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The  Ides  of  March

Thornton Wilder

Cicero, in Rome, to Atticus in Greece.


[This letter aroused much merriment and derision in antiquity and in the Middle Ages.  It is perhaps apocryphal.  We know that Cicero wrote Atticus a letter concerning marriage and that in the two succeeding letters he implored his friend to destroy it which Atticus would certainly have done.  On the other hand, there have come down to us over a dozen versions of what might well have been the letter in question.  All these differ widely among themselves and all are larded with obviously burlesque interpolations.  We here select the passages which the majority of the versions have in common, our theory being that a secretary of Atticus probably made a copy of the original letter before its destruction and that this copy began circulating surreptitiously throughout the Roman world.]

[It should be remembered that Cicero not only divorced his universally respected wife Terentia after many years of increasingly contentious marriage, but that he promptly married and divorced his rich young ward Publilia; that Cicero's brother Quintus had long been stormily married to Atticus's sister Pomponia whom he had recently divorced; and that Cicero's beloved daughter Tullia had been none too happily married to the husband Dolabella, an ambitious and dissolute friend of Caesar whom her father had selected for her.]

One marriage in a hundred is happy, my friend.  This is one of those things which everyone knows and which no one says.  No wonder that the exceptional marriage is widely celebrated for it is the exceptional which makes news.  But it is a part of the folly of our human race that we are forever tempted to elevate the exception into the norm.  We are attracted to the exception, for every man thinks himself exceptional and destined for the exceptional; and our young men and women advance into marriage under the assumption that ninety-nine are happy and one unhappy, or that they are marked for the exceptional happiness.

Given the nature of women and the nature of the passion which draws men and women together, what chance has marriage of being happier than the combined torments of Sisyphus and Tantalus?

By marriage we place into the hands of women the governance of our household which they promptly extend, as far as they are able, to an interest over all our goods.  They rear our children and thereby acquire a share in the disposition of the children's affairs when they have reached maturity.  In all these matters they pursue ends totally opposed to those a man envisages.  Women wish only the warmth of a hearth and the shelter of a roof.  They live in fear of catastrophe and no security is sufficiently secure for them and in their eyes the future is not only unknown but catastrophic.  To forfend those unknown evils there is no deception to which they will not resort, no rapacity they will not exert, and no other pleasure or enlightenment they will not combat.  Had civilization been left in the hands of women we should still be housed in the caves of mountains and man's invention would have ceased with the domestication of fire.  All they ask of a cave beyond its shelter is that it be a degree more ostentatious than that of a neighbor's wife; and all they ask for their children's happiness is that they be secure in a cave similar to their own.

Marriage inevitably commits us to extended examples of our wives' conversation.  Now the conversation of women within the married relationship I do not now speak of that other crucifixion, their conversation at social gatherings behind all the disguises of guile and incoherence treats of only these two subjects: conservation and ostentation.

It shares a characteristic of the conversation of slaves, and logically so, for the position of women in our world has much in common with that of slaves.  This may be regrettable but I would not be among those who would apply themselves to altering it.  The conversation of slaves and women is directed by ruse.  Guile and violence are the sole resorts available to the dispossessed; and violence on the part of slaves can only be resorted to through close consolidation with their fellow unfortunates.  Against such consolidation the state rightly maintains a constant vigilance and the slave is driven to seek his ends by guile.  The recourse to violence is likewise closed to women because they are incapable of consolidation; they distrust one another like Greeks and with good reason.  Hence, they, too, resort to ruse.  How often in visiting my villas and conferring all day with my foremen and laborers I have retired to bed as exhausted as though I had wrestled with each, body and mind at the alert lest I be crippled or robbed.  The slave introduces the aims he has in mind from every direction and by every indirection; there is no trap for concession that he does not employ, no flattery, no show of logic, no pressure on fear or avarice; and all this to avoid building a pergola, to eliminate an inferior, to enlarge his cottage, or to obtain a new coat.

Such too is the conversation of woman; but how much more diverse her aims, how much wider her resources of attack, and how much more deeply rooted her passion to attain her ends.

For the most part, a slave merely desires conveniences; but behind a woman's wishes lie forces which are for her the very nature of life itself: the conservation of property; the esteem in which she is held by those matrons of her acquaintance whom she despises and dreads; the claustration of a daughter, whom she wishes to be ignorant, joyless, and brutified.  So deeply rooted are a woman's aims that they have to her the character of self-evident truth and unshakable wisdom.  Hence, she can feel only contempt for any opinion that opposes her own.  Reason is unnecessary and trifling to one so endowed; she is deaf in advance.  A man may have saved the State, directed the affairs of a world, and acquired an undying fame for wisdom, but to his wife he is a witless fool.


[Here follows a paragraph about the sexual relationship.  It has been so distorted by the glee and invention of copyists and transmitters that it is impossible to determine the original text.]

These things are not often said, though occasionally the poets reveal them those same poets who are primarily responsible for the delusion that marriage is a heaven and who betray us into seeking the Perilous Exception.  Euripides left no word of it untold in the Medea.  Little wonder that the Athenians drove him from Athens with imprecations for telling such truths.  The mob was led by Aristophanes who has shown that he knew these things though with less candor; he stifled his knowledge in order to hound from the city a greater poet.  And Sophocles!  What husband has not smiled grimly to himself before the scene where Jocasta heaps lies on lies, putting a fair face on a calamitous situation.  Notable example of that so-called conjugal love that will conceal any fact from a husband in order to maintain an ostensible contentment; bold illustration that for mentality a wife can barely distinguish a husband from a son.

Oh, my friend, let us console ourselves with philosophy.  There is a realm where they have never entered; indeed, in which they never have taken the faintest interest.  Let us welcome that old age which frees us from that desire for their embraces embraces which must be paid for at the cost of all order in our lives and any tranquility in our minds.

Thornton Wilder (1897-1975)
"The Ides of March", 1948

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