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Dr. Larry Arnn and Dr. John Grant On Cicero

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HH: Time for the Hillsdale Dialogue. Once a week at this hour, I am joined by Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, and/or one of his many colleagues and wonderful friends at the college. Today, joined by Dr. John Grant. Professor Grant teaches politics at Hillsdale College. He got his B.A. from Eureka college, of Ronald Reagan fame, of course, his M.A. and PhD in politics from the University of Dallas. He is also, however, an adjunct fellow at the Claremont Institute, so he has a very checkered past, and it’s a completely checkered past. Gentlemen, I have to begin by telling you that yesterday, I had Governor John Kasich of Ohio on, and he stumped me. We were talking about the bicentennial that rapidly approaches of the Battle of Lake Erie. And it occurred to us that is a wonderful moment in American history and Ohio history. And we were at a loss to actually come up, does Michigan have any history, Dr. Arnn? We’re just unaware of any.

LA: Well, it’s been tedious, because the domination of Ohio grows monotonous.

HH: Dr. Grant, I know you’re from Illinois, it looks like, if you went to Eureka. So you probably are as blissfully unaware of anything happening in Michigan as the rest of us.

JG: That is unfortunately true.

HH: Okay, I just, I don’t think they actually teach Michigan history in the schools of Michigan. So maybe one of these times, Dr. Arnn, you can look it up. But we don’t have to worry about Michigan history today. We’re going to talk about Roman history. We’re going to talk about the world’s, perhaps the world’s greatest lawyer ever, and the world’s greatest orator ever. And so he’s near and dear to my heart as a lawyer and a speaker. But the enemy of the state always, and eventually executed by the state. Dr. Grant, we’re going to talk Cicero, and you’ve been brought in to help Dr. Arnn in this. And will you give us an overview of the life of this extraordinary human being?

JG: Well, I’ll try and be brief and clear here. Cicero, I mean, the most interesting thing about his life was the combination of statesmanship, and you mentioned his activities as a lawyer and an orator, which are intrinsically connected with that, and his theoretical writings, too. So this sort of oscillation between intense involvement in politics, and some wonderful episodes like the suppression of the Catalinarian Conspiracy, or the prosecution of the corrupt Roman governor, Verres of Sicily, and then periods outside of politics where he wrote his theoretical works, works like De Republica and De Legibus.

HH: And so if you had to sum up for someone who’d never heard of him, what marks him as worthy of study now?

JG: His combination of theoretical insight about permanent problems, which you see in the books I just mentioned, for instance, as well as his practical success as a statesman, and for some time, holding back the collapse of the Roman republic in those episodes I mentioned. And that’s very relevant to our situation, I think.

HH: Now that is, that is. In fact, I was wondering if you guys would articulate it that way, and you have. Dr. Arnn, for the last, I guess, five or six weeks, we’ve been going through Plutarch’s Lives, and of course, Plutarch thought Cicero worthy of a chapter, and compared him with Demosthenes. But the fact of the matter is he lived in a crumbling society. Everything that he had hoped to achieve, he achieved, but he achieved it as the ruins came down around him.

LA: Yeah, the events in his life, it’s worth mentioning this, because there’s a big adventure story in there, really cool. He was born in 106BC, and he died in 43BC. That means he was 64 years old. And he was born a nobody, and he was brilliant. He was simply, drop down brilliant. Everybody who met him, everybody who studies with him, when he was a teenager, thought to be the greatest orator and poet in Rome. And he meets people, and he gets ahead. His name means something funny, like chick pea or something, and he kept it, instead of changing it to something more dignified. And he made his bones being a lawyer defending somebody famous against Sulla, who was a mass murderer. We’ve talked about him, right?

HH: Yeah, last week, two weeks ago.

LA: And he really ticked Sulla off, and he went into exile and hid for a while. And he’s watching all this go, he’s watching Rome fall under the domination of powerful men with troops. And so when he gets elected consul, the big thing, he gets elected to everything he ever runs for, and the supreme thing, consul, and then this group called the Catilines start a conspiracy that’s very like the one of Sulla, and very like the one later of Caesar, except not by people so competent. And for weeks, Cicero lives a life where he is giving orations, and people in the streets are seeking his life. And he is guarded by masses of the people who spontaneously come to follow him around town and protect him. And he saves the Senate by overcoming this conspiracy. And he shows great personal courage in doing this, although there’s plenty of thought that he was physically a coward. And late in his life, he did things that make somebody think maybe he was physically a coward. And some of those things cost him his life. Also, he made some misjudgments, in my opinion, and in Plutarch’s opinion, but it’s an amazing adventure story. And so you get to see this rare picture, because first of all, Rome is rare. There are not three things like it in all of history. Second of all, the collapse of Rome and the Roman republic is rare. And then third of all, this amazing man, one of the wisest and most eloquent men ever to live, is an actor through the middle of it, writing books of philosophy that are worth reading today if you know nothing about Rome, about these crises, and being an actor in these crises at the same time. There’s really nothing else like it.

HH: Dr. Grant, all week long, Americans have been fixated on television screens watching scenes from Egypt, which are horrific, and also riveting. And it’s a full-blooded revolution of a the sort that periodically wracked Rome during the height of Cicero’s career – people running around shooting each other with, in those days, of course, rocks and catapults or swords, or running them through with spears, or hunting them down and murdering them with clubs if they have been proscribed, but very much the same kind…the weapon’s different, but the same kind of chaos. Cicero glides through that somewhat successfully three or four times. Isn’t that remarkable?

JG: Oh, it’s absolutely remarkable, and you know, survives a number of upheavals. And his whole life is really caught up from the beginning with the turbulence coming out of the attempt at reform by the Gracchi brothers and the social wars which followed that, and these factions which you’ve been talking about in previous weeks which wracked the republic. And so he made it a remarkably long time, and really, I think, at the end was only undone because there was no good alternative. I mean, the corruption had advanced so far that the choice was Pompey or Caesar, and really neither one of them, and Plutarch shows this very nicely, is a great choice. Perhaps Caesar was the lesser of the evils, and so Cicero, who stood for liberty, and that’s why he was killed, and the life of Antony, and this comes out in Plutarch’s life of Antony, really didn’t have an alternative that was good for the preservation of the type of regime he describes in the republic.

HH: I think we also need to mark that Mark Antony did have him hunted down and killed in a brutal fashion, Larry Arnn, because he had so completely, it’s about the danger of the orator’s art. He had so thoroughly embarrassed Antony that he made himself an enemy for life, something to remember if you’re in the business of giving wildly successful satires of people.

LA: Yeah, you’ve got to be careful. And Plutarch faults Cicero for, you know, because first of all, it’s a very strange thing. This man wrote dialogues after the platonic fashion that are worth reading independently of any career the man had, and they’re pinnacles of human excellence. And yet he so loved to tell a joke, and so loved to ridicule people, and he was just too good at it, and he did, he made one other mistake at the end of his life. He made a series of them, actually. He underestimated Octavius, who became Augustus Caesar, who was one of the cleverest maneuverers in history. And he made that boy consul alongside Cicero. And immediately the boy went to Cicero’s enemies, two guys, Antony being one, and they made a pact among themselves. And in that pact, they all got to make a list of people to be murdered. And Cicero was of Antony’s list. He wouldn’t negotiate except that he would be top of the list. And for the first two of three days, Augustus, who did love Cicero and had benefited from him massively, attempted to get his name off the list. And on the third day, they agreed, and the soldiers went and found Cicero at his country home, and chopped off his head in his hands and put them on the rostra in the Senate for everyone to see.

HH: His hands.

LA: His hands, because they had written the Philippics against Antony.

HH: Yeah, that is what, the Romans were about their vengeance in particular ways, but he had written so many poison pen letters, and Antony is not exactly the world’s most inspiring figure. And when we come back from break, we’ll talk about what endured of Cicero through the ages. But what a remarkable life. He’s also made great fodder. There’s a novelist out there named Steven Saylor. Have you ever read him, either of you, Dr. Grant or Dr. Arnn?

JG: I have not.

LA: I have not, no.

HH: Oh, he uses Cicero, it’s a series of Roman mystery novels, and it’s just, he hires private investigators, and Cicero always comes off as the smartest guy you’d ever want. But he also is quite the puppeteer. But it all goes bad at the end.

— – – – –

HH: Dr. Grant, before we plunge back into Cicero, what is your specialty? What do you do the most at Hillsdale?

JG: I do a lot of things. I teach courses in American politics, American foreign policy, and a number of courses in political philosophy. I just taught a course in the natural law tradition, for instance. I also teach a course on Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke.

HH: Well, so you’ll be back quite a lot. I’m curious if a course has ever been dedicated just to Cicero, to your knowledge?

JG: Not to the best of my knowledge, although I would like to see that happen.

HH: And so we’ll explain why, but I would like to say to Dr. Arnn, for the name Wheelock, that strikes fear in many people’s hearts. It’s the original Latin grammar that many of us who were in Latin in junior high and high school were raised on. Cicero basically Wheelock. Wheelock used everything he ever wrote to break it down. That’s how one learned Latin. Is that a testament to how Cicero wrote?

LA: Well, I’m not a Latin scholar, but John may know better than that. But of course, you know, Cicero’s speaking and writing are beautiful, and famous through the ages for being so.

HH: Was it, John, the height of the written Roman word?

LA: Well, my colleagues in classics might take issue. I think that’s at least a plausible argument. He’s a beautiful writer and speaker. And this doesn’t always go together, the writing of theoretical treatises and rhetorical brilliance don’t always go together, and they do with Cicero, which is a very impressive thing.

HH: Now he wrote so much. His judicial speech as Rome as a very litigious society, it was a spectator sport. It would be much like the Supreme Court having an Obamacare case a week. Everybody loved it. He was frequently paid quite a lot. So his judicial speeches are around. His letters are around. A number of his orations in the Roman Senate are around. And then he wrote these books and these essays, from essays on friendship to the Republic. What’s most important to study, John Grant?

JG: Well, some of it depends on one’s interest. I think in terms of politics, his books, the Republic And The Laws, and he’s got two ethical treatises On Duties, or De Officiis, and another treatise called De Finibus, or On The Ends Of Good And Evil, which are, I would say, the most critical works to study from the perspective of politics and morality.

HH: Well, let’s start, then, with the Republic. Would you offer sort of an overview on, because the Republic has got a forbearer. I mean, he’s consciously saying I can write a better Republic than Plato writes, correct?

JG: Yes, or offer a superior model, because he can show an actual best regime, Rome, instead of a city in speech as Plato had in his Republic.

HH: And that is, what do you make of that claim?

JG: Well, in part, it’s ironic. I mean, he, you have to believe some things which Cicero knew to be far-fetched and are kind of comical, such as that men like Romulus were philosophers, when that would be a huge stretch, or that all of Rome’s wars were just wars fought to defend their allies, a claim which he undermines elsewhere. But he is trying to show Rome at a certain point, or this is a regime that is the best regime, and that it could provide a standard for Romans and for other thoughtful human beings about what political life should be like.

HH: Larry Arnn, how much of an impact did De Republica have on America’s framers?

LA: That’s a good question. There’s mentions of it, and the idea of it, you know, first of all, they’re setting up a regime, and so Montesquieu and separation of powers and things like that matter. But something you can take from Cicero that’s directly applicable to American politics is Cicero believed in the divisions of power. He believed in everybody getting involved. And of course, he follows Plato and Aristotle in that. The regime exists for the cultivation of the excellences, the human excellences in every one in the regime to the utmost extent that they can practice them. And of course, some people can practice higher ones and more of all of them than others. But that doesn’t mean that anybody gets treated like a beast. And so, and the way of rule that is conducive to that in Cicero’s, you know, and these are dialogues, remember, so you’re going to have to parse out a little bit exactly what he’s up to and who’s saying what. And Cicero’s not even a character in the Republic. But one could divine this, that the great SPQR that you see is a symbol of Rome, the Senate and the people of Rome. That means they both matter. And that means that there’s some sense of the rule of the best, and there’s some sense of the rule of all citizens, and those two senses come together.

HH: Let’s pause on that for a moment, and I’ll ask Dr. Grant to explain. If anyone visits Rome, and especially the ancient Roman ruins and the Forum or any of the columns, they will see those four letters. What is intended to be conveyed by SPQR?

JG: Well, as Dr. Arnn was just indicating, that that Rome is a unity. It’s not the Senate and the people are both of vital importance. It’s not simply one element of the regime which is dominant. It’s both the Senate and the people, and Cicero adds there’s a monarchical element that’s balanced by the others, too. And so the most excellent human being has a place in Rome. A group of people that are excellent, and is optimists for the best, they have a place in Rome. And the ordinary people have a place in Rome. That’s what the Senate and people of Rome is meant to convey.

HH: Now he’s also, he’s a nobody, as Dr. Arnn pointed out, Dr. Grant. How does a nobody get to be counsel? I mean, that’s almost, that’s as far-fetched then as President Obama the son of a Kenyan and American who’s impoverished, who lives abroad becoming, and African-American becoming president of the United States. It is that kind of improbable.

JG: Oh, certainly, and I think it’s a testimony of Cicero’s great natural ability in the virtues he cultivated that he was able to rise to the great position he did, because it wasn’t through connections. And so much of our political life, it’s who one knows anymore in government determining winners and losers. And Cicero, that’s more of an American success story in a way, to speak anachronistically, I mean, the earlier American success story. He rose on his own merits, his own brilliance, and had to have people recognize that. The different orders of Rome in society, as Dr. Arnn mentioned, the people, were supporters of Cicero at critical moments. The Senate was, supported Cicero. They recognized that virtue.

HH: He had powerful friends early. He was befriended by Pompey the Great, whose father was something of a butcher. There was also universal military service, Dr. Arnn. I’m curious if you think that would be a good thing to return?

LA: Well, it was a better state for sure when a majority of the people of the men, at least, in the United States, had served in the military. There’s a benefit that comes from that. And Rome very much had that benefit. In fact, every great people have had that benefit. And I know, I was on the board of the Army War College for a while, and it was a great honor to me. And I met a lot of inspiring people. And I know some of the most inspiring views, and worry a bit about the separation between them and the civil society. It’s a professional army now. And there’s a downside to that.

HH: And he was not a good soldier. As you mentioned, there are allusions to whether or not he lacked physical bravery or courage or actually was at the differences, he might even have been a coward. But he did his service nonetheless, and it benefitted him. I think that, when we come back from break, though, we talk about the most extraordinary thing about Cicero, this brilliant man. He was a lawyer. Now this may be the first lawyer that we’ve actually talked about since the beginning of the great ideas, the Hillsdale Dialogues. So we’ve got to pay, we ought to pay appropriate due to the fact that this is a lawyer we’re speaking of.

— – – – —

HH: I’ve taken the opportunity of our focus on Cicero and his work and his life today to introduce the concept of why he was so good at writing and at speaking and at persevering the Republic, Dr. Grant. The lawyering mattered, and he was one heck of a lawyer.

JG: Oh, certainly. I mean, and a great speaker, but of course, that can be mere tricks, and it could be used for bad purposes, too. Cicero was really interested in justice and benefitting the regime. And some of his most notable acts as a lawyer were of immense political importance, too, not just to his clients, say, but to the whole regime and the public good.

HH: Now this is a historical question. Were any of those involved in the actual destruction of the Republic, lawyers? I’m thinking through Sulla and Marius and the social war, back through the Gracchi Brothers. I’m not sure that, I guess Caesar was in the law courts a little bit, but I don’t ever think of him as actually practicing law.

JG: I think in general, some of them might have been involved tangentially, but they, at the end, it was great, they tended to be great military leaders, people who, and Pompey was an impressive conqueror along the lines of Caesar, who sort of, of course, he fell apart at the end, but that tended to be the type that dominated.

HH: And Dr. Arnn, do you have any nominees from the bad guys’ list who were lawyers, because I think all the good guys were lawyers.

LA: Well, I don’t know, Steve Douglas was a lawyer, right?

HH: (laughing)

LA: Of course. And Lincoln was a lawyer, but not really.

HH: Oh, come on.

LA: No, think about, I want to say something about Cicero’s eloquence, because you know, the classical doctrine is that we are drawn to the good, and the highest form of the good is the beautiful. And this doctrine is marvelously explicit and developed in Cicero’s writings. John can probably talk about that more than I can. But this doctrine of the natural law, this idea which Cicero speaks of at great length, and which is not present in Plato or Aristotle, it is a beautiful thing. And Plutarch has a fantastic line about Cicero. He says that justice, when it’s put into words that reveal it for what it is, is one of the most beautiful things to look upon. So the people who went to those law cases to hear Cicero argue, they were looking for a deep satisfaction. It wasn’t just a show. It was a revelation of something elevated and fine And people loved that. And Cicero could show them that, and so they loved him.

HH: When he wrote the Laws, Dr. Grant, what was the primary point of that writing?

JG: Well, his book, The Republic, is about the best regime, simply. And that best regime, he says, is Rome. And his book, The Laws, is about what are the laws actually like in that. And of course, he has to reinterpret some provisions to be more reasonable than they actually are. So instead of just talking about what are the formal structure of the regime in the Laws, it’s what are the particular laws in the particular offices or political jobs in the regime, and how should one understand them to accord with the best regime.

HH: Is there anything about that that we still can find applicable?

JG: Well, the example, I think, is very much applicable to our situation of Cicero looking at the natural, and our founders did this. They had a natural law doctrine, which formed the basis of the, of course, our whole regime in the Declaration of Independence and the related documents. But they had to adjust a lot of practices that they’d inherited, didn’t throughout entirely, so. Of course, you might know this as a lawyer, Hugh, but the property law had to change at the founding. We had to eliminate things like primogeniture and entail. That’s very much in the spirit of what Cicero’s doing in the Laws. And so I think that example is very instructive for us today.

HH: Now I want to close with the minute we have in this segment and the one that follows on friendship. He wrote a great book on friendship that not many people know about. Have you spent any time with that, Dr. Grant?

JG: Very little, but I’ll give it a go if…

HH: Well, he defines it, he says it can only be between good men. He think it’s essential to a well-lived life. It’s one of the greatest essays ever on friendship. Why would a lawyer and a statesman, do you think, spend so much time on this subject?

JG: Well, I think above all, Cicero was concerned for what was good for human beings. And so of course, he was a lawyer, and that was of very great importance to him, but he understood that friendship is a good without which human life is meaningless, and very much following Aristotle in that in Books 8 and 9 of the Ethics.

—- – – – –

HH: Dr. Arnn, he wrote this amazing book on friendship, in which he says there is no feigning or dissembling within real friendship, that they are very, very hard to find, and that it’s essential to maintain stability and constancy in friendship, so they have to last a very long period of time. And as Dr. Grant said, there is no great life well-lived without them. Thoughts on this and how that carried through in the history not only of his life, it ended without friends, really, but in those of the framers whom he deeply impacted.

LA: Well, he didn’t really live without friends. People loved him and they mourned him when he died. But let’s call this 30 seconds self-help with Hugh, because here’s something everybody should know. You’ve got three kinds of friends. And one kind of friend is people who are useful to you. You do business with them, stuff like that. You need that. Economies run on that friendship. One kind of friendship is pleasure, people you just delight in. But that third kind of friendship, that’s what Cicero’s talking about. That’s what you just articulated, and everyone should seek that with all their heart, because that is a form of association of people who love elevated things and cultivate them inside themselves and with each other. And the classical doctrine repeated in Cicero is that’s the kind that last, and that’s the kind where we get the strongest sense of what it is to be a fine human being, and therefore happy.

HH: He does indeed repeat that. So does Madison, by the way, when he writes on friendship. I want to close with something we always seem to get a little Churchill in these weeks. Who was his best friend, Larry Arnn?

LA: Probably F.E. Smith, a very, Lord Birkenhead, a lawyer, of all things, and irascible and brilliant and eloquent, and Ciceronian in many ways, and a tremendous person to know, and different from Churchill in many ways. But Churchill loved him and was loyal to him all his life, and vice versa.

HH: And Dr. Grant, this may be in your wheelhouse, maybe not. Who was Lincoln’s best friend?

JG: I don’t know. That’s a great question.

HH: Larry?

LA: Well, you know, he had long term associates, at least, Herndon and Nicolay and Hay, who worked for him, and he became very close to Seward, and they did great things together, those two. And they were rivals at the beginning, and Seward is really the one who came over and was a Lincoln man. So, but that’s a good question. I don’t know the answer for sure.

HH: I don’t know that Washington had one, and I know Washington pretty well, and I know that Jefferson and Adams had one. It was sundered, and it was repaired. But I’m not really sure that the greatest of Americans, or the greatest of Westerners, have these sorts of friendships.

LA: Madison and Jefferson.

HH: Oh.

LA: And especially Madison was of enormous benefit to Jefferson in his life, and Jefferson possessed qualities of command that, you know, big, tall, elegant, beautiful man, you know, wonderful writer, Madison a little short guy, reasoned, calculator. Put the two of those guys together, and you’ve got a better human being.

HH: Dr. Grant, any other nominees, because I don’t want to just suggest that Roman society was the greatest, but we’re getting close to leaving the Republic. We’re going to head off, I think, into Marcus Aurelius land here. So it’s a last chance to perhaps make an argument that they had better friends then.

JG: I don’t know, I think that one of, I don’t think so, at least not necessarily. At the end of Cicero’s life, I think one of the brutality of his murder, and the fact that he’s basically abandoned, although he did have friends, and this comes out in many places, shows you the effective tyranny on friendship. And Solzhenitsyn’s very good on this, too, in of course, the 20th Century, especially in his novel, In The First Circle. But I don’t think it’s superior. I think that it’s a great human good, and that tyranny has a terrible effect on even the possibility. We can’t privatize our lives that way and count on having these good friendships in a despotic regime.

HH: He also wrote on old age, and I don’t know that either of you are familiar with that. Are you, Dr. Grant?

JG: Somewhat.

HH: So how would you summarize that, because it’s sort of a, to those of us who are on the cusp of the final quarter, who enter into that in a few years, he has some very pleasant things to say.

JG: I think you just summarized it very well, Hugh. Actually, that’s what he’s trying to do, is to say this is not an evil to be feared. And I know you did Plato’s Republic some time ago with Dr. Arnn and Dr. Tom West, and you know, one of the characters in that book, Cephalus, is afraid of old age. I mean, the fears of death and things like that overpower parts of his life. And I think Cicero’s trying to go against that and say no, we shouldn’t look at old age. Of course, it comes with some hardships, but it comes with many blessings, too.

HH: And you ought to go into it with pals, though, Larry Arnn?

LA: Yeah, it’s, you know, just remember, Cicero’s life is a caution. I just really want to repeat what John just said. Tyranny, unjust rule, upends every good thing. And friendship is one of those things it upends. And so it isolates us and it makes us lonely in our age.

HH: Did you happen to see that the D.C. Circuit this week, in an opinion by Brett Kavanaugh, rebuked the president of the United States for not following the laws, Larry Arnn?

LA: Yeah, I did see that. I think that’s such a good thing.

HH: (laughing) I thought you might. It was, it’s like a roundhouse, and Brett Kavanaugh’s a smart guy. He’s a very smart judge. And the liberal, of course, dissented quite vehemently that there are, but I don’t mean to compare the President with a tyrant, but the idea of throwing around law is not a good thing to sit idly by and watch, because that’s what Cicero, he began in a republic of laws, and he ended up with his head in his hands on the rostra.

LA: Yeah, here’s how to judge statesmen, by the way. In a sense, the law is the opposite of statesmanship. Statesmanship is what people do in the moment with their authority and their will. The law is what is made up in advance before we even know who’s going to be doing it and who’s going to be effective. Great statesmen are wonderfully willful people who always bow before the law. And that’s rare.

HH: Very rare. Dr. Grant, a final word on Cicero?

JG: Hopefully, this dialogue will help reinvigorate interest in Cicero. He’s a much neglected author, and I think there’s a lot of wisdom that is wisdom simply, and wisdom for our lives today.

HH: Dr. John Grant, thank you so much for making your debut appearance. Come back early and often. Dr. Larry Arnn, talk to you again next week. I think it’s Marcus Aurelius, but we will have to talk about that, and I’ll tell the audience where we go next on the Hillsdale Dialogues, all of which are available at, or go direct to If you’re not already getting it, you must sign up for Imprimus, absolutely you must sign up for Imprimus.

End of interview.


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Friends and Allies of Rome