“Long before our own time, the customs of our ancestors molded admirable men, and in turn these eminent men upheld the ways and institutions of their forebears. Our age, however, inherited the Republic like some beautiful painting of bygone days, its colors already fading through great age; and not only has our time neglected to freshen the colors of the picture, but we have failed to preserve its form and outlines.
For what remains to us, nowadays, of the ancient ways on which the commonwealth, we are told, was founded? We see them so lost in oblivion that they are not merely neglected, but quite forgot. And what am I to say of the men? For our customs have perished for want of men to stand by them, and we are now called to an account, so that we stand impeached like men accused of capital crimes, compelled to plead our own cause. Through our vices, rather than from happenstance, we retain the word “republic” long after we have lost the reality. ” – Cicero, De Re Publica
I read this quote by Cicero as I was perusing the pages of The Imaginative Conservative on a lazy Saturday afternoon in Africa; trying to gain some perspective in regards to the imminent collapse of our republic. I suppose it’s encouraging to know that so long ago men of great intellect and character also wrestled with the challenges of arresting that same perplexing decay. Misery does love company, after all.
Long ago – 2100 years ago specifically – Cicero lamented what he saw as dry rot consuming the foundations of his republic. A growing chaos was fostering a lawless, creeping authoritarianism. Propriety was being cast aside for progress; a soulless baseless progress that valued change for change sake, growth without roots, and momentum without a compass. The guides were gone; the great philosophers who were not hungry for power but instead sought truth – thereby legitimately leading the population by the gargantuan power of their ideas. Their leadership an afterthought to their true agendas – the discovery and preservation of that which is right and good. Men of unsound mind had replaced them – men who, using chicanery as a bait and switch labeled the old ways as tired prejudices in order to more easily cast them aside. He knew that such a republic could not last – could not safeguard enduring prosperity – and he objected.
They murdered him for it; and the republic was destroyed.
No surprise there. Too often people don’t like our ideas. Our conservatism. The conservatism of Cicero, Augustine and Jefferson – our liberal conservatism that understands that the advance of individual liberty is only possible if held steadfastly by classicism, thereby protecting us from the storms that rage around, threatening to blow the republic to and fro upon the waves of expediency and at the service of those who want progress without toil – who want a future without a past.
Our conservatism sees the preservation of prosperity as the cornerstone for the creation of well-being in the future; we recognize that true progress will not come from an all-consuming blaze that destroys all that has come before – revolution is not the harbinger of rebirth. But instead by the preservative fire of a kiln that burns away impurities, maintaining the ceramic for the benefit of those who come after.
This we know, those of us who strive to be the inheritors of Cicero. Not that it matters. The republic, such as it has been – inherited weakened and bloated from those who came before and did not fight for her – is in danger; mortally wounded perhaps, though she is still young. That doesn’t mean we will be silent or surrender; hope always springs eternal. We will instead calmly remind the world of propriety, of maturity, of family, of discipline, mercy and meekness – though it be unpopular. Those who recognize that our ability to reach high into the sky has only been possible because of our deep roots, legacy of our “great cloud of witnesses” as Hebrews says, will always say so. The old ways, our truths that are self-evident – the natural laws written on the hearts of men, as much a part of humanity as our DNA – are not so easily destroyed. The republic may be moribund. But there will be other men – still unborn perhaps – who will seek to know from whence came our republic’s greatness, before we lost it.
It is to them who we write as well.
I read your words and I find new hope. I feel that you truly understand what I cannot seem to convey to even my own family. Thank you.
“we recognize that true progress will not come from an all-consuming blaze that destroys all that has come before”
For your consideration: From EARTH’S HOLOCAUST, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
“Believe me, the fire will not be allowed to settle down without the addition of fuel that will startle many persons who have lent a willing hand thus far.”
“Trust me, the world of to-morrow will again enrich itself with the gold and diamonds which have been cast off by the world of today. Not a truth is destroyed nor buried so deep among the ashes but it will be raked up at last.”
Elegant, thank you.
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I came across your essay as I was rereading Kirk’s Roots of American Order, which shares your quote from Cicero’s Republic. So much has happened in just the five years since you wrote this. Your words are even more stark and striking now. Thank you for writing this.
Thanks Gary. Appreciate your visit!