centric history, Cicero is considered the chief intellectual defender of the ideals of the Roman Republic, that is, Rome before the dictatorship of Caesar and the foundation of the Imperial Roman Empire. Much of English gentry society and the American Old South (a direct extension of English gentry culture), came to be based on a conscious effort to create Cicero's ideal version of the Roman Republic. There was a reason that after the Confederate defeat in the U.S. Civil War, the college of William and Mary was reopened with a curriculum confined to "the classics" ( Robert L. Montague was one of the two speakers at the first commencement). Andrew Philip Montague edited Selected Letters of Cicero in 1890, and another American Latin scholar was William Lewis Montague. Cicero well deserves to be the ultimate defender of the Republic. As Frish puts it:

"... his death signed and sealed the fall of the Roman republic and confirmed his words in the Thirteenth Philippic (section 30) directed against Antony: It is my destiny to stand or fall with the liberty of the state." (Frisch)

As a philosopher, Cicero had unusual real-world experience (among other significant philosophers, perhaps only Francis Bacon comes close). He had run the Roman Republic, commanded armies and provinces, and risen to the height of Roman power based largely on merit as a high-profile lawyer able to win "the big case". Many philosophers consider Cicero to be much too conservative and practical to be a great thinker, and much of Cicero's philosophy was translated directly from the Greek. Cicero spent much time studying philosophy in Greece. One of my favorite Cicero quotes, which reveals much about his attitude is something like "Virtue become manifest congeals as action."

Although Cicero is considered one of the world's great speakers, to truly appreciate his style you apparently must have a strong command of Latin. For some idea of Cicero's power, Winston Churchill consciously attempted to use Cicero's style in Churchill's public English ( "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat", "We will fight on the beaches...").

It is important to realize that Cicero's conservatism regarding the Roman Republic is not just rhetoric; the Roman Republic was, in fact, falling. Cicero's vision of Rome as a selfless nobility of successful individuals determining the fate of the nation via consensus in the Senate was giving way to a harsh, corrupt Empire under dictatorial Caesars populated at all levels by venal and corrupt citizens. Historians debate whether things would have turned out any differently if Cicero's path had been followed, etc.. In any case, here is a fragment of Cicero's thoughts:

 

"Thus, before our own time, the customs of our ancestors produced excellent men, and eminent men preserved our ancient customs and the institutions of their forefathers. But through the republic, when it came to us, was like a beautiful painting, whose colours, however, were already fading with age, our own time not only has neglected to freshen it by renewing the original colors, but has not even taken the trouble to preserve its configuration and, so to speak, its general outlines. For what is now left of the "ancient customs" on which ... "the commonwealth of Rome" was "founded firm"? They have been, as we see, so completely buried in oblivion that they are not only no longer practiced, but are already unknown. And what shall I say of the men? ... For it is through our own faults, not by any accident, that we retain only the form of the commonwealth, but have long since lost its substance..." (Cicero, Keyes trns.)

There are yards of material written by Cicero, much of which consists of his political speeches and letters. See also the following web pages:
UT Classics

I have not found a ready copy of the complete Scipio's Dream (or The Dream of Scipio) on the web...


Scipio's Dream, probably written between 54 and 51 B.C., may be one of the most influential documents in Western civilization, and one of the most influential philosophical tracts ever written. Scipio's Dream was one of the few works of the "ancients" that was never lost to the West. Apparently, it survived in "copybook" formats and must have been commonly used as an exercise in teaching latin or penmanship... Chaucer was influenced by it. Pepys used a line from it as his motto. See if the beginning doesn't remind you of the start of Hamlet! Much of the material toward the end is apparently derived directly from Plato... No, it is not a dry or learned philosophical argument. Yes, it reads like a juvenile, Boy's Life patriotic exhortation that might have been published in a 1930's science-fiction pulp magazine... but, just so... picture a young, bored schoolboy...


Scipio's Dream

Marcus Tullius Cicero (perhaps fittingly, a compressed conflation).

I served in Africa as an officer of the Fourth Legion. When I arrived at the start of the Third Punic war (149 B.C.), in the land of our ally King Masinissa, I went to meet the old King, who embraced me tearfully, looked up to heaven and said, "I thank you, sovereign sun and lessor heavenly beings, that before I depart this life I see under my roof the young Scipio, whose mere name gives me strength, so well do I remember the heroism of his noble and invincible grandfather!"

We talked all day and far into the night about his country, the Roman commonwealth, and the deeds of my grandfather, Africanus, who had defeated Hannibal in the Second Punic War (202 B.C.).

That night I was exhausted and fell into a deep sleep. In the night, my grandfather Africanus appeared, not in his familiar shape, but in the shape of his statue. I shuddered in terror, and he said:

"Courage, Scipio, discard your fear and imprint my words on your memory! Do you see the city I defeated, but which is now stirring up war?"

We looked down on Carthage, bathed in brilliant starlight.

"This is the city you have come to attack, with a rank only slightly higher than a private. Within two years, you as commander shall conquer it. Afterwards you shall have great victories in Egypt, Syria, Asia, and Greece, but when you return to Rome you shall find chaos caused by another of my grandsons; then, you must display your true character, nobility, and wisdom."

"I see two paths of destiny before you. When your age is seven times eight circuits of the sun, those two perfect numbers will have brought you to your fate and the whole state will turn to you and your name; the Senate and all citizens will look to you; the fate of the country will depend on you, and it will be your duty as dictator to bring peace to the commonwealth, if you can escape your kinsmen."

"So that you shall be even more dedicated to defending the commonwealth, know that a special place in heaven is reserved for those that have preserved, improved, or enlarged their country. Nothing on earth is more pleasing to the God that runs the universe than councils and assemblies of men ruling by law and justice, in what are called states. Such rulers come from heaven, and to heaven they return."

Although I was completely terrified, not so much from fear of death, as from the thought of treachery by my kinsmen and friends, I asked if my father Paulus, and all other dead, were yet alive?

"Of course they live", replied Africanus, "for they have escaped from the prison of the body; this thing you call life is really death. Don't you see your dead father?"

As soon as I saw my father, I burst into tears and hugged him, but he forbade me to weep. When I could speak, I cried "Most best and excellent father, since death is life, as Africanus says, why should I remain on the earth? Why not go with you?"

"Not so", he replied, "only if God frees you from the prison of the body, can you enter heaven. Man has been given life to inhabit the sphere called the earth, and has been given a soul from the eternal fires called the stars and planets, which, being round and circular are animated by divine intelligence and move in their fixed orbits with wonderful speed. So you must preserve that soul in your body; and you must preserve your mundane body, except upon order of that which has given you life; if not you will fail in your duty to God. Scipio, imitate your grandfather, cherish justice and duty, a great obligation to your parents and kin, but even greater to your country. Such a life is the road to this heaven in the skies, where all those who have already lived, released from their bodies, live in this place you now see, this circle of light brightest among the stars, called the Milky Way."

I looked in all directions and saw wondrous beauty. There were stars we never see from the earth, vast and larger than we could ever imagine. The smallest of them, the moon, was farthest from heaven and nearest to earth and shone with a borrowed light. The starry spheres were much larger than earth, which looked so small that it made me ashamed of our empire, which was only a small point on its surface.

As I gazed upon the earth, Africanus said: "How long will your mind by stuck on the ground? Don't you see where you are? These are the nine spheres of the whole. The outermost, the celestial, is heaven; it contains all others and God. In it are contained the stars which never vary. Below it are seven other spheres with retrograde motion, opposite the direction of heaven. The globe you call Saturn occupies one sphere. Next is Jupiter, friend of mankind. Beneath it, red and terrible, is Mars. Next, almost in the middle, is the Sun, ruler of the other lights, the mind and guide of the world. He is followed by attendants Venus and Mercury. In the lowest sphere, set on fire by the Sun, is the Moon. Below the Moon everything is mortal and doomed to decay, except human souls. Above the Moon all things are eternal. The earth, the ninth sphere, is the center of the whole, never moves, and is the lowest of all, as all bodies are drawn to it by their downward tendency."

After I recovered my wits from these revelations, I asked "What is the loud but wonderful sound that fills my ears?"

"That", he said, "is the music of the spheres, the melody in intervals unequal but in exact proportion, made by the movement of the spheres themselves. By blending high and low tones harmonies are produced, since such motion cannot occur without sound. The highest sphere of heaven moves most rapidly and thus produces a quick and sharp sound; the moon, moving slowest, produces the lowest sound. The earth remains stationary and silent. The eight other spheres produce seven other tones because Mercury and Venus move in unison. Seven is the key to almost everything. Wise men, imitating this harmony using string instruments and song, have discovered a way to see some of this place, as do others that apply their genius to studying the divine. But men's ears are deaf to this continuous melody; mortals have no duller sense than hearing. Like those that live near the cataracts on the Nile, the harmony of the universe is too loud to be heard; in the same way that you cannot look straight at the Sun."

I could not stop looking at the earth, so Africanus said:

"You are still looking at the home of mankind. If it seems small, as it really is, keep looking at heaven and scorn the earth. What fame can you gain from the words of man, what glory worth the seeking? As you see, the earth is inhabited in only a few places, with vast distances in between. Some inhabitants live on parts directly opposite your own, and from them you can never expect glory."

"Notice how the earth is divided into zones. The two that are most distant from each other are supported by opposite poles of heaven, and are held in icy bonds. The central and largest zone is burned by the sun. There are two habitable zones. In the southern such zone, the people's footsteps are opposite yours, and the people have no relation to you. You live in the other zone, to the north. Only a small part of it belongs to Rome, and the area itself, which narrows in the north and south and widens from east to west, is just a small island surrounded by the sea called the Atlantic, the great sea ocean. See how small the Atlantic is in spite of its great name! Do you suppose your fame, or the fame of anyone of you, could reach beyond the Caucasus Mountains or cross the Ganges river? Would the people of the east, or the far setting sun, or those of the far north and south, ever hear your name? If they were eliminated, see how small an area over which memory of you could spread. And, even for those who speak of you, how long will that last?"

"Even supposing that in the future they wanted to pass on the fame and memory of everyone of us, the floods and fires that inevitably happen will prevent memory of us from lasting very long, much less for eternity. Who cares if those born after you are dead will know about you, when those who came before you never knew of you either? Those who came before were as numerous and as virtuous. And besides, none of your contemporaries can remember much anyway for even a single year. An ordinary year is one revolution of the Sun. But when all the planets shall return to the same position in which they started, a long year can be said to have passed; I have no idea how many human generations must pass to make up such a long year. But, rest assured, a vast time will pass."

"Thus, if you don't want to return to this place where excellent men find true reward, forget about trying to obtain human glory and fame from men, which can hardly last a small part of a single long year. If you wish to obtain this eternal place, pay no attention to the vulgar gossip of the herd, nor trust your well-being to the rewards of man. Virtue herself, by her own charms, should lead you to honor. What others say about you is their business, not yours, and they will say it in any case. Their talk is limited to the narrow regions on which you look, and nobody has a reputation that will last very long. What men say dies with them and is lost to those who come after."

When he had finished, I said "Africanus, if the path to heaven is open to those who have served their country well, then, though I have followed since childhood in the footsteps of my father and yourself without disgracing your name or memory, I will now redouble my efforts with ever more diligence."

He replied, "Strive onward, and know that it is not you, but your body that is mortal. For you are not your appearance; your mind is who you are, not the form which can be described with a finger. Know, also, that you are a god, if a god is that which lives, feels, remembers, foresees, and which rules, governs, and moves the body over which it is set, just as the supreme God rules the universe. And just as that god moves the universe, which is part mortal, so can an immortal spirit move a mortal body."

"That which is always in motion is eternal; but that which communicates motion to something else, but which derives its own movement from another source, dies when this other motion ends. Only that which moves itself never stops moving, because it never leaves itself. It is the source and first cause of other things that it might move. But this first cause has no beginning, because everything comes from the first cause, and if it itself had a first cause, it would not be a first cause. And since it has no beginning, it will have no end. If a first cause had an end, it could not again come into existence, nor could it create anything, because everything must come from a first cause. Thus, motion comes from that which moves itself, and this can neither be born nor die, or else all the heavens must fall and nature perish, since it would have no force to receive the first impulse to motion."

"Thus, it is clear that what moves itself is eternal, and who can deny this property to the mind and soul? For whatever is moved externally has no mind, and whatever possesses a spirit or mind is moved by inner impulses of its own; for that is the peculiar nature and property of mind and soul. And since a mind is the only force that moves itself, it must have no beginning and be immortal. Therefore, use it in the most noble pursuits! The best is that of defense of your country. A soul well practiced in this way will have a swift flight to this, its proper home. Even swifter will be its flight if, while still confined in the body, it looks out, and by contemplating that which lies outside itself, detaches itself as much as possible from the body. For minds that have surrendered to the sensual pleasures of the body have become slaves that are kept in obedience by lust. They violate the laws of gods and men in obedience to desires subservient to pleasure. Such souls, upon leaving their bodies, hover close to the earth and do not return to this place until they have been tossed about for ages."

He departed and I awoke.

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