Few minds have impacted the civic and political realm to the same degree as Cicero. His practical Roman “philosophy” focused on everything from political theory, rhetoric, character, personal duty, and so much more. There’s no understating how important Cicero was for Rome and how important he is for the study of Roman politics, culture, and the fall of the Republic. But his brilliance isn’t the point of this post. In fact, this article is about how close one of the brightest political minds in human history came to the truth, only to miss the mark.
Cicero and the Glory of Creation
In his work On Friendship, Cicero laid out what it means to be a friend, how to find good friends, the purpose of friendship, and more. It’s a wonderful little book. There is one point where he shows how having friends enhances the human experience. Here’s what he had to say:
“If a man could ascend to heaven and get a clear view of the natural order of the universe, and the beauty of the heavenly bodies, that wonderful spectacle would give him small pleasure, though nothing could be conceived more delightful if he had but had someone to whom to tell what he had seen” (1).
There’s a lot of truth here. There is joy in sharing good things with good friends. The ability to share our experiences with others is something intrinsic to human nature. We are made to be in community with others. But, the issue with what Cicero is saying, and the issue of a reality in which there is no God, is that if we were to go to the highest points of the universe and see the most beautiful things around us, it would eventually bore us.
As I am writing this (Sept. 2021) I am having a literal mountain top experience. I am near the summit of Pike’s Peak and am sitting at around an elevation of 14,000 feet. The view I have is absolutely gorgeous. I am alone and without cell service and I’ve been sitting on a nice little rock for about 45 minutes now. It’s amazing. But even as I continue to write this with a picture-perfect view, I’m starting to think about trying In-and-Out for lunch and going to my hotel to take a while to just chill out. I’m sitting at one of the most beautiful lookouts in the USA, and I’m already thinking about what’s next.
That’s the issue, even if we could see the most beautiful things in the universe, and even if we had someone to tell about it, those objects, sights, and experiences are not of infinite worth. They would not be able to entertain a human’s attention for eternity. We get bored with the temporary.
“Joy in the Infinite Presence of the Lord”
But by grace, there is no growing tired in the presence of the Lord because the presence of the Lord is infinitely glorious. Cicero was right, people were indeed created to proclaim and ascribe glory when gazing across creation, the only thing he was missing from his idea is that we weren’t created solely to proclaim it to each other but to glorify and enjoy God. Humans can only find eternal joy in the infinite presence of the Lord because He can never be fully comprehended and there will always be a glorious perfection to ponder.
Think about the throneroom described in Revelation 4. The central image of the scene is the eternal praise from angels and saints. The creatures around the throne are constantly crying out “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (4:8a) while the people around the throne throw down their crowns and declare “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” (4:11). That would get really old unless the one receiving praise had a limit to their glory. Thankfully, God does not. Gregory of Nazianzus lays out this point masterfully
“God always was, and always is, and always will be. Or rather, God always Is. For Was and Will be are fragments of our time, and of changeable nature, but He is Eternal Being. And this is the Name that He gives to Himself when giving the Oracle to Moses in the Mount. For in Himself He sums up and contains all Being, having neither beginning in the past nor end in the future; like some great Sea of Being, limitless and unbounded, transcending all conception of time and nature, only adumbrated [intimated] by the mind, and that very dimly and scantily.” (2).
Now, to be fair, Cicero was not laying out a metaphysical argument. But he was close to the truth in that while we are made for relationships with others, our ultimate joy is found in the Lord and in proclaiming the glory of the Lord forever.
1 – Cicero, On Friendship, Chapter 23.
2 – Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 38.7.