A couple months ago, I wrote a post about “internal exile.” At the time I was busy preparing for finals, so I never followed up on that post with an example of internal exile. The other day, though, I read one of Cicero’s letters to Atticus in which he poses a series of questions that show exactly what kind of a dilemma a man of action faces when he contemplates going into exile, whether internal or external:
Should one stay in one’s country even if it is under totalitarian rule?
Is it justifiable to use any means to get rid of such rule, even if they endanger the whole fabric of the state? Secondly, do precautions have to be taken to prevent the liberator from becoming an autocrat himself?
If one’s country is being tyrannized, what are the arguments in favor of helping it by verbal means and when occasion arises, rather than by war?
Is it statesmanlike, when one’s country is under a tyranny, to retire to some other place and remain inactive there, or ought one to brave any danger in order to liberate it?
If one’s country is under a tyranny, is it right to proceed to its invasion and blockade?
Ought one, even if not approving of war as a means of abolishing tyranny, to join up with the right-minded party in the struggle against it?
Ought one in matters of patriotic concern to share the dangers of one’s benefactors and friends, even if their general policy seems to be unwise?
If one has done great services to one’s country, and because of them has received shameful and jealous treatment, should one nevertheless voluntarily endanger oneself for one’s country’s sake, or is it legitimate, eventually, to take some thought for oneself and one’s family, and to refrain from fighting against the people in power?”
(Cicero, ad Atticum, IX.4; March 12, 49 B.C.; tr. by Michael Grant)
It seems that Cicero never found satisfactory answers to these questions for himself. In the years leading up to his death, he alternated between writing philosophy at his various villas (this is the period when he composed the Tusculan Disputations and De Oficiis, among other works) and listening to the political news out of Rome, waiting for a chance to emerge from his self-imposed exile.
Even right up to his death he vacillated. When Antony rose to prominence, Cicero denounced him to the Senate in a series of speeches known to history as the Philippics. Antony, then, once he consolidated his power with Octavian and Lepidus in the Second Triumvirate, demanded Cicero’s death. Antony sent his thugs to kill him. At first Cicero chose to flee, but then changed his mind and remained at his villa at Astura. At the last minute he again decided to flee. But it was too late; Antony’s men caught up with him before he could reach the sea. In life Cicero often hesitated, but on his last day he met his death bravely, robbing Antony of any glory from his murder.