On Friendship by Cicero (44 BC)

‘Friendship is the noblest and most delightful of all the gifts the gods have given to mankind.’
(On Friendship, section 5)

On Friendship is a treatise or long essay by Marcus Tullius Cicero, 50 pages long in the Penguin volume titled On The Good Life. The setting is a little convoluted. It is set in the year 129 BC a few days after the death of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus Aemilianus, also known as Scipio Aemilianus or Scipio Africanus the Younger, and referred to in the text simply as Scipio.

This is the same Scipio who is the lead character in Cicero’s dialogue De republica. He was one of the leading figures of mid-second century BC Rome, twice consul, and the victorious general who destroyed Carthage in 146 and then crushed anti-Roman resistance in Spain in 133.

This is all relevant because, in the fiction of the dialogue, his death has prompted some visitors to the house of Gaius Laelius, Scipio’s great good friend, to ask about Scipio’s character and their friendship. This relaxed conversation – between Laelius (the older man) and his two son-in-laws, Quintus Mucius Scaevola the augur and Gaius Fannius – makes up the main body of the text.

But the narrator actually opens the text by telling us that he himself used to frequent the house of Quintus Mucius Scaevola the augur, and that the latter used to tell stories about his father-in-law, Gaius Laelius and that’s where he first heard about this long discussion.

So the text is – according to this frame narrative – actually the record of the narrator’s memory of Scaevola’s describing to him his memory of the original conversation the latter took part in.

All this takes quite a few pages during which the reader is wondering why Cicero is bothering with this elaborate framing. Is it an artful indication of the multiple distance from ‘the real world’ which all texts imply? Or is it just Cicero being characteristically long-winded? Or is it an indication that we are still in the very early days of coping with the problem of narratives and who tells them and how much they can  realistically know or remember, and that Cicero is handling the issue with unnecessary complication? Is is long winded and clumsy or slyly adroit?

None of the summaries of this dialogue even mention this elaborate setup but, in a way, it’s the most teasing and thought-provoking part of the text.

Anyway, after a few pages of sorting all this out, the dialogue proper opens with Fannius asking Laelius how he is coping with the recent death of his old friend (Scipio) which prompts Laelius into delivering a couple of pages of eulogy on what a Perfect Man he (Scipio) was:

There was no better man than Africanus, and no one more illustrious.

Wordy

The opening pages relating Laelius’s eulogy to the great Scipio are very proper and fitting for a pious Roman work, showing due respect to the glorious dead, but to a modern reader are wordy and verbose. The text includes not only the eulogy to Scipio but references to umpteen other great and worthy Romans from history, before we finally arrive at the dialogue proper.

(None of this surprises me because, having just read The Republic and The Laws, which purport to be objective investigations of the ideal constitution and the ideal laws and end up discovering that Rome is the Ideal State and Roman laws are the Perfect Laws, I am newly alert to the rich vein of Roman patriotism, to the profound piety and respect for the illustrious forebears, which runs very deep in Cicero.)

True friendship must be based on moral excellence or goodness

When the treatise does finally get going, the fundamental ideas are simple and typical of Cicero the ‘philosopher’:

  • true friendship is only possible between good men
  • friendship is more likely between fellow countrymen than foreigners, and between relatives than strangers
  • friendship is a following of nature and emerges naturally from human nature

Then a definition:

Friendship may be defined as a complete identity of feeling about all things on heaven and earth: an identity which is strengthened by mutual goodwill and affection. With the single exception of wisdom, I am inclined to regard it as the greatest gift the gods bestowed upon mankind…A school of thought believes that the supreme blessing is moral goodness, and this is the right view. Moreover, this is the quality to which friendship owes its entire origin and character. Without goodness, it cannot even exist. (6)

Central to the idea is the Stoic belief that Goodness is the ultimate Virtue, the only foundation for happiness and a Good Life:

Goodness is the strongest resource a man can command. (14)

And that true friendship consists of Good Souls attracting other Good Souls in a perfect bond. This is because Goodness inspires and attracts:

Goodness exercises an altogether exceptional appeal and incentive towards the establishment of affection. (8)

So that:

Only good men have the capacity to become good friends. (18)

And:

What unites friends in the first place…and what keeps them friends is goodness and character. All harmony and permanence and fidelity come from that. (26)

And:

No one can be a friend unless he is a good man. (27)

So. Quite a heavy emphasis on Goodness, and an insistence that True Friendship can only exist between Good Men. Would you agree?

The philosopher’s fault (seeking perfection)

Reading the opening section my heart sank. Cicero’s text only tangentially sheds light on friendship as it exists among normal people in the real world. Instead it very clearly demonstrates the way Cicero, and the Greek philosophers he copied, turned every subject under the sun into a vehicle to promote their same old hobby horses: human reason is a gift from the gods; therefore, of all the human virtues, the correct use of this divine reason i.e. wisdom, is supreme; and so cultivating this divine reason in order to attain its maximum potential / wisdom, is the noblest human aim; and managing your life so as to put wisdom into action i.e. implement moral virtue (goodness) is the highest goal to aspire to in life; and all this shouldn’t be a strain because it is following nature i.e. our minds are made that way.

The tendency in all this is always to ignore the chaotic real world experience of ordinary, far-from-perfect people, and the unexpected friendships many of us experience in a world full of flawed strangers, in order to focus on the exceptional, ‘the pure and faultless kind’:

I am not now speaking of the ordinary and commonplace friendship — delightful and profitable as it is — but of that pure and faultless kind, such as was that of the few whose friendships are known to fame.

Although he makes scattered concessions to the ‘ordinary’ friendships of the likes of you and me, Laelius/Cicero really focuses on the super friendship of a moral elite.

Friendship built on shared values

The essence of friendship is sharing experience:

It is the most satisfying experience in the world to have someone you can speak to as freely as your own self about any and every subject upon earth.

Other things we aim at give only one pleasure – the pursuit of wealth gives us money, of power to secure obedience, of public office to gain prestige. Friendship, by contrast, brings a host of different rewards, rewarding all levels of our minds and characters.

Friendship isn’t contingent on day to day events; it is available at every moment; no barriers keep it out.

Friendship adds a glow to success and relieves adversity by sharing the burden. A friend is like a mirror of the self. Even when absent he is present. Even when dead he is still here. Knowledge of him raises and ennobles life.

Reference to the De republica

At this point Laelius is made to take a break in his exposition. Interestingly, Scaevola is made to refer to the colloquy held recently at Scipio’s own house in which the latter held forth about state affairs and Laelius and Philus debated the role of justice in politics and the reader realises Cicero is referring to his own book, De republica which, in the fictional world of these dialogues, appears to have taken place only a little time before this one i.e. while Scipio was still alive.

Amicitia and amor

The the dialogue resumes and it’s back to friendship. Laelius goes on to say the Latin word for friendship, amicitia, is clearly derived from the word for love, amor. Both are selfless. Friendship is not calculating, it does not seek to repair deficiencies in a person by extracting services and favours: it is an overflowing, a surplus of affection.

He compares the love between parents and children, natural and deep; sometimes this can be replicated between friends. Sometimes we find a person whose habits and character attract us so much that we look upon him as ‘a shining light of goodness and excellence’.

The positive effects of goodness

Goodness is always attractive. When we hear about a good act we feel better. When we think of people famous for their goodness, we feel better. How much better do we feel when we meet and get to know someone who demonstrates goodness in their lives. We share in it. Their goodness elevates us too. Another source of friendship is simply seeing a lot of someone in everyday life.

Friendship has no ulterior motives, is not out for gain. We do not behave kindly in expectation of gain. Acting kindly is the natural thing to do. The expression of kindness is a good in itself requiring no return or profit.

Feelings of affection and attachment to other people are entirely natural, and inspired by the other person’s fine qualities. Because true friendship is based on nature, and nature is everlasting, a true friendship is everlasting too.

How friendships end

Friendships may end for a number of reasons: you may end up competing for something only one can have, such as a wife or political position. People’s political views change. ‘Altered tastes are what bring friendships to an end’ (20). A person’s character changes, due to misfortune or age. The most destructive force which ends friendships is falling out over money. Or, if friendship is based on goodness, if one or other friend falls off into vice, behaves badly, then the friendship must end. (11).

Thus if your friend asks you to do something dishonourable, turn him down flat. In fact Laelius turns this into The First Law of Friendship:

Never ask your friends for anything that is not right, and never do anything for them yourself unless it is right. But then do it without even waiting to be asked! Always be ready to help; never hang back. Offer advice, too, willingly and without hesitation, just as you yourself, if you have a friend whose advice is good, should always pay attention to what he says. But when you are the adviser, use your influence, as a friend, to speak frankly, and even, if the occasion demands, severely. And if you are the recipient of equally stern advice, listen to it and act on it. (12)

Cicero’s patriotism

It is characteristic of Cicero that he demonstrates this point by using examples of patriotic and unpatriotic behaviour among their Roman forebears. His example of a bad person who his friends ought to have abandoned is the reformer Tiberius Gracchus.

To excuse oneself for committing a misdemeanour on the grounds that it was done for the sake of a friend is entirely unacceptable. Such an excuse is no justification for any offence whatever, and least of all for offences against our country. (12)

This is the peg for a lengthy digression on how Gracchus led a number of followers astray, into populist, crowd-pleasing policies (the redistribution of land to Rome’s poor) which led to street violence and serious schisms in the Roman political class. And this itself leads onto references to leaders who turned against their own countries, Coriolanus the Roman and Themistocles the Greek. And all this to make the rather obvious point that one shouldn’t let friendship lead you into treason and betrayal.

It is, on the face of it, an odd digression, but a vivid reminder of the highly embattled worldview which underpinned Cicero’s patriotic conservatism. Throughout his life, in all his writings, he acts on the belief that the Republic is in mortal danger which explains why he has Laelius say at one point: ‘I am no less concerned for what the condition of the commonwealth will be after my death, than I am for its condition today.’

Anti Epicurus

It is just as revealing that the text then moves on from addressing one set of bogeymen (populists and traitors) to another, familiar, enemy – the Epicureans. Laelius is made to attack the Epicurean notion that the Wise Man should hold aloof from all passions and therefore all ties with any other human being.

Cicero has Laelius say that the Epicurean ideal of complete detachment is impossible because any man with values must hurt to see those values breached and trampled and will be prompted by nature to intervene.

Any good act implies involvement, helping someone, charity. It is difficult to imagine a life where we don’t involve ourselves to try and alleviate others’ pain or suffering or discomfort or help their situations. Therefore, even the wisest man cannot possibly avoid feelings.

To remove friendship from our lives just because it might bring us worries would be the greatest mistake.

Friendship is sensitive. It is, by definition, an involvement with another. Precisely insofar as we share our friend’s ups and downs, do we vicariously experience their emotions, of triumph or abjectness. Therefore the Epicurean ideal of non-involvement renders friendship, one of the greatest gifts of the gods, inoperable. So yah boo to Epicureanism.

Rules

The final third of the text more on from the theoretical to suggest some practical rules of friendship:

  • friendship is based on trust so friends should always be open and candid
  • friends should be amiable and congenial, good humoured, pleasant with one another
  • when a new friendship beckons one should be cautious and sound out the person in order to discover whether you really do share enough in common to qualify for friendship (‘Become devoted to your friend only after you have tried him out’)
  • if one friend is notably superior in rank or wealth, if he is a true friend then the superior one will support the lowlier one and encourage his best interests
  • but you only ought to support a friend to the limit of their capacity to receive help i.e. not be showy or drown them in generosity
  • if a friendship comes to an end try to do it gently, not by tearing but slowly detaching oneself
  • do anything to avoid an old friend becoming a bitter enemy

Laelius links these rules to the actual life and sayings of Scipio. He ends his presentation by repeating how much he loved Scipio, how they shared a perfect union, how the memory of his goodness doesn’t make him sad but inspires him every day. Next to moral excellence / goodness / virtue, friendship is the best thing in the world. (27)

Thoughts

As mentioned, it feels that, rather than being a genuinely objective investigation of friendship, this is more like a shoe-horning of Cicero’s familiar concerns (with the primacy of wisdom, virtue and the need to ‘follow nature’ in everything, on the one hand; and his anxieties about the welfare of the Republic, on the other) into the subject.

Admittedly, many of the things Laelius says do shed light on the ideal friendship, and the essay as a whole forces you to reflect on your own friendships, their origins and histories, and you may find yourself agreeing with many of his formulations. Wouldn’t it be nice if life was as pure and simple as these high-minded sayings indicate.

Psychological simplicity

Nonetheless, it comes from a world 2,000 years before Freud introduced much more subtle and complicated notions of human nature, human needs and the complex interactions between all of us, which characterise the intellectual and cultural world we now live in.

This psychological simple-mindedness explains the childlike feel of the entire text, because it deals in such monolithic, unexamined terms – friendship, nature, wisdom, virtue, love. It’s like a painting made entirely with primary colours, with no subtlety of shading or design.

As always with Cicero, quite a few phrases or sentences stick out and are very quotable, would look good on t-shirts or mugs.

Nature abhors solitude and and always demands that everything should have some support to rely on. For any human being, the best support is a good friend. (23)

But overall, the impression is of an odd superficiality, and the entire thing, like the proverbial Chinese meal, seems to disappear from your memory half an hour after you’ve consumed it.

Logical inconsistencies

There are also logical flaws or inconsistencies in his presentation. In some places Laelius says he will not describe the impossible perfection demanded by some philosophers; and yet for the majority of the discourse he does precisely that, as quoted above and here:

Friendships are formed when an exemplar of shining goodness makes itself manifest and when some congenial spirit feels the desire to fasten onto this model.

This super high-minded model contrasts with the different tone, more prosaic tone when, for example, he acknowledges that the soundest basis for friendship is shared interests:

Our tastes and aims and views were identical and that is where the essence of a friendship must always lie. (4)

So sometimes he describes a Platonic ultra-perfection:

Friendship may be identified as a complete identity of feeling about all things in heaven and earth.

Since nature is the originator [of friendship] and nature is everlasting, authentic friendship is permanent too.

But at other times is much more frank and down-to-earth:

The greatest of all possible incentives to friendship remains congeniality of temperament.

In another onconsistency, sometimes he says, as in the quotation above, that authentic friendship is permanent or, later on, that ‘Friendship remains a firm and durable asset’. Yet he has a half page devoted to all the reasons which can cause a friendship to end.

I think this unevenness, these apparent contradictions, point to Cicero’s inability to fully reconcile the many different Greek sources he was copying. He takes the best bits from his sources and stitches them together and if they don’t perfectly dovetail, so be it. There is an overarching unity in his concerns and he repeats the same ideas quite a lot, but nonetheless, this eclecticism renders his own text ‘bitty’.

On the plus side, it leads to all these quotable quotes which can be cherry-picked, pasted onto photos of vibrant young people, and turned into sweet internet memes (and who cares if you spell his name wroing – pedant!)

On the down side, these inconsistencies leave the text wanting if you’re looking for a really logical and precise exposition; it makes it more of an amiable ramble by a man who has a bit of an obsession with Divine Reason. but then his genial good-humoured ramblingness is what a lot of Cicero’s devotees enjoy about him.

Cicero’s mono-mindedness

To come at it from this angle, you could argue that the presentation is not inconsistent enough, in the sense that the inconsistences are only about a very narrow range of topics. For example the way in one place Laelius says friendship is based on shared interests, but in other places sticks more to the Stoic line that friendship is based on the moral goodness of the friend. Mulling over the difference between these premises open doors in the text which momentarily suggest escape from than Cicero’s hyper-idealised world into the actual, flesh and blood, difficult-to-understand and navigate world which most of us live in.

In my critique of On the Republic I became increasingly aware of its tremendously reductive worldview – Cicero’s repeated insistence that there is One God, with One Divine Mind, who created One World, in which only One Species (Mankind) can rule over all the other animals because He Alone is blessed with Right Reason, and so into a train of thought which leads up to the conclusion that there can be only One Ideal State with One Ideal Constitution and that this state, happily enough, turns out to be the ancient Rome of Cicero’s time! Reading it I felt highly coerced towards this rather absurd conclusion.

What makes the Stoic philosophy Cicero espoused so boring is the way it is quite literally monotonous, mono-toned, in the sense that it is always looking for the One Thing which is best and unique – the best species (Man), the best human attribute (Reason), the best mental quality (Virtue), the Ideal Statesman, the Ideal State, the Ideal Laws and now, in this text, the One, Ideal, Friendship.

Hence the umpteen repetitions throughout the exposition of the Spock-like, logical but bloodless axiom that true friendship can only exist between morally good i.e. wise men.

It is a narrow-minded and ultimately coercive worldview, which tends to erase the diversity, weirdness, and unpredictability of human beings, human cultures and human life. For me life is about the strange and unpredictable and tangential aspects of human nature and human relationships, fleeting moments or unexpected friendships which flourish between the most unlikely people. And that’s why I studied literature and not philosophy, because it is wild and anarchic and unexpected and all kinds of illogical, irrational, immoral and inexplicable things happen in it – as in real life.

As a teenager I realised I was more interested in literature with its endless celebration of diversity than in philosophy with its underlying drive towards joyless uniformities and bloodless abstractions. I find Cicero’s relentless attempts to reduce the world of unpredictable human interactions down to One Thing – to The Good, The Virtuous, The True – have an airless, asphyxiating and ultimately unreal quality.


Credit

I read the translation of On Friendship by Michael Grant included in the Penguin volume On The Good Life, published in 1971.

Related link

Roman reviews

Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger

This is one of Plutarch’s longer biographies of eminent Romans, at 73 ‘chapters’ or sections.

Marcus Porcius Cato, also known as Cato the Younger (95 to 46 BC), was a conservative Roman senator in the period of the late Republic. He made a reputation for being a stern, inflexible defender of the strictest interpretation of traditional ‘Roman’ values and a literalistic interpretation of the constitution. As such he was in effect a defender of the optimates party of traditional aristocrats and the senate as a body, against the growing power and political lobbying of the populares party, represented by others in the 80s and 70s but during the 60s and 50s increasingly represented by Julius Caesar. Cato saw Caesar as an over-ambitious autocrat who sought to tear up the traditional constitution and make himself tyrant and king, so he bitterly opposed him at every opportunity.

Ironically, the net effect of his stern speechifying and high-minded opposition to Caesar helped to create the impassible divide which arose between Caesar and Pompey (who he defected to and served during the civil war) and precipitated the civil war which overthrew the republic that he loved. When compromise was required, Cato offered inflexible opposition.

His suicide in north Africa, where he was one of Pompey’s governors, after Caesar had effectively won the province in 46 BC, was, in my opinion, not a noble end to a noble life but epitomised the political cul-de-sac he’d painted himself into. Compromise and mutual respect are the basic requisites for a functioning democracy.

The life

(1) Marcus Porcius Cato or Cato the Younger was a great-grandson of Marcus Porcius Cato, also known as Cato the Censor, Cato the Elder and Cato the Wise (234 to 149). The Elder was a Roman soldier, senator, and historian known for his conservatism and opposition to Hellenization, who was the first to write history in Latin with his Origines, a now lost work on the history of Rome.

Unusually Plutarch gives us something of Cato’s boyhood. Both his parents died leaving him, his sister and brother orphans. They were brought up by a maternal uncle. People noticed he was inflexible, harsh, not given to laughter though occasionally he smiled. He was a slow but steady learner, and Plutarch favours us with some 2,000 year old theory of education (based, apparently, on Aristotle).

(2) When he was 4 the Social War broke out and Pompaedius Silo, a representative of the rebels, visited Cato’s guardian’s house and humorously asked the children for their support. The others childishly agreed but Cato stared inflexibly silently in front of him, even when the visitor held him out the window as if to drop him. He took boyhood games very seriously.

(3) The dictator Sulla liked Cato and his half brother for their father’s sake and Cato’s tutor Sarpedon often took him to visit, till one day the 14-year-old asked why there were so many cries of torture and severed heads (!) carried from Sulla’s house and when his tutor explained everyone was too frightened to intervene, Cato angrily asked for a sword and said he’d rid his country of this scourge.

Cato’s devout attachment to his brother Caepio.

(4) He was made a priest of Apollo and moved out of his guardian’s house. He tried to put into practice Stoic philosophy and lived very plainly. He was a close companion of Antipater the Tyrian, a Stoic philosopher. He believed in a form of justice which was rigid and uncompromising.

(5) When the tribunes wanted to make changes to the Basilica Porcia which his famous ancestor had constructed, Cato was reluctantly drawn into defending it and opposing the move. Everyone commented on the stern maturity of his speech.

He took vigorous exercise, refused to ride a horse or be carried in a chair, exercised in cold or heat. Spartan.

(6) He was surprisingly unabstemious, though, and would stay up through the night, drinking and arguing with philosophers. He dressed so deliberately unostentatiously that it drew attention. When he came into an inheritance he shared it liberally with friends.

(7) He became betrothed to a woman named Lepida who had been dropped by Metellus Scipio but then Metellus changed his mind and wooed and won her which made Cato so furious he eased his mind by writing scathing verses against Metellus. Then he married Atilia, a daughter of Serranus.

(8) During the war of Spartacus (73 to 71 BC) Cato volunteered to serve since his brother was a military tribune. He displayed good discipline, self-control, courage in all emergencies and sagacity. When the commander, Lucius Gellius Publicola (consul in 72) awarded him honours Cato turned them down, saying he’d done nothing special. So he acquired a reputation as being clever and brave, but odd.

(9) In 67 he was appointed military tribune and sent to Macedonia, to serve under Rubrius the praetor. It’s fascinating to learn that he travelled to this post with fifteen slaves, two freedmen, and four friends. He was assigned a legion and won over the men by his unpretentious willingness to join in with all the tasks.

(10) Cato hears a Stoic philosopher named Athenodorus Cordylion, was living at Pergamum, he travelled there to persuade him to return with him to the army camp, which the latter did. Cato was more proud of this achievement than any military conquest.

(11) Cato’s brother fell sick at Aenus in Thrace. He made his way there as quickly as possible but his brother died before he arrived. People were surprised at his excess of grief and the huge amount he spent on the funeral rites, ‘not observing how much tenderness and affection was mingled with the man’s inflexibility and firmness against pleasures, fears, and shameless entreaties.’ In other words, Plutarch likes Cato.

(12) When he completed his military service the men saw Cato off with tears and embraces, which was unusual, On his journey through Asia he was very humble about his entrance to towns, didn’t do it with grand display and intimidate the local magistrates (which, by implication, was the norm).

(13) Plutarch tells the genuinely funny story of Cato entering Antioch in Syria to find a reception of young men in military cloaks or gala gowns and imagining it was for him. But when the city master of ceremonies stepped forward and greeted him it was to ask when Demetrius would be arriving – all this pomp was for him. Even funnier, Demeterius had at one stage been a slave of Pompey’s but Pompey was so in the ascendent that an ex-slave of his drew more of a grand welcome than Cato. Cato’s friends laughed about this all the way to their inn.

(14) When Cato arrived in Ephesus Pompey, who was there, made a big point of going to meet and greet him by hand, and praising his virtue to his face and behind it. But this was all in self interest, for Pompey never attached Cato to his entourage as he did other young men. Anyway, as a result of Pompey’s favour, the towns he subsequently passed through made a special effort to give him honours, though he asked his friends to ensure he didn’t fulfil the prediction of his friend Curio, that he would return from Asia more tamed.

(15) Deiotarus the Galatian repeatedly sends him lavish presents but Cato sends them back. Taking ship for Brundisium, his friends advise the ashes of Caepio should travel by another ship but Cato insisted they go in the same boat as him even though they turned out to have a difficult crossing.

(16) Back in Rome he is elected quaestor in 65 BC though not before making a careful study of the full constitutional roles and responsibilities of the office. Once instated he insisted on utter rectitude and obedience to the rule from his many clerks, who were used to pulling the wool over the eyes of new young officials. Cato sacked a leading clerk for embezzlement which led to a protracted law case.

(17) By his thoroughness Cato raised the office of quaestor to almost eclipse the consulship in dignity. He:

  1. made sure all debts to the public treasury were immediately called in, so that he could then make all the disbursements owed
  2. he weeded out false claims and decrees
  3. the assassins who murdered people on Sulla’s notorious proscription lists for money, and were widely loathed, he called to account, demanded the money back, upbraided them for their filthy acts, at which point many of them were arraigned for murder: for many people this closed the door on the shameful time of Sulla’s dictatorship (82 to 78 BC)

(18) He got to work early and left late. He set the state treasury on its feet. He attended the senate and popular assemblies to make sure slack politicians didn’t make promises of money they couldn’t keep. All in all he showed that the state treasury could be run honourably.

On the last day of office he was being accompanied home by a grateful crowd, when he heard that his boyhood friend Marcellus was trying to register a crooked remission of moneys so Cato turned right round, marched back to the treasury and, in Marcellus’s sight, expunged the application from the tablets, then took Marcellus home with home for dinner. Nothing personal, just inflexible application of the rules.

(19) Having held the quaestorship, Cato is automatically enrolled in the senate. Here he shows the same inflexible devotion to duty, arriving first, leaving last, and making sure he reads all notes and briefing papers, keeping across all details of all policies. Unlike many who drifted into it by accident, Cato

chose a public career as the proper task for a good man, and thought that he ought to be more attentive to the common interests than the bee to its honey. And so he was careful to have the affairs of the provinces and decrees and trials and the most important measures sent to him by his connections and friends in every place.

He soon became a byword for lecturing sternness and honesty. His name began to be of proverbial weight. Plutarch gives examples.

(20) When the time came to vote for tribunes despite his friends urging him to stand, Cato decided against and set off for one of his country estates to study philosophy. But on the way they encountered the entourage of Metellus Nepos on their way into town so Metellus could stand as tribune. At which Cato ordered his people to about turn and hastened back to Rome to contest the tribuneship in order to preserve the freedoms of the state.

(21) When he stood for the tribuneship many thought that, rather than seeking advantages for himself, he was conferring a gift on the role. In 63 he was elected one of the ten tribunes. He promptly lived up to his reputation for rectitude by prosecuting the consults elected that year to serve in the following years, Silanus and Murena, for bribery. It was the custom for the accused to hire a man to tail the prosecutor everywhere to see who he was talking to and what materials he was gathering. Murena’s hired man was soon impressed by Cato’s rectitude and eventually, if he asked Cato whether he was going about business for the trial that day, if Cato said no, he took his word and didn’t tail him.

Cicero was consul in 63 and defended Murena from Cato’s prosecution and got him off but it didn’t affect his respect for Cato’s honesty and he often consulted him, for:

in the tribunal and in the senate he was severe and terrible in his defence of justice, but afterwards his manner towards all men was benevolent and kindly.

(22) Two chapters on the Catiline conspiracy. Plutarch skips over all the details, to the debate about what to do with the conspirators Cicero has captured in the city. Plutarch focuses on Caesar’s speech advocating leniency for the conspirators i.e. that they be sent to various cities under house arrest until the conspiracy was completely quenched. Plutarch really comes out as anti-Caesar with these remarks:

Caesar now rose, and since he was a power­ful speaker and wished to increase every change and commotion in the state as so much stuff for his own designs, rather than to allow them to be quenched, he urged many persuasive and humane arguments.

That’s not how it comes over when you read Sallust’s reconstruction of Caesar’s speech in his account of the Catiline Conspiracy, which is sober and responsible. It also chimes with his lifelong practice of clemency and forgiveness first.

(23) But what Plutarch wants to get to is how many of the senate were swayed by Caesar until Cato stood up to speak and tore into Caesar as himself a traitor supporting traitors:

Caesar, he said, under a popular pretext and with humane words, was trying to subvert the state; he was seeking to frighten the senate in a case where he himself had much to fear; and he might be well content if he should come off guiltless of what had been done and free from suspicion, since he was so openly and recklessly trying to rescue the common enemies, while for his country, which had been on the brink of ruin, and was so good and great, he confessed that he had no pity; and yet for men who ought not to have lived or been born even, he was shedding tears and lamenting, although by their deaths they would free the state from great slaughter and perils.

So ferocious and impassioned that the senate voted overwhelmingly for immediate execution and Cicero led them away to the Roman prison and had them garrotted there and then. A rash impetuous act which would come back to haunt him in later years (when he was threatened with prosecution for having murdered these men without due legal process and so was terrified into going into exile in 58 BC).

Plutarch gives us an interesting little piece of social history by telling us that this was the only speech of Cato’s to have been recorded, and this is because Cicero was responsible for instituting the new practice of having a number of secretaries skilled at shorthand to record senate procedures. (Which is the central fact in Robert Harris’s trilogy of novels about Cicero.)

(24) Another quite funny anecdote. In the middle of Cato’s furious tirade against Caesar he observed a messenger come into the senate and hand Caesar a note, at which point he thunderously pointed this out to the senate and claimed it had something to do with the conspiracy, demanding he read it out. Caesar handed it over to Cato who read it and realised it was an erotic message from none other than his own sister, Servilia, to Caesar, who she was in love with (though he was married). Cato flung it back at Caesar. This is a lovely moment.

Plutarch goes on to state that Cato had bad luck with ‘his’ women: one sister gained a bad reputation for her carryings-on with Caesar, the other thrown out of her husband Lucullus’s house for infidelity, and his own wife Atilia ‘put away’ because of her ‘unseemly behaviour’. So Cato marries a daughter of Philippus, Marcia.

(25) The strange case of Quintus Hortensius, a man of splendid reputation and excellent character, who tries to persuade Cato to farm out to him his daughter who just happens to be married to another man, Bibulus. Why? To bind their families together and increase wise and virtuous offspring. Cato politely refuses. Things then become garbled as Plutarch states that Hortensius then asked for Cato’s wife in marriage. The fact that Cato agreed and that her father agreed, indicate that he had, or was about to, divorce her. Lots of divorces and remarriages among the Roman aristocracy.

(26) So Lentulus and the other conspirators are executed but Plutarch says Caesar continues to stir up unrest among the city’s poor and describes Cato as being wise and good in passing a law to expand the free grain distribution to the poor and landless.

It is 62 BC and Pompey is en route back to Italy from his triumphs in the East. Metellus has taken up the tribuneship and proposes a law asking Pompey to hurry back and protect the city. Cato at first politely declines and asks Metellus to reconsider. But when the latter takes advantage of his meekness, becomes angry and shouty, leaving witnesses with the sense that they’re both bonkers.

(27) The night before the vote the forum was filled with armed strangers and gladiators and servants with strong support from Caesar, who was praetor. That night Cato bravely walks with his friend Minucius Thermus through the throng of armed men to the temple of Castor and Pollux and pushes through the armed gladiators to eventually plonk himself in a chair between Caesar and Metellus who were conversing.

(28) The proposed law is read out but Cato snatches the paper out of Metellus’s hand. When Metellus continues to recite it from memory, Cato puts his hand over his mouth. So Metellus ordered the men at arms to come to his aid and some of the people pelted Cato with sticks and stones. Not a model democracy, was it?

(29) This brawl goes on for some time with Metellus attempting to read his law and some of the people threatening him. In the event Metellus fled from the people to the forum, made a long speech against Cato, and then fled the city altogether heading towards Pompey.

Switching subject, Lucullus had returned triumphant from the East in 66 but had been forced to wait for a triumph by the opposition of Caius Memmius who wanted to suck up to Pompey. Cato opposed this, partly because Lucullus was married to Cato’s sister. The importance of these marriage and family alliances and allegiances is difficult to capture but was a key element in Roman politics.

(30) Pompey as he approached Rome sent asking the senate if they could postpone the consular elections so he could canvass for Piso in person. The senate was inclined to agree but Cato vehemently disapproved. Seeing he was going to be an obstacle, Pompey then sent a message asking for the hand in marriage of Cato’s daughter for him and the other daughter for his son. When they heard this the women in question were delighted to make such high matches but Cato immediately refused and sent back that he wasn’t to be bought with marriage alliances. Plutarch, for once, is critical, and makes the kind of point I’ve made, which is that Cato’s intransigence brought about the very thing he sought to avoid:

However, if we are to judge by the results, it would seem that Cato was wholly wrong in not accepting the marriage connection, instead of allowing Pompey to turn to Caesar and contract a marriage which united the power of the two men, nearly overthrew the Roman state, and destroyed the constitution. None of these things perhaps would have happened, had not Cato been so afraid of the slight transgressions of Pompey as to allow him to commit the greatest of all, and add his power to that of another.

(31) Furthermore, Cato blocks Pompey’s wishes for a law distributing land to his veteran soldiers, and then blocks Caesar’s wish, on returning from Spain, to canvass for the consulship whilst remaining outside the city pending a triumph. Cato denied him this, too, by talking for an entire day and so talking the time out. But the effect of this scrupulous defence of principle was to drive Caesar and Pompey together and both to support the unscrupulous agitator Clodius. Again, by his scruples he brought about the thing he most opposed. Lucullus and Cicero are of h is party, but the new triumvirate outpowers them and Caesar is elected consul for 59.

(32) Plutarch describes the street violence encouraged by Cato’s opponents. With the help of this rioting Pompey’s land redistribution bill is passed after all along with an unusual clause compelling all senators to take an oath to uphold it. Inevitably, Cato refused to do this until persuaded into it by Cicero who said it was vanity to hold out against the general will, and that he needed Cato in Rome rather than in exile.

(33) Caesar introduces a law to divide almost all of Campania among the poor and needy. Of course Cato objects and so Caesar has him dragged off to prison. Plutarch alleges that it is by such shameless laws that Caesar curried favour with the people and so got himself awarded governorship of Gaul for five years despite Cato warning the people that they themselves were creating a tyrant.

(34) Caesar’s creature, Clodius, gets Cato sent against his will as governor to Cyprus and Ptolemy of Egypt, very obviously to get him out of the way to the clique can pursue their aims unobstructed. Clodius is particularly hot to hound Cicero out of Rome, something he couldn’t achieve if Cato were there.

(35) En route to the East Cato wrote to Cicero whose enemies were trying to get him banished to submit to the mood of the times. King Ptolemy of Egypt comes to see him and finds Cato full of wisdom, not least in his advice to have nothing to do with the rapacious crooks at Rome (Pompey and Caesar) and return to Alexandria and be reconciled with his people. Ptolemy in fact continues onto Rome but Plutarch has him (improbably) at the door of the first magistrate he visits groaning at his own weakness.

(36) Confusingly (for me at any rate) Plutarch then talks about an apparently different Ptolemy, ‘the Ptolemy in Cyprus’, who poisons himself. Cato hears this at Byzantium where he is supervising a peace (?) before he goes on to Cyprus and organises the auctioning of the king’s belongings. He insists on handling every aspect of this himself and so alienates a lot of his friends.

(37) An extended description of the falling out between Cato and his friend Munatius, who feels himself slighted. In the end they are reconciled with kindness and tears. This is a good example of an anecdote or passage which has nothing to do with politics or history, as such, but demonstrates Plutarch’s primary focus which is an interest in ‘the perception and manifestation of character‘.

(38) When Cato returned from the East he meant to present immaculate accounts of the enormous sum of money he was bringing back (7,000 talents of silver), but his account books were lost in unfortunate accidents which vexed him because he had wanted to display them as models and templates.

(39) Cato arrived back from the East in 56 BC and all Rome turned out to meet him, the senate and the people. Characteristically, Cato sailed right past his reception committee and to the docks, which irritated many. But he made up for it when he paraded the wealth he’d brought back through the forum, and he was awarded an extraordinary praetorship.

(40) In 57 BC Cicero had returned to Rome after an exile of 16 months. He promptly acted controversially by having all the records of Clodius’s acts as tribune destroyed, claiming that Clodius had been improperly elected through bribery. Surprisingly, Cato contradicted Cicero’s speech, saying it had not been illegal for Clodius to move from the patrician to the plebeian class, and arguing that if Clodius’s acts were to be erased so should his, Cato’s, in the East because his appointment was made by Clodius. This public disagreement caused Cicero to break off friendship with Cato for a long time.

(41) Plutarch briskly skips over the conference of the triumvirate at Luca. He calls it:

a conspiracy for the division of the supreme power and the abolition of the constitution.

It was where they agreed to make Crassus and Pompey consuls for the following year. Lucius Domitius is encouraged to put himself forward as a rival but Pompey’s thugs attack him one early morning as he is walking in the Campus Martius, killing a torchbearer and injuring others, including Cato who was with him.

(42) So Pompey and Crassus were voted consuls for 55 BC. But Cato didn’t give up his opposition and stood for praetor so he could oppose them from an official position. Plutarch describes the bribery and tricks Pompey used to prevent Cato’s election but he then gives a big address to the people expressing his fears about a tyranny and is followed home by a big crowd (as so often happens in these anecdotes).

(43) Caius Trebonius proposes a law assigning provinces to the consuls which Cato vehemently opposes, speaking against it at such length from the rostrum that he is dragged from it by his opponents, a fight breaks out, some people are killed (!). When another law is promulgated giving Caesar his command in Gaul, Cato makes a speech directly addressing Pompey saying he is unwittingly creating a burden which will crush him. But Pompey ignored him, trusting in his own power and fortune.

(44) Cato is elected praetor for 54 and tries to introduce a law eradicating bribery. This makes him unpopular with the mob who like being bribed, and he is pelted and jostled in the forum until he claws his way onto the rostrum and makes a principled speech which reduces the mob to silence. He institutes a bill whereby the candidates for election all give a deposit to Cato who then monitors the election and anybody caught cheating forfeits their deposit.

(45) His honesty shames the great men of the state who league against him. Clodius is back in Pompey’s orbit and regularly attacks him for corruption etc. Cato replies that he brought more treasure back from Cyprus by honest means than Pompey did from ravaging the East. Cato said Pompey had no right lending his legions to Caesar in Gaul without consulting the state as if they were his private possessions. And warns that he remains near Rome (i.e. didn’t take his governorship of Spain) in order to manage factions at elections as they were games.

(46) Cato ensures his friend Marcus Favonius is fairly elected aedile, the post which supervised games and entertainments, but Cato actually carries out a lot of the duties. People are amused by the way Cato rewards the players with humble gifts of food and fruit rather than elaborate gold and luxuries. He thought that to sport and entertainment, light and gladsome arrangements were appropriate.

(47) In 52 BC the street fighting of Clodius and Titus Annius Milo’s gangs and others became so extreme that elections to the magistracies were suspended. Opinion crystallised that Pompey needed to intervene with his army to restore order. When this was proposed in the senate to everyone’s surprise Cato supported it, with the simple argument that any government is better than no government at all.

(48) And so Pompey is appointed sole consul, floods the streets with soldiers, puts an end to political violence and safeguards the elections. A benign military dictatorship. He asks Cato to be his adviser. Cato, typically, says when he criticised him before it wasn’t out of personal malice and if he helps him now it won’t be to truckle favour, in both cases it is for the good of the state. He advises him against the retrospective prosecution of officials for winning their places by bribery, arguing that a) it will be difficult to know where to stop and b) it was unfair to punish people according to a law which didn’t exist when they acted.

Cato’s difficulty as a juror in trials where he couldn’t be suborned or bought and so was an unpredictable quality to both prosecution and defence.

(49) All this time Caesar is using the money and power he accumulates in Gaul to buy friends and influence in Rome. Finally it dawns on Pompey that he is becoming a threat. Cato decides to stand for the consulship to try and limit’s Caesar’s ambitions. Cato proposes a law that candidates must canvas in person, and not through middle men who distribute money and bribes, which alienates the populace who like money and bribes. Refusing to employ the common practices of a consul ingratiating himself with the people, he is not elected.

(50) Cicero upbraids Cato because, when the times required a man like him in power, he refused to change his principles and humble himself to stand for election, and so lost the opportunity to help the state. How much should a man compromise his principles in order to win power to enact his principles?

(51) It is reported in Rome that Caesar attacked Germans in Gaul during a truce, and massacred them. A great public celebration is called but Cato declares Caesar should be handed over to the Germans whose trust he breached. Caesar wrote a letter to be read out in the senate justifying his actions and execrating Cato at length. But this only gives Cato an opportunity to deliver a long, carefully evidenced indictment of Caesar’s behaviour and ambitions, so that the latter’s friends regret reading out the letter in the first place.

The senate consider it is well to find a replacement for Caesar but Caesar replies that he’ll only do that if Pompey lays down his arms. At which Cato points out that what he prophesied was coming to pass, that overmighty leaders with private armies were dictating to the senate rather than following the instructions of the government.

“Those things are come to pass which I foretold to you, and the man is at last resorting to open compulsion, using the forces which he got by deceiving and cheating the state.”

(52) Plutarch skips over the entire complex web of events which led to the escalating crisis between Caesar and Pompey, the ultimatums, the attempts at mediation, and skips suddenly to Caesar having crossed the Rubicon and occupied the town of Ariminum (January 49 BC). Cato says ‘I told you so’ and recommends that Pompey be supported in opposing Caesar. Pompey acknowledges that Cato was a prophet but fails to raise the armies he told everyone it would be so easy to raise and decides to flee Rome.

At this perilous moment Plutarch pauses to tell us about Cato’s private life, namely that he remarried the Marcia he had divorced and who subsequently married Hortensius, who had died, leaving her free again. Apparently Caesar made much of this in the virulent diatribe he wrote against Cato, claiming the latter in effect farmed his wife out to the wealthy Hortensius so that, when the latter died, he could remarry his wife and come into a fortune. Thus the Roman aristocracy, bickering among themselves.

(53) Cato opts to support Pompey and is sent as Pompeian governor to Sicily. But when he hears that Pompey has fled Italy for Greece he makes the droll remark that:

there was much inconsistency and obscurity in the divine government, since Pompey had been invincible while his course was neither sound nor just, but now, when he wished to save his country and was fighting in defence of liberty, he had been deserted by his good fortune.

As to being governor of Sicily, when a Caesarian force arrives under Asinius Pollio, Cato says he doesn’t want to lay waste the province with war and so sails to join Pompey in Greece. Here he made good policy suggestions, namely not to plunder a city that was subject to Rome, and not to put a Roman to death except on the field of battle. This brought to the party of Pompey a good repute, and induced many to join it.

(54) Cato is sent to Asia, whither he is accompanied by his sister, much reformed from her dissolute behaviour, and where he persuades Rhodes to declare for Pompey. At first Pompey is inclined to give Cato command of his huge fleet of some 500 ships, until it is pointed out to him that Pompey is not devoted to his cause but to Rome and that, the minute Caesar was defeated, Cato would be insisting that Pompey surrender his command, too. So he appoints Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus admiral.

But Cato proves an asset. When all the generals give speeches to the men before a big battle at Dyrrhachium, the soldiers listen lethargically, but when Cato addresses them and invokes all the ideas of patriotism and bravery and tells them the gods are watching he rouses them to a true fighting spirit and Pompey wins the battle.

(55) When Pompey marched his army into Thessaly, he left Cato in command of the supplies and men he left at Dyrrhachium, along with fifteen cohorts. After Pompey’s defeat at Pharsalus, Cato offered command of the fleet to Cicero, who refused, saying he wanted to return to Italy. But Pompey’s son, Gnaeus Pompey, was violently against anyone who deserted the cause, and might have killed Cicero had he left. Cato talked him into remaining and so probably saved his life (well, for the time being; nobody’s life is really saved, not forever).

(56) Guessing that Pompey had headed south Cato sailed to Africa with his fleet. In Libya he met Sextus Pompeius and learned of his father’s murder. Ashamed of abandoning men, Cato found himself taking command of the remaining Pompeian forces (reminding us how close, how very close, the military world was to all the Roman ‘statesman’ we read about. It was a totally militarised politics.)

He learns of other Pompeian forces under Juba the king and Attius Varus and resolves to join them. Cato shows all the signs of mourning (for Pompey) walks rather than rides a horse, only lies down to sleep, east sitting down.

(57) Cato tries to resolve the squabbles between the Roman commanders Scipio and Varus, and King Juba of the Numidians. He is punctilious about not taking command because he is only a pro-praetor whereas Scipio is a pro-consul.

(58) Scipio was going to give in to Juba’s request to have the city of Utica razed to the ground and it inhabitants slaughtered but Cato vehemently objected, got himself appointed governor of it to ensure its loyalty to the Pompeians. With his usual administrative flair he turns it into a storehouse for Pompeian forces in Africa. But his advice to Scipio, to play a waiting game and let Caesar tired himself in Africa, is ignored. Scipio mocks Cato locked up safe and secure in a walled city but when Cato offers to take his army to Italy to decoy Caesar back there, Scipio mocks this too. And Cato begins to realise Scipio is a rash and unreliable leader and would probably make himself tyrant, given half a chance.

All of which is grimly confirmed when messengers bring news of the Battle of Thapsus 6 April 46 in which Caesar demolished the much bigger army of Juba and Scipio and Varus.

(59) That night the population panics but Cato walks among them calming their fears. When day comes he assembles the 300 or so Roman citizens in the town, businessmen and moneylenders with the senators who had taken refuge there. (It is typical of the kind of insights you glean from these texts, that Plutarch calls these people Cat’s ‘senate’. Did this mean every town and city in a Roman province had its own ‘senate’ made up of the richest Roman inhabitants?)

Cato then makes a speech advising everyone to stay put and not flee, severally. And says it’s their free choice whether to switch to Caesar but he would admire and praise them more if they if they remained true to what he saw not as ‘Pompey’s side’ but the cause of Rome and its laws and traditions.

(60) Cato’s speech inspires the people to elect him their leader and use their goods and weapons and lives as he thinks fit. Someone suggests a law freeing all the slaves but Cato, with typically legalistic precision, says such a law would be illegal, but individual slave-owners can free them and all of military age will be accepted into the army. Both Juba (with the remnants of his army) and Scipio (with his fleet) send messages saying they await Cato’s decision what to do next.

(61) The senators manumitted their slaves but the leading 300 citizens were conflicted and Plutarch gives a paragraph of their thinking and reasoning why they want to hand themselves over to Caesar.

(62) Given these divisions Cato sends back to Juba and Scipio telling them not to come. But when a large number of allied cavalry arrive, Cato and the senators beg them to come inside the city and stay with them.

(63) The horsemen say they will but only if Cato drives out the ‘barbarian’ ‘fickle’ Phoenician people of Utica. Cato says he will consider it. When he returns inside the city the 300 have become bolder and complaining why they are being forced to oppose the undefeatable Caesar, and muttering more and more about the senators being responsible for their danger.

Then he hears that the cavalry force is riding away so grabs a horse and rides after them. They say come with us and be saved. Cato bursts into tears and begs them to come back to Utica if only for one day, to protect the senators.

(64) The cavalry take up positions inside Utica which is now really divided between the senators, who are with Cato, and the 300 businessmen, who want to surrender. Cato has decided to kill himself, since every future he can foresee is one of tyrants in which his beloved Rome is ruined. But he delays in his bid to reconcile the 300 and the senators. The 300 want to send messages to Caesar surrendering and offer prayers. Cato says by all means send messages but prayers are for the defeated and he is not defeated; he is triumphant in spirit, it is Caesar who has admitted his treacherous intent.

(65) As Caesar’s forces approach, Cato tries to keep order in the city, to ensure the senators’ safety, and to prevent the cavalry looting and killing. He tries to unite the people into accepting the treacherous 300, so they stand as one city. He helps those who want to flee embark from the harbour.

(66) Lucius Caesar offers to go as envoy to the great Julius and fall down at his feet to beg for Cato. But Cato says, No, this is his job. Instead they discuss how to save the 300. Then he gathers his son and family round him and takes a bath.

(67) He hosts a big dinner party after which literary and philosophical subjects are discussed, including the so-called ‘paradoxes of the Stoics’ which include the maxim that all good men are free and that the bad are all slaves. A peripatetic philosopher begins to object to this but Cato wades in and argues at length and fiercely for its truth. Only the good, like him, are truly free. The bad, like Caesar, despite all appearances to the contrary, are slaves. From his tone and words everyone realised he intended to kill himself.

(68) He walks with family and friends, embraces them all, and retired to his bedroom. Here he reads Plato on the soul but on glancing around discovers his sword is gone, His son removed it. He orders his slaves to find it, gets angry and hits them when they can’t, eventually his son arrives in floods of tears and Cato remonstrates with him for taking away his means of defence.

(69) He is left with just two friends and asks if they have been set there to talk him out of killing himself.

(70) These two friends burst into tears and leave. Then the sword is sent in, carried by a child. He sets it aside and rereads the Plato twice, then falls asleep. Then wakes up and sends an official, Butas, to check everyone who wanted has safely departed the harbour. His doctor he has bandage the hand he damaged punching his servant. Butas tells him most of those who wanted to depart have left but a strong wind and storm are blowing up.

When Butas has left Cato tries to kill himself but makes a weak blow with the sword and falls to the floor. His slaves and son rush in, weeping. The doctor tries to push his intestines which are spilling out of his abdomen back in, but when he realises what is going on, Cato pushes him away, tears at his own intestines and at the wound to make it bigger, and so dies. How disgusting. How undignified.

So, as with Pompey and Caesar and Cicero, Plutarch really lays on the domestic details in order to work his death scene up into one designed to spark strong emotion. Craftsmanlike, painterly.

(71) In an improbable show of unity which one suspects owes more to Plutarch’s partiality, he has the 300 and the townspeople all uniting in their love of Cato and declaring him the one free man. They dress his body richly, bury it near the sea and erect a statue which stands to this day.

(72) Soon after Caesar arrives at Utica, learns of Cato’s death and utters the famous words:

“”O Cato, I begrudge thee thy death; for thou didst begrudge me the sparing of thy life.”

But Cato didn’t want to live if it meant living at the whim of (people he thought) tyrants and of simultaneously having the sparing of his life turned into a great credit to Caesar’s reputation. No. He only really had one course of action.

(73) Coda about Cato’s son, who Caesar spared, as was his habit. Initially he became a figure of fun by having an affair with the wife of an eastern king, and Plutarch quotes some maxims or aphorisms made about him. But he ended well, dying fighting at Philippi against Caesar and Antony. His daughter married that Brutus who assassinated Caesar, was part of the conspiracy and died in the cause. And this expired the line of Cato.

Thoughts

Choosing sides

At various points in the reading you realise how difficult it is to know what to do in a society which is falling to bits. It wasn’t really a question of choosing sides because not until the final breakout of civil war were there two sides to pick from. Cato’s career demonstrates that the uttermost probity and honesty only take you so far. In the real world compromise has to be made on a host of occasions. A big example is when Cato surprised everyone by backing Pompey as sole consul in 52. Any government is better than anarchy.

But that, for me, raises the central issue. There are lots of interpretations, lots of scholarly reasons given, for the collapse of the republic, but in my opinion the fundamental one was the collapse of political discourse into street violence. Over the preceding generations it had become acceptable to physically attack your opponents and their supporters in the street. The problem was how to contain this violence, how to contain it within the realm of politics and stop it spreading over into the realm of violence.

Philosophy

Much is made of Cato’s devotion to philosophy, but it can be said of him as of so many other people who study the subject, that in the end they choose the school and philosophy which suits their temperament, which they were always going to choose. He was harsh and inflexible and sought to display little or no feeling, so he was drawn to stoicism which “teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions.”

Far from teaching ‘truth’, philosophy is like a huge breakfast buffet where you can tuck into whatever you fancy and mix and match at will, change your opinions, decide you fancy a fry-up instead of pastries. Or, to quote Bob Dylan, “People do what they want to and then think up reasons to justify their actions later.”


Related links

Roman reviews

The way things are by Lucretius translated by Rolfe Humphries (1969)

I try to learn about the way things are
And set my findings down in Latin verse.

(Book IV, lines 968 and 969)

This is a hugely enjoyable translation of Lucretius’s epic poem De rerum natura which literally translates as ‘On the nature of things’. Fluent, full of force and vigour, it captures not only the argumentative, didactic nature of the poem but dresses it in consistently fine phrasing. It has an attractive variety of tones, from the lofty and heroic to the accessible and demotic, sometimes sounding like Milton:

Time brings everything
Little by little to the shores of light
By grace of art and reason, till we see
All things illuminate each other’s rise
Up to the pinnacles of loftiness.

(Book V, final lines, 1,453 to 1,457)

Sometimes technocratic and scientific:

We had better have some principle
In our discussion of celestial ways,
Under what system both the sun and moon
Wheel in their courses, and what impulse moves
Events on earth.

(Book I lines 130 to 135)

Sometimes like the guy sitting next to you at the bar:

I keep you waiting with my promises;
We’d best be getting on.

(Book V, lines 95 and 96)

Sometimes slipping in slangy phrases for the hell of it:

What once was too-much-feared becomes in time
The what-we-love-to-stomp-on.

(Book V, lines 1,140 and 1,141)

Titus Lucretius Carus

Lucretius was a Roman poet and philosopher who lived from about 99 to about 55 BC. Not much is known about him. His only known work is the philosophical poem De rerum natura, a didactic epic poem of some 7,500 lines, written entirely to promote the abstract philosophy of Epicureanism. No heroes, no gods, no battles, no epic speeches. Just 7,500 lines comprehensively describing Epicurus’s atomic materialism and his ‘scientific’, rationalist worldview.

The title is usually translated into English as On the Nature of Things. It is a mark of Rolfe Humphries’ attractive contrariness that he drops the almost universally used English title in favour of the slightly more confrontational and all-encompassing The ways things are. He himself in his preface describes this title as ‘simple, forthright, insistent, peremptory’. Peremptory. Nice word. Like so much else in his translation, it feels instantly right.

The various modern translations

In the past few months I’ve had bad experiences with both Oxford University Press and Penguin translations of Latin classics. I thought the Penguin translation of Sallust by A.J. Woodman was clotted, eccentric and misleading. But I also disliked the OUP translation of Caesar’s Gallic Wars by Carolyn Hammond, which I bought brand new but disliked her way with English in just the introduction before I’d even begun the text, so that I ended up abandoning her for the more fluent 1951 Penguin translation by S.A Handford (which also features a useful introduction by Jane Gardner, who comes over as intelligent and witty in a way Hammond simply isn’t).

Shopping around for an English translation of Lucretius, I was not impressed by the snippets of either the Penguin or OUP translations which are available on Amazon. It was only when I went further down the list and read the paragraph or so of Rolfe Humphries’ translation which is quoted in the sales blurb that I was immediately gripped and persuaded to cough up a tenner to buy it on the spot.

I knew an OUP edition would be festooned with notes, many of which would be insultingly obvious (Rome is the capital city of Italy, Julius Caesar was the great Roman general who blah blah blah). Humphries’ edition certainly has notes but only 18 pages of them tucked right at the very back of the text (there’s no list of names or index). And there’s no indication of them in the actual body text, no asterisks or superscript numbers to distract the reader, to make you continually stop and turn to the end notes section.

Instead the minimal annotation is part of Humphries’ strategy to hit you right between the eyes straightaway with the power and soaring eloquence of this epic poem, to present it as one continuous and overwhelming reading experience, without footling distractions and interruptions. Good call, very good call.

[Most epics are about heroes, myths and legends, from Homer and Virgil through Beowulf and Paradise Lost. Insofar as it is about the nature of the universe i.e. sees things on a vast scale, The way things are is comparable in scope and rhetoric with Paradise Lost and frequently reaches for a similar lofty tone, but unlike all those other epic poems it doesn’t have heroes and villains, gods and demons, in fact it has no human protagonists at all. In his introduction, Burton Feldman suggests the only protagonist is intelligence, the mind of man in quest of reality, seeking a detached lucid contemplation of the ways things are. On reflection I think that’s wrong. This description is more appropriate for Wordsworth’s epic poem on the growth and development of the poet’s mind, The Prelude. There’s a stronger case for arguing that the ‘hero’ of the poem is Epicurus, subject of no fewer than three sutained passages of inflated praise. But ultimately surely the protagonist of The way things are is the universe itself, or Lucretius’s materialistic conception of it. The ‘hero’ is the extraordinary world around us which he seeks to explain in solely rationalist, materialist way.]

Epicurus’s message of reassurance

It was a grind reading Cicero’s On the nature of the gods but one thing came over very clearly (mainly from the long, excellent introduction by J.M. Ross). That Epicurus’s philosophy was designed to allay anxiety and fear.

Epicurus identified two causes of stress and anxiety in human beings: fear of death and fear of the gods (meaning their irrational, unpredictable interventions in human lives so). So Epicurus devised a system of belief based on ‘atomic materialism’, on a view of the universe as consisting of an infinite number of atoms continually combining in orderly and predictable ways according to immutable laws, designed to banish those fears and anxieties forever.

If men could see this clearly, follow it
With proper reasoning, their minds would be
Free of great agony and fear

(Book III, lines 907-909)

Irrelevant though a 2,000 year old pseudo-scientific theory may initially sound, it has massive consequences and most of the poem is devoted to explaining Epicurus’s materialistic atomism (or atomistic materialism) and its implications.

Epicurus’s atomic theory

The central premise of Epicureanism is its atomic theory, which consists of two parts:

  1. Nothing comes of nothing.
  2. Nothing can be reduced to nothing.

The basic building blocks of nature are constant in quantity, uncreated and indestructible, for all intents and purposes, eternal. Therefore, everything in nature is generated from these elementary building blocks through natural processes, is generated, grows, thrives, decays, dies and decomposes into its constituent elements. But the sum total of matter in the universe remains fixed and unalterable.

Once we have seen that Nothing comes of nothing,
We shall perceive with greater clarity
What we are looking for, whence each thing comes,
How things are caused, and no ‘gods’ will’ about it!

It may sound trivial or peripheral, but what follows from this premise is that nature is filled from top to bottom with order and predictability. There cannot be wonders, freak incidents, arbitrary acts of god and so on. The unpredictable intervention of gods is abolished and replaced by a vision of a calm, ordered world acting according to natural laws and so – There is no need for stress and anxiety.

Because if no new matter can be created, if the universe is made of atoms combining into larger entities based on fixed and predictable laws, then two things follow.

Number One, There are no gods and they certainly do not suddenly interfere with human activities. In other words, nobody should be afraid of the wrath or revenge of the gods because in Epicurus’s mechanistic universe such a thing is nonsensical.

Holding this knowledge, you can’t help but see
That nature has no tyrants over her,
But always acts of her own will; she has
No part of any godhead whatsoever.

(Book II, lines 1,192 to 1,195)

And the second consequence is a purely mechanistic explanation of death. When we, or any living thing, dies, its body decomposes back into its constituent atoms. There is no state of death, there is no soul or spirit, and so there is no afterlife in which humans will be punished or rewarded. We will not experience death, because all the functioning of our bodies, including perception and thought, will all be over, with no spirit or soul lingering on.

Therefore: no need for ‘the silly, vain, ridiculous fear of gods’ (III, 982), no need to fear death, no need to fear punishment in some afterlife. Instead, we must live by the light of the mind and rational knowledge.

Our terrors and our darknesses of mind
Must be dispelled, not by the sunshine’s rays,
Not by those shining arrows of the light,
But by insight into nature, and a scheme
Of systematic contemplation.

(Book I, lines 146 to 150)

Interestingly Lucretius likes this phrase so much that he repeats it verbatim at Book II, lines 57 to 61, at Book III, lines 118 to 112, and Book VI, lines 42 to 45. Like all good teachers he knows the essence of education is repetition.

Epicurus the god

The radicalness of this anti-religious materialist philosophy explains why, early in Book I, Lucretius praises Epicurus extravagantly. He lauds him as the man whose imagination ranged the lengths of the universe, penetrated into the secrets of its origin and nature, and returned to free the human race from bondage. One man alone, Epicurus, set us free by enquiring more deeply into the nature of things than any man before him and so springing ‘the tight-barred gates of Nature’s hold asunder’.

Epicureanism is as much as ‘religious’ experience as a rational philosophy and Lucretius’s references to Epicurus in the poem could almost be hymns to Christ from a Christian epic. They are full of more than awe, of reverence and almost worship. (Book I 66ff, Book II, Book III 1042, opening of Book V).

He was a god, a god indeed, who first
Found a new life-scheme, a system, a design
Now known as Wisdom or Philosophy…

He seems to us, by absolute right, a god
From whom, distributed through all the world,
Come those dear consolations of the mind,
That precious balm of spirit.

(Book V, lines 11 to 13 and 25 to 28)

Lucretius’s idolisation of Epicurus just about stops short of actual worship because Religion is the enemy. Organised religion is what keeps people in fear of the gods and makes their lives a misery. Epicurus’s aim was to liberate mankind from the oppression and wickedness into which Religious belief, superstition and fanatacism all too often lead it.

Religion the enemy of freedom

Lucretius loathes and detests organised Religion. It oppresses everyone, imposing ludicrous fictions and superstitions about divine intervention and divine punishment. Nonsense designed to oppress and quell the population.

I teach great things.
I try to loose men’s spirits from the ties,
Tight knotted, which religion binds around them.

(Book I, lines 930 to 932)

As a vivid example of the way Religion always stands with evil he gives the story of Agamemnon being told by soothsayers to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigeneia, to appease the gods, to calm the seas, so that the fleet of 1,000 Greek ships can sail from Greece to Troy. Could you conceive a worse example of the wicked behaviour religious belief can lead people into.

Too many times
Religion mothers crime and wickedness…
A mighty counsellor, Religion stood
With all that power for wickedness.

(Book I, lines 83 to 84 and 99 to 100)

Epicureanism and Stoicism in their social context

I need your full attention. Listen well!

(Book VI, line 916)

The notes to the book were written by Professor George Strodach. Like the notes in H.H. Scullard’s classic history of Republican Rome, Strodach’s notes are not the frequent little factoids you so often find in Penguin or OUP editions (Democritus was born in Thrace around 460 BC etc), but fewer in number and longer, amounting to interesting essays in their own right.

Among several really interesting points, he tells us that after Alexander the Great conquered the Greek city states in the late 4th century (320s BC) many of those city states decayed in power and influence and their citizens felt deprived of the civic framework which previously gave their lives meaning. To fill this void there arose two competing ‘salvation ideologies, Stoicism and Epicureanism. Each offered their devotees a meaningful way of life plus a rational and fully worked out account of the world as a whole. In both cases the worldview is the groundwork for ‘the therapy of dislocated and unhappy souls’. In each, the sick soul of the initiate must first of all learn the nature of reality before it can take steps towards leading the good life.

Lucretius’ long poem is by way of leading the novice step by step deeper into a worldview which, once adopted, is designed to help him or her conquer anxiety and achieve peace of mind by abandoning the chains of superstitious religious belief and coming to a full and complete understanding of the scientific, materialistic view of the way things are.

There’s no good life
No blessedness, without a mind made clear,
A spirit purged of error.

(Book V, lines 23 to 25)

Very didactic

Hence the poem’s extreme didacticism. It is not so much a long lecture (thought it often sounds like it) as a prolonged initiation into the worldview of the cult of Epicurus, addressed to one person, Lucretius’s sponsor Gaius Memmius, but designed to be used by anyone who can read.

Pay attention!…
Just remember this…

(Book II, lines 66 and 90)

Hence the didactic lecturing tone throughout, which tells the reader to listen up, pay attention, focus, remember what he said earlier, lays out a lesson plan, and then proceeds systematically from point to point.

I shall begin
With a discussion of the scheme of things
As it regards the heaven and powers above,
Then I shall state the origin of things,
The seeds from which nature creates all things,
Bids them increase and multiply; in turn,
How she resolves them to their elements
After their course is run.

(Book I, lines 54 to 57)

The poem is littered with reminders that it is one long argument, that Lucretius is making a case. He repeatedly tells Memmius to pay attention, to follow the thread of his argument, not to get distracted by common fears or misapprehensions, and takes time to rubbish the theories of rivals.

Now pay heed! I have more to say…

(Book III, line 136)

The poem amounts to a very long lecture.

If you know this,
It only takes a very little trouble
To learn the rest: the lessons, one by one,
Brighten each other, no dark night will keep you,
Pathless, astray, from ultimate vision and light,
All things illumined in each other’s radiance.

And it’s quite funny, the (fairly regular) moments when he insists that he’s told us the same thing over and over again, like a schoolteacher starting to be irritated by his pupils’ obtuseness:

  • I have said this many, many times already
  • I am almost tired of saying (III, 692)
  • as I have told you all too many times (IV, 673)
  • Be attentive now. (IV, 878)
  • I have said this over and over, many times. (IV, 1,210)
  • This I’ve said before (VI, 175)
  • Don’t be impatient. Listen! (VI, 244)
  • Remember/Never forget this! (VI, 653 to 654)
  • As I have said before… (VI, 770)
  • Once again/I hammer home this axiom… (VI, 938)

The good life

Contrary to popular belief the Epicureans did not promote a hedonistic life of pleasure. Their aim was negative: the good life is one which is, as far as possible, free from bodily pains and mental anxiety. They deprecated the competitive and acquisitive values so prevalent in first century BC Roman society:

The strife of wits, the wars for precedence,
The everlasting struggle, night and day
To win towards heights of wealth and power.

(Book II, lines 13 to 15)

What vanity!
To struggle towards the top, toward honour’s height
They made the way a foul and deadly road,
And when they reached the summit, down they came
Like thunderbolts, for Envy strikes men down
Like thunderbolts, into most loathsome Hell…
…let others sweat themselves
Into exhaustion, jamming that defile
They call ambition…

(Book V, lines 1,124 to 1,130 and 1,134 to 1,136)

Instead the Epicureans promoted withdrawal from all that and the spousal of extreme simplicity of living.

Whereas, if man would regulate his life
With proper wisdom, he would know that wealth,
The greatest wealth, is living modestly,
Serene, content with little.

(Book V, lines 1,117 to 1,120)

This much I think I can, and do, assert:
That our perverse vestigial native ways
Are small enough for reason to dispel
So that it lies within our power to live
Lives worthy of the gods.

This kind of life is challenging to achieve by yourself which is why the Epicureans were noted for setting up small communities of shared values. (See what I mean by the disarmingly open but powerful eloquence of Humphries’ style.)

If man would regulate his life
With proper wisdom, he would know that wealth,
The greatest wealth, is living modestly,
Serene, content with little.

(Book V, 1,118 to 1,121)

Shortcomings of Latin

Lucretius repeatedly points out that it is difficult to write about philosophy in Latin because it doesn’t have the words, the terminology or the traditions which have developed them, unlike the Greeks.

I know
New terms must be invented, since our tongue
Is poor and this material is new.

The poverty of our speech, our native tongue,
Makes it hard for me to say exactly how
These basic elements mingle…

(Book III, lines 293-295)

Interesting because this is the exact same point Cicero makes in the De rerum deorum. Cicero, in his books and letters made clear that his philosophical works as a whole have the aim of importing the best Greek thinking into Latin and, as part of the process, creating new Latin words or adapting old ones to translate the sophisticated philosophical terminology which the Greeks had spent centuries developing.

The really miraculous thing is that Humphries captures all this, or has written an English poem which is actually worth reading as poetry. ‘I

for your sake, Memmius,
Have wanted to explain the way things are
Turning the taste of honey into sound
As musical, as golden, so that I
May hold your mind with poetry, while you
Are learning all about that form, that pattern,
And see its usefulness.

(Book IV, lines 19 to 25)

Synopis

Book 1 (1,117 lines)

– Introduction

– hymn to Venus, metaphorical symbol of the creative urge in all life forms

– address to the poet’s patron, Memmius

– the two basic postulates of atomism, namely: nothing comes of nothing and the basic building blocks of the universe, atoms, cannot be destroyed

– the importance of void or space between atoms which allows movement

– everything else, all human history, even time itself, are by-products or accidents of the basic interplay of atoms and void

– on the characteristics of atoms

– a refutation of rival theories, of Heraclitus (all things are made of fire), Empedocles (set no limit to the smallness of things), the Stoics (who believe everything is made up of mixtures of the 4 elements) and Anaxagoras (who believed everything was made up of miniature versions of itself) – all comprehensively rubbished

– the infinity of matter and space

Book 2 (1,174 lines)

– the good life is living free from care, fear or anxiety

– varieties of atomic motion namely endless falling through infinite space; atoms travel faster than light

– the atomic swerve and its consequences i.e. it is a slight swerve in the endless downward fall of atoms through infinite space which begins the process of clustering and accumulation which leads to matter which leads, eventually, to the universe we see around us

– how free will is the result of a similar kind of ‘swerve’ in our mechanistic lives

– the conservation of energy

– the variety of atomic shapes and the effects of these on sensation

– atoms themselves have no secondary qualities such as colour, temperature and so on

– there is an infinite number of worlds, all formed purely mechanically i.e. no divine intervention required

– there are gods, as there are men, but they are serenely indifferent to us and our lives: in Epicurus’s worldview, the so-called gods are really just moral exemplars of lives lived with complete detachment, calm and peace (what the Greeks called ataraxia)

to think that gods
Have organised all things for the sake of men
Is nothing but a lot of foolishness. (II, 14-176)

– all things decay and our times are degraded since the golden age (‘The past was better, infinitely so’)

That all things, little by little, waste away
As time’s erosion crumbles them to doom.

Book III (1,094 lines)

– Epicurus as therapist of the soul – this passage, along with other hymns of praise to the great man scattered through the poem, make it clear that Epicurus was more than a philosopher but the founder of a cult whose devotees exalted him

– the fear of hell as the root cause of all human vices

– the material nature of mind and soul – their interaction and relation to the body – spirit is made of atoms like everything else, but much smaller than ‘body atoms’, and rarer, and finely intricated

– rebuttal of Democritus’s theory of how atoms of body and spirit interact (he thought they formed a chains of alternating body and spirit atoms)

– descriptions of bodily ailments (such as epilepsy) and mental ailments( such as fear or depression) as both showing the intimate link between body and spirit

– an extended passage arguing why the spirit or soul is intimately linked with the body so that when one dies, the other dies with it

– the soul is not immortal – therefore there is no ‘transmigration of souls’; a soul which was in someone else for their lifetime does not leave their body upon their death and enter that of the nearest newly-conceived foetus – he ridicules this belief by envisioning the souls waiting in a queue hovering around an egg about to be impregnated by a sperm and all vying to be the soul that enters the new life

– the soul is not immortal – being made of atoms it disintegrates like the body from the moment of death (in lines 417 to 820 Lucretius states no fewer than 26 proofs of the mortality of the soul: Strodach groups them into 1. proofs from the material make-up of the soul; proofs from diseases and their cures; 3. proofs from the parallelism of body and soul; 4. proofs from the various logical absurdities inherent in believing the soul could exist independently of the body)

– therefore, Death is nothing to us

– vivid descriptions of types of people and social situations (at funerals, at banquets) at which people’s wrong understanding of the way things are makes them miserable

Book IV (1,287 lines)

– the poet’s task is to teach

Because I teach great things, because I strive
To free the spirit, give the mind release
From the constrictions of religious fear…

(Book IV, lines 8 to 10)

– atomic images or films: these are like an invisible skin or film shed from the surfaces of all objects, very fine, passing through the air, through glass – this is his explanation of how sight and smell work, our senses detect these microscopic films of things which are passing through the air all around us

– all our sensations are caused by these atomic images

all knowledge is based on the senses; rejecting the evidence of the senses in favour of ideas and theories leads to nonsense, ‘a road to ruin’. Strodach calls this ‘extreme empiricism’ and contrast it with the two other ancient philosophies, Platonism which rejected the fragile knowledge of the senses and erected knowledge on the basis of maths and logic; and Scepticism, which said both mind and body can be wrong, so we have to go on probabilities and experience

– his explanations of sight, hearing and taste are colourful, imaginative, full of interesting examples, and completely wrong

– how we think, based on the theory of ‘images’ derived by the impression of atomic ‘skins’ through our senses; it seems wildly wrong, giving the impression that ‘thought’ is the almost accidental combination of these atomistic images in among the finer textured atoms of the mind

– a review of related topics of human experience, including movement, sleep and dreams, the latter produced when fragments of atomistic images are assembled by the perceiving mind when it is asleep, passive and undirected

– an extended passage ridiculing romantic love which moves on to theory about sex and reproduction, namely that the next generation are a mix of material from each parent, with a load of old wives’ tales about which position to adopt to get pregnant, and the sex or characteristics of offspring derive from the vigour and other characteristics of the parents. Lucretius tries to give a scientific explanation of the many aspects of sex and reproduction which, since he lacked all science, come over as folk myths. But he is a card carrying Epicurean and believes the whole point of life is to avoid anxiety, stress and discombobulation and so, logically enough, despises and ridicules sex and love.

Book V (1,457 lines)

– Epicurus as revealer of philosophical wisdom and healer

– the world is mortal, its origin is mechanical not divine

– astronomical questions

– the origin of vegetable, animal and human life

– an extended passage describing the rise of man from lying under bushes in a state of nature through the creation of tribes, then cities – the origin of civilisation, including the invention of kings and hierarchies, the discovery of fire, how to use metals and weave clothes, the invention of language and law and, alas, the development of Religion to awe and terrify ourselves with

This book is the longest and also the weakest, in that Lucretius reveals his woeful ignorance about a whole raft of scientific issues. He thinks the earth is at the centre of the universe and the moon, sun, planets and stars all circle round it. He thinks the earth is a flat surface and the moon and the sun disappear underneath it. He thinks the sun, moon and stars are moved by the wind. He thinks all animals and other life forms were given birth by the earth, and that maggots and worms are generated from soil. In her early days the earth gave birth to all kinds of life forms but this no longer happens because she is tired out. Lucretius is anti-evolutionary in the way he thinks animals and plants and man came into being with abilities fully formed (the eye, nose, hand) and only then found uses for them, rather than the modern view that even slight, rudimentary fingers, hands, sense of smell, taste, sight, would convey evolutionary advantage on their possessors which tend to encourage their development over successive generations.

I appreciate that Lucretius was trying his best to give an objective, rational and unsupernatural account of all aspects of reality. I understand that although his account of the origins of lightning and thunder may be wildly incorrect (clouds contain particles of fire) his aim was worthy and forward looking – to substitute a rational materialistic account for the absurdly anthropocentric, superstitious, god-fearing superstitions of his day, by which people thought lightning and thunder betokened the anger of the gods. He had very good intentions.

But these good intentions don’t stop the majority of his account from being ignorant tripe. Well intention and asking the right questions (what causes rain, what causes thunder, what is lightning, what is magnetism) and trying hard to devise rational answers to them. But wrong about almost everything.

Reading it makes you realise what enormous events the invention of the telescope and the microscope were, both around 1600, Galileo’s proof that the earth orbits round the sun a decade later, the discovery of the circulation of the blood in the 1620s, Newton’s theory of gravity in the 1680s, the discovery of electricity around 1800, the theory of evolution in the 1850s, the germ theory of the 1880s and, well, all of modern science.

Reading Lucretius, like reading all the ancients and medieval authors, is to engage with intelligent, learned, observant and sensitive people who knew absolutely nothing about how the world works, what causes natural phenomena, how living organisms came about and evolved, next to nothing about astronomy, geography, geology, biology, physics, chemistry or any of the natural sciences. Their appeal is their eloquence, the beauty of their language and the beguilingness of their fairy tales.

And of course, the scientific worldview is always provisional. It may turn out that everything we believe is wrong and about to be turned upside down by new discoveries and paradigm shifts., It’s happened before.

Book VI (1,286 lines)

– another hymn to Epicurus and his godlike wisdom

…he cleansed
Our hearts by words of truth; he put an end
To greed and fears; he showed the highest good
Toward which we all are aiming, showed the way…

(Book VI, lines 22 to 25)

– meteorology: thunder, lightning because the clouds contain gold and seeds of fire, waterspouts

– geological phenomena: earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, clouds, rain, why the sea never overflows considering all the rivers running into it, the inundation of the Nile

– why noxious things oppress humanity; pigs hate perfume but love mud!

– four pages about magnetism, noticing and describing many aspects of it but completely wrong about what it is and how it works

– disease, plague and pestilence, which he thinks derive from motes and mist which is in the right ballpark

The odd thing about the entire poem is that it leads up, not to an inspiring vision of the Good Life lived free of anxiety in some ideal Epicurean community, but to a sustained and harrowing description of the great plague which devastated Athens during the second year of the Peloponnesian War (430 BC). For four pages the poet lays on detail after detail of the great plague, the symptoms, the horrible suffering and death, its spread, social breakdown, streets full of rotting corpses. And then – it just ends. Stops. Not quite in mid-sentence, but certainly in mid-flow.

The abruptness of this unexpected ending has led many commentators to speculate that Lucretius intended to write a seventh book, which would have been devoted to religion, theology, ethics and led up to the hymn to the Good Life everyone was expecting. I agree. Throughout the poem he is chatty, badgering the reader, telling us he’s embarking on a new subject, repeating things he’s said before, haranguing and nagging us. For the text to just end in the middle of describing men fighting over whose family members will be burned on funeral pyres is macabre and weird. Here are the very last lines:

Everyone in grief
Buried his own whatever way he could
Amid the general panic. Sudden need
And poverty persuaded men to use
Horrible makeshifts; howling, they would place
Their dead on pyres prepared for other men’
Apply the torches, maim and bleed and brawl
To keep the corpses from abandonment.

(Book VI, lines 1,279 to 1,286)

It must be unfinished.

Thoughts

1. The philosophy

I’m very attracted by Epicurus’s thought, as propounded here and in Cicero’s De natura deorum. After a long and sometimes troubled life I very much want to achieve a state of ataraxia i.e. freedom from mental disturbances. However, there seems to me a very big flaw at the heart of Epicureanism. One of the two cardinal fears addressed is fear of the gods, in the sense of fear of their arbitrary intervention in our lives unless we endlessly propitiate these angry entities with sacrifices and processions and whatnot. This fear of punishment and retribution is said to be one of the principle sources of anxiety in people.

Except that this isn’t really true. I live in a society, England, which in 2022 is predominantly godless. Real believers in actual gods are in a distinct minority. And yet mental illnesses, including depression and ‘generalised anxiety disorder’, are more prevalent than ever before, afflicting up to a quarter of the population annually.

It felt to me throughout the poem that accusing religious belief in gods as the principle or sole cause of anxiety and unhappiness is so wide of the mark as to make it useless. Even in a godless world, all humans are still susceptible to utterly random accidents, to a whole range of unfortunate blows, from being diagnosed with cancer to getting hit by a bus, losing your job, losing your house, losing your partner. We are vulnerable to thousands of incidents and accidents which could affect us very adversely and it is not at all irrational to be aware of them, and it is very hard indeed not to worry about them, particularly if you actually do lose your job, your house, your partner, your children, your parents etc.

The idea that human beings waste a lot of time in fear and anxiety and stress and worry is spot on. So the notion that removing this fear and anxiety and stress and worry would be a good thing is laudable. And Epicurus’s argument against the fear of death (death is the end of mind and body both; therefore it is pointless worrying about it because you won’t feel it; it is less than nothing) is still relevant, powerful and potentially helpful.

But the idea that you can alleviate anxiety do that by disproving the existence of ‘gods’ is, alas, completely irrelevant to the real causes of the problem, which have endured long after any ‘fear of the gods’ has evaporated and so is of no practical help at all. All Epicurus and Lucretius’s arguments in this area, fluent and enjoyable though they are, are of purely academic or historical interest. Sadly.

2. The poem

Cicero’s De rerum natura was a hard read because of the unrelentingness of the arguments, many of which seemed really stupid or petty. The way things are, on the contrary, is an amazingly enjoyable read because of the rhythm and pacing and phrasing of the poem.

Lucretius is just as argumentative as Cicero i.e. the poem is packed with arguments following pell mell one after the other (‘Moreover…one more point…furthermore…In addition…’) but this alternates with, or is embedded in, descriptions of human nature, of the world and people around us, and of the make-up of the universe, which are both attractive and interesting in themselves, and also provide a sense of rhythm, changes of subject and pace, to the poem.

Amazingly, although the subject matter is pretty mono-minded and Lucretius is banging on and on about essentially the same thing, the poem itself manages never to be monotonous. I kept reading and rereading entire pages just for the pleasure of the words and phrasing. This is one of the, if not the, most enjoyable classical text I’ve read. And a huge part of that is, I think, down to Humphries’s adeptness as a poet.

Comparison with the Penguin edition

As it happened, just after I finished reading the Humphries translation I came across the 2007 Penguin edition of the poem in a local charity shop and snapped it up for £2. It’s titled The Nature of Things and contains a translation by A.E. Stallings with an introduction and notes by Richard Jenkyns.

Textual apparatus

As you’d expect from Penguin, it’s a much more traditional layout, including not only the translation but an introduction, further reading, an explanation of the style and metre of the translation, 22 pages of factual notes at the end (exactly the kind of fussy, mostly distracting notes the Humphries edition avoids), and a glossary of names.

In addition it has two useful features: the text includes line numberings, given next to every tenth line. It’s a feature of the Humphries version that it’s kept as plain and stripped down as possible with no indication of lines except at the top of the page, so if you want to know which line you’re looking at you have to manually count from the top line downwards. Trivial but irritating.

The other handy thing about the Penguin edition is it gives each of the books a title, absent in the original and Humphries. Again, no biggy, but useful.

  • Book I – Matter and Void
  • Book II – The Dance of Atoms
  • Book III – Mortality and the Soul
  • Book IV – The Senses
  • Book V – Cosmos and Civilisation
  • Book VI – Weather and the Earth

New things I learned from Richard Jenkyns’ introduction were:

Epicurus’s own writings are austere and he was said to disapprove of poetry. Lucretius’s achievement, and what makes his poem so great, was the tremendous depth of lyric feeling he brought to the, potentially very dry, subject matter. He doesn’t just report Epicurus’s philosophy, he infuses it with passion, conviction and new levels of meaning.

This, for Jenkyns, explains a paradox which has bugged scholars, namely why a poem expounding a philosophy which is fiercely anti-religion, opens with a big Hymn to Venus. It’s because Venus is a metaphor for the underlying unity of everything which is implicit in Epicurus’s teaching that there is no spirit, no soul, nothing but atoms in various combinations and this means we are all united in the bounty of nature.

The opponents of Epicureanism commonly treated it as a dull, drab creed; Lucretius’ assertion is that, rightly apprehended, it is beautiful, majestic and inspiring. (p.xviii)

Lucretius’s was very influential on the leading poet of the next generation, Virgil, who assimilated his soaring tone.

The passages praising Epicurus are strategically place throughout the poem, much as invocations of the muses open key books in the traditional classical epic.

Jenkyns points out that Lucretius’s tone varies quite a bit, notable for much soaring rhetoric but also including invective and diatribe, knockabout abuse of rival philosophers, sometimes robustly humorous, sometimes sweetly domestic, sometimes focusing on random observations about everyday life, then soaring into speculation about the stars and the planets. But everything is driven by and reverts to, a tone of impassioned communication. He has seen the light and he is desperate to share it with everyone. It is an evangelical poem.

Stalling’s translation

Quite separate from Jenkyns’s introduction, Stalling gives a 5-page explanation of the thinking behind her translation. The obvious and overwhelming differences are that her version rhymes, and is in very long lines which she calls fourteeners. To be precise she decided to translate Lucretius’s Latin dactylic hexameters into English rhyming heptameters, where heptameter means a line having seven ‘feet’ or beats. What does that mean in practice? Well, count the number of beats in each of these lines. The first line is tricky so I’ve bolded the syllables I think need emphasising:

Life-stirring Venus, Mother of Aeneas and of Rome,
Pleasure of men and gods, you make all things beneath the dome
Of sliding constellations teem, you throng the fruited earth
And the ship-freighted sea – for every species comes to birth
Conceived through you, and rises forth and gazes on the light.
The winds flee from you, Goddess, your arrival puts to flight
The clouds of heaven. For you, the crafty earth contrives sweet flowers,
For you, the oceans laugh, the sky grows peaceful after showers…

(Book I, lines 1 to 8)

Stalling concedes that the standard form for translating foreign poetry is probably loose unrhymed pentameters, with five beats per line – exactly the metre Humphries uses:

Creatress, mother of the Roman line,
Dear Venus, joy of earth and joy of heaven,
All things that live below that heraldry
Of star and planet, whose processional
Moves ever slow and solemn over us,
All things conceived, all things that face the light
In their bright visit, the grain-bearing fields,
The marinered ocean, where the wind and cloud
Are quiet in your presence – all proclaim
Your gift, without which they are nothingness.

Clearly Humphries’ unrhymed pentameters have a much more light and airy feel. They also allow for snazzy phrasing – I like ‘marinered ocean’, a bit contrived, but still stylish. Or take Humphries’ opening of Book III:

O glory of the Greeks, the first to raise
The shining light out of tremendous dark
Illumining the blessings of our life
You are the one I follow. In your steps
I tread, not as a rival, but for love
Of your example. Does the swallow vie
With swans? Do wobbly-legged little goats
Compete in strength and speed with thoroughbreds?

Now Stalling:

You, who first amidst such thick gloom could raise up so bright
A lantern, bringing everything that’s good in life to light,
You I follow, Glory of the Greeks, and place my feet,
Within your footsteps. Not because I would compete
With you, but for the sake of love, because I long to follow
And long to emulate you. After all, why would a swallow
Strive with swans? How can a kid with legs that wobble catch
Up with the gallop of a horse? – the race would be no match.

Stalling makes the point that the heptameter has, since the early Renaissance, been associated with ballads and with narrative and so is suited to a long didactic poem. Arthur Golding used it in his 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and George Chapman in his 1611 translation of the Iliad. Stalling hopes the ‘old fashioned rhythm and ring’ of her fourteeners will, implicitly, convey ‘something of the archaic flavour of Lucretius’s Latin’ (p.xxvi).

OK, let’s look at the little passage which I noticed crops up no fewer than four times in the poem. Here’s Stalling’s version:

This dread, these shadows of the mind, must thus be swept away
Not by rays of the sun or by the brilliant beams of day,
But by observing Nature and her laws. And this will lay
The warp out for us – her first principle: that nothing’s brought
Forth by any supernatural power out of naught
.

(Book I, lines 146 to 153)

That use of ‘naught’ transports us back to the 1850s and Tennyson. It is consciously backward looking, in sound and meaning and connotation. I can see why: she’s following through on her stated aim of conveying the original archaism of the poem. But, on the whole, I just don’t like the effect. I prefer Humphries’ more modern-sounding diction.

Also, despite having much longer lines to play with, something about the rhythm and the requirement to rhyme each line paradoxically end up cramping Stalling’s ability to express things clearly and simply. Compare Humphries’ version of these same lines:

Our terrors and our darknesses of mind
Must be dispelled, not by the sunshine’s rays,
Not by those shining arrows of the light,
But by insight into nature, and a scheme
Of systematic contemplation. So
Our starting point shall be this principle:
Nothing at all is ever born from nothing
By the gods’ will
.

‘Insight into nature’ and ‘systematic contemplation’ are so much more emphatic and precise than ‘by observing Nature and her laws’ which is bland, clichéd and flabby.

Humphries’ ‘Our starting point shall be this principle’ is a little stagey and rhetorical but has the advantage of being crystal clear. Whereas Stalling’s ‘And this will lay/The warp out for us – her first principle…’ is cramped and confusing. Distracted by the odd word ‘warp’, trying to visualise what it means in this context, means I miss the impact of this key element of Lucretius’s message.

In her translator’s note Stalling refers to earlier translations and has this to say about Humphries:

Rolfe Humphries’ brisk, blank verse translation The way things are (1969) often spurred me to greater vigour and concision. (p.xxviii)

Precisely. I think the Stalling is very capable, and it should be emphasised that the fourteeners really do bed down when you take them over the long haul. If you read just a few lines of this style it seems silly and old fashioned, but if you read a full page it makes sense and after several pages you really get into the swing. It is a good meter for rattling through an extended narrative.

But still. I’m glad I read the poem in the Humphries’ version. To use Stalling’s own phrase, it has ‘greater vigour and concision’. Humphries much more vividly conveys Lucretius’s urgency of tone, his compulsion to share the good news with us and set us free:

…all terrors of the mind
Vanish, are gone; the barriers of the world
Dissolve before me, and I see things happen
All through the void of empty space. I see
The gods majestic, and their calm abodes
Winds do not shake, nor clouds befoul nor snow
Violate with the knives of sleet and cold;
But there the sky is purest blue, the air
Is almost laughter in that radiance,
And nature satisfies their every need,
And nothing, nothing mars their peace of mind.

(Book III, lines 15 to 25)

I’m with him, I’m seeing the vision of the passionless gods with him, and I’m caught up in his impassioned repetition of ‘nothing, nothing‘. All of which, alas, is fogged and swaddled in the long fustian lines of Stalling’s version:

…The gods appear to me
Enthroned in all their holiness and their serenity,
And where they dwell, wind never lashes them, cloud never rains,
And snowfall white and crisp with biting frost never profanes.
The canopy of aether over them is always bright
And unbeclouded, lavishing the laughter of its light.
And there they want for nothing; every need, nature supplies;
And nothing ever ruffles their peace of mind. Contrariwise…

The key phrase about the gods’ peace of mind should conclude the line; instead it ends mid-line and is, as a result, muffled. Why? To make way for the rhyme, which in this case is supplied by another heavily archaic word ‘contrariwise’ which has the unintended effect of trivialising the preceding line.

Stalling’s translation is skilful, clever, immensely rhythmic, a fascinating experiment, but…no.

Online translations

Now let me extend my argument. I’ll try
To be as brief as possible, but listen!

(Book IV, lines 115 to 116)

There have been scores of translations of De rerum natura into English. An easy one to access on the internet is William Ellery Leonard’s 1916 verse translation. Compared to either Stalling or Humphries, it’s dire, but it’s free.


Roman reviews

On the nature of the gods by Cicero – 3

Reflections

Rarely have I read so many wrong-headed, misleading and bad arguments collected together in one place as in Cicero’s book, On the nature of the gods. The overall impression is to make you think ‘philosophy’ is a cover-all term for playground squabbling rather than an activity for adults. At one point Cotta says that the task of philosophy is to clear away bad thinking and error in order to get to ‘the truth’ but this text demonstrates the exact opposite. It is like stirring up a pond with a stick till you have completely muddied and confused the waters.

The handful of axioms which all the characters base all their arguments on are null and void.

Argument from consensus

All the protagonists claim that gods must exist because all human beings have an innate sense of gods or a God. Well a) no they don’t and b), even if they did, mjust because everyone believes something (for example, witches must be burned) doesn’t make it true or socially useful. Fail.

Argument from design

The Argument from Design is invoked repeatedly throughout the book (on pages 129 159, 160 to 164, 167, 170, 172 and many more). Velleius, Balbus and Cotta all look up at the regular movements of the stars, are impressed by tides of the oceans, or admire the beauty of all manner of animals – and proclaim that all this order and pattern must prove the existence of a rational designer and, in the Stoics’ case, an ongoing divine and rational providence moving all things in order and harmony.

Unfortunately, the Argument from Design was destroyed in its abstract philosophical form by David Hume in the 1770s and in its application to all living things, by Charles Darwin in the 1850s. So instead of being impressed and converted by its frequent repetition, I became more vexed and irritated.

Relying on the Argument from Design is as false as the way all the characters in the text assume that the earth is at the centre of the solar system and the sun revolves around it (p.165) which proves that the earth is the centre of the universe, and that human beings are the centre of the earth, and therefore that we must share our nature with the Master Creator.

Anthropocentrism

All of these arguments are aspects of mankind’s incorrigible anthropoventrism and inescapable narcissism, and all of them are null and void.

‘The providence of God’ (p.175) is simply a phrase people like Cicero’s characters and many millions of others for well over 2,000 years have used to describe the laws of astronomy, geography and biology which they observe in action but which were completely ignorant of.

The reality that we, in the West at any rate, currently inhabit is that:

  • the structure, patterns, rules and laws governing the universe, galaxy, solar system and so on are all adequately explained by modern cosmology
  • the structure, pattern, rules and laws governing the non-organic aspect of the earth are explained by geology and geography
  • the structure, pattern, rules and laws governing all organic life forms are explained by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, as immeasurably deepened by the discovery of DNA in the 1950s and the rise of supercomputing power in the last few decades

Nobody who wants to know ‘the truth’ about these matters needs to read this book which, rather than any kind of guide to any kind of ‘truth’ should be regarded as a cabinet of curiosities. Educate yourself about the facts of life. Literally.

Too binary thinking

The fundamental mistake all Cicero’s characters make is to adopt a binary opposition between chance and design. What astronomy and biology have taught us is, to put it simply, that it’s a lot more complicated than that. The universe we see and inhabit is not the product of completely random ‘chance’ in the simple-minded sense; it is the product of a huge array of rules which govern matter of all kinds, at a host of levels, under all kinds of situations, many of which we still don’t understand (quantum physics).

But the existence of these complex rules doesn’t require a designer or intelligence or maker or divine providence to have made them. They just are the rules under which matter operates. That two atoms of hydrogen bond to one of oxygen to make water doesn’t require a divine intelligence to make happen. It is a property of certain chemicals. The periodic table of elements crystallises out as the universe cools after the Big Bang. Chemical elements behave in certain ways according to their valencies and electrochemical characteristics.

The same goes for other ‘concepts’ the ancients throw around like pieces of Lego, such as ‘free will’ and ‘providence’. Nobody knows what is going to happen in the future, but most of us can be pretty sure the basic rules of physics and chemistry and biology will continue to apply. It doesn’t require a God to underpin every moment of every atom and cell in the universe at all moments. The rule of physics and chemistry and biology suffice.

One David Attenborough documentary contains more factual information than all the ‘wisdom’ of the ancients.

Atheism as a minority belief

It is clear that the majority of people around the world are still religious, some very much so – fundamentalists in the US, Catholics in Latin America, evangelicals in Africa, the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims and 1.2 billion Hindus. Easily the majority of humans currently alive believe in some kind of god.

So the arguments I put forward, above, only apply to a minority of the world’s population, mostly in the western, post-industrial societies. Still, in ‘my’ minority culture of white western atheists, our worldview is determined by Newton and Einstein, Darwin, Watson and Crick and tens of thousands of astronomers and biologists since.

Live and let live

Although I personally believe all forms of theism are factually incorrect, I have no great beef about them and am not driven to waste vast amounts of energy trying to disprove them à la Richard Dawkins. Why? Because people quite obviously need them. The lives of human beings are short and scary. We all die in various forms of pain or fear. We see all around us evidence of a vast universe which doesn’t give a damn whether we live or die, are blissfully happy or existing in misery and pain. Therefore it makes psychological sense for many many people to have space in their minds for powers or spirits or gods or a God who they can imagine protecting them and looking after them and their families.

Even for people who are doing well in life, it makes psychological sense to be aware that life is fragile, fortune is fickle and it might all come crashing down at any moment. Therefore it makes sense to give thanks to someone, to something, to nature or god, to something outside yourself, for the blessings you are conscious of enjoying.

As Freud said in one of his letters, he was painfully aware that he  couldn’t give most of his patients what they were, at bottom, all searching for: consolation. Religion can.

Narrow atheism à la Richard Dawkins may be factually correct but Dawkins’s obvious failing is to be completely oblivious to human psychology, which is why he comes over as an inflexible robot and makes so few converts, while managing to antagonise religious believers of all flavours.

When your child is born or your parent dies, when you are anxious about your health or stressed about work or where the next meal is going to come from – then we all need psychological strategies to help us cope. And thousands of years of cultural evolution mean that the world’s religions have accumulated huge numbers of psychological strategies, along with rites and rituals and ceremonies and beliefs for coping and making sense of life and the thousand ills we are prey to.

So my view is that anything which helps people to get through life and make sense of it is to be respected. The fact that we can prove that this or that aspect of it is factually wrong (wrong like the Christian evangelicals who reject Darwin or fossils) is missing the point. Most of us aren’t coolly analytical logic machines to begin with. Most of us need help. Humans are, after all, wildly irrational.

In a thousand shapes and forms religions provide a conceptual structure and cultural traditions and psychological aids which help billions of people cope and make sense of and endure and even enjoy life. It would be pointless, and narrow minded, of me to quibble with that.

Summary

This books was interesting in shedding light on Cicero’s broad knowledge, his ambitions to bring Greek philosophy to the Latin world, and so helping me understand his importance not only in his own time but as a preserver or conduit of ancient learning through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. But as an examination of the actual subject it purports to tackle, it felt to me almost completely worthless.


Related links

Roman reviews

On the nature of the gods by Cicero – 2

‘It is the task of philosophy to dispel errors so that when we talk about the immortal gods we may say only what is worthy of them.’
(Gaius Aurelius Cotta, page 219, book III, On the nature of the gods)

On the nature of Cicero’s books

Cicero’s books are extremely argumentative. By which I mean that there are no descriptive or literary passages, only the briefest autobiographical passage at the start and then – bang! – straight into 150 pages of non-stop, unrelenting argumentation. Every paragraph is arguing a point, and he sometimes makes two or 3 points on a page. On the nature of the gods is only 150 or so pages long in the Penguin paperback edition but every page is crammed with a non-stop barrage of arguments, proofs and refutations.

The one really obvious attraction of these ancient texts is that they are accessible. By that I mean that the protagonists in a text like this use examples and ideas which are completely understandable by the man or woman in the street. Unlike modern philosophy there is a complete absence of: maths and maths-style logic (as found in analytical and logical philosophy); specialised technical terms; and, above all, the clutter and detritus of hundreds of other philosophical schools which have arisen over the past 2,000 years and left their semantic and conceptual wreckage strewn across the intellectual landscape.

Instead, the three protagonists in this dialogue about the nature of the gods almost entirely use ordinary language and everyday examples to make their points. For example when Velleius says that, if God only decided to make the universe, the sun and the moon and so on at some point into infinite time, does that mean that up till that moment he had been living in darkness like a pauper in a hovel? There is a lot more like this, a lot more crude sarcasm and taunting and ridiculing than you might expect in a ‘philosophical’ work.

(Actually, that’s not strictly true: from time to time the speakers use philosophical terms coined by the original Greek philosophers. Not many and not often, though.)

The result is twofold: although a lot of the arguments come across as wrong, superficial and bizarre, nonetheless it is easy to read and enjoyable to follow the flow of each speaker’s case. The editor, J.M. Ross, points out that the text is very uneven, with chunks missing, other bits arranged in what seem to be the wrong order, with the protagonists failing to address each other’s points or wandering off the subject altogether. But this makes it all the more entertaining, like listening to a tipsy polymath holding forth at a dinner party or at the bar. I think of the comic monologues of entertainers of my youth like Victor Borge or Peter Ustinov. The combination of serious points embellished with ridicule and exaggeration are frequently more reminiscent of a comic monologue than a work of ‘philosophy’.

It also gives the book a pleasing naivety. Coming to Cicero after trying to read Derrida or Habermas is like walking from an intense undergraduate seminar down the corridor into the creche where a load of toddlers are playing with lego.

Three speakers

As explained before, the text is conceived as presenting three speakers, each of whom is a star representative of the three main philosophical schools of Cicero’s day – Epicurean, Stoic, Academic. There were many other minor schools but as his book is focusing on the specific questions of a) whether there are gods and b) what they’re like and c) how we should behave regarding them, Cicero only needed three positions or attitudes. The three interlocutors are:

  • Gaius Velleius who represents the Epicurean point of view
  • Quintus Lucilius Balbus who propounds the Stoic point of view
  • Gaius Aurelius Cotta who represents the Academic point of view

The three positions can be summarised as:

  • atheist / Epicurean (no gods or, if gods, no intervention in human affairs)
  • providence / Stoic (gods exist and are identical with nature, with the visible universe and its laws)
  • sceptic (voicing objections to both the above to arrive at a ‘common sense’ view of the existence of the gods and the reverence due them)

In what follows I’m not going to give an exhaustive summary of all the points made by all the speakers, just the ones which came over to me as important or interesting or quirky.

Introduction

In the brief introduction Cicero makes a couple of points which will recur throughout the book:

Cicero takes it as axiomatic that there are gods. Only a fool or anarchist would be an atheist. Belief in the existence of the gods follows from two key axioms:

1. All of history and all of anthropology suggests that all humanity is naturally and innately inclined to believe in gods. And this universal predilection is taken as incontrovertible proof.

2. Religious belief and practice are the vital glue holding society together and underpinning all moral and social values, underpinning interpersonal ethics and the rule of law and justice.

When piety goes, religion and sanctity go with it. And when these are gone, there is anarchy and complete confusion in our way of life…If our reverence for the gods were lost, we should see the end of good faith, of human brotherhood, and even of justice itself, which is the keystone of all the virtues. (I.2)

So although all three speakers may at points touch on the logical possibility of there being no gods, none of them actually propounds this view. Possibly this was also because, although there was no actual law against atheism, nonetheless Greek thinkers who had propounded atheism had been vilified. Cotta gives the example of Protagoras of Abdera who wrote in a book that he was not able to say whether the gods existed or not, and was as a result banished from the city and his works burned in public. Cicero himself had been elected a member of the College of Augurs in 53 BC and so was responsible for performing various religious duties in public. As he has Cotta say:

I myself hold a religious office and I believe that public religious worship and ritual ought to be reverently observed. (p.94)

If his book had openly espoused atheism, presumably he would have been sacked from that job and maybe faced further sanctions. So hidden behind the civilised chat of our three protagonists lurks a coercive social threat. (The notion that it is ‘prudent’ to profess belief in the gods is repeated on pages 104, 120 and 193.)

1a. Gaius Velleius and the Epicurean view of the gods (pages 77 to 92)

Rubbishing the opposition

A good deal of Velleius’s discourse consists of stating, then rubbishing, Stoic and other Greek philosophical views.

Velleius kicks off by rubbishing Stoic-style notions that the universe was built by a master artificer, the view put forward by Plato in his dialogue Timaeus. Can anyone actually imagine that happening? What tools did he use, what levers and pulleys and scaffolding? How came earth and air and fire and water to obey his commands?

Plato makes the world a manufactured article but he contradicts himself by saying the universe was made but at other points saying it is eternal.

We know time is infinite, eternal. Therefore the universe was created some point into infinite time. It had a beginning. Why? Why create it just at that moment? What triggered this sudden decision? What prompted God to decorate the universe with pretty lights like ‘some Minister of Public Works’? Is it because the world was created for the benefit of the wise? Then surely, never was so much trouble gone to to please so few.

Also: if the universe had a beginning, it must also have an ending.

How can the universe be a conscious being?

He mocks people who say the universe is a great consciousness, one conscious and immortal being (i.e. Stoics). They have no idea what consciousness is. They are ‘stupid’. Plato says the universe must be a sphere because the sphere is ‘the perfect shape’. How childish. He also says it must be spinning. If this sphere is conscious and is spinning at high speed, doesn’t God get giddy? And if the universe is ‘conscious’ some parts of the world are freezing ice caps, some parts are burning desert. So doesn’t it follow that god is roasting on one place and freezing in another?

Listing and rubbishing all other philosophers

Velleius then gives a long list of Greek philosophers starting with Thales, devoting a paragraph to summarising their chief contribution and then dismissing it with a sentence, being: Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Anaxagoras, Alcmeon, Pythagoras, Xenophanes, Parmenides, Empedocles, Protagoras, Democritus, Diogenes, Plato, Xenophon, Antisthenes, Speusippus, Aristotle, Xenocrates, Heraclides, Theophrastus, Strato, Zeno (father of Stoicism), Aristo, Cleanthes, Persaeus, Chrysippus, Diogenes of Babylon, and more.

In his introduction Ross describes this list as an irritating digression which the reader can skip but, on the contrary, I found it an enjoyable and informative overview. Above all it is a useful counter to Cicero’s structural claim that there are only 3 schools of philosophy. On the contrary, this list demonstrates the huge jungley undergrowth of Greek philosophical opinions.

Rubbishing Aristotle

Velleius castigates Aristotle for holding at least three separate views: in one place attributing divinity to mind only, in another saying the entire universe is God, in another setting God above the universe with the power to order all its motions; in yet another claiming the fiery ether is God, so how does that square with the entire universe being God? And if heaven is a God where do the gods reside? Anyway, how could the heavens, in their endless fast revolutions around the earth, maintain consciousness worthy of a god? And if God is bodiless how can he be in motion?

See what I mean by argumentative? In just one paragraph Velleius rubbishes 9 theological propositions of Aristotle. So this list of silly philosophers also feeds into Cicero’s Academic scepticism by demonstrating what a range of absurd and contradictory opinions have been held by such ‘clever’ people. Velleius calls them ‘the fantasies of lunatics’, no better than the fictions of the poets and the wonders of the magicians.

Velleius’s exposition of Epicurus (pages 87 to 92)

Epicurus thought the gods must exist because nature has imprinted an idea of them in the minds of all mankind. This is one of the fundamental axioms of human thought without which there can be no knowledge, rational thought or argument. It is the basis of a firm and continuing consensus.

The same nature which imprints this idea also imprints the notion that they are blessed and immortal. If this is so, the gods must be free from care, anxiety and other human emotions, and must cause no care or anxiety in others i.e. mortals.

The logical consequence of this is that a) the gods deserve reverence as everything which is excellent deserves reverence, but b) we need not fear the gods because blessed and immortal beings have no motive to cause anxiety and fear in others (p.89). This is the core aim of Epicureanism – to banish anxiety, fear, worry and care from its followers.

The gods have human form

Evidence for this includes:

  1. The universal conviction of all humanity i.e. nature has implanted this idea in all human minds.
  2. Because the divine nature is perfect, it must be clothed in the most perfect form and what form is more perfect and beautiful than the human body?
  3. Reason cannot dwell in any other form but the human form.

He gives a good example of the poor, biased and sometimes absurd arguments used throughout the book when he claims that: everyone agrees that the gods are happy, and no happiness is possible without virtue, and there is no virtue without reason, and reason is associated only with the human form: therefore, the gods must have human form. Cotta picks up on this sentence to point out that the final link – that reason is only associated with the human form – does not follow but is willed (p.104 and p.114).

BUT individual human bodies are fallible, vulnerable, age and die. Not so immortal bodies. Therefore the gods have the shape of human bodies but not actual human flesh and blood.

The gods are blissfully detached

Happiness is a state of rest. The gods do not strive and work. They have attained stasis, contemplating their own holiness and wisdom (which sounds very Buddhist). Therefore they have no involvement whatsoever in the world of men, which would involve them in anxiety and endeavour.

A being which is blessed and immortal is itself without cares and brings no cares to others. (p.104)

The universe was created by natural causes

Rather than created by some God, the universe came into being quite naturally by the clash of the infinite number of atoms falling infinitely through infinite space, banging into each other, congealing and constellating. No need for any God labouring away with levers and pulleys.

Thus there is no overseeing God, no God involved in creating the universe, it and everything in it have developed by natural processes. Thus there is no reason to be afraid of a curious god poking and prying into our lives, ‘a busybody god’.

Velleius’s conclusion

Epicurus has saved us from all such fears and set us free, so that we have no terror of the gods, whom we know neither devise any mischief for themselves nor seek to bring it upon others. And so with reverence and awe we worship them in their divine perfection. (p.92)

1b. Cotta’s refutation of Velleius (pages 93 to 120)

Cotta the sceptic is ‘one of those who can more easily see why something is false than true’. Cicero, rather unfairly, gives more space to Cotta’s demolition of Velleius than to the former’s main exposition. Cotta calls Velleius’s Epicurean views ‘irresponsible and ridiculous’.

1. Velleius’s main argument for the existence of the gods is that ‘all mankind’ believes in them. Well, how does he know the opinion of all mankind? There may be any number of wild and primitive peoples who don’t believe in gods, how can he know? Also, there is a record of known philosophers in Greece who have been out-and-out atheists; it doesn’t take many instances to disprove a claim to universality.

2. Cotta comes down hard on Velleius’s theory of atoms endlessly falling in infinite space, whose collisions eventually give rise to matter and the universe. Cotta denies the existence of atoms but says that, even if they existed, the notion that from sheer chance they have created the universe and all the order and regularity and life forms which we observe is ridiculous (p.114). The entire cock and bull theory is a working backwards from the necessary core of Epicureanism i.e. the non-intervention of the gods.

More fatally, if everything is made of atoms then the gods are made of atoms too and can be dissolved as easily as they came into being. If they had a beginning they must have an end: so how can they avoid anxiety about death and dissolution? (p.115)

3. Cotta ridicules Epicurus for saying that the gods must have a human body, as that is the highest form of perfection, and yet it is not actually a body because that is subject to decay – so they have something like a body but not subject to decay. Velleius criticised all other philosophers for their absurdities; Cotta calls Epicurus’s ideas ‘fanciful dreams’.

The notion that the gods must have human form is the product of:

  • superstitious minds who created phantom images of the gods because it was easy
  • poets and painters who need to work with something tangible, and therefore promoted the idea of gods having bodily form
  • humanity’s bias or prejudice towards thinking itself fabulous and the highest of all possible life forms; it is a form of narcissism; anthropomorphism (“the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities. It is considered to be an innate tendency of human psychology.”)

Are the gods different as human beings are different, one from another? In which case, how can they be perfect? Surely there is only one model of perfection and all gods ought to embody it?

Anyway, it’s not true to say that all cultures envision the gods in human form: the Egyptians envision gods as animals (dog, crocodile, jackal, cat), as do many other cultures.

Similarly, is there a fixed number of gods with fixed identities? Because a) all cultures appear to have their own gods and b) many gods who are recognisably the same (king of the gods, queen of the gods, god of war, god of love) seem to have multiple names.

‘Do you really think that a god looks like me or like you? The fact is, you have no idea.’ (p.103)

Epicurus appears to say that there is no causal link between humans looking like gods and gods having human form, that both are just accidents of the infinite interaction of an infinite number of atoms in infinite space. This is a ridiculous assertion.

If the gods are so powerful why do they need bodies at all? Why do they need hands or feet or limbs let alone the complex internal organs? If they have godly powers they have no need of all these clumsy encumbrances. If they have bodies the gods would have to walk and climb and bend and stoop. they would have to eat and drink and pee and defecate. If they have the usual organs of generation they would have sex, with all the indignity that implies.

If the gods are vastly superior to us in mind and reason why shouldn’t they be similarly superior to us in body, inhabiting bodies whose shape and powers we can’t even conceive of?

Cotta ridicules the notion of the gods’ detachment. Even idle children get up to games. No human can rest idle indefinitely. What is the point of having the body he insists they have, if they don’t use them?

All creatures, all living things, have a sphere of operation within which they live and are active. Where is the gods’ sphere? To what objects do they use their mind and intelligence. If they know everything their minds are, in a sense, empty, because unexercised.

Velleius had said that the gods are happy because they have achieved the height of virtue. But virtue doesn’t mean anything unless it is tested in action i.e. someone has a choice of actions and decisions and acts accordingly. But Epicurus’s gods do not act in any way. Therefore they do not exercise virtue. Therefore they cannot be happy. Humans exercise decision and judgement all the time, therefore are more able to behave virtuously, therefore humans must be happier than the gods (p.115).

Epicurus derives all happiness, ultimately, from bodily pleasure (hence his reputation). Yet the gods have no bodies in the flesh and blood human sense and so cannot experience pleasure in the Epicurean sense and so cannot by happy (p.116).

Cotta attacks the Innate Theory i.e. that the notion of the gods is a universal aspect of human nature so must be true. Because plenty of other ideas and notions seem to be universal. Are they also true? And our minds can conceive and imagine all manner of things and situations. Are they all true, too?

Epicureanism undermines reverence for the gods

What reverence is due to beings who have never done anything and will never do anything? What reverence do we owe beings who have never done anything for us and never will? Piety is a bond but what bond can there be for beings who never interact? Why should we thank the gods if they have never done anything for us?

This undermining of any reason for humans to reverence or worship the gods in effect destroys religion.

One of the noblest qualities of people is their love and affection for others. Epicurus’s gods have no interest in anyone or anything else at all, but sit perfectly passively uninvolved with anything contemplating their own sterile ‘happiness’. This is to take away the ‘graciousness’ which is the highest attribute of humanity.

Compare and contrast with the doctrine of the Stoics that we should love all good and honest people as ourselves. Epicurean detachment teaches a terrible ethical lesson. A true human friendship is free and selfless. The love and selflessness of the gods ought to be that much superior to human love, yet Epicurus strips his gods of all fine feelings.

Cotta concludes by saying the whole tendency of Epicurus’s thought is atheist, he just tacked on his incoherent ‘defence’ of his very peculiar conception of the gods ‘in order to avoid the odour of atheism’. He was merely paying lip service to the gods that he had actually destroyed (p.120).

Summary of Velleius

Having read it twice I can see how Velleius’s points of view, with all their distortions of fact, the weird atomic theory and the, in the end, weird view of gods who are utterly detached from the world – I can see how these are all the tortured consequences of a reasonable premise and intention which was to free human beings from fear and anxiety.

As a philosophy it appeals to those who seek an oriental-style detachment from involvement in the trials and tribulations of life and instead seek detachment and calm.

Its weak spots are its implausible atomic theory about the creation of not one but infinite universes; and its bloodless vision of gods which are supposedly made in human form and yet utterly lifeless, like beautiful shop window mannequins.

2. Balbus’s presentation of the Stoic view of the gods (pages 123 to 190)

Balbus says he can divide Stoic views into 4 areas. The Stoics:

  • teach that divine beings exist
  • explain their nature
  • describe their government of the world
  • show how they care for mankind

The Argument from Design

If Velleius rested his case on the universal innate conviction of the gods’ existence, Balbus bases his on the Argument from Design. Look up at the sky and survey the beauty of the heavens. What more proof do you need that god exists? You might as well doubt the existence of the sun. Both god and the sun are as obvious to our senses. (It was to refute this age-old argument that Richard Dawkins wrote his long argumentative book The Blind Watchmaker.)

As ancient superstitions are sloughed off, true religion is growing more popular with every day. Balbus bases this assertion on:

  • the intervention of the gods in human history, especially at key moments of Roman history
  • predictions and prophecies
  • the special level of piety of the ancient Romans (like everyone in antiquity, Balbus thinks things, in this case religious piety, have declined in his day)

The proof of prophecies and soothsaying is that they have accurately predicted the future. Plenty of evidence from Rome’s history. So who can doubt the gods exist if they send messages?

‘Beings who do not exist can send us no messages. But the gods do have their prophets and messengers. So how can we deny they exist.’ (p.128)

The state prospers only under the guidance of men of religious faith.

In fact Balbus then echoes Velleius’s nostrum: The existence of gods is inscribed on the human mind from birth (p.128). Thus there is no debate about the existence of gods, only about their nature.

Cleanthes speaks of 4 influences which have formed men’s images of gods:

  1. the power and evidence and proof of divination and prophecy
  2. the blessings of a temperate climate and fertile soil
  3. the awe inspired by natural phenomena such as storms, hailstorms, blizzards, floods, plagues, earthquakes etc
  4. the regularity of the motion of the heavenly bodies. Movements so vast and purposive and regular must be guided and controlled by a divine intelligence. He lists the motion of the sun and moon and stars and the tides and oceans and says none of this would work unless it were powered by a divine and omnipotent spirit. These are all variations on the Argument from Design (p.129).

Only an arrogant fool would think there is nothing in the universe smarter than him. Therefore there must be something greater than Man. And that something must be God.

There is nothing more beautiful or perfect in the world than Reason or mind or intellect. The universe is perfect. Therefore the universe must be possessed of reason i.e. be rational. All natural laws, the passage of the seasons etc etc all these bespeak ‘the planning of a divine and omnipresent spirit’ (p.131).

The universe and God are one. He cites arguments formulated by Zeno of Citium, founder of Stoicism.

If a being is without consciousness then every part of it must be without consciousness. But some parts of the universe are conscious beings, therefore the entire universe as a whole must be a conscious being. Therefore the universe is a living intelligence.

The universe must be a rational being and the nature which permeates all things must be endowed with reason in its highest form. So God and the world of Nature must be one and all the life of the world must be contained within the being of God. As the universe is surely superior to any other being, then it must be endowed with reason. ‘The universe was endowed with wisdom from eternity and is itself divine.’ (p.137).

There is no quality higher than goodness and nothing more perfect than the universe. Therefore goodness must be a characteristic of the universe. (p.138)

[Pages 141 to 145 consist of a sluggish digression on astronomy i.e. the movements of the planets and stars.]

He then argues that the sun must be a conscious rational being, and so are all the stars, as proved by the regularity of their motions. The stars move of their own free will and motivated by their own intelligence – what other force could move them so efficiently?

I cannot understand this regularity in the stars, his harmony of time and motion in their various orbits through all eternity, except as the expression of reason, mind and purpose in the planets themselves, which we must therefore reckon in the number of the gods. (p.145)

At which point he makes the leap that the fact that the gods exist is so obvious that anyone who disagreed must be mad (p.141). Anyone who looks up and observes the beautiful order and regularity of the movement of the stars and doesn’t feel the power of God must be out of his mind (p.145, repetition of p.124).

As we have an innate idea in our minds that God must be a living God and supreme above all else in the world, there seems to me nothing more consonant with this idea than to recognise the whole universe, than which there can be nothing more sublime, as being the living God. (p.141)

The gods just exist because there must be some supreme being which is superior to all else. 

Another reason is that, although all men acknowledge the existence of the gods, to give them human form is to assign them limitations and imperfections. This, also, is an argument for equating God with the entire universe.

Balbus argues that the gods don’t of course have the form of humans with all the frailties and limitations that implies. The traditional names of the gods embody qualities of the universe which are gifts to humankind and which we ought to worship (p.147).

[Pages 147 to 151 consist of a digression on the etymology of the names of the gods.]

On the providence of the gods

Balbus then sets out to prove that the world is governed by the wisdom and foresight of the gods.

My belief is that the universe and everything in it has been created by the providence of the gods and is governed by their providence through all eternity. (p.154)

Stoics like him give three reasons:

  1. if you grant the existence of gods, you must grant their providence
  2. all things are ordered by a sentient natural power impelling them towards their own perfection
  3. the wonders of the earth and sky (Argument from Design)

1. All men acknowledge that the gods exist. If they exist, they must be active. What kind of activity could be better than the government of the world. Therefore the world is governed by the wisdom of the gods (p.154). There is nothing greater or more wonderful than the universe. Therefore it must be governed by the wisdom and foresight of the gods (p.156).

2. Nature is a principle of reason which pursues its own methodical course. His explanation of nature/God is based on the ancients’ belief that the world was made of four elements (earth, air, water, fire) and theories about reason and mind, all of which are twaddle, so it’s difficult to follow in its complexity something you know is rubbish. A central problem is the interchangeability of the words universe’ and ‘nature’ throughout this book.

  • Nature is the power which rules the universe.

There follows an extended passage (pages 161 to 177) describing the wonders of the stars and the planets and the sun and then of geography (seas and rivers and forests and deserts) and then a lot of ‘wonders’ of the natural world, every one of which Balbus recruits as evidence for his simple-minded insistence that every single one proves the universe is controlled by an intelligent and caring providence.

From all this evidence we must conclude that everything in the world is marvellously ordered by divine providence and wisdom for the safety and protection of us all. (p.177)

Wrong. The ludicrously naive self-centredness of this view becomes apparent when he goes on to ask for whom all this wonder was laid on? Well, obviously not for the lifeless rocks or even for mindless animals. Obviously for those with mind and reason, ta-dah! Us humans!

We can therefore well believe that the earth and everything in it was created for the gods and for mankind. (p.177)

Balbus then goes on to consider the ‘perfection’ of the design of man, how perfect the human mouth is for drinking, how perfect the lungs for drawing in air, the stomach for digesting food and so on, the gift of speech, the wonder of the human hand (pages 178 to 184). Balbus attributes all this to:

the wise and careful providence of nature, which shows the great and gracious benefits the gods have bestowed upon mankind. (p.180)

Everything in the world which we enjoy was made and ordered for our sake. (p.185)

I attribute it to evolution. Balbus’s anthropocentric narcissism leaps out when he claims that ‘every human sense far surpasses the sense of beast’ (p.182) which is plumb wrong, as we now know that all human senses are far excelled by any number of other animals.

To sum up: man has been given all manner of gifts in the design of the universe, the beauty of the world, the provision of plants and animals to rear and eat, in the wonderfully apt design of his own body and, above all, in the gift of reason so we can understand it all. Contemplating all this must lead to awareness of a guiding and kindly providence working throughout the universe and in our favour, and from this stems Religion and a sense of the virtues, of the good life which is living in harmony with the universe, in loving-kindness and generosity to our fellow men.

Summary of Balbus

Although every factual claim he makes about the universe, the solar system and the natural world are howlingly wrong, I can see the aim of Balbus’s Stoic philosophy. It is for those who appreciate the beauty of the night skies and the wonders of the natural world and believe that they indicate some natural law or harmony and that, in order to live well, in order to live wisely and virtuously, we humans should acknowledge these gifts and try and bring our way of living into harmony with the natural world. A not unreasonable ambition.

Its weak spot is Stoics odd insistence on the importance of ‘prophesy’ as a strong proof of providence. Both Epicureans and Academics were quick to ridicule this and it’s hard to see why it is needed in their system and couldn’t be quietly dropped.

3. Cotta puts the academic view (pages 193 to 235)

Cotta introduces himself as a member of the College of Augurs and a priest. He will never abandon the views he has inherited from his Roman forebears about worship of the gods. He doesn’t require a load of fancy arguments to prove the existence of the gods: the traditional belief of their Roman ancestors was enough. As a rational man, he simply wants to question the arguments of the other two more closely in order to base his own belief on a sound foundation.

Remember that a substantial portion of Cotta’s book is missing, and it feels like it. Anyway, he says he will not refute Balbus’s argument in its entirety but ask him about specific aspects. He attacks Balbus’s stories about ‘prophecy’ and ‘omens’ as superstitious hearsay.

Then he attacks one of the central arguments of both Velleius and Balbus, that the gods exist because the notion of immortal gods is innate in human nature. Not so, says Cotta. Just because a large number of people believe something to be true does not make it true.

More importantly, for me, Cotta refutes most of the arguments Balbus put forward to prove that the universe, the sun and the moon and the stars are all gods. No, says Cotta. Just because something behaves with mechanical regularity and is beautiful to look at (like the stars) doesn’t mean it is either conscious or immortal (p.202).

One flaw in his argument is to assume that anything bigger than man must be Perfect and Immortal, such as the movement of tides, and rivers and the seasons and the stars. not at all. They might just be part of the mechanical rhythm of the universe. The parts of nature move in consonance but this does not require a guiding intelligence.

Nature persists and coheres by its own power without any help from the gods. (p.204)

Just because something is bigger than man doesn’t make it a god. Otherwise all mountains would be gods. Every hill, every bluff, every tree would be a god.

Cotta’s critique of Balbus is less effective than his attack on Velleius. This seems to be because he is actually missing a lot of Balbus’s point. He says that all things made up of the elements will eventually decompose and die but this isn’t as effective an attack on Balbus as on Velleius. He says the so-called gods experience no evil so cannot judge between good and evil so cannot really enact virtue. How can we respect a god who doesn’t exercise reason or moral qualities?

Then he moves on to attack the way many humans, either legendary or historical figures, have, allegedly been translated into gods. This didn’t strike me as central to Balbus’s argument. What both of them seem to be missing is the centrality of prophecy to Stoic beliefs and the enormous problems thrown up by trying to reconcile God’s Preknowledge of the future and human free will (without which there can be no morality), a topic which was to bedevil Christian theology for 2,000 years.

Instead he wastes his time on the secondary argument of which of the actual Roman gods who have temples devoted to them Balbus includes in his pantheon, and which he excludes, and why. As he rattles off an enormous list of gods major and minor and then nymphs and satyrs and demi-gods and so on, it dawned on me he is missing a major distinction to be made between religion as theology and religion as practice. I’m betting most people are attached to their religions as traditions and practices which bind together families and communities. Cotta’s attack on the pantheon of the gods makes it clear just how futile it is trying to come up with a coherent intellectual underpinning for the super-diverse world of actual religious practice. Religious practices just are.

This reductio ad absurdem list of gods goes on for some time (pages 208 to 219), with Cotta asking Balbus whether he allows the rainbow to be a god or clouds and so on, ridiculing the idea that qualities such as Faith or Courage or objects of desire such as Victory and Honour can be gods.

Lacuna in the text.

He spends so much time on it because, apparently, many Stoic writers have devoted a lot of time to giving philosophical rationales for all these gods. But, says Cotta, this is all superstitious twaddle.

Lacuna in the text.

Balbus had assumed all through his speech that Reason is the highest attribute imaginable. So Cotta sets out to destroy this view by quoting an extensive number of examples where people have used their reason for evil i.e. have acted rationally in order to achieve wicked ends.

If the divine mind willed the good of men, when it endowed them with reason, then it willed only the good of those whom it also endowed with the power to use their reason well, whom we see to be very few indeed, if any. (p.222)

Maybe it would have been better if the gods had never given man reason at all. Maybe philosophy does more to lead students astray into immoral or unnatural beliefs and activities than improve them.

The problem of pain

Then Cotta moves on to a version of the perennial ‘problem of pain’, asking why the gods gave men the power of ‘reason’ instead of the ability to act virtuously? Instead, monsters have thrived and honest men met violent ends. If the gods do look upon our world they apparently make no distinction between good and bad men.

There can be no divine guidance of human affairs if the gods make no distinction between good and evil. (p.230)

And:

The prosperity and good fortune of the wicked absolutely disprove the power of the gods. (p.232)

Why don’t the gods intervene on the side of good while letting evil prosper? It’s the central question which has plagued the Abrahamic religions with their notion of an all-powerful all-loving god down to the present day, crystallised by the central catastrophe of the twentieth century: if there is an all-powerful, all-loving God why did he allow the Holocaust?

Abrupt ending

Right at the last minute on the last page Cotta re-emphasises that he doesn’t say this to argue against the gods but to submit men’s arguments to strict scrutiny and show how difficult the issue is. This feels very much like a last-minute cop-out designed to avert accusations of atheism which most of the rest of the document strongly endorses.

The host, Lucilius, is made to say that he would take up arms to defend their venerable religious traditions and temples and so on, and Cotta repeats that he agrees and will join him and has been merely working through the arguments not denying religion. Perish the thought!

It’s worth quoting the final sentence for two reasons. It purportedly gives the view of Cicero who has been a silent witness throughout the previous 3 books, never saying a word.

The conversation ended here, and we parted. Velleius judged that the arguments of Cotta were truest; but those of Balbus seemed to me to have the greater probability.

It has puzzled commentators that Cicero came down on the side of Balbus rather than sympathising with his fellow Academician, Cotta. It rather suggests that the debate was never between three points of view, but between two major points of view both of which were then critiqued by Cotta, with the result that onlookers (such as Cicero) only had a choice of two.

Lastly, its abruptness has convinced most commentators that the work was never finished properly and would probably have been revised and polished if Cicero had lived long enough.


Related links

Roman reviews

On the nature of the gods by Cicero – 1

A mine of curious information about ancient science, religion and philosophy…
(J.M. Ross in his introduction to De natura deorum, p.62)

Cicero wrote this book to examine a central problem of theology, namely do the gods have any impact on human life and, if so, what? It approaches the issue by focusing on a specific question, namely: Is there a Providence? Meaning: are events predetermined and preordained by the gods? Because if they are, then this calls into question the entire concept of ‘free will’ upon which most concepts of ‘morality’ rest. No free will = no morality, no law, no justice.

The 1972 Penguin edition I own contains a translation of Cicero’s De natura deorum by H.C.P. McGregor and an introduction by J.M. Ross. The introduction is unusually long, at 64 pages, and gives a thorough introduction to Cicero, the sources and aims of De natura deorum and its place in the overall plan of Cicero’s works.

Cicero had already written extensively about social duties and responsibilities, about friendship, personal morality, politics and the state. But, in a sense, a person’s views about all these topics depends on the fundamental question, is there a God or not. Your position on the existence and nature of a god or gods stands at the centre of your position on all those issues, underpinning or undermining them all.

Very broadly, there are four possible positions:

1. There are no gods or God, in which case there is no divine sanction or underpinning for morality, for virtue or wisdom, for right and wrong. Human behaviour and values are completely up to us to define and judge.

Pessimists or theological propagandists denigrate this situation as Anarchy and Cicero is among them: he is of the atheism = anarchy party and strongly believed that religion was necessary to underpin morality.

If the Gods have neither the power nor the inclination to help us; if they take no care of us, and pay no regard to our actions…then what reason can we have to pay any adoration, or any honours, or to prefer any prayers to them? Piety, like the other virtues, cannot have any connection with vain show or dissimulation. When piety goes, religion and sanctity go with it. And when these are gone, there is anarchy and complete confusion in our way of life. (I.2)

2. There are immortal gods who in some sense underpin our moral values, but they are completely indifferent to human affairs or don’t intervene, don’t respond to sacrifices or prayers or human suffering.

As I understand it, this was the view of the Epicureans, the followers of Epicurus. Some Epicureans went so far as to claim that worshipping gods – any form of state religion – was such an irrelevance and a distraction from the problems of good governance that it amounted to a social evil.

3. There are gods but they, like humans, are caught in the mechanism of the universe, which is entirely mechanistic and deterministic. Everything has been pre-ordained by fate and nothing they or we can do can change that.

This, as I understand it, is the Stoic position. Some Stoics went so far as to claim that God is identical with the universe and that both are governed by iron rules i.e. even God himself doesn’t have free will.

4. There are immortal gods and they do intervene in human affairs, do respond to sacrifices and prayers and try to make things right.

Position 4 is Cicero’s: there are gods, they underpin a moral law, they do answer prayers and sacrifices. However, Cicero doesn’t believe this with the dogmatism that would later be associated with Christian religion, because in his time there were no widely agreed texts laying down precise rules of behaviour in the manner of Christian teaching.

Instead, Cicero was an adherent of the Academic philosophy, so-called because it was taught by members of the Academy in Athens founded by Plato back in the fourth century BC. The Academic approach was to question everything, to attack all positions and points of view with the most powerful arguments possible, until only the strongest, most likely position remained. That was then adopted. It was a thorough-going scepticism.

In his introduction Ross quotes the theory of scholar H.A.K. Hunt that Cicero’s purpose in this book was to clear the decks of the jungle of contemporary misunderstandings about the gods in order for all his other writings about friendship, citizenship and so on to make sense. The need to address the specific question of predestination (as the Christians would call it) or Providence (as Cicero’s contemporaries called it) explains why he devoted a long book to the subject of Divination, at first sight a slightly cranky choice of subject, until you realise that, if divination works and the future can be foretold, then there is no human free will, in which case all his other moral and political arguments collapse.

In fact, it turns out that Ross cites Hunt’s theory in order to refute it. Ross thinks Cicero wasn’t as narrowly focussed as Hunt suggests. He takes Cicero at his word when he says that his aim was to introduce the entirety of Greek philosophy into Latin, to ‘by devoting myself to the examination of the whole body of philosophy’ (I.4).

Ross interprets Cicero’s writings as a systematic attempt to translate all the key philosophical debates of his time from Greek – where they had a long provenance – into Latin, where they were relatively new and where some key concepts didn’t even have an adequate Latin translation. These topics included:

  • Epistemology, the problem of knowledge: can we be certain of anything, can we trust the evidence of our senses – which Cicero addresses in his book titled the Academics
  • Ethics, what is the highest ‘good’ we should aim at – treated in The Ends of Good and Evil
  • consolation for death, whether our souls survive after death – treated in the Tusculan Disputations
  • the relationship between god and the world, treated via a translation of Plato’s Timaeus
  • a more detailed look at applied ethics in On Duties

Method

The Academic tradition Cicero followed was sceptical. It held that absolute truth is impossible for humans to find and may not even exist. All we can do is weight the balance of probabilities. In order to do this we need to consider all the available evidence before coming to a conclusion. In this respect, Cicero’s philosophical position is very similar to a lawyer or judge’s approach in a court of law, a comparison he himself draws:

I am asking everyone to come into court, weight up the evidence, and return their verdict (I.6).

Therefore, in their written treatises, adherents of the Academy set down all the possible views on a topic and subject them to criticism. Only at the end of this process does a likely contender for ‘the truth’ remain standing.

The dialogue form

And this explains two things about the De naturam deorum. First, the way Cicero systematically lays out the beliefs of all the existing schools before, only at the end, revealing his own position. Secondly, the book is, like most of Cicero’s works, in dialogue format. This format perfectly suits the Academic approach as it assigns each of the key positions to an individual and then lets their position be probed and questioned by all the others.

Thus the text takes the form of an imagined conversation between four educated Romans in the year 77 BC. It is set in the house of Gaius Aurelius Cotta, who is the senior representative of the Academic point of view and features Gaius Velleius who represents the Epicurean point of view, and Quintus Lucilius Balbus who propounds the Stoic point of view. And the fourth? Cicero is depicted as a late-comer, who arrives at Cotta’s house after the debate has begun and is invited to sit quietly in a corner and listen. So he doesn’t take part in the main debate at all.

Why only three schools of thought, when the Greek world pullulated with philosophies? Because a) to most educated Romans there were only 3 philosophical schools to choose from, Epicurean, Stoic or Academic; b) because the question itself boils down to only 3 positions:

  • atheist / Epicurean (no gods or, if gods, no intervention in human affairs)
  • providential / Stoic (gods exist and have foreordained everything )
  • sceptic (voicing objections to the 2 dogmatic views above and trying to find pragmatic compromises)

In fact in the text itself Cicero mentions a fourth school, the Peripatetic school, which could have been represented by its leading Roman proponent, Marcus Piso. But 1. he has Cotta explain that by the time the debate takes place the Peripatetics’ main beliefs about theology had become almost indistinguishable from Stoicism and 2. Ross suspects that Cicero probably knew less about the Peripatetics than he did about the two other schools, so preferred to stay on safe ground.

Early on, Cicero indicates that although he belongs to the sceptical Academy the last thing he wants to do is undermine religion, as he believes it provides a vital underpinning to society, is the foundation of personal morality and public justice (as per the passage quoted above). He just wants to remove the bad arguments for this position, to establish the really good arguments and then promote them. His book is a form of spring cleaning or decluttering. He wants to banish superstition (which he defines as ‘a senseless fear of the gods’), not religion (which he defines as ‘the science of divine worship’) (p.117).

It is also worth noting that Cicero himself held a post in Rome’s state religion. In 53 BC he was elected member of the college of augurs. According to Wikipedia, an augur:

was a priest and official in the classical Roman world. His main role was the practice of augury: interpreting the will of the gods by studying the flight of birds – whether they were flying in groups or alone, what noises they made as they flew, direction of flight, and what kind of birds they were. This was known as ‘taking the auspices’. The augural ceremony and function of the augur was central to any major undertaking in Roman society – public or private – including matters of war, commerce, and religion. Augurs sought the divine will regarding any proposed course of action which might affect Rome’s pax, fortuna, and salus (peace, good fortune, and well-being).

So we can probably hear his own opinion expressed through Cotta in I.61.

Three books

Since it expounds and critiques three schools of thought, the text is divided into three volumes, although not quite as neatly as you might imagine. In the first half of book I Velleius propounds the Epicurean position at length; in the second half, Cotta the academic enthusiastically demolishes Velleius’s arguments, with a wealth of exuberant abuse. Book II is devoted to a lengthy exposition of the Stoic position by Balbus. Then Book III consists of Cotta’s extensive criticism of everything Balbus has said.

Three problems with philosophy

The three things I’ve always disliked about philosophy ever since I started reading it at school are:

  1. The terrible state of most of its key texts, many of which exist in such poor shape it’s not at all clear what the authors intended.
  2. The need nearly all philosophers have felt to invent new words and terms to describe their views, terms which invariably lead to endless squabbling among their acolytes and among academics about what they actually mean, resulting in needless obscurity.
  3. The way most of philosophy’s key authors changed and developed their positions, sometimes so much so that their later philosophy ends up completely contradicting their earlier views (Wittgenstein springs to mind).

De rerum deorum demonstrates all three of these problems. Regarding the text, there are gaping holes. The master manuscript, which appears to have been the source of all the later manuscripts which survive, appears to have come to pieces and been reassembled, not in a particularly rational order, and with some big and important sections (like Cotta’s refutations of key Stoic points) altogether missing. Maybe a third of book III is missing.

Then it is patchily organised. Even without this textual confusion, it’s clear that Cicero, when he has a character refuting the previous character’s presentation, often omits key points in what they said and answers points they never made. In other words, even if we had a perfect text, it would still be uneven, and badly assembled. This is because Cicero was copying his arguments from a variety of Greek sources and didn’t manage to fully assimilate them into a smooth flow or argument.

This also explains why the text contains a number of irritating digressions, when Cicero seems to have inserted vaguely relevant topics (such as the origins of the names of gods, pages 147 to 152, or a passage on astronomy) just because he had them to hand and they were sort of relevant to the topic, but which damage the flow of the argument.

To further add to the confusion, there were not one but two main traditions of Stoicism in regard to conceptions of God and Providence, and Cicero doesn’t distinguish clearly between them, either in Balbus’s presentation or in Cotta’s refutation. Early Stoicism was pantheistic, believing that God was just another name for nature and that everything in the world is divinely determined. Later, a more Platonic conception was overlaid onto this, in which God is a free rational deity caring for men, and interfering in the world for their welfare. As you can see, these are two quite distinct beliefs, but they are bundled together in Balbus’s presentation and (in what survives of) Cotta’s refutation.

Mess

All this explains two things: why De rerum deorum has been heavily criticised by commentators and why it is one of Cicero’s less popular texts. The central criticism is that it was written at great speed and so is riddled with inconsistencies in the main argument and littered with distracting digressions. Ross concludes that it was never really finished and Cicero intended to revise, trim and make it more coherent.

In addition, all readers have criticised the way the book just stops, without any kind of summary of the results of its long-winded investigation. If it was intended to be useful, then the most potentially useful part, the conclusion, is missing. Instead Cicero seems to have decided to address to sub-aspects of the problem of gods in the supplementary works, On divination and On fate.

In other words, this book is prime evidence for my case against philosophy, a good example of the way the self-proclaimed ‘lovers of truth’ in fact produce badly organised, badly thought-through, inconsistent texts which are so badly written that even their own pupils can’t agree what they mean and, instead of shedding light on ‘the truth’ serve to sink it miles deeper into oceanic depths of murky obscurity.

The philosophical buffet

In reality:

  • although reading philosophy is entertaining and often intellectually challenging (for example when, as so often, it is written in deliberately obscure language using ad hoc invented terms and phrases designed to tease you away from your normal perceptions or habits of thought);
  • although philosophical debates, especially about ‘morality’ are inevitable, can result in real changes in people’s opinions, in social attitudes and even the law;

nonetheless, there are now so many philosophical schools, systems and arguments that, as with the Bible, almost any position you care to take, from extreme idealism to extreme pragmatism, from moral altruism to cynical selfishness, from rigid obedience to strict laws to the wildest anarchism, have been fully worked out, named, popularised and made into t-shirt slogans.

With the result that, far from being the pursuit of any kind of ‘truth’, the vast realm of philosophic discourse is more like an enormous breakfast buffet where people interested in this kind of thing can choose from a huge range of options, mix and match, and cobble together whichever belief and value systems suit them. In other words, 3,000 years of philosophy has left the world and human beings in even worse conceptual and moral confusion than it found them.

In the following two blog posts I’ll summarise the arguments used in De rerum deorum in detail.


Related links

Roman reviews

Letters of Cicero edited and translated by L.P. Wilkinson (1966)

This is an old book (published in 1966) containing 196 pages of Cicero’s most interesting letters, selected and translated by L.P. Wilkinson. Wilkinson’s introduction is a bit waffly but conveys the key facts: Marcus Tullius Cicero was born in 106 BC and rose to high office in Rome. Having studied philosophy and oratory in Greece, he went on to become the premiere lawyers and orator of his time. He then rose through the set series of official posts or magistracies (the cursus honorem), attaining the post of consul in 63 BC, aged 43. It was towards the end of that year that he had to deal with the notorious Cataline conspiracy.

After a brief exile in 58, to flee his political enemies, in the later 50s he played a key role in trying to effect a compromise between the partisans of Caesar and Pompey. In 51 he was sent to serve as governor of the province of Cilicia in the south of modern-day Turkey, a post he filled with conspicuous rectitude. But it meant he was absent from Rome as the great political crisis between Caesar and Pompey came to a head.

When civil war broke out in January 49, Cicero agonised about choosing a side and eventually plumped for Pompey, still hoping the latter could become the leader who could restore what Cicero optimistically called the ‘harmony of the orders’, and so followed Pompey and his army when they crossed the Adriatic to Greece. After Caesar decisively defeated Pompey at the battle of Pharsalus in August 48, Cicero returned to Rome, where he reluctantly acquiesced in the dictatorship of Caesar.

It is from this period of withdrawal from political life that date most of his written works, including books about oratory, law, the ideal republic, on the duties of the citizen, the nature of the gods and many more.

After the assassination of Caesar in March 44, Cicero threw himself behind the cause of the dictator’s 18-year-old great-nephew, Octavian, in opposition to the crude and brutal Mark Antony, against whom he wrote several vitriolic diatribes. This proved to be a miscalculation, for only a year later Octavian made peace with Antony to form the Second Triumvirate (along with Lepidus), the three partners drew up lists of political enemies to be ‘proscribed’, and Antony put Cicero at the top of his list of opponents to be killed. And so he was.

Cicero’s correspondence

Cicero’s correspondence is ample but slow to get going. There’s nothing from his youth or young manhood i.e. the 90s, 80s or 70s BC. The first letter dates from 68 BC but between that date and 65 there are only eleven letters. There’s nothing from his early career as a lawyer or his campaign to be elected consul. The latter is a particular shame as his consulship, in the year 63, coincided with the conspiracy of the senator Catiline to overthrow the state, which Cicero was instrumental in uncovering. Cicero was instrumental in rounding up the ringleaders (in Rome; Catiline himself remained at large in Italy) and then took the lead, after a fiery debate in the senate, in executing them. (See Sallust’s Catiline Conspiracy and Plutarch’s Life of Cicero.)

Cicero’s correspondence doesn’t become continuous until the year after his consulship, in 62 BC. But from that year until July 43 (when Cicero was executed on the orders of Mark Anthony) more than 900 letters survive, about 835 by him and 90 addressed to him. Of his own letters, half (416) were addressed to his friend, financial adviser, and publisher, Titus Pomponius Atticus, who he describes as:

my constant ally in public affairs, my confidant in private, my partner in every conversation and project.

He wrote so many letters to Atticus because the latter had (very wisely) withdrawn from Rome altogether to live in Athens. In fact ‘Atticus’ is a nickname referring to Pomponius’s preference for Greek culture. Cicero’s other 419 letters are to a wide range of friends, acquaintances and relatives, some 94 named individuals in all.

It is important to note that Cicero and Atticus were not only friends of long standing (possibly they went to school together) but had the further tie that Cicero’s brother, Quintus Tullius Cicero, was married to Atticus’s sister, Pomponia – although it was an unhappy marriage, something Cicero refers to in some of his letters.

Wilkinson

Wilkinson’s introduction is a bit waffly, generalising about how loveable Cicero is and so on, fondly indulgent of his narcissism as most other commentators are. Wilkinson is much better in the short linking passages which precede each batch of letters, generally only a couple of paragraphs long but in which he briefly explains the historical context of each batch and what we know of the events Cicero is describing, from other sources. These linking passages are concise and fascinating.

In the moment

Cicero’s letters are so interesting for two reasons. I suppose the obvious one is that he was a central, or central-ish, figure in the high politics of the last decades of the Roman Republic. I found it dazzling that he writes letters to, and receives replies from, all the key players – Pompey, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Brutus and Octavian.

But he could have done this and the letters still be boring. The real secret of their appeal is Cicero’s immense and eloquent involvement in the politics of his time and because his letters plunge you into the moment. All the histories of late republican Rome which I’ve read, ancient or modern, are written with the benefit of hindsight i.e. they often mix up events with their consequences, giving a sense that events were fore-ordained, fated to happen and are a foregone conclusion, regarding them as done and dusted and fodder for thematic analysis.

Wilkinson’s brief introductions, by contrast, give you a snappy resumé of events up to the moment when the next batch of letters start, and then plunge you into the present of the letters in which none of the characters know what is going to happen next.

And all sway forward on the dangerous flood
Of history, that never sleeps or dies,
And, held one moment, burns the hand. (from To a writer on his birthday by W.H. Auden)

As we read the letters, we are living in the dangerous present, alongside Cicero, sympathising with his efforts to figure out what the hell to do, given the immense press of fast-moving events. As the letters progress, they become more and more dramatic and immersive, and genuinely gripping, as gripping as any thriller.

Political parties?

One thing which surprised me in Wilkinson’s introduction is how confidently he talks about political parties with a capital P – the People’s Party, the Senate Party, the Knights Party. Obviously these were not political parties in the modern sense. All the authorities emphasise this. Instead they were loose and flexible affiliations, generally clustered around powerful individuals, because that was the structure of Roman society at large. The Roman ruling class was based on the notion of rich patrons who were surrounded by a host of ‘clients’, who benefited from their largesse and in return offered services. It was a subtle, complicated, ever-changing flux of relationships – personal, familial, military and political.

Given all this, I was surprised to read Wilkinson very much using the language of ‘parties’ and surprised at how acutely it shed light on events which had been more personalised in other accounts. All the accounts I’ve read tend to focus on individuals and their rivalries and hatreds, for example between Marius and Sulla. But Wilkinson recasts this in terms of ‘parties’.

Thus he sees the rivalry between Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla as not only a fierce personal and professional rivalry (which it undoubtedly was) but as a struggle between the People’s Party of the former and the Senatorial Party of the latter. He explains how Gnaeus Pompey at first appeared to follow in Sulla’s footsteps but, during the 70s, left the Sullan cause and helped pass a series of laws which rolled back all the laws Sulla put in place at the end of the 80s to try and bolster the power of the senate.

Alongside Pompey, was Marcus Licinius Crassus (born 115 BC, so 9 years older than Cicero) the richest man in Rome, who Wilkinson puts at the head of the Equites or Knights, the class of often very rich businessmen who sat, as it were, just beneath the senate in terms of power and prestige.

And coming up on the outside was the young, but poor, and extremely ambitious Julius Caesar, born in 100 BC and so 6 years younger than both Pompey and Cicero. By temperament, and family ties (his aunt had been Marius’s wife) Caesar was the rising star of the People’s Party.

Pompey sponsored a bill which removed control of the juries in trials from the Senate and gave a third of juries to the Equites, thus securing the support of the Knightly Party. And then, after being awarded enormous powers to rid Rome of the pirate scourge 67 BC, Pompey won such overwhelming popularity with the People that he was given huge powers to go east and deal with the ongoing problem of King Mithradates VI of Pontus in 66.

When you see Crassus, Pompey and Caesar as not only extremely ambitious individuals, but as representatives of interest groups or ‘parties’, it makes even more sense that in 60 BC Caesar persuaded the other two to join him in an informal pact to manipulate elections and laws and award each other official positions which suited their interests – the first triumvirate.

Cicero’s initial hopes for Pompey

Wilkinson begins his collection with a letter from Cicero to Pompey, written in 62, the year after Cicero’s consulship (when, as he never stopped reminding people, he claimed to have more or less single-handed saved Rome from overthrow by Catiline and his conspirators).

At this point, before the triumvirate was set up, Cicero was still hero-worshipping Pompey and hoping that he would become an enlightened leader and centre of a circle of intellectuals (such as himself). More importantly that Pompey could straddle the interest groups of the different parties (senate, knights and people) and so effect what Cicero called ‘the harmony of the orders’ i.e. put an end to the continual conflict between the different ‘parties’ and reconcile them to work together for the good of Rome.

Pompey had dramatically demonstrated his dedication to the constitution when, upon returning to Italy from his triumphs in the East, he didn’t march on Rome as Marius and Sulla had done, but simply disbanded his army and returned as a private citizen at the beck of the senate. Good man.

(This first letter establishes a recurring theme of the correspondence which is Cicero’s enormous sense of his own importance. Cicero never loses an opportunity to brag at length how the whole world recognises how he single-handedly saved the state during the Cataline crisis.)

Thus, in this first letter, he expects that, despite his (Pompey’s) recent letter to him (Cicero) being restrained and distant, nonetheless, once he arrives in Rome and learns what a hero Cicero is, he (Pompey) will be all the readier to allow Cicero to consort with him in private and in politics. ‘Once you realise how heroically I saved Rome you will want to hang out with me’.

Timeline of Cicero’s letters

63 BC

Cicero serves as consul. November to December the Catiline conspiracy. After a debate in the Senate a vote was taken choosing to execute the known conspirators and, as a result, Cicero promptly led five of them to Rome’s gaol where they were garrotted without a trial. This prompt but rash action, in a moment of national crisis, was to haunt Cicero for the rest of his life and be used against him by his enemies who claimed it was illegal and itself deserving the death penalty. It was the threat of prosecution for it which sent Cicero into self-imposed exile in March 58. And it helps explain the boastfulness when you realise every time he mentioned it he was also in part exonerating himself, building up his defence with everyone he spoke to or wrote to.

62

First letter to Pompey insisting he ought to take him (Cicero) seriously as the man who saved Rome the year before.

61

January: Long gossipy letter to Atticus mentioned the scandalous affair of Publius Clodius Pulcher impersonating a woman to enter Caesar’s house during a women-only religious ceremony. Bitchy remarks about Pompey. June: Cicero describes the trial of Clodius in colourful terms. Cicero intervened to demolish Clodius’s alibi, thus making a mortal enemy who terrified him into exile three years later. From mid-61 to 58 Cicero missed the help of his brother, Quintus Cicero, who went to serve as governor of Asia Minor.

60

January: Cicero complains to Atticus about not having anyone to trust. June: another letter about Clodius’s ongoing intrigues. He was rumoured to have had incestuous affair with his sister, Clodia, who features in the poetry of Catullus as his beloved ‘Lesbia’. Clodia was married to that year’s consul, Metellus. Cicero says she’s a disgrace and he ‘hates’ her.

Julius Caesar invited Cicero to join with him, Crassus and Pompey in what would become known as the Triumvirate. Cicero declined out of loyalty to the constitution.

59

Julius Caesar takes up office for a year as consul. He brings in a Land Bill for the settlement of his servicemen. He ignored the opposition of the senate and vetos by the tribunes i.e. a clear indication that the triumvirate were going to ignore constitutional checks. Next, the tax collectors got a remission of one third on the price they’d paid to collect taxes in the East, to please their representative, Crassus. As his reward for organising all this, the other two arranged for Caesar to be made governor for 5 years of Cisalpine Gaul, Illyrium and Transalpine Gaul. Caesar also married his young daughter, Julia, to Pompey, in order to cement their political bond. She was 17 and Pompey was 47, but in fact he became devoted to her.

Summer: Cicero writes to Atticus telling him the actions of the triumvirate have created a climate of fear, disgust and universal despair at the loss of political freedoms and the state of ‘general servility’. Cicero tells Atticus how at the gladiatorial shows and the theatre Pompey is hissed and booed. Caesar offers Cicero a job as one of the 20 Land Commissioners deciding which land should be assigned to ex-soldiers, but Cicero realises it’s a trap i.e. will associate him with the regime and lose him the support of ‘loyalists’.

58

The Triumvirate arrange for the patrician Clodius to be adopted into a plebeian family so he could be elected as one of the ten tribunes of the plebs. Clodius introduced laws which benefited them all. Caesar encouraged him to persecute Cicero because the triumvirs feared his continued opposition to them jeopardised their programme.

Thus it was that Clodius was encouraged to propose a law threatening exile to anyone who executed a Roman citizen without a trial. Cicero, having executed members of the Catiline conspiracy four years previously without a formal trial, was the clear target of this proposal. After senators and colleagues failed to offer him the assurances he needed, Cicero wisely departed Italy for Greece. A few days later Clodius put forward another bill formally exiling Cicero and confiscating his property. Cicero’s house on the Palatine Hill was destroyed by Clodius’ supporters, as were his villas in Tusculum and Formiae. On the ruins of the Rome house Clodius had a temple dedicated to Libertas built.

The more dangerous, because principles and unbending, opponent of the triumvirs, Cato, was, via another of Clodius’s proposals, sent as governor to Cyprus to get him out of the way.

[What strikes the casual reader of both the general background and Cicero’s letters is how immensely personalised this all was. It’s as if ‘the state’ only consisted of half a dozen people who make and break friendships like schoolboys in a playground.]

April: a letter to Atticus from Brindisi saying he’d love to come to Athens. A sad and moving letter to his wife, Terentia, who he calls the ‘best and most devoted of wives’. She has stayed behind in Rome to see their houses confiscated etc. Practical arrangements about what to do with their large staff of slaves now they have no house. Love to his wife and daughter (married to Piso) and little son, Marcus.

 57

Caesar has gone to Gaul to take up what would turn into 8 years of successful campaigning (see Caesar’s Gallic Wars). Having created a leader of street gangs and proposer of strident laws in Publius Clodius Pulcher, Pompey found him impossible to control, and begins to lobby for Cicero’s return. Clodius’s gangs riot but Pompey helped set up a rival and opposing gang leader, Titus Annius Milo, and got him elected tribune of the plebs, who proposed a law repealing Cicero’s exile. The start of a five year period of unpredictable street battles between the rival gangs and supporters. For example, on 23 January 57, when Clodius tried to use a force of gladiators to block a move to recall Cicero from exile, Milo arrested Clodius’ gladiators. Milo was subsequently attacked by Clodius’ gangs. Milo attempted to prosecute Clodius for instigating this violence but was unsuccessful. The warfare between Milo and Clodius’s gangs became a feature of Roman life. But meanwhile, with the support of Pompey and that year’s consul, Lenthulus Spinther, Cicero’s exile – which he had spent mostly in Salonika – was ended.

September: letter to Atticus rejoicing at being back in Rome. Far more than that, it celebrates in hyperbolic terms what Cicero describes as widespread celebrations of his return, so that at every city and town he was feted by cheering crowds, received delegations of civic worthies etc. Cheering crowds at the gates of Rome, in the forum, on the Capitol. He is immediately back in the buzz of political life and makes a speech in support of a motion to award Pompey control of the corn supply, seeing as there’s a shortage. Fascinating detail of the way the consuls proposed the law giving Pompey control of the corn supply throughout the empire for 5 years, but then Messius introduced an amendment giving Pompey a fleet and army and complete authority over regional governors. Superpowers. This is evidence for the case that the Republic collapsed not because of a handful of ambitious men, but because it was no longer up to administering such a huge area. Anyway, he also hints that all is not well in his household, first hint of deteriorating relationship with Terentia.

November: description of how a mob led by Clodius knocked down Cicero’s half-rebuilt house then incited them to set fire to Cicero’s brother’s house and then ran amok through the city promising to free slaves who joined them. He describes how on 11 November he and his entourage were proceeding along the Sacred Way when Clodius’s gang appeared and produced stones, clubs and swords so that Cicero et al were forced to take refuge in a friend’s house and barricade themselves in.

Clodius is a one-man evidence for the argument that the collapse of law and order in Rome set the scene for the end of the republic. Cicero describes feeling resentfully jealous of Milo and his complete lack of scruples, Milo openly saying he will murder Clodius if he can (though it would be four more riotous years till he did).

56

February: Letter to his brother Quintus describing the attempted trial of Milo. When Pompey attempted to speak for him, Clodius’s gang erupted in shouts and catcalling, then a near riot broke out and Cicero fled. In the following days there was a meeting of the senate, proposals that the riots amounted to sedition. Cato made a violent speech against Pompey who then stands and makes a measured reply. Cicero makes the shrewdest comment on Cato that I’ve read:

from the highest principles he sometimes does the state harm (p.39)

Pompey confides in Cicero that there is a conspiracy against his (Pompey’s) life. He thinks Crassus is encouraging Cato’s attacks while continuing to fund Clodius’s gangs. Cicero allies himself with Milo and the constitutionalists.

April: a sweet letter to Atticus asking him to send some of his slaves or servants who are expert at book management to help restore his library.

In April 56 Cicero made a career-changing mistake. He still thought he could break up the Triumvirate with a view to restoring traditional senatorial rule. The strategy he chose was to launch an attack on Caesar’s Land Bill, which sequestered land to give to his war veterans. But it had the opposite effect, for Pompey supported Caesar’s measure. Indeed it led to the entrenching of triumvirate power when Caesar called Pompey, Crassus and 120 senators to a meeting at Lucca in his province of Cisalpine Gaul, where the pacts behind the Triumvirate were reconfirmed. They agreed that Caesar’s command in Gaul was to be extended by a further five years, that Pompey and Crassus would be consuls for 55, the former with responsibility for Italy and Spain, but remaining in Italy to keep an eye on Rome while the latter went hunting for glory against the Parthian Empire in the East. He had for some years been complaining about the spinelessness of the ‘nobles’, especially when they failed to stand up to Clodius about his exile. Now his patience snapped and he washed his hands of the senatorial party (‘had they not led me on, then ratted and thrown me over…I must finish with them’), made his peace with the Triumvirate (‘let me endeavour to make friends with those that have power’) and retired from politics, concentrating on his writing (p.55).

May: The famous letter to the historian Lucius Lucceius unashamedly sucking up to him and suggesting he write an historical account of the Catiline conspiracy giving pride of place, of course, to Cicero’s heroic achievements in saving the state! Interestingly, he describes in detail his conviction that a mere chronicle of events is boring; what brings it alive is describing the vicissitudes of fortune, the rise, setbacks and triumphs of individuals. This is interesting in itself but indicates the gulf between the ancient and modern world: what interests us is analysis which is undertaken on the basis of a whole range of modern theories, economic, sociological, political, Marxist along with various schools of psychology. By contrast with the web of sophisticated interpretative theories which modern readers and commentators have at their fingertips, the ancients had just one: Fortune and its impact on the rise and fall of great men.

May: letter to Atticus bemoaning his situation whereby if he speaks out about what is right in politics, he is thought mad; if he agrees with the triumvirate, he is thought servile; if he says nothing, he feels crushed and helpless.

May: letters to Lentulus Spinther who, as consul in 57, supported Cicero’s return from exile and is now governor of Cilicia. Cicero describes how the triumvirate have succeeded in gaining their goals beyond their wildest dreams and how he is being realistic and attaching himself to Pompey. He laments that he once looked forward, after a lifetime of service, to giving independent advice in the Senate. But now that vision and world have disappeared. There is now only a choice between ‘humbly agreeing or disagreeing to no purpose.’ ‘The whole essence of the Senate, law courts and the State in general has changed’ (p.61).

55

Cicero sent his brother, Quintus Tullius Cicero, to join Caesar in Gaul. Caesar repelled an incursion by two Germanic tribes and then made his first expedition to Britain. In November Crassus departed Rome to sail to Asia (Turkey) with a view to heading on to Syria to raise the forces for his ill-fated campaign against the Parthian Empire.

April: letter to Atticus from his country house in Cuma where he laments his impotence in politics but:

The more I am robbed of my relish for material pleasures by the thought of the political situation, the more comfort and recreation I find in literature. (p.61)

September: long letter to Marcus Marius giving descriptions of a festival which the former missed and Cicero says he would have hated, describing the bad plays, terrible acting and excessive props; the grimness of the gladiator games and animal hunts, with a word for how the killing of the elephants elicited not pleasure but horror.

54

Cicero’s brother, Quintus Tullius Cicero, took part in Caesar’s second expedition to Britain, which is referred to in Cicero’s letters to him. Julius Caesar’s daughter, Julia, died, aged just 22, leaving her husband, Pompey, bereft. She had provided an important link between the two men and from this point they began to drift apart. Caesar tried to re-secure Pompey’s support by offering him his great-niece in marriage, but Pompey declined.

Spring: an uneasily sycophantic letter to Julius Caesar recommending a friend and colleague Gaius Trebatius Testa for service in Caesar’s army in Gaul.

June: letter to his brother Quintus Cicero. These letters reveal an effort by Cicero to really ingratiate himself with Caesar, to seek his friendship and approval. He regrets being slow to cultivate Caesar’s friendship and promises his brother he will now speed up. These letters with their record of who he’s recommending to who for what position or post, with whose support or opposition, take us into the network of friendships, family and professional and political obligations, alliances, rivalries and enmities which characterised Rome.

September: a famous letter to his brother describing the building works being done to the latter’s villa at Arce and problems with the builder, Diphilus.

October: fascinating letter to his brother describing progress on his book on politics, The Republic. He had cast it in nine books in the form of discussions between Scipio Africanus and his literary circle in the 120s BC. However, when he had it read out at his house in Tusculum in the presence of (the 32-year-old) Gaius Sallustius Crispus, the latter said it would have much more power if it was set in the present day and had Cicero himself as a speaker. This shook his confidence in his conception and he’s now reconsidering.

December: letter to Gaius Trebatius Testa who, as we saw, Cicero recommended to Caesar to be his legal counsel.

53

In June 53 Marcus Crassus was killed leading Roman legions against the Parthian Empire at the Battle of Carrhae in Syria. (See the description in Plutarch’s Life of Crassus.) The Triumvirate was thus ended and became a duumvirate, with an uneasy peace between Caesar and Pompey lasting for the next four years. Milo made a bid for one of the consulships for 52 while Clodius was standing for the praetorship. Milo had won popular support by staging extravagant games and enjoyed the support of the Optimates but Pompey supported Clodius. Milo and Clodius’s supporters clashed in the streets leading to such a breakdown of order that the elections were declared void.

52

In January 52 Milo and Clodius and their respective entourages met by chance on a provincial road outside Rome and a scuffle turned into a fight during which Clodius was wounded then killed. Clodius’s followers brought his body back to Rome and laid it in the Senate House which, after more rioting, they set fire to and burned down. As a result the Senate elected Pompey as sole consul for that year to restore order. Cicero was pleased that the man who had him exiled was now dead and, when Milo was brought to trial for murder, defended him in a speech which became famous, Pro Milone. True to the spirit of the times, though, Clodius’s supporters made such a racket and surrounded the proceedings in such number that Cicero was intimidated into delivering the speech poorly and it couldn’t be heard (though he took care to have it published soon after). Milo was convicted and sent into exile at Massilia.

Caesar was granted permission to stand for the consulship in his absence, being far away on campaign in Gaul – but a powerful party in the Senate wanted him both stripped of his command in Gaul and prevented from holding office back in Rome. Marcellus specified the date 1 March 50 for when Caesar should be relieved of his role. This was to become the crux which sparked the civil war.

51

May: letter to Atticus complaining about the behaviour of his sister, Pomponia, to her husband i.e. Cicero’s brother, Quintus. ‘I never saw anything so polite as my brother or as rude as your sister’ (p.71).

Before he left for Cilicia Cicero secured Marcus Caelius Rufus, a clever unprincipled young man, to be his eyes and ears in Rome (see section, below).

May: first of Caelius’s letters explaining that he has sub-contracted writing out a really thorough account of all the acts of the senate and the assemblies, plus all stories, rumours, jokes and gossips, to another hand. This is just an accompanying letter with highlights.

June: letter to Atticus en route to Cilica, stopping over at Athens. He has behaved well and prevented his staff using their privileges to requisition or spend excessively. But oh he is not looking forward to this governorship.

June: letter to Gaius Memmius who was the dedicatee of Lucretius’s famous poem On the nature of the universe. It’s in fact a boring letter about the preservation of a building once belonging to Epicurus.

July: a suite of letters telling Atticus about the journey by boat from Athens via various islands to Epidaurus.

August: Caelius writes with news of the debate about the end of Caesar’s command in Gaul.

Cicero writes to Atticus saying his governorship commenced on his arrival in Laodicea on 31 July and he is bored to death. He describes the state of the province of Cilicia, which has been mulcted by his predecessor and Roman tax collectors: on all sides he hears complaints about the amounts demanded and the brutality of his predecessor as governor, Appius Claudius Pulcher, in punishing anyone who objected. As the natives have realised, Cicero is determined to be fair, they flock to him in adulation.

[It’s worth pausing a moment over this Appius Claudius Pulcher (97 to 49) because he’s such a good example of the way family ties were vital in understanding the minutiae of Roman politics and society. Appius Claudius Pulcher was head of the senior line of the most powerful family of the patrician Claudii. The Claudii were one of the five leading families (gentes maiores or ‘Greater Clans’) which had dominated Roman social and political life from the earliest years of the republic. He was also the elder brother of Publius Clodius Pulcher the rabble rouser who was responsible for driving Cicero into exile in 58. In the summer 55 Appius married his younger daughter to Pompey’s eldest son, Gnaeus Pompeius (born c.79 BC), thus ensuring his election to the consulate for the following year. He served as consul in 54, along with Cato’s brother-in-law Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. Then he was proconsul for Cilicia for two years, 53 to 51, when Cicero took over. Elected censor in 50 with Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus (cos.58), Appius was promptly prosecuted for electoral bribery by Cicero’s new son-in-law Publius Cornelius Dolabella. At some stage he had married his other daughter to Marcus Junius Brutus and so Brutus now came to his defence, along with the famous advocate, Quintus Hortensius, and he was acquitted. It’s important to note that Cicero was very cautious and politic both in his letters to Appius and in any comments about him because he knew he would need Appius’s support to be voted the triumph he so dearly hoped for. Thus the byzantine personal relationships of Roman society and politics.]

Letter to Appius laying out how friendly and positive Cicero has been, and reproaching Appius for refusing to meet him, moving to the furthers part of the province and taking the cohorts with him.

There’s a running thread in letters of Caelius to Cicero asking for panthers for the games which, as aedile, he is charged with arranging. Where are my panthers? Just give the orders for them to be captured. Caelius has sent people to arrange their transport back to Rome.

October: Caelius writes to tell Cicero the latest developments in Rome on the issue of whether Caesar can stand for consul in his absence. Caesar wants to do this is so he can pass straight from being commander of the army in Gaul to being consul without a break. If there is a break and he returns to Rome as a private citizen, he knows that his enemies have compiled a list of his alleged misdemeanours in Gaul and will immediately prosecute him, with the very real risk that he will be sent into exile and stripped of citizenship, thus ending his career.

November: letter to Caelius. It always comes as a surprise to realise how military these men are. Thus Cicero gives a detailed account of the military affairs of his province, his various campaigns against enemy peoples and the fact that his writing this letter from a Roman army which he is supervising in the siege of Pindenissus, on Mount Amanus (which he was to take after 57 days). This was the military campaign upon which Cicero was later to base his (repeated) request for a triumph to be held in his honour.

50

Caelius writes to tell Cicero that Appius is being impeached for corruption during his governorship of Cilicia, but that Pompey (whose son is married to Appius’s daughter) is actively supporting him. [Later that year, in August, Cicero learns that his daughter, Tullia, fairly recently widowed, has married Publius Cornelius Dolabella. This placed Cicero in an awkward position because this same Dolabella led the prosecution of Appius for corruption at the same time as Cicero was trying to cosy up to him (Appius).]

February: a long letter to Atticus demonstrating in great detail Cicero’s attempts to be fair to natives in the case of the Roman moneylender Marcus Scaptius who was insisting on repayment of a debt from the people of Salamis on Cyprus at a rate of 48% compound interest. Cicero calls off the moneylenders soldiers, who had been threatening the Salaminians, and remits the interest to 12%.

May: a letter from Cato explaining why he proposed a vote of thanksgiving to Cicero in the Senate to recognise his good governance of Cilicia (p.94).

At the end of July Cicero’s governorship expired, he packed his bags and left Cilicia. But he didn’t reach Italy till November and Rome till January 49. During the second half of the year the political situation in Rome darkened. Various factions were lobbying for Caesar to return from Gaul and surrender his command, some in order that he could take up the consulship, some that he be arrested, or other types of legalistic intervention. The point being that everyone agreed that Caesar’s return would trigger some great crisis.

August: In a series of letters, Caelius gives a running commentary, explaining that the crux is that Pompey insists Caesar cannot take up his consulship until he has given up his army; but Caesar refuses to give up his army because only with it does he feel safe. Caesar has suggested that both he and Pompey give up their armies at the same time, but Pompey refuses. Impasse (pp.97 and 100).

October: Cicero writes to Atticus that he has received letters asking for his support from both Pompey and Caesar. The former he assesses as doing the right thing by the constitution, but the latter has incomparably the stronger army. So what should he do?

A comic note is introduced in the fact that, as the republic slides towards civil war, Cicero’s main concern is fussing to Atticus about lobbying the senate to be awarded a triumph for his campaigns in Cilicia.

Some of the letters describe the moment when Gaius Scribonius Curio went over to active support of Caesar, having been paid an enormous bribe to do so. Curio had been elected tribune and promptly used his veto to block any attempt to recall Caesar or separate him from his army. On 1 December 50 he proposed yet again that Pompey and Caesar lay down their arms simultaneously but it was vetoed by other tribunes. Instead Pompey accepted command of the army in Italy, just as Caesar was heading over the Alps with the army of Gaul. On the day his term of office expired (10 December) Curio went straight to Caesar at Ravenna and urged him to march on Rome. Caesar had his loyal supporter Mark Antony lined up to step into Curio’s shoes as tribune and continue supporting him.

December: At Pompeii Cicero met Pompey who was friendly and supportive of his request for a triumph. Pompey tells him his estrangement from Caesar is complete. In his last letter before civil war breaks out, Cicero laments that they should all have resisted Caesar before he was powerful. Now he is too powerful. But he equally laments that there is no obvious patriotic party in Rome, just different interest groups none of which have the Republic, as such, at heart.

49

In early January, Pompey’s father-in-law, Scipio, proposed to the senate that Caesar be forced to lay down his military command in Gaul. The new tribunes, Mark Antony and Quintus Cassius, tried to use their veto against this but were physically ejected from the Senate. In fear of their lives, they fled Rome and reached Rimini on the north-east coast of Italy on 10 January. On the night of 11 January Caesar led his legions across the little river Rubicon. The significance of this was that the Rubicon formed the border between Cisalpine Gaul, where Caesar legitimately was governor and military commander, and Italy proper, where he was not, and where to lead legions was expressly against the law.

Cicero arrived in Rome after his long, roundabout journey back from Cilicia the next day, on January 12. His letters explode with drama as panic grips Rome and Pompey and his supporters first of all flee Rome to the south-east, then move on to Brundisium which they barricade and fortify, and then depart Italy altogether for north-west Greece.

During these feverish days Cicero sends letters to his faithful freedman and servant, Tyro, with updates on the situation, and to Atticus agonising about what to do. For me what stood out is a sentiment he repeats several times, which is the discovery that ‘on both sides there are people who actually want to fight.’ (p.108) This is the truth that dare not speak its name in liberalism: the college-educated middle class and women want peace; but there is always a significant minority who let themselves get worked up enough to declare peace shameful etc and determine to fight come what may, ‘Death or glory’ etc. Thus the eminently sane, rational and civilised Cicero is bewildered to discover ‘the amazing passion’ which has gripped so many of his acquaintance in Rome.

Very quickly Cicero realises ‘the improvidence and negligence’ of his side, of Pompey, the senate and the consuls, none of whom have made adequate preparations. He realises immediately that it was a fatal mistake for the Pompeians and constitutionalists to abandon Rome.

On 16 February he writes to Pompey himself, saying he is holding the area south of Rome he was tasked with (the senate divided Italy into provinces and assigned governors for the duration of the crisis). But he writes to Atticus fairly certain that Pompey will flee and, sure enough, on 17 March Pompey evacuated his army of 30,000, plus most of the senate, the 2 consuls and tribunes across the Adriatic to Greece. Cicero tells Atticus about a face to face meeting with Caesar who begged him to come to Rome to discuss the issue further. (Persuading Cicero to stay would be a big propaganda coup for Caesar and persuade many other waverers to say and thus validate his regime.)

In April Cicero decided to join Pompey but not because he thought it would save the republic, which he now regards as finished; or because he thought Pompey would win, having displayed such indecision and fear. But in case people think he is ungrateful to the man who helped end his exile.

April: Cicero’s friend Marcus Caelius is on Caesar’s side and writes an impassioned letter warning him not to go over to Pompey, especially at this point when it has become clear Caesar will win. What would be the point?

May: his beloved daughter Tullia had a baby boy, born prematurely. In June he wrote to his wife, Terentia, telling her he is aboard the ship which will take him across the Adriatic to join Pompey, and to go and stay in one of their country houses and so avoid the war areas.

48

During the next few troubled years there are few letters. Having secured the flight of Pompey and his army, Caesar marched all the way to Spain where he defeated all of Pompey’s seven legions and secured the peninsula. In September he returned to Rome and undertook a suite of reforming legislation. In the spring of 48, having built up sufficient fleet, Caesar took his army across the Adriatic and besieged Pompey at Dyrrhachium. Here he suffered a confusing defeat so struck camp and headed east into Greece to relieve pressure on a Caesarian legion facing attack by Pompey’s father-in-law Scipio. Pompey shadowed Caesar and eventually, against his better judgement was persuaded by his camp followers of politicians, to give Caesar battle. He lost the battle of Pharsalus in August 48 and fled to Egypt where he was murdered. Cicero missed Pharsalus having remained ill at a camp on the coast. After the defeat, he opted not to join the hard core Pompeians – Labienus, Cato, Scipio and Pompey’s sons – but returned to Italy where he was grudgingly allowed to stay in Brundisium by Mark Antony who Caesar had appointed his deputy in Rome while he pursued the war in Egypt, Asia and Spain.

November: Cicero writes to Atticus bewailing his fate. How can he secure his return to Rome? He is worried about is family. He doesn’t regret joining Pompey and is upset by his miserable murder.

47

June: To Atticus he says he understands Caesar is in a tight spot in Alexandria. Meanwhile he just wants to be allowed to leave Brundisium, no matter how angry the Caesarians are with him. He is saddened by news of Marcus Caelius Rufus.

Caelius sided with Julius Caesar against Pompey in the civil war, warning Cicero not to align his fortunes with Pompey. In 48 he was rewarded with the office of praetor peregrinus. However, when his proposed program of debt relief was opposed by the senate and he was suspended from office, he joined in a rebellion against Caesar which was quickly crushed and Caelius was killed.

Cicero is troubled by the divorce of his beloved daughter Tullia from Dolabella who turns out to be a swine. If Dolabella divorces her Cicero will get back the dowry he paid for her, which was not inconsiderable.

At the end of 47 Cicero divorced his wife of 30 years, Terentia. He has confirmed that she has been swindling him over money for years, and he is fed up with her bad temper. It’s worth noting she was a true religious believer and devout in her worship of the gods, something Cicero teased her about.

46

After campaigns in Egypt, Asia Minor and Spain, Caesar finally returned to Italy. Here he met with Cicero and formally pardoned him, allowing him to return to Rome. He kept his head down, settled in his country estate at Tusculum, and devoted himself to literature. Many commentators think these among the most momentous years of western civilisation, for in the next three years he produced a series of works which invented philosophical discourse in Latin and popularised to the Romans and, later, for all western civilisation, the ideas of the great Greek philosophers.

In December 47 Caesar crossed to Tunisia to take on the Pompeian forces there. It took till April when he wiped them out at the battle of Thapsus. Cato, the great politician and inflexible moralist, committed suicide at the garrison city of Utica.

Cicero agonises about whether to deliver a eulogy for Cato, who was great but unwise. Any praise will only bring criticism on his head from the Caesarians.

April: letters to Marcus Terentius Varro, the polymath and a prolific author, giving the advice to lie low and study, to live with their books and, if they can no longer advise from the senate, to offer advice from the library and study.

July: five letters to Lucius Papirius Paetus, who has warned him about anti-Cicero gossip in Caesar’s circle, reassuring him that his policy, now that Caesar has triumphed utterly, is to do or say nothing to offend Caesar or his supporters. He discusses the merits of opening a sort of school for student orators, amid jokes about haute cuisine and eating peacocks, the kind of luxury talk Cicero absent from his letters till now. He describes a dinner party with unexpectedly celebrity company (Cytheris, a famous actress) and how, nowadays, deprived of political action and the freedom to speak his mind independently, there’s nothing he enjoys more than dining with friends, addressing his wit to whatever subject crops up and turning grumbling into laughter. In various ways he reformulates the same basic thought: that he is lucky to be alive and that they must obey the powers that be:

What will happen is whatever pleases the powers that be; and power will always be with those that have the arms. We ought therefore to be happy with what we are allowed. (p.139)

[The calendar: throughout 46 and 45 Caesar carried out widespread reforms. The most notable of these was reforming the calendar. Because of the discrepancy between the Roman year of 355 days and the actual solar year of 365.242 days, a large discrepancy had opened up, with the Roman calendar 2 months out of true. Caesar consulted mathematicians and had 67 extra days inserted between November and December 46, gave some of the months extra days to being the total up to 365, and instituted the idea of adding an extra day to the calendar every four years. A reform which survives, in essentials, to this day.]

45

After defeat in north Africa the surviving Pompeians rallies in Spain, under the great survivor Titus Labienus and Pompey’s sons. At the end of 46 Caesar went there with an army and eventually brought them to battle and defeated them at Munda on 17 March 45.

To Cassius he writes a brief letter explaining his new mode of life, explaining that: ‘I am ashamed to be a slave, so I make a show of being busy over other things than politics’ (p.140)

In February his beloved daughter Tullia died, leading to a series of letters from condoling friends, Cicero’s replies, and then his plans to have a permanent shrine built to her.

March: long letter from Servius Sulpicius offering carefully thought through advice on managing his grief. Cicero movingly explains to him that he had lost everything else in life, all his public works and political actions and the law courts, everything, and Tullia was the one good thing left to him and now she is dead.

In all these letters Cicero refers to Caesar rather spookily as ‘he’ by whose patience and generosity they now live, creating the sense of an all-powerful dictator who suffers his subjects to live and a painful sense of having lost his freedom to say and do whatever he wants. Against this backdrop it is striking to have a letter (March) addressed directly to Caesar and recommending to his service a young man named Precilius.

More correspondence with Atticus about buying the land and paying for a mausoleum to be erected to Tullia. Then (May) he has clearly published a eulogy to Cato because he writes about the invective against Cato written by Caesar. He doesn’t give a summary or even any of the arguments, which is irritating because the invective has disappeared, but then Cicero’s letters contain almost nothing about the content of his or anyone else’s writings, a big omission.

May: Atticus seems to have suggested Cicero write a letter to Caesar full of advice but Cicero says he can’t bring himself to; not out of shame, although he is ashamed to be still alive, but because he can’t find anything to say. ‘I would rather he regretted my not writing than disapproved of what I wrote…’

June: a letter to Atticus about some of the philosophical discourses he’s working on and, as usual, he doesn’t discuss the philosophy at all, but just the mechanics of the writing, namely who to dedicate the work to (he is dedicating his dialogue On Aims to Brutus, as Atticus has advised) and swapping round the names of some of the characters who appear in other dialogues, to please figures like Varro, Catulus and Lucullus.

July: this theme continues in a letter he writes to Varro accompanying a copy of his dialogue, the Academica, explaining that he has cast him, Varro, as one of the chief speakers, himself (Cicero) one of the others. As usual there is no indication whatsoever of the content, the subject matter or the actual arguments.

July: he tells Atticus he attended a triumph given to Caesar in Rome, where the dictator’s statue was next to Victory’s. He had been nerving himself to write some kind of official letter of advice to Caesar, such as ought to come from such a distinguished statesman, but seeing this procession put him off.

December: Cicero describes to Atticus that Caesar came and stayed in person at one of his country homes. The throng was immense – he brought 2,000 soldiers! But Caesar was affable and polite, did some administrative work, walked along the seashore, had a bath and at heartily a well prepared meal. They kept off politics and discussed literature so nothing unwise was said and Cicero didn’t offend his guest and so the whole visit passed off without embarrassment. But he wouldn’t like it to happen again.

December: a letter to Manius Curius describing the scandalous incident whereby on the last day of the year, the sitting consul Quintus Maximus died in the morning and, hearing this, Caesar gave the consulship for the remainder of the year i.e. for the afternoon and evening, to a friend Gaius Caninius Rebilus. This allows Cicero to make a few weak jokes, such as: During Caninius’s consulship no-one had lunch. And: Such was Caninius’s vigilance that during his entire consulship he didn’t sleep a wink! But he declares himself sickened by Caesar’s contemptuous, offhand treatment of the great offices of state.

[Personally I find this attitude a little hard to credit and to sympathise with. It would make sense if the republic whose loss Cicero laments had been a Scandiniavian style paradise of social democracy. But even a reading of his letters indicates the political instability sometimes descending to chaos of the previous two decades, from the Catiline conspiracy through to the violent street fighting between Clodius and Milo’s gangs in the late 50s, with politicians routinely attacked in the street and fleeing for their lives. To a very senior political figure like Cicero ‘freedom’ might have a particular meaning, namely that he could speak out and play a role in the senate. But the reader suspects that to many ordinary Romans, peace and stability was more important than ‘freedoms’ none of them enjoyed, and that’s without mentioning the up to 20% of the population who were slaves. Persuasive though Cicero’s self pity can be, this is essentially rich man’s discourse.]

44

Caesar’s assassination on 15 March in a meeting of the senate came as a great shock to Cicero. Although the conspirators ran out of the building waving their bloodsoaked daggers and shouting Cicero’s name (!) he was not approached to join the conspiracy and was, apparently, as surprised as everyone else. There is a gap around the event itself and the first letter we have is from 7 April, 3 weeks later.

[To my surprise he describes the assassins – or liberatores as they liked to style themselves – as ‘heroes’ who have behaved ‘most gloriously and magnificently’. He says the assassination ‘consoles’ him (p.160). At the same time the impression his letters give is of chaos in domestic politics, as the Senate votes to ratify all Caesar’s reforms but at the same time to declare an amnesty for the assassins. He shows the first signs of realising that assassinating the dictator won’t lead to the restoration of the republican constitution, but to a further sequence of civil wars because the republican constitution was irreparably broken. He also describes (albeit sketchily) something other accounts miss, which is the immediate impact of Caesar’s assassination on the empire. Thus war seems to be continuing against Parthia, but to everyone’s surprise there isn’t a widespread uprising in Gaul, whose leaders politely report to the Roman governor, Aurelius, that they will follow his orders. Having read Caesar’s long, gruelling account of his Gallic Wars, I am very surprised there was no uprising in Gaul and would be interested to read an explanation why.]

April: letter to Atticus lamenting the fact that by the second day after the assassination, which happened to fall on the feast of the Liberalia, it was already too late to move decisively to restore the republic, because on that day the Senate met and agreed that all of Caesar’s acts and laws should be confirmed, that his funeral be held in the Forum and his will read in public. Nobody suspected that Mark Antony would seize the opportunity to not only read the will, but show the mob Caesar’s body, and his toga gashed with bloody holes, and so inflame them that they would grab firebrands from the funeral pyre and run off to burn down the houses of the leading conspirators (and Cicero’s house, though he had no part in the conspiracy) with the result that the so-called liberatores (chief among them Brutus and Cassius) would be forced to flee the city they had supposedly liberated.

In April Octavian arrived in Rome, Caesar’s great-nephew who he had adopted as his legal heir. The Caesarians, led by Mark Antony, spurned him so he realised he’d have to worm his way up the ladder using the republicans. And so he curried favour with Cicero, among others.

April: letter to Atticus explaining that Octavian is staying with him and is surrounded by people breathing slaughter against the liberators. Already Cicero has a bad feeling that ‘our side’ will go under. Amazingly, he admits to wishing Caesar were still here because at least he had principles. In his absence Mark Antony is proposing all sorts of corrupt procedures, based on memos fraudulently claimed to have been signed off by Caesar, specifically a request to recall one Sextus Clodius from exile.

He writes in praise of Dolabella who had had a memorial to Caesar which his supporters had erected in the Forum demolished and its constructors thrown off the Tarpeian rock or crucified!

There’s a running thread of concern over his student-aged son Marcus, who is studying philosophy in Athens. Atticus gives reports of him, as does a friend, Trebonius, who looks him up in Athens. This is the same conspirator Trebonius who was tasked with keeping Mark Anthony in conversation outside the building where the other conspirators murdered Caesar.

June: he hears that the Senate will appoint Brutus and Cassius commissioners for supplying Rome with corn from Asia Minor and Sicily. Then he describes to Atticus the scene when he visited Brutus at his place in Anzio and, in front of the latter’s wife and children, was asked whether he, Brutus, should accept the Senate’s commission. He was in the middle of doing so when the impetuous Cassius burst in. Good God, it’s like a movie, it’s like being in the room with Lenin and Stalin arguing, it’s history at first hand. I am surprised to discover that Cicero thought Mark Antony should have been murdered at the same time as Caesar. Now he is emerging as the central political figure, but far more corrupt and tyrannical than Caesar had been. And the liberators who, as we’ve seen, he knows well and meets and advises, they have ‘No plan, no principle, no system’ (p.169).

Almost comically, there is a letter about Cleopatra who Cicero heartily disliked and found insolent and aloof. She had been staying in Rome under Caesar’s protection and fled the city when he was murdered.

There’s a slight oddity which is that the manuscript collections include 2 letters from Brutus and Cassius to Mark Antony. He was consul for 44 and they were praetors so they had to do business, but very uneasily since he had vowed to capture and execute them but had to acquiesce in the Senate’s decision to send them to governorships in Greece. They had asked Cicero whether they should return to Rome, even briefly, before they set out and he strongly advised against it.

August: Cicero tells Atticus he had set sail for Greece when a wind blew him back to Italy and he got messages of a big meeting happening in the Senate and none other than Brutus came to see him on foot. He praised Piso, Caesar’s father in law, who publicly stood up to Antony in the Senate.

Cicero returned to Rome but refused to attend the meeting of the Senate on 1 September when Caesar was officially deified. Antony made a furious speech criticising him for this. Cicero replied with a speech known as the first Philippic, because modelled on the famous speeches of Demosthenes against Philip of Macedon. This prompted Antony to a furious invective and triggered Cicero’s second Philippic. This is important because this animus led Antony, the following year, to condemn Cicero to death.

September: Cicero writes to Cassius in Athens telling him Antony is seeking any excuse for a massacre and to have him killed, making it unsafe for him to visit the Senate. So we are right back to the days of street violence and extreme instability of the 50s before Caesar made himself dictator.

November: Cicero tells Atticus he has received a letter from Octavian outlining his plans, which is to bribe ex-servicemen to his cause, which Cicero takes to be opposing Antony, and inviting him to a secret meeting at Capua. Meanwhile Antony is marching 3 legions towards Rome. Cicero asks Atticus what he should do, who he should support, and whether he should leave his rural idyll for Rome as things seem to be coming to a head?

43

In June 46 Antony had passed a decree declaring himself governor of Hither Gaul instead of Decimus Brutus. On November 28 he learned that two of the four legions he had summoned from Macedonia had gone over to Octavian, so he took the other two and marched north to Hither Gaul where he besieged Decimus in Modena. Cicero played an important role in Rome, supporting the two new consuls who took office on 1 January, Hirtius and Pansa, and rallying anti-Antony forces with his Philippics. He based his position on support for Octavian as the least worst option. War was declared on Antony on 2 February.

February: a letter to Trebonius wishing he had not taken Antony aside on the Ides of March but had arranged to have him murdered, too. Now Antony has marched north, Cicero describes his leading role in rallying the Senate and trying to reintroduce Republican practices. He now sees Octavian rallying the ex-servicemen and detaching 2 of Antony’s four legions as preventing the latter instituting a new tyranny.

In the next few months Cicero played a central role, co-ordinating efforts by republicans around the empire. He corresponded with Brutus in the Balkans, Cassius in Syria, Trebonius in Asia Minor, Cornificius in north Africa, Pollio in Spain, Plancus and Lepidus in Transalpine Gaul and Galba and Decimus Brutus in Hither Gaul.

He warns Brutus against mercy. ‘If you are going to be merciful, civil wars will never cease’ (p.185).

In April there were two battles at Modena. Mark Antony defeated Pansa but was worsted by Hirtius. Octavian defended the camp against Antony’s brother, Lucius. A few days later, Decimus Brutus sallied out from the city and defeated Antony though both consuls were killed. But Antony got away.

April: Cicero writes to Brutus telling him the news, and describing ‘the boy’ Caesar, remarkably mature and shrewd at 19. He hopes that as he matures, he will be guided by Cicero and the republicans. He then swanks that when news of the first victory at Modena was brought, the population of Rome came flocking round his house and carried him, cheering, to the Capitol and set him up on the rostrum.

Antony fled north over the Alps. Lepidus, Brutus’s brother-in-law, went over to him and was declared a public enemy.

June: Pollio, governor of Hispania, writes to explain that he has kept his legions loyal to the Republic, despite the efforts of Antony and his brother to bribe them away.

June: a very shrewd letter from Brutus to Atticus in which he criticises Cicero for recklessly encouraging Octavian. In short: he thinks Cicero, with good intentions, has ended up supporting a man who will turn out to be more of a tyrant than the one they overthrew. Brutus powerfully expresses the belief in the Republican system i.e. no man should be above the law, for which he was famous in his day and ever since.

July: Cicero’s last letter is a long one to Brutus explaining and justifying his policy, the core of which is support for Octavian, justifying the various honours and ovation he got the Senate to award him, on the basis that he is their bulwark against the corruption and tyranny of Antony, and that he, Cicero, can guide and control and moderate a young man of just 19 who likes to call him ‘father’. In all this, he would prove to be terribly wrong.

When the Senate refused to vote Octavian the proposed honours he marched his army back to Rome and demanded one of the consulships left vacant by the deaths at Modena, the other one for a kinsman, Pedius. He revoked the outlawry of Antony and Dolabella, and secured the condemnation of Caesar’s assassins, confirming Brutus in his fears. Having unoutlawed him, Octavian proceeded to meet Antony in November 43 on an island near Bologna and formed the second triumvirate with him and Lepidus. The three then drew up lists of political enemies to be proscribed i.e. murdered. Top of Antony’s list was Cicero. Octavian held out in defence of his ‘father’ for 2 days but gave in on the third. Cicero was tracked down to a country estate and murdered by bounty hunters on 7 December 43.

Wilkinson ends his text not with a summary or conclusion or analysis, but by excerpting the last few chapters of Plutarch’s life of Cicero, describing in the detail his final flight to the country, and his tracking down and decapitation by the assassins. His head and hands were cut off and taken to Rome where Antony had them nailed to the rostrum in the forum as revenge, being the head and hand which wrote the Philippic speeches which so incensed him. A visual image of the barbarity which Cicero fought against all his life but which always lay implicitly within the Roman culture he loved so much and which, in the end, did for him so brutally.

Thoughts

What an extraordinary record these letters are, what an amazing insight into the actual dynamics of power at the highest level, during one of the most intense and fascinating periods of world history. And what an amazing character Cicero emerges as, wise, foolish, passionate, ever-thoughtful, highly literate and educated, an effective administrator and military governor in Cilicia, a fluent and attractive writer and, in the end, tragically deluded by the ‘boy’ Octavian.


Themes

Cicero’s narcissism

As all the other sources I’ve read point out Cicero is hilariously self-obsessed. Quite quickly you get used to him describing how important he is, how he single handedly saved the state during the Catiline Conspiracy, how wherever he goes crowds flock out to see him and call his name. He comes across as a pompous, fuss, narcissistic booby.

As a result it’s hard to take him very seriously as either a politician or philosopher. It beggars belief that this man who frets about his sister-in-law’s behaviour, about the number of statues in his country home, who insists that wherever he goes he is mobbed by crowds calling his name, was seriously invited by Caesar, Pompey and Crassus to join the triumvirate.

Philosophy and writings

As to philosophy, these is none in the letters. He refers to Epicurean and Stoic philosophers by name but only to gossip about meeting them, dining with them and so on. There isn’t a word about The Good Life or The Ideal Citizen or any of the other issues Cicero wrote formal essays about. He mentions that he is working on the texts, such as the six volumes of The Republic, but describes or explains none of the actual ideas.

This is a striking gap or lack. Keats’s letters shed all kinds of light on his poetic theories and practice; Cicero’s letters shed no light at all on the ideas expressed in his essays and dialogues. Possibly this is because they were all secondary, in the sense that he was basically copying out ideas developed by Greeks. He had few if any original ideas of his own and therefore didn’t need to discuss them or work them through with correspondents. He administered his philosophical and political ideas, as a good governor administrates his province.

Atticus

It is sweet and lovely to read Cicero’s many letters to his friend Atticus in which he swears deep friendship and affection. I can see why the correspondence inspired all those humanists of the Renaissance who wrote so many essays about the value of friendship.

Quintus Tullius Cicero

The letters to his brother about a) the latter’s sister, who was married to his best friend Atticus, b) endless building works to the latter’s mansion and c) his service with Caesar in Gaul and on the expedition to the new island of Britain, are fascinating and very human.

Marcus Caelius Rufus

Caelius, born in 82 BC was an orator and politician. He is famous for his trial for public violence in March 56 BC when Cicero defended him in the speech Pro Caelio which is widely regarded as one of the greatest pieces of oratory from the ancient world. He is recipient and author of some of the best letters, with Cicero routinely begging him for the latest gossip during his exile in Greece and governorship in faraway Cilicia. There is a comic running thread with Caelius pestering Cicero to supply him with panthers, exotic animals which he wanted for the games he was organising as curule aedile in 50 BC. Cicero refuses, saying paying from public funds for a panther hunt would be against the reputation for good government he is trying to create.

Roman mosaic showing a wild animal hunt in North Africa (third century AD) Musée Archéologique d’Hippone (Algeria)

Tiro

Cicero’s beloved freedman, secretary, amanuensis. After Cicero’s death it was Tiro who edited and published Cicero’s letters to the immense benefit of western civilisation. It’s logical that Robert Harris makes Tiro the narrator of his 2006 novel about Cicero, Imperium.


Related links

Roman reviews

  • The letters of Cicero
  • On the nature of the gods by Cicero 1
  • On the nature of the gods by Cicero 2
  • On the nature of the gods by Cicero 3

Roman writers

As well to remember that all Roman literature was written by an elite for an elite about an elite, and is overwhelmingly conservative and traditionalist in tone. Even when they’re writing about farmers or ordinary citizens or soldiers, Roman writers are doing it from the perspective of privileged members of the highly educated aristocratic classes. The only possible exceptions are the first two entries in the list, the comic playwrights Plautus and Terence, whose work features numerous slaves and tradesmen (often cooks) – though here again, we should be cautious about treating these characters and their views as documentary evidence, as they are clearly based on standardised stereotypes which owe their origins, in any case, to the Greek theatre.

This isn’t a comprehensive list of Roman authors, that would be much longer. These are the important Roman authors and this is by way of being an ideal or personal, reading list.

The Republic

Plautus (Titus Maccius Plautus, 254 to 184 BC) Plautus’s comedies are the earliest Latin literary works to survive in their entirety: Asinaria, Aulularia, Captivi, Casina, Curculio, Epidicus, Menaechmi, Mercator, Miles Gloriosus, Mostellaria, Persa, Poenulus, Pseudolus, Rudens, Stichus, Trinummus, Truculentus.

Terence (Publius Terentius Afer, 195 to 159 BC) Six plays: Andria (The Girl from Andros), Hecyra (The Mother-in-Law), Heauton Timorumenos (The Self-Tormentor), Phormio, Eunuchus, Adelphoe (The Brothers). Fanous for his t-shirt motto:

Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto – I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me

Cicero (Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106 to 43 BC) statesman, lawyer, scholar, philosopher. Cicero wrote more than 75% of the extant Latin literature that is known to have existed in his lifetime, including law court speeches, letters, treatises on rhetoric, philosophy and politics.

Julius Caesar (100 to 44 BC) author of accounts of his wars in Gaul, Egypt, Spain and Africa.

Lucretius (Titus Lucretius Carus, 99 to 55 BC) poet and philosopher whose only known work is the philosophical poem De rerum natura or ‘On the nature of things’, a poetic exposition of the philosophy of Epicureanism.

Sallust (Gaius Sallustius Crispus 86 to 35 BC) author of two historical monographs, on the Jugurthine War and the Catiline conspiracy.

Catullus (Gaius Valerius Catullus, 84 to 54 BC) known for an anthology of 116 carmina or poems which are divided into three parts according to their form: sixty short poems in varying meters, called polymetra, eight longer poems, and forty-eight epigrams.

Livy (Titus Livius, 59 BC to 17 AD) author of a monumental History of Rome titled Ab Urbe Condita Libri (‘Books from the Founding of the City’) which originally comprised 142 ‘books’, 35 of which still exist in reasonably complete form.

The Empire

Vergil (Publius Vergilius Maro, 70 to 19 BC) composed three of the most famous poems in Latin literature: the Eclogues, the Georgics and the epic poem, Aeneid.

Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus, 65 to 8 BC) the leading Roman lyric poet during the rule of the emperor Augustus: famous for his Odes, Satires, Epistles and Epodes.

Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso, 43 BC to 18 AD) younger contemporary of Virgil and Horace, together considered the three canonical poets of Latin literature. His three three main works are the Metamorphoses, the Ars Amatoria (‘Art of Love’) and Fasti.

Seneca (Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, 4 BC to AD 65) philosopher, statesman, dramatist and satirist: a dozen essays and 124 letters dealing with moral issues, 9 tragedies: Hercules furens (The Madness of Hercules), Troades (The Trojan Women), Phoenissae (The Phoenician Women), Medea, Phaedra, Oedipus, Agamemnon, Thyestes.

Lucan (Marcus Annaeus Lucanus, 39 BC to 65 AD) known for his epic Pharsalia or De Bello Civili (‘On the Civil War’) about the wars between Julius Caesar and Pompey.

Plutarch (46 to after 119 AD) Greek philosopher, historian, biographer, essayist, and priest, author, among many other works, of the Parallel Lives, biographies of 50 eminent Greeks and Romans.

Tacitus (Publius Cornelius Tacitus, 56 to 120 AD) widely regarded as one of the greatest Roman historians known for two incomplete works, the Annals and the Histories, covering the reigns of the emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero and the Year of the Four Emperors (69 AD) to 70 AD in the First Jewish–Roman War (66 to 73). Also a dialogue on oratory, the Germania or De origine et situ Germanorum and the life of his father-in-law, Agricola, the general responsible for much of the Roman conquest of Britain (De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae). In the latter, a leader of the rebellious Scots is given a long speech criticising the Roman Empire which includes the famous quote:

ubi solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant – they create a desert and call it peace

Juvenal (Decimus Junius Juvenalis, 55? to 150? AD) author of 16 satires divided into five books.

Pliny the Younger (Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, 61 to about 113) lawyer, author and magistrate famous because he wrote hundreds of letters, 247 of which survive: the most notable are the hundred or so in his correspondence with the emperor Trajan in his capacity of governor of the Roman province of Bithynia, one of which asks advice about how to treat the new sect of Christians (one of the earliest references to Christianity) and the exchange where his friend Tacitus asks him for his memories of the eruption of Mount Etna which Pliny witnessed.

Suetonius (Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, 69 to 122 AD) historian whose most important surviving work is De vita Caesarum, a set of biographies of 12 successive Roman rulers, from Julius Caesar to Domitian.

Petronius (Gaius Petronius Arbiter, 27 to 66 AD) was a courtier to the emperor Nero and is believed to be the author of the scandalously satirical novel, the Satyricon.

Cassius Dio (Lucius Cassius Dio, 155 to 235) Roman historian and senator of Greek origin who published 80 volumes of the history of ancient Rome, from the arrival of Aeneas in Italy through to 229 AD, covering about 1,000 years of history.


Roman reviews

The legacies of Rome

At the start of Mary Beard’s comprehensive but pedestrian history of ancient Rome she gives some examples of the ‘legacy’ of Rome as reasons why people should know more about ancient Rome and read her book. I critiqued her reasons for being arbitrary, superficial and not really justifying her case. Nonetheless it does broach an interesting subject: just what should be included in the legacies left by Ancient Rome to later ages and the present day? Over the week it took to read Beard’s book, I began to make a list of aspects of the legacy of Rome which live on in the modern world. Can you add any more to my list?

Roman Catholicism, the religion of power

Surely the biggest legacy is the Roman Catholic church, founded and spread across the eastern Mediterranean but given its definitive organisational and liturgical form after it was decriminalised by the Emperor Constantine in 313 and then made the official state religion of the empire by the emperor Theodosius I in 380.

The language of the Latin Mass, Christian theology and practices, and the organisational structure of the church, which dominated the religious lives of everyone in the West till the Reformation, and still dominate Western Catholics and huge numbers of peoples living in countries colonised by Catholic Spain and Portugal to this day.

Apparently there are some 1.34 billion Catholics in the world today. Their spiritual lives, personalities and imaginations are shaped by concepts and terms crystallised in the series of church councils supervised by the Roman authorities, by a hierarchy based in Rome, almost every detail of which is based on Roman words for officials. Pope. Saint (‘sanctus’). Vatican. Mass. ‘Deus’ (Latin for God) used in countless phrases.

Moral exemplars and great lives

From the Middle Ages through to the Enlightenment it was possible to argue that Latin was the universal language of scholarship, of philosophy, science and law. As part of the rise of nationalism in the nineteenth century, and the promotion by various national groups of their national languages, this became steadily less and less true. It was possible to argue that the study of Latin disciplined the mind.

But modern justifications for studying Latin tend to overlook three aspects of the content of Latin literature:

  • the supposedly moral teachings embedded in Latin literature
  • examples of characters from literature
  • examples of characters from history

The moral teachings are straightforward. Roman moralists explicitly praised honesty, civic duty and heroism. Similarly, most Roman literature is moralistic in the sense that it embodies these values, it shows how true heroes followed their sense of duty and patriotism, maybe the most obvious example being Aeneas who turns his back on the chance of true love with Dido of Carthage in order to obey the orders of the gods, sail to Italy and found the predecessor of Rome.

But there are also the non-fictional real people from Roman history. A lot of figures from Roman history were used as examples of (mostly heroic) behaviour to later generations. The Romans themselves began this tradition, projecting back onto 5th and 4th century figures the stern devotion to civic duty they valued in their own 1st century society. But many of these figures continued to play a role in literary, philosophical, moral and political debates for centuries after the fall of Rome.

The story of Horatio holding the bridge single-handed against the Gauls is a typical example of straightforward patriotic heroism, which schoolboys from Cicero’s time down to the present day are taught to emulate. There are other Roman heroes, for example Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a legendary 5th century character, who was chosen to save Rome when it was threatened by neighbouring tribes and, once they had been defeated, retired back to his modest life on a farm (in a year traditionally dated 458 BC).

The early years of the French Revolution were packed with the imagery of Republican Rome, with paintings, frescos, badges and mottos of the families who overthrew the last Roman King, Tarquin the Arrogant, and of heroes of republican virtue.

More complex are what you might call the ‘debatable’ figures, huge and impressive figures from the historic era whose lives and fates became examples and talking points to later generations. The most obvious example is Julius Caesar: was he a military genius set to save the republic from civil war or was he poised to become an autocratic dictator? Were the assassins right to murder him?

Beginning during the Roman period itself and for the subsequent 2,000 years, Roman historical figures  have been used as guides to contemporary behaviour and politics all across the developed world.

Latin, the language of power

Throughout the middle ages and Renaissance, Latin was the language of scholarship and intellectual authority. I’m not sure exactly when that can be said to have come to an end (during the eighteenth century?)

Scholarly works on any subject are no longer written in Latin as they were in the 17th and 18th centuries. But academics, journalists and other types of authors still signal their superior education (and, by implication, superior wisdom) by deploying Latin tags, little phrases which signal membership of, or exclusion from, the club of the well educated. Wikipedia has a comprehensive list of Latin tags which is intimidatingly long. More fun is this list of 50 common Latin tags. But a few points emerge from reading both, which is the different types of tag, depending on source and context.

Latin quotes

‘Veni, vidi, vici’ is just a famous quote, comparable to ‘We shall fight them on the beaches’.

Latin terms from philosophy

Philosophy and the law, two of the most conservative subject areas, still use Latin to name key concepts. Thus ‘ad hominem’ is a technical term from philosophy, describing a particular type of argument (in this case meaning, ‘at the man’, meaning it’s an attack on the speaker not their argument). Here’s a handy list of philosophical fallacies which all have Latin names.

Legal Latin

And, of course, the Law is packed with legal jargon, much of which, to this day, remains in Latin, the language of power – see this list of Latin legal terms. Forbiddingly long, isn’t it?

Latin mottos

Countless hundreds of thousands of business and organisations around the world adopt Latin mottos because it makes them sound smart. It is a tiny contribution to their authority, to their reason for existing. Members of organisations can be rallied round mottos as much as around flags or brands. If you search the list of Latin phrases for ‘motto’ (click control and f, then type motto into the search box) you get 659 results. At the end of my road where I grew up was a memorial to the Royal Air Force so I read ‘per ardua ad astra’ (‘through adversity to the stars’) every day to and from school. ‘E pluribus unum’ (‘out of many, one’) is on most American coins and bank notes.

Winnie the Pooh loquitur latine (speaks Latin)

This meme from the Mondly web page instantly indicates why people like using Latin tags. Swank , defined as ‘behaviour, talk, or display intended to impress others’.

Comic meme indicating how using a Latin tag is a cheap way to impress (source: Mondly.com)

English words derived from Latin

A staggeringly high number.

About 80 percent of the entries in any English dictionary are borrowed, mainly from Latin. Over 60 percent of all English words have Greek or Latin roots. In the vocabulary of the sciences and technology, the figure rises to over 90 percent. About 10 percent of the Latin vocabulary has found its way directly into English without an intermediary (usually French). (Dictionary.com)

Latin discrimination

There’s a handy Wikipedia article about the Latin influence in English. It ends with a section explaining the thesis that familiarity with longer Latinate words associated with education and the professions and a range of specialisms gives children confident in reading and handling these kinds of words a measurable educational advantage.

David Corson in The Lexical Bar (1985) defended the thesis that academic English, due to its large portion of Greco-Latinate words, explains the difficulties of working class children in the educational system. When exposed at home mainly to colloquial English (the easier, shorter, Anglo-Saxon words), the differences with children who have more access to academic words (longer, more difficult, Greco-Latinate) tend not to become less by education but worse, impeding their access to academic or social careers.

Romance languages derive from Latin

Apparently, some 900 million people speak a Romance language, being Spanish (543 million), Portuguese (258 million), French (267 million), Italian (68 million), and Romanian (24 million). Regional Romance languages also exist, including Catalan, Occitan and Sardinian.

The ideas, words, phrases and concepts these people use to identify themselves and operate in the world derive from the language of a small town in central Italy.

Roman architecture of power

The United States Capitol

Nations round the developed world adopted the architectural language of power perfected by the Romans. Sure it was copied from the ancient Greeks, but the enormous reach of the Roman Empire a) brought a consistency of look and design b) spread it from Carlisle to Egypt. It has been used to make politicians feel powerful and important and to intimidate populations since we regained the ability to build such imposing edifices i.e. the last 200 years or so (the US Capitol was constructed in the early 1800s).

Roman statues of power

Statues by the ancient Greeks tried to capture the idealised version of their gods and heroes. By contrast Roman statuary, particularly portrait busts, really focus on capturing the individuality of the subject. The Greeks depicted horses (as on the frieze of the Parthenon) and men riding horses, but the Romans made this subject into an important symbol of power and leadership. Not many equestrian statues survive from ancient Rome, but the ones that do became models for medieval and especially Renaissance sculptors to create three dimensional icons of power and authority. Cities round the developed world are littered with variations of these metal men on horseback.

Bronze copy of the ancient Roman statue of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, in the Palazzo Nuovo in Rome

Senates

Take the idea of a ‘senate’ as the upper house of a bicameral legislature. The name comes from the ancient Roman Senatus, derived from senex meaning ‘old man’, indicating an assembly said to be experienced and wise and therefore qualified to review and amend legislation sent through from a purely elected chamber. Apparently, 63 modern nations have a senate and senators.

Censuses

From the Latin census, from censere meaning ‘to estimate’. The census played a crucial role in Roman administration because it determined what class a citizen belonged to for both military and tax purposes. Beginning in the middle republic, it was usually carried out every five years and supplied a register of citizens and their property from which their duties and privileges could be listed.

Censuses to establish facts about the population began to be reintroduced to western countries during the nineteenth century (although the sweeping review of the country he’d just conquered which was ordered by William of Normandy and which resulted in the Domesday Book was obviously a striking example of a medieval census).

Roman calendar

On page 104 Beard makes the simple point that the calendar we all use and take for granted was invented by the Romans. This may be, literally, their most workaday legacy. On page 292 she explains that fixing the antiquated Roman calendar was just one of Julius Caesar’s many reforms.  The fundamental problem all early calendar makes have is that the two obvious natural systems of timekeeping are out of synch– the twelve lunar months add up to just over 354 days whereas the solar years lasts 365 and  a quarter days. Using know-how he had picked up in Alexandria, Caesar established a year with 365 days with an extra day added to the end of January every four years. Although the words day, month and year are of Germanic origin (Old English dæg, monað and gear in which the g is pronounced as a y) the names of the months themselves are resolutely Roman:

  • January is named after the Roman god Janus who had two faces so he could see the future and the past
  • February is named after an ancient Roman festival of purification called Februa
  • March is named after Mars, the Roman god of war
  • April takes its name from the Latin word aperire meaning ‘to open’, just like flowers do in spring
  • May is named after the Greek goddess Maia
  • June is named after the Roman goddess Juno, goddess of marriage and childbirth and the wife of Jupiter, king of the gods
  • July is named after the Roman reformer of the calendar, Julius Caesar
  • August is named after the first emperor, Augustus
  • September is named for the Roman number seven as it was originally the seventh month, before July and August were added
  • October was the eighth month before July and August were added
  • November was the ninth month
  • December was the tenth month

(Source: British Museum blog)


Credit

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard was published in 2015 by Profile Books. All references are to the 2016 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges (1962)

The metaphysicians of Tlön do not seek for the truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding.

There is no pleasure more complex than that of thought.

In the course of a life dedicated to letters and (at times) to metaphysical perplexity…

Borges wrote a surprising amount (some 70 books in Spanish) and yet he is principally known in the Anglo-Saxon world for just one work published 60 years ago, Labyrinths, a breath-taking collection of 40 mind-bending short stories, short essays, and ‘parables’, all of which reference, quote and play with a multitude of obscure and arcane texts and ideas derived from philosophy, theology and mysticism.

Penguin went on to publish a flotilla of four or five other volumes by Borges, but none of them hold a candle to Labyrinths which is one of the most important volumes of short stories in English in the second half of the 20th century. It is a scandal that, to this day, only a fraction of Borges’s output has been translated into English.

Adventures among books and ideas

Labyrinths consists of 23 ficciones, ten essays and eight ‘parables’. All the stories were written and first published in Borges’s native Spanish in Argentine literary magazines between 1941 and 1956. The first 13 stories are taken from a previous collection, Ficciones, published in 1945, which was expanded in successive editions, and the remaining ten were published in a collection titled The Aleph, published in 1949, and also added to in later editions. That’s a long time ago but when you look at individual stories it’s striking to see that most of them were first published in literary magazines much earlier, most of them at the very end of the 1930s, during the Second World War and in the immediate post-war years. Although he carried on writing into the 1980s, his greatest hits were composed in the 1940s.

Before I exhaust myself giving brief summaries of each of the pieces, let me make a simple point which is that, rereading Borges’s stories made me realise that possibly his major discovery was that, for the purposes of writing a short fiction, you can replace plot with ideas.

What I mean is that the best stories discuss philosophical and metaphysical or mystical ideas and, in doing so, refer to scores of obscure Latin and Greek, or Christian or Islamic texts and sources – and that it is this, rather than plots, character or dialogue, which fills his stories.

Most adventures are, almost by definition, about people, about named characters. Borges’s short fictions are adventures whose protagonists are ideas, ideas characterised by their multi-layered bookishness and whose explanation requires multiple references to all manner of arcane texts – and whose ‘adventure’ consists in the logical unfolding of far-fetched premises to even more-mind-boggling conclusions: such as the man who discovers he is a dream created by someone else; or that the entire universe is made up of an infinite library; or that all human activity is determined by a secret lottery; and so on.

It is immensely characteristic of this preference for ideas over psychology or emotions or feelings that, when the narrator of Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius stumbles across an encyclopedia purporting to catalogue the fictitious planet of Tlön, he experiences a moment of delirious happiness i.e. emotion, feeling – but quickly stifles it:

I began to leaf through [the encyclopedia] and experienced an astonished and airy feeling of vertigo which I shall not describe, for this is not the story of my emotions but of Uqbar and Tlön and Orbis Tertius.

In fact various emotions do occur in the stories, there are characters and events, but this moment can stand as a symbol of the way that fiction’s traditional concerns for character and emotion and plot are, on the whole, in Borges’s stories, repressed or sidelined in order to make way for the adventures of ideas and books.

Borges’s bookishness is not for everyone

And I suppose there’s a point that’s so obvious that it’s easy to miss which is that you have to be fairly learnèd and scholarly, or at least fairly well-read, in order to really enjoy these works. On the first page alone of Deutsches Requiem Borges mentions Brahms and Schopenhauer and Shakespeare and Nietzsche and Spengler and Goethe and Lucretius. Now I not only know who these guys all are, but I have read some or much of all of them (a lot of Shakespeare and Nietszche, a book of Schopenhauer’s, some Goethe and Spengler) and so the mental edifice which invoking their names creates, the structure and framework of the story, are all entirely familiar to me and so I can enjoy how Borges plays with their names and references.

But I suppose there will be many readers who haven’t read (or listened to, in the case of Brahms) these authors and composers, and so might have to stop and Google each of them and, I suppose, this might well put off a lot of potential readers. It’s not that the stories are intrinsically ‘difficult’ (though sometimes they juggle with ideas on the edge of comprehension) so much as that the entire atmosphere of intense bookishness and scholarly whimsy which they evoke might well deter as many unbookish readers as it fanatically attracts fans and devotees among the literary-minded.

Contents – Fictions

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (1940)

Uqbar is a mythical land which the narrator and friends find mentioned in a ‘pirated’ edition of Volume XLVI of the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, but can find referred to nowhere else, despite ransacking the reference books of numerous libraries. The article explains that the literature of Uqbar was one of fantasy, featuring epics and legends set in two imaginary regions, Mlejnas and Tlön. In part 2 of the story we learn that Tlön is less an imaginary realm than an entire ‘planet’.

At first it was believed that Tlön was a mere chaos, an irresponsible license of the imagination; now it is known that it is a cosmos and that the intimate laws which govern it have been formulated, at least provisionally

Once he has posited the existence of this ‘planet’, the narrator goes on to recount the dizzying nature of its language and its many schools of philosophy:

  • one of the schools of Tlön goes so far as to negate time: it reasons that the present is indefinite, that the future has no reality other than as a present hope, that the past has no reality other than as a present memory
  • another school declares that all time has already transpired and that our life is only the crepuscular and no
    doubt falsified and mutilated memory or reflection of an irrecoverable process
  • another, that the history of the universe — and in it our lives and the most tenuous detail of our lives — is the scripture produced by a subordinate god in order to communicate with a demon
  • another, that the universe is comparable to those cryptographs in which not all the symbols are valid and that only what happens every three hundred nights is true
  • another, that while we sleep here, we are awake elsewhere and that in this way every man is two men

This is what makes Borges’s stories so phenomenally packed and mind-bending: that each individual sentence is capable of introducing to an entirely new way of thinking about the world.

The postscript to the story describes the narrator stumbling on a letter which purports to summarise the process whereby magi in the early 17th century decided to invent a country, how the idea was handed down as the texts proliferate, till an early Victorian American decided they needed to be more ambitious and describe an entire planet. In 1914 the last volume of a projected 40-volume encyclopedia of Tlön was distributed to the cabal of experts. It is estimated it will become the Greatest Work of Mankind, but it was decided this vast undertaking would itself be the basis of an even more detailed account which was provisionally titled the Orbus Tertius. Slowly, the narrator claims, mysterious objects from Tlön have appeared in our world. This last part is set two years in the future and describes a world in which news of Tlön has become widespread and artefacts from the imaginary planet are appearing all over the world and beginning to replace our own.

The contact and the habit of Tlön have disintegrated this world…Already the schools have been invaded by the (conjectural) “primitive language” of Tlön; already the teaching of its harmonious history (filled with moving episodes) has wiped out the one which governed in my childhood; already a fictitious past occupies in our memories the place of another, a past of which we know nothing with certainty — not even that it is false… A scattered dynasty of solitary men has changed the face of the world. Their task continues. If our forecasts are not in error, a hundred years from now someone will discover the hundred volumes of the Second Encyclopedia of Tlön. Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön.

So it is, on a fairly obvious level, a kind of science fiction disaster story in which our world will eventually be taken over and/or destroyed by the imaginary creation of the cabal.

The Garden of Forking Paths (1941)

A story which opens with a book and is about a book. Its first sentence is:

On page 22 of Liddell Hart’s History of World War I you will read that an attack against the Serre-Montauban line by thirteen British divisions (supported by 1,400 artillery pieces), planned for the 24th of July, 1916, had to be postponed until the morning of the 29th….

The story is the account of Dr. Yu Tsun, former professor of English at the Hochschule at Tsingtao, a spy acting for the Germans, based in England, in Staffordshire, but is rumbled by a British officer, Captain Madden, so makes his way by train to the village of Ashgrove and the house of one Dr Stephen Albert, who describes the efforts of Yu’s ancestor, ‘Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost’. The story reveals that this labyrinth is metaphorical: it actually stands for the scattered manuscript of an incomplete book. The garden of forking paths is the novel promised by never completed. But the nature of the fragments is deliberate:

The Garden of Forking Paths is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as Ts’ui Pên conceived it. In contrast to Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform, absolute time. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time.

So it’s about a book which encompasses all time, and all possible permutations of time.

The Lottery in Babylon (1941)

Tells the story of the development of a hyper-complex lottery run by the all-powerful ‘Company’ in a fictional version of ‘Babylon’, which ends up becoming the basis for everything which happens, for every event in everybody’s lives.

Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote (1939)

This purports to be a brief article by a follower of the now deceased writer Pierre Menard. It starts by listing the complete works of the defunct writer, some 19 in all, thus establishing the hyper-bookish context; then goes on to describe the unprecedented attempt by Pierre Menard to rewrite (sections of) Don Quixote as if by himself, as if for the first time, as if written by a 20th century author, and the complexity and strangeness of the result.

The Circular Ruins (1940)

The unnamed man arrives in a canoe from the south, beaches it in the mud and climbs to the ancient ruins.

The purpose which guided him was not impossible, though it was supernatural. He wanted to dream a man: he wanted to dream him with minute integrity and insert him into reality

He devotes years to dreaming, piece by piece, a perfect young man, who he then teaches in his dreams and who then finally becomes a real entity in the real world, who can pass painlessly though fire. But when a forest fire rages towards the ruins where he has been living the man walks boldly towards them – only not to feel a thing and to realise, that he himself is a dream-man who has been dreamed, in his turn, by someone else.

The Library of Babel (1941)

The narrator lives inside a library so huge, made up of infinite levels and extending through infinite galleries of hexagonal rooms, that he and all the other inhabitants regard it as the known universe. From this perspective, of an inhabitant of the infinite library, he shares with us the discoveries and/or theories of various other inhabitants who, through the centuries, have explored deeper into the infinite library, made discoveries and come up with theories as to its origin and purpose, for example the theories of the idealists (‘the hexagonal rooms are a necessary form of absolute space’) or the mystics (‘The mystics claim that their ecstasy reveals to them a circular chamber containing a great circular book, whose spine is continuous and which follows the complete circle of the walls’) origin stories (‘Man, the imperfect librarian, may be the product of chance or of malevolent demiurgi’), those who have given up trying to find meaning (‘I know of an uncouth region whose librarians repudiate the vain and superstitious custom of finding a meaning in books and equate it with that of finding a meaning in dreams or in the chaotic lines of one’s palm’).

Five hundred years before his birth the momentous discovery was made that the library contains all possible combinations of their language’s 25 symbols, in other words, contains all human knowledge, and much more, contains the history and future of everyone. This led to a wave of optimism and pride. This gave rise to a category of men named inquisitors who travel far and wide in search of these phantom volumes which will explain everything, and are named the Vindications. This was followed by the depressing realisation that, although these books certainly exist, in a library infinitely large anyone’s chances of finding them are infinitely small. Which gave rise to a semi-religious movement of nihilists, the Purifiers, who set out to examine and destroy all books which are not Vindications. But even their senseless destruction of millions of books made little difference in a library which is infinite in size.

The knowledge that everything has already been written has had a negative effect. Some have become religious hysterics. Suicides have become more common. The population of the hexagonal rooms has been depleted. He wonders whether the human species will be extinguished.

Funes the Memorious (1942)

Ireneo Funes was a dark, Indian-looking man from Uruguay. He died in 1889. The author of this piece is contributing a memoir of him to a volume to be published in his honour. Funes was a perfectly ordinary young man till a horse threw him aged 19. From that point onwards, he remembers everything which happens to him, every single impression, sight, sound and smell which his senses register, is recorded in the fine instrument of his memmory.

The two projects I have indicated (an infinite vocabulary for the natural series of numbers, a useless mental catalogue of all the images of his memory) combine in this dazzling idea. Not just memory, he notices everything.

He was the solitary and lucid spectator of a multiform, instantaneous and almost intolerably precise world

And the ‘story’, really an essay based on a fictional premise, explores what it would mean to live in this state.

To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.

The Shape of the Sword (1942)

Not a bookish brain-teaser, this is a much more straightforward story. The narrator, who is referred to as Borges, is forced when travelling in the North to stay in the house of a man who has a reputation as a martinet and occasional drunk who is disfigured by a half-moon-shaped scar on his forehead. The man treats Borges to dinner then they get talking and finally the man tells him his story: how he was a fighter with the IRA during the Irish Civil War, and helped mentor and protect a vehement young recruit, one John Vincent Moon, a committed communist who shut down every discussion with his fervent ideology. On a patrol they were caught by a guard who shot and nicked Moon’s shoulder. They break into the abandoned house of an old Indian officer, to hide out. When the town they were hiding in was taken by the Black and Tans, he returned to the house to overhear Moon betraying him to the authorities on the promise of his own safe passage, whereupon he chased Moon round the house brandishing one of the swords belonging to its absent owner until he caught him and branded his face with the half moon with a sword.

All through the story you’d been led to believe the narrator was the strong man. Only at the end does he break down and confess that it was he who was the betraying coward, John Vincent Moon. And hence the scar cut into his face.

Theme of the Traitor and the Hero (1944)

A very short story which foregrounds its own fictiveness, as Borges admits it’s an idea for a story which could be set anywhere, then arbitrarily settles on Ireland where, he says, a man named Ryan is researching the famous assassination of an eminent Irish patriot, his great-grandfather, Fergus Kilpatrick, in a theatre in 1824. His researches show him that Kilpatrick’s assassination shared many details with that of Julius Caesar, the parallels so eerie that for a while he develops a theory of ‘the existence of a secret form of time, a pattern of repeated lines’, and invokes the theories of Condorcet, Hegel, Spengler and Vico to back him up.

But then a stranger reality emerges. He discovers the oldest and closest of Kilpatrick’s companions, James Alexander Nolan, had translated the main plays of Shakespeare back in 1814. Finally the story that emerges is this: the conspirators kept being betrayed to the police so Kilpatrick had tasked his oldest comrade, Nolan, with identifying the traitor. At a secret meeting of the patriots Nolan announced that it was Kilpatrick himself. The great patriot admitted it. They discussed how to deal with him. They came up with a drama, a play, a theatrical event, which would ensure Kilpatrick’s punishment and death, and yet if he was said to have been assassinated at the theatre, people’s illusions about him, and the Cause in general, would be preserved. And so Nolan, the Shakespeare translator, arranged it all, even borrowing certain events (the unheeded warning) in order to make the ‘assassination’ more melodramatic and memorable.

And also, his disillusioned great grandson and biographer speculates, to leave messages to posterity. Some of the allusions were pretty crass. Maybe he, Ryan, was intended to discover the truth. After weighing the pros and cons, Ryan decides to suppress what he has learned, and write a straightforward biography climaxing in the great man’s tragic assassination. Maybe that, too, was part of the plan.

Death and the Compass (1942)

This is a murder mystery of a particularly arch and contrived tone, but reading it makes you realise Borges’s debt to the English yarn tellers of the 1890s, to Robert Louis Stevenson and especially Conan Doyle. We are introduced to Erik Lönnrot, another in the long line of hyper-intellectual freelance detectives with a taste for paradox and irony i.e. an entirely literary creation, who also, as per the tradition, plays off a phlegmatic police inspector, Franz Treviranus.

At the Third Talmudic Congress held in the Hotel du Nord, Rabbi Marcel Yarmolinsky goes to bed one night and his body is found dead, stabbed in the chest, the next morning. The dead man, of course, had a number of rare and arcane books of theology in his room. Which Lönnrot takes away and reads:

One large octavo volume revealed to him the teachings of Israel Baal Shem Tobh, founder of the sect of the Pious; another, the virtues and terrors of the Tetragrammaton, which is the unutterable name of God; another, the thesis that God has a secret name, in which is epitomized (as in the crystal sphere which the Persians ascribe to Alexander of Macedonia) his ninth attribute, eternity — that is to say, the immediate knowledge of all things that will be, which are and which have been in the universe…

Books books books. But then more bodies turn up dead – small-time crook Daniel Simon Azevedo, then the kidnapping and murder of one Gryphius. We know the three murders are linked because at the scene three sentences are written, ‘The first letter of the Name has been uttered’, and the second and the third.

After the third the police are anonymously sent a letter sent by ‘Baruch Spinoza’ asserting that a fourth murder will not be carried out. But Lönnrot has seen through all this. He Dandy Red Scharlach set out

to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother. I have woven it and it is firm: the ingredients are a dead heresiologist, a compass, an eighteenth-century sect, a Greek word, a dagger, the diamonds of a paint shop.

The Secret Miracle (1943)

Hladik had rounded forty. Aside from a few friendships and many habits, the problematic exercise of literature constituted his life…

Jaromir Hladik is an author of, among others, an unfinished drama entitled The Enemies, of Vindication of Eternity (which discusses immutable Being of Parmenides, the modifiable Past of Hinton, and the idealist philosopher, Francis Bradley) and of a study of the indirect Jewish sources of Jakob Böhme, he has translated the Sepher Yezirah and published studies of the work of Böhme, of Ibn Ezra, and of Fludd. He is another of Borges’s hyper-bookish heroes.

The Nazis take Prague and seize Hladik who is identified as a Jewish author and condemned to death. The story deals with the feverishly philosophical ideas which flood his mind during the days and nights he spends in his prison cell leading up to his sentence of death by firing squad, in which he discusses with himself various aspects of time and reality and God, and has a dream that God’s word is vouchsafed to him through a random book in a library, and in which he goes through the elaborate plot of his verse drama, The Enemies, which is itself a drama about reality and illusion. He begs God for a year to finish the work in order to justify himself and Him.

Finally he is led out to the shabby yard where the soldiers are hanging round bored, are rallied by their sergeant and line up to shoot him but, just as the order is given, time freezes, completely, but Hladik’s consciousness continues, observing the frozen world about him from his frozen body, at first in panic, and then realising that God heard his plea and has given him a year to complete his drama. And the final page of the drama describes how he does that, not needing food or water or bodily functions, but devoting a year of time to bringing the verse drama to complete perfection, And as the last phrase of it is completed in his mind, the world resumes, the firing squad fires, and Hladik slumps, dead.

Three Versions of Judas (1944)

Borges’s fiction is above all hyper-bookish, made out of references to arcane philosophical or theological texts from the Middle Ages or Antiquity. Most (if not quite all) the ‘stories’ mimic the style and approach of an old-fashioned scholarly article, not least in having textual footnotes which cite other scholarly volumes or references.

Instead of a description of a city or house or street or natural location, a time of day, or the physical appearance of a protagonist, Borges’s fictions set their scene amid books and references.

In Asia Minor or in Alexandria, in the second century of our faith, when Basilides disseminated the idea that the cosmos was the reckless or evil improvisation of deficient angels, Nils Runeberg would have directed, with singular intellectual passion, one of the Gnostic conventicles. Dante would have assigned him, perhaps, a fiery grave; his name would extend the list of lesser heresiarchs, along with Satornilus and Carpocrates; some fragment of his preachings, embellished with invective, would survive in the apocryphal Liber adversus omnes haereses or would have perished when the burning of a monastery library devoured the last copy of the Syntagma. Instead, God afforded Runeberg the twentieth century and the university town of Lund. There, in 1904, he published the first edition of Kristus och Judas and, in 1909, his major book, Den hemlige Frälsaren. (Of the latter there is a German translation, made in 1912 by Emil Schering; it is called Der heimliche Heiland.)

Amid a dense forest of allusions to obscure works of theology and scores of beliefs held by the orthodox and heretical, Borges articulates the three theories developed by Danish theologian, namely:

  1. In his book Kristus och Judas, Runeberg asserts that Judas was a kind of ‘reflection’ of Jesus in the human world; just as Jesus was sent from heaven, so Judas took up the burden of being human in order to pave the way for Jesus to take the path to the crucifixion and salvation of humanity.
  2. Meeting fierce criticism from fellow theologians, Runeberg rewrites the book to assert that it was Judas who sacrificed more than Jesus, mortifying his spirit for the greater good.
  3. Then in his final book, Den hemlige Frälsaren, Runeberg develops this idea to its logical conclusion, which is that it was Judas not Jesus who made the ultimate sacrifice and truly laid down his life for humanity. Jesus hung on the cross for 6 hours but then he was translated to heaven, whereas Judas committed suicide, taking upon himself not only an eternal reputation for treachery and betrayal, but condemning his own soul to eternity in hell. Which one made the greater sacrifice? Therefore, Runeberg asserts, it was Judas who was the true incarnation of a God determined to make the most complete identification with humanity possible, even to the uttermost depths of human depravity and damnation.

The Sect of the Phoenix (1952)

Those who write that the sect of the Phoenix had its origin in Heliopolis and derive it from the religious restoration following upon the death of the reformer Amenophis IV, cite texts from Herodotus, Tacitus and the monuments of Egypt, but they ignore, or prefer to ignore, that the designation ‘Phoenix’ does not date before Hrabanus Maurus and that the oldest sources (the Saturnales of Flavius Josephus, let us say) speak only of the People of the Custom or of the People of the Secret.

Repeatedly the stories invoke the same kind of imaginative world, a world of arcane books and abstruse learning, which revolves not so much around pure philosophy – the academic subject of Philosophy which concerns rather mundane discussions of language or ethics which bothered Plato and Locke – but the swirling multi-coloured world of abstruse theologies and mystical visions of the divinity and cults and lost texts, of heresiarchs (‘the founder of a heresy or the leader of a heretical sect’) and patriarchs, sectarians and mystagogues, Talmudists and Confucians, Gnostics and alchemists, adepts in secret rituals and concealed knowledge, and which has adherents down to the present day such as the heretical theologian Nils Runeberg from The Three Versions of Judas or the learned Rabbi Marcel Yarmolinsky in Death and The Compass, intense bookish eccentric figures who carry the convoluted world of medieval theology into obscure corners of our workaday world.

This brief story is an ostensible short scholarly essay by a narrator who claims:

I have collated accounts by travelers, I have conversed with patriarchs and theologians… I have attained on three continents the friendship of many devotees of the Phoenix

And so is in a position to know that devotees of ‘the sect of the Phoenix’ are everywhere, of all creeds and colours, speaking all languages, often not even realising it themselves. I think the essay is an answer to the question, What if there was a religion so widespread that its adherents didn’t even realise they followed it?

The Immortal (1949)

A princess (!) buys a second hand edition of Alexander Pope’s translation of The Iliad off a book dealer, Joseph Cartaphilus, in London and later finds in the leaves of the last volume a manuscript, which then makes up the body of the story. It is a first person narrative by Marcus Flaminius Rufus, military tribune of one of Rome’s legions, who hears rumours of a land to the West where sits the City of the Immortals and so sets off with a troop of 200 soldiers and sundry mercenaries all of whom desert him in the face of all kinds of adversity, until he comes to consciousness in a settlement of speechless troglodytes before staggering on, exhausted, hungry, thirsty towards a high rocky plateau on which is built a mysterious city, but when he finally gains entrance he discovers it is not only abandoned and deserted, but built with an excess of useless passages and windows and balconies and details amid he becomes lost and then overwhelmed by its size and complexity and horrifying pointlessness.

When he emerges he discovers one of the speechless troglodytes has followed him like a loyal dog. He nicknames him Argos after Odysseus’s loyal dog and over the next few weeks tries to teach him to speak. Then, one day, there is a ferocious downpour of rain, and Argos suddenly speaks, responds to the name, recognises the classical allusion and, to the narrator’s astonishment, reveals that he is Homer, author of the Iliad and the Odyssey and that the other haggard, grimy, speechless troglodytes, they are the Immortals, who long ago wrecked their beautiful city, rebuilding it as a surrealist testament to the unknown and irrational forces which control our fates, and withdrew to the caves and lives of inarticulate resignation.

Because he has drunk of the river that runs past the troglodytes’ caves he is now immortal and the narrative briefly covers his wandering life for the following centuries, until in 1929 he drinks from a stream in Eritrea and realises, with enormous relief, that it has restored his mortality.

The Theologians (1947)

An orgy of theological minutiae describing the academic rivalry between two sixth century theologians, Aurelian of Aquileia and John of Pannonia, who compete with each other in refuting the heresy of the so-called Monotones (namely that history is cyclical and all people and events recur again and again), which twists via a dense undergrowth of theological quotes and references to a climax in which Aurelian witnesses John being burned at the stake for the very heresy he had set out to refute, and then the two rival theologians meet up in heaven where, in true Borgesian fashion, they are revealed to be two aspects of the same person.

Story of the Warrior and the Captive (1940)

Droctulft was an eighth century Lombard warrior who, during the siege of Ravenna, left his companions and died defending the city he had previously attacked. Borges imagines this pallid denizen of the pagan forests and the boar hunt arriving at a city, his dazzlement at the order and clarity and architecture and gardens, and suddenly throwing in his lot with the citizens, fighting against his former comrades.

And this reminds him of his grandmother who was from England. She lived out on the borderlands. One day she was introduced to a young woman Indian who, it transpires, was English, from Yorkshire, her parents emigrated and were killed in an Indian raid and she was stolen away and married to a chieftain who she has already borne two children. Borges’s grandmother offers to take her away, to return her to civilisation, but the Englishwoman-gone-native refuses. She, like Droctulft, has made a deep choice.

Emma Zunz (1948)

Emma’s father commits suicide because he was swindled out of his share of the factory he set up. She vows to be revenged on the swindler, Aaron Loewenthal (all the characters in this story are Jewish) and, a shy 19, dresses up, goes hanging round in bars, in order to lose her virginity to some rough foreigner. This is to nerve her for the assassination, when she presents herself to Loewenthal in the guise of a stoolpigeon for the ringleaders of the disgruntled workers in the factory but, when he rises to fetch her a glass of water, impulsively shoots him, though she’s not very good at it and takes three shots. She then calls the police and pleads a story that Lowenthal tried to rape and outrage her, which, Borges says, is true, in spirit if not in detail, and her genuine outrage and sense of shame and hate secures her an acquittal at her subsequent trial.

The House of Asterion (1947)

The world seen from the perspective of the Minotaur. (The idea is related to the brief one-page summary Borges gives of a story he planned to write about the world seen from the point of view of Fafnir, the gold-guarding dragon in the Nibelung legend. You can see how you could quickly generate a list of stories ‘from the point of’ figures from myth and legend.)

Deutsches Requiem (1946)

Otto Dietrich zur Linde is a Nazi and a devout follower of Schopenhauer and his doctrine that nothing that happens to us is accidental (it is a happy coincidence that I’ve recently been reading Samuel Beckett, who was also very influenced by Schopenhauer, in particular by his attitude of quietism).

As the Second World War breaks out Otto Dietrich zur Linde is involved in a shootout which leads to the amputation of one of his legs. As a good Nazi he is eventually rewarded by being made, in 1941, subdirector of the concentration camp at Tarnowitz.

When the wonderful Jewish poet David Jerusalem is sent to the camp, zur Linde sets about systematically destroying him because, by doing so, he is destroying the compassion in his own soul which keeps him down among ordinary humans, prevents him from becoming Nietzsche’s Overman.

As the tide of war turns against the Germans, zur Linde speculates why and what it means before realising that Germany itself must be destroyed so that the New Order it has helped to inaugurate can come fully into being. This short text turns into quite a disturbing hymn to Nazism:

Many things will have to be destroyed in order to construct the New Order; now we know that Germany also was one of those things. We have given more than our lives, we have sacrificed the destiny of our beloved Fatherland. Let others curse and weep; I rejoice in the fact that our destiny completes its circle and is perfect.

Averroes’ Search (1947)

A classic example of Borges’s fascination with the byways of medieval mystical theology, and his ability to spin narratives out of it.

Abulgualid Muhammad Ibn-Ahmad ibn-Muhammad ibnRushd (a century this long name would take to become Averroes, first becoming Benraist and Avenryz and even Aben-Rassad and Filius Rosadis) was writing the eleventh chapter of his work Tahafut-ulTahafut (Destruction of Destruction), in which it is maintained, contrary to the Persian ascetic Ghazali, author of the Tahafut-ulfalasifa (Destruction of Philosophers), that the divinity knows only the general laws of the universe, those pertaining to the species, not to the individual…

It is a complex text, woven with multiple levels of references, which revolves round a dinner party attended in the then-Muslim city of Cordoba in Muslim Spain by the great medieval Muslim commentator on the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, and some colleagues and friends including one who claims to have travelled as far as the fabled land of Sin (China). When he was there he recounts being taken to a large hall with tiered banks of seats where many people on a raised platform acted out events. The other diners agree how ridiculous this sounds and we learn that, apparently, the traditions and culture of Islam did not have or understand the entire concept of the theatre and the drama.

The essay focuses on the way this conversation was relevant for Averroes because he was that day working on a translation of Aristotle and puzzled by two words he had come across, ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’ which have no parallel in the world of Islam.

This is all fascinating and beautifully described amid the gardens and roses and civilised calm of the Muslim city, but on the last half page Borges twists the story onto a different level altogether by intruding himself as the author and declaring he only told this story as an attempt to describe a certain kind of failure to imagine something, and that, as the story progressed, he, Borges, realised that he was failing to imagine his own story, thus the story and the writing of the story, both addressed the same subject, in a kind of duet.

I felt, on the last page, that my narration was a symbol of the man I was as I wrote it and that, in order to compose that narration, I had to be that man and, in order to be that man, I had to compose that narration, and so on to infinity. (The moment I cease to believe in him, ‘Averroes’ disappears.)

Wow.

The Zahir (1947)

Clementina Villar was a model and celebrity, always appearing at the right place at the right time dressed in the height of fashion. She dies in a slummy suburb and Borges attends her wake. Decomposition makes her look younger. On the rebound from his grief he drops into a neighbourhood bar, orders a brandy and is given the Zahir among his change. The Zahir is an everyday coin but:

people (in Muslim territories) use it to signify ‘beings or things which possess the terrible property of being unforgettable, and whose image finally drives one mad.’

He can’t stop looking at it, he takes it home, he turns it over and over, it obsesses his sleep, eventually he gets lots in a maze of streets, slips into another bar and pays for a drink handing the coin over, goes home and has his first good night’s sleep in weeks.

The Waiting (1950)

An unnamed man checks into a boarding house in a suburb of Buenos Aires and tries to lead a completely anonymous life while he waits for his assassins to track him down and kill him.

The God’s Script

The story is told by Tzinacán, magician of the pyramid of Qaholom, an Aztec priest whose city was conquered and burned down by the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado who tortured and mangled him to try and extract the secret of where all the native gold and treasure was hidden. Now he lies in a dungeon where he has been subsisting for years, but it is a strange prison because on the other side of the wall is kept a jaguar which paces up and down in his cell. Only at certain hours of the day, when the light is right, can Tzinacán see it. Over the years Tzinacán becomes obsessed with the idea that his god Qaholom must have foreseen the disaster which overcame his people,

The god, foreseeing that at the end of time there would be devastation and ruin, wrote on the first day of Creation a magical sentence with the power to ward off those evils. He wrote it in such a way that it would reach the most distant generations and not be subject to chance. No one knows where it was written nor with what characters, but it is certain that it exists, secretly, and that a chosen one shall read it.

So it is another story about a kind of secret knowledge, known only to adepts, occult and hidden. To cut a long story short, Tzinacán has a revelation which is indistinguishable from going mad, as he ponders the nature of this message from the gods, as he ponders at length what the language of a god would be like, how it would contain the whole world, not even in a sentence, but in one infinite word, and he suddenly perceives it in the shape of an infinite wheel, on all sides of him, made of fire and water, the secret of the world is contained in fourteen words of forty syllables, if he said them out loud the prison would disappear and he would be master of the land of Moctezuma – but he never will because he has ceased to be Tzinacán, he has ceased to have his concerns or aims, and therefore he knows the secret of divine power, but the very knowledge of it means he never has to use it.

Essays

The Argentine Writer and Tradition (1951)

The problems of national identity and literary heritage faced by the writer in Argentina are not something most of us have spent much time worrying about. Reading Borges’s essay on the subject mostly confirms that I know nothing whatsoever about Latin American literature. For my generation this meant entirely the magical realism school pioneered by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a cluster of related writers such as Mario Vargas Llosa and, fashionable among feminists, Isabel Allende. I’m fairly well read but I’d never heard of any of the names or works Borges refers to, for example I had no idea the great Argentine epic poem is El gaucho Martín Fierro by Jose Hernandez which is, apparently, packed with gaucho colloquialisms.

Initially the essay dwells on obscure questions about the relative merits of ‘gauchesque’ poetry (which he takes to be the contrived nationalistic poetry of literary circles of Buenos Aires) vis-a-vis the poetry of payadas (improvised musical dialogues on philosophical themes which reveal their true nationalism precisely by the absence of localising dialect) but both of which are almost meaningless to me since I can’t read Spanish and had never heard of Martín Fierro. (Borges had published in 1950 a study of the gauchesque, Aspectos de la literatura gauchesca and in 1953 an essay on Martín Fierro.)

But slowly emerges his main point which is more comprehensible, namely that ‘national’ poetry or literature does not at all need to limit itself to local colour and national subjects: witness Shakespeare who wrote about Italians and Danes, and Racine whose works are entirely set in the world of Greek myth. Thus:

The idea that Argentine poetry should abound in differential Argentine traits and Argentine local colour seems to me a mistake.

In Borges’s opinion, there are other elements of the Argentine character which distinguish their literature, among which he mentions: ‘ the Argentine’s reticence, his constraint’, ‘Argentine reserve, distrust and reticence, of the difficulty we have in making confessions, in revealing our intimate nature’. In demonstrating the unnecessity of having local colour, he cites the fact (observed by Gibbon) that there are no references to camels in the Koran. This is because Mohammed, as an Arab, so lived in the culture of camels that he didn’t even have to mention them. That is how local colour should be conveyed – by the subtlety of its absence. Thus when Borges reads Argentine nationalists prescribing that Argentine writers should write about the Argentine national scene using local colour and local words, he thinks they are dead wrong.

He goes on to speculate about the role of the Jews in European literature, and the Irish in English literature, both of which are over-represented, and it’s because they are outsiders and so not tied by tradition; they can be innovators.

For that reason I repeat that we should not be alarmed and that we should feel that our patrimony is the universe; we should essay all themes, and we cannot limit ourselves to purely Argentine subjects in order to be Argentine; for either being Argentine is an inescapable act of fate — and in that case we shall be so in all events — or being Argentine is a mere affectation, a mask.

(In Labyrinths this appears as rather a one-off work, but in fact Borges wrote extensively throughout his career on Argentine subject matter, including Argentine culture (‘History of the Tango’, ‘Inscriptions on Horse Wagons’), folklore (‘Juan Muraña’, ‘Night of the Gifts’), literature (‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’, ‘Almafuerte’, ‘Evaristo Carriego’), and national concerns (‘Celebration of the Monster’, ‘Hurry, Hurry’, ‘The Mountebank’, ‘Pedro Salvadores’).

The Wall and the Books

A meditation on the fact that the Chinese emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who commissioned the building of the Great Wall but also ordered the burning of all the books and libraries. It allows Borges one of his characteristic series of dreamy speculations. It is recorded that Shih Huang Ti’s mother was a libertine whom he banished. Maybe burning the books was a symbolically Freudian attempt to abolish the entire past which contained his personal shame. Maybe the wall was a psychological wall to keep out his guilt. He also forbade death to be mentioned and sought an elixir for immortality, so maybe fire and wall were to keep death at bay. If he ordered the building of the wall first then the burning of the books, we have the image of an emperor who set out to create, gave up, and resigned himself to destroying; if the order is reverse, we have the image of an emperor who set out to destroy everything, gave up, and dedicated himself to endless building. Dreamy speculations:

Perhaps the wall was a metaphor, perhaps Shih Huang Ti sentenced those who worshiped the past to a task as immense, as gross and as useless as the past itself. Perhaps the wall was a challenge and Shih Huang Ti thought: “Men love the past and neither I nor my executioners can do anything against that love, but someday there will be a man who feels as I do and he will efface my memory and be my shadow and my mirror and not know it.” Perhaps Shih Huang Ti walled in his empire because he knew that it was perishable and destroyed the books because he understood that they were sacred books, in other words, books that teach what the entire universe or the mind of every man teaches. Perhaps the burning of the libraries and the erection of the wall are operations which in some secret way cancel each other.

A lazy Sunday afternoon of perhapses. The essay ends with a thunderclap, the notion that the way these two contrasting facts seem about to deliver some kind of revelation which never, in fact, arrives, the sense of a great meaning, which is never made clear:

this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.

The Fearful Sphere of Pascal

‘It may be that universal history is the history of a handful of metaphors.’ In which case he is examining one particular metaphor, that of the infinite sphere whose centre is nowhere, and pursues it through the works of Xenophanes of Colophon, Plato, Parmenides, Empedocles, Alain de Lille, the Romance of the Rose, Rabelais, Dante, Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, John Donne, John Milton, Glanville, Robert South, Pascal.

This very brief trot through the different expressions of the same metaphor suggest very strongly a sense of the rise and rise in optimism in human thought up to a kind of breakthrough in the Renaissance, summed up in Bruno’s attitude, which then crumbles into the sense of fear and isolation expressed by Pascal. I.e. this tiny essay gives a powerful sense of the changing moods and contexts of Western civilisation.

Partial Magic in the Quixote

It starts by asserting that Cervantes set out to write an utterly disenchanted account of the sordid reality of the Spain of his day yet certain moments of magic and romance nonetheless intrude; but this fairly simple point then unfolds into something much stranger as Borges zeroes in on the fact that in part two of Don Quixote the characters have read part one and comment on their own existence as characters. Borges then lists a number of other examples of fictions which appear within themselves such the Ramayana of Valmiki which, late on, features an appearance of the Ramayana of Valmiki as a major part of the plot. Similarly, on the 602nd night of the Thousand and One Nights, Scheherezade summarises the history of the king which includes his encounter with her and her telling of the stories which make up the nights, including the telling of the 602nd night, which includes the telling of the king’s own story, which includes his meeting with her and her telling of all the stories over again, including the telling of the 602nd night, and so on, forever.

What is it that intrigues and disturbs us about these images of infinite recursion?

I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious.

Valéry as Symbol

This brief note appears to be an obituary for the French poet Paul Valéry who died in 1945. Borges takes the surprising tack of comparing the French poet with the American poet Walt Whitman. On the face of it no two figures could be more different, Whitman loud, brash, confident, chaotic, contradictory, is morning in America, while Valéry, careful, sensitive, discreet, reflects the ‘delicate twilight’ of Europe. What they have in common is they created fictional images of themselves, made themselves symbolic of particular approaches.

Paul Valéry leaves us at his death the symbol of a man infinitely sensitive to every phenomenon and for whom every phenomenon is a stimulus capable of provoking an infinite series of thoughts.. Of a man whose admirable texts do not exhaust, do not even define, their all-embracing possibilities. Of a man who, in an age that worships the chaotic idols of blood, earth and passion, preferred always the lucid pleasures of thought and the secret adventures of order.

Kafka and His Precursors

A sketch at identifying precursors of Kafka’s ‘atrocious thought’, Borges finds precursors in Zeno’s paradoxes; in the ninth century Chinese writer, Han Yu; Kierkegaard; a poem by Browning; a short story by Léon Bloy; and one by Lord Dunsany. We would never have noticed the Kafkaesque in all these texts had Kafka not created it. Thus each author modifies our understanding of all previous writing.

The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.

Avatars of the Tortoise

There is a concept which corrupts and upsets all others. I refer not to Evil, whose limited realm is that of ethics; I refer to the infinite.

He tells us that he once meditated a Biography of the Infinite but it would have taken forever to write. (Borges did in fact publish Historia de la eternidad in 1936.) Instead he gives us this fragment, a surprisingly thorough and mathematically-minded meditation on the second paradox of Zeno, the tortoise and Achilles. It is an intimidating trot through philosophers from the ancient Greek to F.H. Bradley and Bertrand Russell, in each one finding reformulations of the same problem in logic and various ways round it.

Only in the concluding paragraph does it become a bit more accessible when Borges brings out the meaning of Idealistic philosophy, that the world may be entirely the product of our minds and, as so often, ends on a bombshell of an idea:

We (the undivided divinity operating within us) have dreamt the world. We have dreamt it as firm, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and durable in time; but in its architecture we have allowed tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason which tell us it is false.

In this view, Zeno’s paradoxes are among a putative small collection of problems or paradoxes or unnerving insights which are like cracks in the surface of the world we have made, cracks which gives us a glimpse of the utterly fictitious nature of ‘reality’.

The Mirror of Enigmas

A note on the verse from the Bible, First Letter to the Corinthians 13:12 in which Saint Paul writes: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’ He considers half a dozen meditations on it by the author Léon Bloy which I found obscure. I preferred the final passage where he describes the thinking underlying the intellectual activity of the Cabbalists:

Bloy did no more than apply to the whole of Creation the method which the Jewish Cabalists applied to the Scriptures. They thought that a work dictated by the Holy Spirit was an absolute text: in other words, a text in which the collaboration of chance was calculable as zero. This portentous premise of a book impenetrable to contingency, of a book which is a mechanism of infinite purposes, moved them to permute the scriptural words, add up the numerical value of the letters, consider their form, observe the small letters and capitals, seek acrostics and anagrams and perform other exegetical rigours which it is not difficult to ridicule. Their excuse is that nothing can be contingent in the work of an infinite mind

A Note on (toward) Bernard Shaw

A book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory. This dialogue is infinite… Literature is not exhaustible, for the sufficient and simple reason that no single book is. A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships…

I didn’t quite understand the thrust of this essay which begins by refuting the notion that literature is purely a game, and asserts that it involves and tone of voice and relationship with a reader, and then seems to go on to say that this is in some measure proven by the works of George Bernard Shaw whose philosophy may be derivative (Butler and Schopenhauer) but whose prolific invention of character is unprecedented in his time. The sardonic Irishman is an odd choice for the sly Argentinian to single out for praise.

A New Refutation of Time

Consists of two essays written in the 1940s. They are complex and hard to follow but I think he begins with the philosophical doctrine of Idealism which claims the human mind consists of a succession of sense perceptions and doesn’t require there to be a ‘real world’ out there, behind them all. Borges is, I think, trying to go one step further and assert that there need not be a succession of sense perceptions, there is no logical necessity for these impressions to be in the series which we call time. There is only the present, we can only exist in the present, therefore there is no time.

Parables

A series of very short thoughts, images, moments or insights which inspire brief narratives pregnant with meaning or symbolism. Kafka, of course, also wrote modern parables, parables with no religious import but fraught with psychological meaning.

Inferno, 1, 32

God sends a leopard kept in a cage in late 13th century Italy a dream in which he explains that his existence, his life history and his presence in the zoo are all necessary so that the poet Dante will see him and place him at the opening of his poem, The Divine Comedy.

Paradiso, XXXI, 108

Who of us has never felt, while walking through the twilight or writing a date from his past, that something infinite had been lost?

Maybe the mysterious thing which St Paul and the mystics saw and could not communicate appears to all of us every day, in the face of the street lottery ticket seller. Perhaps the face of Jesus was never recorded so that it could become the face of all of us.

Ragnarök

He has a dream. He was in the School of Philosophy and Letters chatting with friends when a group breaks free from the mob below to cries of ‘The gods! The gods’ who take up their place on the dais after centuries of exile. But during that time they have become rough and inhuman, they cannot actually talk but squeak and grunt.

Centuries of fell and fugitive life had atrophied the human element in them; the moon of Islam and the cross of Rome had been implacable with these outlaws. Very low foreheads, yellow teeth, stringy mulatto or Chinese moustaches and thick bestial lips showed the degeneracy of the Olympian lineage. Their clothing corresponded not to a decorous poverty but rather to the sinister luxury of the gambling houses and brothels of the Bajo. A carnation bled crimson in a lapel and the bulge of a knife was outlined beneath a close-fitting jacket. Suddenly we sensed that they were playing their last card, that they were cunning, ignorant and cruel like old beasts of prey and that, if we let ourselves be overcome by fear or pity, they would finally destroy us. We took out our heavy revolvers (all of a sudden there were revolvers in the dream) and joyfully killed the Gods.

Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote

How could Miguel de Cervantes ever have guessed that his attempt to mock and undermine the glorious myths of the Age of Chivalry in his fictitious character, Don Quixote, would itself become a larger-than-life myth? (Well, anyone who has studied a bit of human nature and knows that humans are the myth-making species, constantly rounding out narratives, creating stories which explain everything in which larger-than-life figures either cause all evil or all good.)

The Witness

Borges imagines the last pagan Anglo-Saxon, the last eye-witness of the sacrifices to the pagan gods, living on into the new age of Christianity. What memories and meanings will be lost at his death? Which makes him reflect on what will be lost when he himself dies.

A Problem

A very abstruse problem: Cervantes derives Don Quixote from an Arab precursor, the Cide Hamete Benengeli. Imagine a scrap of manuscript is discovered in which his knightly hero discovers that in one of his fantastical conflicts he has actually killed a man. How would Quixote respond? And Borges imagines four possible responses.

Borges and I

The narrator, Borges, speculates about the other Borges. On a first reading I take this to be the Borges of literature, the Borges who both writes the stories and is conjured into existence by the stories, who is not the same as the flesh and blood Borges who walks the streets.

Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things

Everything and Nothing

A moving and beautiful meditation on the life of William Shakespeare which paints him as a hollow man, plagued by his own emptiness, who seeks to fill it with books, then with sex with an older woman (marriage to Anne Hathaway), moving to the big city, and involvement in about the most hurly-burly of professions, acting, before someone suggests he writes plays as well as acting in them, and he fills his soul with hundreds of characters, giving them undreamed-of speeches and feelings, before, an exhausted middle aged man he retires back to his provincial birthplace, and renounces all poetry for the gritty reality of lawsuits and land deals before dying young.

In a fantastical coda, he arrives in heaven and complains to God that all he wants is to have an identity, to be a complete man instead of a hollow man, but God surprises him with his reply.

After dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him: ‘I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.’ The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.’


Labyrinths

A labyrinth is a structure compounded to confuse men; its architecture, rich in symmetries, is subordinated to that end. (The Immortal)

The choice of this word for the title of the volume is no accident. The metaphor of the labyrinth, referring to endless tangles of intellectual speculation, crops up in most of the stories and many of the essays. It is a founding metaphor of his work.

  • Tlön is surely a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth devised by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.
  • Haslam has also published A General History of Labyrinths
  • I have some understanding of labyrinths: not for nothing am I the great grandson of that Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost.
  • I thought of a labyrinth of labyrinths, of one sinuous spreading labyrinth that would encompass the past and the future and in some way involve the stars
  • Once initiated in the mysteries of Baal, every free man automatically participated in the sacred drawings, which took place in the labyrinths of the god every sixty nights (Babylon)
  • Another [book] (very much consulted in this area) is a mere labyrinth of letters (Babel)
  • He is rescued from these circular labyrinths by a curious finding, a finding which then sinks him into other, more inextricable and heterogeneous labyrinths (Theme of the Traitor and the Hero)
  • I felt that the world was a labyrinth, from which it was impossible to flee… (Death and the Compass)
  • On those nights I swore by the God who sees with two faces and by all the gods of fever and of the mirrors to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother (Death and the Compass)
  • Meticulously, motionlessly, secretly, he wrought in time his lofty, invisible labyrinth (The Secret Miracle)
  • Intolerably, I dreamt of an exiguous and nitid labyrinth: in the center was a water jar; my hands almost touched it, my eyes could see it, but so intricate and perplexed were the curves that I knew I would die before reaching it. (The Immortal)
  • There were nine doors in this cellar; eight led to a labyrinth that treacherously returned to the same chamber; the ninth (through another labyrinth) led to a second circular chamber equal to the first. (The Immortal)
  • You are not lighting a pyre, you are lighting a labyrinth of flames. (The Theologians)

The most labyrinthine story is The Garden of Forking Paths in which the word occurs 18 times.

The labyrinth is a metaphor for the mind and the way it never stops speculating, creating unending streams of interpretation, of our lives, of the world, of each other, of everything, each more entrancing and futile than the one before (among which are ‘the intimate delights of speculative theology’). Thus many of his ‘stories’ feature hardly any characters, events or dialogue – all the energy goes toward capturing the beguiling, phosphorescent stream-of-ideas of an extremely learned, religio-philosophical, fantastical mind:

I thought that Argos and I participated in different universes; I thought that our perceptions were the same, but that he combined them in another way and made other objects of them; I thought that perhaps there were no objects for him, only a vertiginous and continuous play of extremely brief impressions. I thought of a world without memory, without time; I considered the possibility of a language without nouns, a language of impersonal verbs or indeclinable epithets. (The Immortal)

And this endless stream of ideas reflects the way a mature world is full of infinite iterations of any given object. Looking at a coin in his hand:

I reflected that every coin in the world is a symbol of those famous coins which glitter in history and fable. I thought of Charon’s obol; of the obol for which Belisarius begged; of Judas’ thirty coins; of the drachmas of Laï’s, the famous courtesan; of the ancient coin which one of the Seven Sleepers proffered; of the shining coins of the wizard in the 1001 Nights, that turned out to be bits of paper; of the inexhaustible penny of Isaac Laquedem; of the sixty thousand pieces of silver, one for each line of an epic, which Firdusi sent back to a king because they were not of gold; of the doubloon which Ahab nailed to the mast; of Leopold Bloom’s irreversible florin; of the louis whose pictured face betrayed the fugitive Louis XVI near Varennes. (The Zahir)

And:

Money is abstract, I repeated; money is the future tense. It can be an evening in the suburbs, or music by Brahms; it can be maps, or chess, or coffee; it can be the words of Epictetus teaching us to despise gold; it is a Proteus more versatile than the one on the isle of Pharos. It is unforeseeable time, Bergsonian time, not the rigid time of Islam or the Porch.

Everything relates to everything else. Everything is a symbol of everything else, including the most profound categories of thought, hundreds, thousands of which have been dreamt up by the centuries full of metaphysicians and mystics. Anything can stand for anything else and that is, or should be, the freedom of literature, showing us how the infinite nature of human thought can liberate us, at every moment.

Tennyson once said that if we could understand a single flower, we should know what we are and what the world is. Perhaps he meant that there is no fact, however insignificant, that does not involve universal history and the infinite concatenation of cause and effect. Perhaps he meant that the visible world is implicit in every phenomenon, just as the will, according to Schopenhauer, is implicit in every subject… (The Zahir)

Or perhaps something else again, and something else again, and on forever, as long as we breathe, as long as we have consciousness, which consists of impressions, connections, moods, feelings and thoughts endlessly unfurling. Hence his interest in The Infinite, which is the subject of many of the stories (The Library of Babel) and the essay on Achilles and the tortoise which examines the infinitely recursive nature of intelligence. Speaking of the paradox, he writes:

The historical applications do not exhaust its possibilities: the vertiginous regressus in infinitum is perhaps applicable to all subjects. To aesthetics: such and such a verse moves us for such and such a reason, such and such a reason for such and such a reason…

And so on, forever.

Labyrinths as a labyrinth

I began to note how certain names and references recur in many of the stories, for example the name and works of Kafka or the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, Schopenhauer’s notion of the world as a fantasy, Spinoza’s that all things long to persist as themselves – when it occurred to me that these references and motifs which recur across so many stories and essays themselves create a matrix or web which links the texts subterraneanly, so to speak, and themselves create a kind of labyrinth out of the text of Labyrinths. That the totality of the book Labyrinths is itself a labyrinth.

And, rereading that definition – ‘A labyrinth is a structure compounded to confuse men’ – maybe the enjoyment of this awesome book comes from savouring pleasurable confusions; maybe it is about entering a world of carefully controlled and contrived intellectual bewilderments.

The Borgesian

There’s an adjective, apparently, Borgesian, which means: ‘reminiscent of elements of Borges’ stories and essays, especially labyrinths, mirrors, reality, identity, the nature of time, and infinity’.

In his preface, André Maurois, in an attempt to convey the sense Borges’s stories give us of a vast erudition, says that Borges has read everything, but this isn’t quite true. His fictions very cannily give the impression that he has read widely, but it becomes clear fairly quickly that he has read widely in a very particular kind of text, in a certain kind of semi-mystical philosophy and metaphysics, often venturing from the fairly reputable works of Berkeley or Hume or Schopenhauer out into the arcane and mysterious byways of Christian and Islamic and Judaic theology, with the occasional excursion into the wisdom of Chinese magi.

These attributes – the combination of reputable Western philosophers with obscure religious mystics, and the casual mingling of Western texts with dicta from the Middle East or China – are exemplified in probably most famous of all Borges’s stories, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. Here’s a complete list of all the books and ideas referred to in just this one short essay:

Books

  • The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia (New York, 1917)
  • Ritter’s Erdkunde
  • Justus Perthes’ atlases
  • Silas Haslam: History of the Land Called Uqbar (1874)
  • Silas Haslam: A General History of Labyrinths
  • Lesbare und lesenswerthe Bemerkungen über das Land Ukkbar in Klein-Asien (1641) by Johannes Valentinus Andreä
  • Thomas De Quincey (Writings, Volume XIII)
  • Bertrand Russell: The Analysis of Mind (1921)
  • Schopenhauer: Parerga und Paralipomena (1851)
  • Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)

References

  • the Gnostic philosophers’ belief that the world is a pale parody of the real Creation
  • the Islamic tradition of the marvellous Night of Nights
  • David Hume’s comments on the philosophy of George Berkeley
  • Meinong’s theory of a subsistent world
  • Spinoza’s attribution to the Almighty of the attributes of time and extension
  • a heresiarch of the eleventh century
  • Zeno’s paradoxes
  • The Tao Te Ching
  • The 1001 Nights
  • hermetic philosophy

And then there are the hoaxes for which Borges acquired quite a reputation. Silas Haslam does not exist, is merely a fictional author and, scattered throughout these 40 texts, among the pedantic footnotes citing genuine works of philosophy or theology, are scattered other fictional authors, thinkers and ideas. In Borges’s hands the worlds of fiction and ‘reality’ meet and mingle on equal terms. They are, after all, situated in the realm of discourse, and can there be anything more imaginary than that?


Related links

Borges reviews

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