Chapman: Thoughts On Cicero’s ‘On Duties’ With Reflections On The Events Of The Past 12 Months

Los Alamos
Original parts ©Ralph E. Chapman 2017
“Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been.”  From the song “Truckin” by The Grateful Dead, 1970; written by Jerome J. Garcia, Philip Lesh, Robert C. Hunter, Robert Hall Weir
That quote from The Grateful Dead is very relevant to today, probably as much, or even more so, than the time when it was written. It was also a time of great turmoil.
As I’ve stated a few times here on the Los Alamos Daily Post, I keep my political views close and seldom, if ever, speak publicly about them. Despite that, I have always had an interest in the political environment from a theoretical aspect, as well as the quantitative aspects of polling.
Knowing this, my lovely bride, Linda, pointed out a great column in the Santa Fe New Mexican recently (reprinted from The Washington Post) that is simultaneously relevant to my interests and also to our current Societal environment. It hits the nail on the head of what I’ve been thinking we all went through these past 12 months or so, and the nature of the total chaos that was and is the media; especially social media.
The article is by Harvard Professor Danielle Allen:
It really speaks to the dangers of fooling oneself into thinking that the postings one tends to immerse oneself in daily from social media—and, unfortunately these days, often even when listening to the established news media—should not be confused with anything that represents a decent sampling of reality.
They really tend to be just an olio of information, misinformation, opinion (often baseless), and wishful thinking.
Further, we all tend to get influenced by an imprint of a very non-random sampling of such postings; usually a pile of what we agree with and the worst of the opposite view.
That’s not intended as a direct criticism of anyone, as we all do it. In fact, it is very difficult not to do it these days. It is a trap we all need to work together to get out of, regardless of our political leanings.
Dr. Allen talks about the increasing relevance of the writings of the Roman politician and philosopher Cicero, especially his “On Duties.” That piece was written soon after the assassination of Julius Caesar and right before Cicero’s own execution after being caught up in that caustic political environment. It is about our responsibilities to our world and Society.
As with many of my general age, I went through a heavy Roman and Greek phase while growing up. It culminated in my translating while in High School part of Caesar’s “Journals” from Latin into English. It was a difficult birth but it was exciting to read his own words. As you can imagine, all the girls my age really flocked in my direction, especially since I had that sexy overprint of dinosaurs and paleontology as my ace in the hole.
A Semi-Relevant Aside:
During that time, there was a huge influx of movies, TV and other media that included Romans and the Greeks and their contemporaries. So, it was a natural thing to learn a lot about those cultures. Thankfully, we had people like Ray Harryhausen giving us vivid images related to these people and events. An added bonus is that Ray even threw in dinosaurs in some of his other movies, so my fandom for him was complete.
I had the great fortune and honor of sharing a few meals with Ray and his lovely bride (my bride was with me as well) much later and he was everything you would hope a human being to be. I even chaired a discussion panel with him, Ray Bradbury, L. Sprague de Camp, and some paleo buddies of mine and it was magical.
Even when I was very young and ailing with nephritis, while I was stuck inside for a year healing, I played with my Marx set of toy Roman soldiers (and “Barbarians” for them to fight), as well as the Marx dinosaur set. Often, those worlds crossed paths (the dinosaurs always won, of course) and that was the precursor to my subsequent interests in science fiction and science in general, but with an historical overprint.
Back on track…
So, it was natural that I read Cicero back then as well, but I was not old enough and sufficiently experienced and wise to see it as useful to real life. I am thankful that Dr. Allen is reminding us to look back at Cicero and, perhaps, think about his relevance to today. I have a copy somewhere of “On Duties” and will dig it out and reread it soon.
As Dr. Allen suggests in her discussion, we need to spend more time with an eye on the prize—what is really important to concentrate on, and work on—and less on the noise and purposeful fluff that inundates us daily. Cicero reminds us what should be our duties to our Society and to its other members. He was trying to save the Roman Republic; we have our still young nation to get back on track and keep from collapsing in on itself.
To keep with the Roman theme: there will always be Bread and Circus to distract us, especially during trying times. We must not yield to that distraction but see what is really important and work towards doing that instead. That should be regardless of what your actual politics are, as we should still share more similarities than differences.
Anyway, I would give that excellent column a look and have a think.
In the meantime, I’m thinking about my own part in all of this—how I will personally help evolve our country towards what it needs to be. As a start, I am assembling a starter list of what I consider should be Societal truths for this country. I will use it as inspiration for my own actions. It is very far from complete, but here are a few examples.
Perhaps they can provide a conversation starter for some. They are remarkably unchanged for me from my growing up as a New England Republican (yes, I’m the one that’s left), which surprises me some, but not at all in other ways. This is how I see things, although I’m not sure what to call myself these days, politically.
Anyway, here are some ideas/truths to spark discussion. I see them as self-evident for the good of our country going into the future. Others may disagree, hence discussion, and there will be a lot of variation in peoples’ ideas on how we try and make these happen, or not.
1) There is never an acceptable excuse for not providing care—quality care—for the medical needs of veterans that are returning from the wars we send them to fight.
Regardless of what war it is. These people experience and see what no human should ever have to. If there is money to send them to fight, there has to be money to take care of them. Period. We must all remember that politicians start and wage war, it’s the soldiers—the grunts as my friends who went to the Nam called themselves—that pay the price. We should pick up as much of that tab as we can.
2) In a dangerous World, we have to be able to defend ourselves. So, a strong military is essential. However, just because we have one is no reason to use it without a tremendous reason for doing so. We seem to forget this often these days.
I’ll happily have and pay for a military that is so great and strong that we don’t have to use it on anyone. I won’t hold my breath, but it is a good goal. There are ways to keep those in the military sharp without sending them off to kill and die without a compelling reason.
3) Knowledge is power and, for our country, an informed citizenry is essential for our national security. So, it is imperative that young people get a great education, learn a lot of things, and learn how to think and reason. Period. We should stretch ourselves financially to provide the best schooling we can. There are many problems to solve and everyone backs themselves into a corner on these issues with specific and rigid ideas.
It’s time to bridge gaps and use the knowledge we have to work now to resolve these differences and get on track. Politics needs to bow out, except to facilitate. Use the best parts of all the ideas and get our students going even more in the right direction.
4) The above goes for science as well. If we are not clearly the best country at science, we will never be a fully secure nation. In the past, we have been a haven for the best scientists in the World to come here and set up shop. We have thrived from that and been the most powerful country in the World as a result. We need to get back to that.
Science must be de-politicized as much as possible. As someone who has done science, I can tell you there are enough people out there within the scientific community who will give you a lot of crap and disagree with whatever you have done. It is a royal pain but it drives the system, even if at times it adds too many bumps in the road.
We don’t need people who are disinterested in actually understanding the complex problems being discussed sticking their fingers into the mix. People must earn
their place at this table with knowledge, although that can be done from very different origins, but all people should have access to witness the dialog.
5) If there is one observation I would make about our Society, it is that we seem to have lost the stomach for working on difficult projects and solving the inevitable problems that come up. Hell, people, we put men on the Moon with computers on board that were just glorified calculators. People died in the process. But it was a great thing to do, perhaps the best and most important thing we ever did as a species. Now let’s do other great things that will do well for all of us.
Difficult problems are just that, difficult. There will be problems; there always are.
Rather than bloviate or outgas a fumarole of hate, let’s roll up our sleeves and solve those problems. Even if we have to evolve an established system towards a different solution (that better darn well be an improvement over the one we have), let’s do it with hard work and intelligence and stop the caustic politics.
These are examples of where my thoughts are right now on our duties to the Society we live in. There are lots of areas I’m still trying to wrap my brain around.
I will be happy to sit and discuss things in a civil way with those who are interested to do so.