In Search of Cicero

In Search of Cicero

A Classical Education, part two.

I turned to the Harper’s Dictionary last week to read up on Cicero, prompted by some passages I’d marked in the pages of Michael Massing’s Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind, an immense book that I had begun reading in April 2018, soon after its publication. In that initial encounter, I was taken with Massing’s ambitious attempt to examine two animating principles of the post-medieval epoch, embodied in the figures at the center of his work, whose intellectual and spiritual exertions he chronicles in alternating chapters. “Their rivalry,” Massing asserts in his introduction,

represented the clash of not just two intellectuals but also of two worldviews—the humanist, embracing the common bonds of humanity and the diversity of cultures and viewpoints within it, and the evangelical, stressing God’s majesty and Christ’s divinity and insisting that all recognize those truths as supreme and incontestable.

“The conflict between Erasmus and Luther,” he continues, “marks a key passage in Western thinking. . . . The struggle between them continues to shape Western society.” Massing elucidates that struggle with admirable attention to the various contexts that informed it, enlivening his considerable scholarship into often abstruse ideas with a sense of personal inquiry that’s shared through the poise and deftness of his prose. As I mentioned, I found the book captivating when I first picked it up, but I got distracted after the first hundred pages, and left it to occupy an admonitory and handsome (the hardcover is a model of trade book design) place on my “reading in progress” shelf, where it might have sat forever were it not for aspirational urges provoked by the isolating distances of the pandemic.

In short, I picked it up again, and, in an uncharacteristic fit of punctiliousness, reread the first hundred pages to refresh my mind and to gain momentum for the 700 that follow, about half of which I’ve now traversed with relish: Massing’s mix of historical, biographical, spiritual, and philosophical investigation sets off sparks of recognition that illuminate the kind of ideal classroom our intellects pine for with a curious nostalgia. Several of the brightest sparks were struck, in the early part of the book at least, by the name which led me to open the Harper’s Dictionary: Cicero.

“As a boy,” Massing writes of Francesco Petrarch, who, in the fourteenth century, would orchestrate the rediscovery of ancient music—viz., the classical works of literature, philosophy, rhetoric, and history that had been lost for centuries—into the first stirrings of the Renaissance, “he had become enamored of Cicero and, through him, of Roman literature.” That infatuation grew into a mission as the young poet matured:

By recovering the cultural heritage of antiquity, Petrarch hoped to nudge his own society onto a new path, and he began amassing a library of ancient poets and philosophers. In this period before the birth of printing, such works were available only in manuscript form and so were difficult to find. When foreign visitors appeared at the Colonna Palace [at the Papal Court in Avignon, the city in which Petrarch spent much of his life], Petrarch urged them to seek out volumes by Cicero upon their return home. He sent similar appeals to France, Germany, Spain, and Tuscany, thus creating a network of hunters for rare books.

In 1333, traveling through Europe, Petrarch stopped in the Belgian city of Liège to explore an ecclesiastical library famous for its holdings. There, Massing relates, the manuscript scout made his first great find: two orations by Cicero that were completely new to him. One was especially enticing to Petrarch: Pro Archia, Cicero’s defense of the poet Archias against charges he’d falsely claimed Roman citizenship. Massing writes that Petrarch found compelling Cicero’s extolling of poetry’s value in promoting the grand deeds—and the larger-than-life ambitions—of generals and statesmen. But, as Massing also notes, a quieter kind of achievement, less heroic but more broadly applicable, was also celebrated in Pro Archia: de studiis humanitatis—humanist studies.

Cicero used the term to refer to all the liberal arts that students needed to realize their full potential as human beings and to participate fully in the life of the community. This suggested a much broader approach to education and culture than that provided by the knotty manuals of the medieval schoolroom or the convoluted exercises of the Scholastic doctors.

While Petrarch was first inspired by Cicero’s noble stature and public eloquence, his discovery in Verona, twelve years after finding Pro Archia in Liège, of a codex of the Roman’s letters to his friend Atticus offered a different portrait of his hero, one that, in the casual candor of its self-exposure, was less than flattering. And yet, as Massing relates, the more time he spent in the company of this flawed and complex character, so often compromised by politics and circumstance, “the more Petrarch came to admire him.”

Written in colloquial yet engaging Latin, his letters offered an inside look at his efforts to cope with the chaos engulfing the Roman republic as it slid toward dictatorship. No less engaging were Cicero’s observations about daily life—the books he read, the dinner parties he attended, the delight he took in his country villas, and, finally, the grief he felt over the death of his beloved daughter, Tullia. . . . Petrarch came to see him as not simply a spokesman for the classical past but a real person driven by fears, ambitions, and appetites.

Cicero’s emotional dimensions, uncovered in his letters, gave a different cast, more concentrated and somehow endlessly contemporary, to de studiis humanitatis. The most universal of the feelings they encompassed—those evoked by death, pain, grief, perturbations of the mind, the pursuit of always elusive, often illusive happiness—were given more careful scrutiny by Cicero in his Tusculan Disputations, written two years before his death while he mourned his daughter and pondered his own faded public glory in private humility. These philosophic dialogues, Harper’s Dictionary tells us, bear “most strongly on the practice of life, and [involve] topics the most essential to human happiness”—matters of meaning that the logical rigor of the Scholastics, for all its majesty, could never comprehend, since it left no room for the true variables human beings calibrate as they course from uncertainty to knowledge and back again, day by day (which, among other things, gives faith its true context). A catechism never fits an organism.

Literature, as Petrarch learned from Cicero’s letters, accommodates itself to the human scale with the force, if not of revelation, then of understanding. And philosophy, as Cicero learned from his own life and the death of his daughter, is the husbandry of experience rather than its cataloguing; in the second of the Tusculan Disputations, “On Bearing Pain,” he plants the seed that will grow into our idea of “culture,” coining the phrase cultura animi—cultivation of the soul—to describe the philosophic undertaking. It suits the humanistic one as well.


More of A Classical Education:

1: An Ancient Dictionary

3: Composing a Life

4: Lost Learning

5: An Exchange of Gifts

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