Sunday, January 9, 2011

On The Good Life

By Cicero

Correct me if I’m wrong, but Cicero’s one of those names everyone seems to recognize even if most people haven’t a clue what he’s known for (see: Plato, Socrates, Aristotle…). I was no different. Cicero, Socrates… what’s the difference? But in actual fact Cicero is nothing like Socrates.* (Thank God.) Nor Plato, aside from a minor use of monologue disguised as dialogue.

A good chunk of this book is devoted to Cicero’s essays On Duties and On Friendship. On Duties is kind of an ancient version of How To Win Friends and Influence People. Cicero claims that one must be well-liked in order to achieve much of anything, which ties in with his overarching philosophy that the human beings are inexorably intertwined with one another. We’re symbiotic, if you will. On Duties outlines how to earn and maintain popular favor, and what to do with it once you’ve got it. I’ve never been very comfortable with the whole idea of self-marketing, so I wasn’t super keen on this section, though it was interesting to read. I did like his theory that our symbiosis can be an agent for the greatest good and the fiercest detriment, however, which sort of segues into his ideas in On Friendship, where he cites friendship as the best thing one can achieve in life, but friendship gone bad as one of life’s greatest failings and dangers.

For the most part I enjoyed On Friendship – it tiptoed into the territory of social psychology, which I love – but I thought Cicero’s adamant ideals of wholly genuine friendship verged into a sort of platonic take on True Love. It’s beautiful in theory, but I’m not sure I buy the idea that there are any friendships entirely devoid of the occasional falsity and pretense. We are only human, after all. Cicero’s talk about the sincere, unpretentious, and unambiguous institution of friendship felt reminiscent to me of how Ayn Rand speaks of the Self, and I question whether it's any more practical in real life. That being said, I did enjoy his distinctions between different types of friendship, and his theories on what brings friends together and what catalysts start fraying the threads that bind. College is notoriously a period of social upheaval, and I found myself identifying with much of his commentary on these shifting dynamics. In fact, that’s the major thing that sets Cicero apart from some of our other readings in my mind – he’s relevant to modern society in a more manifest way than the Greek philosophers and their more abstract conjectures. You can underline passages and apply them verbatim to our present society, as though human beings haven’t changed as much as we think they have in the past 2,000 years. And that’s just plain cool. 

* Interesting Fact: We have no published works by Socrates. He only exists in other philosopher’s characterizations of him! Nuggets like this are why I go to college, truly.

Books Read This Year: 4

Top 100 Progress: 38/100

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