In which something old and powerful is encountered in a vaultFINGERS stroke vellum; the calfskin pages are smooth, like paper,
but richer, almost oily. The black print is crisp, and every Latin
sentence starts with a lush red letter. One of the book’s early owners
has drawn a hand and index finger which points, like an arrow, to
passages worth remembering.
In 44BC Cicero, the Roman Republic’s great orator, wrote a book for his son Marcus called de Officiis
(“On Duties”). It told him how to live a moral life, how to balance
virtue with self-interest, how to have an impact. Not all his words were
new. De Officiis draws on the views of various Greek
philosophers whose works Cicero could consult in his library, most of
which have since been lost. Cicero’s, though, remain. De Officiis
was read and studied throughout the rise of the Roman Empire and
survived the subsequent fall. It shaped the thought of Renaissance
thinkers like Erasmus; centuries later still it inspired Voltaire. “No
one will ever write anything more wise,” he said.