Tuesday, July 2, 2024

Cicero Knew How to Talk to Traitors. American Moderates Do Not.

Tapestry of Cicero by William Blake

“When, O Catiline, do you mean to cease abusing our patience?” (“Quō ūsque tandem abūtere, Catilīna, patientiā nostrā?”)
Such were the words of Marcus Tullius Cicero in 63 B.C.E., in the first of his four speeches against Catiline. Cicero was a Roman senator and consul, as well as a famous orator and scholar. Cataline, a Roman nobleman, started an armed uprising to seize control of Rome. His revolt failed when Cicero discovered the plot and suppressed it.

There Is a Time and Place for Invective

Cicero showed us how to talk to traitors. His speech was a model of the art of vituperation. Rather than launching childish personal attacks or crude insults, Cicero laid out Cataline’s crimes, showed why those crimes threatened the republic, and explained how Cataline threatened basic constitutional values. He attacked, criticized, and proved. That is the way to suppress evil men and women.

Cicero used the facts of Catiline’s rebellion to prove that he threatened Italy’s security. Cicero condemned Catline in vigorous, uncompromising, but relevant and pointed language. The best invective comes from reason. Reason was, in this case, accelerated by anger, but it was reason all the same. Cicero didn’t say that Cataline was evil: he proved it.

Cicero did not merely rant; on the contrary, he used the fact that Catiline threatened the nation’s security to prove that he was evil. He reviewed Catiline’s wicked deeds. He called for Catiline’s wickedness and calumny to end. Placing himself, step-by-step, on the moral high ground, Cicero reduced Catiline to disgrace.

As the Hebrew prophet writes, “there is nothing new under the sun.” Although your high school history course praised ancient Athens as the first democracy, the Founders of the United States of America’s largely copied the Roman Republic.

The Roman government had Assemblies, which represented the ordinary people, and a Senate, representing the upper classes. Both groups passed laws. Day-to-day administration at first fell to two consuls. Eventually, an Imperator (Latin for commander) became the chief ruler. Following that model, the United States Constitution established a House, a Senate, and the commander-in-chief. Contrary to what you might remember from history class, the Roman Republic never really died, not in the usual sense. Instead, as time went by, the Imperator grew in power, as the Assemblies and Senate shrank into subservience. And, in due course, the Imperator became like a king.

Perhaps all republics eventually break down into tyranny. My readers will recall that Patrick Henry warned us that this exact fate awaited the American Republic.

Did Patrick Henry Warn Us About Donald Trump?

Cicero Condemned Catiline’s Rebellion

Cicero’s arguments succeeded. Cataline’s rebellion was suppressed. He was exiled and his chief lieutenants were killed. So, to understand Cicero’s brilliant vituperation, let us return to Cicero’s thundering introduction:
“When, O Catiline, do you mean to cease abusing our patience? How long is that madness of yours still to mock us? When is there to be an end of that unbridled audacity of yours, swaggering about as it does now?”
“Thundering” is surely the right word. Cicero did not respond to Catiline with the milky condemnations that the United States’ constitutional leaders offered to Donald Trump after his unsuccessful January 6, 2001 insurrection. No, Cicero thundered: “abusing our patience,” “that madness of yours,” “unbridled audacity,” “swaggering!” That, dear Americans, is how you talk to a traitor: clearly, forcefully, fairly, and without hesitation. Although Cicero eventually criticized Catiline’s specific actions and philosophy, he began by condemning the rebel. He did not say, “on the one hand, Catiline believes this, but I, on the other hand, respectfully believe something else.” He said nothing like that. Catiline was destructive and disloyal. He was dangerous. Did Catiline deserve courtesy? Cicero offered him none.

Cicero Reviewed Specifics

Instead, Cicero lambasted Catiline. Cicero pointed out that he, Cicero, stood for the Republic’s safety, while Catiline revolted against it. He reviewed details of Catiline’s conspiracy. He directly challenged Catiline to deny the accusation:
“You shall now see that I watch far more actively for the safety than you do for the destruction of the republic. I say that you came the night before (I will say nothing obscurely) into the Scythe-dealers’ street, to the house of Marcus Lecca; that many of your accomplices in the same insanity and wickedness came here too. Do you dare to deny it? Why are you silent?”
I like that: “I will say nothing obscurely.” Still not sparing words: “the same insanity and wickedness.”

The Constitution Lives in Our Body

Barely taking time to catch his breath, Cicero amplified the threat of civil disorder. Cataline’s rebellion, he explained, could only lead to destruction and chaos. Deeds should be judged against values. Thus, Cicero immediately challenged Cataline’s patriotism and his loyalty to the constitution:
“O ye immortal gods, where on earth are we? in what city are we living? what constitution is ours? There are here,—here in our body, O conscript fathers, in this the most holy and dignified assembly of the whole world, men who meditate my death, and the death of all of us, and the destruction of this city, and of the whole world.” [italics added] 
Cicero did not talk about a constitution that existed as a yellow piece of paper moldering in an archive. Whereas the present-day defenders of the American republic speak in such polite, dignified tones, Cicero proudly proclaimed his values. Sparing no one’s feelings, he insisted that the Republic’s values were deep, religious, and spiritual. Cicero personalized the constitution. The Roman constitution was “here in our body.” The constitution was not merely a set of rules; it was the nation’s body. The legislature was not merely a form of government, it was “this most holy and dignified assembly of the whole world.” Never one to underestimate a threat, Cicero warned that Catiline’s violent conspiracy threatened death, “the destruction of the city,” and indeed, “of the whole world.” (When ancient Romans mentioned “the world,” they meant the areas controlled by Rome – the rest of the world was an irrelevant collection of barbarians.)

Catiline and the Big Picture

We should never direct invective at legitimate political disagreement. If, however, purely selfish reasons drive a traitor to attack a legitimate political system, invective should be the least of our responses. That is why, like the wise political speaker that he was, Cicero looked for the big picture. After blasting Catiline for a few more minutes, Cicero reminded the Senate that his rebellion had driven Catiline into disgrace and poverty. Still, more important than Catiline’s personal downfall was the nation’s welfare:
“I pass over the ruin of your fortune, which you know is hanging over you against the ides of the very next month; I come to those things which relate not to the infamy of your private vices, not to your domestic difficulties and baseness, but to the welfare of the republic and to the lives and safety of us all.” [italics added]
As Cicero’s no-holds-barred attack neared its end, he insisted, not just to Catiline, but to the entire assemblage, that the nation was their parent and that parents always deserve respect. What a powerful metaphor! The rebellion was no longer merely an insurrection or an attempt to change the government, no, to Cicero, it was “parricide:” 
“If your parents feared and hated you, and if you could by no means pacify them, you would, I think, depart somewhere out of their sight. Now, your country, which is the common parent of all of us, hates and fears you, and has no other opinion of you, than that you are meditating parricide in her case; and will you neither feel awe of her authority, nor deference for her judgment, nor fear of her power?”
Compare Cicero’s thundering (that is still the right word!) condemnation against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s pathetic criticism of Donald Trump’s January 6, 2021 insurrection. McConnell said:
“So, I believe protecting our constitutional order requires respecting the limits of our own power. It would be unfair and wrong to disenfranchise American voters and overrule the courts and the States on this extraordinarily thin basis.”
Talk about a yawner.

In contrast, Cicero showed how to conclude a vituperative speech:
“Then do you, O Jupiter … overwhelm all the enemies of good men, the foes of the republic, the robbers of Italy, men bound together by a treaty and infamous alliance of crimes, dead and alive, with eternal punishments.”
And that, dear readers, is how you talk to a traitor.

More speeches?

Unlike the milky, Greek-speaking character in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, the real-life Cicero was a bold politician who defended the Republic, always with words, often by violence, and rarely with consideration for his own safety. He was not always on the right side, but he was always dedicated. I would call that patriotism. What would you call it? 

Cicero's assassination 

I suppose that fate sometimes catches up with fearless people. Several years after Catiline’s rebellion, and after another rebellion (with which he sympathized!), Cicero encountered soldiers sent by Mark Antony. They stabbed and beheaded him. Cicero’s hands and head were nailed to the Roman Rostra. 

And so, after one rebellion too many, the Roman Republic gave way to a dictatorship. Various legislative assemblies continued to meet. They still heard speeches, recorded votes, and passed resolutions. For centuries to come, the Roman government still looked like a republic. But it wasn’t.

Will the same happen to United States of America? Could another Cicero slow the trend?

by William D. Harpine


PS: In this post, I am quoting from C. D. Yonge’s 1856 literal translation of Cicero’s speech. As with all ancient speeches, it is hard to know how precisely the published transcript reflects what Cicero said. Still, I think we can see Cicero’s point.

It seems that whenever Cicero got into political trouble, he went into exile and wrote books about rhetoric (the art of public speaking). Click on the "Canons of Rhetoric" link above, where I give a brief rundown of one of Cicero's many rhetorical theories. 

If you want to know more about vituperative rhetoric as a means to regulate power and social order, this book includes a terrific introduction by Valentina Arena

Copyright © 2024, William D.  Harpine

Image of Blake tapestry, public domain in the United States, via Wikimedia Commons
Image of Cicero's assassination, public domain in the United States, via Wikimedia Commons

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