Citanda: What We Can Learn From Cicero

An excerpt in medias res from a lengthy item in Forbes:

“Afghanistan is not lost, but for several years it has moved backwards. There’s no imminent threat of the government being overthrown, but the Taliban has gained momentum. Al-Qaida has not reemerged in Afghanistan in the same numbers as before 9/11, but they retain their safe havens along the border. And our forces lack the full support they need to effectively train and partner with Afghan security forces and better secure the population. Our new commander in Afghanistan–General McChrystal–has reported that the security situation is more serious than he anticipated. In short: The status quo is not sustainable. As cadets, you volunteered for service during this time of danger.”

Even the best of the speech is lackluster. Now turn to Cicero’s Philippics, as translated by the wartime code breaker DR Shackleton Bailey 30 years ago, and published late last year by Loeb. Though much is long, and embedded with subclauses, vivid phrases abound:

“Why, then am I against peace? Because it is dishonorable, because it is dangerous, because it is impossible.” [108 characters]

“Is anything more dishonorable not only to individuals but especially to the entire senate than inconsistency, irresponsibility, fickleness? [139]

“I am not against peace, but I dread war camouflaged as peace.” [61]

“Therefore, if we wish to enjoy peace, we must wage war; if we fail to wage war, peace we will never enjoy.” [106]

The point is not that President Obama should have given a Ciceronian speech, but that when examined by the extreme limits of tweeting, the supposed enemy of writing, Cicero shows us that the art and power of prose lies not so much in the words but in their arrangement. It is not for naught, then, that Harris recommends every British politician read the Philippics and be obliged to recite a passage aloud “to understand how great speeches are made.”

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