Politician loses election so he organizes a mob of malcontents to seize the capital and bring him to power. Sound familiar? No, not talking about Trump. Rather Lucius Sergius Catilina in Rome almost 2100 years ago. I’m not the first or only one to see a parallel with recent history. There was actually an article in the Daily Beast on January 6, 2021 analyzing the two conspiracies as symptoms of the dynamics and the failings common to the two republics, Rome and the United States.
Marcus Tullius Cicero, the consul who was the target of Cataline’s conspiracy, found out about it in the planning stages and gave a series of four speeches to the Roman Senate calling out this threat to the survival of the republic. I had to study these speeches in third year Latin. I did not like them as much as Caesar’s Gallic Wars in the second year or Virgil’s Aeneid in fourth year. I do remember turning in an assignment comparing Cataline’s downfall to that of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the anti-communist demagogue who ruined so many lives in the 50s.
Cicero’s first speech against Cataline is famous for his exasperated exclamation O tempora, o mores! (Oh, what times! Oh, what behaviour!). The speech also illustrates a key feature of our topic of the moment: silence. Master of rhetoric that he was Cicero points to the silence of the other senators as evidence that they support him.
What is the matter, Catiline? What are you waiting for? Do you perceive the silence of these men? They concur—they are silent. Why do you wait for spoken words of endorsement, when you can recognize the will of those who do not speak? . . . In keeping silent, they are shouting. (cum tacent, clamant).
These reflections on silence started with an article that argued for silence as the paradoxical presence of an absence. As Cicero’s use of silence illustrates, silence is better understood as opening. In this case, open to interpretation. As the earlier post about the sound of silence indicated, nothing is missing. If we listen to silence, we are opening to the potential for hearing almost anything.
And silence only arises when we are listening. As I wrote before, no sound, the absence of sound, is not silence. As Stan Link puts it, “silence is the activity of the auditor.” Someone is listening and hears silence.
Words point us in a certain direction, as do sounds. Where does silence point? Anywhere and everywhere. Cicero used this to his advantage.