Thursday, August 30, 2012

Commentariolum Petitionis

In one section of the Commentariolum Petitionis or “Little Handbook on Electioneering,” published in the May/June Foreign Affairs (“Campaign Tips From Cicero," Foreign Affairs, May/June 2012), Quintus Tullius Cicero gives his brother, the great orator Cicero, who was running for consul, the following advice. “If you break a promise, the outcome is uncertain and the number of people affected is small. But if you refuse to make a promise, the result is certain and produces immediate anger in a large number of voters.” Naturally the Commentariolum, emanating from the first century B.C., anticipates Machiavelli’s The Prince which appeared over 1500 years later, but the section in question does for politics what Bergson and Proust did for involuntary memory. It’s the Proustian Madeleine of politics since it nails the fundamental duplicity that’s at the heart of all political behavior. “Promise them anything, but give them Arpege,” was an old advertising slogan. But what Quintus is counseling his brother Marcus on is the need for hope. Hope is the be all and end all of political success and it trumps honesty. Honest Abe is what they called Lincoln. However, the fact is that truth and politics seldom go hand and hand. Politics, as Quintus makes quite clear, is a dirty business. “The most important part of your campaign is to bring hope to people and a feeling of goodwill toward you.” Foreign Affairs was canny in publishing the Cicero piece since as we approach another election, it’s apparent little has changed in politics since Roman times. In fact, an accompanying commentary by the great political tactician and Democratic Party pundit, James Carville, is entitled “Plus Ca Change.” The question is how do the Darwinian verities Quintus suggests translate into human progress and the betterment of the polity? If a politician tells the truth--like those who argue for austerity in the EEC--he or she is unlikely to get elected.

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