Mommsen and Cicero

Author: Merolle, Vincenzo
Title: Mommsen and Cicero
Place edition: Berlin
Editor: Logos Verlag
Year edition: 2015
Keywords: Héritage - Fortuna - Legacy, Philosophie - Filosofia - Philosophy, Politique - Politica - Politics

Maria Ana Tupan, Revistei Contemporanul. Ideea Europeana, nr. 9, Sept. 2015.

Cicero's relevance to us is highlighted by Vincenzo Merolle from 'La Sapienza' University in Rome, who is also the editor of 2.000. The European Journal, published in five languages. The discursive manner matches that of the great orator in his book,Mommsen and Cicero (Logos Verlag, Berlin 2015), which is a refutatio of the negatively assessed portrait lavishly jotted down on many pages by the celebrated German historian in his Roman History. Defence in the polemical way, in which Cicero excelled, is felt to have a greater impact than commendatory comment…

Merolle writes as a political philosopher, born in Arpino, in the shadow of his great forerunner, and therefore destined to defend him from vilificatio. He turns in anger against other detractors as well, such as Wilhelm Drumann and Georg Barthold Niebuhr, Theodor Mommsen's precursors in the sad work of 'character assassination' (the systematic blacking of someone's image). The passion pouring into the book is part of its charm, but the inculpation of all the German commentators seems to us a bit exaggerated. There is no reason why we should see a symptom of guilty conscience in the fact that present commentators leave Mommsen out. We are more inclined to see, for instance, an objective and detached politologist such as Karl-Heinz Mulag (Phänomene des politischen Menschen im 17. Jahrhundert, Hamburg 1973) putting down one knee while sketching on the other, in typically German fashion, a table of invariants capable to untie the most tangled knot. The relationship between power and value, for instance, implies the ancient principle of its grounding in ethics (Thucydides), in virtue (Plato and Cicero), unlike the modern shift to instrumental rationality (Morus: power should be pragmatic, but with rules of the game, while Machiavelli reduces the exertion of power to utility, etc…

The study of Cicero's works, as well as the coverage of the exegetic corpus dedicated to him, makethis book a model of erudition and a reference which no one will afford to ignore in the future. The most important aspect seems to us to be the new positioning of Cicero in the history of ideas and the exploration of the present potential inherent in Ciceronism to serve the philosophy of history  and of politics. Following suggestions from Tadeusz Zielinski, a Ukrainian of Polish descent, Merolle documents Cicero's priority in the genealogy of Deism and of Newton's cosmogonic model in De Natura Deorum and De Divinatione

As defender of the republican ideal and of consensual government at the time of the collapse of the Roman Republic, Cicero was confirmed in his political option by two other catastrophes which reversed the progress of civilization: the defeat of the Girondins in France and of Kerensky in Russia. Whereas the first sinned by the onset of a tyrant's arbitrary power, the last two justified Cicero's fear of the multitude, especially of the mob. It is only equality before the law that is justified, not the imposition of the principle of equality in social organization, because human beings are not equal. To honour the uppermost and the lowest indiscriminately is quite unfair, he thought. Merolle sees no virtue either in the alternating access to power or the imposition of the majority's will, opting for the Ciceronian model which meant the participation in the act of government of all social layers and classes -what we understand today by 'participatory democracy'. In between the arbitrary rule of a single man and the unwitty mob, Cicero wanted to interpose the aristocrats characterised by moderation…

After the fall of the ancien regime this mediator role was taken up by the professional elites. English Romantic T.S. Coleridge calls the alliance of Church and intelligentsia 'clerisy'. Antonio Gramsci -here is an exemplary peninsular continuity- ascribes this role to civil society. Hence the tragedy wrought upon the whole nation by the failure of this class. La trahison des clerks (Julien Benda); 'The Treason of Intelligentsia' (Nicolae Breban). Are our professionals consulted when it comes to the drafting of laws? Merolle is an authority in this field but before publishing this book he asked the opinion of historians from thirteen odd universities from all over the world to make sure that he would be free from shallowness of errors. The unanimously acknowledged models of politicians are intellectuals who come in the name of peace and moderation, such as Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela. President Obama is another peace-maker supported not only by the American democrats but also by American academics.



F.L. van Holthoon, 2000.The European Journal, no. 1, June 2016Citizen of Arpino challenges Theodor Mommsen

Vincenzo Merolle takes Theodor Mommsen to task for his verdict on Cicero as a weakling, an opportunist and a thinker without ideas of his own. It is easy to see that Mommsen's verdict is ridiculous. Mommsen's hero was Julius Caesar as the example of a strong leader. Whatever we think of Caesar's and Cicero's political actions, except stating the fact that both were murdered, Cicero's influence on Western thought  was wide spread and immense. All of us who learned Latin in School have read De Bello Gallico because it was easy, not because it was particularly interesting. It has been said that Cicero's political persona was in his works, not in his actions and the secret of these works, even the ad hoc ones, is that their messages transcended the confines of Roman history.

Merolle is an Arpino patriot. In one of his appendices he claims the birthplace of Cicero for Arpino and not for the neighbouring Sora. Cicero to him is the quintessential liberal, while Mommsen favoured authoritarian democracy which could collapse into despotism (p. 45). At the time was 1856, when the third volume of his Römische Geschichte appeared, not 1870), Mommsen, like many German liberals, believed in the monarch as a strong leader who acted with a mandate of the people. Later Max Weber was of the same opinion. It seems farfetched to suggest that Mommsen ever favoured despotism. He was indeed a nationalist (p. 17), but also a liberal as the name of the party to which he belonged suggests. a national liberal. Whether he would have approved the decision of the Kaiser to go to war in 1914, we shall never know. He died in 1903.

Was Cicero a liberal? Merolle makes the distinction between political and philosophical liberalism (p. 45). Cicero was no political liberal. The term does not fit in the vindictive Roman culture of 46 B.C., and rather that calling Cicero a philosophical liberal I would promote him to being the ancestor of liberalism as a philosophy. The fact that he had an eclectic mind possibly was an advantage. He appealed to a wide range of thinkers. If I try to summarize his impact on Western thought I would say that his texts were ideal for the education of a liberal gentleman. Through Cicero he learned that freedom meant that everybody could say what he wanted and that those who mattered  (i.e. those who did not work with their hands: gentlemen) should have a say in government. And from Cicero's incomparable rhetoric he would have known that taste is an important element in public debates.

Merolle then shifts in a second gear and asks 'what is alive and what is dead in the philosophy of Cicero'? (p. 53). He mentions Cicero's cosmological views, as expressed in his De Natura Deorum, to illustrate his pervasive influence on eighteenth-century writers such as Newton, Hume and Adam Smith. Now the last two mentioned certainly paid lip service to Cicero's cosmological views, but as innovators they were interested in how human beings could create order on their own. Hume expressly said that morality was the business of man and not of God and Smith agreed with him. So their reference to Cicero was more a cliché than an alive experience.

And Newton? If I understand Merolle well, Newton was the last in the line of a cosmology inspired by Cicero. The new cosmology, according to Merolle, starts with Kant and Hegel. I beg to differ. Newton, in my opinion, did not have a mechanical view of the universe. He tried to explain the working of gravitational force. What gravity is, he professed not to know. As an innovator he offered an open invitation to nineteenth-century natural scientists and that was how they (including Einstein) , accepted his message. Kant's and Hegel's cosmological views are irrelevant. Newton's theological views were highly offensive to the orthodox and the deist alike. According to Newton the universe was full of imperfections and his God was more a busy tinker restoring order than a relaxed architect who looked back at his creation with pleasure.

There is much more in Merolle's little book: quotations, a mention of books and views. Sometimes I have the feeling that the author, as we say in a Dutch idiom, does not manage to keep his frogs in one basket, but the diversity of his interests acts as an inspiration to pursue our own thoughts. And he has certainly vindicated Cicero's reputation. That reputation leads to a last remark on his legacy.

Matthew Arnold, when he accepted the chair of poetry in Oxford, said that a classical education has no practical value. All it does is to create detachment by our confrontation with a foreign culture. Detachment can help us to create a critical distance to our classical past. In the case of Cicero we must conclude that virtus as the equivalent of the manly courage of the soldier no longer is useful to us. Virtus was still, though transformed by the passage of the time, in the luggage of the liberal gentleman, but just as taste regrettably has disappeared from politics, so should warmongering in any form. We need peace under almost any condition, and war, at best, is a distraction from the goal to maintain peace and at worst a recipe for disaster.

Description: [Abstract]  In the introductory essay the author sketches a short history of the German anti-Ciceronianism, from Drumann to Mommsen and, after summarizing Mommsen’s judgment, criticizes and counteracts it, observing that Cicero was faithful to the ideals of the Republic to the last moments of his life.  Sketching a short history of the ‘liberal’ literature, he demonstrates that the author of the Roemische Geschichte was philosophically far from being a liberal, but was in fact a supporter of Caesarism. Therefore, he was unable to understand Cicero’s concept of a mixed constitution, ‘concordia ordinum’ and republican ideals. Nevertheless, during the last quarter of a century German historians have largely moved beyond Mommsen, producing at least seven biographies of Cicero, which ignore Mommsen altogether. In the second section of the essay the author demonstrates that Newton’s cosmology and eighteenth-century cosmology – see, in particular Adam Smith’s philosophical works, and Hume’s The Natural History of Religion and Dialogues concerning Natural Religion – are in fact nothing more than Cicero’s cosmology, as discussed especially in On the Nature of the Gods. Therefore, Ciceronian philosophy was superseded – if it ever was – only with those of Kant and Hegel and, in part, with the physics of Maxwell and Einstein.
Author initials: Merolle 2015