Mary Ann Glendon’s fulsome appreciation of Cicero in the current issue of First Things is one lawyer/public figure’s tribute to her most distinguished predecessor, but given Glendon’s own involvement with issues of religion in public life–and the main preoccupation of the magazine she’s writing for–it’s curious that she didn’t manage, in nearly 4,000 words, to say anything about Cicero’s view of religion. Well, maybe not so curious.
That view was purely instrumental. Like his friend Marcus T. Varro, Cicero admired Numa Pompilius, the mythic second king of Rome, for having invented religious practices that civilized the thuggish warriors who had founded the city. Famously, he served as an augur even as he wrote a tract demonstrating that augury was nonsense. He did not believe in the gods, or at least denied that they could be shown to exist, and thought private religious practices were not for serious men of affairs. In short, so far as he was concerned, religion was a fiction useful only for fostering social harmony.
This is not an understanding of religion that American conservatives like Glendon like to talk about, much less celebrate, in public.