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More rare than athletes who have played both baseball and football in the major leagues are individuals who have achieved great distinction in both politics and philosophy, the vocations that Aristotle deemed most choiceworthy. Marcus Tullius Cicero, however, would hold a place of honor on any list of political and philosophical superstars. If he had never risen to eminence as a Roman orator, senator, and consul, he still would be remembered for his contributions to the great Greco-Roman synthesis at the base of Western civilization. And if he had never written on philosophy, he still would be honored for his courageous efforts to preserve the rule of law in the last years of the Roman Republic.

Cicero shared Aristotle’s view that statesmanship and the pursuit of knowledge were the highest callings for those who have the talent to pursue them. But he parted company with the author of the Politics on which was the superior choice. A true Roman, he never lost his desire for public honor and never relinquished his conviction that a life of public service was “the course that has always been followed by the best men.”

No philosophical discourse is so fine, he maintained, “that it deserves to be set above the public law and customs of a well-ordered state.” Following Aristotle, he held that moral excellence is a matter of practice, but it seemed evident to him that its most ­important field of practice was in the government of the state. Philosophers, he said, spin theories about justice, decency, restraint, and fortitude, but statesmen are the ones who must actually set the conditions to foster the virtues that are necessary to a well-functioning polity. “There can be no doubt,” he maintained, “that the statesman’s life is more admirable and more illustrious, even though some people think that a life passed quietly in the study of the highest arts is happier.”

Cicero’s ideal statesman was the man whose actions are illuminated by philosophy, by which he meant mainly ethics and political theory. The best statesman of all, at least for Rome, would be someone steeped in the city’s history, someone who combined civilized values with “intimate knowledge of Roman institutions and traditions and the theoretical knowledge for which we are indebted to the Greeks.” In other words, someone like Marcus Tullius Cicero.

Although philosophy, as he told his son, was “indispensable to everyone who proposes to have a good career,” it was always, for Cicero, a handmaiden to politics. Even philosophers, he said, have an obligation to concern themselves with public affairs, not only out of civic duty, but also for the sake of philosophy itself, which requires certain conditions to flourish.

In times when he was excluded from political life or overcome with personal sorrow, Cicero plunged into his philosophical studies with prodigious energy. On those occasions, he could not help casting a glance down the path not taken. “Now that power has passed to three uncontrolled individuals,” he wrote to his friend Atticus during the Triumvirate of Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus, “I am eager to devote all my attention to philosophy. I only wish I had done it from the outset.” And in his dialogue De Republica, the main protagonist muses, “Of what value, pray, is your human glory, which can barely last for a tiny part of a single year? If you wish to look higher . . . you will not put yourself at the mercy of the masses’ gossip nor measure your long-term destiny by the rewards you get from men. Goodness herself must draw you on by her own enticements to true glory . . . . In no case does a person’s reputation last for ever; it fades with the death of the speakers, and vanishes as posterity forgets.”

For an ambitious young man whose birth did not guarantee him entry into the circles of power, and who was not inclined toward a military career, the path to eminence lay through law and oratory. And the law courts were a proving ground. Cicero was the precocious firstborn son of a prosperous landowner in the country town of Arpinum, some seventy miles southeast of Rome. The family belonged to the class of equites, well-to-do farmers and merchants who increasingly aspired to political influence in the capital. According to Plutarch, young Marcus Tullius acquired a reputation for cleverness as soon as he began to have lessons”so much so that the fathers of other boys visited the school to hear him recite. When he was old enough to pursue higher studies, his father had sufficient wealth and connections to place the gifted boy with the best teachers in Rome.

There Cicero studied rhetoric, philosophy, and law. Rome was a bustling city of about four hundred thousand inhabitants and was full of distractions for a young man. But Cicero’s poor digestion discouraged excesses of food and drink, and, although he exercised for the sake of his health, he took no interest in games and sports. As for the company of courtesans, he wrote to a friend in later years that, “as you know, even in my youth, I was not attracted by this sort of thing.” What did excite his imagination was the idea of a life filled with honors. He took his motto from a line in the Iliad in which Glaucus recalls his father’s urging, “Always to be the best and far to excel all others.” By all accounts, however, young Cicero could not be called a nerd. He had a gift for friendship and was, according to Plutarch, “by natural temper very much disposed to mirth and pleasantry.”

Like many a law student today, he complained about the long hours he had to spend on material that often was less than interesting. What he preferred was visiting the law courts, where crowds flocked to see performances by the great orators of the day. He embarked on his own career as a lawyer in his mid-twenties. He enjoyed considerable success despite severe attacks of stage fright and a pedantic tendency that earned him the nicknames of “the Greek” and “the scholar.” Around this time”the date is uncertain”he married Terentia, a wealthy Roman woman whose dowry and family connections greatly aided his efforts to break into politics. Just when he seemed well advanced on his chosen path, however, his health broke down under the stress he had imposed on himself. As he later recounted:

I was at that time very slender and not strong in body, and such a constitution, combined with hard work and strain on the lungs, were thought to be almost life-threatening. When friends and doctors begged me to give up speaking in the courts, I felt I would run any risk rather than abandon my hope of fame as a speaker. I thought that by a more restrained and moderate use of the voice and a different way of speaking I could both avoid the danger and acquire more variety in my style. And so, when I had two years’ experience of taking cases and my name was already well-known in the Forum, I left Rome.

Cicero traveled to Greece and Rhodes. There, together with a group that included his younger brother Quintus and his friend Atticus, he studied with the most famous philosophers and orators of the day. When he returned to Rome two years later, he was, he said, “almost another man.” He had learned to control his voice, his style was improved, and his health was restored.

Now Cicero was ready to embark on the first stages of a political career. Within two years, he was elected a quaestor, an official position that gave him membership in the Senate. The quaestorship involved a tour of duty in Sicily, where he gained respect for his honesty and diligence. On his return to the capital, he quickly established a reputation as the most brilliant advocate in Rome, proving that his interlude in Greece and Rhodes had been well spent. The high point of his legal career was his victory over another celebrated orator, Hortensius, in a case in which Cicero successfully prosecuted one Gaius Verres for corruption in office while Verres was serving as a governor in Sicily. Cicero’s energy in gathering evidence, his wit and eloquence in argument, and his courage in exposing the misdeeds of a powerful man won him wide admiration. Centuries later, Edmund Burke took Cicero’s speech “Against Verres” as the model for his own prosecution of Warren Hastings for high crimes and misdemeanors as governor general of India.

At the age of forty-three, Cicero reached the summit of the Roman political hierarchy by securing election as a consul for the year 63 b.c. This was an extraordinary achievement for a man from a provincial family that never had produced any senators. During his term as consul (alongside a passive co-consul), he rendered what he regarded as his most important service to Rome by leading the suppression of the Catiline conspiracy, an attempted coup by a young aristocrat with a large popular following. In the course of restoring order, however, Cicero took a step that arguably violated his own principles as well as Roman traditions. He ordered five of the co-conspirators to be executed without trial. The executions had a semblance of legality, having been approved in advance by the Senate and justified as necessary to preserve public order in a time of emergency. But Cicero’s decision incurred for him the lasting enmity of Catiline’s supporters, among whom were some powerful men.

The stage was set for three patrician leaders—Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus—to seize power, styling themselves as champions of the people. In 60 b.c. they formed a triumvirate and began to reduce the power of the Senate, the consuls, and the tribunes. Cicero’s prestige was such that the three invited him to join them as a fourth, but he declined to join an arrangement so plainly unconstitutional. The Triumvirate, in turn, declined to support Cicero when cronies of Catiline took revenge by obtaining passage of a law, aimed at Cicero, that retroactively sentenced to death or exile anyone who had condemned a Roman citizen to death without trial. Cicero fled to Greece, his property was confiscated, and his fine home on the Palatine Hill was destroyed.

Pompey eventually pardoned Cicero and recalled him to Rome, but his opportunities for political expression under the Triumvirate were restricted. It was in this period that he wrote his dialogues De Republica and De Legibus, consciously modeled on the two Platonic dialogues he most admired. In the former, Cicero dismissed Plato’s ideal republic as imaginary and impractical and presented his own vision of the ideal state: the Roman state, based on an unwritten constitution developed over centuries through trial and experience, with gradual improvements made as a result of reflection on what had gone before. Unlike the laws of Greek cities, which were said to be the creations of legendary lawgivers such as Solon and Lycurgus, the Roman legal system was a collective achievement. It was “based upon the genius, not of one man, but of many; it was founded, not in one generation, but in a long period of several centuries and many ages of men.” Prudently, Cicero avoided any discussion of the current state of the regime; he confined himself to general expressions of regret for the vanished virtues and customs of former times.

That fruitful period of writing and reflection was brought to an end when the Triumvirate decreed that all qualified ex-officials who had not yet governed a province should do so. As a former consul, Cicero had no choice but to accept a foreign posting. To his annoyance, he was sent to remote Cilicia, in the southern part of present-day Turkey. He made the best of the situation, however, conscientiously applying himself to administrative tasks and consoling himself with the thought that the assignment was for one year only.

Meanwhile, Rome was edging toward civil war. Caesar and Pompey had fallen out, with Pompey aligning himself with the Senate and Caesar championing the cause of the people. Cicero had more personal regard for Caesar, with whom he shared intellectual interests, but he preferred Pompey as the one more likely to restore the Republic while avoiding open confrontation with his rival. When, two years later, Caesar emerged victorious, he once again solicited Cicero’s support. But Cicero still could not bring himself to cooperate in what he viewed as the destruction of republican institutions.

During Caesar’s dictatorship, Cicero continued with his literary work while keeping a low profile. He missed his old life, however. To one of his correspondents he complained, “Now that the Senate has been abolished and the courts annihilated, what work in keeping with my position is there for me to do either in the Senate or the Forum? Once I lived with great crowds around me, in the forefront of the Roman public eye. But now I shun the sight of the scoundrels who swarm on every side.” To his brother Quintus, Cicero gave vent to his feelings of regret and frustration:

I am tortured, dearest brother, tortured, by the fact that we no longer have a constitution in the state or justice in the courts, and that at my age, when I ought to be at the height of my influence in the Senate, I am distracted by legal work or sustained by private study. And the eager hope I have had since I was a boy—“Always to be the best and far to excel all others”—has been destroyed. Some of my enemies I could not attack, others I have defended. I am unable to give free rein to either my opinions or my hatreds.

Although Cicero did not participate in the conspiracy to assassinate Julius Caesar on the Ides of March in 44 b.c., he approved the coup as necessary. In the turmoil following that event, he emerged as a popular and widely respected elder statesman and was chosen as the spokesman for the Senate. With Mark Antony, the surviving consul, Cicero briefly was one of the two most powerful men in Rome. But when Caesar’s heir and adopted son, Octavian, began to challenge Antony, Cicero again was faced with a choice of which man to support when neither offered much hope for the preservation of republican institutions. The more Antony’s ambitions revealed themselves, the more Cicero came to regret that the assassins had not disposed of Antony as well as Caesar. But Octavian was an unknown quantity, a youth of nineteen. Eventually, Cicero sided with Octavian and began to whip up sentiment against Antony in a series of speeches known as his Philippics.

In a turn of events that proved fatal for Cicero, Octavian came to an understanding with Antony. As Plutarch recounts, “The young man, once established and possessed of the office of consul, bade Cicero farewell, and reconciling himself to Antony and Lepidus, joined his power with theirs and divided the government like a piece of property with them.” One of Antony’s first acts was to order that Cicero should be put to death. Cicero prepared to leave Rome, but he did not move quickly enough. He was hunted down, captured, and killed in December 43 b.c. His head and, by Antony’s order, the hands that wrote the Philippics were cut off and put on display in the Forum.

The rich trove of Cicero’s surviving letters—over 800 items, most of them never meant for publication—remains one of the most important sources of information about Roman life in the turbulent first century before Christ. Together with Cicero’s writings on politics, these letters also provide a ­fascinating glimpse of how this ambitious “new man” thought about many of the issues that young persons with political aspirations still ponder today.

How should I “package” myself for a career? Every autumn, a remarkable transformation takes place in American law schools as second- and third-year students ready themselves for the job market. As the fall foliage reaches the peak of color, the garb of future lawyers turns dark navy, charcoal gray, and basic black. The alterations in their clothing, hairstyles, and sometimes even teeth and noses can be so drastic as to make it difficult to recognize the young men and women one once knew. Occasionally, a boy or girl with a common surname like Smith or an unusual ethnic name will adopt a new name in time for it to appear on his or her diploma.

In Cicero’s case, many of his friends urged him to change his surname, which they regarded as insufficiently dignified for a rising politician. Apparently, the name derived from an ancestor who had a protuberance like a chickpea (cicer) on the end of his nose. It is some indication of young Marcus Tullius’ self-confidence that he brushed off his friends’ advice, declaring that he planned to make the name Cicero more famous than those of the celebrated statesman Scaurus (knobby ankles) and the military commander Catulus (puppy).

What Cicero did decide to change was his speaking style. It was not only the delicate state of his health but also a highly developed capacity for self-criticism that impelled him, after a promising start, to interrupt his legal career and devote two full years to refining his techniques and sharpening his intellect.

Politics is a dirty business. In late Republican Rome, as in present-day America, many of the most capable citizens declined to enter public life. Some did so out of disgust with the state of politics; others wished to take advantage of opportunities to live a private life in comfort and luxury. Epicurean philosophy, with its teaching that a wise man best preserves his freedom by avoiding involvement in public affairs, was much in vogue among members of Rome’s traditional ruling class. Cicero did not”indeed, could not”dispute those who claimed that the Roman public square was filled with corrupt characters. What he said to them was this: “What stronger reason could brave and high-minded men have for entering politics than the determination not to give in to the wicked, and not to allow the state to be torn apart by such people?”

Cicero’s closest friend, Atticus, was one who opted for a life in the private sphere. Atticus was the heir to a great fortune”a man whose wealth, intelligence, amiability, and lineage would have assured him easy entry into a political career. He was intensely interested in politics and astute enough to be a valued adviser to Cicero, but he remained aloof from personal involvement in the controversies of the day, describing himself as “a friend to all and ally to none.” He survived with wealth intact through the civil wars and changing regimes of Late Republican Rome. As an old man, he cited Cicero’s misfortunes as prime examples of the ingratitude, betrayals, and disappointments that an honest man was likely to meet in politics. For Cicero himself, however, if we can believe what he said in the preface to De Republica, all those disadvantages were outweighed by the honor and satisfaction of a life devoted to one’s country and one’s fellow men.

Is the life of a politician compatible with a satisfying private life? In Cicero’s case, the answer seems to have been yes, in the sense that the satisfactions and disappointments of his personal life were of the sort that anyone could experience, in or out of the public square. His three-decade marriage to Terentia seems not to have been particularly close and ended in divorce. His son Marcus was something of a ne’er-do-well, but Cicero did his best to be supportive of him. His greatest source of joy was his daughter Tullia (“in face, speech, and mind my very image”). Cicero delighted in her company and conversation and nearly went mad with grief when she died at age thirty from complications of childbirth. When that tragedy occurred, he sent away his second wife, Publilia, to whom he had been married only a few weeks, apparently because she did not share his anguish.

Cicero did lament the loneliness of a life lived in the public eye and depended heavily on his brother Quintus and his friend Atticus for counsel and companionship. Cicero’s letter to Atticus on an occasion when both confidants were away from Rome reminds one of Harry Truman’s famous saying, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog”:

There is nothing I need so much at the moment as the one man with whom I can share all the problems which cause me some concern, that affectionate and wise friend with whom I can converse without hypocrisy, pretence, or reserve. My brother is away, and where are you? I am so deserted by all that the only relaxation I have is spent with my wife, my dear daughter, and my darling son Cicero, for those self-seeking bogus friendships of mine exist in the bright light of public life, but they lack the rewards bestowed by my household. I go down to the Forum surrounded by droves of friends, but in the whole crowd I can find no one to whom I can make an unguarded joke or let out a friendly sigh.

Will I lose sight of my highest aims, betray my principles, even lose my soul as I strive to get and keep public office? Throughout his career Cicero agonized about these concerns that keep many of the most principled young men and women from entering politics today. He struggled constantly with whether, when, and how far to compromise for the sake of advancing his most cherished cause—the preservation of the traditional system that he called republican. In his essay De Officiis (“On Duties”) he pondered the difficulty of deciding what to do when apparent right clashes with apparent advantage. Some situations, he said, are perplexingly difficult to assess. Sometimes a course of action generally regarded as wrong turns out right. Sometimes a step that looks natural and right may turn out not to be right after all.

Following Aristotle, who taught that, in the realm of human affairs, one can know only partially, and, for the most part, Cicero says he belongs to the school of thought that requires one to seek the highest possible degree of probability, recognizing that the limitations inherent in political life make certainty impossible. The statesman, unlike the philosopher, must act, and he must act within the range of what is possible, aiming for the best while realizing that he must often settle for less.

Cicero’s career saw many changes of tack. These were viewed by some as prudent responses to shifts in the political environment and denounced by others as expedient, cowardly, or hypocritical. By his own account there were occasions when he failed to live up to his own publicly professed standards, and in private correspondence he often berated himself for falling short of his own ideals. But he never abandoned his efforts to preserve republican principles from the encroachments of dictatorship on the one hand and mob rule on the other. Often he did so at great personal risk. In the end, his opposition to Antony cost him his life.

Mary Ann Glendon, a member of the First Things editorial and advisory board, is the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University.

Image by Yair-haklai licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.