At the beginning of his career, Pierre Manent spoke of political philosophy’s “healing light.” Likewise, he pointed to Cicero as a classical model of a philosophically informed citizen who could speak to princes and peoples alike about matters of public concern. His modern-day model was his teacher, Raymond Aron. After a period of apprenticeship, then a steady stream of works of political philosophy, Manent himself entered the civic conversation. Beyond Radical Secularism is his most recent contribution, appearing in French as Situation de France in 2015.
Recently, I read a very good book of historical fiction on Cicero. Robert Harris’s Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome tells the story of Cicero from his early career until his election to the consulship. Some years ago, I had started Anthony Everitt’s Cicero, which is admirable biography of Cicero, but somehow my interest waned and I didn’t finish the book. By contrast, Harris’s work had my interest throughout. There is something about a fictional biography – a work written about a person’s life but supplying details that the author does not know to be true – that makes it easier…
Political rhetoric does more than simply convey partisan messages. It can also provide insight into changing conceptions of the relationship between the citizen and government, the ruled and the rulers.
So, for example, in its 1776 Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress did not just lay out its case for seceding from the British Empire. Rather, it claimed that God had endowed men with certain inalienable rights, famously including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It also envisioned the citizenry as ultimately in a position of mastery over its government. When government ceased to serve their purposes, Congress claimed, “It is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”