A funny thing happened to me on my way to a more irenic life. As some of my close friends know, I have lately wearied of blogposts bewailing the sundry anthropologically ludicrous assaults on social, cultural, political, and economic reality. Blessed is the occasional respite from such "watchman on the watchtower" duty. I have been working myself up to at least a partial renunciation of this duty, and I have certainly not abandoned that idea altogether.
However, as my resolve was forming, I happened today to see Mary Ann Glendon's piece on Cicero in the current edition of First Things, in which she praises Cicero for his ability to combine a philosophical and a political life. Among the many differences between me and Cicero (!) are my philosophical ineptitude and my distaste for political partisanship. (Yes, it's true. For those with longer than usual blogosphere memories, you may recall that almost exactly three years ago I am emphatically announced that I was not a neo-con or a theo-con (though I comes close to the latter). I was, I declared, a "rubicon" -- with all the mockery the term invites. The original thesis is here, and here, and here.
My abandonment of early and naive liberalism in favor of a conservative response to the juggernaut of loopy-liberalism-turning-totalitarian was just that, a response to radically changed circumstances in our culture. At some point in this persistent erosion of common sense and common decency, a moral and cultural Rubicon was crossed, and what I regard as a natural and healthy conservatism awakened in me.
Be that as it may, I am as tired of the culture wars as any well-balanced person must be, but, like any other kind of war, and contrary to the "peace now" bumper stickers, culture wars don't end when one of the proponents abandons the field. When that happens, the other side wins. This is pretty simple stuff; if anyone is having trouble with it, just give it two seconds thought.
Anyway . . . even without the Mary Ann Glendon article, I am not about to abandon the pro-life or pro-traditional marriage causes, nor am willing to go quietly into the dark night of cultural irresponsibility into which our present leaders are beckoning us. But . . . I was, and to some extent still am, pondering a more occasional foray into those matters. But then I read this in Professor Glendon's encomium to Cicero:
Although philosophy, as he told his son, was "indispensable to everyone who proposes to have a good career," it was always, for Cicero, a handmaiden to politics. Even philosophers, he said, have an obligation to concern themselves with public affairs, not only out of civic duty, but also for the sake of philosophy itself, which requires certain conditions to flourish.The mood didn't last, for the three uncontrolled individuals and many others were pulling at the cultural fabric of a social order which -- for all its many and egregious shortcomings -- was the sine qua non of the civilization of his day -- not unlike what is happening today.
In times when he was excluded from political life or overcome with personal sorrow, Cicero plunged into his philosophical studies with prodigious energy. On the those occasions, he could not help casting a glance down the path not taken. "Now that power has passed to three uncontrolled individuals," he wrote to his friend Atticus during the Triumvirate of Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus, "I am eager to devote all my attention to philosophy. I only wish I had done it from the outset.
Again, nothing could be more ludicrous than to invite a comparison with Cicero. It's just that I find Glendon's reflection on him a mild corrective to my recent weariness with the culture wars. Without extraordinary effort on the part of all those who feel called to it, the world we bequeath to our children may be unconscionably toxic and precarious, and we must do what we can to provide something healthier for them.
As usual, Mary Ann Glendon has provided wise guidance.