Portia’s Powerful Tongue: The Ethics of Lady Rhetoric in The Merchant of Venice

Posted Posted in Liberal Arts, Liberal Education

by Scott F. Crider

University of Dallas


When early modern Europeans searched for a myth of human nature, familial bond, and civil association, they found one in an early Ciceronian treatise on oratory, de Inventione, in which he offers an etiological myth of rhetoric, “the origin of this thing we call eloquence”:

For there was a time when men wandered at large in the fields like animals and lived on wild fare; they did nothing by the guidance of reason, but relied chiefly on physical strength; there was yet no ordered system of religious worship or of social duties; no one had seen legitimate marriage nor had anyone looked upon children whom he knew to be his own; nor had they learned the advantages of any equitable code of law.  And so through their ignorance and error[,] blind and unreasoning passion satisfied itself by misuse of bodily strength, which is a very dangerous servant.  At this juncture a man—great and wise I am sure—became aware of the power latent in man and the wide field offered by his mind for great achievement if one could develop this power by instruction.  Men were scattered in the fields and hidden in sylvan retreats when he assembled and gathered them in accordance with a plan; he introduced them to every useful and honorable occupation, though they cried out against it at first because of its novelty, and then when through reason and eloquence they had listened with greater attention, he transformed them from wild savages into a kind and gentle folk.[1]

For Cicero and his early modern heirs, the first orator established human being, familial bonds, and civil association by means of eloquence, and this founding is re-enacted during important moments of eloquence.  The gathering of humanity through eloquence establishes us as human, and that gatherer is an especially important human, imagined by Cicero and most of his humanist sons as a special man.

Throughout his career, Shakespeare is fascinated by the art of oratory.  Both trained in the English grammar school tradition of Latinate oratory and well-read in classical, continental and English rhetorics, he continually represents the action of artful speech in his plays, not only because dramatists cannot do otherwise, given that they have their characters speak, but also because this dramatist isolates and examines a number of the most important questions within the rhetorical tradition, exploring its nature, especially the ethical character of its power to move audiences to belief and action. [2]

The Merchant of Venice represents two societies which require renewed foundations: the multicultural commercial republic of Venice, whose economic and legal bonds are failing to bind its citizens, and the idyllic estate of Belmont, whose deceased patriarch is both thwarting and enabling his daughter’s marital bond.  When Shylock tries to explain in 4.1 of the play to a disguised Portia that he will not be persuaded to forsake the bond Antonio now owes him—“By my soul, I swear / There is no power in the tongue of man / To alter me” (4.1.237-39)[3]—the figure of speech provides me with the focus of my essay: Generally, the power of human speech, or the “tongue,” to “alter” audiences; specifically, the ethics of Portia’s “power” as Lady Rhetoric, both in Venice and in Belmont.[4]  That Portia is an effective rhetor in both lands is obvious, yet success is not the exclusive measure of the art of rhetoric.[5]  The question is this:  Is Portia’s “powerful tongue” ethically good?  The answer: In Belmont, yes; in Venice, yes and no.  Because of her ignorance of Venetian circumstances—especially the cultural tension between Christian and Jew in the city—she makes a mistake and sacrifices Shylock in order to save her husband’s friend, a sacrifice which qualifies, without ruining, the romance of the play, a romance achieved through her ethical rhetoric in Belmont.  Portia’s suasiveness is composed of two rhetorical actions, then, one tragic and one comic, and the relationship of the two establishes the play’s unity, a unity which confirms Samuel Johnson’s observation that Shakespeare’s plays are not, strictly speaking, either tragedies or comedies:

Shakespeare’s plays are not in the rigorous and critical sense either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind; exhibiting the real state of sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of combination; and expressing the course of the world, in which the loss of one is the gain of another; in which at the same time, the reveler is hasting to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend; in which the malignity of the one is sometimes defeated by the frolick of another; and many mischiefs and many benefits are done and hindered without design.[6]

Shakespeare exhibits the real nature of a generally good, but flawed rhetor who restores two decaying worlds, but only by accidentally destroying a man.  In Venice and in Belmont, as in any city, the destruction of the other often establishes a new order, an order that romance, though, cannot purify.  Our ethical persuasions do not efface our unethical ones; they simply define them as such, and the play’s mode of combination provides the definition.  Let me discuss the Renaissance figure of Lady Rhetoric, the principles of ethical rhetoric, and our particular rhetorical lady in both cities.

I. Powerful Lady Rhetoric, Over-Powered

In the European Renaissance, the art of rhetoric was, as always, a suspect study.  Let me isolate one feature of that anti-rhetorical tradition: the accusation that rhetoric is effeminate, and that its powers of transformation subvert good reason and stable order.  “Womanly” rhetoric was thought dangerous because, when practiced by men, it undermines their own masculinity; and because, when practiced by women over men, it emasculates the male audience and masculates the female orator.   Even so, though the art of rhetoric in the Renaissance was usually practiced by men, there were exceptional women orators—Elizabeth I, for example—and there is even a habit in the iconographical tradition of imagining persuasion itself as female.  Lady Rhetoric—or Persuasion—is a figure for the art of rhetoric, as we see in Figure 1.[7]  Here we see a woman in flowing gown holding a three-headed beast on a leash, a leash that also binds her.  Wayne Rebhorn offers two interpretations of the emblem.  First, the rhetor’s power here is both power over and over-powering; that is, she rules the audience, yet is herself constrained by that very power.  Second, the beast is of indeterminate character since, although it resembles Cerberus, it may be a version of Hydra, the many-headed beast that represents the mass audience of the art of rhetoric.  The indeterminate beast may figure the audience to which the orator must attend; then again, it may figure the three appeals of rhetoric—logos, ethos, and pathos—which correspond to the audience’s three faculties of reason, moral sense and emotion, or it might figure the three kinds of rhetoric: political deliberative, epideictic, and judicial.[8]  In either case, Lady Rhetoric’s command of the beast is a sign that she has the art of rhetoric, defined by Aristotle in the Rhetoric as “an ability, in each case, to see the available means of persuasion” (1.2.1).  This definition indicates that, with respect to an audience and an issue, the rhetor selects means to achieve the end of persuasion, that proximate end itself achieving more remote ends.  That selection of means and ends is a power.  However, she is persuaded as she persuades, and the rhetor’s power over an audience often obscures the audience’s power over the rhetor.  Lady Rhetoric is altered even as she alters.  The bond binding the beast is also binding her.

Her gender and her moderated power help illuminate my topic: a powerful female orator who is not always fully in command of her own oratory.  Many of Shakespeare’s heroines in the comedies are distinct instances of Lady Rhetoric, the allegorical figure transformed into a number of related, but highly individual fictional characters—Rosalind in As You Like It and Viola in Twelfth Night, for example, and certainly Portia.  These women are disguised as men, and, as a consequence of such disguises—Rosalind’s Ganymede, Viola’s Cesario, and Portia’s Balthasar—they are able to exercise their rhetorical powers in ways hardly imaginable for most actual women in the period: as a teacher, a counselor, and a lawyer, respectively.  Of course, husbands were conventionally supposed to govern wives to maintain proper domestic harmony, as we see in Portia’s own submission to Bassanio in Belmont in 3.2, the new husband now “lord / Of the fair mansion” she has been governing (166-7).  One begins to see just how adventurous Shakespearean heroines are, at least during courtship.  Be that as it may, since Shakespeare’s Lady Rhetoric is not only persuasive but also vulnerable, she offers an opportunity for our poet-player to examine an ethical situation—accidentally unethical rhetoric, rhetoric whose intention is not malice, yet whose effect is.[9]  Between the very different masteries of an Iago and a Prospero is a Portia, who allows Shakespeare to develop his ethics of rhetoric because, first, she makes a mistake in being mastered by unknown, Venetian circumstances, and, second, that error both darkens, yet reveals her Belmontian triumph when she courts and educates her husband.

II. An Ethics of Rhetoric

Shakespeare read Cicero in school, but only read about Aristotle in one of his favorite books—Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier—where one of the interlocutors, Ottaviano, provides an Aristotelian ethical test for a courtier’s counsel on behalf of his prince:

And because the praise of well-doing consisteth chiefly in two points— whereof the one is, in choosing out an end that our purpose is directed unto, that is good indeed; the other, the knowledge to find out apt and meet means to bring it to the appointed good end—sure it is that the mind of him which thinketh to work so, that his Prince shall not be deceived, nor led with flatterers, railers and liars, but shall know both the good and the bad and bear love to the one and hatred to the other, is directed to a very good end.[10]

For Aristotle and Castiglione, any instance of influence or counsel must employ meet means and a good end.  The Ciceronian formulation in de Inventione is in accord: the study of oratory must be accompanied by that of “philosophy and moral conduct,” he argues there, or the orator’s “civic life is nurtured into something useless to himself and harmful to his country” (1.1).  Let me add one requirement and refine the above two—three conditions suggested by Aristotle’s rhetorical understanding, conditions any instance of rhetoric must meet to be ethical.  First, the audience must be free to agree or disagree; that is, there can be no force involved which would compel assent.[11]  Second, the rhetor’s end must both be good and be freely agreed to be good by the rhetor and her audience.  And, third, the rhetor’s means to that end must be thought to be both good and true by the rhetor, and they must actually be so.  An audience freely persuaded to a good end through good and true means: this is the character of any ethical suasion.  What distinguishes the sophist from the rhetor for Aristotle is an ethical differential: “The sophist is such,” he argues, “not through ability, but through deliberate choice” (1355b18, emphasis added).  The ethical rhetor must have the power of discovering the available means of persuasion in the particular case, but she must also properly exercise ethical choice in the discovery and deployment of means toward end.  Portia’s legal rhetoric is unethical because it finally fails to meet the above conditions,[12] but her romantic rhetoric is so because it does.  Let me make good on that claim.

III. The Accident of Rhetorical Ignorance in Venice

Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric includes the demand that the rhetor know what “the particular case” is.  That is an ethical demand.  Remember that, in the Nicomachean Ethics, the first requirement of an act is that one discern the particulars of one’s situation: discernment precedes deliberation, choice, and action.  This is what he means when he argues that the ethical decision requires perception.[13]  To the degree one is ignorant of such particulars, to that degree one is not acting freely.  Ignorance is one of the causes of involuntary action, including involuntarily unethical action.  Granted, Portia’s Venetian rhetoric is not unethical throughout.  Her first appeal to Shylock’s mercy (4.1.181-201) is completely legitimate:

The quality of mercy is not strained.

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

’Tis mightiest in the mightiest.  It becomes

The throned monarch better than his crown.

His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,

The attribute to awe and majesty,

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;

But mercy is above this sceptred sway.

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;

It is an attribute to God himself;

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s

When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,

Though justice be thy plea, consider this:

That in the course of justice none of us

Should see salvation.  We do pray for mercy,

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy.  (4.1.181-199)

Her appeal here is logical, ethical, and emotional.  The logical appeal is supported by the topic of invention of definition.  The “quality” of mercy is its essence, which explains why, syntactically, Portia’s periods indicate either what “mercy” does—“It droppeth as the gentle rain,” “blesseth him that gives and him that takes,” and “becomes / The throned monarch better than his crown”—or what it is—“’Tis mightiest in the mighty,” “is enthroned in the hearts of kings,” and “is an attribute to God himself.”  As well, she marshals the topic of comparison by contrasting force and mercy, the king’s scepter with his heart.  By contrasting justice and mercy, she appeals to emotion, specifically the emotion of fear: “in the course of justice none of us / Should see salvation.  We do pray for mercy.”  Her definitions and comparisons also establish her own ethos since, after all, those who appeal to ethical principle—here that of mercy—are thought to embody them.  Her moving appeal to mercy is supplemented by one to self-interest—“Shylock, there’s thrice thy money offered thee” (224)—indicating that she has his interest in mind, as well.  The rhetor’s ethos, according to Aristotle in the Rhetoric, must be characterized by “practical wisdom, virtue and good will” (2.1.5), the last indicated by the rhetor’s concern for the audience’s good.  Her conclusion appeals to the emotion of fear, here the fear of judgment.  Aristotle argues that, while the emotional appeal is often abused (1.1.3-6), it is a legitimate appeal nonetheless, provided the emotion is in accord with the circumstances at hand (2.1-11).  All three appeals in her speech are ethically legitimate.

However, once Shylock refuses those appeals—“My deeds upon my head” (203)—Portia changes.  What distorts Portia’s rhetoric in 4.1 is ignorance: though she has certainly studied the law with Doctor Bellario with some, if not perfect, care, she does not understand “the particular case” of Antonio and Shylock, not seeing that Shylock’s desire to destroy Antonio is animated by a mistaken, but certainly understandable desire for revenge for past injustices.  The play convinces us that his revenge upon Antonio is occasioned by Jessica’s betrayal by juxtaposing in 3.1 Solanio and Salarino’s taunting of Shylock for having lost his daughter with Shylock’s encomium to Christian revenge.  When Portia enters the courtroom, claiming that she is “informed thoroughly of the cause” (4.1.170), her very next question indicates that her general knowledge has its limitations: “Which is the merchant here?” (171).  Throughout her exchange with Shylock, she appears not to realize that Antonio is Shylock’s professed enemy and cannot imagine Shylock has been the victim of Antonio’s hate crimes.  Shylock earlier narrated those crimes to Antonio himself:

Signior Antonio, many a time and oft

In the Rialto you have rated me

About my moneys and my usances.

Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,

For suff’rance is the badge of all our tribe.

You call me misbeliever, cut-throat, dog,

And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,

And all for use of that which is mine own.

Well then, it now appears you need my help.

Go to, then.  You come to me, and you say

‘Shylock, we would have moneys’:  you say so—

You, that did void your rheum upon my beard

And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur

Over your threshold, moneys is your suit.

What should I say to you? Should I not say

‘Hath a dog money? Is it possible

A cur can lend three thousand ducats?’ Or

Shall I bend low and, in a bondman’s key,

With bated breath and whisp’ring humbleness,

Say this:  ‘Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last;

You spurned me such a day; another time

You called me dog; and for these courtesies

I’ll lend you thus much moneys’?  (1.3.103-125)

Antonio’s response indicates that this narration is true:  “I am like to call thee so again, / To spit on thee again, to spurn thee, too” (126-7).  Antonio and Shylock are, as Antonio reminded him when he took the loan, enemies (1.3.128-33).  If an audience has forgotten 1.3 by 4.1, Shakespeare reminds it in the later scene with Shylock’s question to Bassanio right before Portia enters:  “What wouldst thou have the serpent sting thee twice”? (4.1.68).  Portia, of course, has seen and heard none of this, which is the point.  What Shakespeare understands is that majorities have an ethical habit, having abused minorities, to desire not only justice, but even mercy from them, once minorities are in a position to respond to the abuse.  Because Portia is ignorant of the injustice, she cannot comprehend his desire for revenge, so she instrumentalizes Shylock to achieve her end of freeing Antonio and accidentally turns Shylock over to those who would revenge themselves upon him.  Shylock may fail to show mercy—“’tis not in the bond” (259)—but Portia shows neither justice before the law, since Jews in Venice are given legal rights but denied the means to effect them; nor equity, since full knowledge of Shylock’s situation would dictate, not that he be allowed to revenge himself upon Antonio, but that he and Antonio both be freed from their bond; nor mercy, since, had she known, she might very well have believed that Shylock should be shown more than equity.[14]  By the time Portia grows excited by her rhetorical victory—“The Jew shall have all justice” (4.1.317)—she is neither just nor equitable, arguably even denying the principles of her own earlier speech on mercy (181-202).  The latter end of her discourse forgets the beginning.

Portia fails all three conditions of ethical rhetoric.  First, Shylock is subject to a high degree of force; after all, he is compelled to convert to Christianity upon pain of death.  The Duke is very clear that if Shylock refuses Antonio’s “mercy” of theft and conversion, he will “recant / The pardon” of his (387-8).  Second, Portia’s end of saving Antonio is too limited, given the situation, since her goal ought to include human flourishing for all parties concerned.  Even Bassanio realizes, once Shylock is willing to accept the money, that there is no need to go any further:  “Here is the money,” he says, just before Portia says that “[h]e shall have nothing but the penalty” (4.1.316-317).  Third, her means in achieving this narrow end are sophistical.  She will allow Shylock to claim his pound of flesh, but not if it means shedding Christian blood (302-309), yet it is legally irrational to allow a right that cannot be exercised.  When she revenges herself upon Shylock on behalf of her adopted city, she accuses Shylock as a resident alien of having sought the life of a citizen (344-53), but that would necessarily imply that there is no equality before the law and that no resident alien could accuse any citizen of a capital crime without committing a crime, implications which would be, of course, sophistical nonsense if, as Antonio has earlier explained, Venice’s legal code is established by “the course of justice” offered to all of Venice’s inhabitants (3.3.26-31).  Portia is ignorant of the life of persecution Shylock has led at the hands of Antonio, seeing only the revenge, not the persecution being revenged.  She then turns Shylock over to the will of his enemies to confiscate his wealth and force his conversion, traces of both acts of injustice remaining throughout the play.

IV.  The Power of Courting and Altering Husbands in Belmont

Her legal rhetoric is not her only rhetoric, though, and her romantic rhetoric—as exhibited in the tests of the three caskets in Acts 1-3 and the ring in Acts 4-5—is ethical, both tests achieving and educating her husband-to-be, and meeting the standard of ethical rhetoric: 1) Bassanio is free; 2) her end of a good marriage to him is a good and agreed to be by both; and 3) her means to that end—here, the question becomes controversial—are certainly good, but are only arguably true.  Goodness concerns moral virtue; truth concerns intellectual.

You will remember that Portia’s choice in marriage is constrained by her father’s test of the caskets, and she does assist Bassanio in his choice of the lead casket.  We do not know for sure who sings “A Song the whilst Bassanio comments on the Caskets to himself,” as the First Folio directs in 3.2.  It is either Portia or one singing on her command.  Everyone notes the way the song pointedly rhymes with “lead”—“bred,” “head,” “nourishéd,” “fed.”  We ought to notice, as well, that the song has a moral about erotic desire, which is “engendered in the eyes, / With gazing fed; and fancy dies / In the cradle where it lies” (3.2.67-70), a moral Bassanio learns in his meditations upon the “shows” of gold and silver:  “The world is still deceived with ornament” (74).  He will not be: “But thou, thou meager lead / Which rather threaten’st than dost promise aught, / Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence” (104-6).  Is Portia’s education of Bassanio cheating?  I do not believe so.  Her father—“ever virtuous,” according to Nerissa (1.2.27)—would not imagine that the suitors would be deliberating alone; instead, he would foresee that his daughter, moved by preference, would deliberate with them.  He is a kind of absent Prospero, ensuring that his daughter’s future suitors would speak with his daughter—or at least listen to her sing—before marrying her.  No wise parent expects to be obeyed entirely when it comes to a child’s love life, knowing that marriage necessitates separation.  Portia’s father is no Capulet.  When Portia assists him, the persuasion involved is less the sophistry of deceiving a parent and more the rhetoric of deliberation with a spouse.  A beautiful woman is usually going to have to teach her chosen suitor to restrain his fancy when activated by her beauty.  Portia and her father know as much.

Her second test is more debatable; after all, she disguises herself to her husband and arguably “entraps” him into giving up the ring.  Let me defend both the disguise and the entrapment.  First, the disguise is not primarily intended to deceive Bassanio.  After all, she cannot practice her influence in the court without disguise, given the constraints upon women practicing law.  Ultimately, disguise in Shakespeare is a dramatic figure for the appeal of ethos or persona that is unavoidable in human speech.   Second, once disguised, she discovers that Antonio and Bassanio are closer than they should be, given that Bassanio has just married her.  While disguised, Portia hears her husband say to his close friend, “But life itself, my wife, and all the world / Are not with me esteemed above thy life.  I would . . . sacrifice them all / . . . to deliver you” (4.1.281-2).  Bassanio has a disordered understanding of the respective values of friendship and marriage, and his wife needs to persuade him toward an ordered understanding of it.  She may even suspect, as others in the play do, that Antonio’s love for Bassanio is more than friendship.  (The term of “love” between men in early modern England did not need to refer to homosexual desire; even so, it is worth noting that Antonio remains unmarried at the play’s close, a rarity for major characters at the end of comedies.) Bassanio has not been compelled to marry, but, once in its order, he must value its vows properly.  We must allow that Bassanio does not give over the ring at first, doing so only after being pressed by Antonio:  “Let . . . my love withal / Be valued ‘gainst your wife’s commandment” (446-7).  What the ring now figures is Bassanio’s broken vow.   He may not be a slave to erotic fancy, but he is not yet wise to the nature of marital vows.  In Shakespeare’s world, those vows supersede parental claims and male friendships, and young husbands had better lose their finger than their wedding ring.  Portia’s rhetorical end is good: to educate her husband to understand that the oath of marriage is a supreme speech act, one which, to use Portia’s metaphor, rivets the ring to his flesh with faith.  The ring is a sign of “faith.”  By refuting Bassanio’s excuse for the lapse of faith, she ensures that there will probably not be a future one.  Her end, then, is a good marriage for them, and that is certainly a human good shared by both.  The question then becomes whether her means to achieve that end are ethical since the test and the refutation withhold the truth from him.  One must distinguish between two forms of withholding the truth: In the first, the rhetor denies the audience the truth; in the second, she delays it.  The art of rhetoric demands good timing.  As Proverbs 15 would have it—the Hebrew text in accord with the Greek or Roman understanding of rhetorical kairos or decorum—“[A] word spoken in due season, how good it is!” (15.23).  Or, as Portia puts it, “How many things by season seasoned are / To their right praise and true perfection” (5.1.107-8).[15]  By season seasoning the truth is the essence of rhetorical power.  The ethical demand is that an audience must learn the truth; the rhetorical demand is that he learn it when it will be most persuasive.  My claim is quite strong, then: not that Portia uses unethical means to an ethical end, but that she uses ethical means to an ethical end.  Rhetorical prudence only resembles sophistry.  This becomes clear when we contrast Portia’s rhetoric in Venice with that in Belmont:  Shylock is forced, but Bassanio is not; Shylock is not included in the good of Portia’s end, but Bassanio is; and Shylock is the victim of legal sophistry, Bassanio the beneficiary of marital discretion.

One cannot extricate the two rhetorical actions in the play fully, of course, and the romance of 5.1 is made more sober, not only by the presence of Antonio—Shylock’s triumphant enemy, who re-establishes the bond between Portia and Bassanio— but also by that of Jessica and Lorenzo, now financial beneficiaries of her father’s degradation and the impending death of the “rich Jew” Nerissa mentions a mere fifteen lines before the play ends.  And, perhaps more importantly, the emphasis on the ring—Portia’s “first gift” to Bassanio (5.1.167)—reminds us of another ring, Leah’s first gift to Shylock, the parental ring Jessica and Lorenzo sold for a monkey once they escaped from Venice with her father’s treasure (3.1.111-116).[16]  The ring of romance resembles the ring of tragedy.  Bassanio’s venture in Belmont, we are reminded, was paid for by Shylock.  From this, one might deny the romance of the play, undermining it altogether with historical injustice.  That would be a mistake, not because the play effaces that injustice—it does not, instead vividly representing the personal and political cost for some of the happiness of others—but because “Shakespeare play’s,” as Johnson reminds us, “are not in the rigorous and critical sense either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind.”  In our ethics of rhetoric, we want a rhetor who is both good and always fully in command.  We want a Lady Rhetoric who binds, but is not bound, someone who does not makes mistakes.  But the rhetorical bond that binds all the marital, economic, and legal bonds of the play binds the very rhetor who holds it in her hands, wrapping itself around her gown.  The sweet doctor is herself poisoned, even as she delivers sweetness, not to all, but to so many in this highly distinct composition.

What Shakespeare finally understands is that ethical rhetoric is a difficult achievement.  In the ethical moment of disposing means to end, the rhetor is only imperfectly in command of a fallen world, and if this limitation can lead a woman of Portia’s moral and intellectual virtue to error in her sacrificing a tragic usurer to secure comic marriages, we ought not be overly confident in either the virtue of our own rhetoric or the exactitude of our own generic terms.  As Johnson would have it, a Shakespearean play “exhibits the real state of sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety or proportion and innumerable modes of combination.” Shylock’s sorrow underwrites, yet does not erase, Belmont’s joy, and the powerful tongue of this rhetorical lady is greatly responsible for both.[17]

[1] 1.2.  Trans. H.M. Hubbell, Loeb ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1949).  Cicero repeats the myth in his more mature de Oratore, trans. Sutton and Rackham, Loeb ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1942): “To come, however, at length to the highest achievements of eloquence, what other power could have been strong enough either to gather scattered humanity into one place, or to lead it out of its brutish existence in the wilderness up to our present condition of civilization as men and as citizens or, after the establishment of social communities, to give shape to laws, tribunals, and civic rights?  And not to pursue any further instances—well-nigh countless as they are—I will conclude the whole matter in a few words, for my assertion is this: that the wise control of the complete orator is which chiefly upholds not only his own dignity, but the safety of countless individuals and of the entire State” (1.8.30-34). De Inventione was the better known of the two works in early modern England.  The scholarship on rhetoric in the early modern period is large.  The best introductions are now Peter Mack’s Elizabethan Rhetoric: Theory and Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002), Heinrich F. Plett’s Rhetoric and Renaissance Culture (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2004), and the first half of Quentin Skinner’s Rhetoric and Reason in the Philosophy of Hobbes (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996), 1-211.  On rhetoric more generally, see Brian Vickers’ In Defense of Rhetoric (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1989).  On the myth of the rhetor-founder, see Wayne Rebhorn’s The Emperor of Men’s Minds: Literature and the Renaissance Discourse of Rhetoric (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1995).

[2] For Shakespeare’s own rhetorical character, the standard texts remain T. W. Baldwin’s William Shakspere’s Small Latine & Lesse Greeke, 2 volumes, (Urbana, 1944), esp. Vol. 2, 1-238, and Sister Miriam Joseph’s Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language (New York: Columbia UP, 1947).  See, as well, the following: Russ McDonald’s Shakespeare and the Arts of Language (New York: Oxford UP, 2001); Marion Trousdale’s Shakespeare and the Rhetoricians (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1982); and Brian Vickers’ “Shakespeare’s Use of Rhetoric” in A New Companion to Shakespeare Studies, ed. Muir and Schoenbaum (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1971), 83-98.  The following examine Shakespeare’s ethics of rhetoric specifically: McDonald, esp. “Words Effectual, Speech Unable,” 164-192; Peter G. Platt’s “Shakespeare and Rhetorical Culture” in A Companion to Shakespeare, ed. David Scott Kastan (Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), 277-296; Plett, 415-433; Trousdale, 114-159; and Brian Vickers’ “‘The Power of Persuasion’: Images of the Orator, Elyot to Shakespeare,” Renaissance Eloquence: Studies in the Theory and Practice of Renaissance Rhetoric, ed. James J. Murphy (Berkeley: U of California P, 1983), 411-435.  On Shakespeare and “moral philosophy” generally, see Baldwin, Vol. 2, 578-616.  See David N. Beauregard’s Virtue’s Own Feature: Shakespeare and the Virtue Ethics Tradition (Newark: U of Delaware P, 1995) for an argument that Shakespeare was familiar with a tradition of “Aristotelian-Thomistic moral thought” (9).  On Shakespeare’s ethics of rhetoric, see my With What Persuasion: An Essay on Shakespeare and the Ethics of Rhetoric (New York: Peter Lang, 2009).

[3] The Oxford World Classics, ed. Jay L. Halio (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993), 4.1.237-239.  Hereafter, cited internally.

[4] The secondary literature on The Merchant of Venice is vast, and I have read only a small portion of it.  I am indebted to the following readings of the play: C.L. Barber’s Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1959), 163-191; Beauregard, 87-103; Allan Bloom’s Shakespeare’s Politics, with Harry V. Jaffa (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1964), 13-34; Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (New York: Penguin, 1998), 171-191; William C. Carroll’s The Metamorphoses of Shakespearean Comedy (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1985), 117-126; Lawrence Danson’s The Harmonies of The Merchant of Venice (New Haven: Yale UP, 1978); Jane Freeman’s “‘Fair Terms and a Villain’s Mind’: Rhetorical Patterns in The Merchant of Venice,” Rhetorica 20.2 (May 2002): 149-172; Harold C. Goddard’s The Meaning of Shakespeare, Vol. 1 (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1951), 81-116; David Lowenthal’s Shakespeare and the Good Life: Ethics and Politics in Dramatic Form (Lanham: Rowen and Littlefield, 1997), esp. 147-172; Platt, esp. 291-293; Norman Rabkin’s Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981), 1-32; James Shapiro’s Shakespeare and the Jews (New York: Columbia UP, 1996); Barbara Tovey’s “The Golden Casket: An Interpretation of The Merchant of Venice” in Shakespeare as Political Thinker, ed. John Alvis and Thomas G. West (Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic P, 1981), 215-237; and esp. Martin D. Yaffe’s Shylock and the Jewish Question (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1997).  Freeman, Platt, and Yaffe discuss Portia specifically as a rhetor.

[5] In Aristotelian terms, success is its external, not its internal end because, having discovered all of the available means of persuasion, the rhetor may still fail.  The best rhetor is not always successful; the worst rhetor sometimes is.  See Eugene Garver’s Aristotle’s Rhetoric: An Art of Character (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994), esp. 18-51, for a fine discussion of the distinction.

[6] “Preface to Shakespeare” in Samuel Johnson: Rasselas, Poems, and Selected Prose, ed. Bertrand H. Bronson (New York, 1971), 261-307. 266-267.  Johnson’s Preface is the best single piece of literary criticism on Shakespeare there is, and his notes are full of treasures.

[7] The figure comes from Rebhorn.  For his discussion of the gendered understanding of rhetoric, see 133-196; for his analysis of the figure, see 75-76.  One of the most famous representations of Lady Rhetoric comes from Martianus Capella’s De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii, a mythological treatment of the trivium and quadrivium, trans. William Harris Stahl and Richard Johnson with E.L. Burge (New York: Columbia UP, 1977): “What countenance and voice she had as she spoke, what excellence of and exaltation of speech!” (156).  Plett discusses the iconographical history of representations of rhetoric (501-552), including Figure 1.

[8] On the three appeals and three rhetorical genres, see Aristotle’s Rhetoric, trans. George A. Kennedy, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford UP, 2007), 2.1-26 and 1.3-15, respectively.

[9] Shakespeareans usually classify a persuasion as either “good” or “bad,” without defining or complicating either.  Plett, for example, offers what he calls “a fourfold typology of the orator”: a good orator with either a good or bad character; and a bad orator with either a good or bad character (418).  This is helpful, and it distinguishes the art of oratory from the character of the orator; even so, it hardly does justice to Portia’s complex speech acts.

[10] Trans. Thomas Hoby, ed. Virginia Cox (London: Everyman Library, 1994), 296, spelling and punctuation modernized.  I am not as convinced that Shakespeare knows Aristotle as Beauregard; it seems more likely that he discovers “Aristotelian” thought in Cicero and Castiglione.  Even so, we can use Aristotle to increase our understanding of Shakespeare and the actions he represents.

[11] On rhetoric and force, see my With What Persuasion, 79-99.

[12] Yaffe makes the case that Portia is an ethical “statesman” throughout the play.  See esp. 46-87.  Though he and I disagree, I highly recommend his fine study.  On the difficulties and possibilities of being an ethical rhetor, see my With What Persuasion (145-178), where I examine Paulina in The Winter’s Tale.

[13] See the Nichomachean Ethics, 1109b23.  On the topic of such perception, see Martha Nussbaum’s “The Discernment of Perception” in Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (New York: Oxford UP, 1990), 54-105, and Nancy Sherman’s The Fabric of Character: Aristotle’s Theory of Virtue (New York: Oxford UP, 1989), esp. 13-55.

[14] Reflecting on the relationships between and among justice, equity, and mercy, one might say that justice requires strict symmetry without reference to particularities; equity, imperfect symmetry with reference to them; and mercy, asymmetry toward the object of mercy either with or without reference to them.  On the relationship between equity and mercy in Aristotle, see Martha Nussbaum’s Sex and Social Justice (New York: Oxford UP, 1999), esp. “Equity and Mercy,” 154-183; on that relation in both Aristotle and Shakespeare, see Beauregard.

[15] That the comment is occasioned by music indicates the musical nature of what is thought of as an Orphic art of rhetoric.  Interestingly, the play has one of the few mentions of Orpheus in his canon in  Lorenzo’s speech to Jessica (5.1.54-88) on “the sweet power of music” (79).  On the relation between music and rhetoric, see Plett, 366-412.

[16] Even the high romance of Bassanio and Portia’s casket scene (3.2) is qualified by the fact that it is framed with the scene in which Shylock learns from Tubal that his daughter stole and sold Leah’s gift to him (3.1) and the one in which he taunts Antonio (3.3).

[17] This essay was given as lectures in the University of Dallas’ Shakespeare in Italy program in Rome, lectures informed by discussions with Wayne Ambler and Dustin Gish; as a presentation at a forum on the play at the University of Dallas, refined by conversation with Joshua Parens and Martin Yaffe; and as a speech at the Athena Foundation, by invitation of Herschel and Dona Gower (now deceased), in conversation with Eileen Gregory.  I am grateful for all the three opportunities.  This essay is dedicated to the memory of my mother, Diane J. Crider, an eloquent lady from whom I learned to love the English language, a love that led me to Shakespeare.

Moral and Civic Liberty in Sallust’s Bella, and History as an Education in Virtue

Posted Posted in Liberal Education

by RoseMary Johnson

University of Dallas

Sallust’s historical monographs, the Bellum Catilinae and the Bellum Iugurthinum, have been described as “biased” and inaccurate, largely because he does not hesitate, when it suits his purposes, to make moral judgments about political figures and historical periods.1 2 Such a description mistakes the purpose of the Bella, which, like most ancient histories, is not intended to be an unimpassioned narration of facts. History was a moral genre in the classical period, not a scientific one, and the incorporation of moral judgments was therefore natural and appropriate; as Sallust explains in the beginning of the Bellum Iugurthinum, the purpose of recalling the achievements of the ancients is to inspire their descendants to imitate them (4.5-7). In his Bellum Catilinae and Bellum Iugurthinum, Sallust provides an analysis of the corruption of contemporary Rome and offers readers an explanation for Rome’s decay from freedom to slavery. Along with a diagnosis of the moral causes for this slavery, Sallust also offers a partial solution. Sallust carefully constructs the Bella as educations in virtue for talented young men, who have the potential to become either great statesmen or tyrants like Jugurtha. By training up virtuous and politically adept leaders, Sallust’s Bella have the potential to restore the freedom and greatness of Rome. The first part of this paper will explore Sallust’s understanding of the causes of Rome’s decay; the second part will consider how the Bella provide an education in virtue by impressing upon readers the consequences of virtue and vice; and the third part will show how Sallust’s Bella give readers experience in applying moral and political principles to practical situations. 


Freedom, both individual and political, is a major theme in Sallust’s historical monographs. Sallust’s description of human nature in the preface of the Bellum Iugurthinum is marked by radical confidence in man’s freedom to determine his own fate, for good or for ill. In fact, Sallust makes the daring claim that “the leader and ruler of the life of mortals is the mind” (“dux atque imperator vitae mortalium animum est”) [BI 1.3]. Because the human race is composed of soul as well as body, it is possible for mortal men to gain immortal glory through the “extraordinary achievements of the intellect” (“ingeni egregia facinora”) [BI 2.2]. That most men do not achieve this greatness is due not to the weakness of human nature, but to the sloth and base desires to which they have surrendered themselves. Sallust declares that man’s nature is so great and excellent that—far from being ruled by fate—human beings are the rulers of fate (BI 1.5). Of course, Sallust recognizes that human beings have only limited control over “the goods of the body and of fortune” (“corporis et fortunae bonorum”) but he insists that the attainment “to glory by the way of virtue” (“ad gloriam virtutis via”) cannot be given or taken away by fortune (BI 2.3, 1.3). In determining his own character and attaining glory through virtue, the individual possesses complete freedom.3

Sallust’s belief in the human capacity for greatness is the basis of his admiration for the republican form of government. Because men are by nature capable of greatness, the common good is best served, Sallust suggests, when all citizens are free to contribute to the res publica. A state ruled by equal laws instead of by tyrants—a state in which all men are able to exercise their moral freedom in the service of the common good—has the possibility of rising to incredible greatness, as Sallust says of Rome itself: “But it is incredible to recall in what a short time the city became great once liberty had been achieved” (“Sed civitas incredibile memoratu est adepta libertate quantum brevi creverit”) [BC 7.3]. Sallust is by no means a utopian, however. He knows that, despite their freedom to pursue glory through virtue, most men “descend to laziness and the pleasures of the body” (“ad inertiam et voluptates corporis pessum datus est”) until “their strength, time, and natural talent have disappeared through idleness” (“per socordiam tempus, ingenium diffluxere”) [BI 1.4]. Worse yet, the radical freedom of human nature makes possible the existence of brilliant and talented men, “with great strength both of mind and of body” (“magna vi et animi et corporis”), who choose actively to pursue evil (BC 5.1). Sallust makes this possibility frighteningly clear in the characters of Jugurtha and Catiline, who possess incredible natural talents but choose to direct them towards evil desires and murderous schemes. The same human freedom that makes possible the greatness of the Roman republic can also lead to conflicts so great they “[throw] into confusion all things divine and human and . . . [make] an end to civic pursuits.”4

Sallust’s historical monographs portray the devastation that is worked by Jugurtha’s and Catiline’s misuse of their freedom, but ironically, Jugurtha and Catiline are the ones who suffer the most from their crimes. Although they begin as free agents capable of achieving glory through virtue, they end up enslaved to their passions and to the train of evil events which they themselves have set in motion. For instance, at the beginning of the Bellum Iugurthinum, Jugurtha is portrayed as a daring and decisive leader, described as “fierce” (“acer”) and “warlike” (“bellicosus”) [BI 20.2]. By the end of the war, however, Jugurtha’s repeated reliance on treachery has reduced him to an indecisive5 and paranoid6 commander: 

He changed his routes and his commanders every day, now went forth against the enemy, now went into the desert; he placed hope in flight often and shortly afterwards in arms . . . (Itinera praefectosque in dies mutare, modo advorsum hostis, interdum in solitudines pergere, saepe in fuga ac post paulo in armis spem habere . . .) [BI 74.1] 

Treachery and bribery, which were his most effective weapons in the early part of the war, become his greatest fear. When a popular official is discovered to have plotted against the king’s life, Jugurtha is reduced to flattering the official with a gracious reply, not daring to express his displeasure for fear of provoking a rebellion (BI 72.1). His decision to use his freedom to enslave others has reduced him to flattering his own servants. 

Like Jugurtha, Catiline is also reduced to slavery by his passions.7 The desire to control the republic is said to “invade” or “seize” Catiline,8 and Sallust declares that his arrogant mind was “driven” (“agitabatur”) by “the poverty of his household and the consciousness of his crimes” (“inopia rei familiaris et conscientia scelerum”) [BC 5.7]. The description of how Catiline is tortured by his conscience is one of the most vivid in the book: 

For his filthy soul, hostile to gods and men, was able to find rest neither in waking nor in sleeping, his conscience so ravaged his terrified mind. Thence his bloodless complexion, his horrible eyes, his pace now fast, now slow; in short, there was madness in his features and his looks. (Namque animus impurus, dis hominibus infestus, neque vigiliis neque quietibus sedari poterat; ita conscientia mentem excitam vastabat. Igitur color ei exanguis, foedi oculi, citus modo modo tardus incessus, prorsus in facie voltuque vecordia inerat.) [BC 15.4-5] 

Besides the mental slavery which Catiline endures, he is also goaded by the debts resulting from his prodigality, which “were enormous through all the lands” (“per omnis terras ingens erat”) [BC 16.4]. Catiline’s bodyguard and friends are slaves to the same passions and crimes, since he purposely chooses as followers “all whom disgrace, poverty, [or] a guilty conscience hounded” (“omnes quos flagitium, egestasa, conscius animus exagitabat”) [BC 14.1-3]. 

Surprisingly, Catiline and his fellow conspirators agree with Sallust that their situation is a form of slavery. Catiline urges his followers to liberate themselves9 and Catiline’s lieutenant Manlius insists that they are fighting only for “liberty, which no good man relinquishes except along with his life” (“libertatem, quam nemo bonus nisi cum anima simul amittit”) [BC 33.4]. Ironically, whereas Sallust shows that the rebels are enslaved to their own passions and crimes, Manlius claims that their slavery is due to the injustice of the state in expecting them to pay their debts (BC 33.1). The liberty which the conspirators desire is license to squander their patrimony and indulge their passions without paying the consequences. This use of the word “libertas” is in direct opposition to Cato’s use of the word in his oration against the conspirators. Cato sets the context of his oration by describing the conspirators as men “who had prepared war against their own fatherland, parents, altars, and hearths” (“qui patriae, parentibus, aris atque focis suis bellum paravere”) [BC 52.3]. Urging his fellow senators to respond vigorously to the threat, he exclaims: 

“But by the immortal gods, I implore you—you who have always valued your houses, villas, statues, paintings more highly than the republic— if you wish to retain these things to which you cling, of whatever kind they are, if you wish to furnish leisure for your pleasures, bestir yourselves before it is too late, and administer the republic. I am not treating of taxes or injustices to our allies; our liberty and lives are in danger.” (“Sed, per deos immortalis, vos ego appello, qui semper domos, villas, signa, tabulas vostras pluris quam rem publicam fecistis; si ista, cuiuscumque modi sunt, quae amplexamini, retinere, si voluptatibus vostris otium praebere voltis, expergiscimini aliquando et capessite rem publicam. Non agitur de vectigalibus neque de sociorum iniuriis; libertas et anima nostra in dubio est.”) [BC 52.6] 

In this passage, Cato does not deny that libertas includes the freedom to enjoy villas, statues, and paintings, so long as they are lawfully possessed. Yet his understanding of libertas is placed within the context of fatherland, parents, altar, and hearth. For Cato, as for Sallust, true liberty consists of the freedom to pursue virtue, a virtue which could be summarized as the fulfilling of one’s duties to one’s parents, fatherland, and gods. As Sallust explains in the preface to Bellum Iugurthinum, such virtue makes one independent even of fortune: 

When the mind advances towards glory by the way of virtue, it is abundantly strong and powerful and renowned, nor does it need fortune, which of course can neither give nor take away honesty, industry, and other good things of character from anyone. ([Animus] ubi ad gloriam virtutis via grassatur, abunde pollens potensque et clarus est neque fortuna egret, quippe probitatem, industriam, aliasque artis bonas neque dare neque eripere cuiquam potest.) [BI 1.3] 

Since Catiline and his fellow conspirators are slaves to vice, not even the “legis praesidium”—the “bulwark of the law” which ensures civic liberty and for which they claim to be fighting—can give them true freedom (BC 33.5). 

Marius’ letter in defense of the conspirators is paralleled by Memmius’ speech in the Bellum Iugurthinum, in which he urges the commons to defend their rights against the oppression of the nobles. The rhetoric and arguments of Marius and Memmius are similar, but Sallust makes it clear that the commons have a just grievance against the nobles, while Catiline and his conspirators do not.10 Despite this fundamental difference between the two pieces of rhetoric, Memmius’ oration is helpful for understanding one of the premises assumed by Marius in his shorter letter. When Marius equates the conspirators’ supposed struggle for liberty with a struggle for the legis praesidium, he makes rhetorical use of the idea that political liberty depends on just laws.11 Correspondingly, the importance of law in safeguarding political liberty is the underlying principle which determines most of the arguments and rhetoric of Memmius’ speech. For instance, Memmius’ primary accusation against the nobles is that they have undermined the laws and hijacked the legitimate offices of the republic for their own ends. He describes their tyranny as the times “when kingdoms, provinces, laws, rights, courts, war and peace—in short, all things divine and human— [are] in the hands of a few men” (“cum regna, provinciae, leges, iura, iudicia, bella atque paces, postremo divina et humana omnia penes paucos erant”) [BI 31.20]. Significantly, Memmius explains to his audience that he does not urge them to defend their rights by violence, but to address the corruption in the senate through legal investigations (BI 31.18). As long as the commons possess a degree of political power, it is “more unbecoming for [the commons] to have inflicted [violence] than for [the nobles] to have suffered [it]” (“magis vos fecisse quam illis accidisse indignum est”) [BI 31.18]. Since law is the best defense of liberty, violent secession, which overturns the law, should be used only as a last resort.12 After all, even though their forefathers “twice occupied the Aventine with arms in a secession in order to obtain their rights and establish their sovereignty” (“parandi iuris et maiestatis constituendae gratia bis per secessionem armati Aventinum occupavere”), Memmius says, “in truth, not law but the will of the [nobles] put an end to both slaughters” (“utriusque cladis non lex verum lubido eorum finem fecit”) [BI 31.17, 31.7]. 

Sallust certainly agrees with Memmius that just laws are necessary for the establishment of liberty in a society. In his description of the founding of Rome, he emphasizes the importance of law and of legitimate authority for ensuring a free society, whether it be a monarchy or a republic.13 However, Sallust also makes it clear that legis praesidium is not enough for liberty, because genuine freedom depends on the possession of virtue. If an individual or a nation lacks good morals, not even the best laws can protect it from slavery to passion and crime. Consequently, Sallust declares that early Rome was just and good as much because of the nature and morals of the people as by their laws: “Therefore good morals were cultivated at home and abroad. . . . justice and honesty prevailed among them not because of laws so much as by their nature/character” (“Igitur domi militiaeque boni mores colebantur. . . . ius bonumque apud eos non legibus magis quam natura valebat”) [BC 9.1]. Freedom was lost not because of a defect in Roman laws, but because of the decline of Roman virtue, when “the nobility began to exchange their dignity, and the people to exchange their liberty, for inordinate desire, [and] every one for himself cheated, robbed, plundered” (“coepere nobilitas dignitatem, populus libertatem in lubidinem votere, sibi quisque ducere, trahere, rapere”) [BI 41.5]. 

The importance of virtue as the foundation of Roman greatness is a point to which Sallust returns again and again, not only in his comments as a narrator but also in the words and deeds of his characters. In fact, Sallust specifically says that his portrayals of Cato and Caesar are intended to be examples of how “the extraordinary virtue of a few citizens” (“paucorum civium egregiam virtutem”) was the foundation of Rome’s greatness (BC 53.4). As Cato explains in his oration against the conspirators, 

“Do not suppose our ancestors made a great republic out of an insignificant state by arms. . . . But there were other things which made them great, which we do not have at all: industry at home, a just rule abroad, a free mind in taking counsel, not burdened by crime and lust.” (“Nolite existumare maiores nostros armis rem publicam ex parva magnam fecisse. . . . Sed alia fuere, quae illos magnos fecere, quae nobis nulla sunt: domi industria, foris iustum imperium, animus in consulundo liber, neque delicto neque lubidini obnoxius.”) [BC 52.21] 

Cato and Caesar may be the only models of virtue in Sallust’s two historical monographs, but the Bella are full of negative models, the most obvious being Catiline and Jugurtha themselves. The corrupt senators in the Bellum Iugurthinum are other examples of how individual vice leads to political slavery. Bribed by Jugurtha, most of the senators support Jugurtha’s seizure of the kingdom of Numidia, which the late King Micipsa had divided between his sons, Adherbal and Hiempsal, and Jugurtha, the illegitimate son of Micipsa’s brother. Although the exiled Adherbal appeals to the senate in person to avenge Jugurtha’s murder of Hiempsal and seizure of the kingdom, most of the senators “with influence, voice, in short in all ways, were striving on behalf of the crime and outrage of a foreigner as if for their own glory” (“gratia, voce, denique omnibus modis pro alieno scelere et flagitio sua quasi pro gloria nitebantur”) [BI 15.2]. Instead of punishing Jugurtha for his crimes, the senate re-divides the kingdom between Adherbal and Jugurtha, a move which simply encourages Jugurtha’s lust for power. The senate does eventually declare war on Jugurtha, but only once he has made himself the sole ruler of Numidia after torturing and killing Adherbal. Jugurtha is defeated only with great difficulty, in a war that was “great and violent and attended by diverse victories” (“magnum et atrox variaque victoria”) [BI 5.1]. 

After his first dealings with the senate, when Jugurtha saw that, contrary to his fears, the senate was practically rewarding him for his crimes, “he regarded as certain what he had received from his friends in Numantia—that in Rome, all things are for sale” (“certum esse ratus, quod ex amicis apud Numantiam acceperat, omnia Romae venalia esse”) [BI 20.1]. This is the second time the phrase “omnia Romae venalia esse” is used in the Bellum Iugurthinum, and it will appear again when Jugurtha employs still more bribery to thwart Memmius’ attempts to reform the corrupt senate (BI 33-4).14 In one of the most memorable lines of the book, Sallust relates: 

But after [Jugurtha] had gone out of Rome, it is held that, after looking back at the city frequently in silence, he finally had said, “A city for sale and soon to perish if it finds a buyer!” (Sed postquam Roma egressus est, fertur saepe eo tacitus respiciens postremo dixisse, “Urbem venalem et mature perituram, si emptorem invenerit!”) [BI 35.10] 

The image evoked by these lines is of the Roman republic transformed into a slave in the market, to be purchased by the highest bidder. Rome has fallen from being the ruler of the world to being a slave at the beck and call of foreign powers. As Memmius tells his audience, “the republic is for sale at home and abroad” (“domi militiaeque res publica venalis fuit”)—not only is there oppression within the republic by the different factions, but any foreign nation with enough wealth can purchase the consciences of the nobility and drive the Roman people to their own destruction (BI 31.25). The private vices of the citizens are destroying not only their own moral liberty but also the liberty of the Roman republic. 


Despite the negative tone of Sallust’s narratives, he did not write the Bella simply to complain about contemporary Roman society or to condemn his contemporaries for their corruption and licentiousness. On the contrary, Sallust sees his Bella as offering at least a partial solution to the problems of his day. This is made clear by his preface to the Bellum Iugurthinum, in which he says that even his critics, if they reflect, must judge that “greater gain will come to the republic from [his] leisure”—that is, from the time Sallust spends writing history—“than from the activities of others” (“maiusque commodum ex otio meo quam ex aliorum negotiis rei publicae venturum”) [BI 4.4]. Sallust explains this statement by telling how the great leaders of Rome were inspired to pursue virtue by the memory of the achievements of their ancestors: 

For I have often heard Quintus Maximus and Publius Scipio, besides other famous men of our state, who were accustomed to speak thus: when they regarded the images of their ancestors, their soul was exceedingly kindled for virtue; to be sure, [they did not mean] that either the wax or the figure had such power in them; rather, this flame springs up in the breast for extraordinary men because of the memory of the deeds accomplished [by their ancestors], nor is it extinguished until [their own] virtue has equaled the fame and glory of [their ancestors]. (Nam saepe ego audivi Q. Maxumum, P. Scipionem, praeterea civitatis nostrae praeclaros viros solitos ita dicere, cum maiorum imagines intuerentur, vehementissume sibi animum ad virtutem accendi. Scilicet non ceram illam neque figuram tantam vim in sese habere, sed memoria rerum gestarum eam flammam egregiis viris in pectore crescere neque prius sedari, quam virtus eorum famam atque gloriam adaequaverit.) [BI 4.5] 

In this passage, “memoria rerum gestarum” literally means “the memory of the deeds accomplished [by their ancestors].” However, the phrase “res gestae” is regularly used in Latin as a synonym for “history” because the historian gives an account of “things accomplished.” By using this phrase, Sallust is comparing his history of the Jugurthine War with the wax images that inspired virtue in the great men of the past. Through his account of the res gestae of previous eras, Sallust hopes to inspire his readers to pursue virtue, in order to undo at least in a small way Rome’s slavery to luxury and sloth. 

Sallust’s metaphor of history as a wax figure that inspires virtue by “memoria rerum gestarum” is eloquent and memorable, but the immediate charm of the image can conceal the full extent of Sallust’s reflection on education. A careful study of the Bella reveals that Sallust is constantly reflecting on different types of education and eventually outlines his own theory of the ideal education for potential leaders. Sallust’s interest in education is most evident in the preface to the Bellum Catilinae: 

But for a long time there was conflict among mortals whether military affairs were benefited more by strength of body or by excellence of mind. For before you begin, there is need of deliberation, and when you have consulted, there is need of prompt action. . . . Accordingly, in the beginning kings took different courses, some training the mind, and others the body. . . . in the end, by danger and affairs it became clear that the mind is more powerful in war. (Sed diu magnum inter mortalis certamen fuit vine corporis an virtute animi res militaris magis procederet. Nam et prius quam incipias, consulto, et ubi consulueris, mature facto opus est. . . . Igitur initio reges . . . divorsi pars ingenium, alii corpus exercebant. . . . demum periculo atque negotiis compertum est in bello plurumum ingenium posse.) [BC 1.5-2.2] 

Sallust continues by explaining that mental excellence is also of primary importance in peace, but unfortunately most rulers yield to intellectual sloth as soon as the danger of war is past. 

That Sallust believes it is more important to train the mind than to train the body should surprise no one, given his comment in the Bellum Iugurthinum that “a handsome appearance, great wealth [and] strength of body in addition, and all other things of this sort decay in a short time; but the splendid achievements of the intellect are immortal like the soul” (“praeclara facies, magnae divitiae, ad hoc vis corporis et alia omnia huiuscemodi brevi dilabuntur, at ingeni egregia facinora sicuti anima immortalia sunt”) [BI 2.2]. Sallust’s reflections on the relative value of different educations go well beyond such elementary observations, however, especially in his descriptions of the early training of the various characters in the Bella, and in the speeches of several characters. 

Sallust’s descriptions of Marius’ and Jugurtha’s educations are particularly significant in light of his emphasis in the preface of the Bellum Catilinae on training the intellect. Sallust speaks approvingly of Jugurtha’s purely physical education: 

When [Jugurtha] had first grown up . . . he did not give himself over to be corrupted by luxury or sloth, but as is the custom of that race, he rode, he cast the javelin, he competed at full speed with his age-fellows . . . in addition, he spent much of his time in hunting . . . (Qui ubi primum adolevit . . . non se luxu neque inertiae corrumpendum dedit, sed, uti mos gentis illius est, equitare, iaculari, cursu cum aequalibus certare . . . ad hoc pleraque tempora in venando agere . . .) [BI 6.1] 

Sallust gives a similarly positive portrayal of Marius’ education: 

[W]hen first he reached the age capable of military service, he trained himself in active service, not in Greek eloquence nor in the elegance of the city; thus among good arts his unspoiled mind soon matured. ([U]bi primum aetas militiae patiens fuit, stipendiis faciundis, non Graeca facundia neque urbanis munditiis sese exercuit; ita inter artis bonas integrum ingenium brevi adolevit.) [BI 63.3] 

Later in the book, when addressing the commons which have elected him to the office of consul, Marius claims that his industry, fortitude, and moderation are due to the practical, military education he received. He expresses his scorn for “Greek letters” (“litteras Graecas”), commenting, “it was little pleasing [to me] to learn them, since with respect to virtue they had profited their teachers not at all” (“parum placebat eas discere, quippe quae ad virtutem doctoribus nihil profuerant”) [BI 85.13-14, 32-33].15

Strangely enough, Sallust agrees with Marius to a certain extent. Roman or Numidian military training are excellent ways to gain habits of fortitude, industry, and moderation, as well as an understanding of military strategy, which could be critically important for a Roman leader. Considering how many of their contemporaries gave themselves over to debauchery and idleness, the education that Marius and Jugurtha received was comparatively excellent. Nevertheless, the fact that Marius was driven headlong by his ambition for the consulship (BI 63.6) and that Jugurtha became a cruel and ruthless tyrant is evidence that the physical and practical education of a soldier is insufficient for virtue—and therefore, insufficient for leadership. 

Besides evaluating the worth of military training, Sallust also explores the value of an education in Greek eloquence. His conclusion is that training in Greek letters— even if combined with military discipline—is also insufficient for producing virtuous statesmen, although the rhetorical power it gives one is certainly important for leadership.16 Sulla is the example Sallust provides of a military leader who was also trained in Greek letters. Sallust explains that Sulla “was extremely well-versed equally in Greek and Latin letters, with an incredible mind . . . eloquent, clever, and quickly a friend” (“litteris Graecis et Latinis iuxta atque doctissume eruditus, animo ingenti . . . facundus, callidus, et amicitia facilis”) [BI 95.3]. Nevertheless, Sulla was “desirous of pleasure but more desirous of glory” (“cupidus voluptatum sed gloriae cupidior”), vices which are inconsistent with Sallust’s vision of a virtuous leader (BI 95.3). As his final verdict, Sallust refers to the dictatorship which Sulla would later exercise, saying, “For the thing which he did later, I am uncertain whether one should be ashamed or rather grieved to treat of it” (“Nam postea quae fecerit, incertum habeo pudeat an pigeat magis disserere”) [BI 95.4]. In the end, neither military training nor Greek letters nor a combination of the two is sufficient for virtuous leadership. 

Sallust’s critical evaluation of military training and Greek letters demonstrates just how much he expects from his Bella in terms of an education in virtue. Despite his comparison of history to the waxen images of one’s ancestors, Sallust did not write his histories as inspiring stories of virtuous leadership. Rather, he wished to construct texts that not only incite the soul towards virtue but also actively train the soul in political prudence, just as military discipline trains the body in strength and Greek letters train the mind in intelligence. In light of the political context in which Sallust was writing, it is probable that his intended audience is ambitious young men who have the potential for virtuous leadership but are in danger of succumbing to desire for regnum, or tyrannical power. Sallust knows from experience the power which “corrupt ambition” (“ambitione corrupta”) can have over inexperienced youth, and he also knows that corrupt statesmen like Catiline especially try to attract talented young men as their followers (BC 3.4, 14.4-6). Both the Bellum Catilinae and the Bellum Iugurthinum were written within the first four years after Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC. During this period of political upheaval, as Octavian and Marcus Antonius struggled for control of Rome, it would be all too easy for ambitious young men to be corrupted by the bribery and power-struggles around them. At the same time, virtuous leaders were desperately needed during this transition period from republic to empire. The future of Rome depended upon the formation of potential leaders. 

Sallust’s “Speech to Caesar”—a work which, if authentic, was probably delivered in 46 BC, two years before Caesar’s assassination—makes explicit Sallust’s concern for the education of the young. The oration as a whole is remarkable for its foreshadowing of themes in the Bella, especially in its insistence that “every man is the architect of his own fortune” (“fabrum esse suae quemque fortunae”) and its description of how the desire for luxury and riches leads to personal slavery and to a corrupt political order in which civic offices are venalia, “up for sale” (“Speech” 1.2, 8.2-3).17 Sallust devotes the first half of the oration to advice on conducting war in a merciful way; the second half, to establishing peace in Italy. To do this, Sallust declares that it is necessary to check the current customs, namely, 

that mere youths think it most sweet to waste their own and others’ substance [and] deny nothing to their lust and the soliciting of others, and that they consider this conduct to be virtue and greatness of soul, and judge decency and restraint to be the same as weak-mindedness (ut homines adulescentuli sua atque aliena consumere, nihil libidinei atque aliis rogantibus denegare pulcherrimum putent, eam virtutem et magnitudinem animi, pudorem atque modestiam pro socordia aestiment). [“Speech” 5.5] 

Sallust continues: “if the pursuits and habits of young men remain the same, assuredly that extraordinary fame of yours, along with the city of Rome, will soon perish” (“sin eadem studia artesque iuventuti erunt, ne ista egregia tua fama simul cum urbe Roma brevi concidet”) [“Speech” 6.1]. Besides illustrating Sallust’s knowledge of human nature in appealing to Caesar’s ambitious nature as well as his desire to preserve Rome, this sentence shows what importance Sallust placed upon the education of the young. This concern, which dominates the second half of the oration, a few years later led him to write the Bella as educations in virtue for young leaders. 

As noted above, Sallust begins the Bellum Iugurthinum by comparing his history to the wax images that incite great men to imitate the virtue of their ancestors. However, a fundamental difference between the wax images and the historical characters that Sallust describes in his Bella is that the former are models of virtue, while the latter are mostly models of vice. In fact, even Caesar and Cato, Sallust’s supposed models of virtue, do not receive unambiguous praise.18 The explanation for this cannot be that Sallust had few great men to portray in such a corrupt era, because he could have chosen any historical period to write about. Rather, the Bella strongly resemble cautionary tales intended to warn young men away from the temptation to tyranny. From his reflections on human nature, Sallust seems to have concluded that fear of the tyrant’s fate would be more effective in motivating the soul towards virtue than desire for virtue itself, however gloriously portrayed. And indeed, if Sallust’s vivid descriptions of Catiline’s and Jugurtha’s psychological and political ruin do not convince his audience of the undesirability of regnum, or tyrannical power, nothing will.19

Although Sallust does not give unambiguous examples of characters who have achieved glory through virtue, Sallust is quite thorough in his description and praise of this glory.20 After all, if he succeeds in convincing ambitious young men of the undesirability of the life of a tyrant, it is important that he provide them with another, more noble goal to pursue. Accordingly, Sallust begins both the Bellum Catilinae and the Bellum Iugurthinum with praise for the capacity of the human intellect to achieve glory through virtue: “For the glory belonging to riches and beauty is fleeting and frail; virtue remains illustrious and imperishable” (“Nam divitiarum et formae gloria fluxa atque fragilis est, virtus clara aeternaque habetur”) [BC 1.4]. This glory can be achieved in many ways. Sallust declares that “the arts of the mind by which the highest fame is prepared are many and diverse” (“multae variaeque sint artes animi, quibus summa claritudo paratur”); both the commanding of an army and the writing of histories are ways of advancing “towards glory by the way of virtue” (“ad gloriam virtutis via”) [BI 1.2, 2.4].21

Nevertheless, of the many ways in which human beings can achieve glory, Sallust argues that public office is undesirable in such corrupt times. The only way one could reform the state, he declares, is by force, which is “unfitting” (“importunum”) to use against one’s “fatherland or parents/subjects”22 (“patriam aut parentes”), especially since “all changes in the affairs of state foretell slaughter, exile, and other hostile things” (“omnes rerum mutationes caedem, fugam, aliaque hostilia portendant”) [BI 3.2]. Sallust is responding to potential critics of his decision to withdraw from public affairs. He explains that, instead of wasting his time “greet[ing] the populace and seek[ing] favor with banquets”23 (“salutare plebem et conviviis gratiam quaerere”), he is devoting himself to “the so great and so useful labor” (“tanto tamque utili labori”) of recording the history of the Roman people (BI 4.3). Since Sallust writes the Bella in order to train young leaders in political prudence, his withdrawal from active political life is not a withdrawal from concern for the Roman state. Rather, the leisure he has gained allows him to write the Bella as attempts to reform the morals of the Roman people by education instead of by force. 


Curiously, Sallust’s praise of the private life and his scorn for useless political activity are not recurring themes in either of the Bella. Once he has defended his own withdrawal from public affairs, he does not seem interested in dissuading others from engaging in political life. Instead, he devotes himself to constructing his histories in such a way as to give future political leaders the proper education for their difficult task. The Bella are texts that prompt their readers to engage in moral reasoning about the political situations portrayed in the histories. Even Sallust’s writing style plays a part in developing readers’ attentiveness. Un-Ciceronian in the extreme, Sallust’s style is characterized by brevitas, variato and inconcinnitas—that is, brevity, variety, and dissymmetry. He achieves these effects by a heavy use of archaic terms and spellings, a conscious employment of non-parallel structures (e.g., pairing an adjective with a prepositional phrase), a bold use of grammar and syntax in ways contrary to common usage, and extensive use of ellipsis and asyndeton. The result is abrupt, rapid prose that keeps the reader on his toes by its unexpected twists and turns. 

More important than his writing style is Sallust’s way of presenting the events in the Bella. Sallust’s most effective tool for educating his readers in political prudence is the many speeches in the Bella. There are six orations or letters in the Bellum Catilinae24 and seven in the Bellum Iugurthinum25, and each is highly persuasive in terms of its rhetoric. Nevertheless, Sallust hardly ever comments on the speeches, not even to prevent readers from being deceived by sophistical rhetoricians. In fact, after the contradictory speeches of Caesar and Cato in the Bellum Catilinae (BC 51, 52), Sallust actually praises both characters at length. Only careful political reasoning can enable the reader to judge between Caesar’s and Cato’s diametrically opposed arguments regarding how to deal with the conspirators. The two speeches of Catiline (BC 20, 58) and the letter of Manlius (BC 33) place readers in a similar quandary because their claim to be fighting for liberty introduces readers to the debate over the nature of true freedom. Although the rhetoric which Catiline and Manlius use makes their arguments initially persuasive, what they mean by “libertas” is dramatically opposed to Sallust’s understanding of freedom by and for virtue. 

In the Bellum Iugurthinum, the speeches require the reader to compare the speaker’s words with his deeds. This necessity is made clear by King Micipsa’s deathbed speech. Although Micipsa emphasizes the affection between him and Jugurtha and the need for friendship between Jugurtha and his own sons, Sallust’s readers know that Micipsa is speaking insincerely. In fact, Micipsa had sent the young Jugurtha to the Roman war in Numantia in the hope that his valor or the ruthlessness of the foe would lead to his death (BI 7.2). It is only as a last resort, in an attempt to satisfy Jugurtha’s ambitious nature, that Micipsa eventually makes Jugurtha co-heir with Adherbal and Hiempsal. Adherbal’s speech and letter to the Senate cannot be taken at face value, either (BI 14, 24). Adherbal’s excessive flattery and submission to the Senate is more likely to be due to the danger he finds himself in from Jugurtha than from an actual command from his father to think of Numidia—which was not a province, but an ally of Rome—as belonging to the Senate and of himself as merely its manager (BI 14.1). Marius’ speech to the commons cannot be trusted any more than the speeches of Micipsa and Adherbal. For instance, Marius refers to the clumsiness of the nobles in conducting the war with Jugurtha (BI 85.45-7), but Sallust’s readers know that Marius was a loyal lieutenant of Metellus, the current general in Numidia, until Metellus made fun of Marius’ ambition to be consul (BI 64.1-4). After that, Marius set about actively to undermine Metellus’ reputation (BI 64.5-65.5). To gain popularity among the commoners, Marius does not hesitate even to risk the success of the war by relaxing discipline among the soldiers (BI 64.5). Knowing what they do about Marius’ character, Sallust’s readers will think twice before believing Marius when he declares, “for me, who have spent my entire life in exemplary conduct, to act correctly has now, out of habit, turned into my nature” (“mihi, qui omnem aetatem in optumis artibus egi, bene facere iam ex consuetudine in naturam vortit”) [BI 85.9]. 

Sallust also uses other techniques to prompt readers to develop political and moral judgment. For instance, he often describes several possible motives for characters’ actions, thus requiring the reader to consider which possibility is most likely.26 For instance, in chapter 82 of the Bellum Iugurthinum, after describing how Metellus wept when he heard of Marius’ election to the consulship, Sallust says: 

This behavior some ascribe to arrogance, others think that a noble mind had been inflamed by insult; many, because the victory that was already achieved had been snatched from his hands. To us it is sufficiently understood that he was tormented more by the honor given to Marius than by his own injury, and he would not have endured such distress if the province, taken from him, had been handed over to someone other than Marius. (Quam rem alii in superbiam vortebant, alii bonum ingenium contumelia accensum esse, multi, quod iam parta victoria ex manibus eriperetur. Nobis satis cognitum est illum magis honore Mari quam iniuria sua excruciatum neque tam anxie laturum fuisse, si adempta provincia alii quam Mario traderetur.) [BI 82.3] 

Similarly, in chapter 19 of the Bellum Catilinae, Sallust offers two explanations for why Gnaeus Piso was slain by the Spanish cavalry under his command: 

There are some who say thus, that the barbarians had not been able to endure his rule, which was unjust, arrogant, and cruel; but others hold that those horsemen, who were old and faithful retainers of Gnaeus Pompey, had attacked Piso by his will; they point out that the Spaniards had never before committed such a crime, but had patiently endured many harsh commanders before. We will leave this matter undetermined. (Sunt qui ita dicant, imperia eius iniusta, superba, crudelia barbaros nequivisse pati; alii autem equites illos Cn. Pompei veteres fidosque clientis voluntate eius Pisonem aggressos; numquam Hispanos praeterea tale facinus fecisse, sed imperia saeva multa antea perpessos. Nos eam rem in medio relinquemus.) [BC 9.4-5] 

By prompting readers to ponder the many possible motives for characters’ actions, Sallust slowly but surely leads them to a deeper understanding of human nature. 

Another way Sallust educates his readers is by phrasing descriptions in paradoxical ways. For instance, after recounting the siege and capture of Jugurtha’s treasure fortress in the mountains, Sallust concludes, “Thus Marius’ rashness was set straight by chance, [and] he acquired glory out of an error” (“Sic forte correcta Mari temeritas gloriam ex culpa invenit”) [BI 94.6]. He then leaves it to the reader to decide whether Marius should be commended for attacking this virtually impregnable fortress. After all, the siege would have been a pointless waste of lives and resources if one of Marius’ men, collecting snails on the rocky slopes of the mountain, had not discovered a way up to the plateau behind the fortress. In another chapter, Sallust presents his readers with a seeming moral dilemma in his description of Marius’ decision to burn the town of Capsa and slaughter the adult inhabitants even though the town had surrendered—an act contrary to the law of war. 

This crime against the law of war was not perpetrated by the avarice or wickedness of the consul, but because the place was advantageous to Jugurtha [and] hard to access for us, [and because] the race of men was fickle, unfaithful, and had previously been controlled neither by kindness nor by fear. (Id facinus contra ius belli non avaritia neque scelere consulis admissum, sed quia locus Iugurthae opportunus, nobis aditu difficilis, genus hominum mobile, infidum, ante neque benificio neque metu coercitum.) [BI 91.5-7] 

Were Marius’ reasons sufficient to justify disregard for the laws of war? Sallust leaves this implicit question unanswered, since he wants his readers to grapple with it for themselves. As future leaders, Sallust’s readers will themselves be faced with cases in which the arguments for disregarding moral principles will seem compelling and urgent. In such situations, previous experience in holding fast to moral principles is critically important. 

Still more importantly, leaders must develop the forethought to avoid situations in which disregarding moral principles will seem to be the only option. Sallust does not directly condemn Marius for cruelty, but he repeatedly emphasizes Marius’ lack of forethought in attempting to attack Capsa at all. Not only was Capsa a well-fortified town, but it was in the middle of a desert full of deadly serpents. Sallust compares Marius’ attack on Capsa to Metellus’ successful attack on Thala—a town that was also located in the middle of the desert—but he does so not in order to make the plan seem less impossible but in order to explain the origin of the “very great desire” (“maxuma cupido”) that seized Marius—namely, the desire to gain as much glory as Metellus (BI 89.6). In fact, the comparison of Capsa with Thala reveals just how rash Marius’ plan was. Whereas there were several springs of water outside the walls of Thala, the only water at Capsa was inside the walls. Consequently, even if Marius and his men were able to cross the desert, they would have to defeat Capsa immediately or risk dying of thirst. Not only would they be unable to lay seige to Capsa the way Metellus did to Thala, they would not even be able to retreat back across the desert, since they had no supply of water. Sallust admits that Marius “arranged the enterprise carefully enough under the circumstances” (“pro rei copia satis providenter exornat”) [BI 90.1]. Nevertheless, the enterprise which Marius had chosen was such that Sallust says the consul was “depending, I suppose, on the gods, for it was not possible to provide sufficiently against such difficulties by counsel” (“credo dis fretus, nam contra tantas difficultates consilio satis prouidere non poterat”) [BI 90.1]. 

The gravity of Marius’ responsibilities to his soldiers and to the Roman people makes it difficult to see how depending on the gods could be a sufficient substitute for mature forethought. Not only does he ignore the consequences of failure, he also ignores the consequences of success. The only way Marius could defeat Capsa is by taking it by surprise and forcing it to surrender immediately. Since Capsa was so difficult to access, however, there would be almost no way to ensure its loyalty once it surrendered. If he allowed the inhabitants to live and they returned to Jugurtha—and Capsa was one of the towns most loyal to Jugurtha—it would be impossible to conquer them again, since Marius’ first victory was due to surprise. Even leaving a garrison in the town would be insufficient since there would be no reliable way to send reinforcements if the city rebelled. In other words, if Marius defeated Capsa, he would have to choose between transgressing the law of war and relinquishing any permanent advantage he might have gained from the victory. Certainly, he would still have achieved his personal goal of obtaining glory and impressing the enemy and his own men, and he could also take a great deal of booty. Nevertheless, only the permanent defeat of Capsa could produce the long-term, practical benefits that would justify his rash attack on Capsa and conceal the fact that he had risked his men’s lives simply to establish his own reputation. 

By comparing Marius’ attack on Capsa to Metellus’ attack on Thala, Sallust reveals that the seeming moral dilemma in which Marius finds himself is of his own making. If Marius had exercised forethought and considered the consequences both of victory and (what was more likely) of defeat, it is to be hoped that he would not have attacked the town at all. As it was, Marius’ initial rashness puts him in a position in which the only way he can take advantage of his victory is by committing an atrocity. Sallust recounts the incident in a way that allows the readers to experience just how strong the temptation can be to transgress moral principles for personal or state reasons. Hopefully, thoughtful readers of the Bellum Iugurthinum will be struck not only by the dangerous power of such temptations, but also by the possibility of using forethought to avoid situations in which one will be tempted to betray one’s moral principles. If one has trouble remaining faithful to principle, one should be all the more careful to avoid such situations. The account as a whole reveals the importance of moral as well as political and military forethought. 

The examples given above reveal what an extensive education Sallust’s Bella can provide for potential leaders. Unlike an education consisting solely of military training or Greek eloquence, Sallust’s education is designed to prepare young men for virtuous leadership. The narrative structures of the Bella, recounting as they do the rise and fall of Catiline and Jugurtha, impress upon readers the consequences of virtue and vice, both for the individual and the state, and communicate Sallust’s most urgent message: that the fortune of princes changes with their character (BC 2.5). Sallust’s nuanced portrayals of the different characters in the Bella educate his readers in human nature, and the many speeches in the Bella train readers to discern a person’s true character beneath insincere rhetoric. Finally, through his portrayals of the prudential judgments which leaders must make, Sallust gives his readers experience in applying moral and political principles to practical situations. 


By developing his readers’ moral and political acumen in his account of the wars with Catiline and Jugurtha, Sallust hopes to educate a new generation of leaders capable of preventing such wars in the future. For Sallust, peace is the primary goal of government, and thus the main goal of his education as well. The importance of peace in Sallust’s understanding of the art of politics is clear in his speech to Caesar. The speech can be divided into two parts; in the first, Sallust offers Caesar advice for war (sections 1-4) and in the second, advice for peace (sections 5-8). Even the section on war is directed towards peace, however. Sallust’s advice to Caesar on how to conclude his war with Pompey is to exercise mercy so that his victory will be followed by a just and lasting peace (“Speech” 3.1-3). In the second half of his speech, Sallust gives Caesar advice for how to maintain peace once it is attained. That Caesar desires peace, Sallust treats as obvious, since “wise men wage war for the sake of peace, they endure labor in the hope of leisure. Unless you make that firm, what does it matter to be conquered or to conquer?” (“sapientes pacis causa bellum gerunt, laborem spe otii sustentant. Nisi illam firmam efficis, vinci an vicisse quid retulit?”) [“Speech” 6.2]. To establish Rome in firm peace, Sallust declares, it is necessary to establish harmony among citizens by casting out “licentiousness of expenditure and plundering” (“sumptuum et rapinarum licentiam”) [“Speech” 5.4]. The most important thing is for Caesar to “keep vicious occupations and evil desires away from the young” (“ut pravas artis malasque libidines ab iuventute prohibeas”) so that “the young man may devote himself to honesty and industry, not expenditures and riches” (“iuventus probitati et industriae, non sumptibus neque divitiis studeat”) [“Speech” 6.4, 7.2]. For this purpose, Sallust suggests that Caesar check the love of money and luxury by making a law preventing men from living outside their means. Caesar’s task, Sallust declares, is “strengthening the republic for the future, not by arms alone and against the enemy, but—what is far, far more rugged [a task]—in the good arts of peace” (“in posterum firmanda res publica non armis modo neque advorsum hostis, sed, quod multo multoque asperius est, pacis bonis artibus”) [“Speech” 1.8].27 

As noted above, Sallust’s “Speech to Caesar” was probably delivered in 46 BC, three years after Caesar crossed the Rubicon and two years before his assassination. The Bellum Catilinae, in contrast, was published soon after Caesar’s assassination and Sallust’s own retirement from public affairs, probably in 44 BC, and the Bellum Iugurthinum was published after the Bellum Catilinae, around 41 BC. Sallust’s analysis of Rome’s decay is the same in all three works: Rome is enslaved, he explains, to the greed and licentiousness of its own citizens. Although man’s nature is capable of incredible greatness, when individuals become slaves to vice, neither their own liberty nor the liberty of the state can endure for long. Although Sallust’s diagnosis of Rome’s malaise remains the same, the solution he offers to Caesar is different from that which he embodies in the Bella. Whereas in the Bella he attempts to reform the morals of Roman youths through an education in virtue, in the “Speech to Caesar” he proposes the enactment of a law to check the greed and license of young Romans by preventing them from living outside their income. To be sure, the fact that Sallust is addressing a political leader in his “Speech to Caesar” may be a sufficient explanation for why he proposes a political solution instead of a cultural solution. However, during the period between the speech and the publication of the Bella, he may also have become disillusioned with political methods of reforming Roman morals. Certainly, his attempts in the “Speech” to dampen Caesar’s ambition and warn him against ruling the state for his own benefit instead of for the good of the Roman people were unsuccessful. Regardless, by the time Sallust wrote the Bella he was convinced that an education in virtuous leadership, such as that he provides in his histories, could do more good than the political efforts of his contemporaries. Just as justice had prevailed in early Rome more because of good morals than because of laws, so Rome’s greatness would be restored not by political measures but by cultivating “the good arts of peace” (BC 9.1, “Speech” 1.8). 

Works Cited

Batstone, William. “The Antithesis of Virtue: Sallust’s Synkrisis and the Crisis of the Late 

Republic.” Classical Antiquity 7.1 (April 1988): 1-29. 

Cassius Dio Cocceianus. Dio’s Roman History. Translated by Earnest Cary. New York: Loeb

-Harvard U P, 1914. http://data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0385.tlg001.perseus-grc1:43.9 

Hands, A.R. “Sallust and Dissimulatio.” The Journal of Roman Studies 49.1-2 (1959): 56- 60. 

Kadleck, Stacie. Email conversation. University of Dallas. 10 Dec. 2012. 

Last, Hugh. “On the Sallustian Suasoriae.” Classical Quarterly 17.2 (April 1923): 87-100. 

—. “On the Sallustian Suasoriae II.” Classical Quarterly 17.3/4 (Jul-Oct 1923): 151-162. 

Sallust. Sallust. Trans. J.C. Rolfe. Cambridge, MA: Loeb-Oxford U P, 1931.

A Reading of Augustine’s “Confessions” and Its Implications for Education

Posted Posted in Liberal Education

William A. Frank 

University of Dallas 

Truth is that by which what is manifests itself. ––On True Religion 36. 

Because of its most sweet and happy contemplation of you, it firmly checks its own mutability. Without any lapse from its first creation, it has clung fast to you. ––Confessions 12.9.9 

It is silent to one, but speaks to the other. Nay rather, it speaks to all, but only those understand who compare its voice taken from outside with the truth within. ––Confessions 10.6.10 

Truth is loved in such wise that men who love some other object want what they love to be the truth . . .––Confessions 10.23.34 

Your best servant is he who looks not so much to hear from you what he wants to hear, but rather to want what he hears from you. ––Confessions 10.26.37 

We also, who are spiritual as to the soul, being turned away from you our light, were sometimes darkness in this life. ––Confessions 13.2.3 

I delighted in truth, in such little things and thoughts about such little things. I did not want to err. ––Confessions 1.20.31 

This book changed my affections. ––Confessions 3.4.7 

In his Confessions Augustine fashions an account of the first thirty-four years of his life. He situates moments of his personal story within the dynamic whole of the cosmos as he comes to understand it through his exegesis of the book of Genesis. At the time he composed and published the Confessions, some ten to twelve years after the last historical events narrated in it, Augustine was the bishop of Hippo. However, the Confessions is not primarily a book about the author’s past. He is just as concerned that his readers follow him in his present meditations on the Word of God as with their interest in how the Word brought him to where he now is. In effect, we encounter two Augustines. First, there is the Augustine narrated, the boy and young man whose actions and thoughts and feelings are brought forth out of memory. Second, there is Augustine who is the mature, teaching bishop writing his confessiones and situating the biographical parts within the larger “speech act” of the whole of his work. It is the overarching intent of the text as a whole that carries implications for understanding the meaning and practice of education. 

  1. A Reading of the Confessions 

Confessio Augustine’s mode of discourse 

As an entry to the meaning of the Confessions, I shall begin with remarks on its mode of discourse. Augustine’s approaches in the genre and structure of his text are notably distinctive. In comparison with the philosophical tradition, he is doing something new and unprecedented. 

Confessio—as to the character of his mode of discourse, James J. O’Donnell captures well its peculiarity: “It begins abruptly, with speech directed to a silent God— but speech chosen from the words of God himself. . . . This opening can give rise to the disconcerting feeling of coming into a room and chancing upon a man speaking to someone who isn’t there. He gestures in our direction and mentions us from time to time, but he never addresses his readers.” O’Donnell continues, “as a literary text, conf. resembles a one-sided, non-fiction epistolary novel, enacted in the presence of the silence (and darkness) of God.”1 What stands out in O’Donnell’s parody, is the image of a man’s direct address to an unseen and unheard interlocutor, spoken with the conceit of other interested hearers listening off on the sides and out of the picture. The mode of discourse is not accidental to Augustine’s meaning. “Confessio” is the name for the way he makes his meaning clear, draws his hearers and readers into what he says, and appeals to them for their assent. It is a term whose ordinary meaning for us is distant from Augustine’s original intention. He has located the engagement of mind and reality within the interiority of the inquirer’s heart and mind, and he understands the truth as freely entering into the scene from without and above both the material world and the immaterial soul. His “staging” of truth’s manifestation is an essential condition for the personal drama of the search for wisdom. Augustine’s rhetorical form contrasts starkly with the public form of the Greek philosophical mind, evident in the classical traditions of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and Epicureans, in which wisdom is achieved in the philosophers’ conversations in the agora, the academy, the stoa, or the gardens. In the classical philosophical form inquiring minds become manifest to one another as reality becomes evident to them in their common inquiry. By contrast, Augustine’s conceit has it that God’s hidden knowledge of reality and of Augustine is the source of both reality and Augustine’s knowing. “My confession is made in silence before you, my God, and yet not in silence. As to sound, it is silent, but it cries aloud with love. Nor do I say any good thing to men except what you have first heard from me; nor do you hear any such thing from me but what you have first spoken to me” (10.2.2).2 The written word of the Confessions represents the third intention, as it were. What we read are words that Augustine first intends for God, and those words, more primarily intended in direct discourse with God, Augustine himself first receives from God’s original word to him. Our only access to God’s discourse with Augustine is through Augustine’s personal testimony in his confessions

We recall Augustine’s very first words (which in fact are themselves words of Divine Revelation, Ps 47:2; 95:4; 144:3): “You are great, O Lord, and greatly to be praised: great is your power and to your wisdom there is no limit.” (1.1.1). O’Donnell writes: “strictly speaking these two lines contain a complete confession . . . that renders the remaining 78,000 or so words of the text superfluous.”3 There is a perspective on the world in which the fullness of truth and wisdom is expressed in these 15 Latin words: magnum es, domine, et laudabilis valde. Magna virtus tua et sapientiae tuae non est numerus. In the first two sentences Augustine has said enough; it is, from a certain point of view, the sufficient confession. The spoken word achieves its end in such praise. The witness of praise is the sempiternal hymn of the heaven of heavens. It is also the end for which God created men and women. 

Yet Augustine continues through the following 78,000 words. From what perspective, therefore, are the opening words not a sufficient confession? In the case of mankind, the disordered loves of sinfulness shut down that praise. The thirteen books are Augustine’s account of God’s action in the restoration of that praise. The witness of his own sinfulness and God’s mercy is also one of the modes of Augustine’s confession. What Augustine writes in the Confessions is his self-understanding before the mirror of God or the truth of his life in the light of God’s Word. The truth of God’s merciful love rouses in him the mixed strains of sorrow, gratitude, and praise for God’s greatness. And because this account is spoken by a presiding bishop and shared in confident love with those who would recognize in it God’s word, they too join in the confessions of sorrow for sin, gratitude for mercy, and praise of the greatness of God. Augustine’s confessions, in sum, represent a complex “speech act” that establishes on the basis of truth a community of love, both between God and man, and man and man. They are a paradigm of Christian wisdom. 

The divine creator’s freedom lies at the basis of the truth about reality and the accessibility of Augustine’s knowledge of it. In addition, Augustine’s decision to become a “philosopher” in the Christian order of things, requires on his part a dramatic act of freedom. Many of these points are expressed in an instructive formulation of Thomas Prufer: “Augustine is paradigmatic for the theological form of mind in contrast to the Greek philosophical form.” For the Christian theological mind, “questioning comes to rest in a freedom which could choose other than it does. If God were to choose that creatures not be, then all that “being” would mean would be God alone. On the other hand, for creatures to be is for them to be, without remainder or reserve, chosen by and manifest to another. There is no privacy: man is because he is manifest to another. But this publicity to God is as hidden as God Himself, unless God’s eloquence manifests Him as our public and as the friend who confirms us in our knowledge of ourselves and one another.”4 In other words, if we grant that the human excellence which the Greeks called arête and the Romans virtus was achieved and manifest within a common public and a common world,5 Augustine has radically transformed the conditions of publicity and worldliness for human excellence. The most essential condition is God’s free decision to create, to reveal, and to restore. Augustine’s responsive freedom is the second condition. He achieves his wisdom in conversation with God and he acquires his moral strength—his continence and steadfast love—in the interior encounters with God. From within this interior status his subsequent public confession builds up the bonds of unity and draws members of the community into a common wisdom. 

Development through the thirteen books 

On first look, the structure of the Confessions’s thirteen books strikes one as odd. We see the first nine books governed straightforwardly by the lineaments of Augustine’s biography, from his infancy to his baptism and the death of his mother. Then the tenth book elaborates an account of memory as part of an analytical description of the hierarchy of being and the upward way of the mind’s search for God. Just when it seems that Book Ten should bring the whole work to a conclusion (at 10.26.37), it opens up to a ranging discussion of the structures of sin. The final three books, under the rubric of a commentary on the Book of Genesis 1.1 – 2.2, take up a wide variety of topics, such as the Trinity, consciousness of time, principles of scriptural hermeneutics, and the office of the bishop. 

Certain themes play a systematic role throughout the work as a whole. Of special interest are the restless heart (for instance at 1.1.1; 5.2.2; 13.1.1; 13.8.9; 13.37.52); dispersion of soul: “I spent my self upon the many” (2.1.1), “deafened by the clanking of my mortality . . . I wandered farther away from you and you let me go. I was tossed about and spilt out in my fornications; I flowed out and boiled over in them” (2.2.2); “my life is a distention or distraction . . . dissipated in many ways upon many things” (11.29.39); and continence: “there appeared to me the chaste dignity of continence” (8.11.27), “by continence we are gathered together and brought back to the One, from whom we have dissipated our being into many things” (10.29.40); “in you may my scattered longings be gathered together” (10.40.67); and the concept of cleaving to or holding fast: “See where a man’s feeble soul lies stricken when it does not cling to the solid support of truth” (4.14.23), “I was not steadfast in enjoyment of my God: I was borne up to you by your beauty, but soon I was borne down from you by my own weight” (7.17.23), “True it is that [the heaven of heavens] suffers no temporal changes which so clings to the immutable form that, although itself mutable, it is not changed” (12.19.28), “‘Be light made,’ and light was made, and every obedient intelligence in your heavenly city had cleaved to you and found rest in your Spirit, which is borne unchangeably over every changeable thing” (13.8.9). 

The common themes and distinctive particulars of the Confessions are situated within an overarching dynamic pattern of the rational or intellectual creature’s corrective or recovering ascent toward God as Truth and light from a prior tendency of descent and dispersion amidst the darksome depths (for instance, 2.10.18; 11.29.39; 13.8.9; 13.10.11; 13.14.15;). At the end stands the condition of steadfast love and praise of God. Augustine’s personal narrative follows such a pattern of descent (bks 1-5) and ascent (bks 5-9).6 So also does the “heaven of heavens” reflect the dynamic structure in the very first moment of creation (12.9.9; 12.11.12; 12.15.19-21). 

In mankind’s case, the upward movement represents the rectification of disordered love. Establishing the proper ordering of the love of creatures and the love of the Creator is the ultimate task for rational, intellectual creatures. In a poignant reflection on the tortuous path he had travelled in following out the impulses of his own disordered loves, Augustine confesses: “Too late have I loved you, O Beauty so ancient and so new, too late have I loved you. Behold, you were within me, while I was outside: it was there I sought you, and, a deformed creature, rushed headlong upon these things of beauty which you have made. You were with me, but I was not with you. . . . You have called to me, and have cried out, and have shattered my deafness. You have blazed forth with light, and have shone upon me, and have put my blindness to flight.” (10.27.38). The implicit narrative is generated from the interaction of two vectors: Augustine’s headlong embrace of the beauties of creation – which on the face of it seems nothing bad – and God’s ongoing solicitude and illumination which Augustine in his thirty-four years of life has only lately acknowledged. He depicts God’s word as shattering a deafness and his light as putting to flight a blindness. It’s important to realize that the deafness and blindness are conditions willed by Augustine himself. He did not want God in the picture, at least not on God’s terms. “I preferred to think that even you were mutable, than that I was not that which you are” (4.15.26). 

God’s absence in Augustine’s life represents a personal achievement to filter out the objective reality of God’s presence. There is a pattern or logic to the blocking of God’s reality from one’s life, which Augustine calls the three forms of temptations. They are the manifold pleasures of the flesh, vain curiosities of the intellect, and the proud ambitions of the will (10.30.41; 10.31.47; 10.35.54; 10.36.59). Later he characterizes them as the “motions of a dead soul” (13.21.30). They are also the agents of forgetfulness by which the disordered, inconstant heart hides the Truth from itself (10.2.2). One might think of them as the directive forces of the soul’s dissipation in its descent from God.7 Throughout the narrative sections of the Confessions Augustine presents himself being entangled in the different forms of sin in the variety of their manifestations. We also witness the drama of his systematic liberation from their chains one by one.8 The culminating moment of this long process of liberation occurs in the garden at Milan. There after an interior battle over his heart by his “lovers of old” (8.11.26) and “the chaste dignity of continence” (8.11.27), Augustine decides to love God wholeheartedly, to prefer altogether the love of God to the range of past loves that had claimed parts of his soul, as it were, to the exclusion of God. With that decision, “a peaceful light streamed into my heart, and all the dark shadows of doubt fled away” (8.12.29). 

Truth in the Confessions 

The themes of truth and Augustine’s theory of illumination are too large even for this overly ambitious essay. But we must at least gesture in their direction in order to understand the essential rational component in the restless heart and the paths it leads us into. 

From the start, man is a creature of desire, and he is especially drawn to pleasing and beautiful things. Unless one becomes a man of judgment, however, he becomes subject to the things he loves. Judgment enables one to question his loves. As Augustine puts it: to both the unreflective and reflective man a given beautiful thing appears the same, yet “it is silent to one, but speaks to the other. Nay rather, it speaks to all, but only those understand who compare its voice taken from outside with the truth within” (10.6.10). In other words, having judgment is here a matter of being able to question and hear the beauty in what we love. Judging, however, is a matter of comparing the given external manifestation of beauty with truth that appears only interior to the mind. In effect, it is through judgment that desires are brought into scrutiny under the light of truth. 

One might reasonably ask: Why submit to an examination of one’s immediate pursuits and enjoyments? What’s the advantage? What’s the motivation? Augustine answers that everyone is drawn to happiness as the dominant, governing object of desire, and, furthermore, that “joy in the truth is the happy life” (10.23.33). It seems, therefore, that the early impulses that draw us to the beauties of the external world need not be resistant to the light of truth which judgment opens out onto our loves. 

Yet this inward and upward turn to truth is not without its intellectual and moral challenges. Morally, the exposure of our passions, desires, choices is unsettling. Augustine put it in the strongest term at the Confessions’ great moment of decision: “I still hesitated to die to death and to live to life, for the ingrown worse had more power over me than the untried better. The nearer came that moment in time when I was to become something different, the greater terror did it strike into me” (8.11.25). Because exposing our “love-life” to the judgment of truth is so personally difficult, we have practiced tactics for avoiding it, in the ways we’ve already discussed. Here it is important only to add that the overall strategy of avoidance involves the willful manipulation of truth: 

Truth is loved in such wise that men who love some other object want what they love to be the truth . . . and because they do not want to be deceived, they refuse to be convinced that they have been deceived. Therefore they hate the truth for the sake of that very thing which they have loved instead of the truth. (10.23.34) 

Personal decision holds the keys to the sort of Truth and Wisdom sought by the philosophical and theological mind. 

Intellectually, judgment is also difficult. It is just not easy to think beyond sensible, material, changeable realities. Grasping what is absolute or what is universal and necessary demands refined powers of abstraction. Augustine describes the process in his theory of illumination. Let me offer a basic synthesis through the eyes of Etienne Gilson.9 As Augustine understands it, the mind is active. Not only does it animate the body and produce sensation as prompted by the body, more importantly, “it is active in regard to the particular images engendered by sensation; it gathers, separates, compares them and reads the intelligible in them. But then something appears in the mind which cannot be explained either by the objects which the mind ponders or by the mind itself which ponders them, and this is the true judgment and the note of necessity which it implies. The judgment of truth is the component the mind must receive because it lacks the power to produce it itself.” (Gilson, 87) Divine illumination comes into play when ideas are held as truth that men ought to hold. It explains the sources of the universality and necessity of knowledge. Included here are our judgments that empirical particulars are beautiful. Similar ideas, independent of empirical particularity, include the good, the true, number, equality, likeness, and wisdom. As ideas, these notions are to be thought of not so much as content, but as concepts that provide the grounds for universal and necessary judgments, and as such they transcend what is given in them on empirical grounds. Nor could they be generated out of the created mind’s mutable, fallible resources. “Experience and not illumination tells us what an arch or a man is; illumination and not experience tells us what a perfect arch or a perfect man ought to be” (Gilson, 90). 

In the Confessions we find Augustine’s characteristic pattern of reasoning at 7.17.23 as well as at 9.10.24, and in the sequence stretching though 10.6.8-10.26.37. His earlier De libero arbitrio 2.3-15 develops the argument in an elaborated form. Later in De trinitate 8.3, 9.6-7, he develops an especially interesting version, already adumbrated in Confessions 9.10.25. Inevitably, attractive objects appeal under the guises of truth or beauty. Augustine first spends himself on corporeal objects, then he turns inward and invests in furnishings, affections, and judgments of the mind. Objects of the external and internal spheres, however, offer only limited, temporary satisfaction. Finding no steady satisfaction in either of these two spheres, he enters into the final sphere by virtue of God’s illumination and his own wholehearted decision to face the light. 

A new context for ongoing confessio – Book Eleven. 

It can seem that the autobiographical narrative of the first nine books is sufficient for an understanding of the Confessions. It certainly suffices in the experience of many readers. Yet the final four books make up almost half of the whole. And there is a reason for the continuation. First of all, Augustine is acutely aware of the contingent status of his chaste continence. He is still susceptible to the temptations of lust, curiosity, and pride. The last half of Book Ten can be read as his examination of conscience on just this point. Moreover, he, Augustine the author-bishop, wants to deepen and extend his confessio. He desires to praise God even more for his greatness. 

Up to this point in the Confessions (that is, up through Book Ten), the provocation of Augustine’s confessio has been the manifestation of God in the narrative thread of his life, from birth to baptism. Now, at Book Eleven, it is Scripture that provides the evidence – the manifold in which God’s Providence becomes manifest. We could say that there is still a biographical basis for the speech that carries through the next three books. But it is a slender thread, at least by contrast to the way narration dominates the preceding books. In 11.2.2 Augustine self-consciously represents himself in his office as a bishop, charged with preaching the Word and celebrating the Eucharist (perduxisti praedicare verbum et sacramentum tuum dispensare). He now finds it necessary10 to devote precious hours to meditating on the law of the Lord and to let his understanding and his ignorance be the occasion of his confession. In short, Augustine wants to understand the Scriptures (“May your Scriptures be my chaste delight”) and to put them to the service of fraternal charity. He feels deeply the fleeting character of time. And his meditations will take time, for God’s Scriptures consist of many pages, filled with difficult and secret meanings. Yet he speaks directly to God, confident that God will give what he desires: “Grant what I love, for I love in the truth, and this too have you given to me.” He couches his desire in the suggestive poetry of Scripture: “Nor are those forests to lack their harts, who will retire therein, and regain their strength, walk about and feed, lie down and ruminate. Lord perfect me, and open those pages to me. Behold, your voice is my joy.” In the last three books, Augustine will become the hart feeding on the forest vegetation (Ps 28:9). 

In sum, Augustine will meditate on Scripture and confess to God and before the community of mankind the glory of God manifest in his Word. As he puts it, “ Let me confess to you whatever I shall find in your books, and let me ‘hear the voice of praise,’ and drink you in, and consider ‘the wonderful things of your law,’ from the beginning, wherein you made heaven and earth, even to an everlasting kingdom together with you in your holy city.” We might wonder whether in fact Augustine intends to confess what he finds in the whole of Scripture since he plans to explicate only the first chapter of Genesis. In fact, yes, he does so intend, insofar as his typological reading allows him to see the whole present in the beginning.11 

Augustine ends his introduction (11.1.1 – 2.4) with a prayer to the Father calling upon the mediation of the Son. The Son, which is to say the Word, mediates between the Father and mankind two ways: (1) “through him you sought us when we did not seek you, and sought us so that we might seek you”–the theo-logic of the narrative of Books 1-10; and (2) “through whom you have made all things . . . through whom you have called to adoption a people of believers” (11.2.4)—the theo-logic of creation as well as the through-line of the history of Israel. All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are concealed in the Word. It is this knowledge and wisdom that Augustine seeks in the books of Scripture. It is also the Truth and Wisdom that he will teach from his episcopal office. 

Although Book Eleven is famously devoted to the consideration of time, interpreters’ decided focus on the nature of time is in some way a distraction from Augustine’s chief concern. After an original account of time (or is it timing?) as the distension of mind, Augustine transitions to considerations of the ascent to Truth against the human condition of distension of personhood. The argument rests on a parallelism: distension of the mind gives us the experience of time by sustaining the continuity of the passage of “presence” from non-being of the future into the non-being of the past. The present is given continuity and duration by attention of the present, anticipation of the future, and memory of the past. The things remembered, “contuited,” and anticipated leave residues or images in the mind which the mind holds together—as we experience, for example, the simple apprehension of the expression “Deus creator omnium” or in one’s recitation of, say, Psalm 95. In both cases there is a sustained governing intention that overarches and unites “before” and “after” in the temporal sequence. Were we unable to hold on to the first syllable until the last has been sounded, we would experience no word or enunciation. Each discrete syllable would disappear on its utterance and no whole word or expression would form. Analogously, any human person can lose himself in the moral distension of his personhood. The fullness of human existence is achieved in contingency, experienced as the gathering and sustaining of the unity of a dispersed self. This moral achievement parallels the metaphysical achievement of one’s existence in the creative (“let it be”) and gathering (“come to me”) sustenance of divine love. Anxiety over hovering non existence is the condition of the experience of our personal contingency. On the one hand, anxiety derives from the need to trust in God’s creative, sustaining love, and on the other hand from our own willfulness. The task is not the futile attempt to sustain the temporal whole of one’s existence, but to transcend temporality and enter into the region of eternity: “gather together . . . to follow the One: (11.29.39), that “I may flow altogether into you” (11.29.39). By setting up the eternal sphere in a radical transcendent relation to the immanent (temporal) sphere as part of the God-gifted human experience of the continent heart, Augustine finalizes the most essential understanding of God as Creator of heaven and earth. The creator does not know his creation in a temporal modality: “it is not as emotions or senses are distended in the expectation of words to come and in the memory of words just past in our experience of the singing or hearing of well-known psalms”—not in this fashion does God know his creatures (11.31.41). 

In short, human life is inevitably conditioned by distention or distraction. Given our temporality, we human beings can move in one of two ways: either (1) steady attention can lead to an anticipation or foreshadowing of eternity, or (2) our distention can be nothing more than the distraction of dissipation. In this context, Christ (the Son) mediates between the Father (One) and men (Many). Through Christ we are able to apprehend the Father, even as we are gathered together from our former dissipation of self in order to follow the One. This transforming of the intellect and the will is an extension . 

Philosophical insight or mystical intuition is not the way of Christianity. Even if Augustine may have encountered God in the philosophical reflection and mystical conversations of Books 7, 8, and 9, it is not the way of Everyman. Nor are they anymore the ways that Augustine encounters God’s Word. God is encountered in Scripture and in the Sacraments. The goal is to be brought into Divine Life. We have the mediation of Christ – as Word of Scripture and Priest/Victim of the Eucharist. For the member of the Christian community the task is for the soul to not release itself in dissipation, but to be gathered into the One. This will happen in the Christian life of the Church. 

Heaven of heavens in Book Twelve and the Word’s polysemy 

The content of Book Twelve interprets the first two verses of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and the darkness was upon the face of the deep (in principio fecit deus caelum et terram. terra invisibilis erat et incomposita, et tenebrae erant super abyssum.).” Augustine first of all (cc. 2-13) establishes his own “best reading” of the text. He understands the lines to signify the creation of the intellectual heaven, the “heaven of heavens,” and the “proto-earth” which is invisible and without form—both realities created by God prior to the numerated days of creation (12.13.16). The notion of “the heaven of heavens” interests us because it establishes at the outermost reaches of the created universe a standard for the restless heart’s conversion to Truth (13.2.3 – 3.4). 

Secondly (cc. 14-32), he introduces methodological considerations that conclude to a legitimate plurality of true interpretations of the same one text. He explains that in one and the same text, God reveals his truth to many hearers, but in ways such that the meaning which the different hearers receive through the text need not be identical. But they must be true meanings of the one text and intended for the individual hearer by God. Augustine has lovely ways of recommending his account of the polysemeous character of divine scripture. For instance, he speaks of how for pious but simple, untutored minds an especially literal understanding of the words function like a nest that protects the featherless birdling (12.27.37). Whereas, by contrast, for the sophisticated and learned hearer, God’s words are no longer the nest, but the shady bowers of the greenwoods where one might “see the fruits that lie therein and joyously fly about, and pipe songs and look carefully at them and pluck them” (12.28.38). Augustine wants to resist firmly a dogmatic insistence upon one of many legitimate interpretations. As he sees it, such insistence springs from self-will. Such insistence does not come from dogmatic interpreters “because they have a divine spirit and have seen in the heart of your servant what they assert, but [rather] because they are proud and have not known Moses’s meaning but love their own, not because it is true, but because it is their own (12.25.34).” It is easy to hear the echo of Augustine’s prior discussion of the willfulness by which we conceal the truth from ourselves (10.23.34). Within the community of interpretation, one must guard against those who would limit God’s word from being heard truly in the several strains that communicate with the simple and subtle alike. “Amid this diversity of true opinions, let truth itself beget concord” (12.30.41). 

Episcopal office and Book Thirteen 

The continuation of Augustine’s confessio in the last book takes the form of a complex allegorical interpretation of the seven days of creation. The interpretation is led by a literal recall of the Creator’s formative work in each day. Each day’s work is then paralleled by an account of the stages of spiritual conversion by which all spiritual beings are called back toward the rest and peace of life with God. The allegorical turning of the ontological creative formation to the moral redemptive conversion results in a depiction of the work of the Church with especial attention to the role of the preacher, the minister of the Word.12 

Within the allegorical vision of Book Thirteen, it is the function of the Sacred Scriptures “to extend to man in the cosmos the illuminating, converting speech of the Word in human language” (DiLorenzo, 80). The process begins with God’s “fiat lux” on the first day, in which “Spirit . . . dwells in us, because he was mercifully borne above our dark and fluid inner being” (13.14.15). This illumination represents “the archetype of Sacred Scripture itself” in which we witness “the unfolding of salvation history of the Church, a history which, furthermore, includes . . . Augustine’s own life story.” (13.12.13). The allegorical interpretations of the next five days portray the conversion of mankind in the temporal universe (Di Lorenzo, 79). On the second day, the allegory has it that God, “through the ministry of mortal men” stretches out the divine Scriptures like a firmament over the nations of world (13.15.16-18). Augustine confesses that there are no other “books which so destroy pride . . . I do not know any such pure words (casta eloquia) which so persuade me to make confession and make my neck meek to your yoke, and invite me to serve you without complaint.” (13.15.17). On the sixth day, Augustine situates the divine Spirit’s transforming light in the contemporary life of the Church’s ordained ministry. In the allegorical understanding God reveals how the eternal Word perfects the lives of those among the community of the baptized, and in their midst we see how the Word works through the Church’s ordained ministers, its predicatores. As he is writing these words, Augustine is decidedly self-conscious of his own conduct of his office as bishop. DiLorenzo describes well Augustine’s self understanding at the end of the Confessions

The new rhetoric of the predicator requires him to seek God so that his soul may be empowered by the Word to produce spiritual life in others. To Augustine, then, the work of the sixth day of Genesis figures the perfecting of spiritual life through the predicators. As they are perfected, so do they perfect. The way is twofold: (1) by continence, (2) by renewal of mind. (p. 85-86) 

This is really not the makings of the classical philosopher. But it is the manifestation of one responsible before the Truth and active in the search for Wisdom in the Christian dispensation. We could call it Christian philosophy, if we wish. 

In sum 

Augustine’s autobiographical narrative and his interpretation of Genesis 1.1-2.2 belong to the same “speech-act,” the same confessio. They issue from Augustine’s silent, interior discourse with God. They reflect on and they express the insistent presence of God’s Word in his life, as a youth on the way to conversion and baptism and as the active bishop of Hippo. He understands his personal encounters as an instance of an immense movement coursing throughout creation. His confessiones are themselves moments in that movement. They are the predicator’s words mediating the divine Word within the community of Christian believers. Confession is the indispensable way of Christian wisdom. It is how Wisdom and Truth enter into and form the human community in the Christian dispensation. 

  1. Implications for Education 

The notion of education employed in this essay is an expansive one. It does not confine education to schooling. All human beings are educated, though not all are schooled. Education signifies the process, concerted activity, or achievement that befits or capacitates one for a more perfect or complete performance of some desirable or wished-for activity. In a broad sense, education is indispensable in becoming, for better or for worse, the kind of man, woman, friend, or citizen that each of us becomes. In a narrow sense, it is through education that one learns to read and write, the musician learns to play the instrument, the surgeon to perform heart operations, the minister to counsel his flock. We are born into the world completely dependent upon the care and good will of others. It takes many years to acquire the adult measure of physical, emotional, and intellectual maturity. Although conditioned by some natural necessities, it is a complex of individual and societal deliberations and choices that directs the process of education. 

At the center of the process lies the student’s desire for an increase in his or her own being and belonging in the world. The undeniable desire for increase that is part of the learner’s personal make-up must reflect some attunement to the projected or promised achievements of education. It is of the utmost importance that the direction that this desire for increase takes should be a direction that ultimately reflects the student’s own free decision. Here we touch upon the role of the learner’s personal freedom as an ultimate condition for education, especially for the sort of education that matters most. One of the paradoxes of education is that “others”—parents and elders in one’s community, stewards of the culture’s resources invested with authority—work toward their wards’ independence, their personal judgment and freedom. The implied bond of trust, fraught with the potential for manipulation and betrayal, stands as a primary concern for the understanding and practice of education.13 

Drawing implications for the practical understanding of education from the Confessions can proceed from two perspectives. First, one might ask how one educates men and women of faith, those who are the members of the Christian community. This concern seems to be one that immediately preoccupied Augustine during the period of his life when he was cogitating and writing the Confessions. Secondly, one might look to the autobiographical, narrative sections of his confessiones and examine the steps of his own education on the way to his conversion and baptism. Are there pedagogical, curricular, or theoretical lessons to be learned, particularly applicable to the teaching of the unbeliever or the nominal Christian? The first way is the more important in that it establishes the end of education. It directly brings men and women into the experience of wisdom. The second way is perhaps the more necessary, for it would establish the predispositions toward participation in the community of Christian wisdom. Consideration of Augustine’s analysis of the intellectual, moral, and societal impediments that he encountered may prove to have relevance beyond his unique historical case. Likewise, in his education as a boy and youth, we may find positive contribution to the formation of a mind and heart disposed to love of God. In what follows let me propose some recommendations that would seem to follow from Augustine’s Confessions

  1. Sacred Scripture forms the outer skin of human cultures (13.15.16-18). It teaches the first truths about God and the human person. It is accessible to all mankind under two conditions: (1) one must have the ears to hear, which is a function of one’s free decision to break from the self-will of concupiscence and pride, and (2) it must be preached, though everyone is disposed to it in principle by a congenital love of truth and desire for happiness. Scripture speaks a language accessible alike to the simple and the subtle, the unschooled and the schooled. The spirit of this hearing of God’s Word does not point directly to the historical critical study of the Bible, though such study will have its indispensable place in the schooling of the learned. Rather, to use the words of Joseph Ratzinger, it hearkens “to a voice greater than man’s [which] echoes in Scripture’s human words; the individual writings [Schrifte] of the Bible point somehow to the living process that shapes the one Scripture [Schrift].” Attending to Scripture in this spirit is a “personal search for ‘the face of the Lord’ (Ps 27:8).”14
  2. Nourish simple beginnings in the pedagogy of desire.15 Foster delight in the truth of even simple predications, wonder at the ingenuity of nature, the attractions of beauty in art and nature, pleasure in poetry and song, love of knowledge, joy in friendship’s loving others and being loved by them. These initial, simple joys provide hard evidence of depths of the heart and of broader horizons for life. Augustine’s remarks on his friendships are instructive. He recalls a conversation with his good friends Alypius and Nebridius (6.16.26). He marvels that with respect to his cognitive life, he was intellectually blind to the idea of “virtue and beauty that must be embraced for its own sake” although in the practical order of personal experience he had no doubt that he “loved these friends for their own sakes, and that [he knew] that they in turn love me for my own sake.” Later he describes quizzing corporeal things; “to all the things that stand around the doors of my flesh I said: ‘Tell me of my God!’ With a mighty voice they cried out, ‘He made us!’ My question was the gaze I turned on them; the answer was their beauty.” (10.6.9) 
  3. Interiority and silence. In a fundamental sense Christian wisdom is first experienced in listening for God’s word. It takes place in the silence of one’s heart. Silence here means the literal absence of noise, but it more importantly signifies a mental space free of distractions or practical anxieties. 
  4. Conversation. Augustine was led into deeper realizations primarily through his conversations. Books seemed to have played a lesser, more supportive role. Conversations and personal exchanges that stand out are manifold. Let me signal a few of the more prominent among them: the ongoing conversations with the unnamed friend who dies, dialogues with Faustus, disputes with Alypius and Nebridius, exchanges with Vindicianus and Nebridius, consultation with Simplicianus in Milan, and reflections with Monica at Ostia. 
  5. Books and schooling. Cicero’s Hortensius, the books of the Platonists, the books of the sacred Scriptures played decisive roles in Augustine’s conversion; they inspired, corrected, and informed him at crucial moments of his life. He was gifted with a splendid mind, superb memory, and a studious disposition. His parents set him up with good teachers in good schools. He mastered the various requirements of Latin grammar, classical rhetoric, and Aristotle’s Categories. He acquired some competence in mathematics, music, and the teachings of natural science. He also had a broad acquaintance with Latin poetry and drama and the books of Mani. If I understand him correctly, he saw in all of these studies little of intrinsic worth. At their best they were mostly useful and, in some respects, necessary. He believes that in his case the usefulness of these studies was largely misused in feeding his wanton pleasures, vanities, and vain curiosities. They led him astray (4.16.30). The point here is not to condemn books and liberal studies. However, he does not see in them something of intrinsic worth to be studied for their own sake. Their undisputed usefulness is a mixed blessing that can as easily serve the interests of the soul’s dispersion as its continence. 
  6. Philosophy. The books of the Platonists, in effect, classical metaphysics, led Augustine to the recognition of incorporeal truth, precisely what he needed to make a clean intellectual break from Manichean materialism (7.9.13; 7.20.26). One gets a taste of their effect in the dialectical ascents described at 7.10.16 and 7.17.23. What we might consider Augustine’s “mastery” of classical philosophy, however, puffed him up with presumptive knowledge (7.20.26). It was the Sacred Scriptures, and in particular the Apostle Paul, that checked his presumptive pride and stirred him to piety and a humbled heart (7.21.27). From pedagogical and curricular points of view, the intensive study of philosophy may be necessary for some, as it was for Augustine, but its tendency to feed pride and a spirit of self-sufficiency needs to be checked by the Christian pedagogy of humility. Despite his expressed reservations, however, philosophy’s role in education should not be considered simply accidental to this or that person’s preparation for the life of grace. First of all, it is philosophy that originally constitutes the ideal of the life of the mind and its rational pursuit of truth. Augustine’s understanding of his conversion in the garden, and much that lead up to it, inhabits a logical space first carved out in Socrates’ “examined life.” As I have written elsewhere, “The examination Socrates has in mind requires a measure of withdrawal from the passions that tie us to the ordinary loves of our life. The logical space created in this withdrawal encompasses two realities: the self’s interiority and glimmerings of transcendent truth.” The philosophical cast of mind, I believe, is an artifact of culture. And it should be among the first ends of education. “Truth makes difficult demands on personal being. Because the human heart suffers a profound contrariety at its core, the self’s existential interests conflict with its essential teleology. Human life, in its individual and corporate forms, plays out the conflict of power under the sway of self-will and power subordinating itself to a transcendent truth. In favor of truth’s cause lies the intrinsic beauty of truth itself and mankind’s innate, even if inconstant, susceptibility to its allure.” It is hard to see how Augustine’s Christian mind is conceivable except as a transformation from within a prior philosophical mind.16
  7. Patience and Trust. Learning, and especially moral education, has something in common with courageous action. It is a common mistake to think that progress in courage aims at eliminating fear. We can be tempted to identify fearlessness as a mark of courage. But in a real sense, courage embraces fear. One who is courageous is intensely aware of the harm that threatens him or her, and the consequent feelings of fear will be essential to the experience. The point of courage is not to not feel fear, but to not permit such feelings to deter one from doing what ought to be done. Similarly, an essential part of moral education aims not so much to prevent temptation and moral error, for responsibility for sinfulness and wickedness will be part of everyone’s life. The biographical dimensions of Augustine’s confessiones grow out of his profound moral realism. Following the example of Augustine’s extended conversion, the point is to recognize our moral failures and not permit them from finally deterring us from advancing in the moral life. Parents, teachers, elders in general can be too preoccupied with the prevention of moral failures in their wards. In the face of inevitable moral failure, it is important for youth to have habits and dispositions for calling upon the resources of their own inner life and as well upon the counsel of friends and elders. The care of others and one’s own inner resources that I have in mind are the sort that cause us to ask “Now, how shall I respond to that?” or as a friend of mine is fond of putting it, “What’s the lesson here?” One can only ask such questions so long as care has been taken to install well in advance and to maintain active lines of reflective communication. Much like the father in the Gospel parable of the prodigal son, parents, teachers, and elders must learn to release those under their care to their freedom. This sort of care requires trust in the young person’s responsible agency and patience in the process of finding one’s way. One sees in the Confessions Augustine’s progressive recognition and ownership of his personal responsibility for wicked actions. Ingredient in the narrative are the works of patience and trust on the part of friends and elders. I think it fair to say as well that patience and trust are also hallmarks of God’s relationship with Augustine throughout his Confessions.

Cicero on Education: The Humanizing Arts

Posted Posted in Liberal Education

Walter J. Nicgorski1 

University of Notre Dame 

Early in Book V of his Tusculan Disputations Cicero gave what has become a classic expression of the Socratic turn of philosophy. 

But from the earliest philosophy to the time of Socrates, who sat under Archelaus, a disciple of Anaxagoras, motion and number were explored as well as the origin and destiny of all things; those philosophers zealously inquired after the sizes of the stars, the distances between them, their paths and all heavenly phenomena. Socrates was the first to call philosophy down from the heavens, to set it in the cities and even to bring it into the household; he compelled it to inquire into life and character and issues of good and evil [de vita et moribus rebusque bonis et malis] (Tusc. 5. 10-11).2

Cicero sought in himself and in the young whom he attempted to influence a continuing Socratic renewal as philosophers of the household and political community, extending even to an unpopular willingness to learn from “those Greeks.” Inquiry was to arise from the moral horizon of ordinary life and in the ordinary language of public life. 

The question of how to educate arises in this horizon from an interest in how to live rightly and how to order our communities rightly. So it is our question too, a living question, and not one that is merely historical. Principles and/or segments (mini-treatises) on education have been an important part of classical writings on politics from the beginning. This feature is most memorably found in Plato’s treatment of the education of guardian-rulers in his Republic. One might quite compellingly argue that there is no need for Plato’s authority to see the significance of education for regime development and regime maintenance; rather it is a matter of common sense. Citizen education and leadership education have been important concerns for democratic theorists from John Dewey to this very day. Some of us marvel that there can be so much public concern with the needed technical capacities of people for the modern world and so little concern with the capacities of citizens to give moral and political direction to modern political communities and states. Our liberal republics cry out for a leadership that is richly educated and capable of the necessary moral leadership. 

Plato’s authority was great for Cicero even as he insistently maintained his independence from him in some respects.3 That authority, in this case, goes hand-in-hand with his Roman-inflected common sense that calls out for some explicit attention to education. Our task here is to seek greater completion of Cicero’s political theory by supplying the guidance for education that appears to have been lost in segments of his De Re Publica that were not recovered with Cardinal Mai’s substantial finding early in the nineteenth century of the long missing text.4 This effort for a greater completion, sufficient reason though it is for pursuing Cicero on education, does not exhaust the reasons for seeking to know better this dimension of his thought. Cicero in his own person has served in the Western tradition, recurrently from the Church Fathers on, as exemplar in many respects of the educated and responsible citizen-statesman as well as moral teacher. Quite independent of political theory, his thoughts on education, whether reflected in or drawn from his own educational experience, appear to be worth gathering and exploring in the light of our own need for models or for the elements that would allow us to construct principles and directions for models appropriate for our time. Cicero is, in many respects, a model as well as a conveyor of models. 

Let us approach this search initially working within and then out from that dialogue of Cicero where the lacuna regarding education is most explicit, namely De Re Publica. This is also Cicero’s first philosophical work as such, setting aside for now his rhetorical works (which often have significant philosophical aspects) such as De Oratore and much earlier, his De Inventione. De Re Publica (54-51 B.C.) comes at a transition point between Cicero’s life being dominated by the ascent and then the troubles of his active political life and the intensive philosophical writing of essentially the last decade of his life. That former part of life includes much of the oratorical achievement that critically assisted his political ascent, and understandably his first reflective writings are about the art of rhetoric and the orator. This divide, which De Re Publica can be seen to mark in his life, is not one in which the two sides or two periods of his life are mutually exclusive. Cicero has a philosophical disposition and a love for philosophy throughout his life. Cicero tells us so not only later in life,5 but also in his first extant writing, De Inventione, an exercise on a branch of the art of rhetoric done in his late teens or early twenties that already manifests this disposition and love.6 In that latter period of life, one generally of forced withdrawal to the work of writing, Cicero’s political interests and strivings are hardly absent; were they so, he might not have lost his life in the violence of the disintegrating Republic. His way of life at that point is but a half-chosen one; with the political forum and the active sphere of politics largely closed to him, he chooses to write in order to educate those to follow.7 

The De Re Publica has been, of course, the political theorist’s primary book of Cicero, for reasons, no doubt, of its direct engagement of political themes already introduced by the great Greek theorists, Plato and Aristotle, but likely also because some of its topics such as natural law, consent of the people, the mixed and balanced constitution are often seen as anticipatory of, if not contributory to, the American constitutional tradition.8 This text shows in its two prologues to its very first book9 the struggle to defend a Socratic focus for discussion over against more speculative and theoretical topics. The practical focus on the need and usefulness to understand a model of the best constitution and then the principle of justice which it entails becomes a way of drawing Romans to philosophical inquiry for Cicero, as it seems it was for Scipio and Laelius, admired statesmen of the century before, whom Cicero cast as personae in this dialogue. A Socratic redirection is at work, likely more naturally attractive to the Romans than it was originally to the Greeks, for the Romans, that is, if there must be philosophy at all. 

This is not the occasion to follow the unfolding of De Re Publica in detail,10 but suffice it to say that the dialogue moves to defend a conception of the best constitution that is captured largely but not entirely in the Roman Republic as developed to about the time of Scipio and Laelius. Critical to this process of development and to maintaining a stable and just political order in the face of ever-changing circumstances is the leader, the princeps, the statesman, the rector or first citizen. The qualities of prudence and devotion to the commonweal that marked some of the better Roman kings are among the chief qualities Cicero would want in the republican statesman for his time and the future, whether that statesman operated as a consul, tribune or member of the Senate.11 Cicero chooses not to follow Plato in portraying an imaginary political community as the best constituted regime; rather, he wants to focus attention on existing political structures and the real, if not perfect, achievements in those structures and practices. Cicero’s is a city in time rather than one in speech, and that city in time is necessarily dynamic in the balances of elements it strikes and in its potential for change for worse or better. All depends on leadership, and even the qualities of the citizens depend on leadership rather than simply determine that leadership. This interactive, cyclical process Cicero specifically invokes at the start of Book V. This was, of course, a lesson not lost on Plato; even as his philosopher-rulers were to hold a conception of the best city ever in mind, he counseled that their most important trust was to care for the education of the community. Cicero ever points to model statesmen and perfect orators as the vehicles to whatever improvement is possible in changing circumstances. If he can be said to have an imaginary model, it is that man of prudence, the true leader, that man for all seasons and challenges. 

So, how would Cicero have his true statesman, his prince we might say, educated? Given a republic and one without impenetrable class barriers, how would Cicero have all citizens educated? All citizens, after all, represent the pool from which republican leaders could arise, do they not? What then would the De Re Publica have said about the education of such men? More fully and aptly put, this question must be, what can we say that the text likely said on the basis of the fragments, how the missing segment is approached, and on the basis of other aspects of this dialogue? Our method will be to attend to what we can learn on education from this dialogue and then to move on to De Legibus, which he apparently worked on (but did not complete to the point of circulation) simultaneously with his writing and rewriting12 his De Re Publica, and then to the De Oratore completed just before Cicero undertook De Re Publica. At that point, some topics will have emerged that with our commentary might contribute to a fuller understanding of Cicero’s conception of education. 

Book IV of De Re Publica, that is, the collection of fragments usually taken to constitute Book IV, is where education in the just and best republic is apparently considered. Given what has preceded in this dialogue, that education would above all have been shaped and measured by its capacity to draw out the talents and to draw forth in public service philosopher-statesmen of the likes of Scipio. Though the fragments offer very little to go on and surely very, very little that one might be assured of, there are among the fragments and in passages elsewhere in the dialogue indications not only on the basic thrust of Book IV but also on a framework for Cicero’s educational thinking. The framework drawn alone from De Re Publica is an interpretive aid in understanding the part of education that Book IV appears to cover, but it gains credibility as we come to find how well it is supported and embellished throughout the writings of Cicero and becomes then an even more reliable framework for interpreting Cicero on education. 

After Scipio in Book II (64) has carried his review of Rome’s development into the republican period and thus carried his listeners close to the actual instantiation of his model of the best regime, his young nephew Tubero, taking advantage of a pause in the historical narrative, asks to learn about the training (disciplina), customs (mores) and laws (leges) that enable Romans like himself to constitute and to conserve the kind of political community Scipio has embraced. Scipio indicates that these matters will be treated at an appropriate point in his discourse, and it is reasonable to infer that Book IV was to be the place. What we have of Book IV suggests that the focus and emphasis in handling these matters was on early or pre-adolescent education. 

Another statement of Scipio made in his discourse in Book I (28) provides a suggestion of a framework in which to see the entire educational process, if not the entire task of politics. This statement reflects the perspective gifted him in the Dream of Scipio (the Dream having occurred earlier in real time, but yet to be recounted in this dialogue). Here Scipio claims that only those are truly human who “are perfected in the arts befitting humanity” (qui essent politi propriis humanitatis artibus). What is suggested is a developmental process, possibly one that moves from simple, almost bestial beginnings to a peak of philosophical discourse. Though there is significant support for Cicero’s attraction to such an understanding early in De Inventione and in De Oratore 1. 32-34, both penned before De Re Publica, this dialogue also contains such a view of anthropological development in the early and somewhat fragmented pages of Book III. As in those prior treatments, reason and speech are here shown interacting toward the end of their mutual development and with the effect of pulling human beings together and out of their solitary isolation.13 The other fuller sources for this developmental theory more clearly introduce the role of talented and dedicated leaders who draw this early process along. Here in Book III’s apparent prologue and Cicero’s direct voice, it is noted that the art of reason appears to develop an art of numbers and hence measurement, finds itself in touch with the eternal, and draws people to study the motions of the stars and the regularities of time. It seems a basis for astronomy is suggested. After a missing portion of the text, reason’s development is seen to reach an apparent peak where it is led to inquire into the right way of living, a peak surpassed only when joined with experience in service of the political community. Note should be taken that reason’s peak reflects the Socratic turn, inquiry into moral and hence political matters. 

This is quite consistently Cicero’s position when we come on passages throughout his works suggestive of a hierarchy about matters to be learned. The passage at this point in Book III can draw the reader back to the second prologue of Book I, the preliminary discussion of the dialogue Cicero reports, for in this early exchange revolving around the phenomenon of the two suns there seems a friendly struggle between Scipio’s being drawn to the highest things as objects of delight and divine-touched fulfillment and Laelius’s insistence (1,33) that all the boyhood studies developing reason and speech are aimed at the highest arts which are those concerned with understanding and serving the political community. Laelius apparently wins the day with Cicero, for not only does the dialogue take the turn he wishes, but when we encounter Cicero’s thinking in his last philosophical work, De Officiis, his treatment of the inclination to knowing and to wisdom is marked by disciplining that tendency in the direction of practical wisdom rather than letting it flourish and delight in the fine points of metaphysical and mathematical inquiry.14 Justice there is truly the queen of the virtues. Scipio, again here in the early exchanges of De Re Publica, is himself defending the wider understanding of the cosmos as a critically useful perspective in the knowledge of man and his communities, in his development of an appropriate humanity. He is not unmoved by the Socratic pull or focus. Again, remembering that the Dream has occurred at an earlier point of life, during Scipio’s active military career, one must notice that while the Dream has treated Scipio’s ears,15 sight and intellect to a tranquillity of order and delight that is a promised reward, the message of his grandfather in the Dream comes down to be that of Laelius and Cicero himself most regularly, namely, embrace the human order in which you live and make sure you fulfill your responsibilities there. 

It appears that Cicero is working with an understanding of human development in which education in the appropriate arts is the mode of development. It extends from the necessities that the powers of reason and speech allow humans to attain or attain more readily, to the art of arts that might direct all endeavors to the good of the community. It appears that the focus of Book IV is, above all, on training or learning (disciplina), which we might call, with some textual justification, arts preparatory in a process of development. The overall developmental framework then might be seen in three essential stages with somewhat blurred rather than sharply distinct divisions. The stages are: 

  1. the preparatory arts aimed at developing the essential human powers of speech (expression) and reason, the latter inclusive of the reason of mathematics; during this process there is exposure to music and the riches of literary studies and history;
  2. the professional arts, notably law and rhetoric, arts useful for citizenship and public service;
  3. the art of arts, that concerned with ordering all the others toward the communal good, namely developed prudence or practical reason; one must suppose that such moral growth as this represents is going on all along from stage one and into the decision implied in stage 2.

This theory of stages, derived more from across Cicero’s writings than simply from De Re Publica, cannot then decisively resolve the question raised earlier about the limits or range of what would have been offered in Book IV or the related question of whether the expectation for Book IV, namely that it would address the training, customs and laws requisite for the good regime, is applicable to more than the preparatory arts of pre-adolescent education. It seems likely, however, that that triad of training, customs and laws describes an approach to early education more than it would the study and practice of rhetoric or of law and surely more than the ascent to philosophy through friends and/or teachers. 

Particulars of Cicero’s Texts 

Let us turn now to the actual fragments of Book IV for what light they give on the nature and range of the Book’s contents. With respect to an educational direction, the Book represents an appeal to old Roman traditions (4:12) in explicit contrast to Greek views and practices (4:3) and specifically Platonic ways such as those of his Republic. However much Cicero (Scipio) shares the essential political teaching of Plato, he seems to have pointedly rejected the Platonic formulations for early education even as Scipio’s friends note his reluctance to single out Plato for criticism. He rejects a uniform, legally sanctioned system of education. It would seem, indeed, to be pre-adolescent education that is at issue here. The old Roman traditions are what led to the excellent men of the past, like Cato and Scipio. There is some evidence that such education is to be family-centered with appropriate freedom and flexibility with respect to the availability of local schools; it is to be governed more by general customs than general laws (4:3).16 Earlier in the dialogue, Scipio is portrayed praising his father for the care he took with his education; in doing that, Cicero replicates his own explicit gratitude to his father for his education. Scipio’s actual words here (1:36) are notable in the context of this paper: he speaks of his strong desire for knowledge from boyhood (a pueritia) enriched by liberal (non illiberaliter) studies. Surely that gratitude, in Cicero’s case if not in both, might have had in mind, at least in part, opportunities given for education for more advanced learning with notable teachers and, in effect, apprenticeships whether in the home or outside of it, opportunities such as Cicero had within his home and then in being sent to Rome and later to Athens by his father. However, again it is more likely that most in mind in these cases is the basic education that disposed Cicero and Scipio to want such opportunities and prepared them to take advantage of them. 

Within these few pages of fragments that constitute Book IV, there is criticism of Greek ways of using gymnastic and apparent criticism of their handling the censorship of poets, but no clear indication what Cicero might have been advocating in those areas.17 It is likely that Cicero’s Scipio would have spoken about both these areas at this point, for both were at the center of Greek discussions of early education. Elsewhere in Cicero, notably in Pro Archia, there is evidence of the role of letters or literature including poetry in his early education. Later in his Brutus (205, 207) Cicero described Lucius Aelius as a man of great learning in Greek and Roman literature and Roman as well as general history.18 Only Varro, in Cicero’s view, surpassed Aelius in such wide and significant learning. In his adolescence Cicero sought to learn from Aelius who also composed speeches but had no desire to be an orator in his own right. Then Cicero comes to mention a highly regarded orator, Curio (213-14), who was deficient in his view by being devoid of any of the noble arts (honestarum artium); among these according to Cicero are poetry, oratory, history and law inclusive of that of public right or political philosophy. Within the Roman family’s nourishing of reason and expression, the most essential arts, there was apparently the understandable desire to expose the young in exercising those arts to beautiful writing, to rich, chiefly patriotic, historical accounts and even to logical exercises. This was a kind of stocking the mind richly, even as the essential arts were exercised. Likely there was something comparable for the arts of number and music in those early years. At De Oratore 3. 58, Cicero has Crassus note that poetry, music, mathematics and dialectic or logic all have a part in forming the young for virtue and humanitas. Later in that same Book III of De Oratore, the range of the liberal arts, likely in Cicero’s view, is highlighted in the boasting of the Sophist Hippias. They include geometry, literature, poetry and music. Later in his Tusculans (1.4-5), Cicero highlights how public honor and desire for fame encourage development of the arts; he exemplifies this with the arts of music and number, marks for the Greeks he says of being truly educated. 

So it appears that Book IV’s treatise on education would primarily have covered pre-adolescent years and emphasized the preparatory arts for young men born to the freedom of citizenship (4:3, disciplinam puerilem ingenuis). Recall the passage at 2.64 where Tubero’s observation led us to believe that we would learn in Book IV of the training, customs and laws that would shape education and human development in the best regime. What has emerged from close and focused inquiry of De Re Publica is some sense of the nature of this training and that it would be governed more by custom than by uniform and rigid laws. There is perhaps no real tension between Tubero’s expectation that the educational discourse to follow consider the role of law and the fact that the role of law with respect to this level of education is said to be nil or minimal. After all, should we encounter someone who asks us to speak of government’s role in regulating a certain kind of business or in regulating speech and we respond by saying there should be no regulation at all, we have met the request. The role of law with respect to early Roman education may be so minimal that it should, in Cicero’s expectations, but enforce the respect for customs in the leading families and specifically the role of the father. However, such an interpretive harmonization on the role of law cannot overcome the challenge of two other texts of Cicero which necessarily leave readers uncertain just how law in Cicero’s view was to operate with respect to education. 

Back in the third book of De Re Publica (3.7), in Cicero’s direct voice in his prologue, the importance of law and established ways (leges et instituta) in developing the potential in humans is stressed in tandem with what certain wise men do directly through “words and arts” (verbis et artibus). It is likely that this is a formulation, more respectful than some earlier ones in the dialogue, of the ways of philosophers, those who often teach in quiet corners rather than enter the political fray and shape the ways of the political community. Though this passage elevates the importance of what is one through laws, once again it may be that in the case of early education that law as such is to be gentle, respectful of family ways and of customs. Law’s ways would be to back off, as it were. This harmonizing interpretation is facilitated by the fact that instituta is frequently best translated as customs or mores. So in the case of early education, what revered leaders have done is more in shaping customs than passing strict and uniform laws; it is interesting to note that at 5.1-2, in another prologue of Cicero, he provides a fascinating account of what he regards as the best dimension of Roman history, namely what has been called (above, p. 5) “the interactive cyclical process,” the dialectic between leaders and customs, each shaping the other in turn as generations come and go. Custom rather than law is what is made prominent in this description, and adaptable prudent leadership is implied. 

What then might law contribute directly beyond its indirect nourishing of certain customs is a question that returns when we turn our attention to the extant portions of Cicero’s De Legibus, a dialogue written it seems in close conjunction with De Re Publica but never circulated in Cicero’s lifetime and possibly not completed. It is a dialogue in which the personae are Cicero himself, his brother Quintus and his dear and long-term friend Atticus. There are powerful discussions in Books I and II about the foundations of law and the idea of natural law to which we will shortly have reason to turn. Yet, the point of the work according to Cicero is, following Plato in a sense, to complement the portrayal of the best regime in De Re Publica with a set of basic laws that are suitable. Cicero’s proposed laws often reflect but sometimes seek to improve upon existing laws and practices. At one point in Book III (10, 28) Cicero is found presenting a fundamental law about the character of men called to serve in the Senate, men whom he explicitly expects to hold up as models for all citizens. In his commentary on this provision he remarks (29) how difficult it will be to have men of such character available unless this is done through a certain kind of education and training (educatione quadam et disciplina). He then adds that he may “perhaps” say something about this if a place and time can be found for it. Atticus emphasizes the importance of this prospect, noting that it will have a place in the systematic treatment of law which Cicero is undertaking and there is time aplenty. Yet this consideration of education and training never happens in what follows of the extant remainder of De Legibus. So it appears that the laws Cicero is formulating were to have something to say about education and training. Strangely, as in De Re Publica, the text that would bear directly on this matter is lost to us. Just what the laws would say and at what level or levels of human development a legal approach would do some good remains unknown to us. Perhaps it is not unreasonable to infer, given the moral nature of the goal Cicero has here, that Cicero would be seeking to shape and direct young plants unto virtuous ways. 

Legal Education 

Despite the loss of the texts that would allow a more specific understanding of how Cicero thinks law should impact education, law commands considerable attention in Cicero’s writings and represents one of Cicero’s own major fields of study. Though he likely considered law in the course of his boyhood education at home and in Arpinum where learning the Twelve Tables and learning Roman civic foundations would have been part of historical/literary studies, he begins a kind of formal apprenticeship in law as in rhetoric when sent to Rome at some point after his sixteenth year. It appears that his focus on law and rhetoric is a conscious choice of himself and his father, a choice of empowering oneself to enter Roman politics. Through defending and prosecuting, law used with eloquence is a grand instrument of empowerment; through these arts Cicero built his network of friends and allies and advanced his political career as he had seen others do before him. Cicero at times wrote about the interdependence between success in the law and that in rhetoric which he calls eloquence or true eloquence. Given what orators are called to talk about whether in the court or in assemblies, knowledge of law is requisite for the full understanding that can supply genuine eloquence. At the same time, eloquence is more difficult to attain than mastery of the law, and eloquence has a wider sphere and greater usefulness in general (Off. 2.66). From his first writings as a young man Cicero recognized that legal knowledge, or any knowledge or virtue for that matter, is inert when not supplied with the power of eloquence. It is eloquence that can persuade not just a jury in a case but also a public assembly to a policy or a law, such as a law bearing on education, that helps attain the common good. It is eloquence that can exhort to action and even to the pursuit of wisdom that is philosophy. So legal education clearly is instrumental education, especially when joined with rhetorical education and its fruit, eloquence. Perhaps, the supplying of an instrumental art is the very character of professional education. 

It seems important to notice that Cicero does use the term art (ars) to speak of knowledge of law and legal matters (De Or. 2. 142); he does so not nearly as often as he applies the term to rhetoric and eloquence. Yet he writes at times of the learning or training (disciplina) in the law (Leg. 1.17) and a kind of system of the laws (ordo legum, Leg. 3.30), descriptions that suggest the organization of an art. Possessing the art of law, like other arts, implies a mastery of its nature such that one can teach it effectively (Leg. 2.47), and it seems clear that it is among the good arts (bonae artes) that retired statesmen (including Cicero in part) would find satisfaction teaching (Senec. 29). It seems the art of law like that of rhetoric (on which Cicero is explicit in this respect) follows nature and is derivative from experience (De Or. 2.356). This can help us understand that the mode of education in law was above all to sit under, work with and observe good lawyers in action, the mode of apprenticeship (Brut. 304ff.). Art seems to be understood by Cicero as a way of holding in a methodical and ordered way what we know about a sector of human experience. It is the reason or ratio represented in a certain body of knowledge and would necessarily make it accessible, usable and teachable (De Or. 1. 186-88; Off. 1.19).

Cicero consistently indicates his great respect for the ordinary knowledge of law, that is such knowledge as that bearing on property disputes and inheritances. The ordinary art of law is seen to contribute to order and peace in the political community. Though aware that this ordinary art of law is the more marketable and hence profitable (Fin. 1.12, now as then, we might add), Cicero advises his students of the law and friends in the law that there is something more important and ultimately more critical to the art of law, that is, a knowledge of the very foundations of law. The true mastery of law resists being consumed by the concerns of ordinary law and entails a seeking for the wisdom that allows a perspective on the nature of the whole and hence on an understanding of the self as well as the ground and role of law. It is at the end of Book I of De Legibus (58-62) that Cicero eloquently shows that the first fruit of a search for the foundation of law is an answer to the Socratic search for direction in life and thus entails self-understanding. This is the kind of understanding that leads to proper use of the art, providing in effect moral guidance that all arts need, including the art of rhetoric and that of legislating, both mentioned in this key passage. 

Law may be an art, but could we consider it one of the artes humanitatis, the arts that are conducive to the possession of the quality, humanitas, that is, the arts that mark the man of prudence, the statesman on whom Cicero’s best constitution depends? Law as an art is like any art that entails a grasping of the rationale of a sector of experience; it entails the classifying and organizing capacities of reason. Like any art, to educate in the law involves an exercise in and likely a development of reason, the human’s distinguishing feature. That minimalist feature of any art means a contribution is being made to human development, to human excellence. Education in the law is on the path to humanitas. But law, like any art, can drop off that path by a failure of misuse, by not being used in accord with nature, a fuller conception of nature that is, than the part of nature a specific art, like law, is based on. 

Thus, the search for self-understanding in the context of the whole of nature, the search emphasized by the Socratic turn, is critical if law is to be an instrument of humanitas for the individual or for the community. The fruit of that search is to give both the process of the study of law and then the use of the legal art, proper direction and priorities. Such fruit would provide both the necessary grounding of law and the basis for integration of it with all significant human activities. The inquiries into the foundations of law that Cicero makes in Books I and II of De Legibus provide instances where the fruit of the Socratic search is linked with the function of the art of law. Such a linking would be hypothetically possible for any art, something as mundane as building aqueducts. Just as any art involves the practice and development of the human’s rational capacities, so each and every art must be wedded to proper purposes. Law, however, when well directed makes a more significant contribution to attaining humanitas than most arts, for in itself it is usually a highly sophisticated rational system (for Cicero, more so than history, but less so than rhetoric) and beyond that, it empowers one to do justice in court cases and in making founding laws as well as in ordinary legislation. Law then is not just an art but a critical and significant human art. Well-directed legal service represents the work of a free person serving a free community; an art so serving freedom could quite properly be called a liberal art. Law has now and then and only ambiguously held this title since the time of Cicero; this is in contrast to the assured status of rhetoric as a liberal art. Cicero saw both as critical to human, truly human, development; they represent artes humanitatis. These are first-order professions because they are so critical to attaining and maintaining justice in community and thus to having communities that facilitate their humanizing impact on all members. 

Rhetorical Education 

We have already been drawn into the topic of education in the art of rhetoric and its fruit, genuine eloquence, by what was noted above of the parallels and differences from legal education. In fact, Cicero has written much more and has written more explicitly about the art of rhetoric than the art of the law and that fact has perhaps contributed importantly to its relatively secure place among the liberal arts through Western history. Thus all that has been said about the nature of an art and its representing an exercise of reason and a step toward a full humanitas is of course applicable to the art of rhetoric. There is some evidence that Cicero’s own study of rhetoric began before his being sent to Rome, and that his literary studies at and around home, such as with Archias, moved into early rhetorical training. We know from De Inventione that he is writing about the art of rhetoric likely around his twentieth year. In that first and substantial dialogue he wrote, De Oratore, there is considerable and subtle discussion about the very art of rhetoric and what it can and cannot contribute to oratorical excellence. Just how elaborate and detailed the art should be and how much one should be constrained by it in actual performance as speaker are explored. There is a strain in the discussion that downplays the significance of the art as a way to success as an orator. We encounter the delightful twist that the greatest art as a persuasive speaker is to conceal art, to appear artless. As in the case of law, Cicero is more interested in the example of great achievers, in this case, orators (De Or. 1. 23) than in the technical aspects of rhetorical manuals. Overall, however, just as he respects the concerns of ordinary law, he knows the ordinary rhetorical art contributes to and is likely a condition of the greatest achievement in the field. 

Knowing the law might seem an inert and quite limited state when compared with possession of the rhetorical art, Cicero appreciated that rhetoric and its fruit, eloquence, has a wider field of application and is capable of engaging all matters as topics.19 Insofar as that is true, it would be among the reasons that rhetoric is more difficult than law and thus it represents a greater development of human reason as an art (De Or. 1. 186). Furthermore, rhetoric is both a body of knowledge (types of arguments, character of audiences, etc.) and a utilization of that knowledge in effective persuasion. The art then entails a certain understanding as well as effective expression (primarily in speech at the time). “Delivery, delivery, delivery – delivery is everything” represents one of the capsule summaries of rhetoric Cicero knew. It can be said that the art of rhetoric exercises and develops both reason and speech (expression or language), and it is in that sense that it is already a truly significant art among arts which as arts do contribute to human development and hence to the humanitas that marks the peak of that development. Perhaps to call law an art requires, even if Cicero is not clear on this point with respect to legal knowledge, that we include the use of the knowledge of law, e.g. in counseling, in judging, in legislating. Thus the art is truly possessed when legal knowledge is actually used effectively. We must, however, notice that the using of law usually entails using rhetoric (Orator, 12, 13, 141). That can bring home to us the range and the greater significance of rhetoric as well as the interdependence of the fundamental human arts. 

Yet just as in the case of law, rhetoric needs to serve a proper end, needs a larger perspective grounded in the nature of things if it is to stay on the path to realizing humanitas for its possessor as well as for those it works upon. For Cicero this is the big issue concerning rhetoric, namely, its need for philosophical guidance. He is insistent on this from the first pages of his first extant writing, De Inventione, to his last writing De Officiis. This concern shapes and dominates his greatest rhetorical writing, De Oratore. There in his own voice (1.5) he asserts his long-standing position that true eloquence is the fruit of the arts of the most prudent of men (prudentissimorum hominum artibus).20 Later Crassus, likely Cicero’s spokesman in the dialogue, will complain of the separation between those teaching the right principles of living and those teaching the principles of speaking (3. 57-58). The orator needs the knowledge that is the fruit of the Socratic turn to be truly complete as orator, the perfect orator (3. 122-23). In a sense the orator needs to know all things to rise to his peak, but most importantly he needs to know moral and political philosophy that might provide some direction for his life and his art. It is philosophy that yields prudence that is the art of arts for Cicero.21 

Fusion of the Arts: Educating the Model Statesman 

Beyond the preparatory arts nourished along with appropriate literary and historical studies, the statesman needs the great arts of law and rhetoric; if he is to be the greatest or a model, he needs the most perfected forms of those arts. To possess those perfected forms would take him far toward his own completion or perfection in the political art, for in each case the perfected forms call for a joining of a philosophical understanding of self and community in the context of the whole of nature. It is this understanding and the moral direction it can yield to which the Socratic turn points. Thus in turning the legal artist to the foundation of law and in turning the orator toward comprehensive understanding and especially moral and political philosophy, Cicero, with sandals on his feet and in Roman toga, is urging the Socratic turn toward a common critical point. It is the same point to which the political art itself is pointed when at the end of Book II of De Re Publica the critical question of justice is raised, then to be pursued, it seems primarily by Laelius, in the badly fragmented Book III that follows. This, however, is clear, that all arguments about model or better and worse regimes, constitutions and institutions turn on whether there is a true justice in the very nature of things. Cicero’s Crassus in De Oratore (3.21) spoke of the unity of the free and human arts. That unity is especially and importantly manifest in the shared need for a conception of the good for self and community grounded in the nature of things. Without such, arts empower simply to create a chaos of conflicting self-interests. Without such, one cannot really make sense of the idea that there are arts appropriate to our humanity. To be entirely without these arts is simply not to be human.22 With all these arts culminating in the wisdom that is the art of arts, one is fit to be the model statesman. 

Finally, it seems important to comment on two ideas that have been around in scholarship and reflections on Cicero and that would likely be the source of objections to this paper’s emphasis on the philosophical dimension of Cicero’s model statesman. Both are inclined to detract from taking seriously, or as seriously as this essay does, the significance of the Socratic turn and its fruit in wisdom, as formative for Cicero and his thinking. The objections focus around what I will call (1) a soft interpretation of humanitas and (2) an insistence that Cicero’s thought is more the product of a rhetorical culture than a philosophical one. Each of these positions and the hypothetical objections I suggest they likely would spawn requires proper engagement in a full paper. Despite the apparent congeniality of these objections with such ill-informed attacks on Cicero the philosopher as found in the famous Roman historian, Theodor Mommsen, these objections can and do at times come from people who positively appreciate the overall achievement of Cicero and his political orientation. 

Should humanitas be understood primarily as possessing the characteristics of an upper class Roman? A smooth civility, a graciousness? Or could it mean, as we often do, humane in the sense of decent and “understanding” in such a way as to be disposed to be compassionate and merciful? Or could it mean, as I have used it in this paper, the completeness of the human virtues ordered and guarded by reason developed into prudence? In this way, humanitas is taken as full human development, a peak expected of one who is to lead other humans, one who is a model statesman. Cicero is most often credited with introducing and emphasizing the term and concept of humanitas to our Western discourse. In his extant writings, he uses the term well over 200 times, most but not all of which are instances where the meaning is the distinguishing quality of the well-ordered soul of full virtue. It should be kept in mind that “kindly,” “humane,” and “gentlemanly” ways may often, or at least sometimes, be the byproduct though not the essential character of such a soul. That Cicero’s use of humanitas was predominantly as invoked in this essay is confirmed in one of Cicero’s earliest commentators, Aulus Gellius in the second century. Gellius then already detected the stronger, richer, moral meaning that Cicero placed in humanitas, writing, 

That humanitas does not mean what the common people think, but those who have spoken pure Latin have given the word a more restricted meaning. . . . 

Those who have spoken Latin and have used the language correctly do not give to the word humanitas the meaning which it is commonly thought to have, namely, what the Greeks call [philanthropia], signifying a kind of friendly spirit and good-feeling towards all men without distinction; but they gave to humanitas about the force of the Greek [paideia], that is, what we call eruditionem institutionemque in bonas artes, or “education and training in the liberal arts.” Those who earnestly desire and seek after these are most highly humanized. For the pursuit of that kind of knowledge, and the training given by it, have been granted to man alone of all the animals, and for that reason it is termed humanitas, or “humanity.” . . . That it is in this sense that our earlier writers have used the word, and in particular Marcus Varro and Marcus Tullius [Cicero], . . . almost all the literature shows.23

Cicero’s great achievement as an orator and his substantial writings on rhetoric make it understandable that his philosophical work would be seen by some as somehow incidental to or even derivative from and clearly subordinate to his attachment to rhetoric. To criticize Cicero as merely a rhetorician or as one giving his readers a “rhetoricized philosophy” goes at least as far back as the Petrarchan period of the Renaissance. In the last half century, Jerrold Seigel, Otto Bird and Bruce Kimball have all associated Cicero with a rhetorical tradition in the West, one often at odds with the philosophical and scientific traditions.24 Seigel has written not unreasonably in this vein that “[T]he whole structure of Cicero’s philosophical culture was shaped by the rhetorical foundation of his thought.”25 Less plausible is James Zetzel’s incidental interpretation of De Oratore as teaching that rhetoric is “the master art to which philosophy, at least ethics, should be subordinated.”26 Such interpretations can be contested with an examination and weighing of the De Oratore and other writings of Cicero that have been invoked in this essay. More important even in speaking to this entire way of viewing the relation of rhetoric to philosophy in Cicero is the need to understand the nature of the philosophy Cicero contends is controlling and directive of all the arts. It is philosophy that grows from the needs his Socratic turn highlights. It is a philosophy that yields a wisdom of practical assurances built on a Socratic and Academic skepticism. 

In closure, I turn to celebrate in more detail than the earlier citation, the closing section of Book I of De Legibus (58-63). This section is more than the eulogy of philosophy which it is often recognized to be; it shows an integration and hierarchy of the various kinds of learning that Cicero found significant. It presents philosophy as a pursuit of “knowing ourselves,” a knowledge that can aid us, like a bountiful mother, in grasping the law in nature which will be a divine gift toward attaining all true goods.2727Through self-knowledge, including the spark of the divine and the inclinations to the good within, the human is capable of identifying the virtues, including that master virtue of prudence. A sharper eye in these matters and a greater overall assurance come with the practice of piety and an understanding that sees the self in a larger, divinely ordered whole. Then one develops reason even further to defend the sense of self and the whole which has been attained, and one comes to develop and utilize rhetoric in ruling, making laws and punishing. Cicero has described an ascent from moral perplexity to a sense of the human good and then an equipping of the self to serve that good and the political community that fosters and protects it. This is a framework for politics and education in which philosophy is seen to take its directive role, a philosophy that rises from the ordinary horizons of household and citizenship.

The Cave & the Quadrivium: Mathematics in Classical Education

Posted Posted in Liberal Arts

by Dr. Jeffrey Lehman

University of Dallas

What place should the study of mathematics have in classical education? Most classical schools rightly emphasize the linguistic arts of the trivium—grammar, logic, and rhetoric—but few have thought through (much less implemented) the mathematical arts of the quadrivium—arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy—in a meaningful way. This is not to say, of course, that classical schools do not study mathematics; rather, it is simply to point out that the classical liberal arts of mathematics have little, if any, influence on the way mathematics is considered and taught in most classical schools. Are these quadrivial arts, in contrast to those of the trivium, simply outmoded today? If so, why? If not, how might they inspire and be incorporated into the curricula of classical schools? In order to answer these questions, we must first begin by getting a clear sense of what the quadrivial arts are, as well as what they are not. To do so, we will turn to Plato’s Republic, one of the fountainheads of education in the Western tradition.

Book VII of Republic contains two of the most remarkable passages in all of Plato’s dialogues. The first, the image of the cave (514A-521B), compares the effect of education (and its lack) on the human soul to the experience of being shackled in a subterranean prison. The second passage, the mathematical plan of studies described immediately after the cave image (521C-531E), is presented by Socrates as the remedy for man’s imprisoned condition, the means by which he is able to be liberated and to ascend to the full light of the sun. Ironically, while the image of the cave is arguably the most remembered passage in Plato’s works, the mathematical means of ascent—the proposed solution to our predicament—often goes unnoticed. In what follows, let us take a look at these two passages, focusing principally on the way Plato (through Socrates) presents a vision of these mathematical studies as distinct yet related means of ascent from lower to higher things.

Meditations on the Cave Image

Part of the delight of the cave image is its inexhaustibility. The more we reflect upon the image together with what precedes and follows it, the more we find to wonder about. Thus, in these comments on the cave we will not attempt to plumb the depths of this image in any comprehensive way (if that were even possible); instead, our purpose is to focus attention on those aspects of the cave image that best prepare us to receive the mathematical plan of studies that follows in Book VII. With this purpose in mind, let’s see what we can find.

As was mentioned above, Socrates presents the image of the cave as a likeness to “the effect of education and of the lack of it on our nature” (514A). Socrates calls on Glaucon (and us, the readers of the dialogue) to exercise our imagination:

Imagine human beings living in an underground, cavelike dwelling, with an entrance a long way up, which is both open to the light and as wide as the cave itself. They’ve been there since childhood, fixed in the same place, with their necks and legs fettered, able to see only in front of them, because their bonds prevent them from turning their heads around. Light is provided by a fire burning far above and behind them. Also behind them, but on higher ground, there is a path stretching between them and the fire. Imagine that along this path a low wall has been built, like the screen in front of puppeteers above which they show puppets (514A/B; emphasis added).[1]

After Socrates describes people along this low wall who use statues of men and animals to cast shadows on the wall in front of the prisoners, Glaucon comments, “It’s a strange image you’re describing, and strange prisoners” (515A). Socrates replies: “They’re like us” (ibid.).

I have conveyed the kernel of this passage for two reasons. First, notice the significant place of images and the imagination in the tale. Rather than draw everything out for Glaucon, Socrates exhorts him repeatedly to imagine—to take an active part in creating this image of the soul in its lack of education in his mind’s eye. This active engagement of the imagination is crucial to the ascent that follows. Second, as strange as it sounds to Glaucon (and to us!), this image is meant to bear a true likeness to our own benighted condition without education. What exactly is so disturbing about the image? Of course, no one would wish to be physically bound; but the prisoner’s predicament is far worse than simply a loss of freedom of movement. The chains are themselves an image of an even more coercive force, one that leaves the prisoners in the dark about what really is. As Socrates points out, the prisoners “would in every way believe that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of those artifacts” (515C). Another way of putting it is to say that they mistake images for the more substantial realities of which they are images. Because the prisoners cannot “turn around” to see the machinations of the puppeteers, they take the shadows to be things themselves and thus are unaware of the true cause of what they see.

After giving us a clear image of the soul in a state of ignorance, Socrates describes what happens when a prisoner is freed and ascends out of the cave. “I suppose,” Socrates remarks, “that he’d need time to get adjusted before he could see things in the world above. At first, he’d see shadows most easily, then the images of men and other things in water, then the things themselves. Of these, he’d be able to study the things in the sky and the sky itself more easily at night, looking at the light of the stars and the moon, than during the day, looking at the sun and the light of the sun” (516A/B). Having been habituated to see only the images right in front of him, it takes time and effort for the former prisoner to embrace his newfound freedom. Furthermore, his ascent to knowledge has a certain order to it: first, he comes to sees shadows for what they really are—namely, shadows and not the things of which they are shadows; then, he apprehends the reflections of men and other creatures in water, able in time to discern the difference between these reflections and that of which they are reflections. In each case, perceiving the “lower” thing—a shadow, a reflection—become a means of truly coming to know a “higher” thing. Fundamental to this ascent is the ability to perceive an image as an image. As Socrates puts it, the one who ascends from the cave of ignorance into the light of knowledge is able to “know each image for what it is and also that of which it is the image” (520C). Contrary to a common caricature of Plato’s thought, he is not a “dualist” who exalts the intelligible realm at the expense of the sensible realm. Moreover, he does not seek to do away with images, as if one could use the images as a ladder to reach higher things and then kick the ladder away once the ascent is accomplished. Rather, perceiving images as images is vital to the process of coming to know; both the movement from image to the thing itself and the movement back again from thing to image are necessary for teaching and learning.

The one who perceives an image as an image recognizes at least three things: 1) the image, 2) that of which it is an image, and 3) the necessary relation between the two. Thus, when we come to realize that an image is an image of something, we attain some awareness—however partial, perspectival, and incomplete—of what lies beyond the image. This insight regarding images sheds light on comments Socrates makes about “causes” in this passage. For instance, in the quotation from 516A/B above, Socrates says that the one making his ascent will proceed from a study of “the things in the sky and the sky itself … at night, looking at the light of the stars and the moon” to “looking at the sun and the light of the sun” during the day. Significantly, the ascent described here ends with the sun, presented elsewhere in Republic as an image of the good (506D ff.). What is more, “at this point [the aspirant to knowledge] would infer and conclude that the sun provides the seasons and the years, governs everything in the visible world, and is in some way the cause of all the things that he used to see” (516B/C; emphasis added). Note well that the one who successfully ascends to the contemplation of the sun is then able to look back at what has come before and see that “in some way” these lower things are caused by the sun. A moment’s reflection reveals that what is true of the sun on a grand scale is also true of lesser things. In other words, just as the sun is the cause of lower things in the visible world, so also is every “thing itself” the cause in some sense of its own image. To give a simple example, the tree (together with the sun, of course) is the cause of the tree’s shadow. The ascent to higher things is paired with a subsequent descent back to lower things, rendering them more intelligible in the process.

Before turning to a treatment of the mathematical plan of studies that follows the image of the cave in Book VII, a few general comments about images and the imagination are in order. We live in a culture saturated with images. Through cell phones, the Internet, television, printed images and other media, the average person is presented with myriad images every day, far more images, one could argue, than at any previous time in human history. Given this unprecedented inundation with images, one might expect that the imagination would flourish. Instead, for most of us these images simply overpower our imaginative power, leaving us glutted with images and yet starved for the kind of nourishment that would make our imagination strong and healthy. Like the people chained in Plato’s cave, our imaginations are enthralled by appearances; and those with enthralled imaginations are much easier to manipulate and control. One key factor leading to the impotence of imagination today is the absence of any serious discipline or formation of the imagination. To be a passive recipient of empty and deceptive images is one thing; to be an active former of true and beautiful images is another. This is where the quadrivial arts come in. Let us return to Book VII of Plato’s Republic to begin to see how these mathematical arts can form the imagination, making possible the ascent to higher studies.

Imagination, Mathematics, and Ascent

Once the interlocutors have completed their account of the cave and discussed its implications for the education of rulers in their ideal city, Socrates poses the following question: “Do you want us to consider now how such people will come to be in our city and how—just as some are said to have gone up from Hades to the gods—we’ll lead them up to the light?” (521B/C). After Glaucon’s hearty affirmative response, Socrates continues: “This isn’t, it seems, a matter of tossing a coin, but of turning a soul from a day that is a kind of night to the true day—the ascent to what is, which we say is true philosophy” (ibid.). This reference to “turning the soul” underscores a distinction made earlier in the account of the cave, namely, the difference between a “stamping” and a “turning” education. First mentioned in Book II, the stamping education is described by Socrates as suitable for the young: “You know … that the beginning of any process is most important, especially for anything young and tender? It’s at that time that it is most malleable and takes on any pattern one wishes to impress upon it” (377A/B). As a signet ring may be impressed upon molten wax, leaving the form of the ring embedded in the receptive material, so the education of the young is compared to impressing the malleable minds of students with an external teaching, placing it “in” their minds from without. The stamping image of education is not challenged in Book II. Here in Book VII, however, Socrates gives the impression that a stamping education attempts the impossible: “Education isn’t what some people declare it to be, namely, putting knowledge into souls that lack it, like putting sight into blind eyes” (518B/C). Given this critique of stamping education in Book VII, one might wonder whether there is any place for such education in the broader scheme of teaching and learning. Addressing this question is clearly beyond the scope of this essay; for now, suffice it to say that the turning education commended in Book VII is clearly presented as superior to the stamping education of Book II. And more to the point, Socrates identifies such turning education with the ascent made possible through the mathematical plan of studies he is about to describe. After briefly reminding us of the basic training in gymnastic (for the well-ordered body) and music (for the body and the soul) advocated earlier in Book II (376E ff.), Socrates then proceeds to outline the mathematical studies that will make the ascent possible.

The first mathematical study mentioned is number and calculation, “that inconsequential matter of distinguishing the one, the two, and the three” (522C). Socrates remarks that arithmetic is a “common thing that every craft, every type of thought, and every science uses and that is among the first compulsory subjects for everyone” (ibid.). While common and compulsory in some form, Socrates is at pains to point out that arithmetic as it is customarily studied and used is not conducive to the ascent and freedom he envisions. He contends that “no one uses it correctly, … as something that is really fitted in every way to draw one towards being” (523A). Socrates makes a distinction among sense perceptions: some “summon” the understanding to look into them, others do not. “The ones that don’t summon the understanding are all those that don’t go off into opposite perceptions at the same time. But the ones that do go off in that way I call summoners—whenever sense perception doesn’t declare one thing any more than its opposite, no matter whether the object striking the senses is near at hand or far away” (523B/C; emphasis in original). For an example, Socrates asks Glaucon to consider his fingers—“the smallest, the second, and the middle”—and then Socrates explains:

It’s apparent that each of them is equally a finger, and it makes no difference in this regard whether the finger is seen to be in the middle or at either end, whether it is dark or pale, thick or thin, or anything else of that sort, for in all cases, an ordinary soul isn’t compelled to ask the understanding what a finger is, since sight doesn’t suggest to it that a finger is at the same time the opposite of a finger (523C/D).

Once Glaucon agrees, Socrates turns to the various opposites that are present in our perception of these same three fingers—bigness and smallness, thickness and thinness, hardness and softness, etc. Anyone who attentively considers the matter realizes that perceiving a finger as one finger among many involves something more than mere sensation. In other words, to count fingers requires some ability—however imperfect—to judge what counts as a finger. Without some inchoate knowledge of the nature of things, a knowledge that passes beyond the opposite sense perceptions we typically receive when perceiving multiple instances of the same kind of thing, we are unable engage in “that inconsequential matter of distinguishing the one, the two, and the three.” In order to do so, our imagination must be able to submit its objects to reason so that they can be judged by reason. Socrates explains:

Reason it out from what was said before. If the one is adequately seen itself by itself or is so perceived by any of the other senses, then, as we were saying in the case of fingers, it wouldn’t draw the soul towards being. But if something opposite to it is always seen at the same time [e.g., bigness and smallness, thickness and thinness, hardness and softness, etc.], so that nothing is apparently any more one than the opposite of one, then something would be needed to judge the matter. The soul would then be puzzled, would look for an answer, would stir up the understanding, and would ask what the one itself is (525D/E).

On the one hand, it is obvious that the imagination receives something from the senses in order to form images. The ability that the imagination has of faithfully capturing what it receives from the senses is absolutely essential to the possibility of retaining any awareness of what we have sensed in the past. On the other hand, the imagination is not—or at least it should not be—the slave of the senses. Instead, the images of our imagination are themselves considered and judged by our understanding. This twofold ability of imagination—to receive from the senses and to serve the understanding—makes possible the “turning away” from the merely sensible and toward what is truly intelligible.

In order to see this a bit more clearly, let’s consider the second mathematical art presented by Socrates, namely, geometry. As was the case with arithmetic, in his account of geometry Socrates is keen to distinguish what he is talking about from what those who practice geometry typically say about it. Speaking of these practitioners, Socrates claims, “They give ridiculous accounts of it, though they can’t help it, for they speak like practical men, and all their accounts refer to doing things. They talk of ‘squaring,’ ‘applying,’ ‘adding,’ and the like, whereas the entire subject is pursued for the sake of knowledge” (527A/B). Notice the difference between the two geometers in terms of purpose: the one who practices geometry for the sake of measuring parcels of land, determining heights or perimeters of buildings, etc., always engages in geometry for practical ends—that is to say, his knowledge is for the sake of something else; the one who pursues the kind of geometry Socrates has in mind seeks knowledge for its own sake. This difference in end also implies a difference in the role of imagination. For the practical geometer, the imagination need never pass beyond the senses. After all, the objects created by practical geometry, once produced, will occupy the same sensible world where his measurements began. Thus, there is no need for the practical geometer to trouble himself with considering the nature of geometrical objects in themselves. The practical geometer as practical geometer is not (and should not be) bothered by the fact that, try as he may, he cannot draw a line that is absolutely straight, or create a circle whose radii are exactly equal. Doing so would take him beyond the practical, workaday concerns of land measurement, building construction, and the like.

The geometer of Socrates has fundamentally different ends and therefore employs different means. It is precisely the geometrical objects themselves that concern him. Thus, he wants to know what a point is, what a line is, what a circle is, and so on. Furthermore, when he does his “constructions” he wants to be able to form geometrical figures and solids not in the sand or on a whiteboard, but in his imagination. The constraints of the sensible realm that limit the practical geometer do not limit him. Although the liberal art of geometry clearly owes its origins to practical geometry, by abstracting from the sensible realm and its conditions the liberal art of geometry can effectively turn away from a total immersion in the sensible realm in order to see what can be known about geometrical objects in themselves and for their own sake.

Perhaps an example would be helpful here. Let’s consider the first proposition in Euclid’s Elements, the greatest introduction to geometry ever written. In this proposition, Euclid sets out to construct an equilateral triangle on a given straight line (AB). In order to do so, he first uses the straight line AB to describe two circles. He then draws straight lines from one of the points of intersection (C) to create the lines CA and CB, as in the diagram below:

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Given that all the radii of a given circle are equal to one another, Euclid proves that AC and AB must be equal to one another; for the same reason, BA and BC also must be equal. Since two things (AC, BC) are each equal to the same third thing (AB, which, of course, is the same as BA), those same two things (AC, BC) must be equal to one another. Thus, all three lines (AB, BC, CA) are equal and we know that Euclid has constructed an equilateral triangle, ABC.

This simple proposition clearly illustrates the difference between the two types of geometers and their respective geometries. If the geometer of Socrates (and Euclid) were using an actual straightedge and compass to construct his lines and circles, he obviously could never prove this proposition. For the purposes of practical geometry, on the other hand, a line that is for the most part straight and a circle whose radii are approximately equal is sufficient. If greater accuracy is needed, the practical geometer can try to avail himself of tools and procedures that would fit the bill. But for the one who engages in the liberal art of geometry, any deviation from strict equality among the radii will make the proof absolutely break down, since the argument only follows if the radii are in fact equal. Thankfully, he is not strictly speaking constructing the figure in his diagram, but rather in his imagination. So while our geometer uses diagrams to illustrate what he is attempting to prove, such diagrams are never meant to instantiate the truths in question. Rather, the diagrams serve simply as mediators between minds—the one teaching the proof, the other(s) learning it.

Quadrivial Studies and the Foothills of Philosophy

At this point, let’s stop and take a retrospective glance at the ground we’ve covered. This essay began with a few general questions about the nature and status of the quadrivial arts. In order to make headway on these questions, we examined two passages from Book VII of Plato’s Republic. Our examination of the cave image drew attention to the importance of images and the imagination in making an ascent from the cave of ignorance into the light of knowledge. Recognizing an image as an image was vital to the movement upwards. And the imagination, while clearly tied to and reliant upon sensation, also served higher purposes. In our brief consideration of two of the quadrivial arts, arithmetic and geometry, we caught a glimpse of how these mathematical studies could help to bring about a turning away from unreflective immersion in sensation and a turning toward higher things. Central to this turning was the way in which the imagination could aid the understanding, being used by the understanding to help it render judgments about things that transcend sensation and point toward intelligible things. Finally, in considering geometry we saw the imagination at work, not merely receiving images but actually constructing geometrical objects under the direction of the understanding. These objects, though inspired by our encounter with the sensible realm and in some sense rooted in that realm, nevertheless transcend that realm and direct us toward still higher things.

Earlier in the essay, we noted that Socrates identified a training in these mathematical studies with “the ascent to what is, which we say is true philosophy.” A remarkable claim, to be sure. Even more remarkable, though, is what Socrates says of them a little further on. While discussing the quadrivial plan of studies, Glaucon makes a passing comment about the “usefulness” of the study of astronomy: “a better awareness of the seasons, months, and years is no less appropriate for a general than for a farmer or navigator” (527D). Socrates replies:

You amuse me: You’re like someone who’s afraid that the majority will think he is prescribing useless subjects. It’s no easy task—indeed it’s very difficult—to realize that in every soul there is an instrument that is purified and rekindled by such subjects when it is blinded and destroyed by other ways of life, an instrument that it more important to preserve than ten thousand eyes, since only with it can the truth be seen (ibid.).

In distinct yet intimately related ways, the quadrivial arts serve this very purpose: to purify and rekindle the mind’s eye so that it may see the truth. In doing so, the quadrivial arts lead us through the foothills of philosophy; they help us begin the journey, pointing us in the right direction, perfecting our intellectual vision so that it is well-suited for the philosophical way of life. Through a renovation of the imagination, these arts can assist in freeing us from an undue preoccupation with and attachment to lower things. Through them the philosophical soul begins its ascent to the things themselves and what truly is.

[1]Plato, Republic, trans. G. M. A. Grube, rev. C. D. C. Reeve (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co, 1992). All quotations of Plato’s Republic are from this edition.