"You will no doubt be asking me, Gratius, why I feel such an affection for this man," begins Marcus Tullius Cicero in the middle of his speech defending the poet Aulus Licinius Archias in the year 62 BCE.

The setting is the dying days of the Roman Republic. Gaius Julius Caeser and Cnaeus Pompeius are building towards their take-over of Rome along with Crassus 2 years later in 60 BCE. Pompey has finished the war in Asia against Mithridates VI of Pontus and is returning home. A law has been passed to evict all non-romans from the city of Rome. The idea was to remove various gangs of thugs but Pompey's agents have tried to use it to evict the poet Archias who is allied with the house of Lucius Licinius Lucullus, a rival of Pompey's that had been the Roman General that preceeded Pompey in the war against Mithridates.

Cicero has long allied himself with Pompey and in fact argued in the Senate in favor of Pompey replacing Lucullus as General of the east following a disasterous defeat of one of Lucullus' Lieutenants. But he occasionally disagrees with Pompey and crosses him and this is one of those occasions.

After defending the facts of the case in a fairly straightforward fashion he then moves on to defending the poet as a poet by defending the role of poets and literature in general.

And this is what I wish to in turn share with you...

You will no doubt be asking me, Gratius, why I feel such an affection for this man. The answer is that he provides my mind with refresment after this din of the courts; he soothes my ears to rest when they are wearied by angry disputes. How could I find material, do you suppose, for the speeches I make every day on such a variety of subjects, unless I steeped my mind in learning? How could I endure the constant strains if I could not distract myself from them by this means? Yes, I confess I am devoted to the study of literature. If people have buried themselves in books, if they have used nothing they have read for the benefit of their fellow-men, if they have never displayed the fruits of such reading before the public eye, well, let them by all means be ashamed of the occupation. But why, gentlemen, should I feel any shame? Seeing that not once throughout all these years have I allowed myself to be prevented from helping any man in the hour of his need because I wanted a rest, or because I was eager to pursue my own pleasures, or even becasue I needed a sleep!
Somone recently asked me why I read what I read. What I would do with what I learned. I never know quite how to answer those questions. Unlike Cicero I do not spend my time arguing before the Senate or the courts. If I had more time I would write more here but daily life limits that and I write seriously only occasionally limiting myself to snarky and hopefully sometimes insightful comments the rest of the time.

But the reason I don't know how to answer is that the answer seems so obvious to me as to be unquestionable. I read to learn. I read because so much of what I read is fascinating. I read to know. I read for pleasure. I read because it brings me joy... as these passages from Cicero, a kindred spirit in this way, written so long ago, brought me this morning as I read them for the first time while drinking my morning coffee. I read because it makes me a better, more knowledgable, wiser person and I never know when some of what I read will be useful to me... but I know that it will.

I cannot therefore, I submit, be justly rebuked or censured if the time which others spend in advancing their own personal affairs, taking holidays and attending Games, indulging in pleasures of various kinds or even enjoying mental relaxation and bodily recreation, the time they spend on protracted parties and gambling and playing ball, proves in my case to have been taken up with returning over and over again to these literary pursuits.
I've also been asked in the past what I do for fun with the expected answers being the modern day versions of those outlined in the above paragraph. What sort of toys do I buy myself? My answer is the same as Cicero's. I enjoy various other things in life but sitting by the fire reading history or theology or politics or philosophy is really what brings me relaxation and joy. Have fun on your snowmobile! You'll know where to find me when you're done.
And I have all the more right to engage in such studies because they improve my capacity as a speaker; and this, for what it is worth, has unfailingly remianed at the disposal of my friends whenever prosecutions have placed them in danger. Even if some may regard my ability as nothing very great, at least I realize the source from which the best part of it has come. For unless I had convinced myself from my earliest years, on the basis of lessons derived from all I had read, that nothing in life is really worth having except moral decency and reputable behavior, and that for their sake all physical tortures and all perils of death and banishment must be held of little account, I should never have been able to speak up for the safety of you all in so many arduous clashes, or to endure these attacks which dissolute rogues launch against me every day. The whole of literature, philosophy and history is full of examples which teach this lesson - but which would have been plunged in utter darkness if the written word had not been available to illuminate them. Just think of the number of vividly drawn pictures of valient men of the past that Greek and Latin writers have preserved for our benefit; not for mere inspection only, but for imitation as well. Throughout my public activities I have never ceased to keep these great figures before my eyes, and have modelled myself heart and soul on the contemplation of their excellence.
Cicero, in turn, was considered the greatest of statesmen by many of the founding fathers of the United States. It was in reading that they relied heavily on his example that I decided I needed to add him to my bookshelf and get around to reading him one of these days (these current days finally being the ones). Funny how he describes that himself.

He, Cicero, goes on for quite a bit more outlining various great men of the past and their support for poets. I actually have no great love for poetry myself. It's never really grabbed me and while I enjoy a good novel it is history and the other subjects I mentioned above that grab me and hold me tight.

Cicero then explains in part why these great men have supported and valued poets and other writers...

For there is no concealing the fact, and it had better be accepted and openly admitted: we all like to be praised! The better the man the greater his desire for celebrity. The philosophers who bid us despise ambition do not forget to affix their names to their own books!
And shortly after in the next paragraph...
To incline you to my way of thinking, gentlemen, I will place myself in your hands and confess to you my own passion to be famous.
My granddaughter is 16. She has really taken interest in academics in the last couple years and is applying herself wonderfully (straight A's brags the proud and happy grandfather!). We've been talking a lot about college and areas of study. She struggled a little to articulate it exactly but it became clear to me during one of these conversations that what she was trying to say was that she wants to make her mark on the world. She wants to advance human knowledge. She wants the world to know she was here and that she made a difference.

I can relate. :)

We are all struggling here in our political activities to make a difference in our own ways. In my family there have been people who really have made a difference and been part of the great struggle of human progress. I feel the weight of living up to that burden. At this point in my life I know I will not measure up even close to some of them but, as my signature line quote from TR says I'll have done "what I can with what I have where I am." No great poets will write of my heroic deeds and I'm ok with that (chuckling). I am in the camp with those philosophers who decry overweening ambition and ego. But I am also firmly embedded in the importance of (what I call) "small history" that I have read which is full of people who did their part along the way as footsoldiers on the road of progress while the "great men" have gotten written up in the "great history" books that get taught in classes.

A person with right ideas hopes for no reward whatever for any toils and perils he may have to undergo - except only praise, and the good opinion of his fellows. Take those things away, gentlemen, and in the brief and transient span of this life I cannot see what stimulus remains to encourage our arduous labours. If the human spirit felt no anticipations of posterity, if the range of its imagination were bounded by the limits that circumscribe human existence, we should never be prepared to tire ourselves out with all these exertions, suffer torments of sleepless anxiety, face ceaseless confrontations in which our very lives are at stake. It does appear, however, that men of true nobility contain within themselves a force which day and night applies the prick of ambition to their hearts, and never allows us to stop struggling to ensure that the memory of our names shall not perish with our deaths, but shall survive them for all time to come.
"What did you do in the war Daddy?" Even if those memories are within our own posterity alone. My own fervor for political activism was charged by a conversation I had with my Dad during the early Bush years in which he spoke about his activism during the civil right struggle and how those were some of the best years of his life. What he left unsaid, but I heard clearly written between the lines was... "And now it's your turn."

My daughter-in-law lives in Steubenville, Ohio and has recently gotten involved in the furor over the high school rape case going on there. She said to me that my families activism seems to have caught ahold of her. It is my fervent hope and expectation that my granddaughter will make a difference in whatever the great events of her day end up being and that she will be able to look back at her grandfather as one in a line that extends back through history and that she will proudly and confidently step up to take her place in that line as well.

How could I find material, do you suppose, for the speeches I make every day on such a variety of subjects, unless I steeped my mind in learning? How could I endure the constant strains if I could not distract myself from them by this means? Yes, I confess I am devoted to the study of literature.

Originally posted to Andrew C White on Sat Jan 19, 2013 at 11:58 AM PST.

Also republished by Readers and Book Lovers, Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter, Headwaters, History for Kossacks, and Community Spotlight.

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