Friday, March 9, 2012

The Letters of Cicero

Here we have a collection of letters from one of the great figures of antiquity, indeed arguably the giant upon whose shoulders the entire Renaissance later rested.  The man lived through at least one of the key events in Western Civilization and, in fact, was killed in the aftermath of that event.  His work was unspeakably influential on Shakespeare, Luther, and the founding fathers of America.  This is a volume of his personal correspondence and, as such, is a unique peek into the world of the ancient Rome at its zenith.

So, why are we not all reading this?  Why do more people get through the years that (unfortunately) are the only ones in which our society expects a citizen to gain an education with perhaps Caesar's Gallic war account, maybe some Marcus Aurelius, maybe even the speeches of Cicero, but more often than not neglecting this rare glimpse of unrehearsed humanity?  Well, I may be in a position to illuminate those questions.

These letters were not composed with posterity and publication in mind.  They are, rather, missives meant for specific people and to address specific points at a certain time.  They do not "cheat to let the audience in."  They do not offer much by way of exposition.  Loath as I am to compare with a piece that I have not yet finished, the next piece in this series is exactly what the letters of Cicero are not.  Pliny the Younger's letters were clearly written with publication and posterity in mind.  Aside from being a dash stagey, they are a much more compelling read in my estimation.

So, why did our wise and benevolent host Dr. Eliot include this piece in the series?

Cicero not only lived through the civil wars in the century preceding Christ as well as the murder of Julius Caesar, but he was directly involved in those events. First hand accounts of this type are virtually non-existent and, therefore, the historical value of this piece is beyond measure.  I would also add that we have just finished two topical pieces by Cicero on the topics of Friendship and Old Age.  This is not to say that these letters are "padding" per se, but perhaps rather a fleshing out of that particular portion of space-time in which the great orator inhabited. 

All of which may sound nice and pat to you, but let me speak for a moment about what I've read so far in this series.  It seems clear to me that Dr. Eliot has a specific plan for the education of the readers of this series.  So much of the earlier pieces were clearly intended for the moral and virtuous amelioration of his students (Ben Franklin, Epictetus, Plato, William Penn, et al.)  Then we had the Greek plays which were educational as well as marvelously diverting.  So it is a bit jarring to transition into the purely educational material.  I kept looking for the deeper lessons, but found that there may not have been an intended lesson aside from the historical value.  Evidence of my unprovable hypothesis here is that the next two volumes are an economic work and a work in the field of biology.  I do not expect my soul to soar outside of that which the joy of learning provides and intend to seek spiritual growth elsewhere as I continue to read this series.  All which is to say that when I finished reading this piece I thought, "Okay, what did I learn from Cicero's letters?"

I have to say that I "got it" infinitely more from his topical pieces.
On a personal note, I, Paul Mathers in the year 2012, found Cicero to be the ancient version of what a modern equivalent might be the much hated and derided 1%.  He is of the ruling class and, as a result, his problems are not the problems of the people (I seem to recall Friedrich Engels expressing a distaste for the classism apparent in the man.)  Much of the earlier letters are focused on land management and descriptions of improvement projects on what seem to be massive homes.  The later letters (culminating in the rather dramatic final letter to Brutus himself) are more focused on times of extreme political turmoil.   Both of which, I might say, struck me as having some definite parallels to contemporary America.

Aside from that, I confess I am happy to be moving forward from a reading experience that I don't expect to ever re-experience.

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