The best society, Cicero argues, cultivates us as free individuals for the benefit of the community. Virtue exists in every being, but few realize it or cultivate it. Yet, it is what makes men, men, and allows them to be free.
Usually remembered for his political triumphs and defeats as well as for his stunning rhetoric, Marcus T. Cicero probably did more to introduce philosophy into Roman culture than did any other citizen of republic or empire. His travels abroad as well as the relatively recent Roman conquering of the remnants of ancient Greece helped his cause considerably. In his many travels, Cicero had sought out Philo and Antiochus of Ascalon, the two leaders of the Academy. Generally identified with the skeptical New Academician school of thought, following his studies as just mentioned, Cicero also studied and taught—through his many speeches and books—Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and Polybius (one of two Greeks “who were perhaps the best versed of them all in politics”). In particular, though, Cicero had given shelter to one of the most famous Stoics of his day, Diodotus the blind, and had learned from and debated with him for years upon years.
In two of his last dialogues—On the Republic and On the Laws (most likely meant to be part of one larger work)—Cicero offered some of his most Stoically-influenced thoughts on the nature of man, the community, and the divine. Yet, as the names of each dialogue reveals, Cicero also took Plato as his exemplar, though his Roman republican conclusions differ considerably from Plato’s. The text of the former, fascinatingly enough, faded from western history from sometime in the seventh century until 1819! An early medieval monk erased a copy of it, recording St. Augustine’s commentary on the psalms atop of it. Thankfully, Angelo Mai recognized this two hundred years ago and recreated what he could of the palimpsest. During the missing eleven centuries, On the Republic only existed as a variety of quotes and commentary as written by St. Augustine in The City of God, and as a memory in the minds of a few other scholars who had had access to the manuscript before it got erased.
“Nature has implanted in the human race so great a need of virtue and so great a desire to defend the common safety that the strength thereof has conquered all the allurements of pleasure and ease,” Cicero claims at the very beginning of Book One of On the Republic. Given that he was living in the last moments of the republic, the words scream irony and pain, as he imagines a golden age in the past that produced the noble farmers of the early republic. The American of 2019 is immediately reminded of Benjamin Franklin’s enthusiasm during the 1787 Constitutional Convention, expressing his belief that the rise of George Washington inaugurated a new order of the ages, each generation producing three or four such men of character. If only, the American patriot in me silently screams. From Cicero’s point of view, however, the comment makes sense. Virtue, he argues, exists in every being, but few realize it or cultivate it, thus losing it over time. “Though it is true that an art, even if you never use it, can still remain in your possession by the very fact of your knowledge of it, yet the existence of virtue depends entirely upon its use.” Virtue, Cicero notes, makes men, men. It allows them to be free. “To do of their own accord what they are compelled to do by the law,” he quotes from Xenocrates. Indeed, Cicero continues, any society that has had to rely upon force and law rather than custom and habit has already declined to near destruction if not into destruction itself.
The best society, Cicero continues, cultivates us as free individuals, not for our benefit, but for the benefit of the community. “For, in truth, our country has not given us birth and education without expecting to receive some sustenance, as it were, from us in return; nor has it been merely to serve our convenience that she has granted to our leisure a safe refuge and for our moments of repose a calm retreat,” he argues forcibly and persuasively. “On the contrary, she has given us these advantages so that she may appropriate to her own use the greater and more important part of our courage, our talents, and our wisdom, leaving to us for our own private uses only so much as may be left after her needs have been satisfied.” Though unpalatable to modern libertine ears, Cicero’s words certainly anticipate those of Edmund Burke. Additionally, Cicero notes, a man must act not merely on behalf of his own republic, but on behalf of the universe as seen through the republic and the actions of its citizens. “Do you not think it important for our homes that we should know what is happening and being done in that home which is not shut in by the walls we built, but is the whole universe, a fatherland which the gods have given us the privilege of sharing with them.”
One must presume, especially given his other writings, that Cicero means an example not only for the world of any one person’s generation, but for all generations, past, present, and future. Scipio, one of Cicero’s characters, states as much when he famously argues: “A commonwealth is the property of a people. But a people is not any collection of human beings brought together in any sort of way, but an assemblage of people in large numbers associated in an agreement with respect to justice and partnership for the common good.” In this, he echoes the future views of Edmund Burke, again, in the Anglo-Irish statesman’s explanation of the eternal contract between those dead, those living, and those yet to be born. “The first cause of such an association,” Scipio continues, “is not so much the weakness of the individual as a certain social spirit which nature has implanted in man.” As with Aristotle, Scipio claims “man is not a solitary or unsocial creature, but born with such a nature that not even under conditions of great prosperity of every sort” does he choose to leave the company of others, permanently.
Author’s Note: I would like to thank Moryam Opstal, Sam Goldman, Dan McCarthy, Gerry Grossman, and Matt Johnson for their suggestions and help regarding Latin into English translations.
This is the first essay in Bradley J. Birzer’s “Cicero’s Republic” series.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a detail from “Cicerone Denuncia Catalina (Cicero Denounces Catiline)” (1889) by Cesare Maccari (1840-1919), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.