Was Cicero the most influential writer of all time?
In writers’ circles we often hear discussions about how influential Hemingway was on modern literature or how influential Shakespeare was. Seldom have I heard people make the case for Cicero.
His full name was Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BC — 7 December 43 BC), a Roman statesman, orator, lawyer and philosopher, who also served as consul in the year 63 BC. He came from a wealthy family of the Roman equestrian order, and is considered one of Rome’s greatest orators and prose stylists.
In this brief piece I wish to assemble a few observations and make a few comments, ending with a few quotes from the man himself.
Influence on Augustine of Hippo
A theologian and philosopher, he was one of the most influential thinkers in the development of Western Christianity and philosophy. He lived from 354 to 430 AD, but his writings shaped Christian thinking for more than a thousand years.
The story I wanted to share here had to do with Cicero’s influence on Augustine. Augustine was a brilliant young man who had studied the writings of Greek and Roman philosophers. When he encountered Cicero he was not only attracted to the man’s ideas, but to his beautiful manner of expression.
At a certain point in time he was introduced to the Gospel, but when he read the Bible he had received it was such a bad translation that it struck him odd the that Word of God would be inferior to the beautiful writing of this Latin thinker. He scrapped Christianity for a season.
When his life bottomed out and he finally embraced Christianity, he observed that faith and philosophy were not necessarily at odds with one another. While reading about the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt he noted that they carried with them the gold from Egypt.
Augustine interpreted this in an interesting way. He took it as an affirmation that “truth is truth wherever it is found.” And when questioned about his love of Cicero’s writings, he replied, “The gold of Egypt is still gold.”
Augustine’s influence was due in part to his discernment and willingness to take the best from secular thought and synthesize new ideas based on the Scriptures. Cicero was a primary influence on this influential man whom the Catholic church later dubbed Saint Augustine.
Influence on Petrarch
When I see the name Petrarch I automatically think of Petrarch’s Lives, his biographies of famous people. Petrarch was a Latin scholar whose discovery of Cicero’s letters has been credited for initiating the 14th-century Renaissance in public affairs, humanism, and classical Roman culture.
That’s pretty heady stuff, and I’d be hard-pressed to say that one man’s rare find could have this much impact. Petrarch was, however, a letter writer and Latin scholar, and could appreciate the find more than most anyone.
Petrarch purportedly coined the phrase “the Dark Ages” and is often cited as the origin of Humanism.
Influence on the Enlightenment
(From Wikipedia) The peak of Cicero’s authority and prestige came during the 18th-century Enlightenment, and his impact on leading Enlightenment thinkers and political theorists such as John Locke, David Hume, Montesquieu and Edmund Burke was substantial. His works rank among the most influential in European culture, and today still constitute one of the most important bodies of primary material for the writing and revision of Roman history, especially the last days of the Roman Republic.
Why is this influence is significant? Because these were the writers who influenced the leading figures who crafted the Great American Experiment and forged the American Revolution. In the 1700s there were more books sold to the Colonies than to all of England. The leading statesmen who cobbled together our country’s founding documents were students of the great minds. What they achieved in Philadelphia was historically unique — The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. There had never been anything like it.
Influence on George Washington
The first U.S. president wasn’t elected because he was taller than many of his peers. He was learned and respected. On his nightstand next to his bed he kept two books: The Bible and the writings of Cicero.
What struck Augustine and Petrarch was the beauty of his writing. He wrote in Latin, so these translations are simply a handful of pithy ideas to chew on from a much vaster catalogue, the aim here being to give you a sense of the flavor of his mind.
“The beginnings of all things are small.”
“Let the welfare of the people be the ultimate law.”
“Let the punishment match the offense.”
“There is nothing so absurd that it has not been said by some philosopher.”
“The distinguishing property of man is to search for and to follow after truth.”
“Let your desires be ruled by reason.”
“Diseases of the mind are more common and more pernicious than diseases of the body.”
“The habit of arguing in support of atheism, whether it be done from conviction or in pretense, is a wicked and impious practice.”
The most influential writer in history? I dunno. Based on what I know and have shared here, he’d have to be on the short list.
Who would you put on that short list?
Photo Credit: José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 4.0