Learning Citizenship via Cicero

The ancients captivated my imagination when I enrolled in Latin during my tenth grade year. At the time, I knew very little about the Roman empire and even less about Latin, but I believed I was signing up for higher test scores and academic distinction. In actuality, I was encountering my destiny.

Five years later, I was majoring in Classics at university and pursuing the path to teacher certification. In the course of my studies, I met the Latin authors of poetry, satire, and epic; but a summer course with the statesman Cicero inspired my passion for oratory. 

“Who is this Cicero?” you ask. Marcus Tullius Cicero was a popular Roman politician credited with saving the Republic from terrorism in 63 B.C. Actually, he credits himself with this accomplishment, and because of his persuasive talent, the Senate and the people of Rome agreed with him. Modern scholars, however, debate the veracity of his speeches as they concern this “Catilinarian conspiracy,” but 2000 years later whether or not Cicero’s allegations were true is not so impressive as his rhetorical power to shape public perception of truth.

In our era of Facebook fighting and political melodrama, Cicero reminds me that vivid conjecture and character assassination are age-old rhetorical techniques, not logical arguments. We live in a time when a great many voices vie for our attention, and media culture can be overwhelmingly invasive and negative…how are we to guide our children in navigating this world and deciding whom to trust? Concerning #citizenship (@charlottemasonirl), I want to offer up Ms. Mason’s thoughts on the value of Latin:

“…culture begins with the knowledge that everything has been known and everything has been perfectly said these two thousand years ago and more. This knowledge, slowly drummed into a youth, should keep him from swelled head, from joining in the ‘We are the people’ cry of the blatant patriot; and there is no better way of knowing a people than to know something of their own words in their own speech” (v.6, p.309).

Ms. Mason believed that learning about the past from those who lived in it held great lessons for our students. As George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Thus, Latin is more relevant than ever—in order to see ourselves within the broader stream of time; to humble ourselves in the recognition that we are not so unique and advanced as some might suggest; to become aware of the cultural blinders of our time, lest we are carried away by clever rhetoricians clamoring for our ear, demanding allegiance to the cause du jour. This world makes many demands on us, but because of the view I’ve had into Cicero’s world—because of Latin—I feel better equipped to respond.  After all, the world of today is not so very different from the world of yesterday.

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What are your thoughts?