Lawrence Reed and Cicero

In the summer of 2019, Acton Institute hosted a lecture by Lawrence W. Reed. His theme was Modern Parallels to the Fall of Rome.

As I habitually do with speakers on this blog, I have attached to Reed’s name a hyper-link that will take you to a biography, but you will find there not much more than you learn from the detailed introduction given him by Stephen Barrows. He does such a good job of the introduction that I have attached a hyper-link to a biography of him also. He supplies one particular piece of information that seems relevant to this blog. At 2:03 he tells us that Reed has delivered at least seventy five speeches a year for the past thirty years. That’s an average of three per fortnight. He should be pretty good at it. Reed begins at 2:50.

I firmly tell my trainees that every speaker – every speaker – experiences a Hump. They often seem incredulous, but here at the beginning I see tiny, subtle symptoms of nervousness. I am impressed and delighted that even with his huge experience his adrenal glands are still doing their job to raise him to optimal performance. If a speaker is not nervous at the beginning he’ll bore you. If you can’t see Reed’s nerve symptoms that’s because he’s good at disguising them.

After brief preliminaries, including an amusing anecdote, he launches straight into the subject of the Ancient Roman Republic. What I particularly like, the lecture title notwithstanding, is that he seldom bothers to draw modern parallels at all. He doesn’t need to: it’s all implicit. He merely narrates relevant information about the Roman Republic, its crumbling and its transition into an empire, and lets us work out the parallels for ourselves. As a general rule audiences dislike being spoon-fed.

For instance as a Brit my ears prick up at 09:15 when he tells us that Rome had an unwritten constitution which was nonetheless very powerful and built on long established conventions. The British constitution, likewise unwritten, was recently tested, somewhat assailed, but succeeded in riding out the crisis.

When at 18:45 he quotes Sallust’s description of the character of the administration of Rome in its late republican crumbling, he allows it to transmit its own parallel message. Likewise when he tells us at 20:00 about Tacitus warning of ‘lust for power’.

Though the general principles of what he describes are not earth-shatteringly new, it is pleasing to have so much clarity of chapter and verse attached to them. It appears also to be necessary to repeat the obvious warnings.

The lecture is half-an-hour long, as is the Q&A that follows. During the latter he is asked to identify which historical figure (other than Jesus Christ) he would most like to meet. Topping his list is Cicero, whose writings tell us so much about the crumbling of the republic. Cicero has quite a lot also to tell us about public speaking, so I might try to gatecrash that conversation.