Cicero on Government: Timeless Wisdom for Modern Times

Cicero on government

When it comes to the big questions about Cicero on government, 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 Roman Republic.

Cicero has fascinated me since I first encountered his works in college. His insights into political power’s nature, civic virtue’s importance, 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 republican government and the power of reason and persuasion to shape our world for the better.

Table of Contents:

Cicero’s Influence on Modern Political Thought

Marcus Tullius Cicero was a Roman statesman, lawyer, and philosopher who left an indelible mark on political thought. His ideas have shaped modern political philosophy and continue to resonate today.

Cicero on Government

Cicero’s contributions to republican 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 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 a universal law of nature governs all people and societies.

According to Cicero, this natural law is based on reason and accessible to all humans. It forms the basis for justice and morality and should guide the laws and governance of the state.

Cicero’s views on natural law significantly impacted later thinkers, particularly in the Catholic Church. St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas drew on Cicero’s ideas in developing their own natural law theories.

The Lasting Impact of Cicero’s Ideas

Cicero’s political writings, especially De re publica and De legibus, were rediscovered and widely read during the Renaissance and Enlightenment. His ideas on republican government, mixed constitution, and natural 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

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

The Meaning of Res Publica

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.”

The idea that the state belongs to the people was radical in ancient Rome. It implied that the government should serve the common good, not just the ruling elite’s interests.

Cicero argued that the res publica 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 believed that an active and engaged citizen body was crucial for the republic’s health. He argued that all citizens have to participate in public life and put the state’s interests above their own.

This meant serving in the military, paying taxes, and participating in politics. Cicero 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 natural law. He believed that a universal law of nature governs all people and societies.

This natural law is based on reason and is accessible to all humans through 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. He saw natural law as a higher authority than human law and believed that rulers had a duty to uphold it.

The Characteristics of a Good Statesman

For Cicero, the ideal statesman was a virtuous and wise man 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 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 their dedication to the republic and moral character made them ideal leaders.

Cicero’s Life and Political Career

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 civil wars, political violence, and the republic’s decline.

Early Life and Education: Cicero on Government

Marcus Tullius Cicero was born in 106 BC in 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.

Cicero’s Rise in Roman Politics

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.

Consulship and Opposition to Catiline: Cicero on Government

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 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.

Cicero’s Exile and Return to Politics

In 58 BC, Cicero’s enemies in Rome had him exiled on trumped-up charges. 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 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.

Final Years and Assassination: Cicero on Government

The chaos and violence of the Roman civil wars marked Cicero’s final years. After Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC, Cicero found himself on the wrong side of Mark Antony, Caesar’s former ally.

Cicero delivered scathing speeches against Antony, known as the Philippians. Antony had added Cicero’s name to the list of those proscribed or marked for death in response.

In December of 43 BC, Antony’s soldiers captured and killed Cicero. His head and hands were cut off and displayed in the Roman Forum as a warning to others.

Despite his grisly end, Cicero’s legacy lived on. His writings and speeches continued to be studied and admired, and his ideas helped shape the course of Western political thought.

Cicero’s Major Works on Political Philosophy

Cicero on Government

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

On the Republic (De re publica)

De re publica, or On the Republic, is Cicero’s most famous work of political philosophy. 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 power balance will prevent any group from becoming too dominant.

Scipio also emphasizes the importance of justice, the rule of law, and civic virtue. He argues that the state exists to serve the common good, not the interests of any individual or group.

Unfortunately, much of De re publica has been lost. Only about one-third of the original text survives, including the famous “Dream of Scipio” section, which describes the afterlife and the soul’s immortality.

Cicero on Government: On the Laws (De legibus)

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 defines the nature and purpose of 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 living a virtuous life and service to others. He discusses the four cardinal virtues, wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance, and how they should guide our actions in 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 the importance of putting the common good above individual interests. He argues that we must serve our country and to work for the benefit of all.

De officiis was hugely influential in later centuries, particularly during the Renaissance and Enlightenment. It was widely read and studied, and helped shape the moral and political thought of thinkers like Erasmus, Grotius, and Locke.

Key Takeaway: Cicero on Government

Cicero’s ideas on a balanced government, natural 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 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

For Cicero, the res publica (literally translated as “public thing” or commonwealth) belonged to the people. This concept of res populi was central to his political thought.

But that didn’t mean he favored pure democracy. In Cicero’s view, 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, served as the executive branch. Their role was to carry out the people’s will and the Senate’s guidance.

The Importance of Checks and Balances

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

While the people 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 internal and external threats. Cicero 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. Only through such a system could the res publica – the common good – truly be served and protected.

Cicero’s Critique of Roman Politics in His Time

As much as Cicero idealized the Roman 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 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

The toxic mix of corruption and unchecked personal power, Cicero warned, was a recipe for civil 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. Civil war meant the breakdown of all the institutions and values that held the Republic together. It was a descent into chaos and brutality, in which the very idea of the common good was lost.

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 known as 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. Cicero was one of the first to be targeted, and in 43 BC, he was assassinated on Antony’s orders.

Cicero’s death marked the end of an era. The Republic he had fought so hard to save was slipping away, to be replaced by the autocracy of the Empire. But his legacy would live on, inspiring future generations in their own struggles against tyranny and oppression.

The Relevance of Cicero’s Ideas for Contemporary Politics

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 philosophy 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. 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.

Cicero and the Idea of Limited Government

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.

His ideas have been invoked to support the principles of constitutionalism, federalism, and the separation of powers. When James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51 that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” he channeled Cicero’s insight about the need for checks and balances.

Cicero’s legacy can be seen in the American Bill of Rights, with its guarantees of free speech, due process, and protection against arbitrary government power. His belief that even the highest officials were bound by the law is a cornerstone of modern constitutional thought.

Cicero’s Warnings About the Dangers of Populism

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 ambitious politicians’ manipulation of public opinion are more relevant than ever.

Cicero understood that a democracy is only as strong as the civic virtues of its citizens. When people are swayed by fear, prejudice, or the lure of easy solutions, they become vulnerable to the siren song of the demagogue.

Cicero’s defense of republican institutions and values against the threat of authoritarianism reminds us of the fragility of free societies. His fate starkly illustrates 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 into modern politics, but applying them to current challenges requires careful thought and adaptation.

For example, his concept of the mixed constitution was designed for a very different society than our own – one with a restricted franchise and entrenched social hierarchies. 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, and the importance of an engaged and educated citizenry—remain as vital as ever. The challenge for us is to find ways to apply these principles to the unique problems of our time.

Cicero’s legacy is a challenge and an inspiration. He calls us to be our best selves, to rise above narrow self-interest, and to work for the greater good. That summons echoes across the centuries, as powerful and urgent today as it was in the final days of the Roman Republic.

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’s legacy as a political thinker is as vital today as it was in his 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 Cicero once said, “The greater the difficulty, the greater the glory.” Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.

author avatar
William Conroy Editor in Chief
Meet William. He graduated with his Bachelor of Arts in History, concentrating on global and comparative history. 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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