According to Cicero, the Republic follows the paths of nature and god in all its activities. As such, the true statesman—like the gardener—knows when to plant, when to fertilize, when to water, when to weed, when to prune, and when to harvest. Yet there is still, to be certain, a season for everything. And, as with every living thing, a republic must be born, mature, and, ultimately, die.
As Cicero critically notes, during all of its history, Rome came about by trial and error, custom and habit, not by design. “Our commonwealth, in contrast, was not shaped by one man’s talent but by that of many; and not in one person’s lifetime, but over many generations.” Livy, later, argued the same point, but in Polybian fashion. Cicero notes that through On the Republic he hopes to “show you our commonwealth as it is born, grows up, and comes of age.” By implication, of course, Cicero anticipates the decay, corruption, middle-age, and eventual death of the republic. Unlike in the American experience, the Roman republicans could not appeal to its “founders” or its “founding” or its specific constitution. Instead, all things came into being over time and through incredibly difficult and painstaking work. America’s Republic might be a mighty fortress, but Rome’s was poetic. Only in the divine, Cicero claims, could one find an origin of Rome. The rest was, simply put, experience and tenacity.
Being natural as well as divine in origin, the republic must follow the paths of nature and of god. “At this point you will see the political circle turning; you should learn to recognize its natural motion and circuit from the very being,” he explains through a Platonic dialogue. “This is the essential element of civic prudence (the topic of our entire discussion): to see the paths and turns of commonwealths, so that when you know in what direction any action tends, you can hold it back or anticipate it.”
As such, the true statesman—like the gardener—knows when to plant, when to fertilize, when to water, when to weed, when to prune, and when to harvest. There is, to be certain, a season for everything. And, as with every living thing, a republic must be born, mature, and, ultimately, die.
As a commonwealth, the republic must demand allegiance of each of its citizens. “In preserving the liberty of citizens,” he writes through dialogue, “no one is a private person.”
Also reflecting nature (in this case, the nature of the human person and his faculties), the best government mixes monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. “I showed that no one of these is best,” he writes, “but that a state that is properly blended from the first three types is better than any of them.”
Though many in Cicero’s time called for a strong man to establish order upon the disorder of the late republic, Cicero balked. “The people that is ruled by a king lacks a great deal, and above all it lacks liberty, which does not consist in having a just master, but in having none.” The king too easily becomes the tyrant, Cicero warns. “No animal can be imagined that is more awful or foul or more hateful to gods and men alike. Although he has the appearance of human, through the viciousness of his character he outdoes the most destructive beasts. Who could rightly call ‘human’ someone who desires no bond of shared law, no link of human nature with his fellow citizens or indeed with the whole human race?”
Even better than rules, Cicero claims, are customs. A people unaccustomed to tyranny provide the best bulwark against it. A society, after all, is ordered not from its rules, but by its habits. While this has its faults—such as the irrational laying of some claim to a free society—true authority must come from “custom and precedent” not ego.
As described in previous essays here at The Imaginative Conservative, Cicero’s On the Republic was lost to the West for a millennium and a half! Stunning, especially given how much it influenced St. Augustine and, consequently, the West since St. Augustine. Additionally, it must be noted, it seems rather clear that Cicero wrote On the Republic and On the Law at the same time, perhaps even seeing them as two halves of a whole, works of nostalgia for a world long lost but, at least in Cicero’s art, idealized.
In the second book of On the Republic, Cicero also considers the question of foreign influence on a republic. After all, one might understand the growth of a thing, but what happens when foreign influence—much like the unanticipated severity of a storm—descends upon one, even if one unwittingly invited such wrath upon one’s garden (or society)?
This was a critical question for Cicero, but it remains one equally important for Americans. By its very nature—unlike the very nature of a democracy—a republic is insular looking. The res publica (the common good or good thing) demands vigilance and introspection, perhaps even to a fault. The republic, after all, began in 509 B.C. as a rejection of the decadent Etruscan rule. The Latins, in contrast, sought simplicity and honor, valuing hard work and traditional families and marriage over immediate gratifications and untoward pleasures. Yet, in its many conquests and adventures abroad over the following four centuries, Rome encountered innumerable customs and arts and manner and religions and laws. True, it assimilated most of these, but, in doing so, it also changed radically what had been its own virtue and original strength.
Cicero, to be certain, is as much to blame for bringing in foreign influence as any other Roman. After all, it was Cicero’s speeches, orations, and writings that acclimated the Romans to Greek ideas and ideals.
Americans were not immune from foreign influences and corruption. From the very beginning, what would eventually become the party system formed by siding with either Revolutionary France or Imperial England during the Napoleonic Wars. And, writers as diverse as James Fenimore Cooper and Ralph Waldo Emerson feared that an artistry inherited from Europe might well corrupt the simple, republic manners of Americans.
Sound familiar? It should. America is the new Rome in more ways than one. We must pray for the rise of our own Cicero, a charismatic figure who fights for all that is good, no matter the cost.
This is the third essay in Bradley J. Birzer’s “Cicero’s Republic” series.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “A Roman Triumph” (c. 1630) by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.