Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Do You Trust a Politician When He Claims to Act for the Public Good? A Lesson from Cicero
If history does not teach lessons as to what to do, it does teach lessons as to how to read texts and interpret people. One of the things that I try to put across to my students is to read the statements of historical figures with a critical eye. In my 111 class we have spent a lot of time talking about the Roman orator Cicero. If Cicero tells us that he selflessly put himself in harm's way in order to fight against corrupt officials like Verres or to save Rome itself from being taken over by Catiline we should not immediately swoon at Cicero's honesty, patriotism and love of liberty. I wish for my students to wonder if the Sicilians, who came to Cicero for help against Verres, turned to him for his courage or because they knew him personally from his time in Sicily. Was Cicero helping foreign strangers in the cause of justice or some wealthy friends of his? Cicero charged into the Senate to finger Catiline as the ringleader of a vast conspiracy to violently take over the Roman Republic. Was Cicero the one man in Rome willing to stand in defense of the Republic or was the evidence against Catiline less than convincing to anyone who had not, like Cicero, run against Catiline for Consul the previous year? Cicero held the rights of Roman citizens to be sacrosanct and was horrified that Verres could have executed Roman citizens without trial on charges of treason. Of course Cicero would have Catiline's followers executed without trial, but that was a "national emergency" and the men were so clearly guilty anyway. Later on, Clodius briefly forced Cicero into exile on account of him murdering Roman citizens. Once Cicero was back he defended his friend Milo on the charge of murdering Clodius, arguing essentially that Clodius deserved it. Cicero truly believed in law and order and not executing Roman citizens (unless they really deserved it or otherwise annoyed him).
These points are obvious to any classical scholar and I am grateful to Dr. Louis Feldman for teaching them to me and it is an honor to pass them on to others. In evaluating people we historians employ a simple rule. You are automatically suspected of acting for base self serving motives and the burden of proof is on you to show otherwise. This is done by demonstrating that the resulting action is different from what one might expect if one was acting from more self serving motives. If an action proceeds logically from self serving motives then you are guilty, case closed, no further questions asked.
If all I accomplished was to teach my students to chuckle at Cicero's pretensions of acting for the public good, my class would be of antiquarian interest, but with little practical relevance. The real target is not Cicero, but every politician today, whether liberal or conservative, who stands in front of the public and tries, like Cicero but without his genius, to claim that they are acting for the public benefit. If we are serious in applying our historical rule then, by definition, the only time a politician can be believed to act for the public good is when his solution involves giving less power to the government.
Considering this, can a historian be anything but a libertarian? What does it say about the intellectual honesty of those who are not?
(See Historians as a "Special Interest Group.")