Issues in Philosophy Speaking Pro Re Publica in Ancient Rome and Today (Part 2)

Speaking Pro Re Publica in Ancient Rome and Today (Part 2)

by Chris Barker

The Majoritarian Moment

The two mainstream political parties are faced with a difficult task of energizing their bases while refusing the drift toward political extremes—this even though a Trump presidency ranks in front of a U.K. exit from the European Union, and just after a Grexit causing the collapse of the Eurozone, as a global security risk. In its search for a response to Trump’s candidacy, the Republicans have particularly difficult questions to answer. To adapt a great line from classicist Robert Wallace, must they empower a hyper-demagogue to defeat the demagogue? Or can a political moderate organize the unruly energy of the base?

The elder Cato, who precipitated the final war against Carthage, was not necessarily the man for Rome, and he is not the figure we need today. His reputation as an uncompromising republican, captured in Plutarch’s Life of Cato, may be exaggerated, but it is nevertheless the case that moderation in statesmanship is now needed. The younger Cato, a contemporary of Cicero’s, was, although admirable, also unwilling to see that the republic could only be preserved through compromise. A modern-day Cato might argue that American civic culture is the cause of part of our problem―our movies, our rhetoric, and our learning embrace the quick pay-out and moral easiness of a staged wrestling contest.

In 1972, for example, academic gadfly George Anastaplo asked us to “move against television” in order to “reassert ourselves as a community.” “Rule by television plebiscite,” he continued, “seems to be developing among us, a kind of rule that is peculiarly responsive to the volatile mass tastes that television promotes and serves.” But when we see America through the lens of pessimism, we invite people to listen to the most strident and confident voice in the room. For example, none of his supporters wants Trump to govern; they want him to win. (Perhaps we should blame Charlie Sheen for proving the appeal of the vulgar #winning rhetoric four years ago: “Winning in what sense?” he was asked. “Just winning.”)

ISIS delenda est makes some sense as a call to action, but raising the rhetorical stakes about enemies within our borders, whether they are “illegals” or demagogues such as Trump, is to play the demagogue’s own game. In Cicero’s second speech against Catiline (II.xi.5–10), he declares that the enemy (hostis, a term that originally meant “foreigner”) is among us—within the city, within the marketplace. There is a place for this rhetoric in a time of constitutional crisis, as there was in 63 B.C.E., the year when Catiline and his followers planned to “burn the city, massacre the citizens, lay waste to Italy, and to wipe out the State” (Philippics II.17). Cicero was the man for that moment, but his speeches against Antony in 43 B.C.E. were quite different, at least at the outset—civil and moderate, rather than bellicose.

If we take Cicero’s guidance, we must not make post-2008 malaise into a conveniently divisive ideological issue unless our back is right against the wall. The presence of Muslims, Mexicans, and even of Trump supporters among us is not a constitutional crisis. It is a manufactured opportunity for demagoguery.

In my next post, I’ll spend a bit more time explaining how Roman philosophy contributes to re-weaving the fabric of self-government.

Other posts in Chris Barker’s series can be found as follows:

Chris Barker teaches political thought at Southwestern College. He has previously held positions at Ohio University, Boston College, and Harvard University, and recently completed his first book manuscript on John Stuart Mill’s liberalism.

Image by John Leech, from The Comic History of Rome, by Gilbert Abbott A Beckett. Bradbury, Evans & Co, London, 1850s. Disraeli (as Cicero) denouncing W. E. Gladstone (as Catiline) | Wikimedia Commons


The aim of this series is to provide APA members with a platform to discuss how philosophy can inform political debate, from a variety of sources and perspectives. If you would like to submit a contribution, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact us via the submission form here.


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