Now that we have power again, I said goodbye to reading with a headlamp after dark, miserably cold temperatures, and no access to the Internet. This meant that I was able to re-watch Ralph Fiennes’ adaptation of Coriolanus and finally piece together some thoughts on Cicero’s On the Commonwealth.
I love Shakespeare. I didn’t really understand how much until the spring of 2011, when I took an English course in Jacobean Plays. Coriolanus was not on the list but instead we read Antony and Cleopatra. I read Coriolanus after having seen the adaptation later that year, and it really blew me away. Now, I’m thankful to Shakespeare for clearing up my muddled mind and enriching the task of reading On the Commonwealth for the first time.
An uninformed reader, someone like me during my first stabs at Cicero, easily grows frustrated with him and the work. It’s content is devistatingly scattered and often times missing, there are random infiltrations from the voices of later philosophers summarizing the empty space in the text. Cicero’s own voice mixes in haphazardly with his characters. To top it all off, Cicero doesn’t even claim that this is a work of original political theory. Rather, he claims it is an elaboration of the best Roman traditions, drawing heavily on an Aristotelian template.
But there are several dilemmas that Cicero poses for us in an explicitly realistic and political way that compel me to think again before I make sweeping judgments about the work. Cicero, writing in the first century BCE is concerned with the corruption of the Roman Empire and wishes to restore and preserve Rome. His elevation to the preserver of the state with the founder of the state makes this point clear enough.
Cicero’s vision of political education marks his departure from earlier philosophies of political education. The statesman is a man of superior virtue, natural ability, and love of glory. Unlike Aristotle, Cicero claims that the best of men are drawn to government through pride and desire for status: this is where Coriolanus comes into play.
Coriolanus is archetypal of the magnanimous man. He is the embodiment of excellence and knows it. He disdains the vulgarities of the common people and their tyrannical power in political matters. He serves the state for the good of the state and the formal preservation of its citizens while he privately despises them for their inability or unwillingness to aid the state. If we say that love of glory is equivalent to the pride that Coriolanus possess, I think that we miss something. Coriolanus is something less of an ideal statesman to be sure, but he does outline the paradox of superiority and service in a democratic society.
In what, if any case, is a great man free of mocking his inferiors if he depends on their votes? If he will not engage in flattery but does engage in service for a country, is that enough? Unlike Cicero, I do not know if the preservation of the commonwealth leads us to a path of security. I think that it shows an extraordinary paradox, even a mistaken similarity between the people and the state.