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Cicero, Desert Revelations, and Virtue
April 9, 2012
by William P. Meyers

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I started reading Cicero's de Officiis (On Duties), during brief breaks, only because I ran out of better things to read. I have long had an old used Loeb Classical Library copy, with the Latin on left pages and English on the right. I once aspired to learn Latin, but now admit that is a low priority.

I am finding a lot of good stuff in Cicero. I feel like Cicero was a wise and basically modern guy, despite being pre-Christian. Whereas talking to Rick Santorum and crew I feel like there really might be demons about; how else to explain their irrational thought processes?

Today I came across Cicero quoting Prodicus in Xenophon: "When Hercules was just coming into youth's estate ... he went out into a desert place. And as he saw two paths, the path of Pleasure and the path of Virtue, he sat down and debated long and earnestly which one it was better for him to take." That made me think of Jesus, who is after all a Jewish Hercules, also spending his famous 40 days in the desert, where he was tempted by Satan. Jesus and Hercules had a lot in common, including rising from the dead, although Jesus's miracles tended towards healing, and Hercules' were feats of strength. Since they were both supposed by their followers to be sons of God, I suppose that would make them brothers.

I once spent several weeks, more than 40 days, alone in a desert. Nothing much came of it. No voices spoke to me. I did not see visions. The plus of that is for all my faults, I am apparently not inclined to schizophrenia. I only made one important decision in the desert. I decided to finish college. I had dropped out of college for lack of funds and out of exhaustion. I then started working in restaurants, which was a lot easier than going to college. Plus, I had some money to spend for the first time in my life. In college every dime went to tuition, textbooks, my room and cheap carbohydrate-rich foods. Being out of college was way more pleasurable than being in. Still, I decided to go back, so I hitchhiked to Rhode Island and got a job to start saving enough money to enroll again.

Cicero, on the same page as the Hercules quote, is talking about the various ways careers are chosen, and things are not much different today. "We each copy the model he fancies, and we are constrained to adopt their pursuits and vocations. But usually, we are so imbued with the teachings of our parents that we fall irresistibly into their manners and customs."

My parents had been professional terrorists, employees of the U.S. government. My older brother followed their path into the Marine Corps, and while he was not much of a combat guy, he did his logistical role in bossing Islamic people around.

I decided to write novels, which turned out to mean working in restaurants or offices, with an occasional income boost from journalism or technology work. I did finish several novels, but gave that up over a decade ago now.

The more obvious dichotomy in our society than pleasure versus virtue is money versus virtue. Money has for centuries been the mad passion of American society.

Virtue is harder to define. Some let religion define it for them. The world is a complex place, and so too virtue is complex. What is virtuous in one situation may not be virtuous in another. Cicero's world was not brimming with 7 billion people who all want central heating and air conditioning. We all need to think more about virtue in this new context. We might even want to practice it now and then, as the occasion arises.

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