The Pathos of Politics (17) Cicero


There is a true law, a right reason, conformable to Nature, universal, unchangeable, eternal, whose commands urge us to duty, and whose prohibitions restrain us from evil. Whether it enjoins or forbids, the good respect its injunctions, and the wicked treat them with indifference. This law cannot be contradicted by any other law and is not liable either to derogation or abrogation. In all times and nations this universal law must forever reign, eternal and imperishable. It is the sovereign master and emperor of all beings. ~ Cicero

The legacy of Roman philosopher, political theorist, lawyer, and politician Cicero (106–43 BCE) had a profound and abiding influence on political thought. A Stoic by philosophy, Cicero contributed next to nothing to political theory per se. His books were compilations, as he himself averred.

It is instead that everyone read Cicero’s lucid works. The rediscovery of Cicero’s letters by Italian scholar and poet Petrarch (1304–1374) is often credited with initiating the Renaissance.

The apex of Cicero’s authority came through leading Enlightenment thinkers – John Locke, David Hume, and Montesquieu – in passing on the Stoic doctrine of natural law that universally resonates to this day across the political spectrum.

We are born for Justice, and that right is based, not upon man’s opinion’s, but upon Nature. ~ Cicero

The contrast to Aristotelian thought could not be starker. Aristotle conceived citizenship as appropriate only for equals, and all men are not equal. Cicero, on the contrary, inferred that all men are subject to natural law, and so must be treated equally.

For Cicero, legal equality is a moral imperative. Kant rephrased this ideal 18 centuries later in stating that a person must be treated as an end, not as a means.

Cicero’s general principles of government – that authority rightly proceeds from the will of the people, exercised only by warrant of law, justified only by moral rectitude – achieved universal acceptance within a short span after Cicero wrote them, and remained the core of political philosophies thereafter.

Let the welfare of the people be the ultimate law. ~ Cicero

Another aspect of Cicero’s thought resounded in Christianity: “consciousness of love” as the basis for human sociality. Cicero saw the foundation of law in “our natural inclination to love our fellow men.”

This notion deeply affected the fathers of the Catholic Church. At the beginning of the Middle Ages, Cicero was likely more widely read and quoted than any other ancient political writer, as he passed on an apt summation of classical Hellenistic thought that harmonized with Christian teachings.

Liberty has no dwelling-place in any State except that in which the people’s power is the greatest, and surely nothing can be sweeter than liberty; but if it is not the same for all, it does not deserve the name of liberty. ~ Cicero

The framing of the United States Constitution was under sway of Cicero. Cicero’s subscription to balanced governmental powers appealed, but even more so his view of the state as a “community of law,” which answered the dilemma of how to create one nation out of a plethora of peoples.

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice…. ~ United States Constitution preamble.