Tar Heel Voices: North Carolina leaders should heed Cicero

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RALEIGH — North Carolina has an official state bird (the Northern Cardinal), an official state reptile (the Eastern Box Turtle), an official state insect (the honeybee), an official state mammal (the Gray Squirrel), an official saltwater fish (the Channel Bass), an official freshwater fish (the Southern Appalachian Brook Trout), an official state marsupial (the Virginia Opossum, which seems awfully unpatriotic), and two official state amphibians, the Pine Barrens Treefrog and the Marbled Salamander.

We have something like an official philosopher, as well, although no legislation has confirmed it. North Carolina's state motto is "esse quam videri," which translates as "to be rather than to seem." The motto is on our state seal.

While the underlying idea didn't originate with him, this specific Latin phrasing came from the pen of the Roman orator and statesman Cicero, who was a contemporary (and enemy) of Julius Caesar and a hero to the founders of North Carolina and the United States as a whole.

As a stylist in Latin, a practitioner of Roman law, an advocate of republican virtues over imperial ambitions, a translator and teacher of classical Greek ideas, and a philosopher of metaphysics, politics, and ethics, Cicero had an outsized influence on the world we still inhabit many centuries later.

He is also very quotable. You will find his sayings sprinkled throughout Western literature, law codes, and even inspirational websites. Unfortunately, these quotes aren’t always placed in context, which can sometimes drain them of their intended force and meaning.

For example, North Carolina's motto is taken from a treatise Cicero wrote on the subject of friendship. He noted that real relationships must be based on honesty, not pretense. "The man to open his ears widest to flatterers is he who first flatters himself and is fondest of himself," Cicero wrote, and the result isn’t a real relationship of two mature human beings. “Fewer people are endowed with virtue than wish to be thought to be so,” he pointed out. "It is such people that take delight in flattery. When they are addressed in language expressly adapted to flatter their vanity, they look upon such empty persiflage as a testimony to the truth of their own praises."

Can you think of anyone in public life today to whom Cicero's argument applies? I can, too. But that hardly exhausts the potential applications of Cicero's wisdom to modern politics. Here are some other lessons that North Carolina leaders ought to take to heart.

In his treatise on moral duties, addressed to his son, Cicero argued that "while there are two ways of contending, one by discussion, the other by force, the former belonging properly to man, the latter to beasts, recourse must be had to the latter if there be no opportunity for employing the former."

In other words, force may be necessary to resolve certain kinds of disputes, but it ought to be a rare and last resort. In the political context, this is an argument for letting people make their own decisions and work out their own voluntary arrangements as much as possible, keeping government intervention to a minimum.

In another work, Cicero wrote that "we denounce with righteous indignation and dislike men who are so beguiled and demoralized by the charms of pleasure of the moment, so blinded by desire, that they cannot foresee the pain and trouble that are bound to ensue." Leaders should always look before they leap — and think about the long run, not just the short-term effects of their decisions.

That's a point about the future. "To be ignorant of the past," Cicero also wrote, "is to be forever a child." To study history is to recognize that past generations with the greatest of intellects and best of intentions have often faced similar problems and attempted solutions. Some succeeded. Many failed. All yielded useful lessons.

If North Carolina leaders want truly to be rather than to seem, they could do far worse than heed the philosopher who wrote our motto.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, Mountain Folk and Forest Folk, combine epic fantasy with early American history (FolkloreCycle.com).

This article originally appeared on Wilmington StarNews: John Hood column: North Carolina leaders should heed Cicero