Here’s why I love reading more than one book at a time:
The other night, I read the “Cyclops” chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses. In it, a group in a pub is picking on Leopold Bloom and one character asks Bloom if he knows what a nation is. Poor Bloom does his best to come up with a definition, but the hostile crowd isn’t really interested in his answer. They’re determined to find something to throw back at Bloom, so it doesn’t much matter what he says. It’s like some nasty high school bullying scene.
Later that evening, I was reading City of God by Saint Augustine, and in chapter 21 of Book II, Augustine quotes Scipio’s definition of a republic from Cicero’s De re publica: “The commonwealth is the weal of the people.” Scipio then defines “people” as “not any mass gathering, but a multitude bound together by a mutual recognition of rights and a mutual cooperation for the common good.”
I wished Bloom had access to such a definition during his uncomfortable pub conversation, but then, with the mood of that crowd, I doubt it would have helped at all.
In De re publica (as paraphrased in City of God), Scipio goes on to assert that if the people of a nation are unjust or tyrannical, then the nation no longer exists because there is no longer “mutual cooperation for the common good” without which, the people are just a bunch of human beings.
Was Cicero one of James Joyce’s influences? I don’t know, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Joyce seems to have had a wide range of influences. If Joyce was influenced by this section of De re publica, then does that mean that he’s suggesting that Ireland itself—as represented by “the citizen” and the others in the pub, who clearly aren’t interested in mutual cooperation—isn’t a nation?
That’s probably way too simplistic a reading of this scene, but I found it interesting, and it’s a notion that wouldn’t even have come to mind had I not been reading City of God at the same time. It’s just one of the unexpected treats of reading two beastly books in the same month.