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Cicero on Government: Timeless Wisdom for Modern Times


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When it comes to the big questions about Cicero on Justice, sometimes the best place to look is the past. And there’s no better guide than Marcus Tullius Cicero, the Roman statesman, orator, and philosopher who had a front-row seat to the rise and fall of the Republic.

I’ve been fascinated by Cicero since I first encountered his works in college. His insights into the nature of political power, the importance of civic virtue, and the challenges of maintaining a stable and just society feel as relevant today as they did over 2,000 years ago.

So, let’s take a journey back in time and explore what Cicero can teach us about government. Along the way, we’ll discover that many of the issues we face today – from political polarization to the corrupting influence of money in politics – are nothing new. But we’ll also find hope and inspiration in Cicero’s unwavering commitment to the ideals of government and the power of reason and persuasion to shape our world for the better.

Table Of Contents:

Cicero on Government: Modern Political Thought

Cicero on Justice

Marcus Tullius Cicero on Justice was a Roman statesman, lawyer, and philosopher who left an indelible mark on political thought. His ideas have shaped modern political thoughts and continue to resonate today. Cicero’s contributions to government are particularly noteworthy. He advocated for a mixed constitution that balanced the interests of different social classes, an idea that influenced later thinkers like Machiavelli and Montesquieu.

Contributions to the Republican Government: Cicero on Justice

Cicero played a key role in developing the concept of a mixed constitution. He believed that the best form of government combined elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. This idea of a balanced government influenced the American Founding Fathers, who saw Cicero as a model of republican virtue and eloquence. His writings on the separation of powers and checks and balances helped shape the U.S. Constitution.

Views on Natural Law and Justice: Cicero on Government

Cicero’s political philosophy was grounded in the idea of natural law. He argued that there is a universal law of human nature that governs all people and societies. This law, according to Cicero, is based on reason and is accessible to all human beings. It forms the basis for justice and morality and should guide the laws and governance of the state. Cicero’s views on natural law had a significant impact on later thinkers, particularly in the Catholic Church. St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas drew on Cicero’s ideas in developing their own law theories.

The Lasting Impact of Cicero’s Ideas: Cicero on Government

Cicero’s political writings, especially De re publica and De legibus, were rediscovered and widely read during the Renaissance and Enlightenment. His ideas on government, mixed constitution, and law influenced the development of modern political thought. Cicero’s emphasis on civic virtue, public service, and the rule of law continues to inspire political leaders and activists today. His warnings about the dangers of political corruption and the importance of an engaged citizenry remain as relevant as ever. As one scholar put it, “Cicero’s legacy is one of the most enduring in the history of political thought.” His ideas have stood the test of time and continue to shape our understanding of government, law, and justice.

Key Concepts in Cicero’s Political Philosophy: Cicero on Justice

To understand Cicero’s political thought, it’s important to grasp some of the key concepts that underpin his philosophy. These include his understanding of the public thing, the role of the citizen body, law, and the characteristics of a good statesman.

The Meaning of Res Publica: Cicero on Government

For Cicero, the res publica, or “public thing,” referred to the collective interests and property of the Roman people. He famously defined it as “the commonwealth of the people.” This idea that the state belongs to the people was a radical one in ancient Rome. It implied that the government should serve the common good, not just the interests of the ruling elite. Cicero argued that this should be governed by laws that apply equally to all citizens. He saw this as essential for maintaining social harmony and preventing tyranny.

The Role of the Citizen Body: Cicero on Justice

Cicero believed that an active and engaged citizen body was crucial for the republic’s health. He argued that all citizens have a duty to participate in public life and to put the state’s interests above their own. This meant serving in the military, paying taxes, and participating in politics. Cicero on Justice saw civic engagement as a moral obligation, not just a legal one. He also believed that education was essential for creating good citizens. Cicero argued that all citizens should receive a broad liberal arts education to prepare them for public life.

Natural Law as the Foundation of Government

Cicero’s political philosophy was grounded in the idea of natural law. He believed that there is a universal law of nature that governs all people and societies. This law is based on reason and is accessible to all humans through the use of their rational faculties. It forms the basis for justice and morality and should guide the laws and governance of the state. Cicero argued that any law that violates natural law is not a true law at all. He saw this law as a higher authority than human law and believed that rulers have a duty to uphold it.

The Characteristics of a Good Statesman

For Cicero, the ideal statesman was a man of virtue and wisdom who put the state’s interests above his own. He should be well-educated, experienced in public affairs, and dedicated to the republic’s well-being. Cicero believed that a good statesman should possess four cardinal virtues: wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance. He should also be an effective orator, able to persuade citizens and guide public opinion. Cicero held up figures like Scipio Africanus and Cato the Elder as models of statesmanship. He believed that their dedication to the republic and their moral character made them ideal leaders.

Life and Political Career: Cicero on Government

To fully appreciate Cicero’s political philosophy, it’s helpful to understand the context of his life and times. Cicero lived during a tumultuous period in Roman history, marked by wars, political violence, and the republic’s decline.

Cicero’s Early Life and Education: Cicero on Justice

Marcus Tullius was born in 106 BC in the town of Arpinum, about 60 miles southeast of Rome. His family was wealthy and well-connected but not part of the Roman nobility. Cicero received a top-notch education in rhetoric, philosophy, and law. He studied under some of the leading intellectuals of his day, including the philosopher Philo of Larissa and the rhetorician Apollonius Molon. This classical training would serve Cicero well throughout his career. He became known as one of the finest orators in Rome, and his speeches were studied and admired for centuries.

Rise in Roman Politics: Cicero on Government

Cicero began his political career as a quaestor in Sicily in 75 BC. He quickly made a name for himself as an honest and effective administrator. Cicero’s big break came in 70 BC, when he successfully prosecuted the corrupt governor of Sicily, Gaius Verres. This high-profile case established Cicero as a rising star in Roman politics. Over the next decade, Cicero climbed the cursus honorum, the ladder of Roman political offices. He served as aedile, praetor, and finally consul in 63 BC.

Cicero’s Consulship and Opposition to Catiline

Cicero’s consulship was marked by one of the most dramatic events in Roman history: the Catilinarian Conspiracy. Lucius Sergius Catilina, a disgruntled former senator, plotted to overthrow the government and seize power. Cicero uncovered the plot and delivered a series of powerful speeches in the Senate denouncing Catiline. He argued that Catiline posed an existential threat to the republic and urged the Senate to take decisive action. Ultimately, Cicero had the conspirators arrested and executed without trial. This controversial move would come back to haunt him later in his career.

Exile and Return to Politics: Cicero on Government

In 58 BC, Cicero’s enemies in Rome had him exiled on trumped-up charges. persuasion  He spent a miserable year in Greece before being allowed to return. Upon his return, Cicero tried to stay out of politics and focus on his writing. But he couldn’t resist the pull of public life for long. In 51 BC, Cicero on Justice reluctantly accepted a position as governor of Cilicia in Asia Minor. He distinguished himself as a fair and honest administrator, even leading a successful military campaign against some local bandits.

Cicero’s Final Years and Assassination: Cicero on Justice

The final years of Cicero’s life were marked by the chaos and violence of the Roman wars. After the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, Cicero found himself on the wrong side of Mark Antony, Caesar’s former ally. Cicero delivered a series of scathing speeches against Antony, known as the Philippians. In response, Antony had Cicero’s name added to the list of those proscribed or marked for death. In December of 43 BC, Cicero was captured and killed by Antony’s soldiers.

Major Works: Cicero on Government

Cicero was a prolific writer. His works span various genres, from speeches and letters to philosophical treatises and poetry. But his most enduring contributions are his works on philosophy, particularly De re publica, De legibus, and De officiis.

Cicero on Justice

On the Republic (De re publica)

De re publica, or On the Republic, is Cicero’s most famous work of political ideas. Written as a Socratic dialogue, it presents Cicero’s vision of the ideal state. The work is set in 129 BC and takes place over three days. The main speaker is Scipio Aemilianus, the Roman general who conquered Carthage. Other participants include the jurist Gaius Laelius and Scipio’s nephew, Quintus Tubero. In the dialogue, Scipio argues that the best form of government is a mixed constitution that combines elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. He believes that this balance of powers will prevent any one group from becoming too dominant. Scipio also emphasizes the importance of justice, the rule of law, and civic virtue.

On the Laws (De legibus): Cicero on Justice

De legibus, or On the Laws, is a companion piece to De re publica. It is also written as a dialogue, this time between Cicero, his brother Quintus, and his friend Atticus. In the work, Cicero sets out to define the nature and purpose of the law. He argues that law is based on natural reason and promotes justice and the common good. Cicero also discusses the ideal constitution and the duties of magistrates. He emphasizes the importance of religion and morality in public life and argues that the state has a duty to promote virtue among its citizens. Like De re publica, De legibus is incomplete. Only three of the original six books survive, and even these are fragmentary.

On Duties (De officiis)

De officiis, or On Duties, is a treatise on moral philosophy addressed to Cicero’s son Marcus. It was written in the last year of Cicero’s life, after the assassination of Julius Caesar. In the work, Cicero argues that the highest good is to live a life of virtue and service to others. He discusses the four cardinal virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance and how they should guide our actions in both public and private life. Cicero also deals with practical questions of politics and ethics, such as the use of force, the treatment of enemies, and the state’s role in promoting morality. Throughout the work, Cicero emphasizes putting the common good above individual interests.

Key Takeaway: Cicero on Government

Cicero’s ideas on a balanced government, law, and civic duty shaped modern political thought. His influence can be seen in the U.S. Constitution and the works of later philosophers.

Cicero’s Views on the Ideal Form of Government: Cicero on Justice

Cicero was a deep thinker on political philosophy. He had strong views on what made for the best form of government. In Cicero’s mind, it wasn’t the rule of one individual, a few elites, or even the masses that was ideal. Instead, he believed in a mixed constitution that balanced all three elements.

The Mixed Constitution: Cicero on Government

For Cicero, the res publica (literally translated as “public thing” or commonwealth) belonged to the people as a whole. This concept of res populi was central to his political thought. But that didn’t mean he favored pure democracy. In Cicero on Justice, the ideal government was a delicate balance. There should be a strong element of popular sovereignty, with the citizen body having legislative and electoral powers. But this needed to be tempered by the wisdom and experience of a Senate comprised of “leading citizens.” Magistrates, like consuls, would serve as an executive branch. Their role was to carry out the will of the people and the guidance of the Senate.

The Importance of Checks and Balances: Cicero on Justice

Cicero was keenly aware of the dangers of concentrating too much power in any one part of the government. He emphasized the need for a system of checks and balances. In his ideal republic, the Senate, the popular assemblies, and the magistrates would each have clearly defined spheres of influence. They would act as counterweights to each other. No one branch could ride roughshod over the rights and prerogatives of the others. Only through this balance could the stability and justice of the state be maintained.

The Role of the Senate and Magistrates: Cicero on Government

While the people as a whole were the ultimate source of sovereignty in Cicero’s republic, he saw a special role for the Senate and the magistrates. The Senate, composed of wealthy and experienced statesmen, had the critical task of guiding policy through their deliberations. Their wisdom and devotion to the common good would steer the ship of state. The magistrates, in turn, would execute the laws and defend the republic from threats, both internal and external. Cicero on Justice envisioned them as men of virtue and ability, chosen for their merit rather than their popularity or family connections.

The Dangers of Tyranny and Mob Rule

In Cicero’s view, the mixed constitution he advocated was the best defense against the twin dangers of tyranny and mob rule. He argued that concentrating power in the hands of one man, even a seemingly benevolent ruler, was a recipe for oppression. The whims of a tyrant could never be the basis for a just and stable government. But Cicero was equally wary of the unchecked power of the masses. He believed that the mob’s passions if left unconstrained, could lead to chaos and the erosion of traditional values. The mixed constitution, with its balance of powers and its empowerment of a wise and experienced elite, was the surest safeguard against these dangers.

Cicero’s Critique of Roman Politics in His Time: Cicero on Justice

As much as Cicero idealized the Republic, he was a fierce critic of its shortcomings in his own day. He saw a once-great state in danger of collapse, beset by corruption, power-hungry individuals, and the looming threat of civil strife.

The Corruption of the Roman Republic

In Cicero’s view, the Republic had strayed far from its founding principles. Greed and ambition had replaced virtue and service as the animating forces of Roman politics. Bribery and intimidation were rampant in the electoral process. Votes were bought and sold like commodities. The wealthy and powerful manipulated the system to their own advantage, with little regard for the common good. Cicero saw this corruption as a cancer, eating away at the very foundations of the state. If left unchecked, he warned, it would inevitably lead to the Republic’s downfall.

The Rise of Powerful Individuals: Cicero on Justice

Cicero was particularly alarmed by the rise of powerful individuals who challenged the traditional authority of the Senate and the rule of law. Men like Pompey, Crassus, and Julius Caesar used their wealth, popularity, and military might to carve out their own spheres of influence. These men, Cicero argued, were a law unto themselves. They pursued their own agendas with little regard for the Constitution or the common good. Their ambition and rivalry threatened to tear the Republic apart. Cicero saw their ascendancy as a symptom of a deeper malaise. When the institutions of the state were weakened by corruption and neglect, it created a vacuum that ambitious individuals were all too eager to fill.

The Threat of Civil War: Cicero on Justice

The toxic mix of corruption and unchecked personal power, Cicero warned, was a recipe for war. And indeed, in his own lifetime, he witnessed the outbreak of conflict between Julius Caesar and Pompey. For Cicero, this was the ultimate nightmare scenario. This war meant the breakdown of all the institutions and values that held the Republic together. Cicero worked tirelessly to prevent this catastrophe, using his oratorical skills and political influence to call for compromise and reconciliation. But in the end, the forces of discord proved too strong.

Cicero’s Opposition to Mark Antony

In the aftermath of Caesar’s assassination, Cicero saw a new threat to the Republic in the form of Mark Antony. Antony, Caesar’s former ally, was maneuvering to take control of the state in the power vacuum left by Caesar’s death. Cicero launched a fierce campaign against Antony, delivering a series of speeches called the Philippics. In these orations, he denounced Antony as a power-hungry demagogue, a threat to the very existence of the Republic. It was a brave stand, but it would cost Cicero his life. Antony, along with his allies Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) and Lepidus, formed the Second Triumvirate and launched a campaign of terror against their enemies.

The Relevance of Cicero’s Ideas for Contemporary Politics: Cicero on Justice

It’s been over two thousand years since Cicero lived and died. The world has changed beyond recognition in that time. But his ideas continue to resonate, offering timeless insights into the nature of politics and the challenges of maintaining a free and just society.

Cicero’s Influence on the Founding Fathers

Cicero’s political ideas had a profound impact on the men who founded the United States. The likes of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were steeped in his writings. They drew inspiration from his vision of a mixed constitution, seeing in it a model for their own fledgling republic. The system of checks and balances enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, the bicameral legislature, the separate executive branch – all bear the imprint of Cicero’s thought. But it wasn’t just the mechanics of government that the Founders took from Cicero on Justice. They also embraced his ideals of civic virtue, public service, and the rule of law. They saw themselves as heirs to the Roman republican tradition that Cicero embodied.

Idea of Limited Government: Cicero on Justice

Cicero’s warnings about the dangers of concentrated power and his emphasis on the rule of law have made him an icon for modern advocates of limited government. When James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51 that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” he was channeling Cicero’s insight about the need for checks and balances.

Warnings About the Dangers of Populism: Cicero on Government

Cicero’s critiques of demagoguery and mob rule have taken on fresh urgency in our own time. In an age of populist upheaval and “fake news,” his warnings about the dangers of unrestrained popular passions and the manipulation of public opinion by ambitious politicians are more relevant than ever. Cicero understood that a democracy is only as strong as the civic virtues of its citizens.  Cicero’s defense of republican institutions and values against the threat of authoritarianism is a reminder of the fragility of free societies. His fate is a stark illustration of the risks facing those who stand up to would-be tyrants.

Applying Cicero’s Principles to Current Political Challenges

Cicero’s ideas offer enduring insights for modern politics, but applying them to current challenges requires careful thought and adaptation. Translating that model into a modern, democratic context is no simple matter. Similarly, Cicero’s emphasis on civic virtue and public service is admirable, but it can sometimes seem out of step with the realities of contemporary politics, with its professional politicians and permanent campaigning. Yet at their core, Cicero’s principles – the rule of law, the dangers of concentrated power, the importance of an engaged and educated citizenry – remain as vital as ever.

Key Takeaway: Cicero on Government

Cicero believed in a mixed constitution that balanced popular sovereignty with the wisdom of a Senate and executive magistrates. He stressed checks and balances to prevent tyranny or mob rule, warning against concentrated power while promoting civic virtue for a stable government.

Conclusion: Cicero on Government

Cicero on government as a political thinker is as vital today as it was in his own time. His insights into the nature of government, the importance of civic virtue, and the challenges of maintaining a stable and just society continue to resonate with us.

But perhaps the most important lesson we can take from Cicero is the power of reason, persuasion, and principled action to improve our world. In an age of political polarization and cynicism, Cicero reminds us that we all have a role to play in building a society that upholds the values of justice, liberty, and the common good.

So let us take inspiration from Cicero’s example, and work together to create a government that truly serves the people. It won’t be easy, but as Cicero himself once said, “The greater the difficulty, the greater the glory.” Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.

author avatar
Jon Giunta Editor in Chief
Meet Jon. He has spent his lifetime researching and studying everything related to ancient history, civilizations, and mythology. He is fascinated with exploring the rich history of every region on Earth, diving headfirst into ancient societies and their beliefs. His curiosity about how ancient civilizations viewed the world and how those views affected their belief systems and behaviors is what drives him.

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