Cicer-O’s: part of a complete breakfast


Marcus Tullius Cicero was a man of many good ideas. Now, lots of people have good ideas — they float into your head, dawdle for a sleepy second or two, and then move on to more fertile soil. Good ideas are a dime a dozen — the trick is to write them down, to make them stick, to not let them sneak away! You’ve got to sit down and hammer them, forge them into something simple, directional, comprehensible. What’s remarkable about Cicero is that he took a lot of his ideas seriously and didn’t hesitate to write them down1.

He put a few great ones in De Amacitia (“On Friendship”). Towards the end he quotes one Archytas of Tarentum2 on how friendships preserve and amplify natural beauty:

If a man should ascend alone into heaven and behold clearly the structure of the universe and the beauty of the stars, there would be no pleasure for him in the awe-inspiring sight, which would have filled him with delight if he had had someone to whom he could describe what he had seen.

Have you ever experienced persistent, unacknowledged bewilderment? Not understanding that you don’t understand something? I have, for many reasons, and one of them used to be beauty. I could see some things that were obviously beautiful —mountains in Alaska, parts of physics and mathematics, San Francisco at a distance — but I could never actually delight in them. They all seemed a bit hollow, even forgettable.

I was making the mistake Cicero describes above — I’d found real beauty, but I hadn’t brought any friends along to share it with! You can’t feel much from lifeless splendor until you turn to someone and go, “Holy cow! Are you seeing this?”. You need to build a shared narrative — once you’re relaying your sensations to someone else, you’ve become part of an exciting story, rather than a mute observer. You’re forced to reveal parts of yourself that actually matter — what makes you heart beat faster, what moves you to tears. This is invariably interesting and often great fun.

Another benefit is that sharing a moment of beauty makes it permanent. You know for a fact that it’s been experienced, and recorded, by at least two individuals. Each also knows that the other saw it and that knowledge, too, is recorded. I find this oddly reassuring, like having multiple backups of my consciousness. It constitutes a proof that at some point, with some person, I saw something notable.

This is not to say solitary excursions into nature or thought have no value. Enforced solitude creates excellent opportunities for introspection, and might be strictly necessary for getting research or certain technical and writing tasks done. I do believe, though, that it’s important to carry the knowledge of companionship throughout. When you know someone will be expecting to hear your stories later, you’ll want them to hold up in the retelling. You’ll want them to matter, and as a result, you’ll find that they do.




2019-08-25

1 Another thing I love about Cicero: his utter lack of false modesty. He knew that he knew how to write and made no bones about it. All of his titles are ambitious and get straight to the point: “On Friendship”, “On Duties”, “On Old Age”…

2 Now known as Taranto, apparently the site of “the first all-aircraft ship-to-ship naval attack in history” in 1940.