A republic, by its very essence, imitates the highest of creation: man endowed with understanding and free will. Yet, in this greatest of strengths also resides the deepest of weaknesses. When the people enjoy true liberty, they often fail to identify its source, admiring its effects rather than its causes. In particular, they misunderstand the necessity of virtue to the health of a society.
In his profound treatise on government, On the Republic—taking Plato’s Republic as a model while strongly disagreeing with his exemplar’s conclusions—Marcus T. Cicero reiterates the basics regarding a republic. It must, he notes somewhat didactically, follow the basic forms of a republic, incorporating, through a delicate and ordered balance, aspects of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.
In this, the republic reflects the very nature of man and his ability to know things through the three faculties of the mind: through the head (rationality); through the soul (imagination); and through the stomach (passion). A republic, by its very essence, imitates the highest of creation, man endowed with understanding and free will.
Simply reflecting the three parts of man, though, does not a republic make! “Any one of these three forms of government (if only the bond which originally joined the citizens together in the partnership of the State holds fast), though not perfect or in my opinion the best, is tolerable, though one of them may be superior to another. For either a just and wise king, or a select number of leading citizens, or even the people itself, though this is the least commendable type, can nevertheless, as it seems, form a government that is not unstable, provided that no elements of injustice or greed are mingled with it.”
Taken alone, each of these forms of government will fail, ultimately, especially if given undue weight in a commonwealth. After all, Cicero wisely argues, even the wisest king knows only himself, while an aristocracy more often than not treats those not of its class as slaves, and the democracy of Athens failed because of mediocrity. “I am now speaking of these three forms of government, not when they are confused and mingled with one another, but when they retain their appropriate character,” Cicero explains. “All of them are, in the first place, subject each to the faults I have mentioned, and they suffer from other dangerous faults in addition: for before every one of them lies a slippery and precipitous path leading to a certain depraved form that is a close neighbor to it.” By its simple existence, a community will always mirror the strengths and weaknesses of its rulers. Communities that allow monarchies or aristocracies to rule, he continues, never understand true liberty, free will, and proper choice. “Hence liberty has no dwelling place in any State except that in which the people’s power is the greatest, and surely nothing can be sweeter than liberty; but if it is not the same for all, it does not deserve the name of liberty,” he concludes with a certain finality. After all, a true republic should exist as “an association or partnership in justice.”
Yet, in this greatest of strengths also resides the deepest of weaknesses. When the people enjoy true liberty, they often fail to identify its source, admiring its effects rather than its causes. In particular, they misunderstand the necessity of virtue to the health of a society, misbelieving it the possession of the haughty and elite. “For when, on account of this mistaken notion of the common people, the State begins to be ruled by the riches, instead of the virtue, of a few men, these rulers tenaciously retain the title, though they do not possess the character of the best,” he laments. “For riches, names, and power, when they lack wisdom and the knowledge of how to live and to rule over others, are full of dishonour and insolent pride, nor is there any more depraved type of State than that in which the richest are accounted best.”
Additionally, being ill-informed, the people also often misunderstand liberty as license. “This exaggerated licence, which is the only thing such a people call liberty, tyrants spring up as from a root, and are, as it were, engendered.” In turn, as with natural things, there can always be too much. “Thus everything which is in excess—when, for instance, either in the weather, or in the fields, or in men’s bodies, conditions have been too favourable—is usually changed into its opposite; and this is especially true in States, where each excess of liberty either in nations or in individuals turns into an excess of servitude.”
Harsh, but true words, to be certain.
If a republic must privilege one branch of government over the other—something Cicero hopes always to avoid—it should choose rule by the several, aristocracy, over rule by the one or rule by the many. “Thus, between the weakness of a single ruler and the rashness of the many, aristocracy has occupied that intermediate position which represents the utmost moderation; and in a State ruled by the best men, the citizens must necessarily enjoy the greatest happiness, being freed from all cares and worries, when once they have entrusted the preservation of their tranquility to others, whose duty it is to guard it vigilantly and never to allow the people to think that their interests are being neglected by their rulers.”
Yet, despite having asserted this, Cicero explains his views regarding balance and imbalance in much greater depth in On the Republic. “When the king begins to be unjust, that form of government is immediately at an end, and the king has become a tyrant,” Cicero claims. “This is the worst sort of government, though closely related to the best.” Yet, even a tyrant might be preferable to a rebellion of the Demos against the tyrant. “If the people ever rebel against a just king and deprive him of his kingdom, or, as happens more frequently, taste the blood of the aristocracy and subject the whole State to their own caprices . . . then we have a condition” of horror as first understood and explained by Plato.
In sum, Book One of On the Republic offers us a brilliant—if not necessarily fashionable—critique of the world. We ignore it—no matter how unfashionable—at our own peril. After all, who could claim the present executive of the U.S. as anything less than Cicero’s greatest excess?
This is the second essay in Bradley J. Birzer’s “Cicero’s Republic” series.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Oath of the Horatii” (1786) by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.