Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


It is at a time when, in France, the fine arts are in a state of decline; in an age of paradox, and amidst the degradation and persecution of literature and philosophy, that an attempt is made to tarnish the name of Cicero. And who is the man who thus endeavors to throw disgrace upon his memory? It is one who lends his services in defence of persons accused like himself; it is an advocate, who has studied eloquence under that great master; it is a citizen who appears to be, like Cicero, animated by devotion to the public good.

In a book entitled “Navigable Canals,” a book abounding in grand and patriotic rather than practical views, we feel no small astonishment at finding the following philippic against Cicero, who was never concerned in digging canals:

“The most glorious trait in the history of Cicero is the destruction of Catiline’s conspiracy, which, regarded in its true light, produced little sensation at Rome, except in consequence of his affecting to give it importance. The danger existed much more in his discourses than in the affair itself. It was an enterprise of debauchees which it was easy to disconcert. Neither the principal nor the accomplices had taken the slightest measure to insure the success of their guilty attempt. There was nothing astonishing in this singular matter but the blustering which attended all the proceedings of the consul, and the facility with which he was permitted to sacrifice to his self-love so many scions of illustrious families.

“Besides, the life of Cicero abounds in traits of meanness. His eloquence was as venal as his soul was pusillanimous. If his tongue was not guided by interest it was guided by fear or hope. The desire of obtaining partisans led him to the tribune, to defend, without a blush, men more dishonorable, and incalculably more dangerous, than Catiline. His clients were nearly all miscreants, and, by a singular exercise of divine justice, he at last met death from the hands of one of those wretches whom his skill had extricated from the fangs of human justice.”

We answer that, “regarded in its true light,” the conspiracy of Catiline excited at Rome somewhat more than a “slight sensation.” It plunged her into the greatest disturbance and danger. It was terminated only by a battle so bloody that there is no example of equal carnage, and scarcely any of equal valor. All the soldiers of Catiline, after having killed half of the army of Petrius, were killed, to the last man. Catiline perished, covered with wounds, upon a heap of the slain; and all were found with their countenances sternly glaring upon the enemy. This was not an enterprise so wonderfully easy as to be disconcerted. Cæsar encouraged it; Cæsar learned from it to conspire on a future day more successfully against his country.

“Cicero defended, without a blush, men more dishonorable, and incalculably more dangerous than Catiline!” Was this when he defended in the tribune Sicily against Verres, and the Roman republic against Antony? Was it when he exhorted the clemency of Cæsar in favor of Ligarius and King Deiotarus? or when he obtained the right of citizenship for the poet Archias? or when, in his exquisite oration for the Manilian law, he obtained every Roman suffrage on behalf of the great Pompey?

He pleaded for Milo, the murderer of Clodius; but Clodius had deserved the tragical end he met with by his outrages. Clodius had been involved in the conspiracy of Catiline; Clodius was his mortal enemy. He had irritated Rome against him, and had punished him for having saved Rome. Milo was his friend.

What! is it in our time that any one ventures to assert that God punished Cicero for having defended a military tribune called Popilius Lena, and that divine vengeance made this same Popilius Lena the instrument of his assassination? No one knows whether Popilius Lena was guilty of the crime of which he was acquitted, after Cicero’s defence of him upon his trial; but all know that the monster was guilty of the most horrible ingratitude, the most infamous avarice, and the most detestable cruelty to obtain the money of three wretches like himself. It was reserved for our times to hold up the assassination of Cicero as an act of divine justice. The triumvirs would not have dared to do it. Every age, before the present, has detested and deplored the manner of his death.

Cicero is reproached with too frequently boasting that he had saved Rome, and with being too fond of glory. But his enemies endeavored to stain his glory. A tyrannical faction condemned him to exile, and razed his house, because he had preserved every house in Rome from the flames which Catiline had prepared for them. Men are permitted and even bound to boast of their services, when they meet with forgetfulness or ingratitude, and more particularly when they are converted into crimes.

Scipio is still admired for having answered his accusers in these words: “This is the anniversary of the day on which I vanquished Hannibal; let us go and return thanks to the gods.” The whole assembly followed him to the Capitol, and our hearts follow him thither also, as we read the passage in history; though, after all, it would have been better to have delivered in his accounts than to extricate himself from the attack by a bon mot.

Cicero, in the same manner, excited the admiration of the Roman people when, on the day in which his consulship expired, being obliged to take the customary oaths, and preparing to address the people as was usual, he was hindered by the tribune Matellus, who was desirous of insulting him. Cicero had begun with these words: “I swear,”— the tribune interrupted him, and declared that he would not suffer him to make a speech. A great murmuring was heard. Cicero paused a moment, and elevating his full and melodious voice, he exclaimed, as a short substitute for his intended speech, “I swear that I have saved the country.” The assembly cried out with delight and enthusiasm, “We swear that he has spoken the truth.” That moment was the most brilliant of his life. This is the true way of loving glory. I do not know where I have read these unknown verses:

Romains, j’aime la gloire, et ne veux point m’en taire

Des travaux des humains c’est le digne salaire,

Ce n’est qu’en vous qu’il la faut acheter;

Qui n’ose la vouloir, n’ose la mériter.

Romans, I own that glory I regard

Of human toil the only just reward;

Placed in your hands the immortal guerdon lies,

And he will ne’er deserve who slights the prize.

Can we despise Cicero if we consider his conduct in his government of Cilicia, which was then one of the most important provinces of the Roman Empire, in consequence of its contiguity to Syria and the Parthian Empire. Laodicea, one of the most beautiful cities of the East, was the capital of it. This province was then as flourishing as it is at the present day degraded under the government of the Turks, who never had a Cicero.

He begins by protecting Ariobarzanes, king of Cappadocia, and he refuses the presents which that king desires to make him. The Parthians come and attack Antioch in a state of perfect peace. Cicero hastily marches towards it, comes up with the Parthians by forced marches at Mount Taurus, routs them, pursues them in their retreat, and Arsaces, their general, is slain, with a part of his army.

Thence he rushes on Pendenissum, the capital of a country in alliance with the Parthians, and takes it, and the province is reduced to submission. He instantly directs his forces against the tribes of people called Tiburanians, and defeats them, and his troops confer on him the title of Imperator, which he preserved all his life. He would have obtained the honors of a triumph at Rome if he had not been opposed by Cato, who induced the senate merely to decree public rejoicings and thanks to the gods, when, in fact, they were due to Cicero.

If we picture to ourselves the equity and disinterestedness of Cicero in his government; his activity, his affability — two virtues so rarely compatible; the benefits which he accumulated upon the people over whom he was an absolute sovereign; it will be extremely difficult to withhold from such a man our esteem.

If we reflect that this is the same man who first introduced philosophy into Rome; that his “Tusculan Questions,” and his book “On the Nature of the Gods,” are the two noblest works that ever were written by mere human wisdom, and that his treatise, “De Officiis,” is the most useful one that we possess in morals; we shall find it still more difficult to despise Cicero. We pity those who do not read him; we pity still more those who refuse to do him justice.

To the French detractor we may well oppose the lines of the Spanish Martial, in his epigram against Antony (book v., epig. 69, v. 7):

Quid prosunt sacræ pretiosa silentia linguae?

Incipient omnes pro Cicerone loqui.

Why still his tongue with vengeance weak.

For Cicero all the world will speak!

See, likewise, what is said by Juvenal (sat. iv., v. 244):

Roma patrem patriae Ciceronem libera dixit.

Freed Rome, him father of his country called.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01