Issues in Philosophy Speaking Pro Re Publica in Ancient Rome and Today (Part 5)

Speaking Pro Re Publica in Ancient Rome and Today (Part 5)

by Chris Barker

The Philippics Relationship

The “advice to tyrants” genre is a recognized part of the rhetorical tradition. Less-recognized is the individual who publicly criticizes the people and other powers-that-be. This figure, the parrhesiast, is the central figure in Foucault’s lecture series at the Collège de France and in his US lectures in Fall 1983, where he describes the democratic version of the wise man. In contrast, the adversary of the demagogue lacks a name: perhaps he or she should be known as a demagogo-denier or demagogo-heckler?

The relationship between demagogue and demagogo-denier has mostly failed to launch thus far in the 2016 presidential primaries. When Donald Trump, the republican front-runner, is criticized, he responds by calling his opponents names. The media are “the most dishonest” speakers around. Ted Cruz is “Lyin’ Ted”. Marco Rubio is “little Marco”. Amid this funhouse of body and character dysmorphia, we have yet to get to the real, self-exposing and other-exposing intimate relationship between demagogue and demagogo-heckler that flourished in the Philippics.

The thickly-experienced relations of reciprocal speech-making between Mark Antony and Cicero was called Philippics by Cicero himself (Letters to Brutus II.4), recalling Demosthenes’ attacks on Philip II’s Macedon beginning in 351 BCE. From the outset, there is something conservative and backward-looking in Cicero’s criticism of Antony. These speeches teach us something about the personal relations between power players that are relevant even in a “majoritarian moment” such as we have today.

The tyranno-meter is on high setting in Philippics I. Antony began his consulship well—he abolished the office of dictator that Julius Caesar used to become dictator for ten years and then in perpetuity. Antony also put down a competing demagogue, Marius, at personal risk (Philippics 1.4). But, after June 1 of 44 BCE, things changed. Antony did “many things and momentous things” through the people and also against their will (Philippics 1.6). He flattered Caesar’s veterans, who hoped for further land distribution. He attacked Cicero and other defenders of the republic.

Quietism, says Cicero, is voluntary servitude (voluntaria servitus, at Philippics 1.15). To reject quietism, however, is to put your own character and experience to a referendum in democratic politics. So, when Antony goes on the attack in blistering speeches of September 1 and 19 criticizing Cicero first for this absence from the Senate, and then opening the whole rhetorical can of worms, Cicero strikes back. He contends that he acted moderately in dealing with Catiline. (He did what the Senate wanted him to do—not a defense that works today.) He acted moderately during the civil war between Caesar and Pompey: any peace among citizens, he says, is better than civil war (II.37). He claims that he has dealt moderately with Antony. Yet he somehow also manages to describe Antony as an ex-prostitute and a completely debauched man (II.44-7).

The oddity of criticizing potential tyrants is that you have to know them, both as a type and even as individuals with specific habits and abilities. The relation between Antony and Cicero in the Philippics begins with moderation―not with ad hominem attacks that draw as well as feed off hatred, but with reflections on the art of governing. As I noted in an earlier post, the difficulty in the present moment is that attention to the art of government implies a respect for the duty to govern, and this sense of duty currently escapes us. The honor of governing is suspect. Even more so today than after the 2000 election, one’s political opponents seem like “the enemy”.

Trump could be asked to choose parties—to choose a side, just as Cicero demands that Antony finally choose either the “Liberators” or the Caesarian party (II.30). More powerfully, Trump could be asked to choose public versus private service. These two categories are deeply confused in Trump’s bellicose posturing and his degrading political conduct.

Whatever happens, liberals must not, as Chantal Mouffe warns, make the “they” into an “absolute enemy”. If they do, they will create “the conditions for the emergence of antagonisms that will not be manageable by democratic institutions”. This happened in Rome, both at the personal level (Fulvia vs. Cicero) and at the constitutional level. Even wise, moderate Cicero argued in On the Republic that we need a single, strong leader to take paternal care of the people (caritas) and to use the power of office (potestas) against its internal enemies. That is as wrong today as it proved to be for Cicero and for Rome in 44-43 BCE.

This is the fifth and final post in Chris Barker’s series. The full 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 Cicero throws up his Brief, like a Gentleman | 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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