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FROM CICERO TO BENJAMIN FRANKLIN:
STACY SHIFF CONNECTS THE ANCIENT ORATOR TO THE REVOLUTION'S OLDEST SON

"In December 1776, a small boat delivered an old man to France." Thus begins Stacy Schiff’s extraordinary story of how Benjamin Franklin masterminded the Franco-American alliance that would help win the day for America’s War of Independence.

A Great Improvisation is Ms. Schiff’s aptly named oeuvre, and the Franklin she profiles in her book is at the height of his diplomatic powers. He is also 70 years old when his American-in-Paris mission begins.

Three decades earlier, when Franklin was a well-known and relatively young printer in Philadelphia, he had published Cicero’s De Senectute ("On Aging"). It became the first work of classical literature printed in America. (Franklin retitled the work M.T. Cicero’s Cato Major or His Discourse of Old Age. We followed Franklin’s lead in the Levenger Press edition, retitling the book On a Life Well Spent.

But why would Franklin choose Cicero to publish? And why the ancient Roman’s treatise on aging?

In this exclusive interview, Ms. Schiff, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and Guggenheim Fellow, explains the importance of Cicero and his age to Franklin and his fellow revolutionary thinkers.




Levenger Press: One reason we published this new edition of De Senectute was because we felt its message would resonate with the generation now coming to grips with elderly parents and other ineluctable facts of aging. But Franklin was only 38 when he published his edition in 1744. What would have been his motivation?

Stacy M. Schiff: Franklin’s attraction to the essay was similar to yours; he knew a fine piece of writing when he saw one. (My favorite line, for those of us who can’t find our cell phones: "And as for memory failing," observed Cicero, 22 centuries before microchips, "I have never heard of an old man who forgot where he hid his treasure.") He admired - and emulated - the clarity of Cicero’s prose; to his mind Cicero’s letters set the gold standard. And Franklin knew his market. An uplifting tract on old age is a winning proposition in any century.

LP: Did Franklin ever quote from the work?

"Franklin knew his market. An uplifiting tract on old age is a winning proposition in any century."

SMS: That Franklin remained familiar with the text is clear from his response to the Paris appointment, in l776. On agreeing to set sail as an elderly man, on a fool’s errand, across a winter ocean thick with enemy cruisers, he neatly paraphrased Cicero: "You can but take my life, and of that there is now so little left that it is not to be regarded."



LP: What was the attraction for Franklin and the other founding fathers with the ancients of Greece and Rome? Why would such a young country look to works so far in the past?

SMS: The founding fathers were wholly steeped in classical literature, with Cicero as the perennial favorite. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of those texts to the early American curriculum. No eighteenth-century American went to college without having mastered Greek and Latin translation; parsing Cicero was a prerequisite for university admission. Cato himself [the protagonist in De Senectute] was so familiar that a colleague once dismissed the stern John Adams as someone who believed himself "Cato incarnate." Washington was so taken by Cato’s example that he arranged for a play about him to be performed for the troops, at Valley Forge.

Setting sail for Paris at the age of 70, Franklin paraphrased Cicero: "You can but take my life, and of that there is now so little left that it is not to be regarded."

LP: What did all these revolutionaries see in Cicero as far as the democracy they were trying to formulate?

SMS: The founding fathers had no better place to look than the Greco-Roman world for establishing a republic. Remember that a republican government seemed a preposterous thing at the time; monarchies made up the eighteenth-century world. There was little precedent for the American experiment, nearly as little for a republic that had endured.

LP: At what age would Franklin and his contemporaries have considered themselves old?

SMS: An eighteenth-century man was old in his 50s. Franklin was 70 on July 4, l776; he had already outlived most of his generation. By the time he returned from France in l785 he had every reason to feel that he had "intruded himself into the company of posterity." The sense that he had accomplished all he had set out to do was liberating; as Cato had it, the old man has "memory and a rich store of blessings laid up."

"The founding fathers were wholly steeped in classical literature, with Cicero as the perennial favorite. They had no better place to look than the Greco-Roman world for establishing a republic."

LP: You say in your book that "Franklin may well have been crowned the modern Cicero [among others] with the French." Why?

SMS: There was fervor - you might almost say a religion - in Enlightenment France for men of reason. Simply dressed, a renowned scientist and a republican icon, Franklin was quickly promoted to the ranks of the ancient greats. He wasn’t simply Cicero; he was Aristotle, Plato, Pythagoras bundled into one.

And he cannily traded on the power ascribed to the threadbare, straightforward Cato. The Roman statesman could have served as Franklin’s model in the majestic drawing rooms of Paris: "The consciousness of his own innate worth and unshaken integrity renders him calm and undaunted in the presence of the most great and powerful, and upon the most extraordinary occasions. . . He always speaks the thing he means, which he is never afraid or ashamed to do."

"Cicero could have served as Franklin’s model in the majestic drawing rooms of Paris."

LP: In De Senectute Cicero writes, "Nothing remains to us, but what results from past good and virtuous actions." Do you think that the shrewd, wily Franklin would agree with that?

SMS: Toward the end of his life Franklin wrote that he had plenty of enemies as an ambassador, but none as a man. He prided (and I think consoled) himself with that thought. He had an easy conscience. Which he used, I might add, to justify various misdemeanors.

LP: In what ways did Cicero resonate with Franklin?

SMS: When he published De Senectute, Franklin could have had no idea he would become a kind of poster boy for Cato’s brand of eternal spring. He was as active as an old man as he had been in his youth; his memory was as agile as ever; he retained a taste for sensual pleasures; he found "being in the neighborhood of death" liberating. He well recognized that he had accomplished the greatest act of his life as an old man. And he did so for precisely the reasons Cato had advertised: He was beyond ambition. He had already proved himself. He saw parallels,

"He had a different experience on one front, however. Franklin did not find age a safe haven from youthful passions."

opportunities, that were invisible to his younger colleagues. He had a patience no other American revolutionary - all young enough to be his children or grandchildren - could rival. And as did Cato, he wore his old age easily.

He had a different experience on one front, however. Cato applauded old age as a safe haven from youthful passions. Franklin did not find it so, as he made clear to a Frenchwoman: "For 60 years now, masculine and feminine things - and I am not talking about modes and tenses - have been giving me a lot of trouble. I used to hope that at the age of 80 I would be free of all that. But here I am, four times 19, which is mighty close to 80, and those French feminines are still bothering me."

LP: John Adams, David McCullough tells us, read De Senectute throughout his life. What do you think Franklin thought about that?

SMS: Franklin knew well that Adams was among the best read of Americans; it was something Adams never let anyone forget. Being mischievous, Franklin might have answered your question with a few lines from De Senectute: "It is said that people when they grow in years become more fretful, peevish, ill-tempered and disagreeable, and you may add covetous, too; but as I have said, these are the faults of character, and not of old age."


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