On Life and Death
Translated by John Davie.
Oxford University Press, 2017.
Paper, 261 pages, $17.
The fresh hardcovers of such works as On Old Age on bookstore shelves indicate that Cicero is in vogue nowadays. Perhaps a statesman and philosopher who witnessed the fall of republican government in Rome and fought against both the chaos of strongman demagoguery and radical populism has something to say to our times.
This slim but very full volume—full in the sense both of thought and scholarly notes—consists of Tusculan Disputations, popular with medieval Christendom because of its views on immortality, On Old Age, and On Friendship. Cicero wrote these works in 45 and 44 BC, the years of Caesar’s victory over the republicans and his subsequent assassination. Having always opposed Caesar, but pardoned by him, Cicero was fooled by Octavius into thinking he also was against Antony. He was not, and in 43 Cicero was executed as part of the proscriptions of the Triumvirate. Editor Miriam T. Griffin (Somerville College, Oxford) writes, “He showed great courage in the face of death, as befitted a philosopher and a Roman.”
This courage, a great part of which was due to traditional Roman training, was also due to Cicero’s devotion to the study of philosophy. What strikes a contemporary reader is how much the Romans believed philosophy to have something to do with life. How often does one read the word “virtue” in a modern book of philosophy not by Alasdair Macintyre? It peppers these pages of Cicero in a way that shocks moderns, liberal or conservative, though less so to the latter perhaps, at least up until recently.
Cicero tells his readers to be rulers of themselves, that philosophy is the medicine of the soul—his lost work, Hortensius, enraptured St. Augustine—that life is like a fair and philosophers the observers of the fair.
Here, in a quote from On Old Age through the character of Cato the Elder, is why Cicero met death with courage:
I have lived in such a way that I think I was not born in vain; and I take my leave from life as if it were an inn, not my home: for nature has given it to us as a hostelry in which to break our journey, not a permanent residence. O glorious day, when I shall set out to join that divine gathering of assembled souls, and leave behind this swirling mass of impurity!
Frank Freeman writes from Saco, Maine.