Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

mould, to take shape, not the pattern to give it. He always found it difficult to take a side steadily, and in sasting about for a choice he seldom decided of himself, or from the merits of the case, or according to high principles involved. To make up his mind, he leaned on friends and incidentals. He had, from first to last, by nature and conviction, all the instincts of a trimmer. Without touching upon other instances, three cardinal cases may be mentioned from different periods of his life.

In youth, he for some time held the balance uncertain between the Sullan and Marian factions, until at last the scale, overweighted merely by the claims of kinship and the hope of rising in the state, dipped down to Marius and his rabble. Still he went on whiffling between the traditions of the rival chiefs ; so that even the tolerant and admiring Niebuhr confesses, in reference to this matter, that there was throughout life a kind of discord in his character. Again, in his prime, during his consulship, the very culmination of his life, be shuffled most scurvily between nobles and people, in his attitude towards the agrarian law proposed by Servilius Rullus. He had not the nerve to break at once with either party, so he tried the mad expedient of riding two horses at once, in order to please both sides. He was neither pro nor con., but on the fence, glibly rattling off all the while, both ways, the twofold Shibboleth. Here it was all Gracchus, agrarianism, the great Marius, and the sacred tribunate ; there, it was the privileges of caste, the glorious Sulla, legal quibbles and the not-give-an-inch policy. And all this was the utterance of one and the same man, speaking to-day in the forum to the populace, and to-morrow in the senate-chamber to the Conscript Fathers. It was not simply the indecision or evasion of a halting nature, but the downright duplicity of an unscrupulous trimmer. In time the folly of his simulalation became apparent even to himself, and the lover of the commons then leaped over into the arms of the nobles. Partisan Middleton himself could not fail to see with half an eye that the case did not look well for his favorite, and therefore, assuming that Cicero was always an aristocrat at heart, defended the coquetry of the youthful politician with the multitude as a necessary and justifiable condition precedent in order to get office. Of course, after he had successfully climbed to power, it was proper to kick down his ladder, and take another foothold.

Still later in life, during the gaihering blackness, and in the very thunderings of the tempest-tossed commonwealth, the man of words hung irresolute. Aghast at the awful portents, he did not act, but nervelessly awaited the fury of the elements. Fearful of neutrality, and equally fearful of committing himself positively and unreservedly to either party, he at last weakly declared for Pompey and his cause. He showed no fervor of devotion in his advocacy, for that might break the charm, and close the one loophole of escape which a judicious lukewarmness would keep open as an avenue to reconciliation in case of possible mishap. Neither measures, nor men, nor consistency, nor honor, nor reputation, availed so much as the desire for personal safety in any event, come what night. This fluctuating temper and halfhearted partisanship have, however, often been praised as the highest virtue, under the circumstances—the only course remaining in the premises to a true lover of his country. He saw, it is said, that the times were out of joint, but knew no way to better them; he had no hearty faith in either of the contending leaders. One great fact stared him in the facehis bleeding country—and he wept; which was all that could be done. His indecision was simply a prudent moderation, and his post of trimmer was nothing less than the high and honorable office of mediator between angry factions.

In answer to such misplaced eulogy many things might be said. For our present purpose, however, it will be sufficient to touch merely upon a few points. Nor will it be necessary here to pronounce any judgment upon the questions at issue between Cæsar and Pompey; for, whatever our own view may be, the conduct of Cicero can be fairly surveyed only from his own stand-point. His meed of praise must be apportioned according to the sincerity of his convictions, and the consistency of his practice with his avowed principles. That he mourned deeply and sincerely the feuds of his unhappy country there is no reason to doubt. To Papirius Pætus he wrote that he had bewailed the miseries of his native land longer and more bitterly than ever tender mother bewailed the loss of her only son. In a letter to Nigidius Figulus, he remarked that the calamities of his country had spoiled him for the jocose epistles of happier days, and made him unable to write, or even to think, cheerfully; in fact, he thought himself guilty of a crime in still continuing to live. And so his letters of this period to nearly all of his friends breathe similarly of deep-seated sorrow. This lamentation was creditable to his sensibility, but some broader foundation was necessary in order to raise a superstructure of exalted patriotism. A large majority of the nation must likewise have sincerely mourned over these troublous times, and preferred the piping times of peace; for in the tempest there was danger lest all should go down. But in patriot statesmen tears should ripen into earnest deeds, or they are of little worth. If there was really no door left open to a sincere man for action, the only consistent course remaining was complete inaction ; either one thing or the other. But Cicero took neither course, and therefore shut himself out alike from the possible benefits of the first and from the personal dignity of the last. His plan was one of half-action, of shilly-shallying. He believed in some sort of logic of events, and was averse to taking too firm a stand anywhere. His policy was really a no-policy. In his own eyes it doubtless seemed a masterly inactivity, laudable for its wise moderation and hopes of mediation. It was, in fact, only the weakness of a negative nature, always uncertain whether the better course, on the whole, was to work or to wait. So the two heterogeneous elements of doing and not doing were mixed to the neutralization of one another.

To one who would fain believe in the sincerity of Cicero's attachment to Pompey, it is fatal to read the conflicting testimony of his own declarations. To one set of friends he writes professing the greatest esteem, affection, and gratitude for this greatest man of any age, whom he calls his beloved, and to whom he confesses himself indebted for everything he possesses. Meanwhile he is asserting to another set of correspondents that Pompey is a do-nothing, who has ruined himself and lost every supporter; that he has nothing noble, nothing exalted, nothing that is not abject and plebeian ; that he is all mystery and artifice; that he has sunk irretrievably. The writer shows the fertility of his invention by concocting extraordinary nicknames in order to lash his pseudo-friend in the dark. It puts him in high spirits to be able to write to a friend concerning the abyss into which this great Sampsiceramus, as he often calls his lost leader, has fallen; and his jealous vanity is gratefully soothed, as he confesses, by the thought that his own reputation with posterity will now be in no danger of an eclipse from the prominence of a too illustrious rival.

Nor is it easy to draw the distinction sometimes urged, and to say that Cicero was devoted to the cause, though not to the leader. He was half-hearted towards both, showing no more steadiness to measures and principles than to the man who represented them. His partisanship or patriotism, whatever it is called, was like his friendship, laggard and freakish. After the gage of battle had been flung down, and while Cæsar was pounding the Pompeian lieutenants in Spain, Cicero had not yet quite made up his mind where to stand and what to do. Indeed, so little had he gone over to the enemy, that Antony, acting in behalf of Cæsar, thought it not out of place to send to the wavering orator a letter of advice touching his conduct. Long after this, Cæsar kept approaching him with favorable offers of place and patronage, in a way which so shrewd a judge of men would never have attempted if it had been apparent that the door of agreement had been finally closed and bolted so as to cut off every avenue leading to the citadel. They were not such offers as spring from personal friendship alone, nor such as could be made either to a thorongh Cæsarian or to a full-fledged Pompeian. With the one they would have been unnecessary, and with the other useless. They were thrown out as random shots to sway a purposeless man. On his way home from Cilicia, while the air was rife with portents of evil, Cicero dropped an informal note to his wife and daughter, informing them that he expected a civil war to break out, and supposed it might become necessary to declare for one side or the other. His want of faith in Pompey's policy, civil and military, appears in the remark in a confidential letter to Athens, that he had long ago found Pompey to be the most unstatesmanlike of men, and now knew him to be the most unmilitary. A subsequent letter to Atticus records the conviction that Pompey's policy for the past ten years had been full of mistakes. So little was the aimless orator inspired by true love of country, that he still clung feebly to the skirts of Pompey and his party, although he well knew their avowed design, in case of success, to wreak the direst and completest vengeance, by fire and rapine and barbarian sword, not only on Rome, but throughout Italy.. His son-in-law, Dolabella, who knew him well, conceiving his motives of action to be simply his personal relations to Pompey, urged him strongly to declare for Cæsar, the favorite of fortune, saying that everything had been done which could be claimed from friendship and gratitude. So lightly did his political principles, views, or sentiments, however they may be named, sit upon him, and so strong were his convictions of the worth of expediency, that he agreed with Cassius to be governed by the result of a

single battle. Cassius, therefore, in accordance with the spirit if not the letter of their pact, hastened upon the first reverse to hand over his fleet to Cæsar, victor. His comrade still adhered to Pompey, yet so negatively, that he was felt to be a hindrance to the cause. He disgusted all his associates by his constant levity and sneering when in camp before the enemy; and it was felt thai a heavy burden was removed when he went away to Dyrrachium, where he awaited the final wager of battle. And after Pharsalia, still dubious and half-regretful concerning his course, he thought it well to write to Marcus Marius in defence of his policy, claiming to have sacrificed safety to honor in joining Pompey. Yet safety was so far consulted that, as he says, many friends condemned him for not laying down his life in the cause; and he seems to have been still uncertain here as elsewhere, whether on the whole he had done right. To Cæsar he soon became reconciled, and, though not professing the same political creed, was far from making himself objectionable. Always overawed by the personal majesty of the great Dictator, and magnetized by his presence, he maintained a judicious reserve until the Ides of March were over, and then he boldly trampled on the dead lion, and heaped execrations on his memory. We can hardly believe that these rancorous attacks were dictated by an eye only to the common weal; the time, the circumstances, his previous conduct, and his own revelations of himself, all forbid such a thought. So long as the famous letter to Lentulus Spinther exists, with its special pleading, its tortuous apologies, its acknowledgment of inferior motives, and its confession of a preference of persons to principles, and of an individual bias in political action, so long will it be natural for men to think that the flickering patriotism of the declining republic took shape from a hesitating temper, unsettled principles, wavering passions, and private griefs, as well as from an honest regard for the general good. We bave dwelt at some length on this portion of Cicero's

not simply because it was the most critical epoch of his life, but because it best illustrates the ups and downs of his conduct, and furnishes perhaps the best key to unlock the waywardness of his character. His deficiencies and inconsistencies arose from the want of some one high dominant principle to direct and regulate thought and action throughout all their phases. His various faculties were never co-ordinated into any true harmony of expression, but seemed

career

« VorigeDoorgaan »