Echoes Of A Political Past


A new edition of Cicero's How to Win an Election has been hailed for its surprising relevance for our own times. (Philip Freeman, the translator, even gave it the subtitle "An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians.") Mary Beard describes why such thinking is anachronistic, citing "our very tenuous grip on the processes of ancient politics":

[T]he apparent familiarity of the world of the ancient text is largely a matter of translation. For decades, if not centuries, Quintus Cicero's advice has been adjusted in English versions to match our own political systems and processes. Freeman’s translation is no different. Even the idea that the politician should give people hope, a cliché of modern media politics, looks different in the original Latin from the modern English. Freeman’s version has: "The most important part of your campaign is to bring hope to people and a feeling of goodwill toward you." It is, for us, an instantly recognizable thought. But what the original Latin actually says is this: "In seeking election you must take care that the state has a good hope of you, and a good opinion of you"—which is quite different from (indeed the reverse of) the modern idea of bringing hope to the people.

(Photo: A production crew member makes adjustments to the set on Day Four of the Democratic National Convention at Invesco Field at Mile High in Denver, Colorado on August 28, 2008. Senator Barack Obama of Illinois will accept his party's nomination for Democratic presidential candidate during his speech at the stadium tonight. By Keith Bedford/Bloomberg via Getty Images)