On Cicero and Conversations
Of course you know of Cicero, the idealistic lawyer who lived at the time of noble Caesar—they knew each other. People learning Latin always read Cicero. Born into a virtuous republic, Cicero lived to see Rome enter into decadence. For his troubles in trying to keep Rome from declining, Cicero was exiled. I enjoyed the Reader’s Digest condensed version of the best seller about him by Taylor Caldwell, A Pillar of Iron.
Here is Cicero on conversation:
QUOTE: Conversation then, in which these Socratics are the best models, should have these qualities. It should be easy and not in the least dogmatic; it should have the spice of wit. And the one who engages in conversation should not debar others from participation in it, as if he were entering upon a private monopoly; but, as in other things, so in a general conversation he should think it not unfair for each to have his turn.
He should observe, first and foremost, what the subject of conversation is. If it is grave, he should treat with seriousness; if humorous, with wit. And above all, he should be on the watch that his conversation shall not betray some defect in his character. This is most likely to occur, when people in jest or in earnest take delight in making malicious and slanderous statements about the absent, on purpose to injure their reputations.
The subjects of conversation are usually affairs of the home or politics or the practice of the professions and learning. Accordingly, if the talk begins to drift off to other channels, pains should be taken to bring it back again to the matter in hand—but with due consideration to the company present for we are not all interested in the same things at all times or in the same degree. We must observe, too, how far the conversation is agreeable and, as it had a reason for its beginning, so there should be a point at which to close it tactfully. UNQUOTE
I found Cicero’s quotation in A Good Talk subtitled The story and skill of conversation by Daniel Menaker. It’s good. As Mary Roach, author of Stiff blurbed on the back cover: “… I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to resist an author who compares Socrates to Columbo.”
After quoting Cicero as early as page 36, Menaker writes, “Okay, that’s it! Book’s done—at least it terms of saying what the most general rules of conversation may be. At least (for) formal conversation, (that is,) because Cicero’s admonition not to reveal one’s own defects is pretty guarded and ultimately unfollowable anyway.”
(Blogger’s Note: I added the “for” and “that is,” in order to make Menaker’s sentence easier to follow. Also, I broke Cicero into an extra paragraph in order to look better on computer screens.)
“OK, that’s it” for this week’s essay. Cicero has said it all for me.
But wait, I’ve more:
I don’t know if today’s computers and handheld devices have meant more couches and less conversation, but they have surely meant less reading.
A cousin in a mid-sized British Columbia town shared the gossip: About an army cadet, a secondary school graduate, failing to be accepted into the Canadian Armed Forces… merely because he failed to show adequate vocabulary: In Forces terms, he had failed to obtain the required “threshold knowledge.”
He had graduated just fine; his health and fitness were fine—had he been below the fitness threshold, the forces would have sent him to “fat camp”; he had graduated high school just fine, but still he failed— probably because of all these screens and devices. While society, at least in my age group, thinks technology is being used by the smart kids, that ain’t so: Because down the years, by choosing screens, and choosing not-reading, the boy had failed to pick up enough vocabulary. And words are machetes for coping with the underbrush of life.
Granted, he was in a rural area, which, according to popular culture, means lower schooling, and granted his school was proud of their graduation rates for students of indigenous heritage, which, according to my cousin, means lower standards, but still—I blame technology. In fairness, I’m sure his fellow graduates had learned enough to get local jobs in primary industry or retail, but still—what if that young man wants to move to a big city of office towers? Or to an exotic coastal navy base?
Reading is not natural. As writer John D. MacDonald (Of the Travis McGee mystery series) testified to congress, reading is an abstract skill of decoding marks on a page. Reading is not easy. As a friend found when she taught adult education, her students would lose much of their reading ability over the summer. Reading is not monitored, not by society’s teachers: My niece was more than halfway through third grade before my sister realized her daughter was still illiterate. Three years! Her poor girl had to repeat grade three in a school that used phonetics, “hooked on phonics works for me,” not goddam “whole word.”
The problem for the non-readers is that there are so many things, such as skills for good conversation, or the ideals of Cicero, which everyday people just don’t speak of in daily life. You won’t learn by listening, you have to read…. And you truly won’t learn from the talk of fellow teenagers.
Imagine a young man moving to the big city, meeting me at an outdoor bar patio, and hoping to add me to his network of contacts. Maybe he’s hoping to start in a big corporation’s mailroom, and work his way up to executive. We converse. Imagine me learning he doesn’t know who Cicero was. I would glance at an office tower, look back to the young guy, and say, “Have you considered a career as a retail clerk?”
~As a former journalist I am well aware that most people don’t know most things. Hence newspapers explain things people “already know” (such as the on-going Fort Mac fire) just as if a reader has been isolated in a Russian prison. In other words, if you don’t know “Cicero,” relax. And watch less TV.
~The Economist has put a lengthy enthusiastic article about conversation on-line, here’s the link.
By “lengthy,” I mean it was written for real-world reading, not for viewing with a cyber-world attention span. I believe it’s OK to view only parts for now, and maybe get back to viewing it later.