The Life of Cicero, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter xiv.

Cicero’s Religion.

I should hardly have thought it necessary to devote a chapter of my book to the religion of a pagan, had I not, while studying Cicero’s life, found that I was not dealing with a pagan’s mind. The mind of the Roman who so lived as to cause his life to be written in after-times was at this period, in most instances, nearly a blank as to any ideas of a God. Horace is one who in his writing speaks much of himself. Ovid does so still more constantly. They are both full of allusions to “the gods.” They are both aware that it is a good thing to speak with respect of the national worship, and that the orders of the Emperor will be best obeyed by believers. “Dis te minorem quod geris, imperas,” says Horace, when, in obedience probably to Augustus, he tells his fellow-citizens that they are forgetting their duties in their unwillingness to pay for the repairs of the temples. “Superi, quorum sumus omnia,” says Ovid, thinking it well to show in one of his writings, which he sent home from his banishment, that he still entertained the fashionable creed. But they did not believe. It was at that time the fashion to pretend a light belief, in order that those below might live as though they believed, and might induce an absolute belief in the women and the children. It was not well that the temple of the gods should fall into ruins. It was not well that the augurs, who were gentlemen of high family, should go for nothing. Cæsar himself was the high-priest, and thought much of the position, but he certainly was bound by no priestcraft. A religious belief was not expected from a gentleman. Religious ceremonies had gradually sunk so low in the world’s esteem that the Roman nobility had come to think of their gods as things to swear by, or things to amuse them, or things from which, if times were bad with them, some doubtful assistance might perchance come. In dealing with ordinary pagans of those days religion may be laid altogether on one side. I remember no passage in Livy or Tacitus indicating a religious belief.

But with Cicero my mind is full of such; and they are of a nature to make me feel that had he lived a hundred years later I should have suspected him of some hidden knowledge of Christ’s teachings. M. Renan has reminded us of Cicero’s dislike to the Jews. He could not learn from the Jews — though the Jew, indeed, had much that he could teach him. The religion which he required was far from the selfishness of either Jew or Roman. He believed in eternity, in the immortality of the soul, in virtue for the sake of its reward hereafter, in the omnipotence of God, the performance of his duty to his neighbors, in conscience, and in honesty. “Certum esse in cælo definitum locum, ubi beati ævo sempiterno fruantur.”1 “There is certainly a place in heaven where the blessed shall enjoy eternal life.” Can St. Paul have expressed with more clearness his belief as to a heaven? Earlier in his career he expresses in language less definite, but still sufficiently clear, his ideas as to another world: “An vero tam parvi animi videamur esse omnes, qui in republica, atque in his vitæ periculis laboribusque versamur, ut, quum, usque ad extremum spatium, nullum tranquillum atque otiosum spiritum duxerimus, vobiscum simul moritura omnia arbitremur?”2 “Are we all of us so poor in spirit as to think that after toiling for our country and ourselves — though we have not had one moment of ease here upon earth — when we die all things shall die with us?” And when he did go it should be to that glory for which virtue shall have trained him. “Neque te sermonibus vulgi dederis, nec in præmis humanis spem posueris rerum tuarum; suis te oportet illecebris ipsa virtus trahat ad verum decus.”3 “You shall put your hope neither in man’s opinion nor in human rewards; but Virtue itself by her own charms shall lead you the way to true glory.” He thus tells us his idea of God’s omnipotence: “Quam vim animum esse dicunt mundi, eamdemque esse mentem sapientiamque perfectam; quem Deum appellant.”4 “This force they call the soul of the world, and, looking on it as perfect in intelligence and wisdom, they name it their God.” And again he says, speaking of God’s care, “Quis enim potest — quam existimet a deo se curari — non et dies, et noctes divinum numen horrere?”5 “Who is there, when he thinks that a God is taking care of him, shall not live day and night in awe of his divine majesty?” As to man’s duty to his neighbor, a subject as to which Pagans before and even after the time of Cicero seem to have had but vague ideas, the treatise De Officiis is full of it, as indeed is the whole course of his life. “Omne officium, quod ad conjunctionem hominum et ad societatem tuendam valet, anteponendum est illi officio, quod cognitione et scientia continetur.”6 “All duty which tends to protect the society of man with men is to be preferred to that of which science is the simple object.” His belief in a conscience is shown in the law he lays down against suicide: “Vetat enim dominans ille in nobis deus, injussu hinc nos suo demigrare.”7 “That God within us forbids us to depart hence without his permission.” As to justice, I need give no quotation from his works as proof of that virtue which all his works have been written to uphold.

This pagan had his ideas of God’s governance of men, and of man’s required obedience to his God, so specially implanted in his heart, that he who undertakes to write his life should not pass it by unnoticed. To us our religion has come as a thing to believe, though taking too often the form of a stern duty. We have had it from our fathers and our mothers; and though it has been given to us by perhaps indifferent hands, still it has been given. It has been there with all its written laws, a thing to live by — if we choose. Rich and poor, the majority of us know at any rate the Lord’s Prayer, and most of us have repeated it regularly during our lives. There are not many of us who have not learned that they are deterred by something beyond the law from stealing, from murder, from committing adultery. All Rome and all Romans knew nothing of any such obligation, unless it might be that some few, like Cicero, found it out from the recesses of their own souls. He found it out, certainly. “Suis te oportet illecebris ipsa virtus trahat ad verum decus.” “Virtue itself by its own charms shall lead you the way to true glory.” The words to us seem to be quite commonplace. There is not a curate who might not put them into a sermon. But in Cicero’s time they were new, and hitherto untaught. There was the old Greek philosopher’s idea that the [Greek: to kalon]— the thing of beauty — was to be found in virtue, and that it would make a man altogether happy if he got a hold of it. But there was no God connected with it, no future life, no prospect sufficient to redeem a man from the fear of death. It was leather and prunella, that, from first to last. The man had to die and go, melancholy, across the Styx. But Cicero was the first to tell his brother Romans of an intelligible heaven. “Certum esse in cælo definitum locum ubi beati ævo sempiterno fruantur.” “There is certainly a place in heaven where the blessed shall enjoy eternal life.” And then how nearly he had realized that doctrine which tells us that we should do unto others as we would they should do unto us — the very pith and marrow and inside meaning of Christ’s teaching, by adapting which we have become human, by neglecting which we revert to paganism. When we look back upon the world without this law, we see nothing good in it, in spite of individual greatness and national honor. But Cicero had found it. —“That brotherhood between men, that agreement as to what may be useful to all, and that general love for the human race!”8 It is all contained in these few words, but if anything be wanted to explain at length our duty to our neighbors it will be found there on reference to this passage. How different has been the world before that law was given to us and since! Even the existence of that law, though it be not obeyed, has softened the hearts of men.

If, as some think, it be the purport of Christ’s religion to teach men to live after a godlike fashion rather than to worship God after a peculiar form, then may we be allowed to say that Cicero was almost a Christian, even before the coming of Christ. If, as some think, an eternity of improved existence for all is to be looked for by the disciples of Christ, rather than a heaven of glory for the few and for the many, a hell that never shall be mitigated, then had Cicero anticipated much of Christ’s doctrine. That he should have approached the mystical portion of our religion it would of course be absurd to suppose. But a belief in that mystical part is not essential for forming the conduct of men. The divine birth, and the doctrine of the Trinity, and the Lord’s Supper, are not necessary to teach a man to live with his brother men on terms of forbearance and brotherly love. You shall live with a man from year’s end to year’s end, and shall not know his creed unless he tell you, or that you see him performing the acts of his worship; but you cannot live with him, and not know whether he live in accordance with Christ’s teaching. And so it was with Cicero. Read his works through from the beginning to the end, and you shall feel that you are living with a man whom you might accompany across the village green to church, should he be kind enough to stay with you over the Sunday. The urbanity, the softness, the humanity, the sweetness are all there. But you shall not find it to be so with Cæsar, or Lucretius, or with Virgil. When you read his philosophical treatises it is as though you were discussing with some latter-day scholar the theories of Plato or of Epicurus. He does not talk of them as though he believed in them for his soul’s guidance, nor do you expect it. All the interest that you have in the conversation would be lost were you to find such faith as that. You would avoid the man, as a pagan. The Stoic doctrine would so shock you, when brought out for real wear, as to make you feel yourself in the company of some mad Atheist — with a man for whose welfare, early or late in life, church bells had never been rung. But with a man who has his Plato simply by heart you can spend the long summer day in sweet conversation. So it is with Cicero. You lie down with him looking out upon the sea at Comæ, or sit with him beneath the plane-tree of Crassus, and listen while he tells you of this doctrine and the other. So Arcesilas may be supposed to have said, and so Carneades laid down the law. It was that and no more. But when he tells you of the place assigned to you in heaven, and how you are to win it, then he is in earnest.

We care in general but little for any teacher of religion who has not struggled to live up to his own teaching. Cicero has told us of his ideas of the Godhead, and has given us his theory as to those deeds by which a man may hope to achieve the heaven in which that God will reward with everlasting life those who have deserved such bliss. Love of country comes first with him. It behooves, at any rate, a man to be true to his country from first to last. And honesty and honor come next — that “honestum” which carries him to something beyond the mere integrity of the well-conducted tradesmen. Then family affection; then friendship; and then that constant love for our fellow-creatures which teaches us to do unto others as we would they should do unto us. Running through these there are a dozen smaller virtues, but each so mingled with the other as to have failed in obtaining a separate place — dignity, manliness, truth, mercy, long-suffering, forgiveness, and humanity.

Try him by these all round and see how he will come out of the fire. He so loved his country that we may say that he lived for it entirely; that from the first moment in which he began to study as a boy in Rome the great profession of an advocate, to the last in which he gave his throat to his murderers, there was not a moment in which his heart did not throb for it.

In the defence of Amerinus and in the prosecution of Verres, his object was to stop the proscriptions, to shame the bench, and to punish the plunderers of the provinces. In driving out Catiline the same strong feeling governed him. It was the same in Cilicia. The same patriotism drove him to follow Pompey to the seat of war. The same filled him with almost youthful energy when the final battle for the Republic came. It has been said of him that he began life as a Liberal in attacking Sulla, and that afterward he became a Conservative when he gained the Consulship; that he opposed Cæsar, and then flattered him, and then rejoiced at his death. I think that they who have so accused him have hardly striven to read his character amidst the changes of the time. A Conservative he was always; but he wished to see that the things around him were worth conserving. He was always opposed to Cæsar, whose genius and whose spirit were opposed to his own. But in order that something of the Republic might be preserved, it became necessary to bear with Cæsar. For himself he would take nothing from Cæsar, except permission to breathe Italian air. He flattered him, as was the Roman custom. He had to do that, or his presence would have been impossible — and he could always do something by his presence. As far as love of country went, which among virtues stood the first with him, he was pure and great. There was not a moment in his career in which the feeling was not in his heart — mixed indeed with personal ambition, as must be necessary, for how shall a man show his love for his country except by his desire to stand high in its counsels? To be called “Pater Patriæ” by Cato was to his ears the sweetest music he had ever heard.

Let us compare his honesty with that of the times in which he lived. All the high rewards of the State were at his command, and he might so have taken them as to have been safer, firmer, more powerful, by taking them; but he took nothing. No gorgeous wealth from a Roman province stuck to his hands. We think of our Cavendishes, our Howards, and our Stanleys, and feel that there is nothing in such honesty as this. But the Cavendishes, the Howards, and the Stanleys of those days robbed with unblushing pertinacity. Cæsar robbed so much that he put himself above all question of honesty. Where did he, who had been so greatly in debt before he went to Spain, get the million with which he bribed his adherents? Cicero neither bought nor sold. Twenty little stories have been told of him, not one with a grain of enduring truth to justify one of them. He borrowed, and he always paid; he lent, but was not always repaid. With such a voice to sell as his, a voice which carried with it the verdict of either guilt or innocence, what payments would it not have been worth the while of a Roman nobleman to make to him? No such payments, as far as we can tell, were ever made. He took a present of books from his friend Poetus, and asked another friend what “Cincius” would say to it? Men struggling to find him out, and not understanding his little joke, have said, “Lo! he has been paid for his work. He defended Poetus, and Poetus gave him books.” “Did he defend Poetus?” you ask. “We surmise so, because he gave him books,” they reply. I say that at any rate the fault should be brought home against him before it is implied from chance passages in his own letters.

Cicero’s affection for his family gives us an entirely unfamiliar insight into Roman manners. There is a softness, a tenderness, an eagerness about it, such as would give a grace to the life of some English nobleman who had his heart garnered up for him at home, though his spirit was at work for his country. But we do not expect this from the Pompeys and Cæsars and Catos of Rome, perhaps because we do not know them as we know Cicero. It is odd, however, that we should have no word of love for his boys, as to Pompey; no word of love for his daughter, as to Cæsar. But Cicero’s love for his wife, his brother, his son, his nephew, especially for his daughter, was unbounded. All offences on their part he could forgive, till there came his wife’s supposed dishonesty, which was not to be forgiven. The ribaldry of Dio Cassius has polluted the story of his regard for Tullia; but in truth we know nothing sweeter in the records of great men, nothing which touches us more, than the profundity of his grief. His readiness to forgive his brother and to forgive his nephew, his anxiety to take them back to his affections, his inability to live without them, tell of his tenderness.

His friendship for Atticus was of the same calibre. It was of that nature that it could not only bear hard words but could occasionally give them without fear of a breach. Can any man read the records of this long affection without wishing that he might be blessed with such a friendship? As to that love of our fellow-creatures which comes not from personal liking for them, but from that kindness of heart toward all mankind which has been the fruit to us of Christ’s teaching, that desire to do unto others as they should do unto us, his whole life is an example. When Quæstor in Sicily, his chief duty was to send home corn. He did send it home, but so that he hurt none of those in Sicily by whom it was supplied. In his letter to his brother as to his government of Asia Minor, the lessons which he teaches are to the same effect. When he was in Cilicia, it was the same from first to last. He would not take a penny from the poor provincials — not even what he might have taken by law. “Non modo non fænum, sed ne ligna quidem!” Where did he get the idea that it was a good thing not to torment the poor wretches that were subjected to his power? Why was it that he took such an unRoman pleasure in making the people happy?

Cicero, no doubt, was a pagan, and in accordance with the rules prevailing in such matters it would be necessary to describe him of that religion, if his religion be brought under discussion. But he has not written as pagans wrote, nor did he act as they acted. The educated intelligence of the Roman world had come to repudiate their gods, and to create for itself a belief — in nothing. It was easier for a thoughtful man, and pleasanter for a thoughtless, to believe in nothing, than in Jupiter and Juno, in Venus and in Mars. But when there came a man of intellect so excellent as to find, when rejecting the gods of his country, that there existed for him the necessity of a real God, and to recognize it as a fact that the intercourse of man with man demanded it, we must not, in recording the facts of his life, pass over his religion as though it were simple chance. Christ came to us, and we do not need another teacher. Christ came to us so perfected in manhood as to be free from blemish. Cicero did not come at all as a teacher. He never recognized the possibility of teaching men a religion, or probably the necessity. But he did see the way to so much of the truth as to perceive that there was a heaven; that the way to it must be found in good deeds here on earth; and that the good deeds required of him would be kindness to others. Therefore I have written this final chapter on his religion.

1 De Republica, lib. vi. It is useless to give the chapters, as the treatise, being fragmentary, is differently divided in different editions.

2 Ad Archiam, ca. xii.

3 De Republica, lib. vi.

4 Academica, 2, lib. i., ca. vii.

5 Academica, 1, lib. ii., ca. xxxviii.

6 De Officiis, lib. i., ca. xliv.

7 Tusc. Disputationes, lib. i., ca. xxx.

8 De Finibus, lib. v., ca. xxiii.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:43