I’m prepping to teach Cicero’s Cataline orations, which are a set of four speeches he delivered in condemnation Cataline, a man who plotted to overthrow the Roman republic. One of the most striking notes in Cicero’s speeches is that he continually accuses Cataline of audacia. Cicero clearly considers the charge of audacia as being a condemnation or an evil in itself, but the usage of the term even in Cicero’s own Latin is slightly more ambigious.
After mulling over a few translations, it became clear that audacia falls perfectly into English as “audacity”. The translation is not a problem, it’s the thing that audacia names that is ambiguous. When we say “I can’t believe he had the audacity to say___” it’s understood that something offensive goes in the blank; but the same negative connotation isn’t present when one speaks of “the audacity of hope”.
Audacity is boldness or daring that does not regard a principle or limitation. On the one hand, this includes those times when we just “go for it”, or just charge forward and hope for the best. There is something attractive to those who can do this. Life is essentially self-motion defined against the limitation of nature, and so all audacity is charismatic, even superhuman. But there is the danger: the charisma generates admirers who affirm the audacity, but to keep being loved for audacity requires one to disregard more and more limits. This seems to be exactly what corrupted Cataline. When we define ourselves by audacity we can’t exist without continually doing more and more things that others would not do, and this sort of escalation simply can’t avoid the offending a principle that makes us simply vicious.
Audacity crosses over and corrupts many different groups. Leaders of criminal gangs require an audacity beyond the criminals they lead. Art – at least much of the art of the last 100 years – is continually fascinated with “breaking the rules”. Consumer culture uses a continuous rhetoric of audacity: “bold” and “revolutionary” are continually presented as essentially good – viz. we’re all supposed to rush out and buy 5 blade razors when we are told they are a “revolution in shaving”.