This posting is aimed at stirring interest among modern general-interest readers in such questions as: Down deep, how much do we have in common with these ancient people? Are their thoughts still worth pondering today?
The following passages were translated and paraphrased from the works of Marcus Tullius Cicero, a Roman lawyer, statesman, philosopher, and prolific author who lived from 106 B.C. to 43 B.C. He was a staunch defender of the Roman Republic against subversive conspiracy and, later, against the drift into dictatorship and civil war. For this role he paid with his life.
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Selected famous quotes and other excerpts from his philosophical writings:
The more laws we enact, the less justice we have.
In a republic it is important that the majority not have absolute rule.
Wise men are guided by reason, average minds by experience, stupid ones by need, and brutish ones by instinct.
Fools are aware of the faults of others, but never of their own.
If you lack self-confidence, you are doubly defeated in the contest of life. With full confidence, you will win even before you start.
It is only natural justice that no one should gain wealth through damage and injury inflicted upon another.
The soul inhabits the body, and God inhabits the world. The soul endures the body, and God endures the world. The soul sees but is not seen, and likewise God. As the soul nourishes the body, thus God nourishes the world.
Six mistakes mankind keeps making century after century:
Believing that personal gain is made by crushing others;
Worrying about things that cannot be changed or corrected;
Insisting that a thing is impossible because we cannot accomplish it;
Refusing to set aside trivial preferences;
Neglecting development and refinement of the mind;
Attempting to compel others to believe and live as we do.
To add a library to a house is to give that house a soul.
Read at every wait; read at all hours; read within leisure; read in times of labor; read as one goes in; read as one goes out. The task of the educated mind is simply put: read to lead.
For books are more than books, they are the life, the very heart and core of ages past, the reason why men worked and died, the essence and quintessence of their lives.
Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.
Friendship improves happiness and abates misery, by doubling our joys and dividing our grief.
Laws are silent in times of war.
To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?
The authority of those who teach is often an obstacle to those who want to learn.
Politicians are not born; they are excreted.
A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to fear.
What is morally wrong can never be advantageous, even when it enables you to make some gain that you believe to be to your advantage. The mere act of believing that some wrongful course of action constitutes an advantage is pernicious.
When the young die I am reminded of a strong flame extinguished by a torrent; but when old men die it is as if a fire had gone out without the use of force and of its own accord, after the fuel had been consumed; and, just as apples when they are green are with difficulty plucked from the tree, but when ripe and mellow fall of themselves, so, with the young, death comes as a result of force, while with the old it is the result of ripeness. To me, indeed, the thought of this “ripeness” for death is so pleasant, that the nearer I approach death the more I feel like one who is in sight of land at last and is about to anchor in his home port after a long voyage.
No one is so old as to think that he cannot live one more year.
We are not born, we do not live for ourselves alone. Our country, our friends, have a share in us.
Law applied to its extreme is the greatest injustice.
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From a speech against the conspirator Catiline in the Roman Senate, 63 B.C.
Cicero Denounces Catiline, by Cesare Maccari, 1888
At long last, Catiline, how far will you abuse our patience? How long will that madness of yours mock us? To what limits will your unbridled audacity flaunt itself? Are you not bothered at all by the night guards on the Palatine Hill, the watches posted all through the city, the alarm of the people, the gatherings of good men? Or by the choice of this defensible place for a Senate meeting, or the expressions on the faces of this venerable body?
Don’t you realize that your plot is detected? Don’t you see that your conspiracy is already stopped and made powerless by the knowledge that everyone here has of it? Do you think any one of us is unaware of what you did last night, and the night before, and who met with you, and what plan you adopted?
What times! What customs! The Senate understands these things. The consul sees them. Yet he still lives! Lives? Indeed, he even comes into the Senate, takes part in public deliberations, and notes — and marks with his eyes — each one of us for murder.
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From a letter to Tiro, 49 B.C. This passage allows a glimpse into Cicero’s demeanor toward slaves, which is believed to have been so exemplary that he instilled great loyalty among them. Tiro had been a family slave until Cicero freed him at the age of 50, four years before this letter was written. Tiro continued to work for Cicero and became regarded almost as a member of the family. He took dictation, organized Cicero’s finances, and assisted him in his writings. Tiro published several of his own works, including a biography of Cicero. He devised a system of shorthand, known as Tironian shorthand, that was used into the 17th century.
I very often miss your help, but it’s for your sake, not mine, that I’m sorry about your sickness. Now that I know it’s the quartan fever, I can hope that with proper care you’ll soon be stronger. Be sure not to attend to anything except what is most appropriate for regaining your health. I realize how much you miss us, but that will be taken care of once you are well. I don’t want you to risk seasickness while still an invalid, or to risk the hazards of a winter voyage.
I ask you over and over again to look after yourself. Please write to me whenever you have someone to carry the letter.
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From various letters, 46-43 B.C., during the failure of the Roman Republic:
When we last talked, I was grieving for the republic, which was dearer to me than my life. At this time, though, I’ve found consolation by reflecting on what I’ve managed to achieve, and also by time, which usually provides remedies even to idiots. I still lament that the political blessings we shared have so faded away that we no longer even hope that things will ever improve. Please understand, the fault does not lie with Julius Caesar, except maybe that the situation should never have arisen. Instead, some events have occurred by chance, and others through our own fault, so that we shouldn’t be complaining about them. I see no hope remaining, so if you moved to Greece by design, you have shown wisdom. If you moved there by chance, you are blessed. (VII.28)
If “standing” means having a political attitude supported by decent men, I am maintaining my standing. But if it implies taking any action, or even defending the attitude in open discussion, no trace of my old standing remains. Calmly enduring events is difficult in a war of this kind, which threatens massacre on one side, slavery on the other. I foresaw this outcome when I feared not only defeat but also success, because I realized the great danger that armed dispute threatens to constitutional law.
…I was aware, if my own party prevailed through use of arms, how cruel that victory would be, exploited by enraged, greedy, and arrogant men. Or, if we were defeated, how many citizens would be murdered, including our finest and our most eminent. When I predicted this outcome, people thought of me as a coward rather than as a prophet. (IV.14)
Mark Antony has not left me in peace since I returned to Rome. His arrogance – his monstrous behavior – is such that he can’t tolerate a man’s independence, not only in speech, not even in the look on one’s face. My preoccupation is not with concern for my own life, but with anxiety for my native land, and for the prospect of your taking office as consul, so far into the future that I question whether I will live to see it. What can one hope when the state is subdued by the arms of Antony, and the Senate and the people are powerless, and there are no laws, no courts, nor any semblance of a community of citizens? (X.1)
…I would have supported the honor voted to you if I had been able to enter the Senate in safety and respect. But nobody with independent political views can be safe there, because swords are used with immunity. I cannot appropriately express my views where armed men are better and more closely positioned to listen than are the senators themselves. (X.2)
Antony’s madness gets worse daily. On the statue he set up, he has inscribed the words, “To our deserving father.” So now you’re not just assassins, you killed your own father! I shouldn’t say “you” – I should say “we”, for he claims that I was the ringleader of the whole plot to end Caesar’s life. I wish I had been, for then Antony would not have survived to become such a problem for us. But that is all in the past, and I wish I had some worthwhile advice for you. But I can’t even plan my own actions, for how can one oppose violence without the use of more violence?
…What a sad situation! We couldn’t tolerate Caesar as our master, and now we submit to Antony, who was nothing but a fellow slave. (XII.3)
In the Senate on December 20, I discussed the entire political situation. It was by force of conviction, rather than any oratorical skill, that I managed to rally the Senate from weariness back to its traditionally high moral stance.
…We have a courageous Senate, but among those of consular rank, some are timid and others are badly motivated. Our current consuls are outstanding. Decimus Brutus is brilliant, and the young Caesar is also first-class. I have great hopes in him for the future. (X.28)
I have vouched for this young Caesar, although he is still immature. I hope to keep him in his position of influence, even though many oppose him. He has much virtue, but at his age there are many who are working to corrupt him. I will do all I can to retain my influence with him, so that I may avoid the charge of rash judgment. (I.18)
The young Caesar (also known as Octavian), in whom Cicero had great hopes for the future, assumed the name Augustus as he became Rome’s first emperor. He eventually brought a lasting peace to the Roman world.
First, however, Octavian entered into a brief and uneasy alliance with Mark Antony in 43 B.C. Together, they drew up a “proscription list” of political enemies who needed to be eliminated, totaling about 2,300 people, 300 of them senators. At Antony’s insistence, Cicero topped the list. He was accordingly put to death that same year.
Thus was fulfilled Cicero’s prediction in one of the letters above, “I was aware… if we were defeated, how many citizens would be murdered, including our finest and our most eminent.”