Cicero and Cultural Confidence

By Gerald Therrien

Imagine that you are sitting in the great chamber of the Senate, and one Senator, in imitation of the Roman Cato, ends every speech demanding that “Russia Must Be Destroyed”. But soon another Senator, in imitation of the Roman Corculum, speaks that “Russia Must Be Saved”, because if Russia is destroyed, then the tragedy will not only be Russia, but it will be our nation that ends in tragedy, as our Republic will become an Empire.

“History and reality have proven that a nation which abandons or betrays its own history and culture cannot prosper, and is likely to end in tragedy.” (1)

The tragedy will be that we will have forgotten the good of our past, and we’ll no longer dream about the good of our future. Because we will no longer have confidence in our culture.

‘Cultural confidence’ also gives us a ‘moral compass’ that can be used to measure an idea. But some people say that you can’t measure an idea. Well no, you can’t ‘physically’ measure the size or shape or weight of an idea, but you can measure its ‘directionality’ – whether an idea could be a good one, or whether it could be a bad one.

Perhaps, we can look back in history to a time before the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire, and listen to someone named Cicero, who was trying to save Rome’s ‘cultural confidence’, and give to Romans, a dream of a different future.

To know the story of Cicero’s life, you should read Cynthia Chung’s lecture on ‘How to Conquer Tyranny and Avoid Tragedy’.

As a youth, Cicero didn’t study philosophy, but like other Romans, he studied rhetoric, and he mastered both forms, stoicism and scepticism. But later he would see the limits of rhetoric, that it was missing something – a moral compass – something that was needed to find ‘a kind of path for noble patriots leading to the gate of heaven’, and so he began studying philosophy, i.e. Plato.

Cicero saw the coming of civil war and feared the destruction of the Roman republic. Around 54 BC, he wrote two dialogues, the ‘Republic’ and the ‘Laws’. They were written both as theoretical works, as well as practical attempts to intervene in the present situation of Rome – to defend the Roman Republic’s constitution from the growing threat of dictatorship, and to address the degenerating state of Roman civil life. Only parts of these dialogues survive, except for the entire last part of book 6 of the ‘Republic’ – called ‘Scipio’s Dream’.

The setting for the ‘Dream of Scipio’ is two years BEFORE Scipio oversaw the destruction of Carthage.

Scipio’s Dream

Publius Cornelius Scipio was called ‘Africanus’ after he had concluded a peace with Carthage in 201 BC. He was also known for his love of Greek culture.

Africanus’ son, Publius Cornelius Scipio, was called ‘Publius’ and he would adopt the son of Lucius Aemilius Paullus Macedonicus who would be called Publius Cornelius ‘Scipio Aemilianus’. This ‘Scipio’ would command the Roman army that would end the third Punic war in 146 BC.

Africanus’ elder daughter married her cousin, Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica – called ‘Corculum’ (who debated against Cato)’, and Africanus’ younger daughter married Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, and they were the parents of the Gracchi brothers (Scipio’s cousins).

In book 6 of Cicero’s ‘Republic’, Scipio (Aemilianus) is recalling a time when he was in Africa and he met King Masinissa, who had been friends with his grandfather, Africanus, and they had talked far into the night about Africanus.

“Then, after going to bed, I sank into a deeper sleep than usual, for I was tired after my journey and had stayed up late. Now it happens from time to time that our thoughts and conversations give rise to something in our sleep … So, I suppose as a result of our talk, Africanus now appeared, in a form more familiar to me from his portrait than from what he was like in life.”

In this dream, Africanus tells Scipio what his future path would be, and like Socrates in the Phaedo dialogue, what the path for his soul should be :

“You will have to show our fatherland the light of your spirit, ability, and good sense … yet, to make you all the keener to defend the state, I want you to know this: for everyone who has saved and served his country and helped it to grow, a sure place is set aside in heaven where he may enjoy a life of eternal bliss. To that supreme god who rules the universe nothing (or at least nothing that happens on earth) is more welcome than those companies and communities of people linked together by justice that are called states. Their rulers and saviours set out from this place, and to this they return.”

And later in the dream, Scipio met his father, Paullus, and asked him,

“why do I linger on earth? Why do I not hurry here to join you?”

But his father answers that :

“Things are not like that. There is no possible way for you to come here, unless the god whose temple is this whole visible universe releases you from the bonds of the body. Human beings were born on condition that they should look after that sphere called earth which you see in the middle of this celestial space. A soul was given to them out of those eternal fires which you call stars and planets. Those bodies are round and spherical, animated by divine minds, and they complete their circuits and orbits with amazing speed. That is why you, Publius, and all loyal men must keep the soul in the custody of the body. You must not depart from human life until you receive the command from him who has given you that soul; otherwise you will be judged to have deserted the earthly post assigned to you by God.”

And Scipio said that when he beheld the whole universe from that point, everything seemed glorious and wonderful. And then Africanus would tell him that :

“Even if the children of future generations should want to hand on in their turn the praises of each one of us which they have heard from their fathers, nevertheless, owing to the floods and fires which at certain times will inevitably afflict the earth, we cannot achieve, I will not say eternal, but even long-lasting glory. And what difference does it make that you should be talked of among people still unborn when you were never mentioned by those who lived before your time—men who were not inferior in numbers and were certainly superior in character? Anyhow, of those who may come to hear our name none will manage to remember it for more than a year ….

“If, then, you abandon hope of returning to this place where great and eminent men have their full reward, of what value, pray, is your human glory which can barely last for a tiny part of a single year? If, therefore, you wish to look higher and to gaze upon this eternal home and habitation, you will not put yourself at the mercy of the masses’ gossip nor measure your long-term destiny by the rewards you get from men. Goodness herself must draw you on by her own enticements to true glory ….

And after Africanus had finished, Scipio would say that :

“But if, as you say, there is a kind of path for noble patriots leading to the gate of heaven, then, in view of the great reward you have set before me, I shall now press on with a much keener awareness.”

And Africanus replied that:

“By all means press on, and bear in mind that you are not mortal, but only that body of yours. You are not the person presented by your physical appearance. A man’s true self is his mind, not that form which can be pointed out by a finger. Remember you are a god, if a god is one who possesses life, sensation, memory, and foresight, and who controls, regulates, and moves the body over which he is set, as truly as the supreme god rules the universe. And just as the god who moves the universe, which is to some extent mortal, is eternal, so the soul which moves the frail body is eternal too.

“Whatever is in constant motion is eternal. What imparts motion to something else, but is itself moved by another force, must come to the end of its life when its motion ceases. Therefore only that which moves itself never ceases to be moved, because it never loses contact with itself. Moreover, in the case of everything that moves, this is the source and primary cause of motion. But the primary cause has no beginning; for while everything arises from that primary cause, it itself cannot arise from anything else, for if it were produced by something else, it would not be the primary cause. But if it never comes into being neither does it ever die. For once the primary cause is dead it will not be restored to life by anything else; nor will it create anything else from itself, in as much as everything must arise from the primary cause. Hence the origin of motion comes from that which is moved by itself. That, moreover, cannot be born or die, or else the whole firmament must necessarily collapse and the whole of nature come to a standstill; nor could it obtain any force which would deliver that initial push to set it in motion.

“Since, then, it is clear that what moves by itself is eternal, who could deny that this property is possessed by minds? Everything that is propelled by an external force is inanimate; but an animate being is moved by its own internal power, for that is the peculiar property and function of the mind. If the mind is the one and only entity that moves itself, surely it has never been born and will never die …

“Be sure to employ it in the best kinds of activity. Now the best concerns are for the safety of one’s country. When the mind has been engaged in and exercised by those concerns it will fly more quickly to this, its dwelling-place and home …

“As for the souls of those who devote themselves to bodily pleasures and become, so to speak, their willing slaves, and are impelled by the lusts that serve pleasure to violate the laws of gods and men—those souls, on escaping from their bodies, swirl around, close to the earth itself, and they do not return to this place until they have been buffeted about for many ages.”

Africanus departed, and Scipio awoke from his sleep.

And so today, I hope that we awake from our sleep soon, after we have dreamed like Cicero.


(1) ‘Confidence in Chinese Culture’, by Xi Jinping, in ‘The Governance of China’, volume 2, pp. 378 – 382.

Gerald Therrien is a historian and Rising Tide Foundation advisor. He is the author of two volumes on the Unveiling of Canadian History


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