12 AUGUST 1972, Page 6


Reviews by Myles Raven, F. S. L. Lyons, Tony Palmer, Maurice Zinkin and Auberon Waugh

Shirley Robin Letwin on the case for and against Cicero

Shackleton Bailey's Cicero* has the virtues of both popular and academic writing. Though it deals with a time of moral and political confusion resembling our own, there is no pandering to contemporary obsessions. Nor does Shackleton Bailey indulge in that ostentation of learning with which denizens of anthologies dazzle parlour intellectuals. Instead he has revived the simplicity of the Victorian ' Life and Letters' to let the reader meet Cicero directly through his own words. At the same time, his selection and linking of the excerpts from Cicero's letters tell a dramatic story about a sensitive and highminded man, who hoped to make his name in politics when the Republic he admired was being fought over by an unyielding defender of the old order — Cato — a wavering Pompey, and the formidable Caesar. The result is a salutary reminder that a scholar who has thoroughly mastered his subject in all its particularity can fascinate the common reader by modestly considering universal questions in a concrete historical situation.

What makes Cicero an absorbing subject, even for someone indifferent to Rome and its great men, is that his life strikingly illustrates many of the dilemmas that have inspired a question debated since ancient times — whether a man can be both virtuous and a success in politics. As by the time Cicero became Consul in 63 BC the moral and political standards that had distinguished Rome belonged more to history than conduct, he had regularly to decide whether to assist men who openly disdained what he venerated, or to support their inept and sometimes far from admirable enemies. He has been rewarded mainly with a bad reputation. His intellectual achievements have been forgotten amidst denunciations of him for being a trimmer, from critics as varied as Sallust, Dio Cassius, Queen Christina, Mommsen, De Quincey. It took a Victorian novelist, Anthony Trollope, to write an ardent defence of him. And it must be admitted that even if one disregards the simpleminded view, such as Froude's, that Cicero was a weak, ambitious defender of privilege against the people's champion, Caesar, the case against Cicero is strong.

He came into politics as a declared supporter of the constitution and its Senatorial guardians. But his support was never unequivocal. In attacking the corruption of Verres while governor of Sicily, Cicero spoke as a defender both of the status quo and of those who were impatient with Senatorial exclusiveness. During his Consulship, he approved of Cato's motion to have the Catiline conspirators executed at once because he favoured firm action against the Republic's enemies. Yet he had violated the lawful procedures and was not only reassured but elated by the acclaim of the mob, who a few years later pelted him for the same decision. But when Cato argued that bribed jurors should be brought to trial and that tax farmers should not be permitted to make exorbitant levies or repudiate their contracts, Cicero accused Cato of speaking as if "he were living in Plato's Republic instead of Romulus's cesspool."

With Pompey, Cicero made friends "because of all he had done for me," and with Caesar, "because of his power." When Pompey requested unprecedented powers to deal with piracy and the eastern provinces, which popular suffrage granted him against strong Senatorial opposition, Cicero spoke for Pompey, sweetening his desertion of the Senatorial party with a tribute to it "bordering on the sycophantic." Though Caesar was an open enemy of the established constitution, Cicero throughout remained aloof from the opposition to Caesar's illegal demands. When Pompey asked him in 57 not to speak against Caesar's unlawful distribution of land in Campania, Cicero held his tongue. He even obeyed when Pompey instructed him to deal gently with the demagogue, Clodius, whose mobs later burned down Cicero's house. Cicero reserved his rancour for Senators whom he found insufficiently devoted to him.

For all his devotion to his books, he never, willingly withdrew from politics to avoid unsavoury alliances. Rather, he veered from side to side, not to pursue favourable winds but in a frenzied flight from any threatening storm. Had he remained as steadfast to Cato, when the alternatives were not yet to fight hopelessly or to accept Slavery, as he later lamented, when Caesar was still lacking overwhelming strength and the Senate retained some will to resist, had Cicero steadily used his powers of persuasion to support what he believed to be right, he might have given a strong lead to the timid and confused. So he himself came to admit — "We should have stood up to (Caesar) when he was weak . . ."

Instead of asking what actions would most effectively strengthen the lawful order, Cicero asked, "Shall I sit on the fence and offer myself to those in actual possession of power?" And in justification he explained, "I do not fight what they are doing on account of my friendship with (Pompey) and I do not endorse it, for that would be to condemn all I did in days gone by. I take a middle way." This meant that he never committed himself wholly to any policy or men. Each party accordingly claimed him while none trusted him. And not Cato but he was thought mad: " .. • reckoned a madman if I speak on politics as I ought, a slave if I say what is expedient, and a helpless captive if I say nothing..." He ended singing the trimmer's swan-song: "I know whom to flee, but I don't knovi whom to follow. . . ."

Nevertheless there is also a strong case for Cicero.

By the time he had power to influence events, the Republic was barely alive. The Senators were confused, weak, per' Petrating and accepting violations of the law. Nor were they eager to follow a newcomer from the order of Knights, such as Cicero. On the other side were Cetiline, Clodius, and Caesar, any of whom could summon ruffians, even armies, to reduce What remained of the legal system to chaos.

It was impossible to preserve the old constitution. The greatest danger threatening Rome, Cicero believed, was civil violence leading to war. The only realistic hope was to preserve some measure of lawful order, however inferior to the old constitution, that could muster enough support from all parties to survive. Cicero therefore consistently supported whatever might find favour with the populace and Knights, as well as the Senators, and rejected anything that might arouse strong antagonisms. He refrained from opposing Caesar while his demands were still limited, so as not to tempt him into taking by force what he could not get by asking and thereby begin an armed conflict.

Cato never departed from a straight line because he was blind to the imminent dangers. He refused to consider whether the measure he favoured might not, given the circumstances, have consequences Worse than what they were designed to remedy. By wrapping himself in obstinate indifference to the actual state of affairs, he excused himself from having to think about what could be managed here and now. When things went wrong, he simply Withdrew, in the end from life.

While Cato sulked in his tent, Cicero remained on the battlefield, accepting what dirty work came his way. Thus he managed to stay with the front lines Where he might prevent the worst from happening. Some things, however, he Would not do. He did not join the coalition of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus, although Atticus advised it, and, in refusing Caesar's invitation, he risked personal danger, and had to endure a period of exile.

Yet he would dine with Caesar. After all, Caesar was no ordinary tyrant. He was neither mad nor mean, but judicious, cultivated, and grand, with no equal among his Senatorial opponents. He might do much in violation of the constitution, but still refrain from destroying it Completely. His ability to exercise moderation and magnanimity often impressed his enemies, and to this day, many historians believe that he had no settled plan to take over Rome. Undoubtedly he could give ilome orderly government, which was Preferable to lawless turbulence. On the Other side there was no one capable of doing as much. Moreover, Caesar was allied with Pc'n'iPey whom Cicero trusted. His faith in Pompey was misplaced, but it had a reasonable foundation in personal respect and Pompey's pledges. As long as Caesar and Pompey looked for his support, Cicero believed that he could influence What hey did: 'I make no concessions to P)._ornpey]; I seek to make him better . . . What if I can make [Caesar] better also . . . • a medicine which will cure the diseased Parts of the state is better than the surgery which would amputate them." But once Caesar crossed the Rubicon, r'icero doPI-1-1 that Caesar would stop at nothing short of tyranny and refused to go along further. He joined Pompey in the war against Caesar though he "disliked the men" in Pompey's camp because, as always, wherever he saw a hope of salvaging something, he used any allies at hand as best he could. Antony, however, he had always considered a brigand wholly deaf to decent appeals; when Antony replaced Caesar, Cicero spoke his defiance from the outset as eloquently and sharply as he could with considerable effect, just as he had done early in his career against Sulla's "massacres by advertisement." And Cicero's Philippics earned him the assassination he expected.

Both these briefs can be argued from Shackleton Bailey's book. But neither is the view that shapes his account, though he does not impose his judgment on the reader. Shackleton Bailey sees Cicero as a man of integrity who lacked the " intellectual ruthelessness " to defend his beliefs under strong attack. What linked Cicero to Pompey, he says, was the "basic sympathy that is apt to exist between two mental atmospheres, containing a high percentage of fog." As Cicero had never auestioned or analysed the traditional ideas he accepted, he was easily distracted by side issues, and saw evefything from " ever-shifting angles." Cicero is best appreciated, Shackleton Bailey concludes, as "the vivid, versatile, gay, infinitely conversable being who captivated his society. . ."

This grossly underestimates Cicero's intellectual distinction, and reflects Shackleton Bailey's disposition to confuse understanding politics with having "a mission to society" as a programme for action. He does not recognise what Cicero achieved in the account he gave of an association of free men under law in his De Republica and De Legibus. Certainly there seems to be, as Shackleton Bailey says, "something fluid at the core of Cicero's personality." Intellectual weakness 'is not a plausible explanation.

Nor is it to be explained by moral scrupulousness which is commonly thought to disable intellectuals in politics. Cicero's difficulties were not due to any conflict between morality and expediency. The belief that there is such a conflict, that a politician has to choose between being virtuous or a success, is based on confusion.

A politician, just as all men, is engaged in Moral conduct. Having chosen to devote himself to politics, he is obliged to do his work well. He therefore had a duty to be an effective politician. Honesty and courage, along with a readiness to accommodate to others are as desirable in politics as elsewhere. So also are steadfastness of purpose and a willingness to fight if necessary. Of course a decent man will in all his activities, prefer truthfulness to deceit and persuasion to force. But if he refuses to dissimulate or fight when faced with an implacable enemy, he is at least making a mistake in judgment, or else being cowardly or neglecting his duties.

Even in private life, one may be obliged to lie. For moral conduct is always a matter of choosing and weighing appropriate considerations. Only the considerations that a politician must take into account differ from those of a private man. Cicero cannot be excused for his dissimulation simply because he was a politician. It may have been neither necessary nor even helpful for honourable political purposes. But neither would have been a better man if he had categorically refused ever to deceive. A private person may be free to choose sainthood or martyrdom and so give honesty and peace pre-eminence at all costs. Such options are closed to a man who enters politics because no one may decide for others that they should be saints or martyrs. A politician, having engaged himself to decide for others, may therefore be obliged to use force or fraud in public life when as a private person he would be disposed to turn the other cheek.

Whether Cicero is found to have been a good man depends on how we judge his motives — whether he dissimulated or shifted his allegiance with honourable political intentions. This would still leave open the question of whether he was effective. But it is as difficult to judge his effectiveness as his motives. Had Cato been readier to recognise the dangers that Cicero foresaw, together they might have achieved what Cicero hoped for. In any case, Cicero's efforts may have considerably delayed and possibly qualified the destruction of the Republic. If nevertheless one accepts that there was "something fluid at the core" of his personality, it is perhaps best explained by a more subtle and common moral weakness than ignoble motives — a reluctance to face difficult decisions and a disposition to escape making unwelcome choices by dwelling on more comfortable and unimportant questions. '

But whatever one decides about Cicero, reflecting on his life makes it evident that the right political choice cannot be conclusively established. It does not follow that we must refrain from ever condemning a decision. It does mean that the art of political deliberation requires" courage to decide without assurance of being right. And any conviction about what is right should. be tempered by an awareness that even after the event, reasonable observers may reasonably disagree about how well a politician did. For those who cannot bear such uncertainty, moral catechisms and manuals of political science will no doubt continue to supply ready answers. But anyone content with learning to understand the complexities in making political choices would do well to read Shackleton Bailey's Cicero.