“O tempora! O mores!” That’s what Marcus Tullius Cicero famously lamented in an oration attacking one political foe. Delivered over two millennia ago, we feel the spirit of this phrase today, conveyed with different words: “Oh the times! Oh the customs!”
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We inwardly search for constancy while still yearning for change; it is a perennial paradox. Cicero met an unhappy demise for his unrelenting defense of the Republic, but his ideas have weathered time’s brutal test. Given today’s ongoing political debates, what is past is instructive.
Consider Cicero’s advice to a younger brother, Quintus Tullius, who was planning a nascent election campaign. Touting his brother’s standing as a political outsider, Cicero bluntly declared, “Politics is full of deceit, treachery and betrayal.”
Concerning life in Rome itself, he also warned “Our city is a cesspool of humanity, a place of deceits, plots, and vice of every imaginable kind. Amid such a swirl of evil, it takes a remarkable man with sound judgment and great skill to avoid stumbling, gossip and betrayal.”
Despite the gloom, Cicero viewed that uncertain darkness of his own time as a crucible for character, rather than an inescapable prison. What temperament would produce a better leader?
He wrote, “The best way for a man to gain authority over others and maintain it is through genuine affection. The worst way, however, is through fear.” He added, “Whoever tries to govern a country through fear is quite mad.”
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Cicero asserted otherwise by writing, “Therefore remember what is true always and everywhere and what is the strongest support of prosperity and power, namely that kindness is stronger than fear. That is the best rule for governing a country and for leading one’s life.”
Before his own assassination, Cicero mourned for a Rome set adrift from its founding ideals, decrying how “Our country survives only in words, not anything of substance. We have lost it all. We have only ourselves to blame.”
While Emperor Augustus ushered in the Pax Romana, prosperity had its price. He completely remade the patria, even commissioning poet Virgil to pen an epic tale. The result reframed Roman identity as a continuation of that ancient Troy made famous by Homer’s Iliad. Today, Latin language survives in the minds of classics scholars worldwide and at Catholic Mass.
The Roman story reflects identity struggles that we face today. News pundits dictate what we should think, and we may nod in agreement because what we hear seems to make a lot of sense.
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“The government wants to take our guns,” we sometimes hear. Yet have we read the Second Amendment jurisprudence or studied its history ourselves? Do we know that for a fact, or do we depend upon legal experts and television show hosts to tell us everything that we need to know?
To participate in democracy, citizens should inform and be informed, while reserving their own independent judgments. They shouldn’t blindly believe all they read nor heed all they may hear.
Hamlet’s Polonius asserts:
This above all— To thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
We must be what America means. More than words, that is how we make it even greater.
Submitted by Jason Bowns