Cicero’s blindness

Till we have thought much of it, often of it, till we have looked thoroughly into it, we find ourselves tempted to marvel at Cicero’s blindness. Surely a man so gifted must have known enough of the state of Rome to have been aware that there was no room left for one honest, patriotic, constitutional politician. Was it not plain to him that if, ‘natus ad justitiam,’ he could not bring himself to serve with those who were intent on discarding the Republic, he had better retire among his books, his busts, and his literary luxuries, and leave the government of the country to those who understood its people? And we are the more prone to say and to think all this because the man himself continually said it, and continually thought it. In one of the letters written early in the year to Atticus from his villa at Antium he declares very plainly how it is with him; and this, too, in a letter written in good-humor, not in a despondent frame of mind, in which he is able pleasantly to ridicule his enemy Clodius, who it seems had expressed a wish to go on an embassy to Tigranes, King of Armenia. ‘Do not think,’ he says, ‘that I am complaining of all this because I myself am desirous of being engaged in public affairs. Even while it was mine to sit at the helm I was tired of the work; but now, when I am in truth driven out of the ship, when the rudder has not been thrown down but seized out of my hands, how should I take a pleasure in looking from the shore at the wrecks which these other pilots have made?’ But the study of human nature tells us, and all experience, that men are unable to fathom their own desires, and fail to govern themselves by the wisdom which is at their fingers’ ends. The retiring Prime-minister cannot but hanker after the seals and the ribbons and the titles of office, even though his soul be able to rise above considerations of emolument, and there will creep into a man’s mind an idea that, though reform of abuses from other sources may be impossible, if he were there once more the evil could at least be mitigated, might possibly be cured. So it was during this period of his life with Cicero. He did believe that political justice exercised by himself, with such assistance as his eloquence would obtain for it, might be efficacious for preserving the Republic, in spite of Caesar, and of Pompey, and of Crassus. He did not yet believe that these men would consent to such an outrage as his banishment. It must have been incredible to him that Pompey should assent to it. When the blow came, it crushed him for the time. But he retricked his beams and struggled on to the end, as we shall see if we follow his life to the close.
    Such was the intended purpose of the degradation of Clodius. This, however, was not at once declared. It was said that Clodius as Tribune intended rather to oppose Caesar than to assist him. He at any rate chose that Cicero should so believe and sent Curio, a young man to whom Cicero was attached, to visit the orator at his villa at Antium and to declare these friendly purposes. According to the story told by Cicero, Clodius was prepared to oppose the Triumvirate; and the other young men of Rome, the
jeunesse dorée, of which both Curio and Clodius were members, were said to be equally hostile to Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus, whose doings in opposition to the constitution were already evident enough; so that it suited Cicero to believe that the rising aristocracy of Rome would oppose them. But the aristocracy of Rome, whether old or young, cared for nothing but its fish-ponds and its amusements.
    Cicero spent the earlier part of the year out of Rome, among his various villas — at Tusculanum, at Antium, and at Formiae. The purport of all his letters at this period is the same — to complain of the condition of the Republic, and especially of the treachery of his friend Pompey. Though there be much of despondency in his tone, there is enough also of high spirit to make us feel that his literary aspirations are not out of place, though mingled with his political wailing. The time will soon come when his trust even in literature will fail him for a while.

From Trollope’s Life of Cicero. Currently listening to a Librivox reading given by Philippa Jevons. (Who is terrific. I want to listen to all her recordings now.)

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