Composing a Life

Composing a Life

A Classical Education, part three.

I worked on translating the Tusculan Disputations, part of it at least, in my junior year in high school, as part of a somewhat ill-starred school-wide embrace of independent study. While I can’t recall the exact curricular sanction for my work on Cicero’s philosophical treatise, it was like Mr. DaParma to set that reflective text rather than the more dramatic orations—those delivered to prosecute the corruption of Verres, for example, or against Catiline and his conspirators—that had won their author his public fame, or the politically-minded dialogues—De Republica and De Legibus chief among them—that have marked him through the ages as an esteemed theorist of liberty and government.

I don’t remember much of the content of what I translated, frankly, other than a general sense of the case they made for equanimity in the face of life’s sorrows and afflictions. But I do remember, almost viscerally, the satisfaction I felt in navigating the unfolding meaning of Cicero’s periodic sentences, in which semantic recognition is held in abeyance while smaller units of meaning are integrated into larger structure and sequence, with grammatical consummation—the predicate!—coming at the end. How buoyed I was by the momentum of translating from phrase to phrase as I made my way through the carefully arrayed clauses, the challenge and reward—the intellectual, maybe even spiritual, engagement—of the exercise. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but the lessons I felt my way through handling those words and thoughts, ordering them in my notebook to mirror as correctly as I could the progression of the original inspiration through its etiquette of inflection, did as much to shape my stance toward the world as anything I’ve ever studied. Good teachers intuit their students’ wants even when those needs lie beyond—or, in my case, deep within—expression.

The lure of the complex sentence, with its orchestration of imagery and cadence in the service of ideas articulating their own discovery, has endured across times and literatures, but it was in Latin that I first fell under its spell. In the accumulating expressiveness of Latin clauses I realized that words had their own wisdom, a magic that empowered the mind to shape and explore an invisible realm that could shadow and measure the material world, or weave that world’s resources into story, history, knowledge, art. I somehow sensed, while parsing the periodic sentence, that I had gained admission to the school of eloquence, where I still, with diminished discipline, do my best to study.

In another classroom, down the high school hall from Mr. DaParma’s, I was being taught another standard, courtesy of my English instructors and that ubiquitous, effective guide to writing they championed: Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, the pervasive influence of which has, in my contrarian view, done a good deal to strip the very element its title celebrates from American prose (which is not to say their handbook isn’t handy indeed for fledgling writers; it would just be better labeled as “The Elements of Lucidity,” a different matter entirely). What it lacks in lucidity, the periodic makes up for in apprehensive dexterity: it fosters elaboration of thought, intricacy of argument, rumination along parallel tracks or tributary channels, equivocation and complexity. It breaks the stranglehold on imagination the declarative sentence can impose, the unfounded confidence that things are what they seem, that truth is singular and without shading, subtlety, and its own compelling contradictions. Banishing foraging thought from its syntax, the simple declarative sentence all too often reduces expression to an unshakable belief in the primacy of simple explanations; in conversational terms, it’s the equivalent of someone dismissing another’s turpitude with the words, “Well, he made a lot of money.”

Of course, even in the classical era the plain style was not a stranger to Latin: “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres,” begins Julius Caesar’s commentary on the Gallic War, slicing up, with commanding precision, his military objective into three parts. Caesar’s prose was praised by both Cicero and, according to his Fordham Preparatory School Hall of Honor citation, Mr. DaParma, who “once announced that members of an entire class would be achieving grades in the 90s if they spent half as much time on Sunday afternoon studying Caesar’s War Commentaries as they did watching the New York Giants.” Nevertheless, as I choose to remember him, C.W.D. was more likely spending his own Sundays reading the Tusculan Disputations, which Cicero was composing in literary exile around the time Caesar was penning a succinct campaign update on the war against the Pontians to the Roman Senate: “Veni, vidi, vici.” This was a guy who got things done; in contrast, Cicero wrote about them. Despite the achievements of his illustrious public career, his most profound legacy would be the art of expression through which he extended the reach of Latin across future generations, and future minds, with a durability battles lacked.

“The Latin language,” Harper’s Dictionary tells us,

is comparatively weak, scanty, and unmusical, and requires considerable skill and management to render it expressive and graceful. . . . From the vagueness and uncertainty of meaning which characterize its separate words, to be perspicuous it must be full. . . . Latin, in short, is not a philosophical language; not a language in which a deep thinker is likely to express himself with purity or neatness. Now Cicero rather made a language than a style, yet not so much by the invention as by the combination of words. . . . [H]is great art lies in the application of existing materials, in convert¬ing the very disadvantages of the language into beauties, in enriching it with circumlocutions and metaphors, in pruning it of harsh and uncouth expressions, and in systematizing the structure of a sentence.

Substitute “life” for “Latin language,” and you can begin to imagine what Petrarch discovered in Cicero’s letters and in the meditations on the emotions that animate the Tusculan Disputations: in these works, the author’s art lies in his attention to life’s existing materials, in converting the very disadvantages of living into beauties and mysteries worth pondering, in pruning his mediations of harsh and uncouth feelings, in structuring consciousness in sentences to stand up to the tides of time. “The greatest master of composition the world has ever seen,” Harper’s Dictionary concludes; if that remains remotely true today, it’s because Cicero taught by example how to compose oneself in words.
The nineteenth-century Scottish academic William Minto, in A Manual of English Prose Literature: Biographical and Critical, Designed Mainly to Show Characteristics of Style, describes the effect of the periodic structure as “to keep the mind in a state of uniform or increasing tension until the dénouement.” That’s also a perfect characterization of our human effort to make meaning in the shadow of mortality, as Cicero set himself to do in the Tusculan Disputations.


More of A Classical Education:

1: An Ancient Dictionary

2: In Search of Cicero

4: Lost Learning

5: An Exchange of Gifts

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