Cicero: The Original Perpetual Politician

Cicero: The Original Perpetual Politician

A glimpse into how separation private and public for politicians has never existed

Cicero the orator, Cicero the historian, Cicero the philosopher, Cicero the epistolarian: Cicero periodically switches literary hats while retaining his characteristic long-winded, ornate style. Regardless of his literary hat, he writes to inform his audience, defend himself and his ideas, and persuade others that he and his ideas are superiority. Particularly in his epistles, Cicero best shows how he does not prescribe to the conventional casual and friendly nature of letter writing, but rather uses his letters to manipulate the opinions of those he addresses. Although he does not intend to publish the letters, the rhetorician composes in his usual literary style, but adds more unapologetic veracity to his letters. Cicero does not subscribe to traditional informal and formal conventions, but maintains a consistent voice and style throughout his writing. Pliny, however, despite his intention to publish his letters, decides to focus on what he says rather than how he says it. Opting for the arguably more traditional letter writing style, Pliny uses simple constructions and less of a political agenda. In ad Atticum 1.13.4, Cicero abuses Atticus’s friend – Pompey, who presents different accounts of Cicero’s character publicly and privately – by employing praeteritio, a crescendo of clauses, and anaphora, demonstrating that his masterful command of language remains even in insults.

Cicero qualifies his assertion about Pompey’s character by using praeteritio to maintain a good public image while hinting at his true opinion. After concluding that Pompey envies Cicero, he writes “nihil come, nihil simplex, nihil ἐν τοῖς πολιτικοῖς inlustre, nihil honestum, nihil forte, nihil liberum” (Cicero 1.13.4). This anaphoric statement clearly denounces several virtues of Pompey that Cicero values. The parallel structure that the anaphora creates shows how Cicero places equal importance on each characteristic. In the following line, Cicero writes “sed haec ad te scribam alias subtilius”, which means that he will discuss these characteristics at a later time because he does not have enough information to formulate his opinion and does not trust the messenger (Cicero 1.13.4). Cicero wants Atticus to digest his conjecture and eventually realize a similar opinion without taking offense. By disregarding the importance of the insult he just made, Cicero effectively pushes his political agenda forth. Even if Atticus never comes to the same conclusion that Cicero has, Cicero provided a safety net by exuding a casual attitude about the matter. Cicero frequently employs praeteritio as he did here for the same purpose; Cicero wants to either persuade others to believe or qualify his opinions until he determines whether or not he will accomplish his political agenda. Cicero seems to write not only to convince people to trust his opinions, but also to convince people to trust him. Pliny, Cicero’s contemporary, also wrote a series of letters, but stylistically they differ in how Pliny’s concerns are less about the political happenings of the day and how to transform people’s political opinions, but more about general philosophical ideas. Pliny does not employ praeteritio to the extent that Cicero does, instead choosing to use letter writing as a method of self-promotion. Pliny always intended to publish his letters, which contributes to the style with which he wrote them. Whereas Cicero thoughtfully worked to create beautiful insults that he qualified, Pliny glossed up his simple writing with complex vocabulary, but avoided controversial topics or gossip in favor of promoting himself.

Cicero uses simple, clear, and accessible vocabulary coupled with complex sentence structure to sarcastically poke fun at Pompey’s failed deception. Cicero’s simplistic vocabulary ensures that his point is clear while complex structure remains a part of his trademark style. While describing how Pompey treats him publically, Cicero pens “Tuus autem ille amicus (scin quem dicam?), de quo tu ad me scripsisti, postea quam non auderet reprehendere, laudare coepisse, nos, ut ostendit admodum diligit, amplectitur, amat, aperte laudat, occulte sed ita ut perspicuum sit invidet” (Cicero 1.13.4). The vocabulary in that sentence is not particularly unusual, but the nested clauses add a degree of complexity, mirroring the meaning that Cicero tries to convey. Cicero wants to show that Pompey’s feelings towards him are simple, but that Pompey expresses them in a complex manner because he presents a different countenance in public than he does in private. Pliny’s style relies heavily on the use of complex vocabulary and simplistic structure. Pliny’s terse style overflows with complex vocabulary that does not work to mirror what he says, but rather acts as a way to flaunt scholarship. Cicero seems comfortable, confident, and competent as he writes whereas Pliny writes for publication, promotion, and self-glorification.

Cicero works his writing to imbue his intended audience, Atticus in particular, with his own brand of political doctrine. Cicero does not separate his work from his personal life, choosing to strive for a positive reputation, regardless of whom he speaks to. Cicero opts to write even what can be considered casual discourse between friends in his traditional, complex style to inspire, amuse, entertain, persuade, and manipulate, in other words, ensnare. Cicero understands that words ensnare the person and pushes his own political agenda through his word choice. While Pliny decides to write in an aesthetic fashion, he misunderstands how to write aesthetically. Pliny writes by using words that are more complex, but these do not necessarily convey his meaning most efficiently, similar to how many college students consult a thesaurus when writing their works. While occasion and intention certainly contribute to stylistic differences, Cicero’s prose ends up making insults sound like compliments whereas Pliny fails to artfully articulate what he means both by using words and constructions.

Cover Image Credit: Wealthy Retirement

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