Cicero: Why we kill the messenger
Cicero: Why we kill the messenger
“When you wish to instruct, be brief; that men’s minds take in quickly what you say, learn its lesson, and retain it faithfully. Every word that is unnecessary only pours over the side of a brimming mind.”
Cicero, Marcus Tullius unknown 106-43 BC
Marcus Tullius Cicero was murdered by decree on December 7th in the year 43 BCE. He was a lawyer, statesman, politician and philosopher and came to be known as one of Rome’s greatest orators. Marcus Tullius Cicero was an avid thinker and writer and his texts include political and philosophical treatises, orations and rhetoric, the latter of which has come to be known as “Ciceronian rhetoric,” and an amass of letters.
How is a Roman philosopher relevant to 21st century risk professionals? Even the most educated and articulate practitioner of the art of risk management can be fooled by randomness. The influence of philosophical thought between 150 – 20 BC evolved during a time of change brought on by war and in intellectual thought. Alliances were formed and dissolved through marriage, assassination, or political arrangement by the ruling class to maintain power.
The ability to persuade one’s audience through effective rhetoric being one of the most prized skills in the legal and political arena helped to build and sustain influence during periods of relative stability. It is fair to say that the rigor of probability were not mathematically advanced during Cicero’s era however the intellectual pursuit of understanding random events were no less important in the Roman empire than they are in today’s modern business or political setting.
The practice of probability was best described in the school of thought called the “Skeptics” in the pursuit of truth, ethical behavior, and the proper role of civil life. These words and ideas did not exist before Socrates, Cicero and other philosophers “invented” Latin names in an attempt to establish “ideal” societal behavior given the less than ideal lawlessness that was often the norm of the day.
“Cicero was most aligned with the Academy Skeptics and the general view that nothing can be known with certainty and that ‘truth’ is essentially relative probability. The skeptic approach appealed to him especially as an effective strategy in law and politics. The skeptic must seek as many perspectives as possible and tease out as many probabilities in order to present a valid argument. As well, it also accepts and advocates malleability as probabilities and perspectives fluctuate over time, and ‘evidence’ proves otherwise.”
The skeptics’ school of thought is still prevalent in today’s scientific approach to probability, mathematics, physics, and applied quantitative big data. But what led to Cicero’s untimely and violent end? He was victim to the same error many make in the pursuit of the ideal to find truth. “Truth”, like risk, is in the eye of the beholder and the person in power gets to determine what truth is and how to manage the risk that threatens the truth they wish to manage.
Human nature has changed very little in over 3,000 years!
Cicero was first exiled then unceremoniously murdered by Roman solders and his body parts displayed in the Roman Senate as a message to others whose narrative was not aligned with current leadership.
This is why corporate governance is so challenging to address effectively. Early retirement, job reassignment and staff reorganizations have displaced summary executions but the effect is the same.
Is there a silver lining? Cicero’s writings and philosophical teachings have influenced leaders through the century and continue to be the cornerstone of regulatory guidance but the challenges remain. Human nature is hard to overcome.