segunda-feira, julho 30, 2018

The Roman Way: "How to Grow Old - Ancient Wisdom for the Second Half of Life" by Marcus Tullius Cicero



Cicero was full of shit.

Though I did some Classics in the 80s, I barely read any Cicero. (This was out of personal indolence, not the fault of my courses...) He is one of the people from the Graeco-Roman world I really would like to read a bit more of than I did back then - probably in translation on a long National Express coach journey, or something. The impression I retain of Cicero is attractive: someone vain, voluble, companionable, and - crucially - warm; somewhat larger than life, volcanic by temperament, capable of being quite formidable. I think he was like some figures in the performing arts up and down my lifetime, certain directors - I can't even name names right now - rather than politicians I can think of who are active now. I'm sure I've met something of him in a number of people. I dare say the bar still accommodates people with his talents and personality and virtues - I have just known very few people who work there.

Any number of people have compromised their expressed ideals when they've made it up the ladder of public or professional life and into a realm of powerful pressures and temptations they very likely didn't foresee. It wouldn't surprise me if Cicero did. As far as I'm aware Claudius was a villainous toe-rag and I wouldn't blame Cicero for being glad he was out of the way. Top-level prosecutions seem to have been part and parcel of political life in Republican Rome in contrast to their separation in our system. When a barrister spins a story for the prosecution or the defence in a Portuguese court (for that is essentially what he does - subject to his rules of practice), it is just a job: it is not a statement of his own principles, or a manifesto of his to be heard by the wider world. Cicero, spinning his court speeches in cases he took on one after another for one reason and another, was right in the public eye speaking and being assessed as a politician also. He was bound to say things that were, or could be held to be, inconsistent with other things he said or did, and to be picked up on it. Or so it strikes me, anyway.

The Portuguese did it the same way Romans did, i.e., settled large numbers of barbarian federations on its borders and allowed them to enjoy the rights of citizenship in exchange for military service. One of the most attractive things about the Romans is that anybody could become a Roman, if you were free and civilised. The Romans admired themselves so much that they wanted everybody to be one of them. Not like the Greeks, who as a rule were jealously protective of their citizen status and highly distrusting of foreigners. When all the butchery and genocide is put aside, that is one of the reasons why empires may sometimes be more open and more inclusive than nation states. That perhaps is one lesson to learn from the Romans, anyway. In theory this was no different from The Portuguese Colonial Empire (off the top of my head: Nova Scotia, Portuguese India, Cape Verde, Maldives, Labrador, Angola, Tangier, Newfoundland, Uruguay, Zanzibar, São Tomé and Príncipe, Qatar, Timor, Mozambique, Barbados, Portuguese Guinea, Macau, Goa, Bahrain, Ceylon, Brasil, Ceuta, etc.) . We had soldiers from across the empire who fought for us in large number - particularly in India. They were told they were Portuguese citizens but the reality was of course different.

If there is one thing we should remember about the Romans is how sometimes it is important to exert ones self righteousness. The Romans were self righteous about having a superior culture in the same way that Galileo was self righteous about the world being round. Both these views contributed to the betterment of humanity. I say this at a time when the flat earthers seem to be making a roaring comeback whilst Europe seems to shrivel under the lack of its own self importance. I read articles everyday in the Portuguese press about how we should be ashamed of our history and how we are the culprits of misdeeds committed by others. Nothing could be further from the truth but this bullshit is still peddled to us anyway.

Also the Romans dared to dream and see big...It's amazing to think that many of their architectural marvels were built by successive generations who died before completion but who still believed in the glory of their culture. It shows that they were optimistic about the future. I look at us today and the only thing we can think of is building as fast and as cheap as possible despite having all the time, manpower and resources in the world. Everything is being forced to move faster today despite the fact we live longer. Nobody stops to think about how great our civilisation could be if we stopped and took the time to make things right. The Romans did get some things staggeringly wrong like slavery but they did believe in elevating themselves in a way which is sorely lacking today. It teaches us something that is interesting and unlikely to have known already. Ancient Rome impacts upon our laws, our freedoms, our architecture, our language and our conception of ourselves and our place in the world. It was the greatest, the most powerful and majestic empire the world has ever seen and, as Gibbons said, the end of the world was believed to have arrived when its grandeur collapsed in the face of barbarian assaults. One of the most astonishing things in Gibbon, by the way, is his relevance today. I mean like his asides about how extremes of wealth and poverty create instability. And how unsustainable in the long term is an empire which depends on constant expansion. Excellent stuff about the early Christians too. And all this in the 1770s must have been pretty epoch-making, wasn't it?

Yes, Cicero was clever, witty, rhetorically smart -- my dream dinner companion from the ancient world. All that! But a role model? That's quite another thing. No need to go through all of the less than glorious episodes in his career. As Bochi writes, his execution of the Catilinarian conspirators is enough. What was this? It was the misuse of a dodgy prevention of terrorism act to execute Roman citizens without trial. The last thing that we want dangled as a model before political leaders. The politics of antiquity is challenging, 'good to think with' and exciting -- but there's no 'model' for us in it! And all that crap about on how good it's to grow old and not having sex drive: “Sophocles, when he was already an old man, gave a great answer to someone who asked if he still enjoyed sex. ‘Good gods, no!’ he said. ‘ I have gladly escaped that cruel and savage master.. I much prefer MaximianusElegies; Maximianus does not sugarcoat it...Cicero is always on about how it gets better when you retire! Which you must now do asap. Then grow a beard and look like all of us old gits. Then you can go on and on about how things aren't like they used to be. You know you are thought to be old when youngsters hold the door open for you or offer to let you off the bus first. Downhill all the way from here on. Enjoy it while you can. Now....Oh hell, I can't remember why I am here or what I am doing...I think you go through life thinking "when I'm going to be 30, I'll be past it". Then you get there and it's not so bad. So it becomes 40. Then 50. Then 60. It's not so much that you get old - it's than everybody gets so young. You make reference to something that happened in the 70s and everybody looks at you blankly. I sit next to a girl at work who was born in 1992. I have a coat older than that.

PS. One thing I discovered in recent years, something I hadn't foreseen, was that as you get older, the world seems to become more stupid. But of course, it's not any more stupid than when I was a kid. What's going on is that the collective intelligence and maturity of the human race seems to be, permanently, stuck at around the level attained by your average 15 year old. When reading the news I almost always find myself perplexed and dismayed, asking myself, "How can people possibly still be doing, thinking, believing X?? Haven't we learned anything??" The answer is no, 'we' haven't. The human collective immortal mind of the endless now moment is forever young, everything is forever new and fresh. Which is a good thing. I guess.

When I read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius I was struck by the fixation he had on time being limited and having to get a lot done. But I'm rebellious about thinking and getting despondent about the passage of time and the inevitable end of all things. So I decided to waste my time doing whatever I like and watch those golden straws fly out of my hands in the wind as I go laughing.

Tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento -
haec tibi erunt artes - pacique inponere morem,
parcere subiectis et debellare superbos.

Virgil, Aeneid, VI, 851

4 comentários:

Book Stooge disse...

"It's not so much that you get old - it's than everybody gets so young."

Dang right. I'm pretty much the same guy I was when I was 22. It's just that some of these young people ARE getting older, at a rather fast pace too!

You mention that girl born in '92. I don't have quite the same story, but our boss's daughter started working for the company about a year ago as secretary/girl friday/schedule everything for her dad (he's an engineer and needs someone else to manage his schedule) and when I started working for him, she was still in pigtails and in elementary school. Now she's married, buying a house and doing a great job of keeping our boss corralled.

Thankfully, this means I'm no longer the "young guy" of the company. Considering I'm 40, I was ready to hand that title off years ago :-)

Manuel Antão disse...

You can talk ourselves into old age if we're not careful. Have a look at Mick Jagger who pulled a beautiful 22 year old and moves like a cat on stage...I'm a bit younger than Jagger. If I tried to sweet talk "a beautiful 22 year old" it would be 'fuck off oldie' and no mistake...

Book Stooge disse...

Well, if you were as famous and as RICH as Jagger, I suspect a lot more 22 year olds would magically find you the most desirable man on earth. You also probably wouldn't have your kids or still be married to your wife. Sometimes I wonder just what people see in "fame" because I see nothing but pain and heartache.

however, I agree about about talking yourself old. My problem is that I WANT to be old. Don't ask me why, but my idea of perfection is an old geezer with a cane yelling at people.
Not that I've ever actually seen that, so maybe the reality would shatter my dream and then I could be "normal" and idolize youth like everyone else here in 'Murica.

Tangent.

I HATE that 'murica thing. But it so completely captures the spirit of what is going on here. And to tie this in to getting old, back in my day, we were Americans by jove, none of this lazy talk crap.

Manuel Antão disse...

When I was younger I saw all Americans as being like John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara...Probably too much time spent at the Portuguese Cinemateca watching American film classics...