Cicero’s “On the Republic” has influenced the West for centuries, calling to harmony the various aspects of government. In his call to harmony, Cicero portrays a republic in which a proper action demands the balance of the three faculties of man, as well as one in which true law is understood as coming not from the mind of man but from the essence of creation itself.
As much as St. Augustine admired Cicero (and, “admire” is, admittedly, a weak way of describing his adulation of the Roman republican), he believed he had failed in his attempt to define a republic in On the Republic, a book that dramatically and profoundly shaped The City of God. The republic, at least as Cicero defined it in On the Republic, is essentially a fantasy in this world, Augustine argues. “If this definition be true, there never was a Roman republic, for the people’s weal was never attained among the Romans.” There are too many confusions about justice and rights in this world, and no worldly government, no matter how wise, can attain either justice or right. Yet, Augustine argues, no one could fault Cicero for his well-ordered and proper desires. He wants only the best for the human person. Cicero, no matter how wrong, “advocates the cause of justice against injustice with great force and keeness.” In the end, Augustine fears, the Romans—no matter how well intentioned—served the cause of anti-Man and anti-Christ.
Truth be told, of course, Cicero could not help being born into a Pagan era, and, if any Pagan ever got it right, Cicero came the closest, perhaps only behind Socrates. Just as Augustine takes him seriously, so should we, especially given his influence on all republican thinkers since.
In book three of On the Republic, Cicero lays the foundation for all natural law thought, before or since. In an often quoted, lengthy passage that has survived the ages, he explains:
True law is right reason in agreement with Nature; it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting; it summons to duty by its commands, and averts from wrong-doing by its prohibitions. And it does not lay its commands or prohibitions upon good men in vain, although neither have any effect upon the wicked. It is a sin to try and alter this law, nor is it allowable to attempt to repeal a part of it, and it is impossible to abolish it entirely. We cannot be freed from its obligations by Senate or People, and we need not look outside ourselves for an expounder or interpreter of it. And there will not be different laws at Rome and at Athens, or different laws now and in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and for all times, and there will be one master and one rule, that is, God, over us all, for He is the author of this law, its promulgator, and its enforcing judge.
Dissertations and books could be written about nearly every sentence of this paragraph, and one can actually imagine Supreme Court Justice Thomas stating this, word for word.
For the sake of convenience, let me break the quote down into three parts.
First, Cicero is referencing his desire for a balanced and mixed government as he had explained in books one and two of On the Republic, taking Plato’s three divisions of the soul and anticipating C.S. Lewis’s desire for men with chests. One could easily write “true law is right reason in agreement with nature” as “rationality is imagination in agreement with the passions,” or as “the executive is the aristocracy in agreement with the democracy.” That is, Cicero is calling for a harmony not only in the human person but in the commonwealth as a whole. A proper action—one that is just and good—demands the harmony of the three faculties of man.
Second, real law comes not from the mind of man but from the essence of creation itself. That is, man does not create law, he discovers it. It has always been there, though man has ignored, mocked, distorted, or forgotten it. And, as it is always there, it can never be destroyed, while it can always, critically, be remembered. A people might go two thousand years in ignorance (willful or not) of the true law, but the true law remains. If it fails in Troy, it can be remembered in Rome. If it fails there, it can be remembered in London. And, if it fails there, it can be remembered in Philadelphia. Truth, after all, is permanent and nothing man does can destroy it, no matter how vicious our intentions.
Finally, third, the true does not vary from place to place, time to time, or person to person. It must remain the same across nations, cultures, religions, eras, and regions. It can not be one thing for the ancient Athenian and another thing for the modern Houstonian. If it is law, it is true, and if it is true, it must be true for all times and all places and all persons, regardless of the accidents of birth.
Were chapter three of On the Republic only this paragraph, it would be nothing short of astounding, one of the most important observations on the world ever made. As it is, however, there is much great in the chapter, but nothing as great as this paragraph. One could establish a just rule for eons with only this paragraph, so brilliant is Cicero in this moment.
Another critical point that Cicero makes—though a repeat and regurgitation of Plato in the Republic—is that democracy is almost always nothing but the rule of the ephemeral emotions of the mob. The “rabble is just as tyrannical as one man, and all the more repellent in that there is nothing more monstrous than a creature which masquerades as a public and usurps its name.”
This truth, of course, bears repeating endlessly, though it will never be accepted by the very people it criticizes. Instead, the very people will prove Cicero correct in their denunciation of him and their acceptance of his martyrdom by the strong man who fights in their image and through their heinous folly. Marc Antony is the people, and the people are Marc Antony.
Much to our shame.
This is the fourth essay in Bradley J. Birzer’s “Cicero’s Republic” series.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes” (1853) by Paul Barbotti (1821-1867), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.