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What Does Cicero Have to Say to Middle-Aged Moderns?


Jonathan Day CC

Lisa Mladinich - published on 12/05/15

His relevance may surprise you
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“Life is nothing without friendship.”
― Marcus Tullius Cicero

During a recent interview in which I discussed my book, True Radiance, Finding Grace in the Second Half of Life, a reporter expressed surprise at learning that a volume about faith, and aging would also reference Cicero. What, she wondered, could this second century Roman statesman to say to us, today?

To put it mildly, Cicero was an interesting guy. As a student, he sat at the feet of all the sages of his era and then, in his writings and speeches, synthesized and shared what he had learned. When I was researching friendships and aging, I happened upon some documents of his in an online archive. I was blown away by the wisdom and clarity of his writings. They were superior to any of the typical, secular modern writings on friendship, which usually have more to do with the superficial trappings of happiness and compatibility.

Cicero’s writings have universal appeal because he was able to identify and value the core truths of authentic friendship and the very real joys of aging—especially for a person who seeks to live a life of meaning and virtue.

Among many other gems, Cicero advises that real friendships should make us better people, not worse, and that the bonds of friendship should never be used to compel another person to do something wrong. Our desires for our friends should always place their well-being ahead of our own. “Never injure a friend, even in jest.”

He also talked about how to find good friends and keep them. It’s critical, he explains, that we cultivate virtue in our own lives. Like attracts like, so if we want good friends, we have to be the best we can be, in order to attract virtuous companions.

Another point of Cicero’s that I especially loved was that real friends don’t store up resentments and grudges; they learn to accept each other’s foibles and focus on all that is good and noble in each other. Otherwise, companions simply store up ammunition for the war to come, when they won’t be friends, any more because, as he said, “Your enemies can kill you, but only your friends can hurt you.”

“It is the peculiar quality of a fool to perceive the faults of others and to forget his own.” From a Christian perspective, we might say that we are endlessly trying to get the splinter out of someone else’s eye, while the logs in our own continue to fester and destroy our relationships.

Cicero was crystal clear that old age could be a time of great meaning and peace, provided the life was one of appreciation for beauty and friendship.

“Just as apples when unripe are torn from trees, but when ripe and mellow drop down, so it is violence that takes life from young men, ripeness from old. This ripeness is so delightful to me that, as I approach nearer to death, I seem, as it were, to be sighting land, and to be coming to port at last after a long voyage.”

For Christians, our language would be about love, mercy, gratitude, and acceptance of our crosses, but Cicero had an appreciation for truth and expressed it in ways still accessible to us, today.

Lisa Mladinich is the founder of and the author of True Radiance and the Amazing Catechists series. She speaks on faith, catechetics and women’s issues at events around the country.

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