Sunday, April 6, 2008

Dog Ears #13: On the Good Life

I had only a faint remembrance of Cicero from my collegiate Political Science syllabus when I read a brief (but funny) passage devoted to knocking him down a peg in Huysman's Against Nature. That book's protag Des Esseintes delighted in calling Cicero "Chick-Pea" (the Latin translation of "Cicero") as he ripped him for his "long-winded style, the redundant metaphors and the rambling digressions" (p28) and much more.

After assassinating Julius Caesar, Brutus asked Cicero "to restore the Republic"

After reading a collection of Cicero's works from the 50s and 40s BC entitled On the Good Life, I'm happy to disagree with Des Esseintes. OK, Cicero was indeed a bit long-winded, but his insights into the core issues of life as he knew it (particularly one's relationships with other people and one's relationship with oneself) are remarkably, even incredibly, spot-on, relevant and and invaluable over 2000 years later.

Rather than fumble around for my own thumbnail description of who Cicero was, allow me to paste from Wikipedia:

Marcus Tullius Cicero (Classical Latin pronounced [ˈkikeroː], usually pronounced /ˈsɪsəroʊ/ in English; January 3, 106 BC – December 7, 43 BC) was a Roman statesman, lawyer, political theorist, and philosopher. Cicero is widely considered one of Rome's greatest orators and prose stylists.
Cicero is generally seen as one of the most versatile minds of Roman culture and his writing the paragon of Classical Latin. He introduced the Romans to the chief schools of Greek philosophy and created a Latin philosophical vocabulary. An impressive orator and successful lawyer, Cicero probably thought his political career his most important achievement. However, today he is appreciated primarily for his humanism and philosophical and political writings.

Yes, that was the right call.

There was just something mesmerizing about the title of this book, and even though I've been looking forward to some "Summer Reading"-type books, I knew I had to see if Cicero knew something about the elusive "Good Life" that I didn't know.

He did. He was plagued by many of the same vexations, frustrations and doubts that I am (and millions upon millions of others too, I'd venture). He placed a much higher premium on friendship than most thinkers I've come across, and as someone who has extremely strong feelings about the successes and failures I've experienced in friendships of my own, I was on the edge of my seat for nearly the whole book.

I highly recommend this book to those of you who often feel betrayed by the depth (or lack thereof) of modern interpersonal relationships and seek the ability to see others more clearly for who they are (and, the real trick, who they will be). This was by far my most dog-eared book to date...

Before his execution, Cicero's last words were said to be "do try to kill me properly"

From "Introduction"

p21 "In converting Classical Greek philosophy into Latin, Cicero "had to create new words. We owe him the terms quality, individual, vacuum, moral, property, induction, element, definition, difference, notion, comprehension, infinity, appetite, instance, science, image, species."

- damn!

p37 "Petrarch also welcomed (Cicero) as the spokesman for civilized, active leisure, and, in his essay On the Solitary Life and elsewhere, quoted him in order to show that the highest aim of leisure is to be busy."

p43 "Cicero's ideals do not dwell in Utopias, but in the real world. His treatises are for people who possess mature and independent minds, who have no desire to follow other minds slavishly, and who are compelled, in the course of their daily existences, to grapple with problems which are complex – rarely admitting of a purely intellectual solution – and which call on all the resources of their humanity."

From "Discussions at Tusculum"

p61 "If, therefore, there exists any man who is capable of regarding all the hazards and accidents of fortune and human life as endurable, a man moreover who is troubled neither by fear nor by distress nor by passion, a man of whom all empty pleasures of whatever kind leave utterly cold – then, if such a person exists, there is every reason why he should be happy."

p86 "For Dionysius was...a tragic poet (how good he may have been is beside the point, for in that art, more than any other, everyone seems entirely satisfied with his own efforts: I have never known a poet – and Aquinas was a friend of mine – who was not absolutely first class in his own eyes: that is how it is: you like your work, I like mine)."

- I think that observation holds true for more pursuits than poetry...

p88 "An acute first-class brain is the finest asset anyone can have – and, if we want to be happy, it is an asset we must exploit to the uttermost."

p104 "And what the contrast demonstrates is that the true satisfaction to be derived from food comes not from repletion, but from appetite – the people who run hardest after pleasure are the least likely to catch what they are after."

From "On Duties"

p122 "If we are trying to achieve mental enjoyment, for example, or relief from trouble, the findings of philosophy are of incomparable value, because the people who practise this study are perpetually searching for the things that produce a good and happy life."

From "On Friendship"

p181 (in discussing the recent death of his great friend Scipio)
"For I do not believe Scipio himself has suffered a misfortune. If anyone has suffered a misfortune, it is myself. But if you let your sorrows at such a happening overwhelm you, this shows how much you love, not your friend, but yourself."

p188 "Friendship, then, both adds a brighter glow to prosperity and relieves adversity by dividing and sharing the burden. And another of its very many remarkable advantages is this. It is unique because of the bright rays of hope it projects into the future: it never allows the spirit to falter or fall. When a man thinks of a true friend, he is looking at himself in the mirror. Even when a friend is absent, he is present all the same."

p193 "When a man shows kindness and generosity, his motive in doing so is not just to exact repayment. We do not hire out our favors, and charge interest for them: we behave kindly because that is the natural thing to do. The reason why we count friendship as a blessing is not because we are hoping for a material return. It is because the union is quite enough profit in itself."

p204 "If people whose lives are just constant wallowings in self-indulgence want to discuss friendship, let us not pay them the slightest attention. They do not understand the subject, either in practice or theory."

p208 "The friends we select ought to be sound and stable and reliable. But such people are distinctly scarce, and, besides, it is extremely difficult to pick them except by practical experience: and the problem is that this experience can only be acquired after the friendship has actually begun. That is to say, the friendship comes first and the material for estimating its desirability only becomes accessible later on; it is impossible to try one's friend out in advance."

- which is really too bad, don't you think?

p213 "Friendships formed before one grows up cannot possibly be stable or permanent. For young people's personalities change, and their tastes change with them – and altered tastes are what bring friendships to an end."

Cicero in younger, happier times...

From "The Dream of Scipio"

p 352 "Instead let Virtue herself, by her own unaided allurements, summon you to a glory that is genuine and real. Feel no concern about what other people may say about you. They will say it in any case."

p353 "'Strive on,' he replied. 'And rest assured that it is only your body that is mortal; your true self is nothing of the kind. For the man you outwardly appear to be is not yourself at all. Your real self is not that corporeal, palpable shape, but the spirit inside. Understand that you are god. You have a god's capacity for aliveness and sensation and memory and foresight; a god's power to rule and govern and direct the body that is your servant..."

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