Marcus Tullius Cicero was a Roman statesman, lawyer, scholar, philosopher and Academic Skeptic, who tried to uphold optimal principles during the political crises that led to the establishment of the Roman Empire.
Marcus Tullius Cicero
Scarcely had the work of Polybius, praising the Roman constitution, been completed before the period of agitation and civil war began which destroyed the republic. The system of checks and balances, valuable as long as opposing interests made mutual concessions, became unworkable when factional hostility led to deadlock and revolution.
The economic changes that accompanied the growth of the Roman Empire created a sharp division between the wealthy nobles, who composed the senate, and the proletariat represented in the assemblies; and the hostility between these bodies resulted in civil war, in which leaders such as the Gracchi, Marius, Sulla, Pompey, and Caesar brought the individual into prominence and prepared the way for the empire.
During this period political speculation did not flourish. But in the effort of Cicero (106-43 B.c.) to prevent these changes and to recall the Roman citizens to the former methods of working their government, clear and eloquent statements were made of the best Roman and Greek views concerning the nature of the state and of law. By adopting, in an eclectic fashion, the ideas of other men and working them into the dialogue form used by Plato, Cicero was able to sum up the political philosophy of his time in a manner not approached by his contemporaries.
The body of Cicero’s political philosophy is composed of three related elements. They are a belief in natural law, natural equality, and the state as natural to man.
Cicero is perhaps best known for his restatement of the idea of natural law. Following the teachings of Plato that the principles of right and justice are eternal, and of the Stoics that a supreme universal law exists in nature, Cicero brought the concepts of abstract reason and natural law into immediate relation with the activity of human reason and the legislation of the state.
He believed that moral principles are as applicable to political matters as they are to private affairs, and that true law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting. There exists, in short, behind all laws and customs of men, a supreme and permanent law to which all else must conform if there is to be justice in the state.
Cicero’s commentary on natural law became a classic because of the clarity with which he was able to express himself. For the same reason his views on natural equality were only slightly less well known. Here he agreed with the Stoics, but disagreed with Plato and Aristotle, that Men are much more alike than they are different. Men do not differ in kind, though they may vary in degree, because nature has given reason to all men.
In fact, there is no human being of any race who, if he finds a guide, cannot attain to virtue. This emphasis on natural equality also leads to a repudiation of slavery. Slaves are not to be considered as merely property. They have a right to just treatment and to an independent personality.
As for the state, Cicero believed that it was the natural result of the social instincts of man. Moreover, participation in the business of the state was the highest function to which men could aspire. For there is really no other occupation in which human virtue approaches more closely the August function of the Gods. Cicero thus followed the earlier Greek and later Stoic idea of the state as a rational and desirable institution rather than viewing the state as an artificial creation resulting from self-interest.
Cicero also undertook to classify governments and to consider their respective merits. Here he followed Polybius. The three simple forms of government are monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Each is possessed of certain advantages, but each is subject to decay that results in a corrupt form and leads to a cycle of revolutions. Of these forms, Cicero considered monarchy best, aristocracy next, with democracy least desirable. He preferred, however, a mixed form of government, combining the excellence of each, and represented the republican system of Rome as a perfect example of the checks and balances needed for stability and good government.
Cicero followed the De Republica, containing most of the ideas discussed above, with the De Legibus. As in the De Republica, he was again obviously influenced by Plato. But in contrast to the Laws of Plato, which modified and made more practical the earlier ideals of Plato’s Republic, Cicero in his De Legibus developed further the same line of thought that appeared in his De Republica. He insisted that all civil law must be founded upon the principles of natural reason, and that an enactment that contravened the law of nature had no force as law.
Fifteen centuries later this idea was still effective in European political life. He urged upon Roman citizens high ideals of patriotism and of justice. Holding that all men are subject to the same natural principles of right, he taught a cosmopolitanism similar to that of the Stoics. Guided by these principles, Cicero, like Plato, designed a detailed constitutional and civil code that would conform to the principles of the law of nature. Only fragments of this code survive.
There was little that was original in the political thought of Cicero. His chief work was to transmit Greek ideas to Roman thought, but in this process a distinct change of emphasis took place. The Stoic cosmopolitanism, which among the Greeks reflected the decadence of their political importance, became at Rome the theory of an actual world-empire and represented a proud self-consciousness of an historical mission.
Cicero made the law of nature the basis for a system of law consciously framed to be of world-wide application. All men, possessing equal rights, were destined by nature to be ruled by universal principles. Hence a satisfactory basis for the empire was established, the Roman power seeming providentially destined to carry out the work of divine reason.
Although Cicero’s writings exerted only a mild influence upon the politics of his day, when factional strife was bitter and patriotism was declining, his ideas of justice and natural law sank deeply into Roman legal thought and profoundly influenced the later imperial jurists and the early Christian writers. And his idea of world unity and of universal law and authority remained the central principle of political thought throughout the whole medieval period.