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What the first comedian to be cancelled teaches us about greed, taxes and relationships

Unthinkable: The Roman philosopher Cicero can help reset your moral compass amid capitalist forces

Capitalism has brought us some good things but it also has a habit of making us act against our moral principles and pitting us against one another.

If you’ve got private health insurance, you’re buying into the idea – like it or not – of jumping the queue on someone potentially more needy. If you’re a landlord, you’ll no doubt feel the urge to charge “the market rate” even though you’d never dream of paying such exorbitant rent yourself. It’s as though modern society makes us turn against our better selves.

The point has been made by many philosophers, most famously perhaps by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who in the years before the French Revolution warned of the corrupting influence of bourgeois values. Centuries earlier, however, another thinker framed the argument as follows: “For a man to take something from his neighbour and to profit by his neighbour’s loss is more contrary to nature than is death or poverty or pain or anything else that can affect either our person or our property.”

The speaker was Cicero, and the moral argument “could be used today against modern capitalism, especially the way the capitalist mode of production undermines the spirit of solidarity in a community”, says Vittorio Bufacchi, author of a new book on the Roman orator.


Bufacchi is something of a kindred spirit to Cicero. Both spent formative years in Rome, both found home elsewhere – Cicero was banished into exile while Bufacchi moved to Cork, where he lectures at UCC, and both went into politics: Bufacchi is active in the Labour Party and is chair of its Cork North Central branch.

Let’s hope the similarities end there as Cicero was eventually executed – his head was chopped off and the wife of a political rival pulled his tongue out and stabbed it repeatedly with her hairpin in revenge against Cicero’s quips. “It was a bad joke that cost him his life,” Bufacchi writes in Why Cicero Matters. The statesman loved puns – he had three volumes of them – but a risky gag about the future emperor Octavian being worthy of “tollendum”, which has the double meaning of being praised or pushed, came back to bite him.

In this sense, he could be seen as the first comedian to be cancelled – today’s funnymen worrying about the woke have comparatively little to complain about. However, Bufacchi wants to resurrect not so much Cicero’s jokebook as his political philosophy, arguing that it is this aspect of his writings that has been most overlooked.

“Cicero believed that greed, which can take the form of lust for money or for power, was the source of all injustice,” Bufacchi says.

“He regularly accused many would-be dictators hell-bent on sinking the Roman Republic – Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, Catiline – of being motivated by greed, not justice, and therefore putting their self-interest before the common good ...

“Fast forward 2,000 years and we are faced with the same scenario today, except that greed now is destroying the entire planet, not just democracy – although that as well, judging from the persistent popularity of Donald Trump in America, and other little-Trumps around the world.”

Among citizens, greed destroys social relations. “Equality is one of the conditions for good citizenship, and since capitalism proliferates inequality it undermines good citizenship. One of the key themes of my book is that Cicero does not get the credit he deserves for being a subtle but tenacious egalitarian. As he famously said: ‘Nothing can be sweeter than liberty. Yet if it isn’t equal throughout, it isn’t liberty at all’.”

Being a good citizen is key in this philosophical outlook. “Cicero’s claimed that ‘whether it’s public or private life, nothing is devoid of moral obligations’. What I particularly like about this quote is the emphasis on ‘public life’,” says Bufacchi.

Be honest – when was the last time you asked yourself: “Am I a good citizen?” And in case you’re thinking of letting yourself off lightly “our duties go way beyond paying taxes or acting within the law,” says the UCC academic.

“Cicero argued that we have a duty to pursue truth and to uphold justice ... In today’s fake-news infested social media, a reminder that we have a duty to truth becomes imperative. As for justice, considering that modern democracies today are increasingly coming under threat from far-right forces, we must remember our duty to fight for equality and justice.

“According to Cicero, one important way to fulfil our duty to promote the common good is by being active in the social and political life of the republic.”

Firing off snarky social media posts falls below this standard of good citizenship, and we’d all do well to remind ourselves that virtual actions count for little if anything.

Think of equivalent duties in your private life. Should your other half arrive home to find the place in a tip, try justifying it on the grounds that you were too busy reading and retweeting an article on gender equality – and see where that gets you. “We must rediscover our obligations, today, as voters and citizens,” says Bufacchi. “In a democracy we all have rights, including the right to pursue our self-interest, but we must not forget that we also have duties, to each other and to justice more generally.”