Sunday, April 7, 2024

The Death of Cicero by Charles Brockden Brown.

Here at the Scriblerus Club, it's part of what might be termed the "company policy" to hunt around for obscure and forgotten names or titles, in order see if it's possible give them a second chance in the spotlight.  My reasons for doing this every now and then are pretty simple.  I don't see why the value of literary art has to be this kind of time bound phenomena.  If a story is good, there's no reason why its shelf life should have to come with a built-in sell-by date warranty, where it's no longer of use.  If that were the case, if all writing was doomed to remain forever beyond the reach of audience tastes, then someone's going to have to explain to me why folks like Beowulf and Grendel, or Alice, the White Rabbit, and the Cheshire Cat are still household names.  Also, remember, two of them came from a time long before the advent of modern Britain.  We still don't even know who wrote the damn thing, and yet generations of readers have never let that stand in the way of enjoying a good narrative.  There's a kind of unspoken sentiment, or agreement in operation with cases like this.  The unsaid idea seems to be that good stories, the kind that authors like Peter S. Beagle would describe as having "True Magic" in them, are able to last for a whole myriad of good reasons.  There's a quality to the plot or narrative that is able to overcome even the longest and strongest barrier of time and place, and it's an idea that I'm more than willing to give a heartfelt applause.

Maybe I'm just one of those helpless Romantics.  However, the really weird fact is I just can't shake the idea that all potential narratives can amount to something of importance.  From what I can tell, that also seems to have been the idea held by the forgotten name under discussion for today.  In the strictest sense, Charles Brockden Brown doesn't seem to count as a household name on the tip of anyone's tongue.  He appears to be a living example of yet another, related maxim.  Just as all stories can be of potential value, so time and tide can be even a good author's greatest enemy.  A tale is mute without an audience to receive it, and sometimes they just don't stick around long enough for the artist to leave as big of a mark as they perhaps deserve.  That seems to have been the case with Charlie Brown.  He was something of a groundbreaker in his day, and yet the passage of time has all but erased his name, works, and accomplishments from the annals of popular memory.  If ol' Chuck has any viable shelf space left out there, then it's within the confines of the very niche category of die hard nerds and historians of the Gothic genre.  It's a legacy that I'm starting to think might deserve a rescue from the scrap heap.

So, with this in mind, I thought I'd take things slow, and one at a time.  Part of the reason for this is because while it's true that Brown's name and work have no choice except to remain unfamiliar to the vast majority of contemporary readers, the good news is that in his case, that's not the same as saying there's not a lot to talk about, or much in the way of a historical breadcrumb trail to go on.  On the contrary, despite the relative obscurity of his popular reputation, it turns out Brown was kind enough to be one of those writers who was able to leave enough historical details behind to begin to fashion a whole biography out of.  If the good news is that its possible to arrive at a more or less complete picture of the author, it's still not the same thing as saying that you can just take any of his writings, place it in the spotlight, and expect anyone to just "get it" automatically.  Whether or not that's how people expect taking any potential work of art is supposed to go, experience has taught me time and again that sometimes you just can't rush either an artist or his artwork on an audience that hasn't been well trained before showtime.  Often, the case is you have to prepare the reader for the type of story they're about to receive.  It means you've got to awaken their imaginative sympathies for older forms of storytelling.

I'm not saying this is an impossible task, by any means.  The fact that most of us are still familiar with the traditional Bardic Meter of the Beowulf Poet, or the Elizabethan Blank Verse of Shakespeare says that we still have some familiarity with how older stories used to be told.  Nor is it the case that Brockden Brown presents the reader with any great challenges in terms of reading comprehension.  It's just that sometimes obscure authors need to have the ground prepared for them ahead of time.  It's less a matter of being too obscure to understand, and more a case of everything old is new again.  I wasn't lying when I called Brown a trendsetter, for instance, and while that is an important, defining part of his legacy, the obscure quality of his name and efforts (all inevitable football related jokes aside) means that I think it's best to work our way up the ladder of his artistic achievements.  So we'll start out slow, just taking our time, and looking at something he's written in an effort to see what makes any of it valuable.  Later on, there may be plenty of time to go into the nature of Brown's accomplishments as a premiere American Gothic artist.  For the moment, we'll settle into the nature of his work with a simple, out-of-the-way short story.  It's an interesting piece is historical fiction called "The Death of Cicero".

The Story.

At it's core, the short story that Brown has written is nothing less than a work of historical fiction.  It's contents recount the final desperate hours of the ancient Roman statements and philosopher, Marcus Tullius Cicero.  As a result, once more the artist places the critic in realm of the "Amadeus Paradox".  In other words, we're once more forced to see how much it is necessary to separate the facts of history from the pure make-believe of artistic fiction.  In this case, it all revolves around what can be learned with any certainty about a very old thinker from the Bronze Age of human history.  With that in mind, here are the facts as best I am able to understand them.  Cicero's date of birth has been located, as best we know, to January 3rd, 106 BC.  He grew up in the Arpinum region of Roman Italy, and he came from one of that country's then well-to-do military families.  In fact, like many of his relatives, there was a brief time when Cicero was enrolled into the cavalry regiment as an officer within his province.  This was no more than an heir of the nobility living up to what was expected of him, given the times in which he was born and raised.  All his time, however, Cicero appears to have lived a thinker's life.

Classical Rome was an era when it was not uncommon to find what can only be described as a surprising, and in some ways never truly surpassed bumper crop of scholars, pundits, artists, orators, and philosophers.  It's a phenomenon that seems to have extended as far back as sometime near the beginning of what might be termed the Golden Age of Greece, almost all the way up to the Fall of Rome itself.  What I find most interesting about it all is not just the fact that it happened.  I've been sort of curious as to why it came about?  Why this flourishing of Classical Philosophy happened almost all of a sudden, in such a short span of time?  To my thinking, the only way something like this could be achieved is if something vital was going on in the human psyche of the pre-modern world.  I'm not at all certain that it's correct to claim that this was the moment when humanity became self-aware.  Rather, it's more that there was a brief enough period somewhere in the aftermath of the Trojan War that there was finally something approaching enough in the way of national stability (for a given amount of a commonsense, anyway) in which a people could devote time to the leisure of being able to think about the fact that they were all self-aware, and probably had been for some time.  Now was the best possible time for any enterprising soul to ask the big questions of why they knew, and what it all meant?

The remarkable part about this brief, shining moment in the History of Thought is the sheer number of thinkers who emerged with a lot to say.  Sometimes it was even worth hearing.  On rare occasions, it soon became clear that a genuine discovery about human nature, life, or the universe was made, and these were the true gems of ancient wisdom.  The kind of Big Ideas you don't just hold onto, they're also kind of the only viable basis for conducting one's self through life.  It's like finding the bedrock on which you stand and forever supports you after years of patient digging.  Such has been the result of thinkers like Aristotle and Plato.  They found out that if an idea is anywhere near correct enough, then it can become the guidepost that supports entire civilizations.  Such then is the world of Classical Thought that Cicero was born into.  Like many of his contemporaries, Cicero seems to have entered whatever it is we mean by life with a natural open and inquisitive mind.  In other words, he was born a living illustration of Aristotle's maxim, "All men desire to know".  It was like a duck taking to water.

After serving his tenure in the Roman military, Cicero turned his attention toward the pursuit of a career in politics.  His keen mind allowed him two benefits in this regard.  The first was an almost natural skill for critical and deductive thinking.  This strength was what allowed the thinker to become one of shrewdest legal minds of his era.  Someone whose counsel was to be sought after even by none other than Julius Caesar himself.  Cicero's second benefit was his skill with words.  This appears to have been another natural talent that was sharpened with years of practice to the point there was a brief span of time in which the philosopher was able to hold an entire room of military and law enforcement personnel in the palm of his hand.  Tullius was able to do all this through no more than the discovered power of words.  Cicero used both of these skills not just to make a swift rise in the world of Roman politics.  He also put it to a number of notable uses.  His first major breakout performance (in other words) was his successful defense of a group of citizens accused of treason by the Roman general Sulla.  This was followed by the even greater triumph of the prosecution of a corrupt governor by the name of Verres.  Cicero was so good at the job of prosecution that Verres fled for his very life.

It was the making of the philosopher, and very soon Cicero found perhaps his crowning moment of glory when he was able to first discover, then halt, and at last prosecute an actual political coup staged by the patrician senator Catiline.  He was a sympathizer in Sulla's civil war against Rome.  When the general failed, the politician tried to seize the initiative and carry on where Sulla left off.  Each time, the plot was foiled by the scholar from Arpinum.  The triumph of this affair was so impactful that another philosopher of the time, Sallust, wrote an entire book about it.  It reads like a combination of historical text, and political manual for how to survive in unstable times.  For all of these successes, it appears that Cicero was ultimately unable to hold off the rising tide of tyranny that was slowly overtaking Italy.  The Era of the Caesars was on the horizon, and once a former soldier by the name of Julius assumed the role as head of state, then it soon became clear that Cicero's days of political fortune and influence were at a sudden dead end.  He was offered a role in the new Imperial cabinet by none other than Caesar himself.  Cicero, however, declined, and retired to devote himself to writing on politics and philosophy.

If he thought he'd be able to devote the rest of his days to the quiet life of the mind, Cicero was sorely mistaken.  For one thing, the ascent of Julius Caesar to the seat of power inaugurated the Decline of Rome, and the advent of first strand of a very modern form of tyranny.  The other problem is that the philosopher and most leaders of the Roman Empire were both the products of a society with a perhaps fatal flaw at the core of its civilization.  That's a definite topic we'll have to circle back to.  For now, it's enough to note that the problem with Roman tyranny, as Caesar soon found out to his chagrin, is that once a human being comes as close as possible to achieving absolute power, there are always any number of other would-be tyrants waiting in the wings, just itching and ready to grab for the same big, brass ring you wear on your official finger, no matter how fleeting it is in the long run.  My own thinking is to liken it to a form of drug addiction.  Nothing, it seems, is more probable than the possibility of a person turning themselves into a power junkie.  The more might you accumulate, the higher the need for it ratchets up.  The irony being that when it comes to power, there's never enough.

It's the dumbest, most pointless situation anyone can get themselves caught up in, and that's what happened to Cicero.  With the now infamous assassination of Julius Caesar, Rome was thrown into a civil war, and the Arpinum thinker found himself on the wrong side of the power play.  Here is where Charles Brockden Brown's narrative comes into the mix.  The gist of his short story is nothing less than an imaginary reconstruction of what the political philosopher's final hours of flight were like.  The entire story is told from the vantage point of a made-up slave named Tiro.  Aside from functioning as the "Alfred" or "Jeeves" for the real historical figure, all of the main events that happen to Cicero are told from this characters eyes.  We follow along as the narrator tries to make a series of desperate last minute escapes for the thinker.  First, there is an ultimately futile attempt to reach Tarsus across the sea, in what was then known as the province of Cilicia.  An uncooperative Mediterranean ocean, however, sends him back to the shores of Rome.  From there Cicero retires to his villa to await what he knows will be the arrival of a group of state sanctioned assassins at the command of Marc Antony.

From here, everything devolves in an ultimately futile race against time as Tiro constructs a series of escape routes, only for Cicero to dismiss them all as dishonorable in one fashion or another.  The farthest he ever gets is in a grove just outside the borders of his own home.  It is there that a cadre of centurions arrive, and put an end to one of the sharpest minds in the history of philosophy.

Conclusion: Some Interesting Food for Thought.  

So far as the question of historical veracity goes, the surprising thing is that Brown does pretty good for himself.  He gets all the crucial details of the actual "Death of Cicero" correct.  Marc Antony sent a troupe of soldiers to the philosophers house.  They found the ex-politician in the middle of trying to run away.  When he saw that he was caught, all he did was submit to the "authorities", who ran him through then chopped his head off.  There's even an apocryphal story from history that goes as follows.  When the deed was done, Antony had the centurions bring the philosopher's head the Imperial Seat.  There, he had Cicero's remains hung up or fastened to the front of the speaker's rostrum in the Senate chambers.  That way, anyone who had to speak up there would be doing so with a grisly spoil of conquest before him for all to see.  According to the Roman historian Plutarch, it was "a sight which the Roman people shuddered to behold, and they believed they saw there, not the face of Cicero, but the image of Antony's own soul".  So in other words, when it comes to the "Amadeus Paradox", Charlie Brown comes away with a very decent track record.  If anything, it's possible to claim that here is where the writer holds back for the sake of the gentle and refined sensibilities of his audience of early 19th century readers.

Nor does the story end with the philosopher's death.  There's also this interesting bit of historical trivia that speaks to the kind of legacy Cicero left behind, and this is something my mind just connected the dots on as I was writing.  What I'm about to say next may sound like a bit of a detour, yet there's a connection between Cicero and Brown that might be relevant to the story under discussion here.  There used to be this bookshop/publishing company smack dab in the middle of Pall Mall, in London.  It was run by a man named Robert Dodsley.  He's a topic for another day, yet I'm starting to realize guys like him might be more important to world history than any of us ever knew.  Let's just leave it by saying his is a story well worth telling some other time.  The important thing to note right now, however, is the name Dodsley chose for his publishing company.  It was called Tully's Head (and yes, it took me this long to figure it out (right in mid-sentence, in other words; make of that what you will).  For those who don't know, the name Tully is nothing more than an Anglicized version of the Roman name Marcus Tullius Cicero.  In other words, it's the guy's middle name.  Dodsley used it for his publishing firm.

In doing so, the Pall Mall bookseller appears to have been making a bit of not so covert mission statement.  Dodsley believed Cicero to be a martyr for the ideal of Liberty and Liberal Humanism.  By attaching the philosopher's name to his own literary venture, Dodsley was signaling to all perceptive readers that all the books to come out of his company would make a stand for the Rights of Man.  Like I said, his is a story well worth telling for another day.  For now, what's important about this little bit of historical trivia is that we do know that Charles Brockden Brown might have owned one or two copies of Dodsley's magazine, The Annual Register.  The possibility that the New England writer was familiar with the efforts of the British bookseller establishes one of those interesting thematic links that might be able to tell us a great deal about where the author is coming from, or what he's trying to achieve with a work like "The Death of Cicero".  In order to get at the author's meaning, it makes pretty good enough sense to find out just what Brown thought about Cicero as an influential philosophical thinker.  The good news is this is one of those cases where the writer has obliged us with something to go on.

Cicero and his thought appears to have been one of the subjects that kept recurring in Brown's writings.  Some authors tend to have these thematic focal points or topics of perennial interest that they keep returning to various personal reasons.  Sometimes this can be construed as a form of psychological obsession, and I may have seen one or two examples where preoccupation with an idea or subject begins to shade over in the realm of confession in terms of potential psychological problems.  Terry Pratchett strikes me as one author who suffered from this problem.  Malcolm Lowery and William Golding are two others.  The good news in Brown's case is that his interest in the writings of Cicero are limited to the real of pure philosophy.  His concern always remains with the content of Tully's thought, and nothing else.  In other words, we appear to be dealing with the mind of one thinker grappling with the philosophy of another.  So what does Brown think of Cicero as a philosopher?  It's very interesting to read Brown admitting that "I failed to discover all that wisdom and eloquence, of which I usually find a rich repast in these volumes. On the contrary, I really conceived a notion, from this dialogue, that Cicero, however great in other respects, was, upon the whole, both in theory and practice, but a poor philosopher (web)".  He goes on to elaborate a bit about what bothers him in Tully's thinking.

"The orator appears to me to begin with a pompous maxim, which he cannot support, and has not the candor to resign.  In endeavoring to maintain it, he falls into pitiful evasions, substitutes brilliancy of ex pression for solidity of argument, and, in fact, deserts the ground on which he had first set out.  This dialogue is, indeed, a complete chaos; a confused collection of assertions, not merely without proof, but absolutely contradictory to each other; a useless detail of all the philosophical opinions then known; a compilation of stories, either real or fictitious, whence no consequence can be inferred, because we are in the dark with respect to the point from which the speaker sets out, as well as that to which he intends to conduct us; and a series of repetitions, which all the eloquence of Cicero cannot prevent from being tedious.  In short, there is in it a total want of order, which is unavoidable where an author neither defines his terms, divides his subject, nor arranges his ideas.

"All this is certainly very severe; but it must be acknowledged to be just, if he seriously meant to maintain the extravagant opinion, that pain is no evil.  It has, however, been imagined, by some, that his intention was only to expose to contempt the pompous maxims and futile reasoning of some of the philosophers of his age.  To me, I confess, this ridicule is not very obvious; but to his contemporaries, who knew the persons, and had attended the lessons of those to whom he alluded, it might be sufficiently apparent (ibid)".  The quote that Brown takes issue with stems from the second part of the philosopher's Tusculan Disputations.  It has often been cited as an example of the influence of Stoicism on Cicero's outlook.  For comparison, an example of the type of praise this has garnered from other thinkers can be read about here.  What I didn't find out until just now (and hence, what even Brown might have been unaware of) is that the entire work was composed by the philosopher as a more or less psychological response to the death of his daughter at a young age.  It marks out the entirety of the Disputations perhaps less a work of philosophy, and more akin to the type of mourner's journals that some people turn to in the wake of grief.  Now, this does cause a bit of a shift in how one approaches Brown's thoughts on the matter.  On the one hand, it leaves the writer open to a fair bit of criticism.

It's natural enough to want to label Brown as being insensitive when confronted with the case of a grieving parent.  One gets the impression that the author should have known better, and therefore dealt a more even hand when dealing with Cicero's words.  I was almost prepared, for a moment there, to not so much let Brown off the hook, as merely point out the possibility that these are facts in the case that he might not have known about.  What makes me change my mind about that, however, is a close reading of Brockden's own thoughts the exact nature of the contents of the Disputations.  What Brown points to is the fact that Cicero is trying to dispute, or philosophize away the phenomenon of grief, here emblemized under the rubric or heading of pain.  Now, for what it's worth, there isn't any inherent wrong in trying to come to grips with tragedy.  Indeed, I'm ready to defend the need to move on from suffering as a necessary part of the struggle if one is to maintain a healthy relationship to life.  What bugs me about Cicero's thoughts on the matter is that in saying pain is no evil, it comes off as if he's almost trivializing the death of a loved one.  That he's turning his daughter into an abstraction of sorts.

In doing so, the thinker to me appears to run the risk of falling into a kind of philosophic, existential trap.  For instance, it now becomes possible to ask just how much you can be said to care about even a family member when you are willing to demote her personhood to the level of a mere intellectual abstraction.  Even if it were possible to claim that all a human being amounts is just an idea, it still doesn't erase the need to recognize such an idea has a value, something that gives someone like Cicero's daughter her personhood, her innate dignity as a human being, for lack of a better word.  With all due respect, I'm starting to find the notion of treating one's own flesh and blood as this bloodless abstraction as means of philosophical expediency as perhaps one of the most cold-hearted things I've ever read.  It may even be possible to trace a line of development where the mere expediency of dismissing oneself from personal grief can morph over time into the kind of mindset that has no problem viewing other people as "expendable" based all on the simple matter of "personal politics".  It very much begins to read as if, in trying to find a way out of his grief, Cicero uncovered the road to madness.  Or at least he's in danger of finding a possible route, one of many, in other words.  I'm now starting to wonder therefore if maybe this is all something Brown was aware from the very start, and was eager to point out.

If this should ever be the case, then while it may still be possible to for the author to come in for a bit of chiding in the case of a grieving parent, a lot of it is mitigated by the fact that Cicero seems to be allowing his grief to lead him down a lot of unhealthy pathways.  It paints the picture of someone who was in desperate need of grief counseling of some sort, and who sadly was born just a bit too little too late for that kind of therapeutic help to be of service.  There may be a natural component to the process of grieving.  However what Cicero makes his way toward is something akin to possessive bitterness, and backlash.  Once you set foot on that path, things become a bit more precarious.  It could even be described as that perilous moment where love is in danger, because at lot of its psychological material is perched on the precarious tip-edge of hate.  Beyond that point lies the realms of madness, or clinical insanity.  So it seems that even grief has to be tempered by Love if the possibility of festering is present.  This is a lesson that Cicero seems to have been in great need of learning, and so it is left up in the air as a burning question as to whether or not the old philosopher was willing to listen to such advice.  It could be that Brown feared he wasn't, and that he wound up paying the price as a result.

Even without this knowledge in mind, the establishable facts of Cicero's life would still read like the text of the main character out of some Classical piece of Grecian Theater.  In many ways, Cicero bears all the hallmarks of a Tragic Hero.  Great skill, power, and ambition coupled with a fatal character flaw that proves to be his undoing and helps to precipitate his eventual downfall.  Now with all that said, is it at all possible that we're being too harsh on the guy?  Did he ever make any fair points in his favor?  Well, for the sake of argument, why not let Cicero himself have a say in the matter?  There's one passage in particular, it comes from a treatise called De Re Republica, that perhaps comes as close as anything to a snapshot of what he thought as a whole.

The passage in question goes as follows: "Long before our 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 customs have perished for want of men to stand by them, and we are now called to 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 (web)".

Now what I'm going to say next about the passage above is based off of nothing more than my own perception of it.  Which I guess is my way of saying mileage may vary, here.  However, my own experience with Cicero's words are that its interesting how deceptive they can be at first glance.  You read those sentences one day it sounds like the speaker is saying one thing.  You come back to them the next day, and you'll swear it begins to mean something else.  You start to notice ironies inherent in the text.  It begins to dawn on you that there's a lot of material in Cicero's words that perhaps even the philosopher himself remains unaware of, or perhaps doesn't even consider as all that important.  Even though a lot of what he says can have a very different meaning for a modern day reader.  All his talk about the value of institutions, for instance, can be very telling.  What I mean is this.  If by "Institutions",  Cicero means the value of Democracy as applied to the rights of citizens, then of course that is a genuine Institution.  One that's very necessary in terms of needing a good defense.  However, there's trick, or a catch involved.  The trouble with a word like "Institution" is that it's just vague enough to cover a whole multitude of sins, as well as virtues.  It could mean Democracy, or Slavery.  So this begs the natural question.  Which is it?  What institution is the speaker willing to defend?

If by his words, Cicero means to defend the precise and exact value of Democracy (as in the natural rights and freedoms for all people, and not just an aristocratic few), then it makes sense to give him a bit more credit.  If, however, the meaning of his words are broad enough to cover the fact that the society into which he was born was a slave based one at its core, then the words have no choice except to ring more than just a bit hollow.  The proper value of any institution lies in its ability to recognize the natural dignity of the human being, regardless of race, gender, orientation, economic status, or background.  It's the only foot Democracy proper has to stand on.  You either recognize this fact and try to live by it, or else you submit to the idea that human beings are little more than playthings for anyone who can rise above the mass.  For me, there is no such thing as a viable middle ground to be had here.  If you at least feel compelled to view you're fellow inhabitants as less than equal subjects in any way, shape, or form, sooner or later the thirst to dominate others for the satisfaction of one's own desires will take precedent over all else, and get the better of any less than stable mind.  The result will be the same.

All you're left with is a psychology that can't view other minds as the actual people that they are.  Once that happens, a whole lot of danger and damage can ensue.  All we're left with then is a mentally damaged personality that is alienated and isolated from real life to a potentially deadly degree.  The type of mind, in other words, that is sick to its core, and will need a great deal of professional help before anything like a genuine healthy relationship to others can be restored.  All of which is to say that I'm afraid I'm going to need a bit more clarification from quite a few points on the nature of Democracy and citizens rights before I'm willing to just take even someone with a pedigree like Cicero at their word.  Also, there's still that unnerving way he has of reducing his own daughter to the level of a mere, intellectual object, rather than as a person.  Or the fact that Rome itself was never really ever a genuine Democracy in the strictest sense of the term.  In fact, if I'm being honest, the best description I've ever heard of the Imperium society came from the pages of what might be an otherwise outmoded book.  

"The Romans were a literal-minded, matter-of-fact, highly efficient set of parvenus.  Like all newly rich upstarts they bought up the culture of their predecessors and vulgarized it...The Romans were strong on science, especially applied science.  They took over the Aegean culture and its methods of education...They were oblivious Philistines.  Their arts were for the most part pedestrian and imperceptive.  Soon their gods were only variants of the Olympian family, and like the originals, of small relevancy to thought or life.  The only cult that mattered in imperial Rome was the worship of the military power of the emperor...Roman education starved the human hunger for truth higher than may be discovered by physical experiment, for beauty beyond human power to create, for goodness that is more than canny benevolence and patriotism, for love of the lovely universe.  The Greeks had had science, creative art, social amenities, reverence for what is...The Romans went in seriously only for applied science; the rest of their culture was imitative (109-10)".  The more I think it over, I'm willing to let these words stand for the fatal flaw at the heart of Cicero's philosophy.  His was a mind that might very well have been able to catch snatches and glimpses at the Ideas that make human life a value in its own right.  However, it was always something he could observe.  He could never inhabit those ideas.

The final result reads almost like a Jekyll and Hyde story.  You have someone who begins to catch a glimpse of what the ultimate meaning of Democracy and human fellowship implies, only to realize that he has become too much the creature of stultifying, deadening habit.  Something that perhaps applies even to the way he treats he own daughter, and perhaps other members of his family as well.  It's all these things that make me think Brown was right to cast more than a few critical barbs in his direction.  In another essay, Brockden even expands upon his initial judgments.  "There are two ways in which genius and virtue may labor for the public good: first, by assailing popular errors and vices, argumentatively and through the medium of books; secondly, by employing legal of ministerial authority to this end.  The last was the province which Cicero and Pombal assumed.  Their fate may evince the insufficiency of the instrument chosen by them, and teach us, that a change of national opinion is the necessary prerequisite for revolutions (333-34)".  For Brown, the ultimate reason for Cicero's failure not just as a thinker or statesman, but also as a human being stemmed from his lack of Imagination.  He failed to grasp the faculties of sentiment and sympathy which unites a people.

As an antidote to all of this, Brown proposed the thinking of a writer who was far closer to home.  A bit of further digging reveals that Brockden was a fan of the writings and thought of the German Romantic author Friedrich Schiller.  In fact, the last lines about Cicero quoted above are taken from a pseudo-fictional essay entitled, Walstein's School of History.  The title character of the piece is an allegorical presentation of Schiller himself, and the essay is little else except an exposition of the Romantic philosopher's thoughts.  Why did this obscure fantasist catch and fire Brown's own Imagination, and literary output?  Well I think a lot of it has to do with the way his philosophy seemed to match the dynamism of the moment, really.  Brockden Brown came of age in the immediate aftermath of the American Revolutionary War.  As such, he was the direct inheritor of what seemed like a bright future of possibilities.  The sky was the limit, and it was up to Americans to see that their newly minted Country live up to the ideal its Founding Documents espoused.  Brown has to also be given a bit of credit here.  Even though the "American Dream" was a goal worth striving for, he could never bring himself to turn a blind eye to all of the Country's major faults, especially in terms of human slavery.

Not only was Brown a firm believer in Abolition, he also was a fierce campaigner for Women's Rights.  These are all surprising, one almost has to say gratifying outlooks for someone of his era.  If I had to pinpoint where all of these moral drives came from, then the best I'm able to do is to point to the fact that Brown and his entire family were Quakers.  Out of all the possible Sects in America, the Society of Friends (to give them their official title) might be the closest to the term "beguiling", for lack of a better word.  It's like they're the one belief system of which most Americans can have a bit of a fondness for, even if most of us don't subscribe to it, or are just of a different persuasion.  Even if that's the case, one can't quite get rid of the somewhat endearing quality that the Quakers have left not just in the popular imagination, but also on the history of this Country.  They were not only the group who lobbied the loudest for the abolition of slavery, they also helped precipitate acceptance of the idea into the American mainstream.  They also helped contribute to the Civil Rights Movement further on.

All of this is a legacy in and of which Charles Brockden Brown plays a vital part.  The work of philosopher's like Schiller seems to have served as an extra dose of inspiration, in addition to the faith of his own family tree.  The two elements combined paint this picture of Charlie Brown as one of America's first notable Romantic authors.  Someone with an easy going type of mind as far as the literature and philosophy of Enchantment and Imagination was concerned.  The kind of mind that was aware of the light and dark contrasts in life, and who would go on to dramatize a lot of it in what turned out to be the first examples of the American Gothic mode of fiction.  All of these are elements of Brown's output that are more than worth discussing another day.  For now, it's enough to say that we have a beginner's understanding of a forgotten, yet important artist in the developing history of American letters.  Brown's take on the life, death, and philosophy of Cicero has been an interesting place to start.  It's ideal in the sense that I've been granted a look into a surprisingly sophisticated mind, and of even more startlingly progressive outlook held by a man of his own times.  It's been very much like getting to know someone, and finding a very welcome combination of Imagination and Ethics.

More than this, it's left me with that all-important factor that remain key in every critic's job.  It left me wanting to read more from this author.  That always has to remain the final benchmark for any work of literature.  In this case, I'm able say I came away entertained by Brown ability to be both a storyteller and a historian all rolled into one.  He manages to make history interesting by knowing sharpening the focus in on all those traits of character and action that matter the most.  You get to learn a lot about the personality of Cicero, not just as a character, but also as a real life philosopher.  As a student of history, Brown's skills are able to not just give the audience a sense of realism, but also to make actual events in the past come alive again for his readers.  As a storyteller, the writer is able to grant us a full idea of who Cicero is as a Name.  We get to know the ancient Greek philosopher as almost this living personification of the Tragic Hero.  He's a man born with the skills and instincts of the natural thinker.  Someone with a given steel-trap mind, and not just the ability, but also the possibility to use it for good.  At one or two moments in history, it might be said that he does put it to good use.  However, none of this gets at the heart of his central human flaws, among which is the desire to reduce human beings to abstractions in the pursuit of knowledge.  As such, there's almost this Frankenstein quality to him.

Just like Mary Shelley's famous Gothic over-reacher, Cicero winds up flying too close to the Sun because of his own hubris.  Just like with the mad doctor, the great philosopher runs the risk of getting burned.  Brown's story shows us with great skill the final moments in which Cicero slowly allows himself to be consumed by his own pyre.  In terms of the short story's overall quality, do I dare to compare it to the work of Shakespeare?  Well, that sounds a bit too presumptuous, so I'm going to take the more cautious route and say that perhaps its impossible for anyone to achieve those heights, except maybe by pure accident (thought I don't say it hasn't been done).  Instead, I almost want to say this deserves to be treated as a respectable piece of supplementary material, if that makes any sense.  

The figure of Cicero plays a prominent symbolic role not just in Brown's work, but also in the Bard's very own Tragedy of Julius Caesar.  In each case, the thinker appears to represent the same idea, the possibility of Democratic thought squandered and wasted.  It's a very potent message that both Shakespeare and Brown have to work with, and to each of their credit, they do it in such a way, and with enough literary skill, that more than enough of us are still talking about it today.  That has to count for something.  It means we're in the hands of a potentially neglected Liberal Humanist thinker.  I think that description fits Charles Brockden Brown to a T.  For these reasons, I'm willing to give a very hearty recommendation to a short story like this one.   

No comments:

Post a Comment