Monday, December 7, 2009

No, I Don't Like Cicero, And I'm Glad You Asked

On this day in 43 BC, Marcus Tullius Cicero was killed by his political opponents in the civil war which had been sparked the year before when Julius Caesar was assassinated and which pretty much came to an end a dozen years later when Caesar's appointed heir, Octavian, defeated Mark Anthony and Cleopatra on his way to becoming Augustus Caesar.

If only Cicero's killers had finished the job and managed to lose his voluminous writings as well.

Cicero has probably been hands-down the most popular of all the ancient Latin authors for most or all of the time between his time and ours. He was one of the most powerful politicians of his day, and a lawyer, and volumes and volumes of his speeches, political and legal, have been preserved, and volumes of his rhetorical and philosophical works, and still more volumes of his letters, and almost everybody thinks he's soooo brilliant, and it makes me sick! I prefer Ovid and Sallust and Horace and Livy and Caesar and practically any other ancient Latin. I am so over Cicero. I'd rather read Curtius Rufus! Not Nepos, though. I'm not insane. What a boring pedestrian ordinary mind Cicero had. Unfortunately, many thousands of pages of his writings survive today, while from the writings of many of his brilliant contemporaries only a volume or two has survived, or just a few sentences, or nothing at all.

A few other people -- not many -- have expressed the same opinion, or at least objected to an overemphasis upon Cicero as the pinnacle of Latin prose, to be meticulously studied and emulated. A large part of the literary part of what is now known as the Rennaissance consisted -- unfortunately -- of striving to write Latin the way Cicero did.

Nietzsche, as far as I can recall, did not mention Cicero in his writings at all, neither in his philosophical works nor in his letters nor in the philological works which proceeded his philosophical works. That's a very notable -- no, it's a downright strange omission for a 19th-century professor of philology. Nietzsche wasn't shy about denouncing literary figures generally regarded as heroes. In Götzen- Dämmerung,for example, he described Dante as "the hyena who composes poetry in graves," dismissed Zola's celebration of the working class as "the joy of stinking," called Carlyle's work "pessimism in the form of lunch coming back up" and dismissed a dozen others from the pantheon of Western Civ, from the ancient Roman Seneca down to his own time -- all in one paragraph!

So it wasn't shyness which kept Nietzsche from ripping Cicero a new one. I suspect it was simple boredom. Nietzsche does write, however, about how when he was a schoolboy how astonished his Latin teacher had been when he, the poorest student in the class, suddenly became the best, as soon as he came into contact with Sallust,and how his first contact with Horacewas equally inspiring.

For a man in Nietzsche's position, not mentioning Cicero at all actually says a lot. It says: enough already with this chump. There are better things to talk about.

PS, 20. October 2015: WRONG!! Nietzsche mentions Cicero positively in Jenseitz von Gut und Boese 247, citing him alongside Demosthenes as an ancient master of the period, a thing which Nietzsche says is unknown to his German audience: a passage meant to be read aloud, swelling twice to a crescendo and then fading again twice, all in one breath. So, once again, I am a Bozo. Sorry bout that. (I still don't like Cicero.)