On Friendship by Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne (1533 to 1592) was one of the most significant philosophers of the French Renaissance, famous for popularising the essay as a literary genre. The final edition of the Essays was published posthumously in 1595. It was divided into three books containing 107 essays, featuring some of the most influential essays ever written. The first edition, published in 1580, was quickly translated into English and some scholars have detected the influence of Montaigne’s thoughts and phrasing in Shakespeare’s plays.

Essayer

I’ve always loved the fact that our English word, essay, comes direct from the French, essai, which is the noun form of the verb essayer meaning ‘to try’. So an essay is a try or trial, or attempt, to marshall your thoughts on a particular topic, to see if they make sense and hang together.

Thus Montaigne’s essays are the opposite of what most written texts up to his time had been, namely dogmatic and didactic. Instead they are tentative explorations, of what he knows or can find out on a particular topic. They are experiments in knowing.

A novel kind of autobiography

And this explains why he, Montaigne, is such a persistent presence in so many of the essays. They address not only the nominal subjects but continually shed light on “some traits of my character and of my humours.” They are experiments in what he knows or can understand. Or, as he admitted in the introduction, “I am myself the matter of this book”. As well as meditations on specific subjects, his essays build up to become a novel and innovative form of autobiography.

Que sais-je?

And the most attractive quality that comes over from the essays is Montaigne’s frank scepticism. As a devout Catholic he believed that whereas truth, like God, is infinite, the human capacity to grasp it is very finite, very limited. Chances are there’s nothing we can really know for sure. Hence the personal motto he adopted and had engraved on the medal he wore round his neck in the handful of portraits we have of him: ‘Que sais-je?’ – ‘What do I know?’

What, indeed. This scepticism is often generalised into commiseration for the plight of humans, endowed with a divine spark but trapped in a body fragile and finite and subject to a thousand afflictions, in a mind easily buffeted by emotions or pain.

In his own time Montaigne’s extensive inclusion of his own thoughts and reflections in his essays was criticised, but over the course of the centuries, as the essay’s factual knowledge or classical references have become outdated and antiquarian, it is the autobiographical element which has endured and continues to attract many readers.

All this is very well, but for most modern readers the most striking thing about these essays will probably be the way they contain blizzards of quotations from ancient Greek, Latin and Italian texts. In Montaigne’s day these classical quotes were what data and statistics are to modern essays – his evidence, his proof. Nowadays, they are mostly a pain to read (and a double pain because, since most of them are in Latin, most of us have to read them in translation, further undermining their utility) and the temptation is just to skip them.

To be precise, in these 13 pages Montaigne quotes from Horace (4 times), Cicero (3 times), Catullus (twice), Terence (twice), Ariosto, Plato and Virgil.

Montaigne on friendship

Montaigne’s essay on friendship forms chapter 28 of Book I. It is 13 pages long in the Penguin edition.

He commences with a self deprecating description of the essays themselves:

What are these things I scribble, other than grotesques and monstrous bodies, made of various parts, without any certain figure, or any other than accidental order, coherence, or proportion?

But it quickly becomes clear that the main body of the text is going to describe in some detail his friendship with an older writer named Étienne de la Boétie.

Montaigne starts by explaining how, some years earlier, a Latin satire against tyranny by de la Boétie came into his hands and was his first introduction to the man who would go on to become a friend of unique depth and unanimity. Which leads us into his theme:

There is nothing for which nature seems to have given us such a bent as for society.

Of a perfect society friendship is the peak.

Insofar as human relationships involve cause or aim or incentive, motives or calculation – they are not true friendships, which are pure and selfless.

The love between parents and children is nothing like it, for parents cannot confess their feelings and thoughts without showing inappropriate intimacy, and children cannot chastise their parents – but a good friend can.

Brothers ought to be friends but the fact that they have to make their same way in the world, from the same place, at the same time, inevitably gives rise to jostling and rivalry. Also, the connection between brothers is imposed by nature and fact, whereas the essence of friendship is that it is freely given.

Love binds strangers but it is reckless and changeable and fickle. Friendship, by contrast, is temperate and constant.

Sexual desire is the opposite of friendship. It is a burning flame which vanishes as soon as it is achieved whereas friendship doesn’t flame out but grows the more it is possessed. The more you are in company with a friend, talking, joking, the deeper the friendship becomes.

Marriages can be close but are built on legal and moral restraints, unlike friendship which encourages total freedom.

In a passage which eliminates half the population from his fan club, Montaigne asserts that women lack the depth and constancy required for friendship:

The normal capacity of women is unequal to the demands of that communion and intercourse on which the sacred bond [of friendship] is fed; their souls do not seem firm enough to bear the strain of so hard and lasting a tie. (p.95)

Homosexuality, even as practiced by the high-minded Greeks was, so far as we can tell, all about the external appearance of beautiful young men i.e. not about mature minds, like the friendship Montaigne is extolling. There is an inequality built into the love between an older man and a younger youth which, in the base and vulgar, often involves fishing for money or advancement.

And so, after this consideration of alternative social bonds, back to Montaigne’s friendship with Étienne de la Boétie. He feels it was fated by a ‘power of destiny’, because they knew of each other’s books before they met. And as soon as they met they had a complete mutual understanding. In fact De la Boétie wrote a work on the power of their attraction. It didn’t grow slowly through a hundred and one meetings and occurrences, but was the whole thing immediately. They lost themselves in each other and henceforth both were part of the other.

A digression to the story (told by Cicero in his essay on friendship) about Laelius questioning Gaius Blossius about his friendship with Gaius Gracchus, after the latter was arrested for sedition. ‘Would you have done anything for him?’ asks Laelius. ‘Even set the temples on fire?’ ‘He would never have asked such a thing,’ says Blossius. ‘Yes, but if he had, would you have?’ asks Laelius, and Blossius replies ‘Yes’. Cicero, the conservative patriot, thinks this is a disgraceful answer and uses it to establish a rule that we should do anything for a friend unless it leads us into immoral behaviour at which point we should immediately stop and drop the friend. Montaigne, on the other hand, admires Blossius’s answer. Friendship means total abandonment to each other’s wills and personalities.

It is a deliberate indication of the distance between Cicero’s stern Republican patriotism and Montaigne’s politically detached, sophisticated humanism.

Montaigne and de la Boétie’s souls and will were as one, they travelled together, read and talked together, they saw into each other’s hearts.

Montaigne draws a distinction between the Super Friendship he is describing, and all the other ‘commonplace and everyday’ friendships which most of us experience. With those one can never relax because you are never truly united with each other. One must ride with one hand on the bridle because at any moment this more superficial type of friend might do something unpredictable, questionable or immoral, and you must be ready to pull away.

By contrast the Super Friendship he is describing does not count help and gifts because there is a complete ‘fusion of wills’ and so helping your friend requires no more explanation than helping yourself. All concepts such as benefit, obligation, gratitude, request and thanks are inappropriate because they imply separation where there is no separation; there is a complete fusion of two souls.

He tells a story from antiquity about a man who draws up a will bequeathing his two friends, not money and goods, but the obligations (to look after his mother and marry off his daughter) which he left unfulfilled at his death. Bystanders thought this was hilarious, but it displays the quality of True Friendship which is that you are grateful to undertake obligations for your friend – you consider it an honour.

Mind you, the fact that the story names two friends to the dying man is an imperfection i.e. it depicts three friends. Friendship of the type Montaigne is describing is only possible between two men and no more.

Again he draws a distinction between ‘commonplace and everyday’ friendships, which are divisible i.e. you love one man for his beauty, another for his easy manner, another for his liberality and so on – and the grand True Friendship he is describing. This second type ‘dissolves all other obligations’. It is ‘absolutely single and indivisible’. A friendship like this is rare indeed and only comes along once in a lifetime, if then:

It is easy enough to find men fit for a superficial acquaintance, but here, where a man commits himself from the depths of his heart, keeping nothing back, it is essential that all the springs of action be perfectly clean and reliable. (p.101)

Compared with the four years during which Montaigne knew de la Boétie, the rest of his life seems like smoke, ‘but a dark and tedious night’ (p.103). He had grown so used to being completely united with him, that since his death he feels like half a man.

The text ends with a page explaining that he was minded to republish his friend’s essay against tyranny within his own book of essays except that it has recently been published by ‘those who wish to change the form of the French government’ (he means French Protestants who were engaged in a long low-level conflict with the Catholic authorities which periodically burst out into open civil war). And these enemies have published de la Boétie’s essay in a collection lumped in amid a load of their own tracts as if de la Boétie was one of theirs – which Montaigne strongly objects to. He goes on to emphasise that the essay was written when his friend was only 16, as a schoolboy exercise, and so doesn’t reflect his mature thought.

Finally, Montaigne concludes by emphasising that, contrary to the implication of the essay being published by Protestant subversives, his friend was a good Catholic and law-abiding patriot. This maxim was imprinted on his soul:

That he must most religiously obey and submit to the laws under which he was born. There was never a better citizen, nor one who cared more for his country’s peace; no one more hostile to the commotions and revolutions of his time. (p.105)

Hm. So although he was at pains to separate himself from Cicero’s moralising patriotism, Montaigne himself ends up doing something similar in the end, asserting, albeit a little more subtly, the value of true religion and patriotic feeling.

Thoughts

Having written a brief introduction to Montaigne which emphasised the modernity of his sceptical and experimental approach, I was, to be honest, surprised that the essay on friendship is so very much in thrall to ancient philosophy, to notions of Oneness and Uniqueness deriving from Plato and the Stoics in its depiction of the Super Friendship between him and de la Boétie.

Surprised and a dismayed. It felt much more medieval than I remembered Montaigne to be. He sounds more like Cicero, who died 1,600 years earlier, than Bacon, who was only a 28 years his junior, and gives frank, realistic advice which we can all relate to. A bit staggering that the droll, pithy Bacon overlaps with Cicero-quoting Montaigne and was writing his early, pithy essays as Montaigne was writing his final, wordy ones. They feel worlds apart.

Second reflection is that the essay should really be called ‘Super Friendship: On The One Unique Soul-Sharing Friendship Which Comes Only Once In A Lifetime’. It would be handy if that was more clearly explained at the start. And it would clarify that Montaigne doesn’t really touch on the practical aspects of ordinary friendship and acquaintance, such as you or I might experience them.

Third reflection is that the extenuation of de la Boétie which concludes the essay sheds light back on everything which preceded it. It makes you wonder whether Montaigne’s entire motivation for writing the essay was less an objective exploration of the quality of (super) friendship than to mount a spirited defence of his friend from posthumous accusations of treachery. A suspicion fortified when you learn that, instead of publishing his friend’s essay in the body of this volume, he published 29 sonnets by de la Boétie. I.e. that the essay is less a reflection about friendship than an embodiment of the obligations and responsibilities he felt towards a particular friend.

In that respect it exemplifies, it’s a contemporary embodiment, of the story about the Roman citizen who left his friends not his fortune but his obligations. It’s of a piece.

The essay is fairly interesting in its working through and conceptualisation of the type of Super Friendship he’s chosen to describe, but does feel rather airless and asphyxiating in the same kind of way that Cicero does, in circumscribed by a limiting agenda. I prefer being in the real world with Bacon and his practical maxims.

You could almost say that Montaigne demonstrates (in this essay at least) the kind of thralldom to ancient wisdom and to famous authors and dusty old poetry which Bacon thought needed to be chucked out of the intellectual world in order for us to really frankly assess who we are and how we live. Bacon was never able to describe this new world of knowledge since so little scientific discovery existed in his day: but his fervent belief that it was the right way to proceed turned out to be bang on the money.

Credit

All references are to the translation of Michel de Montaigne’s Essays by J.M. Cohen published by Penguin books in 1958.


Related links

On Old Age by Cicero (44 BC)

‘Of what immense worth is it for the soul to be with itself, to live, as the phrase is, with itself, discharged from the service of lust, ambition, strife, enmities, desires of every kind!’
(On old age by Cicero)

Cicero wrote De senectute or ‘Of old age’ to disabuse people of their negative stereotypes about old age, to defend old age, to make it less feared. It’s a relatively short treatise by Cicero’s standards. It is dedicated to his good friend Titus Pomponius (who gave himself the nickname ‘Atticus’ because he loved Athens so much).

Cicero sets it, like De republica and De amitia, back in the time of Scipio Aemilianus, about 130 BC, and has the characters in the dialogue be Scipio, his friend Caius Laelius, and the stern moralist Cato the Elder, who lived a very long life (234 to 149 BC) and so was eminently qualified to talk about age.

In De senectute Cicero, like the defence lawyer he was, mounts a defence of the state of old age against its alleged disadvantages. He has Cato tell Scipio and Laelius how foolish general attitudes to old age are. The best way to live is to ‘follow and obey Nature, the surest guide, as if she were a god,’ (which my recent reading has taught me to see as pure Stoicism). Hence the Stoic insistence on Virtue:

CATO: “The best-fitting defensive armour of old age, Scipio and Laelius, consists in the knowledge and practice of the virtues, which, assiduously cultivated, after the varied experiences of a long life, are wonderfully fruitful, not only because they never take flight, not even at the last moment, — although this is a consideration of prime importance, — but because the consciousness of a well-spent life and a memory rich in good deeds afford supreme happiness.”

Those who criticise old age are often simply projecting their own vices and shortcomings onto an inevitable part of life.

About a quarter of the way into the text, after this fictional Cato has given us profiles and anecdotes about quite a few eminent Romans of his time, he gets round to tabulating the four main criticisms people make of old age.

“One, that it calls us away from the management of affairs; another, that it impairs bodily vigour; the third, that it deprives us to a great degree of sensual gratifications; the fourth, that it brings one to the verge of death.”

The essay consists of him examining and refuting each of these claims in turn:

1. Old age withdraws us from active pursuits

It’s true old age prevents activities which are appropriate for youth and strength of body. But there are many activities appropriate to maturity and statesmanship, and he gives a list of eminent Romans who played decisive roles at key moments of Roman history:

The old man does not do what the young men do; but he does greater and better things. Great things are accomplished, not by strength, or swiftness, or suppleness of body, but by counsel, influence, deliberate opinion, of which old age is not wont to be bereft, but, on the other hand, to possess them more abundantly…Unless these were the characteristics of seniors in age, our ancestors would not have called the supreme council the Senate.

The word senate derives from senex, the Latin for old man, implying that with age comes wisdom and decision.

If you see fit to read or hear the history of foreign nations, you will find that states have been undermined by young men, but maintained and restored by old men.

Rashness, indeed, belongs to youth; prudence, to age.

Indeed, the crowning glory of old age is authority.

Old age, especially when it has filled offices of high public trust, has so much authority, that for this alone it is worth all the pleasures of youth.

Old men are said to forget, but Cato insists this is only true among those who do not exercise their memory or were slow-minded to begin with. No, old men remember everything that they care about and:

Old men have their powers of mind unimpaired when they do not suspend their usual pursuits and their habits of industry.

Examples of men who excelled at their craft well into old age include Sophocles, Homer, Hesiod, Simonides, Stesichorus, Isocrates, Gorgias, Pythagoras and Democritus, Plato, Xenocrates, Zeno and Cleanthes and so on. Did these men not continue working at the top of their bent till the end of their lives?

Some say old age is repellent to the young, but it need not be so if is considered with respect to the wisdom age has to offer:

As wise old men are charmed with well-disposed youth, so do young men delight in the counsels of the old, by which they are led to the cultivation of the virtues.

And so another of the benefits of age is the respect of the young and he details the respect afforded successful elder statesmen, such as being saluted in the morning, grasped by the hand, received by the rising of those present, escorted to the Forum, escorted home, asked for advice.

What pleasures of body are to be compared with the prerogatives of authority?

2. Old age makes the body weaker

It is becoming to make use of what one has, and whatever you do, to do in proportion to your strength

But the eloquence that becomes one of advanced years is calm and gentle, and not infrequently a clear-headed old man commands special attention by the simple, quiet elegance of his style

You can at least help others by your counsel; and what is more pleasant than old age surrounded by young disciples? Must we not admit that old age has sufficient strength to teach young men, to educate them, to train them for the discharge of every duty? And what can be more worthy of renown than work like this?

If you know someone stronger than you, does that make them better than you? No, each of us has the strength appropriate to our bodies and exercise, so:

Provided one husbands one’s strength, and does not attempt to go beyond it, one will not be hindered in one’s work by any lack of the requisite strength.

Accept the course of nature.

Life has its fixed course, and nature one unvarying way; each age has assigned to it what best suits it, so that the fickleness of boyhood, the sanguine temper of youth, the soberness of riper years, and the maturity of old age, equally have something in harmony with nature.

But do what you can to remain fit.

Exercise and temperance, then, can preserve even in old age something of one’s pristine vigour.

Live a healthy life.

Old age, like disease, should be fought against. Care must be bestowed upon the health; moderate exercise must be taken; the food and drink should be sufficient to recruit the strength, and not in such excess as to become oppressive. Nor yet should the body alone be sustained in vigour, but much more the powers of mind; for these too, unless you pour oil into the lamp, are extinguished by old age. Indeed, while overexertion tends by fatigue to weigh down the body, exercise makes the mind elastic.

Cato lists the intimidating roster of activities he is undertaking in his 84th year, including:

  • he is writing a history
  • he is collecting memorials of older times
  • he is writing out the speeches he gave in all his law cases
  • he is treating of augural, pontifical, civil law
  • to exercise his mind he recalls every evening whatever he has said, heard or done during the day
  • he often appears in court on behalf of friends
  • he attends the senate and still has motions he wants to propose

These are the exercises of the mind; these, the race-ground of the intellect.

If you remain alert and active:

One who is always occupied in these studies and labours is unaware when age creeps upon him. Thus one grows old gradually and unconsciously,

3. Old age deprives us of almost all physical pleasures

This is a positive thing, considering that the lure of physical pleasure is one of the most harmful things to youth. He quotes a violent speech against pleasure by Archytas of Tarentum:

“There is no form of guilt, no atrocity of evil, to the accomplishment of which men are not driven by lust for pleasure. Debaucheries, adulteries, and all enormities of that kind have no other inducing cause than the allurements of pleasure.

“Still more, while neither Nature nor any god has bestowed upon man aught more noble than mind, nothing is so hostile as pleasure to this divine endowment and gift. Nor while lust bears sway can self-restraint find place, nor under the reign of pleasure can virtue have any foothold whatever.”

If reason is the greatest gift of the gods and the highest faculty of man, and if indulgence in physical pleasure overrides or extinguishes it, then thank God for old age if it means all these harmful forces leave you.

For pleasure thwarts good counsel, is the enemy of reason, and, if I may so speak, blindfolds the eyes of the mind, nor has it anything in common with virtue.

Plato called pleasure ‘the bait of evil’, and so:

It is not only no reproach to old age, but even its highest merit, that it does not severely feel the loss of bodily pleasures.

It is said that old men have less intensity of sensual enjoyment. So I believe; but there is no craving for it. You do not miss what you do not want.

Sophocles very aptly replied, when asked in his old age whether he indulged in sensual pleasure, “May the gods do better for me! I rejoice in my escape from a savage and ferocious tyrant.”

So one can feel grateful for it:

I am heartily thankful to my advanced years for increasing my appetency for conversation, and diminishing my craving for food and drink.

Speaking personally, I’m glad I’m middle aged. When I was a young man I felt I had a raging fire burning in my mind which could only be extinguished by intoxicants and inebriants, I hurtled round London feeling like I might explode at any moment. Now the fires of testosterone have banked right down and I am content to read literature and tend my garden, like the best of the ancients. It is an enormous relief not to be young any more.

it is to Solon’s honour that he says, in the verse which I just now quoted, that as he advanced in age he learned something every day, — a pleasure of the mind than which there can be none greater.

He then has a passage about the joys of what he calls agriculture, but is nearer to horticulture, with an extended description of the joy of growing grapes and watching the vines grow and spread.

What can I say of the planting, upspringing, and growth of vines? It is with insatiable delight that I thus make known to you the repose and enjoyment of my old age.

I know what he means. This year I have planted seven trees, set up 10 trellises and planted five climbers to grow up them, and sown wild flowers seed along 20 metres of border. There is no pleasure like the calm pleasure of planning, planting, watering and tending your own garden.

He introduces some further accusations against old men 1) that they are morose, uneasy, irritable and hard to please, 2) that they become avaricious with age.

But these are faults of character, not of age itself.

He defends (some) old men from being uneasy and irritable because this is, in fact, a justified response to the way they are sometimes treated – when they are scorned, despised, mocked. Who can blame old people from being grumpy about being badly treated and neglected.

Also, if you have a weaker body, sometimes undermined by chronic health problems, then any cause of vexation is felt more keenly. But such infirmities of temper should be corrected by good manners and liberal culture.

As to old men becoming greedy, he can’t understand it at all. With less of life to live, why bother devoting your energies to acquiring wealth you won’t have time to spend. Better to cultivate a calm but active mind.

4. Old age is liable to excessive solicitude and distress because death is so near

But one of the key achievements of wisdom is to overcome your fear of death and learn to despise it. There are, after all, only two scenarios: either the soul / mind ceases to exist at death (in which case there is nothing to worry about) or we pass to an immortal realm (which is highly desirable). Win-win, either way.

In fact, young people are more liable to fatal incidents than old people: young people commit suicide, are killed in car or motorbike crashes, in fights or murders and, in Cicero’s time, in battle, much more than old people.

Young people hope to live to a ripe old age. An old person should rejoice because he has achieved that wish.

Each one should be content with such time as it is allotted to him to live.

In order to give pleasure to the audience, the actor need not finish the play; he may win approval in whatever act he takes part in; nor need the wise man remain on the stage till the closing plaudit. A brief time is long enough to live well and honourably.

But if you live on, you have no more reason to mourn over your advancing years, than the farmers have, when the sweet days of spring are past, to lament the coming of summer and of autumn.

What can be more natural than to die old. It is those who die young who are the tragic waste. Dying old is part of the natural cycle of things.

Old men die as when a spent fire goes out of its own accord, without force employed to quench it…This ripeness of old age is to me so pleasant, that, in proportion as I draw near to death, I seem to see land, and after a long voyage to be on the point of entering the harbour.

And:

Because old age has no fixed term, one may fitly live in it so long as one can observe and discharge the duties of his station, and yet despise death.

Old age, fearless of death, may transcend youth in courage and in fortitude.

As to the actual pain of dying:

There may be, indeed, some painful sensation in dying, yet for only a little while, especially for the old; after death there is either desirable sensation or none at all.

It is possible to have had enough, to have lived well and done everything one wanted so as to reach a stage of being ready for death:

satiety of life, as it seems to me, creates satiety of pursuits of every kind. There are certain pursuits belonging to boyhood; do grownup young men therefore long for them? There are others appertaining to early youth; are they required in the sedate period of life which we call middle age? This, too, has its own pursuits, and they are not sought in old age. As the pursuits of earlier periods of life fall away, so in like manner do those of old age. When this period is reached, satiety of life brings a season ripe for death.

Cato ends by sharing his personal thoughts about the soul. He believes, with the Pythagoreans, that each human soul is a fragment of the Divine Mind forced, for a while, into the prison of an earthly habitation. Indivisible and immortal, human souls knew things before we were born (as per Plato).

The wise soul knows it will live on after death:

Since men of the highest wisdom die with perfect calmness, those who are the most foolish with extreme disquiet, can you doubt that the soul which sees more and farther perceives that it is going to a better state, while the soul of obtuser vision has no view beyond death?

Cato is looking forward to meeting the great men he knew in life, as well as legendary figures from earlier days. And so, after a lifetime of toil for his nation, Cato is ready to move on for a better place, the abode of bliss and the company of heroes:

I depart from life, as from an inn, not as from a home; for nature has given us here a lodging for a sojourn, not a place of habitation. O glorious day, when I shall go to that divine company and assembly of souls, and when I shall depart from this crowd and tumult!

Thoughts

Unlike Cicero’s treatise on friendship, which was impossibly high-minded and deformed by Cicero’s obsession with Stoic philosophy, his insistence on spelling out the belief in God which underlies his belief in a God-given Human Nature and therefore God-given Moral Laws – this essay is far less theoretical, and therefore a genuinely useful, insightful guide to how to age gracefully and well.

Once or twice he mentions the Stoic nostrum that virtue can fortify the mind against all vicissitudes, but the philosophy is tamped right down in favour of the many practical, real world examples of fellow Romans who Cato has known or whose grace and wisdom and ongoing energy in old age offer genuinely inspiring examples, both to him and to anybody who reads it.


Related link

Roman reviews

On the laws by Cicero

We are born for justice and what is just is based, not on opinion, but on nature.
(De legibus, book I, section 28)

Cicero began writing the De legibus or On the laws during the same period as the De republica, i.e. the late 50s BC, but suspended work on it when he was compelled to go and be governor of Cilicia in 51 BC, and possibly never resumed it. It is certainly unfinished. We have just two books of 60-odd sections each and most of book 3 (49 sections) then the manuscript stops in mid-sentence. The 4th century AD philosopher Macrobius refers to the existence of a book 5. Maybe it was intended to have 6 books to parallel the De republica to which it is obviously a partner.

Like most of Cicero’s other works it is a dialogue though, unlike the De republica, it is set in the present and, instead of historical personages, features just the author himself, his brother (Quintus Tullius Cicero) and his best friend (Titus Pomponius Atticus, addressee of so many of Cicero’s letters).

De legibus has a simple premise: since he is Rome’s leading lawyer and advocate, Cicero’s brother and friend suggest he is perfectly placed to write a book about The Law, and so Cicero sets off with the aim of establishing the fundamental basis of law, before considering specific laws, whether they need to be amended and, if so, how. From the start Cicero describes and explicates what was essentially the Stoic theory of natural law as amounting to right reason in action.

Natural Law

In the introduction to the Oxford University Press edition, Jonathan Powell explains that Cicero’s theory of Natural Law was based on certain premises:

  1. that the universe is a system run by a rational providence
  2. that mankind stands between God and the animals so that in creating and obeying laws man is employing Right Reason
  3. that human potential can only be realised in communities – Cicero derives this from Aristotle’s view that humans are sociable animals
  4. that man is a homogeneous species – we have more in common than separates us – therefore we are susceptible to the same, one, universal natural law which stands above (or lies beneath) all ‘positive’ i.e. merely local and culture-specific laws
  5. that law is based on (human) nature not opinion – individual laws may come and go but the existence of a deep fundamental law of human nature can never change

Natural Law refuted

The objections to this are obvious and start with the counter statement that the universe is very much not a system run by a rational providence. Since Isaac Newton’s discoveries of the basic forces which govern the universe, there has been no need to posit a God to create and keep the universe running; and since Darwin published On The Origin of Species in 1859, there has been no need to posit a God who created the extraordinary diversity of life forms we see around us, including humanity. Many other reasons may be found for adducing the existence of a God or gods, but the regularity of the cosmos and the diversity of the natural world are not among them.

If God does not exist, didn’t create the universe and does not deploy a benevolent providence to watch over us, then humans cannot occupy a middle space between the animals and this God who doesn’t exist. We are more accurately seen as just another life form amid the trillions teeming all over the earth.

Cicero displays towards human beings the same kind of anthropocentric chauvinism and exceptionalism which was first recorded among his Greek predecessors and persisted through most thinking about humanity and human nature up till very recently. Only in the last couple of generations has it become clear that humans may have invented language and maths and built skyscrapers and flown to the moon but that, deep down, we are just apes, mammals, animals, and behave much like all the other mammals, in terms of our fundamental behaviours – feeding, mating and fighting.

If you have a God, then you can establish a hierarchy with him at the top, then the angels, then humans sitting comfortably above all other species on earth. If you have no God, the hierarchy crumbles and we are just one among a million different life forms jumbled together on this small planet, engaged in the never-ending battle for survival. Nowadays we know that humanity is killing off the other species, destroying countless habitats, and burning up the planet as no other species possibly could. Some people characterise our arrogant lording it over life forms as speciesism, a view I share.

If there is one quality that distinguishes human beings from all other species it is our unique capacity for destruction.

The notion that humans are governed by Right Reason has always seemed to me self evidently false. Our values are inculcated by the society we grow up in. If some values are almost universal across most of these societies this is because they make evolutionary sense, they help the group survive, rather than being a Universal Law handed down by a Benevolent God.

Therefore premises 1, 2, 4 and 5 listed above are false. We are left with 3, the notion that humans naturally live in groups or communities, which seems to be objectively true, but gives us no guide on how we should conduct ourselves, or establish laws or rules for running these communities.

Lastly, the introductions to all these texts by Cicero tend to talk about Universal values, Universal laws, and Universal human nature very freely but I can’t help feeling they only apply to the Western world. The terms of reference seem very Eurocentric or Anglocentric or whatever the word is for Western-centric. Meaning that my reading about African tribes, cultures, laws and traditions, or what I know about Chinese history, and my personal experience of travelling in the Muslim world, suggest that there are many non-Western cultures which don’t share these ways of looking at the world at all. I’m guessing the same could be said about Indian culture, or the traditions of the native Americans of North or South America, the Australian aborigenes and any number of other cultures.

Liberals may be proud of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the recently founded United Nations, founded by the soon-to-be-victorious Allies during the Second World War, based in New York, a document drafted by a committee chaired by the American president’s wife (Eleanor Roosevelt) – but the idea of universal set of values is not a fact about human beings but a high-minded aspiration.

I recently visited the British Museum exhibition on Stonehenge. This has a section describing life in Britain before the advent of the (first) agricultural revolution, which began in the Middle East 12,000 years ago. The human population of Britain was minuscule (maybe 5,000) arranged into tiny communities of hunter gatherers who lived deep amid nature as they found her, without the knowledge, means or incentive to change anything, to fell trees, clear land, burn forests and so on. Instead they considered themselves an integral part of nature, not set aside from it. They killed rarely and atoned for their killings with offerings. And the exhibition says this was the way of life for most hunter-gatherer societies for most of human history i.e. going back hundreds of thousands of years, back through all the various species of the genus Homo.

So I’m saying that Cicero’s premises are not only wrong in the theoretical/theological way that they posit the existence of One Universal God to explain the world around us, an explanation which has been utterly superseded by the scientific worldview – but wrong in all his factual claims about human nature,  above all that it is universally the same, whereas we now know that there have been, and currently are, many, many, many more human cultures than Cicero could ever imagine.

The Romans thought the world amounted to one continent completely surrounded by a vast Ocean, punctuated by the middle-earth or Mediterranean Sea. They hugely underestimated the size of Africa, and thought the world ended with India and a little beyond the Ural mountains, so forming one circular continent. The historical examples Cicero bases his notion of a universal human nature on amount to a tiny sub-set of the actually existing cultures of his own time, and a minuscule sub-set of all the human cultures and societies which have existed over the face of the earth for the past several hundred thousand years.

So: this book is clever and interesting in all kinds of ways but it is based on multiple types of ignorance – deep, deep ignorance – which lead to false premises and wrong deductions on every page.

Cicero’s motivation

As we saw in De republica Cicero was a very practical-minded Roman. He wasn’t interested in airy-fairy philosophical speculations for their own sake. He was a staunch Roman patriot who wanted to preserve the Roman state. The practicalness of his motivation is stated explicitly mid-way through book one:

You see the direction which this discussion is taking. My whole thesis aims to bring stability to states, steadiness to cities, and well-being to communities. (I, 37)

He is not seeking ‘the truth’, so much as cherry-picking arguments from the range of Greek philosophy in order to shore up his practical and patriotic aim.

Book one

Cicero asserts that:

  1. human beings are blessed with the ultimate gift of the gods, Reason
  2. humans have a single way of living with one another which is universal
  3. all people in a community are held together by natural goodwill and kindness (I, 35)

As you can see, all these axioms are wrong and he goes on to deliver a slew of equally high-minded, fine-sounding sentiments which are equally false:

Law is the highest reason, inherent in nature, which enjoins what ought to be done and forbids the opposite. (I, 18)

Law is a force of nature, the intelligence and reason of a wise man, and the criterion of truth and injustice. (I, 19)

The creature of foresight, wisdom, variety, keenness, memory, endowed with reason and judgement, which we call man, was created by the supreme god to enjoy a remarkable status. Of all the types and species of living creatures he is the only one that participates in reason and reflection whereas none of the others do…Since there is nothing better than reason, and reason is present in both man and God, there is a primordial partnership between man and God. (I, 22-23)

No, humans were not created by God but evolved through natural processes. We now know that numerous other species certainly have memory, and many appear capable of thought and calculation. Who says there is nothing better than reason? A philosopher whose central subject is reason, which is like a carpenter saying there’s nothing better in the world than working with wood. Why is there nothing better in the world than reason. How about, say, love?

Since there is no God, the statement ‘since reason is present in both man and God, there is a primordial partnership between man and God’ is meaningless. Or more accurately, it has a meaning, but a meaning made out of words, in the same way that a poem about blue guitars floating up to the moon makes sense, but refers to nothing in the real world. On it goes:

Those who share reason also share right reason; and since that is law, we men must also be thought of as partners with the gods in law. (I, 23)

Those who obey the same laws effectively live in the same state and:

and they do in fact obey this celestial system, the divine mind, and the all-powerful god. Hence this whole universe must be thought of as a single community shared by gods and men. (I, 23)

In the course of the continuous circuits and revolutions of the heavens the right moment arrived for sowing the human race; that after being scattered and sown in the earth it was further endowed with the divine gift of mind; that whereas men derived the other elements in their makeup from their mortal nature…their mind was implanted in them by God. Hence we have…a lineage, origin or stock in common with gods…As a result man recognises God in as much as he recognises his place of origin…the same moral excellence in man and in God. (I, 24-25)

Cicero’s belief in God or gods isn’t tangential to his thought: his theism is absolutely central and vital to his entire view of human nature, reason, ethics, law and justice. And so, since there is no God, Cicero’s views on human nature, reason, ethics, law and justice are wrong from top to bottom. They may occasionally coincide with modern views based on humanistic atheism but these are accidental overlaps.

What makes this relatively short book (72 pages) so hard to read is that I disagreed with all his premises and almost all his conclusions. As a discussion of the theoretical basis of law and justice I found it useless. It has a sort of historical usefulness in shedding a very clear light on how a leading Roman lawyer conceived his profession and clearly explaining the kind of arguments about jurisprudence which were common in his day. And it includes references to Greek and Roman history which are anecdotally interesting. But every time he makes a general statement I find myself totally disagreeing and this eventually becomes very wearing:

Nature has lavished such a wealth of things on men for their use and convenience that every growing thing seems to have been given to us on purpose; it does not come into existence by chance. (I, 26)

Wrong: the life forms we see around us evolved by the process explained by Darwin, of which Cicero knows nothing; none of them were created ‘for our convenience’, instead food crops and livestock only began to be bred and fine-tuned for our use during the agricultural revolution which began some 10,000 years before Cicero’s time, of which he knew and understood nothing.

And the world does not exist ‘for our convenience’: it is precisely this self-centred sense of human privilege and entitlement which is very obviously destroying the earth in our own time.

God has created and equipped man in this way, intending him to take precedence over everything else. (I, 27)

Anthropocentrism. Narcissism*. Human chauvinism. Arrogance.

Nature made man alone erect, encouraging him to gaze at the heavens as being akin to him and his original home. (I, 27)

Sweet, poetic and false.

Cicero goes on to make the humanistic claim that people have more in common than separates them, we are all one human family. He is not stating this because he’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony but because he wants to continue his thought that there is One God who has created one human race with One Reason and so it follows that there must be One Law to rule them all. Hence his insistence that there is One Human Nature. He claims that Reason:

  • may vary in what it teaches but is constant in its ability to learn
  • that what we perceive through the senses, we all perceive alike
  • that perceptions which impinge on our minds do so on all minds in the same way
  • that human speech may use different words but expresses the same ideas
  • troubles and joys, desires and fears haunt the minds of all alike

He is trying to corral human nature into his One God, One Reason, One Human Nature therefore One Law argument, but each of those four statements is questionable or wrong, starting with the notion that everyone is alike in the ability to learn and ending with the notion that we all experience the same emotions. Demonstrably false.

This is the evidence, in reality just wishes and assertions, which leads him to conclude that there is One Justice and that it derives from Nature (I, 33). Again and again he repeats the same formulas:

There is one, single, justice. It binds together human society and has been established by one, single law. That law is right reason in commanding and forbidding. (I, 42)

We are inclined by nature to have a regard for others and that is the basis of justice. (I, 43)

But repeating false claims doesn’t make them true.

Nature has created perceptions that we have in common, and has sketched them in such a way that we classify honourable things as virtues and dishonourable things as vices. (I, 44)

And yet Cicero saw Scipio Africanus, the general who oversaw the complete destruction of Carthage and the selling of its entire population of 50,000 into slavery as an epitome of virtue and honour and glory. Is that a perception we all have in common? Probably not the population of Carthage.

Moral excellence is reason fully developed and that is certainly grounded in nature. (I, 45)

Goodness itself is good not because of people’s opinions but because of nature. (I, 46)

Here and in many other similar formulations you can see that what he is arguing against is the notion that goodness and morality and law are contingent upon human societies. If this is true then, for a patriotic, socially-minded conservative like Cicero, what follows is anarchy. (It is the same fear of anarchy which underpins his conservative preference to keep on worshipping the gods according to the traditional ceremonies, as expressed in De rerum deorum.)

For more pragmatic, sceptical and utilitarian-minded people like myself, what follows is not anarchy, but is certainly a complex and never-ending process of trying to create culture, morality and laws which allow for diversity and strike a balance between conflicting opinions, classes and needs. The unending messiness of democracy, in other words.

Book one is essentially in two parts: up to section 40-something he is laying down these basic principles, and then gets his brother and best friend to enthusiastically vouch that he has certainly proved them, that men were endowed with reason by the gods, men live with one another in the same way everywhere, and that all human communities are held together by the same universal justice (I, 35).

All good men love what is fair in itself and what is right in itself. (I, 48)

In the second half he introduces, or wanders off to consider, notions of the good and morality. Sometimes, reading Cicero, it feels like you can see the joins, the places where he moved from copying one Greek text to suddenly copying from another. The order is his but much of the source content is cribbed from Greek originals (as he freely admits in his letters and in the texts themselves) with the result that his works rarely feel like they have a steady clear direction of travel, but more like a collection of related topics thrown loosely together. And this partly explains why his so-called conclusions rarely feel really justified by what has preceded them.

The conclusion is obvious from what has been said, namely that one should strive after justice and every moral virtue for their own sake. (I, 48)

Therefore what is right should be sought and cultivated for itself. (I, 48)

The t-shirt slogans keep on coming:

Justice looks for no prize; it is sought for itself and is at once the cause and meaning of all virtues. (I, 48)

This reminds me of St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude… (1 Corinthians 13:4)

And the comparison confirms my sense that Cicero’s writings are less philosophy than wisdom literature, defined as: “statements by sages and the wise that offer teachings about divinity and virtue.”

A fundamental mistake he makes is common to dogmatists of his type, namely the false dilemma or false dichotomy, “an informal fallacy based on a premise that erroneously limits what options are available.” For, Cicero argues, if his account of One God endowing One Human Race with One Right Reason so that Justice and Virtue arise out of Nature is wrong – then the only alternative is chaos. For if people only act in their own self-interest, not according to Universal Justice, then:

where is a generous person to be found…what becomes of gratitude…where is that holy thing, friendship…what are we to say of restraint, temperance, and self-control? What od modesty, decency and chastity?… then there is no such thing as justice at all. (I, 49-50)

But this is a false dichotomy. There aren’t just two stark alternatives. There are, in reality, a huge variety of societies, laws, customs and traditions. Yes it may look like anarchy to a conservative like Cicero. But it is how human beings actually live. The false dichotomy is a way for an author to terrorise you into accepting his tendentious view.

Cicero is not seeking ‘the truth’; he is, like the excellent lawyer he was, making a case and using every rhetorical and logical sleight of hand to do so.

Quintus asks where all this is going (I, 52) and Marcus replies that he is steering the discussion towards a definition of the Highest Good. Oh God, how boring. As with all these conservative/authoritarian thinkers, there can only be one of everything, One God, One Human Nature, One Reason, One Justice, One State and One Good.

As usual he a) approaches the problem through a blizzard of references to Greek philosophers including Phaedrus, the Academy, Zeno, the Old Academy, Antiochus, Chios, Aristotle, Plato and b) fails to reach any meaningful conclusion. Whereas the Old Academy called what is honourable the highest good, Zeno said it was the only good, holding the same beliefs as Aristotle but using different terms. (I, 55).

Quintus suggests that:

There is no doubt about it: the highest good is either to live according to nature (i.e. to enjoy a life of moderation governed by moral excellence) or to follow nature and to live, so to speak, by the law (i.e. as far as possible to omit nothing in order to achieve what nature requires, which means the same as this: to live, as it were, by a code of moral excellence). (I, 56)

Great. Does that help anyone? No. Words, words, words. But when Quintus asks him to show what all this means in practice, Cicero at first pleads that it is beyond his powers. What isn’t beyond his powers is more highfalutin’ truisms:

Wisdom is the mother of all good things; the love of her gives us the word ‘philosophy’ from the Greek. Of all the gifts which the immortal gods have bestowed on human life none is richer or more abundant or more desirable. (I, 58)

Cicero deflects to invoke the famous maxim carved above the oracle at Delphi, Know thyself:

The person who knows himself will first of all realise that he possesses something divine, and he will compare his own inner nature to a kind of holy image placed within a temple. (I, 59)

Will he? The book concludes with a half page hymn of praise to the Truly Great Man Who Knows Himself, understands his mind is a gift from God, understands Wisdom and Virtue and Justice, and so is ideally placed to rule over his fellow men. In other words, the ideal Roman ruler of Cicero’s own time.

Book two

As a break, the characters describe the fictional walk they are taking through the countryside of around the Cicero family estate outside Cicero’s home town of Arpinum, 100 kilometres south east of Rome. Pleasant chat about the view (‘What could be more delightful?’) is artfully placed in order to lead on to consideration of love of birthplace and country. Never forget that Cicero was a fierce Roman patriot. A person’s birthplace:

is the country for which we should be willing to die, to which we should devote ourselves heart and soul, and on whose altar we should dedicate and consecrate all that is our. (II, 5)

All that is ours. Cicero is usually referred to as a lovely humanist but this is as fierce and total a patriotism as Mussolini’s. And then we return to consideration of the law and Cicero recapitulates his axioms for the umpteenth time:

Law was not thought up by the intelligence of human beings, nor is it some kind of resolution passed by communities, but rather an eternal force which rules the world by the wisdom of its commands and prohibitions…the original and final law is the intelligence of God, who ordains or forbids everything through reason. Hence that law which the gods have given to the human race is rightly praised, for it represents the intelligence of a wise man directed to issuing commands and prohibitions. (II, 8)

I think I disagree with pretty much every word of this. On it goes: the power of encouraging people to right actions:

is not only older than the existence of communities and states; it is coeval with that god who watches over and rules heaven and earth. (II, 10)

Repetition

If in doubt, repeat it again and again, bludgeoning your readers into submission:

Reason existed, reason derived from the nature of the universe, impelling people to right actions and restraining them from wrong. That reason did not first become law even it was written down, but rather when it came into being. And it came into being at the same time as the divine mind. Therefore the authentic original law, whose function is to command and forbid, is the right reason of Jupiter, Lord of all. (II, 10)

Mind you, in a note to page 162 Jonathan Powell points out that repeating ideas in different formulations in order to drive it home was a skill that was taught and practiced in the schools of rhetoric which Cicero attended.

The use value of religion

I mentioned above how the conservative Cicero thought religion should be kept up in order to maintain social structure, for its use value. In book two he makes this explicit:

Who would deny that these [religious] ideas are useful, bearing in mind how many contracts are strengthened by the swearing of oaths, how valuable religious scruples are for guaranteeing treaties, how many people are restrained from crime for fear of divine retribution…(II, 16)

One of the reasons Cicero despises and mocks Epicureans is because they sought to free people’s minds from fear of the gods. For Cicero (as for the ancient Jews) piety and morality begin with fear of the gods. This is very Roman, very practical-minded of Cicero. And explains why the population has to be brainwashed into believing in the gods:

Citizens should first of all be convinced of this, that the gods are lords and masters of everything; that what is done is done by their decision and authority; that they are, moreover, great benefactors of mankind and observe what kind of person everyone is…Minds imbued with these facts will surely not deviate from true and wholesome ideas. (II, 15)

I don’t need to point out how coercive and authoritarian this idea is. The gods are Big Brother, watching you, reading your thoughts, checking up that you obey Right Reason, as defined by Cicero and his class.

That said, Cicero’s attitude really only reflected the attitudes of most educated men of his time. They didn’t believe in their religion in the same way a Christian or Muslim believes in their God. Roman religion was, as Jonathan Powell puts it, by this period a matter almost entirely of public ritual, tradition and custom. Religious belief, in the post-Christian sense of the word, wasn’t required or checked. Obedience to custom and ritual, reverence for tradition, was all.

Cicero’s ideal laws concerning religion

All of which explains why, when he comes to actually enumerate the laws in his ideal state, Cicero does so with Laws Governing Religion. Anti-climactically, these turn out to be pretty much the same laws as govern Rome. Just as De republica concluded that the Roman constitution was the best imaginable constitution (a conclusion he repeatedly refers to here e.g. II, 23), so De legibus, when push comes to shove, concludes that the best possible laws the human mind could devise are…exactly the same as the laws of ancient Rome (II, 23).

The rest of the book is divided into two parts: a relatively considered statement of Cicero’s ideal laws concerning religion (sections 18 to 22) followed by a detailed commentary on each of them (sections 23 to 60). There follow pages and pages of detailed prescriptions about religious rites and rituals, an extraordinary level of detailed specification. There’s a short digression about the proper regulation of music to stop it becoming immoral and corrupting which made me think of Mary Whitehouse and demonstrates Cicero’s cultural conservatism, before we plunge back into thickets of religious law.

The contrast between the high minded rhetoric about the One God and Universal Human Nature and Divine Law in book one and the slavish iteration of Roman rules and regulations as the actual embodiment of this supposedly Universal Law is unintentionally comic. Bathos = “an effect of anti-climax created by an unintentional lapse in mood from the sublime to the trivial or ridiculous.”

The place of burial is not called a grave until the rites have been conducted and the pig has been slain. (II, 57)

Do not smooth the pure with a trowel. (II, 59)

Women shall not scratch their cheeks on the occasion of a funeral. (II, 64)

It is forbidden to decorate a tomb with stucco work. (II, 65)

Do these sound like the Universal Laws indicative of the Divine Mind which Cicero has been banging on about…or the customs and conventions accumulated by one particular little city state?

Once this lengthy and hyper-detailed account of Rome’s religious laws is finished, Cicero announces that the next most important element in the structure of the state is magistrates and that he will devote the next book to considering the ideal magistrate.

Book three

Cicero bases his thoughts about magistrates, like his thoughts about everything else, on God:

Nothing is so closely bound up with the decrees and terms of nature…as authority. Without that, no house or clan or state can survive – no nor the human race, nor the whole of nature, nor the very universe itself. For the universe obeys God; land and sea abide by the laws of the universe; and human life is subject to the commands of the supreme law. (III, 3)

As with book two, he gives a clipped concise statement of his ideal laws governing magistracies or public offices (sections 6 to 11, 3 pages) then a detailed commentary on them (sections 12 to 47, 14 pages).

And yet again he repeats that, since his ‘six previous books’ (i.e the De republica) ‘proved’ that the Roman constitution was the best one conceivable by the human mind, so, logically enough, the kind of Ideal Magistrate he intends to describe will also turn out to be…Roman ones!

And so indeed, it turns out, after consulting the Divine Mind, that the optimum state will feature quaestors, aediles, praetors, consuls and censors, a senate to propose laws and popular assemblies to vote on them – exactly like the Roman state! He has the good grace to have his characters admit that this is a little embarrassing:

QUINTUS: How succinctly, Marcus, you have drawn up a scheme of all the magistrates for our inspection! But they are almost identical with those of our own country, even if you have introduced a little novelty.
MARCUS: Yes, we are talking about the harmoniously mixed constitution which Scipio praised in those books and prefers to all others…and since our constitution was given the most sensible and well-adjusted form by our ancestors, I found little or nothing to change in the laws. (III, 12)

The latter part of book three goes into considerable details about all aspects of the Roman constitution, the peculiarities of the different magistracies, the age limits, the pros and cons of the tribunate, the different types of voting (by acclamation, writing down, secret ballot) and so on. This is quite interesting because it is, arguably, the most practical part of the book, describing Rome’s actual constitutional practices and debating points Cicero (or his more conservative brother, Quintus) would like to change, a bit, not too much.

Worth emphasising that the aim of all the tinkering round the edges which Cicero proposes is to ensure that power remains firmly in the hands of the aristocracy and out of the hands of the people at large.

Liberty will exist in the sense that the people are given the opportunity to do the aristocracy an honourable favour.

Thanks to my [proposed] law, the appearance of liberty is given to the people [and] the authority of the aristocracy is retained. (III, 39)

The end was nigh

This final section has a wistfully hypothetical air about it because, within a few short years the entire world it describes would be swept away.

Let us imagine that Cicero was half way through writing the book when, in 51 BC, he was called on to take up the governorship of Cilicia (the southern coast of modern Turkey) and served throughout the year 50.

This meant that he was out of Rome as the political confrontation between Caesar and the Senate came to a head. there was a flurry of proposals and counter proposals in December 50, all of which failed and prompted Caesar, in January 49, to cross with his army from Cisalpine Gaul where he held an official post, into mainland Italy, where he didn’t, thus breaking the law, making himself an outlaw, and sparking the five year civil war between himself and Pompey and his followers.

When peace was restored in 45 BC, Caesar had himself declared dictator for life thus turning the entire Roman constitution into a hollow shell and rendering On the laws, with their pages of pedantic footling about precise constitutional arrangements, redundant overnight. It became overnight a record of a specific historical moment, which was eclipsed before the book could even be completed.

Thoughts

Cicero is frequently held up as the godfather of humanism. Finding, translating and commenting on his books was a central element in the Renaissance, which saw the creation of modern ideas of humanism. (“Petrarch’s rediscovery of Cicero’s letters is often credited for initiating the 14th-century Renaissance.” Lumen).

However, as my close readings of De rerum deorumDe republica and De legibus amply demonstrate, Cicero’s ‘humanism’ is crucially, vitally, centrally based on his theism, his belief in One God who created human beings and implanted in them fragments of the Divine Reason which underpin all our values, morality, law, justice and statecraft.

Thus, in a nutshell: humanism derives from religious belief. Without its religious underpinning, humanism is nothing. It becomes a wish, a hope, a dream, with no factual or logical basis. I don’t say this to undermine humanistic values. I am probably a humanistic progressive liberal myself. Where I appear to differ from most of my tribe is I don’t believe these truths to be self evident. There are other ways of being human, other cultures, other values completely different from ours, probably the majority of human lives have very much not been lived according to these values. Several points follow:

1. We do not have the right to compel these other cultures into adherence to our values. That is no different from Victorian missionaries trying to convert tribes in Africa or Asia or Australia to their narrow Christian culture.

2. If we want to defend our values effectively against those who threaten them, for example Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping, we must base them on really secure foundations, not wishes or aspirations. Far stronger foundations than Cicero, who wrote all these fancy words only to have his head cut off by Mark Antony’s bounty hunters. The sword is mightier than the pen.

* Cicero’s self promotion

It’s further evidence of Cicero’s self-centred narcissism that in several places in book 3 he manages to showehorn into the text the famous events of 63 BC, when he was consul and saved the state from the Cataline conspiracy. He gives a melodramatic account of the tremendous dangers he faced and how he single-handedly overcame them (III, 26) and then has Atticus fulsomely thank him for his efforts.

To be sure, the whole order is behind you and cherishes most happy memories of your consulship. (III, 29)

Cicero also takes the opportunity to remind everyone that he should never have been exiled (in 57 BC) and that’s why it needed no legislation to rescind his exile (III, 47). In other words, no matter what Cicero is writing about, the text has a strong tendency to end up being about himself.

There is something irredeemably comic about Cicero, like Oliver Hardy pretending to be Napoleon. It’s this hyper-intelligent, super articulate yet comical earnestness which has endeared him to 2,000 years of readers.

Niall Rudd’s translation

A word of praise for this Oxford University Press edition. I described, probably at too much length, how strongly I disliked the prose styles and odd attitudes of A.J. Woodman, who translated Sallust, and Carolyn Hammond, who translated Caesar’s Gallic War, both for OUP. This edition restored my faith in OUP editions of the classics.

The introduction, mostly written by Jonathan Powell, is a model of lucidity, useful and to the point, as are the scholarly and interesting notes. There is a useful list of names and an appendix giving a handy summary of the sometimes confusing Roman constitution.

The translation itself is by Professor Niall Rudd (1927 to 2015) and was first published in 1998. It is clear and unaffected – you feel you are engaging directly with the text. I cannot judge its fidelity to the source Latin, but it makes for a lucid, engaging read, as I hope you can tell from the many quotations I take from it. All round, it is a gold standard edition.


Credit

The Republic and The Laws by Cicero translated by Niall Rudd with introduction and notes by Jonathan Powell and Niall Rudd was published by Oxford University Press in 1998. All references are to the 2008 paperback edition.

Related link

Roman reviews

De republica by Cicero (54 BC)

The best possible political constitution represents a judicious blend of these three types: monarchy, aristocracy and democracy.
(De republica by Cicero, fragment of Book 2)

De republica was written by the Roman lawyer, orator, politician and philosophical populariser Marcus Tullius Cicero between 54 and 51 BC. It is variously translated into English as The Republic, A Treatise on the Commonwealth, On the state or On government.

Cicero was not himself a philosopher or political theorist of note. This work was one among nearly twenty in which he translated the best of Greek philosophy into Latin, pulling various Greek theories together into new texts and introducing or inventing Latin terms to translate Greek ideas. Because of the purity and eloquence of his Latin many of these texts were preserved throughout the Middle Ages as teaching aids, and were revived during the Renaissance. In this way Cicero’s works played a central role in preserving the philosophical, moral and political ideas of the ancient world into the modern era and shaping their revival.

The Republic is cast as a dialogue, the form immortalised by Plato (427 to 327 BC). Unlike a manifesto or treatise a dialogue isn’t a straightforward statement of views. Having a number of people debate various opinions makes it more of a teaching or heuristic form. Students can be asked to study the work, then to describe which viewpoint they support and why.

As with Cicero’s other dialogues, The Republic studiously avoided controversy by being set in the past among long dead characters. It is set in the country villa of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus Aemilianus (185 to 129 BC), known as Scipio Aemilianus or Scipio Africanus the Younger. Scipio was a Roman general and statesman who led the third and final war against Carthage, personally overseeing its siege, capture and utter destruction, as vividly described in Richard Miles’s history of Carthage. Scipio also restored order after assassination of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BC and mediated between the political factions.

The Republic takes place in Scipio’s estate over three consecutive days. Each day is described in two books, with an introduction by Cicero preceding the dialogue of each book, making six books in all.

  • Book 1 – Scipio outlines the three types of government (monarchy, aristocracy, democracy) and asserts the best type is a mix of all three
  • Book 2 – Scipio gives quite a detailed outline of early Roman history in order to show the evolution of the Roman constitution
  • Book 3 – Philus and Laelius engage in a set-piece debate about whether pragmatic injustice (Philus) or ideal justice (Laelius) are intrinsic to politics
  • Book 4 – is a discussion of education
  • Book 5 – considers the qualities of the ideal citizen in government
  • Book 6 – considers the character of the ideal ruler

The Republic survives only in fragments. Large parts of the text are missing. Books one to 3 survive in significant chunks, but the from the fourth and fifth books only minor fragments survive, and all the other books have a distressing number of missing passages.

The only part of the sixth book which survives is the final section, a relatively short passage in which Scipio tells his guests about a dream in which he was whirled up into space and shown the structure of the universe. This has survived because it was the subject of a commentary by the neoplatonist philosopher Macrobius and this part of the text, along with Macrobius’s commentary, became very popular during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, with their profound interest in astrology and astronomy.

The best preserved parts of the text discuss constitutions and political theory but it is important to realise that this was only part of Cicero’s aim. The discussion of constitutions fills only a third of the book. For Cicero ‘politics’ wasn’t a narrow profession but a branch of philosophy which dealt in a broader way with human nature and ethics as demonstrated in societies. This explains why the treatise deals with different types of constitution early on in order to get on to the more important subjects of what kind of citizen and what kind of ruler are required to create a perfect state. The best kind of state is not a dry technical question, comparable to modern debates about different voting procedures: the best kind of state produces the best kinds of citizens and the best kinds of rulers (optimus civis) and so must be considered in the broadest context.

The characters

The discussions take place between no fewer than nine named individuals who are given speaking parts.

Scipio was maybe the most pre-eminent figure in mid-second century BC Rome, a very successful general who, however, a) did not abuse his power as later generals such as Marius, Sulla, Pompey and Caesar did and b) was a noted patron of artists and writers such as the Greek historian Polybius. You can see why Cicero hero worshiped him.

Other characters

  • Gaius Laelius: close friend and associate of Scipio, consul in 140 BC, promoter of the study of literature and philosophy, practical and down to earth.
  • Lucius Furius Philus: consul 136 BC, orator, a man of great personal rectitude who takes on the defence of injustice, in book 3, for the sake of the debate
  • Manius Manilius: consul in 149 BC, a venerable legal expert.
  • Quintus Mucius Scaevola: Laelius’s son-in-law, a legal scholar and patron of the young Cicero.
  • Spurius Mummius: conservative and anti-democrat.
  • Quintus Aelius Tubero: Scipio’s nephew, tribune c. 129 BC. Legal scholar dedicated to Stoicism.
  • Gaius Fannius: consul in 122 BC, follower of Stoicism, historian and orator. Son-in-law to Laelius.
  • Publius Rutilius Rufus: a politician admired for his honesty, dedicated to Stoicism.

Book One

Missing its preface, the text we have starts in mid sentence and mid argument. Cicero is arguing against the Epicurean belief that the educated man should hold aloof from politics in order to preserve his calm. On the contrary, Cicero argues that the highest form of moral activity and of virtue consists of the practical application of morality in the practice of statecraft.

Then Cicero the narrator hands over to the supposed discussion held at Scipio’s house where his guests ask Scipio’s opinions.

The conversation starts with one of his visitors talking about the rare phenomenon of two suns being seen in the sky. But Scipio repeats the Greek idea (Aristotle) that there is little we can know about the workings of the cosmos whereas we very much can study human beings, how they behave, morality, epistemology and so on, and that’s what we ought to do.

Scipio follows his Greek predecessors in claiming that human beings seem to have an innate compulsion to live together in communities i.e. we are not a solitary species (Book I, section 39). When this happens there are three ways communities of humans organise their power: monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. Each has its merits:

Kings attract us by affection, aristocracies by good sense, and democracies by freedom. (I, 55)

Each has a dark side, when it becomes corrupt. Monarchy becomes despotism, aristocracy becomes oligarchy and democracy becomes mob rule (I, 44).

Personally, Scipio thinks a careful mixture of all three is best (I, 69), but if he had to pick just one it would be monarchy. This is because there is only one king god in heaven, Jupiter (I, 57). Every family has only one father and a king is like the father of his subjects (I, 54). There can be only one ruling element in the human mind, which is sovereign over all the other passions, and this is Reason (I, 60). Only one person can run a household, only one person can be in charge of a ship, only one person can treat us for illness. And when people are deprived of a just king they are like orphans.

But the weakness of rule by a king is that when they go wrong, they go really wrong and become tyrants. Therefore the most stable and also the most ‘just’ form of government is one which permits a balance of power between the different classes and so is ‘equally just to all ranks of society’ (II, 55). He thinks this has best been achieved by the Roman constitution with its balance between the powers of a king (vested for one year only in the role of the consuls), the moderating influence of the aristocracy (embodied by the wisdom and experience of the senate and a voting system heavily skewed towards the rich and ‘best’ in society) and the voice of the people (expressed in the office of tribune of the plebs and the voting power of the people’s assemblies).

Book two

Scipio/Cicero come to the bold conclusion that the best possible political constitution in the world is the one created by their Roman forebears and handed down to himself and his contemporaries, the inheritance of Rome, ‘the greatest State of all’!

This is as laughably self-centred as the great German philosopher Hegel pondering deeply and concluding that the best possible way to organise a society was…the constitution of the Prussian state of his day! Or the booming confidence of late Victorians that the British Empire with its constitutional monarchy was the best imaginable form of government.

He gives a deeply traditional and patriotic account of the founding of Rome by the wise and godlike Romulus and the cumulative constitutional innovations of the traditional and legendary seven kings of Rome, dwelling on each of them at some length and the great virtues of the Roman people:

The Roman people became strong, not by chance, but through their own good sense and their firm system of values… (II, 30)

The underlying point of book two is that the Roman constitution wasn’t created by one wise lawgiver (cf Lycurgus of Sparta or Solon of Athens) but developed and evolved over a long period, with successive rules adding processes, creating the complex voting procedures, organising the population into tribes but also, for voting purposes, into centuries, and setting up assemblies where they could debate. What struck me is how close this is to the justification of English traditionalists for the English constitution, which is nowhere written down but amounts to a tangle of precedents and traditions.

This is sort of interesting but it is history not philosophy or political theory, history with occasional comments. The notes to the Oxford University Press translation point out where Scipio differs from the more comprehensive account given by Titus Livius (Livy) in his history of Rome written 10 or 15 years later, which is indicative of the way the account of sort of interesting but mainly of academic interest.

At the same time as the thinking is fairly simplistic there’s also something hyperbolical and exaggerated about Scipio’s diction:

As soon as this king turned to a mastery less just than before, he instantly became a tyrant, and no creature more vile or horrible than a tyrant, or more hateful to gods and men, can be imagined ; for, though he bears a human form, yet he surpasses the most monstrous of the wild beasts in the cruelty of his nature. (II, 49)

The underlying thought is as simple minded as a fairy story, but the language has the vehemence of a rabble-rousing political speech. Either way, it often has neither the depth or sober objective language you might expect from ‘philosophy’.

In section 54 Scipio makes explicit why he is reviewing early Roman constitutional history in such detail: it is to point to examples of the wise men who created new and useful innovations. Publius Valerius emerges as a notable example, the man who demonstrated his wisdom by: moving house from the top of the Velian Hill where the kings had lived; passing a law forbidding a Roman citizen from being flogged or put to death without appeal; had a colleague elected as co-ruler, to be called consuls, and decided that they would rule on alternate months and be guarded by lictors only for that month.

This brings out something he’d mentioned earlier which is the aim of this discourse is not to debate the theoretical nature of an ideal state, as Plato did in his Republic, but to describe the practical reality of such a state and, especially, the qualities required of the Ideal Stateman to run it.

Towards the end of book 2 Scipio recapitulates:

I defined the three commendable types of States and the three bad types which are their opposites. Next I demonstrated that no single one of these types is the ideal, but that a form of government which is an equal mixture of the three good forms is superior to any of them by itself. As for my using our own State as a pattern, I did so, not to help me to define the ideal constitution (for that could be done without using any pattern at all), but in order to show, by illustrations from the actual history of the greatest State of all, what it was that reason and speech were striving to make clear.

The ideal statesman:

He should be given almost no other duties than this one (for it comprises most of the others) – of improving and examining himself continually, urging others to imitate him, and by the splendour of his mind and conduct offering himself as a mirror to his fellow citizens. (II, 69)

Here you can see how, lacking any knowledge of economics or class or social or technological developments, no financial theory and no knowledge of the vast amounts of data we have been collecting about ‘society’ since the industrial revolution and which underpin all modern politics – in this huge vacuum of knowledge Cicero, like Sallust and Plutarch, conceives of politics as being predominantly about individuals and, this being so, overly obsess about the character of the Ideal Statesman, completely omitting the proficiency in economics, law, and statistics which modern politics call for, and the way the huge structure of the state bureaucracy measures outcomes by data: inflation, unemployment, GDP, health outcomes and so on.

By contrast with the vast complexity of the modern state, Cicero’s image of the Ideal Ruler is closer to fairy tale than modern political theory: ‘…by the splendour of his mind and conduct offering himself as a mirror to his fellow citizens.’

I suppose it represents an enormous shift from a theory based on morality and ethics to one based entirely on utilitarian values: does it work, is it good for the economy, for most people, is it good for my core voters, these are the questions a modern politicians asks.

And the absence of the huge body of theory and statistical information which forms the basis of modern politics explains why political ‘philosophy’ from Plato, through the Dark Ages, Middle Ages, Renaissance and well into the modern era relied on analogies rather than data. They had nothing else to go on. So they compared the ideal state to a well-ordered mind, or to the human body where all the parts have to co-operate, or to the harmonious movements of the celestial bodies through the heaves; or compared Reason’s control over the mind to a father’s control over his sons or a master’s control over his slaves (III, 37) etc etc. Analogy rather than data.

All this is sweet and lovely but like a child’s colouring book compared to the complex technocracy of the modern state. Immersing yourself in a text like this continually reminds the reader of children’s books and fairy tales.

Book three

Fragments in which Cicero explains that despite our failings, humans have inside us the divine fire of Reason. He briefly sketches the invention of language (interesting) and maths before moving onto teachers or truth and moral excellence blah blah which, when put into practice, leads to the art of governing.

Comparison of philosophers, who teach moral excellence and best conduct through words alone, and statesmen, who promote moral excellence and best conduct through actions and laws. Clearly the latter are more effective and important (III, 7).

The 12 or so pages of fragments we have of book 3 indicate that it was conceived as a debate between Laelius and Philus about whether injustice is a necessary part of political rule, whether it is inevitable and unavoidable. What gives ancient books like this their flavour is the inclusion of myths and legends and fanciful imagery which, to repeat myself, are more like fairy tales than political analysis. Thus Philus kicks off his presentation of the case that injustice is an inevitable and necessary part of politics by asking his audience to imagine they are flying in a chariot of winged snakes:

If one could visit many diverse nations and cities and examine them, travelling about in Pacuvius’ famous ‘chariot of winged snakes’ one would see first of all in Egypt, a land which has escaped change more successfully than any other, and which preserves in written records the events of countless centuries, a bull, which the Egyptians call Apis, is deemed a god, and many other monsters and animals of every sort are held sacred as divine. (III, 14)

When he gets going, Philus makes a persuasive argument that there is no such thing as natural justice, nature does not implant justice in the human mind, there are no universal laws. On the contrary, the point of his metaphor of flying over the countries of the Mediterranean is to survey just how varied and irreconcilable all their laws, and customs and religions are with each other. QED: there is no one universal law or notion of justice.

No fewer than 80 leaves of book 3 are missing. From references and summaries in other, later authors we know some of the contents. Apparently Philus makes the anti-Roman point that empire is nothing but stealing other people’s lands and goods. Romans hold aggressive generals to be epitomes of valour and excellence (‘He advanced the bounds of empire’ is their highest compliment) when they are, of course, the same as all other aggressive conquerors of all other nations. The fact that the Romans have priests formally declare war just shows their hypocrisy in dressing up greed and criminality in fancy words.

When we come back to the actual text Philus makes the simple (and, to the modern mind, sympathetic) argument that the kind of mixed constitution supported by Scipio doesn’t derive from Virtue and Wisdom but from the simple fact that each rank (or class) fears the power of the others and so seeks to check it (a proto-Hobbesian view, maybe). The mother or justice is not nature or virtue but weakness and fear.

The good life is based, not on virtue, justice and selflessness, but on looking out for yourself and your family, on practical assessments of what will bring you most benefit. And as with families so with states: dress it up how you like, statecraft and international affairs are based on brute assessments of power and self interest. And they should be (III, 28).

This is thrilling stuff and the editor of the OUP edition (Niall Rudd) notes that, once Philus has finished his case, Laelius, who follows and argues the contrary case, can’t really rebut his analysis and so ignores his points to argue something slightly different, which is the importance of the notion of justice for the administration of a state.

It is symptomatic of the conservatism and narrow-mindedness of Roman thought that this negative, cynical and so unpopular point of view is attributed to a foreigner, a Greek, the philosopher Carneades and that when Laelius speaks, he roundly attacks it for its immorality and calls Carneades ‘a filthy scoundrel’ (III, 32).

Laelius proceeds to give a positive but very naive definition of law as a Platonic fact of nature, eternal and unchanging, which all men must obey, which sounds magnificent and is obvious tripe:

True law is right reason in agreement with nature. It is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting. It summons to duty by its commands, and averts from wrongdoing by its prohibitions… It is a sin to try to alter this law, nor is it allowable to attempt to repeal any part of it, and it is impossible to abolish it… We cannot be freed from its obligations by senate or people, and we need not look outside ourselves for an expounder or interpreter of it. And there will not be different laws at Rome and at Athens, or different laws now and in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and all times, and there will be one master and ruler, that is, God who is the author, proposer and interpreter of that law. (III, 33)

Laelius appears to go on to describe how this eternal law was embodied and followed by specific Romans from history, but we have only fragments.

Then Scipio comes back in as the main speaker, recapitulating his idea of the three types of government, asking which one is the ‘true’ meaning of a republic. The text breaks off abruptly just as the speakers were going to address the merits of the uncorrupted versions of the three types.

Book four

The subject of book four is clearly intended to be Education and address the question: what kind of education is best for citizens of the ideal state? As with the other books, Cicero does not proceed from philosophical first principles, as per Plato, but ranges far and wide through Roman and Greek history, comparing practices and laws. But the book is in, to quote Rudd’s words, ‘a pitiful state’, barely four pages of fragments. The longest fragment is where a speaker is made to explain at length why poets and playwrights should not be allowed to pillory statesmen and generals (IV, 11 to 12).

This, in my opinion, is the problem with all theories which start out by defining Virtue and Morality and The Good and so on – they always lead to strict definitions, which themselves inevitably lead to very strict rules about encouraging said Virtue and Suppressing Vice or anything which demeans or criticises Virtue or encourages Vice.

And so, by a few easy steps, these arguments all-too-often arrive, with the ‘noblest’ of intentions, at state censorship: the censorship of Cromwell’s England, revolutionary France, Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, Taliban Afghanistan and any number of authoritarian regimes in between. Anyone who sets out to define or justify Absolute Values ends up defending absolutist states. (Discuss)

Book five

This was evidently meant to address the character of the Ideal Statesman but is even more fragmentary than book four, with only sections 3, 5, 6 and 7 surviving (each book originally had up to 100 sections) and a handful of scraps barely making up 3 pages of a modern book.

What we have is a lament that in the olden days Rome was ruled by Great Men, Excellent Men, Men of Virtue who knew how to rule wisely, but the present age is ruled by the selfish and greedy who have let the excellent institutions they inherited decay and collapse.

What we have is a lament that in the olden days Rome was ruled by Great Men, Excellent Men, Men of Virtue who knew how to rule wisely, but the present age is ruled by the selfish and greedy who have let the excellent institutions they inherited decay and collapse. Where are the great men of yesteryear? This developed into a stereotyped genre or topic during the Middle Ages which was given its own name, the ubi sunt (‘where are they?’) topos.

Long before living memory our ancestral way of life produced outstanding men, and those excellent men preserved the old way of life and the institutions of our forefathers. (V, 1)

But:

What remains of those ancient customs on which he said the state of Rome stood firm? We see them so ruined by neglect that not only do they go unobserved, they are no longer known. (V, 2)

Oh woe. But then every generation feels it is living in a uniquely degraded era when the great institutions it inherited from the past are collapsing and where are the Great Leaders of yesteryear and the end times are upon us. But they never are. We muddle through and 20 years later people look back to that time as a golden age.

I spent most of the 1990s ashamed of living under the government of the bumbling poltroon John Major – and yet now I regularly read articles which look back to the 90s as a golden age. Plus ca change…

Book six

In even worse state than book 5, with barely a page and a half of disconnected fragments. What does survive intact is the passage which was intended to conclude the entire book. In current editions this is numbered sections 9 to 29. It is the concluding passage in which the main speaker, Scipio, tells his companions about a dream he had. In this dream he is whirled up into heaven and sees a) the structure of the solar system and the universe and b) the smallness of the earth and the littleness of human existence. This passage has survived because the 4th century AD Roman grammarian and philosopher Macrobius wrote an extensive commentary about it. This commentary became very popular during the Middle Ages, helping to define the medieval view of the cosmos and surviving in multiple copies. So, in this roundabout manner, these 20 sections of Cicero’s book survive.

In the Dream Scipio describes how his adoptive grandfather comes to him and predicts the future, namely that he will be elected consul, destroy Carthage and be given a triumph in Rome, before being sent to end the war in Spain and serving as consul a second time.

But this is just the beginning. He is introduced to the spirit of his father, Paulus, who explains how souls are derived from the stars (they are now standing in the middle of the sky among the stars) before being consigned to a body down there on earth. How can you escape from the body and join the other spirits? Here is the point of the vision and the climax of the book’s entire consideration of political theory: you get to heaven by doing your patriotic duty.

Respect justice and do your duty. That is important in the case of parents and relatives, and paramount in the case of one’s country. That is the way of life which leads to heaven and to the company, here, of those who have already completed their lives. (VI, 16)

Cicero shows his difference from the Greek philosophers he copied in his very Roman emphasis on the practical. After all the fine talk about constitutions and justice and the character of the statesman, what matters is doing your patriotic duty.

There is a kind of path for noble patriots leading to the gate of heaven… (VI, 26)

The true part of a man is his mind, not his body. The mind is immortal, godlike. The best way to employ this godlike mind is in activity for the safety of one’s country. Minds which have devoted themselves to this cause will fly more quickly to heaven (VI, 29). If Cicero was standing to attention saluting the flag with tears running down his face while the national anthem played, the intended conclusion of his book could hardly be more sentimentally patriotic.

Which makes sense because this is precisely how the entire book opens. The very first sentence reads: ‘Had it not been for his sense of patriotic duty […] would not have delivered our country…’ (I, 1) and goes on to assert:

I simply state this as a basic fact: nature has given to mankind such a compulsion to do good, and such a desire to defend the well-being of the community, that this force prevails over all the temptations of pleasure and ease. (I, 1)

So it might rope in a number of other subjects along the way, but De republica is fundamentally a work of Roman patriotism.

Thoughts

I found The Republic hard to read for two reasons. It really is very fragmented – the text is continually breaking off mid-sentence with parentheses telling you that 2 or 4 or 80 (!) pages are missing, so that you resume reading a lot further along in the original text, when the characters are discussing a completely different subject. It’s like listening to an old-style LP of a classical symphony that is so scratched that you barely get 20 seconds of melody before it skips 20 seconds or several minutes. Very disconnected. Snippets.

But there’s a deeper problem with the book which is its lack of sophistication, which makes it, ultimately, boring. The best preserved passage in Book One tells us there are three forms of government and each has a debased version, which makes for a neat, schematic table but is, ultimately, useless for our current needs, in Britain, in 2022.

When Scipio argues that monarchy is the best of the three types because there’s only one king of the gods, only one person can be in charge of a household, and only one element, Reason, which controls the mind…well, these are quaint ways of thinking – using child-like analogies rather than data, as I explained above – which have a sort of historical interest, but they’re not ideas anyone alive today would waste their time espousing.

And most of the contents are like that. Of antiquarian interest but nothing much to make you sit up and think. The actual history of the late republic, when Cicero was writing, is much more thought-provoking than this essay.

I appreciate that Cicero was writing a kind of abstract, a pedagogical text designed to raise the standard of political discourse in his own time – but in actual fact, nothing he wrote affected the fate of the Roman Republic in the slightest, and it is highly symbolic that the head that conceived these highfalutin ideas and the hands that wrote them were chopped off by Mark Antony’s bounty hunters. That was the utterly unscrupulous, deeply, immoral and justice-free reality of Roman politics.

A list of analogies

Once I’d realised that Cicero’s thought is guided more by analogies than data or statistics (of which he has almost no concept, apart from election results and the size of armies), it amused me to collect analogies from the last few books, although too late to compile a definitive list.

The mind rules over the body like a king over his subjects or a father over his children. The mind rules over its desires like a master over his slaves. (III, 37)

The sun is the mind and regulator of the universe. (VI, 17)

As the god who moves the universe is immortal, so the soul which moves the body is immortal (VI, 26)

Niall Rudd’s translation

A word of praise for this Oxford University Press edition. I described, probably at too much length, how strongly I disliked the prose styles and odd attitudes of A.J. Woodman, who translated Sallust, and Carolyn Hammond, who translated Caesar’s Gallic War, both for OUP, so that I abandoned reading both their translations. This edition restored my faith in OUP editions of the classics.

The introduction, mostly written by Jonathan Powell, is a model of lucidity, useful and to the point, as are the extensive notes, scholarly and interesting. There is a useful list of names and also an appendix giving a handy summary of the sometimes confusing Roman constitution.

The translation is by Professor Niall Rudd (1927 to 2015) and was first published in 1998. It is clear and unaffected – you feel you are engaging directly with the text. I cannot judge its fidelity to the source Latin, but it makes for a lucid, engaging read, as I hope you can tell from the many quotations I take from it. All round, it is a gold standard edition.


Credit

The Republic and The Laws by Cicero, translated by Niall Rudd with introduction and notes by Jonathan Powell and Niall Rudd, was published by Oxford University Press in 1998. All references are to the 2008 paperback edition.

Related links

Roman reviews

The life of Brutus by Plutarch

(1) Marcus Brutus was said to be a descendant of the Junius Brutus who overthrew the last king of Rome in 709 BC. But unlike his ancestor who has harsh and unbending, Marcus Brutus was civilised and softened by philosophy and literature. Contemporaries attributed all that was good in the conspiracy to Brutus and all that was bad to his colleague Gaius Cassius Longinus.

(2) Brutus’s mother was Cato’s sister. Cato was his uncle. He had a higher esteem for him than any other Roman. Brutus was good friends with many philosophers, some of whom stayed with him, He was a devotee of Plato and the Old Academy. His letters demonstrate great literary style.

(3) He accompanied his uncle Cato on a mission to Cyprus.

(4) Plutarch in a huge jump skips right the way over Brutus’s boyhood and young manhood, and skips all the political travails of the 60s and 50s to arrive at the breach between Gnaeus Pompeius (usually referred to in English as Pompey) and Julius Caesar in 50 BC. Everyone expected Brutus to side with Caesar as Pompey had had his father executed, but he reasoned that Pompey represented the public good and so sided with him. He sailed to Cilicia but had nothing to contribute there so journeyed to Illyricum to meet Pompey who had just fled from Italy and was greeted by the great man who paid him the honour of getting to his feet. Even here he continued to spend most of  his time with his books.

(5) It is said that Caesar commended his officers to look out for Brutus during the Battle of Pharsalus. This was because Brutus was the son of Servilia who, although married to Cato, was madly in love with Caesar so that Julius had some grounds for believing Brutus might be his own son. Plutarch tells the same anecdote he used in the life of Cato, only told less well here – that when Caesar and Cato were speaking in the senate about the Catiline conspiracy, Caesar was handed a note which Cato excitably declared must be a message from the conspirators. So Caesar nonchalantly handed it over to Cato who realised it was a love note from his own sister to Julius. 1-0 Caesar.

(6) After Pharsalus Brutus fled to Larissa and wrote to Caesar who was delighted and asked him to join him. They discussed whither Pompey might have fled and Brutus’s opinion influenced Caesar towards Egypt. Plutarch says he was an effective public speaker who achieved his ends by reasoning and noble principles.

When Caesar travelled to Africa to fight Cato and Scipio he appointed Brutus governor of Cisalpine Gaul, and he proved an exemplary governor.

(7) Cassius was married to Brutus’s sister, Junia. But they became rivals running for praetorship of Rome in 47. Caesar hears them speaks and makes the decision. Brutus could have been Caesar’s top confidante but the colleagues of Cassius warned him not to succumb to the tyrant’s flattery.

(8) Plutarch repeats the anecdote he tells in the life of Caesar, that when the latter was told that Mark Antony and Dolabella were plotting revolution, he said it was not the fat and long-haired fellows that troubled him, but the pale and lean ones, meaning Brutus and Cassius, a story used by Shakespeare.

So Plutarch argues that, if he had waited, Brutus might have inherited from Caesar. But he was fired up by Cassius who had no noble scruples about tyranny and liberty, but just hated Julius. Plutarch attributes this, improbably, to the incident of the lions of Megara which Cassius had lined up to be part of games he was staging as aedile, but which Caesar, on taking Megara, appropriated.

(9) Plutarch says this interpretation is wrong and that Cassius had always been opposed to tyranny and calls to witness a story about how Cassius as a boy thrashed the son of the then-dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla, at school. Brutus was exhorted to conspire against Caesar by flocks of supporters who left messages at the tomb of his ancestor and graffiti on monuments and so on, as listed in his life of Caesar.

(10) And so it becomes very important to the conspirators that they secure the support of Brutus as he was widely seen as a man of principle and would lend the murder dignity. So Plutarch imagines the scene where Cassius inducts Brutus into the conspiracy, writing the dialogue as for a movie and ending when the two men kiss and embrace, in perfect agreement.

(11) Short anecdote about Caius Ligarius, a declared enemy of Caesar. Brutus comes to visit him when he’s ill and when he mentions it is a bad time to be ill Ligarius twigs that something’s up, sits up in bed and declares: “Nay, Brutus, if thou hast a purpose worthy of thyself, I am well.”

(12) They recruit conspirators. Not Cicero, because he is too timorous and pernickety. Nor Statilius the Epicurean and Favonius the devoted follower of Cato. But the other Brutus, Albinus, because he was maintaining lots of gladiators in Rome. They were all won over by Brutus’s reputation for integrity. They manage to keep it a close secret, despite the many signs of ill omen (which Plutarch records extensively in his life of Caesar).

(13) During the day Brutus keeps tight control of himself but at night he is troubled and anxious. His wife, Porcia, was the daughter of Cato and realises something is wrong. One day she takes some nail scissors and deeply gashes her thigh. Then she makes a long speech about how she isn’t just some concubine brought to warm his bed, but the daughter of a famous man reared to endure hardships and determined to share her husband’s joys and sufferings. Then shows the wound in her thigh to prove it. Then Brutus lifts his hands to heaven and hopes his undertaking will be worthy of his noble wife.

(14) They decide to do it at a meeting of the senate because then all the important they need to pledge allegiance to liberty will be on the spot. It is apparent (though I’m not sure I’ve read it anywhere) that the senate met in different buildings i.e. moved around central Rome. This meeting, for the 15th March 44, was scheduled to take place in the Curia Pompeii, a part of the big theatre complex Pompey had built a decade earlier. Hence the big statue of Pompey which Caesar ends up collapsing against.

On the big day Brutus straps on his dagger and walks to the portico of Pompey where he meets the other senators, either waiting or conducting the business of praetors i.e. adjudicating petitions from a crowd of applicants.

(15) A list of misunderstandings and encounters on the morning which nearly wreck the plot. A paragraph devoted to the anxiety of Porcia who keeps racing to the door to hear news, becomes pale and faints and her women shriek that she’s dead and the rumour spreads to the senate and appals Brutus but he determines to carry on. I.e. Plutarch’s usual procedure of cranking up the melodrama.

(16) Highly detailed depiction of the scene. Caesar arrives late, delayed by his wife and soothsayers. He travels by litter which is more private. He is engaged at the door to the room by Popilius Laenas who speaks to him for some time and all the conspirators think they are being betrayed. But he is merely asking for something at great length.

(17) The detail that Trebonius engaged Antony in conversation outside the hall (apparently, this is wrong but like so much Plutarch, is highly dramatic). The precise manner in which they gather round Caesar’s chair, led by Tullius Cimber pleading for his brother in exile, Caesar becomes irritated and tries to shake them off at which point Tullius tears his toga from his shoulder and Casca stabs him and calls to his brother in Greek to join him. Caesar castigates Casca, then is inundated by other blows but when he sees Brutus draw his dagger, covers his face with his toga and submits. The body is riddled with cuts, there is blood everywhere and the conspirators injure each other in their enthusiasm.

(18) Very vivid description of the way the other senators panicked and thronged the exists. Brutus had made it quite clear no-one else was to be killed; it wasn’t to be a Sulla-esque bloodbath but a return to liberty. This was even extended to Antony who was unpopular and arrogant, but Brutus hoped that, with the tyrant removed, he would come over to their side. Mistake number one.

The murderers walked to the Capitol sporting their daggers. Rumour and panic among the people but when it became clear there wasn’t to be a massacre they thronged to hear the speech by Brutus which was noble. They applaud and bring him down and take him to the Rostrum to further address them. The mood changes when Cinna addresses the crowd. He’s not popular and the murderers withdraw to the Capitol.

(19) Next day the senate met and Antony, Plancus, and Cicero moved a vote of amnesty. Antony gives his son to the conspirators as a hostage and this gives them the confidence to leave the Capitol.

Cassius was taken home and entertained by Antony, Brutus by Lepidus, and the rest by their several comrades or friends. Early next morning the senate assembled again. In the first place, they gave a vote of thanks to Antony for having stopped an incipient civil war; next, they passed a vote of commendation for the followers of Brutus who were present; and finally, they distributed the provinces. It was voted that Brutus should have Crete, Cassius Africa, Trebonius Asia, Cimber Bithynia, and the other Brutus Cisalpine Gaul.

(20) Antony argues that Caesar’s body should be carried to his funeral and his will read to the people. Cassius is vehemently opposed but Brutus, out of gentleness of spirit, agrees. This was the second mistake. The will:

When it was found that the will of Caesar gave to every Roman 75 drachmas, and left to the people his gardens beyond the Tiber, where now stands a temple of Fortune, an astonishing kindliness and yearning for Caesar seized the citizens.

When Antony commenced his eulogy he realised the crowd was in a sentimental mood and so changed his tone and held up Caesar’s toga, showing the many places the daggers had torn it. At this the crowd went nuts and stormed local shops, dragging out wooden objects to make an ad hoc funeral pyre for the body; then took brands from it and ran off to the houses of the murderers and set them on fire.

The story of Cinna the poet who had a bad dream about Caesar the night before but nonetheless, the next day went along to the funeral and was mistaken by the mob for the Cinna who was one of the conspirators and was torn to pieces. Oh dear. Not the dignified gratitude which Brutus and Cassius had expected at all. The opposite: bloodlust fury.

(21) This incident is important because it was this which convinced the conspirators to flee Rome, despite the senate trying to bring to justice the mobsters who had attacked their houses. Unexpectedly Brutus continued to perform his role as praetor in laying on lavish games (I thought the aediles did this). And in the absence of Brutus and all the other conspirators it is Antony who emerges as the strong man in control.

(22) Everything is transformed with the arrival of Octavian.

He was pursuing his studies at Apollonia when Caesar was killed, and had been awaiting him there after his determination to march at once against the Parthians. As soon as he learned of Caesar’s fate, he came to Rome, and as a first step towards winning the favour of the people, assumed the name of Caesar and distributed to the citizens the money which had been left them by his will. Thus he deposed Antony from popular favour, and by a lavish use of money assembled and got together many of Caesar’s veteran soldiers.

Hit the ground running, very smart, very strategic. When Cicero eventually opted to support Octavian Brutus wrote him a long bitter letter saying he had no principles but just preferred a tyrant who would be nice to him.

(23) “Already one faction was forming about Octavius, and another about Antony, and the soldiers, as though for sale at auction, flocked to the highest bidder.” Against all is expectations Brutus finds himself driven out of Italy and goes to Greece. His wife, Porcia accompanied him before turning back for Italy and Plutarch paints a tear-jerking scene of departure and Brutus’s words of praise for his strong wife.

(24) Brutus sails on to Athens and purports to be socialising with philosophers but in fact sent out to the commanders of armies around Greece to recruit them for the cause of liberty. He meets Cicero’s son and praises him as a hater of tyranny. But at a feast he makes an odd quote from Homer which seems to indicate he sees himself as doomed by fate. Did he? Or is this the literary tradition, the kind of thing he ought to have said?

(25) Brutus rounds up various forces throughout Greece. Brutus marches his forces to Epidamnus but falls ill.

(26) The garrison of Epidamnus brings food to Brutus wherefore he treats the city well. Fighting between the forces of Brutus and Caius Antonius until the former has the latter surrounded in a marshy region and prevents his men massacring them and persuades them to come over to him. For a long time he respects Caius Antonius until he discovers he is conspiring to subvert Brutus’s officers and so has him locked up.

(27) News arrives that Octavian is consolidating power, has had Antony evicted from Italy, is canvassing for the consulship illegally. When he sees how unpopular this is he changes tack, sends envoys of friendship to Antony. But still gets himself elected consul at the ridiculously young age of 20. As soon as Octavian is consul he promotes prosecutions against Brutus, Cassius and the rest who are tried in absentia, and exemplary sentences intimidated out of the juries. Then, very briskly:

After this, the three men, Octavius, Antony, and Lepidus, were reconciled with one another, distributed the provinces among themselves, and sentenced to death by proscription two hundred men. Among those put to death was Cicero.

(28) The importance of family, kinship and friendship networks demonstrated by this sentence:

When tidings of these events were brought to Macedonia, Brutus felt compelled to write to Hortensius commanding him to kill Caius Antonius, on the plea that he was thus avenging Cicero and Brutus Albinus, one of whom was his friend, and the other his kinsman. For this reason, at a later time, when Antony had captured Hortensius at the battle of Philippi, he slew him on the tomb of his brother.

In mid-43 Brutus crossed into Asia where he performed the role of governor, adjudicating between native kings. He wrote to Cassius saying they shouldn’t settle into exile but be raising armies to return to Rome and ‘free’ it. Now they met at Smyrna, strong in arms.

(29) An extended description of the character of Brutus who even his enemies admitted was motivated by the highest motives of liberty. Just a shame that hardly anyone else was, including most of the population of Rome. Brutus:

The virtues of Brutus, as we are told, made him beloved by the multitude, adored by his friends, admired by the nobility, and not hated even by his enemies. For he was remarkably gentle and large-minded, free from all anger, pleasurable indulgence, and greed, and kept his purpose erect and unbending in defence of what was honourable and just.

(30) Cassius takes Rhodes, Brutus campaigns against the Lycians with many battles, namely the siege of Xanthus.

(31) When Xanthus catches fire Brutus orders his troops to put the fire out but the Xanthians in a kind of frenzy assist in the burning down of their town. Plutarch goes to town, describing little children who throw themselves into the flames, mothers jumping from the battlements and so on. Maybe there was a fire but folk legend and Plutarch’s fondness for the gruesome have added the rest.

(32) Brutus’s clemency dealing with the city of Patara compared with Cassius’s extreme exactions from Rhodes.

(33) Plutarch repeats the story told in the life of Pompey about h ow the council of young king Ptolemy deliberated what to do when Pompey approached Egypt and were persuaded by the arguments of the rhetorician Theodotus to kill him. How everyone involved in the murder was, in their turn, killed on Caesar’s orders, except this Theodotus who fled to a wretched life traipsing round Asia. Well, Brutus chanced across him and had him killed. No-one dies a natural death in these stories.

(34) In early 42 Brutus and Cassius met with their huge armies at Sardis. they lock themselves into a tent and fall into a furious argument, enumerating the list of wrongs each has done the other. All their followers have been forbidden from intervening but Marcus Favonius knew no fear and pushed his way through the throng outside the tent and insisted on going in and jokingly quoting some verse from Homer who has old Nestor say:

“But do ye harken to me, for ye both are younger than I am.” (Iliad book I 259)

This makes Cassius laugh and, although Brutus tries to have Favonius ejected, breaks the ice. That night there is a feast of the uneasy allies which Favonius gatecrashes and barges his way into the place of honour.

(35) Brutus and Cassius disagree about whether to publicly shame their officials when they catch them behaving corruptly, in this case embezzling public funds. The story is told to show Brutus the more principled of the two.

(36) Plutarch tells us Brutus needed little sleep but worked or conversed until very late. This is prologue to a repeat of the story told in the life of Caesar about how very late one night he hears someone come into his tent and turns to see a monstrous and fearful shape standing at his side who announces that he is his evil genius and will meet him at Philippi.

(37) Next morning Brutus tells Cassius about his vision and Plutarch gives Cassius an extended passage describing the philosophy of the Epicureans, namely that the senses and the imagination of man are infinitely malleable and so it was a product of his fantasy.

(38) They march across Greece till they face the armies of Antony and Octavian. ‘The plains between the armies the Romans call Campi Philippi.’

(39) As usual, Plutarch gleefully describes the various ill omens before the battle of Philippi:

  • the lictor brought Cassius his wreath turned upside down
  • in a procession at some festival, a golden victory belonging to Cassius, which was being borne along, fell to the ground, its bearer having slipped
  • many carrion birds hovered over the camp daily, and swarms of bees were seen clustering at a certain place inside the camp

All these incidents began to weaken Cassius’s Epicurean rationalism and also demoralised the soldiers. The leaders disagreed: Cassius wanted to drag the war on and wear down their opponents; Brutus wanted to get on with it and lessen the damage to Rome. Also, men were deserting to the other side. So Cassius was won round to giving battle the next day.

(40) That night Brutus dines and goes to bed but Cassius dines with intimate friends and is unusually quiet. Plutarch gives him a speech telling one friend, Messala, that he is in the same plight as Pompey, venturing the destiny of his country on one battle.

At daybreak a scarlet tunic is displayed before the tents of Brutus and Cassius which is the sign for battle. The pair are given a noble dialogue about death. Brutus tells Cassius that when he was younger he blamed Cato for killing himself and not being man enough to face whatever the fates had in store. Now he’s changed his mind. On the ides of March he gave his life for his country. Since then he has lived a life of liberty. If they lose, he will ‘go hence’ with praise for Fortune. Cassius embraces him and thus emboldened they prepare for the battle.

(41) The Battle of Philippi October 42 BC. Antony’s men were building elaborate fortifications to keep Cassius from the sea. Ocatvian was absent from the field with illness. Both were surprised when Brutus and Cassius’s men let out a great shout and ran forward. They did so in bad order and almost immediately lost touch with their neighbouring legions, but the right wing outflanked the cavalry and stormed Octavian’s camp, massacring some Lacedaemonians and wrecking Octavian’s litter leading to rumours that he was killed.

(42) According to Plutarch the defeat was down to miscommunication. Brutus’s legions were completely victorious and took the enemy camp. But Cassius’s wing was routed and the enemies took his camp.

And one thing alone brought ruin to their cause, namely, that Brutus thought Cassius victorious and did not go to his aid, while Cassius thought Brutus dead and did not wait for his aid.

(43) What happened on Cassius’s wing. He is beaten back, his forces panic and break, he makes for a hillside, sees cavalry riding towards him, can’t make out if they’re friend or foe, sends out an officer, Titinius, to find out. This man is surrounded by whooping horsemen so that Cassius thinks he has been captured. In fact it is cavalry send by Brutus celebrating finding a colleague unharmed. But under the impression that all is lost, Cassius retreats to his tent.

Here the account becomes very characteristically Plutarchian, for he reminds us that Cassius was quaestor with Marcus Crassius on his catastrophic expedition into Parthia in 53 BC. Ever since he survived that debacle he has kept by him a freedman named Pindarus. Cassius drew his robes over his head, bared his neck and instructed Pindarus to strike. So Pindarus cuts his head off. By the time Titinius returns to the camp on the hill it is to find all his generals weeping and wailing. Cursing his tardiness at returning and bringing the good news that the cavalry were Brutus’s, Titinius draws his sword and stabs himself.

(44) When Brutus hears of Cassius’s death he has the body decorated and sent to Thasos for funeral. From which one deduces we are no longer still in the heat of the battle. Brutus addresses Cassius’s men and tries to lift their spirits and gives them generous payment. He was the only one of the four generals (Brutus, Cassius, Antony, Octavius) who wasn’t defeated, but he threw away his victory by letting his soldiers loot the enemy camp.

(45) The losses on both sides. When Antony is brought the robe and sword of Cassius he is energised to fight again the next day. But the two camps Brutus is commanding have lots of problems, his own guarding numerous prisoners of war, Cassius’s men demoralised by their defeat and resentful of a new commander.

(46) Brutus tries to motivate Cassius’s demoralised men by promising them they can loot two cities, Thessalonica and Lacedaemon. This is the one time Brutus did this kind of thing, mostly he was careful to preserve the cities he passed by or took submission from. But these were desperate times and he had to do whatever he could to motivate Cassius’s surly soldiers.

(47) Octavian and Antony were in an even worse state, for their camp was on low lying land prone to flooding by the frequent rains, water which immediately froze (it was October). Moreover a large fleet Octavian had ordered from Italy was intercepted by Brutus’s fleet and destroyed. If Brutus had learned of this he probably wouldn’t have fought, because his camp was in the better position, he had more provisions and control of the sea to bring food and reinforcements. Plutarch slips into sententious mode:

But since, as it would seem, the government of Rome could no longer be a democracy, and a monarchy was necessary, Heaven, wishing to remove from the scene the only man who stood in the way of him who was able to be sole master, cut off from Brutus the knowledge of that good fortune.

(48) More omens, inevitably:

  • the foremost standard was covered with bees
  • of its own accord the arm of one of the officers sweated oil of roses, and though they often rubbed and wiped it off, it was of no avail
  • just before the battle two eagles fought a pitched battle with one another in the space between the camps, and as all were gazing at them, while an incredible silence reigned over the plain, the eagle towards Brutus gave up the fight and fled
  • and the story of the Ethiopian who, as the gate of the camp was thrown open, met the standard-bearer, and was cut to pieces by the soldiers, who thought his appearance ominous

(49) As he reviews his troops he notices how ill at ease and reluctant they are and even as his army lines up a notably brave soldier defects to the enemy. It’s now or never so Brutus decides to attack at 3pm. Brutus’s wing is triumphant but Cassius’s command spread their line too thin and are overwhelmed and then Brutus’s army is surrounded and massacred. Many fine Romans lost their lives etc, not least Cato’s son.

(50) The story of Lucilius who, as darkness falls, sees Brutus being chased by barbarian horsemen and so pretends to be him, crying out that he is surrendering and asking to be brought to Antony. The barbarian cavalry is delighted and so is Antony to hear his great opponent is coming but then is thrown into doubt about how to greet him. When he sees it is this man Lucilius he is hugely relieved, and although Lucilius makes a speech saying he is prepared to accept death for his deception, Antony in fact grants him his life, welcomes him and he becomes one of his most loyal adherents.

(51) Brutus escapes with loyal officers and takes refuge by a stream by a big rock. There is an incomprehensible anecdote about a soldier who is sent twice to fetch drinking water. Statyllius promises to cut his way through the enemy and make his way to the camp and light a flaming torch if it is safe to return. After a while they see a blazing torch raised because Statyllius managed to reach the camp but… he never returned, being struck down on the return journey.

(52) Night comes on and Brutus asks each of his companions to help him kill himself but they all refuse. Then he shakes all their hands and thanks Fortune to be left surrounded by such loyal men and considers himself lucky to be leaving behind a reputation for honesty and virtue which none of those who conquered him would have. Then he got another old friend to hold a sword steady while he plunged onto it and so died.

(53) A lot of Plutarch’s account seems to derive from an account by Messala, the comrade of Brutus, an eye witness. After Brutus’s death he went over to Octavian who found all the Greeks loyal.

Antony had the body of Brutus wrapped in his best robe and burned on a pyre, then sent the ashes home to his mother Servilia. (Suetonius, by contrast, says that the head of Brutus was sent to Rome to be thrown at the feet of Caesar’s statue.) Brutus’s wife Porcia now wanted to die but she was closely watched by all her friends till she found the opportunity to snatch up hot colas from a fire, swallow them and kept her mouth firmly closed till she died.

Plutarch ends his account very inconsequentially by stating that this might, in fact, be wrong, since a letter exists purporting to be from Brutus in which he chides them for neglecting her when she was ill and so driving her to her death while he was still alive. If this letter is genuine, that is. Who knows.

Thoughts

Plutarch excels himself at jumping right over Brutus’s family, boyhood, young manhood, political career or education in order to leap straight to the start of the civil war in 49.


Related links

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

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

Carthage Must Be Destroyed by Richard Miles (2010)

According to legend Carthage was founded in 814 BC. Its history came to an end in 146 BC, the year in which Rome defeated and utterly destroyed it. Richard Miles is a young historian whose book, Carthage Must Be Destroyed, sets out to record everything we know about Carthage, from the legends of its founding, through its umpteen wars, up to the final catastrophe.

Carthage Must Be Destroyed is long, 373 pages of text, 77 pages of notes, 34 page bibliography and a 66-page index = 521 pages.

It is not a social or political history. There is hardly anything about Carthage’s form of government, a reasonable amount about its economy (trade and some agriculture), a surprising amount about the evolving design and metallurgy of its coinage (in the absence of other evidence, coins are a good indicator of cultural changes and economic success), and quite a lot about its religion, in particular a recurring thread about the syncretistic melding of the Phoenician god of Melqat with the Hellenistic demigod Heracles, about which Miles has a real bee in his bonnet.

But what the text is really filled with is relentless details of Carthage’s endless wars, wars, wars. It is an overwhelmingly military history. Countless battles, an apparently endless stream of generals with the same four names (Hannibal, Hamilcar, Hasdrubal or Hanno) and gruesome references to torture. Failed generals, defeated enemies, rebellious mercenaries, overthrown tyrants, unlucky hostages or ambassadors, an endless stream of unfortunates are publicly tortured, beheaded or crucified (pages 131, 147, 152, 165, 173, 203, 208, 211, 212, 219, 273, 358). The ideal reader of this book will really love details of ancient wars and sadistic punishments.

The single most surprising thing about the history of Carthage is how much of it took place on the island of Sicily. The western half of Sicily was colonised by Carthage from about 900 BC, the eastern half by Greek colonists from different mother cities from about 750 BC, and the economic and territorial rivalry led to almost continuous warfare between the two sets of colonists between 580 and 265 BC, a period known as the Sicilian Wars.

If you know nothing whatever about Carthage, here are the key facts:

The Phoenicians

is the general name given to the people who, 3,000 years ago (1,000 BC) inhabited the trading cities situated along the coast of modern-day Lebanon, ports like Byblos, Sidon and Tyre. The Phoenicians invented new types of more efficient sailing ships with which they established trading routes all round the Mediterranean, trading in precious metals and manufactured goods such as jewellery, ceramics, and food. The high point of Phoenician culture and sea power is usually placed between about 1,200 to 800 BC. They founded trading settlements on all the Mediterranean islands (Cyprus, Sicily, Sardinia) and as far afield as Gades (modern Cadiz) beyond what the ancients called the Pillars of Hercules, i.e. beyond the Mediterranean, onto the Atlantic coast of modern-day Spain.

Carthage

The most successful of these settlements was Carthage. Carthage was founded in the 9th century BC on the coast of North Africa, in what is now Tunisia, by traders from Tyre in Phoenicia (Phoenicia being the coastal strip of the what is now Syria and Lebanon). It was a pivotal position, half way along the trade routes from east to west and also handy for the short routes north to and south from Italy and its two big islands, Sardinia and Sicily.

Map of the Mediterranean showing position, central to various trade routes (source: Politeia website)

In the following centuries Carthage became independent of its mother city (which was eventually subjugated by the Asian empire of Assyria) to become a trading empire in its own right, creating its own colonies around the Mediterranean and spreading inland from its coastal location to conquer territory originally occupied by Libyan tribes.

New city

Carthage’s status as a colony or settlement is indicated by its name: the Punic term qrt-ḥdšt directly translates as ‘new city’, implying it was a ‘new Tyre’ (p.62). The city states of Phoenicia – the leading ones being Sidon and Tyre – had thrived in the vacuum caused by the late Bronze Age collapse (about 1,200 to 1,100 BC). But from 900 to 800 onwards the big land empires returned, namely Egypt to the south and Assyria to the east, and repeatedly invaded and conquered the city states. Miles shows how they allowed some, Tyre in particular, a measure of independence because the Assyrian rulers relied on the luxury goods, and especially the rare metals, which were brought in from their trade around the Med (copper from Cyprus, silver from southern Spain).

Nonetheless, as the mother city, Tyre, lost power, its strongest child, Carthage, grew.

Punic wars

From the 300s BC onwards Carthage found its maritime empire threatened by the fast-growing new power of Rome, half-way up the west coast of the Italian peninsula. The Romans used the adjective poenus to refer to the Phoenicians and, by extension, the Carthaginians, and so the three wars Rome fought against Carthage are referred to as ‘the Punic Wars’:

  • First Punic War (264–241 BC)
  • Second Punic War (218–201 BC)
  • Third and final Punic War (149–146 BC)

Rome wins

Rome won the Third Punic War, stormed the city and utterly destroyed Carthage in 146 BC, leading away the survivors into brutal slavery and razing the buildings to the ground. During the final war a leading Roman politician, Cato the Censor, made a reputation by, whatever subject he was nominally addressing in the Senate, ending all his speeches with the same words, ‘Carthago delenda est’, meaning ‘Carthage must be destroyed’. It is this famous catchphrase that gives this book its title.

Not only did the Romans destroy all buildings, but all statues, inscriptions and records, emptying the libraries of Carthage and giving away the manuscripts and codices to local tribes. None have survived. This explains why, despite its long history and one-time predominance, the historiography of Carthage is so shadowy, and has to be reconstructed from references in the writings of its enemies or from the often obscure or ambiguous archaeological evidence.

Archaeology

The victorious Romans razed Carthage to the ground. Generations later, the first emperor, Augustus, ordered the erection of a new city on its ruins, Colonia Iulia Concordia Carthago (p.364). Both are now embedded in the huge modern city of Tunis, capital of Tunisia (current population 11 million), which makes archaeological investigation difficult to this day. However, the Carthaginians had established many of their own colonies both across northern Tunisia and on many Mediterranean islands, and from time to time new Punic sites are discovered, or new discoveries are made at existing sites, which provide information which keep our view of Carthage’s history slowly changing and updating.

Punic gods

All written records were destroyed, all the poems and hymns and inscriptions which we have for the Greek or Roman pantheons. From archaeological evidence and references in Greek or Roman works it appears the main gods of Carthage were a couple, the god Baal Hammon and the goddess Tanit (list of 3 triads of gods on page 289).

Baal was a Phoenician name for ‘Lord’, so there were a lot of gods whose first name was Baal. In fact the common Carthaginian men’s name Hannibal is a combination of the Carthaginian name Hanno with the word ‘Baal’.

Melqart was the tutelary god of Carthage’s mother-city, Tyre, sometimes titled the ‘Lord of Tyre’ (Ba‘al Ṣūr), King of the Underworld, and Protector of the Universe. Miles shows how worship of Melqart was encouraged at all Phoenician colonies across the Mediterranean as a way of binding them together culturally.

Miles also shows how Melqart became identified and merged with Greek worship of Heracles, the hugely popular Greek figure who could be taken as both a demigod or a mortal hero, depending on context, and who was the signature figure for Greeks colonising westwards through the Mediterranean in the sixth century and later (pages 105, 221). Heracles was even adopted as a patron and icon by Alexander the Great.

In fact the prevalence of Melqart-Heracles becomes a recurring theme of Miles’s book, popping up wherever Carthage creates colonies, for example becoming the god/face or brand of the new colony in south Spain in the third century (p.221), depicted on the coins of Hannibal (p.227), and then co-opted by the post-Punic emperor Augustus. Miles develops what almost amounts to an obsession with Heracles, turning his myths and legends into a kind of central narrative to the five or six centuries leading up to the Christian Era which are fought over by Greeks and Carthaginians and Romans in turn, who each seek to commandeer and appropriate him as ancestor and avatar for their own colonial ambitions.

By contrast with the hundreds of mentions and extended passages about Heracles, the goddess Astarte is only mentioned a handful of times. She was a goddess of the Levant, of not only Phoenicians but the Canaanites too, rather than distinctively of the Phoenician diaspora. Still, I could have done with more about Astarte.

Carthage as ‘the other’ for Rome

Miles’s central point is that, for the reasons explained above, almost everything we know about ancient Carthage comes down to us from Greek, and then Roman sources, and that both of them were bitter rivals of Carthage’s trading and military might. In other words, all the written evidence we have about Carthage comes from her enemies.

Miles uses ideas derived from Edward Said’s 1978 book Orientalism about how colonial conquerors project onto their victims their own vices, to suggest that in these accounts the ancient Greeks and Romans projected onto the Carthaginians all the moral and social sins and transgressions and weaknesses they could think of. These included cruelty, dishonesty, effeminacy, luxuriousness, barbarity, sexual immorality, and so on. The notion of the unreliability or deceitfulness of the Carthaginians gave rise to a Roman proverb, fides Punica, meaning Punic or Carthaginian ‘faith’ – ironically indicating the exact opposite. Towards the end of the book he spends three pages describing how the Roman comic playwright Plautus’s play, The Little Carthaginian, performed in the lull between the second and third Punic wars, attributed all these perfidious characteristics to the hapless protagonist (pages

So Miles’s mission is to use the latest up-to-the-minute archaeological and scholarly knowledge to penetrate back through centuries of Greek and Roman prejudice and anti-Carthage propaganda to try and establish who the Carthaginians really were.

There are two problems with this approach:

1. It assumes that you are already fairly familiar with all the Roman prejudices against Carthage which he is setting out to overthrow. If you’re not familiar with Roman slurs against Carthage, then the book has to explain the prejudiced view first, before going on to rebut it and, in doing so, it turns out that the accusations of the Greeks and Romans are often so florid and vivid that you remember them more than Miles’s myth-busting antidotes.

2. This is especially the case when Miles’s anti-prejudice myth-busting is not as exciting or as clear-cut as you might hope, substituting a clearly defined line with the uncertain speculations of modern scholars.

The most obvious example is when Miles sets out to undermine the Greek and Roman accusation that the Carthaginians practised the ritual sacrifice of babies. But to do so he has to present all the evidence supporting the baby-killing view and this turns out to be pretty persuasive. He explains that a ‘tophet’ was the general term the Carthaginians used for a site where infants were sacrificed. It was a Hebrew term derived from a location in Jerusalem in the Gehinnom where worshippers, influenced by the ancient Canaanite religion, practised the human sacrifice of children to the gods Moloch and Baal by burning them alive.

Miles then goes on to look very thoroughly at the archaeological evidence from the cemeteries which have been found in Carthage itself and in the surrounding towns, where urns have been found which contain the ashes of infants. Up-to-the minute scholarly research using DNA and other types of scientific technology seem to have established that many of the infants who were (undoubtedly) burned to ashes, were so young as to maybe have been still-born. Maybe it was only still-born infants or infants who died within months of birth (i.e. who were already dead) who were burned as offerings to the gods. But still… the accusation is not completely baseless… the Carthaginians did burn babies… So Miles’s attempt to overthrow a modern ‘prejudice’ against the Carthaginians ends up bringing the prejudice more prominently to my attention and not really decisively rebutting it.

The endlessness of scholarly debate

And that’s the trouble with any book which sets out to take us into the heart of scholarly debate – the trouble is that scholarly debate is endless. And it is particularly exacerbated with a subject like Carthage where the Romans went out of their way to destroy every building, statue, stele or inscription, and all the books and manuscripts which recorded Carthaginian religion, culture or history.

What we are left with is an admittedly copious amount of archaeological evidence from the city itself and its numerous colonies around the Mediterranean, but evidence which is always partial, fragmentary, complex and open to differing interpretation.

Therefore Miles’s book doesn’t tell ‘the’ story of Carthage, it tells one possible story and, as his narrative proceeds, it is very scrupulous in pointing out where scholars differ and mentioning different interpretations. In fact he does this so often you feel you are reading not one but multiple versions, multiple possible histories of Carthage.

Take something as simple as the start of the Punic period itself, the period of Phoenician economic hegemony in the Mediterranean, presumably, after two and a half thousand years, historians are fairly clear when this began, right? Wrong.

The advent of what we call the ‘Punic’ era is notoriously difficult to define. (p.88)

Presumably historians have a clear sense of what ‘Punic’ culture was, right? Wrong. Turns out that Punic culture was highly ‘syncretic’ i.e. incorporating elements from many other Mediterranean cultures:

What we refer to as ‘Punic’ culture is an umbrella term for a whole series of diffuse cultural experiences that took place all over the western and central Mediterranean. (p.89)

In other words, wherever you look in the subject of Punic or Carthaginian history, there are scholarly problems of interpretation which the steady trickle of modern archaeological discoveries only makes more complex, sometimes bewilderingly so. In fact rather than one coherent story, the text can more accurately be described as a succession of puzzles, historical teasers for which Miles presents the evidence for and against particular solutions or interpretations.

For example, does the existence of the Ara Maxima altar and temple in the Forum Boarium in Rome testify to the early Roman adaptation of a local legend about a hero-brigand with the Greek legends about the wandering hero Heracles? Or, on the contrary, might it point towards early Rome being a mish-mash of Etrurian, Greek, Phoenician, Punic and other peoples in a typically Phoenician cosmopolitan trading community?

Miles devotes pages 108 to 111 to presenting the evidence for either interpretation, which were intriguing to follow but, ultimately, quite hard to remember or care about – and my point is that a good deal of the book is like this, a sequence of puzzles and mysteries and obscurities which scholars are wrangling over right up to the present day, and which Miles shares with us in some detail.

  • There is no consensus on the meaning of the Nora stone… (p385)
  • There has been considerable debate over the provenance of the Cacus myth… (p.404)
  • The identification of the goddess figure has been controversial… (p.405)

Greece, the first rival

For centuries before Rome rose, Carthage’s rival was Greece or, more precisely, the numerous Greek colonies around the Mediterranean. Not a lot of people know that the Greeks colonised or, more accurately, set up trading centres which became towns and sometimes fortified citadels, at points all round the Mediterranean coast, the ones Carthage clashed with dotting the coasts of Sardinia and Sicily. I’m always surprised to reread that the southern coast of Italy was for centuries known as Magna Graecia, or Greater Greece, because of the dominance of Greek towns.

The ubiquity of Greek colonisation was reflected in the spread of the cult of the Greek hero and demi-god, Herakles, whose legendary travels, labours and womanising, as Miles shows, became a symbol of ‘the Greek colonial project’, the ‘Greek colonial endeavour’ (p.171). Temples were built for him all over the Mediterranean littoral and local towns and cities and even ethnic groups claimed descent from the far-travelling bully. A particularly striking example is the way that the Celtic race claimed to be descended from Heracles after he slept with the daughter of the king of Galicia and fathered a son named Kelta (p.399).

Sicily, the endless battlefield

Sicily is separated from Italy by a strait just 1.9 miles wide at its narrowest point and is only 87 miles from the African shore.

Around 500 the narrative emerges from speculation based on archaeology into more reliable history documented by Greek sources, in the form of military campaigns in Sicily. A glance at the map shows why Sicily was important to anyone trying to set up a trading empire in the Mediterranean and Miles devotes several chapters to accounts of the long-running conflict between towns founded by Carthage in the west of the island, and towns founded by Greeks in the east, specifically Syracuse, founded by Greek settlers from Corinth.

The Sicilian Wars, or Greco-Punic Wars, were a series of conflicts fought between ancient Carthage and the Greek city-states led by Syracuse over control of Sicily and the western Mediterranean between 580 and 265 BC. (Wikipedia)

The Carthaginians set up small trading settlements on Sicily as early as 900 BC but never penetrated far inland. They had traded with the local peoples, the Elymians, Sicani and Sicels. Greek colonists began arriving after 750 BC.

  • 580 BC – The Phoenicians in Sicily and the Elymians unite to defeat the Greeks of Selinus and Rhodes near Lilybaeum, the first such recorded incident in Sicily
  • 540 – Carthaginian Malchus is said to have ‘conquered all Sicily’ and sent captured booty to Tyre
  • 510 BC – Carthage helped the town of Segesta defeat the expedition of the Greek Dorieus
  • early 5th century; the higher 400s BC were the era of Sicilian ‘tyrants’ i.e. rulers who ruled a town and its surrounding area without consulting the landed elite; examples of these ‘tyrants’ crop up in the writings about contemporary political theory of the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle; for example, Gelon who captured the main Greek city, Syracuse, in 485 BC and then deployed a policy of ‘ethnic cleansing, deportation and enslavement’
  • 483 – Terrilus, tyrant of Himera, was deposed by the tyrant Theron of Acragas, and called on Carthage to help; Carthage was motivate to defend its Sicilian territory against Theron who threatened to take over; Carthage sent a large army, maybe as many as 50,000, many mercenaries, under general Hamilcar; the fleet suffered heavy losses en route to Sicily and was then slaughtered at the Battle of Himera; the defeat was a catastrophe and had political ramifications back in Carthage, leading to the replacement of government by an aristocratic elite with the institution of a special form of republic managed by a Council of 104 and an Assembly of Elders (pages 116, 130, 215); Carthage didn’t intervene in Sicily for 70 years, allowing the Greeks to undergo an era of expansion and building, although they themselves then collapsed into a dozen or so bickering commonwealths
  • 410 – Carthage got involved in the complicated internecine Sicilian wars when Hannibal Mago helped the town of Segesta defeat the town of Selinus and then destroyed Himera, thus avenging the disastrous defeat of 73 years earlier
  • 406 – second expedition led by Hannibal Mago was ravaged by plague which killed Hannibal but his successor Himilco, captured and sacked Akragas, then captured the city of Gela, sacked Camarina and repeatedly defeated the army of Dionysius I, the new tyrant of Syracuse, before plague brought the fighting to a halt

And so on for another 150 years. I’m not going to explain the details of this map from the Turning Points of Ancient History website, I’m including it to show how the island of Sicily was characteristically divided up into a surprising number of territories and towns all of which were, at some point, attacking each other, besieged, surrendered, burnt down and so on during the 300 years of the Sicilian Wars. Basically, for most of that period Carthage held the west of the island, various Greek rulers held Syracuse in the south-east, and then they got embroiled in scores of alliances to try and grab as much of the territory between them.

Map of Sicily 483 BC showing its division between different rulers.

What was surprising to me about this was:

  • realising just how much of a colonising, imperialist peoples the Greeks were: I had a very limited image of the ancient Greeks as philosophers in togas strolling round the agora in Athens or heroically defending themselves against the Persians at Thermopylae; it’s chastening to read about their ambitious imperial aims and their success at founding Greek towns on coastlines all around the Mediterranean; in this respect the long chapter Miles devotes to the cult and legends of Herakles and the way his cult was used to both explain and justify Greek imperialism, is genuinely eye-opening
  • and of course, where you have colonies you have people being colonised; Miles’s book and the Wikipedia article devote all their time to the names of Carthaginian and Greek leaders and their battles and only in passing mention the names of the local ‘peoples’ whose land and livings were stolen from them by one or other set of invaders – the natives being the Elymians, Sicani and Sicels – having read so much about the European colonisation of Africa recently, I was struck by the similarities, only on a much smaller scale, in the sense that we hear a lot about the colonists because they were literate and left records, and almost nothing about the illiterate subject tribes who have gone down in history without a voice

Rome’s civic nationalism

Most people think of Carthage in connection with its rivalry with Rome, which led to the three Punic wars (264 to 146 BC) and which climaxed in the conquest and utter destruction of the city. Miles describes the long prehistory to the conflict, describing the slow but steady rise of Rome from a Carthaginian point of view.

Putting to one side the blizzard of dates, events and individuals, what is fascinating is Miles’s analysis of Rome’s success. It had a number of causes. One was that Rome was ruled by a pair of consuls who were elected for one year’s service. This meant they were in a hurry to make their name in history and were encouraged to aggressive policies now. A contrast to most other polities led by kings or tyrants who could afford to take their time. Miles explains that this ‘war without respite’ was a new thing, and economically exhausted Carthage (p.192).

Another was that when the Romans were defeated they simply raised more troops and came back to avenge the defeat, unlike the Carthaginians who tended to withdraw.

Another big reason for Rome’s success was its astonishing ability to integrate newly conquered territory and peoples into the Roman state (pages 158-9 and 197). This was done via infrastructure – conquered territory soon benefited from the building of the famous roads and aqueducts and laying out towns rationally and efficiently. But also by law, whereby newly integrated populations became equal under Roman law. Rome espoused what Michael Ignatieff calls ‘civic nationalism’ – all Roman citizens were treated equally under the law regardless of race or religion – as opposed to the ‘ethnic nationalism’ which most other states (then and for most of history) employed to unite its populations.

The ancient Latin identity survived, but only as a set of duties, rights and privileges enshrined in Roman law. (p.159)

A huge consequence of this is that Rome was able to recruit its armies from citizens, albeit only recently incorporated into the Roman state, but still, freeborn Roman citizens, who were inculcated with a sincere belief in Roman laws and values. This was in striking contrast to most other Mediterranean powers, including Carthage, which relied heavily on mercenaries to fill their armies, mercenaries who were both unreliable (often mutinied or defected) but also very expensive (a fact pointed out by the contemporary historian Polybius, quoted page 241). One of the reasons for Carthage’s relative decline was it bankrupted itself paying mercenaries to fight the wars against Rome.

(The best example of this was the Mercenary War which began at the end of the first Punic War when a huge force of some 20,000 mercenaries mutinied and turned on Carthage because they hadn’t been paid. Under canny leaders, who allied with neighbouring African tribes who would benefit from the overthrow of Carthage, it turned into a full-blown war on its own account which lasted from 241 to 237 BC when the mercenaries were finally defeated and massacred. Miles describes it in vivid detail pages 200 to 211. The mutiny contributed to the further weakening of Carthage in her long-running feud with Rome and vividly demonstrated the weakness of relying on foreign mercenaries. It is also the vivid and barbaric background to Gustave Flaubert’s novel, Salammbô.)

To be honest, this was one of the seven main things I took away from this long detailed book:

  1. The Carthaginians sacrificed (or were widely accused of sacrificing) babies to their gods.
  2. The huge cultural importance of the figure of Heracles to Greek imperialism and how he was incorporated into the Carthaginian cult of Melqart.
  3. Rome’s success was in large part to its efficiency at incorporating conquered territory and peoples into the civic nationalism of its polity.
  4. Rome’s military success was attributable, in part, to the way they just would not stop or admit defeat, put pressed on relentlessly till they won. (A point seconded by Adrian Goldsworthy’s book about the Punic Wars.)
  5. The gigantic role played by Sicily in Carthage’s history.
  6. The Mercenary War.
  7. The origins and career of Hannibal Barca.

The Punic Wars

Obviously Miles gives a very thorough account of the Punic Wars although here, as in his account of the Sicilian Wars, the immense detail and the explanation of scholarly debate about various key points and cruxes, often threatened to obscure the outline of the bigger picture. For example, in Miles’s narrative, it wasn’t exactly clear when each of the Punic wars either started or ended, since they merged into peace negotiations and visits by ambassadors and skirmishes and violent rebellions or coups and so on.

The overall message seems to be that the three Punic wars accelerated the rise of Rome, in all sorts of ways, militarily, culturally, economically and culturally.

The first war (264 to 241 BC) was fought mainly on the island of Sicily. Rome’s involvement was the first time that a Roman army was sent outside Italy (p.357). However, even having just read about it, it pales into the background compared to the second one (218 to 201 BC) which is dominated by the ‘romantic’ figure of Hannibal. Part of the reason is that, apparently, we have far better sources for the second war, not least because a number of biographies of the famous Hannibal survive in whole or part.

Slavery

In case it’s not clear, all these societies the ancient Greeks, the Romans and the Carthaginians, relied on slaves. In all the wars, the populations of captured towns and cities were routinely sold into slavery by the victors (pages 127, 140, 281, 296, 315, 347, 352).

Iberia

A fascinating aspect of the final period of Carthage was the success of its sub-colony in the south of Spain, which was established and triumphed due to the region’s extensive silver deposits. The Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca invaded and subdued the locals in 237 BC, putting them to work on the silver mines on an industrial scale. Eventually there were something like 40,000 slaves working in the silver mines to generate the precious metal to prop up Carthage and its military campaigns. (The town of Cartagena in south-east Spain was founded by Hamilcar as qrt-ḥdšt, which the Romans called ‘Cartago Nova,’ which was corrupted by the locals to Cartagena. So the city of Cartagena in Colombia owes its name to the same origin in the Phoenician language of the Middle East, page 224.)

The Barcids

Hamilcar’s success really brought to prominence the family of Barca whose era or influence is referred to by the adjective ‘Barcid’. Hence ‘Barcid Spain’. In fact the most famous Hannibal of all, the one who took his elephants over the Alps in 218 BC, was a Barcid, the son of the Hamilcar Barca who subjugated the Iberian tribes. When Hamilcar died in the early 220s, his son-in-law Hasdrupal took over, with Hannibal becoming a senior officer in the army aged just 18. When Hasdrupal was assassinated in 221 Hannibal was acclaimed leader by the army (and promptly issued new coinage depicting Heracles/Melqart, just one of the way in which Hannibal consciously associated himself with the oldest iconography of Carthaginian power, pages 227, 245, 247, 250-258).

Hannibal and the second Punic war (218 to 201 BC)

I remember Hannibal taking his elephants over the Alps from boyhood history books. I must have wondered why he did it. This book makes things clear.

1. Hannibal was seeking revenge or, more accurately, restitution from the peace settlement of the first Punic war (264 to 241 BC) which had given Sicily to Rome as a Roman province – the first ever Roman province – and cemented Rome as the leading military power in the western Mediterranean and, increasingly, the Mediterranean region as a whole. (Coming 20 years after the end of the first war, and seeking to correct the ‘injustices’ of the peace treaty which ended it, reminds me of the 20 year gap between the first and second world wars.)

2. Having been acclaimed general of the Carthaginian army in Spain Hannibal was ambitious to make his mark and confident, having been raised in an army family, gone on campaigns from an early age and been an officer at age 18, that he could do it.

3. But instead of trying to invade and conquer Sicily – graveyard of so many Carthaginian campaigns in the past – he would strike direct at the enemy and invade Italy.

4. But why over the Alps? Simples. The Romans controlled the seas. A sea-borne invasion was just too risky.

As it was, as soon as Hannibal’s left Carthage-occupied Spain they were attacked by Celtic Iberian tribes. Crossing the Pyrenees was dangerous. Then crossing the entire south of France, again, involved armed confrontations with a succession of local Gaulish tribes. Finally they were shown by guides how to ascend one side of the Alps, go through passes, and descend into Italy in late autumn 218, with 20,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry, and an unknown number of elephants – the survivors of the 37 with which he left Iberia.

Here Hannibal spent several years marching and fighting and campaigning. He won one of the most famous victories of the ancient world, crushing a Roman army at Cannae in 216 BC, but the description of the war quickly gets bogged down and complicated. Overall the war makes the point that you can be the best general of your day and win stunning battles but still lose a war which is being fought on numerous fronts. While he was in Italy the Romans shrewdly sent an army to Iberia; although they suffered numerous setbacks, the Iberian tribes the Carthaginians had oppressed were happy to defect to them and so, eventually, the Romans defeated them, and, despite mutinies in their own army and local rebellions, eventually forced all Carthaginian forces, led by Hasdrubal Gisco, out of Iberia. The thirty-year Punic occupation of south Iberia was over, and it became a Roman province, as Sicily had at the end of the first war.

Hannibal was in Italy from 218 to 203. 15 years. Long time, isn’t it? Lots of battles. Early on the Roman authorities panicked and appointed Quintus Fabius Maximus as dictator. Fabius introduced the strategy of avoiding open battle with his opponent, instead skirmishing with small detachments of the enemy. This was unpopular with the army, public or Roman elite, as Hannibal marched through the richest and most fertile provinces of Italy wreaking devastation as he went. (This softly, slowly approach explains the name of the Fabian Society, founded in 1884 as a British socialist organisation which aims to advance the principles of democratic socialism via gradualist and reformist effort in democracies, rather than by revolutionary overthrow.)

At one point he seized key towns in the very south, Magna Graecia, notably Capua, not as Punic fiefs but giving them their independence. His aim was not to destroy Rome but to mortally weaken it by giving Rome’s Latin and Italian allies their independence. This explains why he only once marched on the actual city and then was rebuffed by its thorough defences. In the end, though, all the cities he’d liberated ended up being retaken by the Romans.

Nonetheless, in the book’s conclusion, Miles says that these fifteen years during which an alien invader roamed more at less at will across the sacred territory of Rome left a deep psychological scar on the Roman psyche which took generations to exorcise (p.361).

In 203 Hannibal was recalled to Africa because in his absence, Publius Cornelius Scipio who had led the Romans to victory in Iberia, had led a force to Africa. Scipio destroyed an army of 50,000 sent against him but failed to capture the town of Utica and realised that besieging Carthage itself would probably be a long drawn-out process, costly in men and resources.

Thus both sides had fought themselves to a standstill and were ready to sue for peace. The Romans imposed very harsh terms but when Hannibal finally arrived back in Carthaginian territory the stage was set for a massive battle between the two old enemies. At the Battle of Zama in October 202 BC Scipio won a decisive victory and brought the war to an end (p.316).

Wikipedia has a cool animated graphic which sums up the change in territorial holdings over the course of the wars:

Changes in Rome and Carthage’s territories during the three Punic Wars, 264 to 146 BC. (Image by Agata Brilli ‘DensityDesign Integrated Course Final Synthesis Studio’, Polytechnic University of Milan)

The third Punic war

Surprisingly, shorn of its empire, Carthage flourished after the second war, quickly paying off the reparations owed to Rome and actively supplying her with vast amounts of wheat and food to support Rome’s wars against Macedon and other kingdoms in the East. When the end came it was entirely of Roman prompting. Factions in the Senate warned endlessly of the threat Carthage could still pose. Cato visited Carthage and was appalled at its prosperity. Eventually argument in the Senate led to an embassy being sent to demand impossible conditions of the Carthaginians – to uproot their city and move inland and cease to be an ocean-going, trading nation at all.

The embassy withdrew into the city and a 3-year siege commenced. Scipio adopted grandson of the great Scipio Africanus. Eventually stormed the walls and broke into the city and destroyed it and massacred its population. There is no doubt in Miles’s mind the Carthaginians did everything they could to abide by the letter of the treaties and to avoid war, and that the Romans would accept nothing but utter destruction. Once again it was Roman inflexibility and relentlessness which triumphed. Miles notes how this was recorded around the Mediterranean where Rome’s determination was noted but many lamented its bad faith, its falling short of the values it claimed to promote, of fairness and good faith.

Appropriating Carthage

At the end of the book, Miles shows how Carthage served numerous ideological purposes for Rome. For a start, in later works it became THE enemy which Rome had to overcome to in order to become great. In a sense, if Carthage hadn’t existed, it would have been necessary to invent her (p.373).

Closely connected, as mentioned above re. Said, even as it was being besieged and for centuries afterwards, Carthage became the anti-type of all the virtues the Romans congratulated themselves on, perfidious compared to Roman fides, with a disgusting baby-killing religion compared to Rome’s dignified ceremonies. Rome’s self-image was built by contrasting itself with the imagined vices of Carthage.

Third, however, a series of poets and historians wondered whether, in defeating Carthage, Rome had somehow peaked. The existence of a potent rival in a sense kept Rome on her toes, not just militarily but morally. For some later moralists, the defeat of Carthage marked the start of the internal squabbles, factions and corruption which were to lead to the civil wars, starting in the 80s BC.

The many dead

Deep down, the book made me marvel and gape at just how many, many men, throughout history, have miserably lost their lives in war. As Adrian Goldsworthy writes in his book on the Punic Wars:

In just one battle, in 216, the Romans and their allies lost 50,000 dead. During the second Punic war a sizeable part of Rome’s adult make population perished, mostly in the first few years of the conflict.

Between one and a quarter and one and three quarter millions of men died in the 120-year war. God knows how many civilians perished or were sold into slavery.


Related links

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

%d bloggers like this: