Philosophy Political Philosophy

Cicero and the Foundations of Natural Law

Cicero is the most important of the Roman philosophers; a Roman Platonist and Stoic, he is responsible for attempting to synthesize strands of Platonic and Stoic thought into a coherent body of mostly political philosophy. It may not be farfetched to assert that Cicero is the first synthetic political philosopher and the second systematic political philosopher in the Western tradition after Plato. The origins of classical natural law and right are contained in the books of the Laws, of which the first book is the most important and influential. Those with a solid grounding in Catholic natural law tradition, from Augustine to Aquinas and beyond, may find resonances and stumble upon why Cicero was generally held in high regard by Catholics. (His Latin prose is just as remarkable as his thought.)

There are a few things to know about Cicero in relationship to his larger philosophical anthropology which is important when reading the Laws.  He was, like Plato and Aristotle, a monotheist.  He found “pagan” religion as useful only insofar that it provided stability and heritage, but he largely found the actual teachings of pagan cults to be insufficient in comparison to the “true God” of Reason; that said, he never advocated the abolition of the Roman pantheon because he knew better than to offend the plebeians who can easily be riled up into a frenzy.  Cicero’s humanism and natural law theory is tied to his monotheism (or at least to his idea of the highest God being the God of Reason) and understanding – much like in Catholicism – that humans are sharers in the divine nature through the gift of reason.  Hence, Cicero’s humanism is rooted in the primacy of Logos – or Reason – which is a gift of divinity and makes us like God.


For Cicero, as per Natural Law theory, what constitutes natural law is the governing force behind human action.  While happiness, or ontological flourishing, is the telos to human existence in Cicero’s mind, what allows us to reach this end is reason itself.  As Cicero, through the character “Marcus” in the Laws states, “There is no topic which brings out so clearly what nature has bestowed on man, how many excellent things the human mind contains…what sort of factor unites humans and what natural fellowship exists between them.”  This is the beginning of Cicero’s exploration into natural law, the divine gift of reason, and why reason is what permits humans to march toward excellence.

Accordingly, the natural law in Cicero is what unites humanity together in common spirit.  This common spirit is tied to want for wisdom and knowledge, which is principally manifested through the common gift of reasoning which is implanted into all persons.  Furthermore, the natural law calls humanity together through justice and happiness.  The natural law, and reason, is communitarian in nature and aims at communitarian virtue: intimate and deep participation with others in a common project called the homeland, or fatherland. This is generally remembered as the “classical natural law” theory in which natural law can be sufficiently understood by reason and that, in this understanding of the natural law – which is an embrace of one’s nature – the end to our existence (happiness) can become manifested.

Cicero recognizes the same claim made in Judaism and Christianity, through Genesis, concerning what Abrahamic religion calls imago Dei, or the image of God.  Christianity developed – through Augustine – the idea of the “substantive view” of the imago Dei.  This is the belief that the soul is the mind and that this soul/mind has the imparted gift of grace called logos (reason) which makes us, literally by our very composition, sharers in the divine image.  For Cicero, human reason is a gift from God.  As he writes, “There is nothing better than reason, and reason is present in both man and God, there is a primordial partnership in reason between man and God.”  And as he also states, “In debates on the nature of man it is usually maintained, doubtless correctly, that in the course of the continuous circuits and revolutions of the heavens the right moment arrived for sowing the human race, that after being scattered and sown in the earth it was furthered endowed with the divine gift of mind; that whereas men derived the other elements in their make-up from their mortal nature—elements which are fragile and transitory—their mind was implanted in them by God.”

According to Cicero, then, the means by which we come to know ourselves, and the natural law, is through right reason, “But those who share also share right reason, and since that is law, we men must also be thought of as partners with [Divinity] in the laws.”  The primary impetus of Cicero’s natural law and right reasoning to coming to know the natural law is moral.  The law is moral and coming to know the law through right reasoning is what permits humans to attain moral excellence (arête), and this is what permits the growth into virtue and the proper dispensation of justice which is what the natural law and nature aims for. So there is a moral end to the law and to human reason.

Reason, then, is the highest calling for humanity, “There is, therefore, a similarity between man and God,” Cicero writes.  This similarity is not found in the fact that God’s nature is the same as our own, but that we share creativity, reasoning, and Reason itself.  Furthermore, Cicero eschews the arguments of chance (much like Aristotle).  Nature must have a purpose.  And purpose is opposite of chance circumstance or outcome, “Nature has lavished such a wealth of things on men for their use and convenience that every growing thing seems to have been given to us on purpose; it does not come into existence by chance.”

The fact that humans have the gift of reason is what separates us from the rest of the world, “Reason in fact—the one thing in which we are superior to the beasts, which enables us to make valid deductions, to argue, refute our opponents, debate, solve problems, draw conclusions—that certainly is common to us all.”  This is also a claim made in Genesis.  The most important aspect of this gift of reason, beyond coming to know ourselves and nature, is that humans have a “mental agility; she ([Wisdom]) has provided him with senses which act as his servants and messengers.”  Here we also see Cicero’s epistemology, if we can call it that, which is essentially a synthesis of Aristotle and Plato.  We have innate ideas, but our senses are what allow us to experience and confirm our ideas and allow us to grow in wisdom and knowledge.


While Cicero extols the gift of reason as the basis for our coming to know the natural law, nature, ourselves, and the enacting of true justice, he also warns against the struggle against false beliefs – or the world of opinions.  “If corrupt habits and foolish opinions did not twist and turn aside our feeble minds from their ‘original paths,’ no individual would be more like himself than everyone would be like everyone else.  Thus, however one defines man, the same definition applies to all.”  Here Cicero recognizes the same problem recognized by later generations of Christians – if we have the capacity for reason why is it that we often fail to embrace our nature (our reason)?

For Cicero the struggle is a battle between truth and opinion, between nature (physis) and convention (nomos).  This is what defines the world we live in and the ascent toward the good, true, and beautiful.  False beliefs lead to corrupt habits.  False beliefs also lead to ignorance (principally of one’s nature).  This ignorance leads to a contest within oneself between the struggle of nature and anti-nature.  Ignorance leads to fear, uncertainty, and confusion.  In this fear, uncertainty, and confusion – which is the result of not knowing one’s nature – “Troubles and joys, desires and fears, haunt the minds of all alike.” Our minds are haunted from our own ignorance, and in this haunting fear we engage in wrongful praise, wrongful assertions, and embrace the world of opinion to try and sooth our fears rather than seek the embrace of our own nature which is the only pathway out of the constant fears and hauntings of the mind.  Our corruption – of having fallen into false beliefs (the world of opinion) – is what prevents from coming to know the natural law, which is also what prevents us from embracing our nature and enacting justice and enjoying the fruits of happiness in this life.

Cicero then turns to a critique of self-interested action as the ultimate form of corrupt opinions.  In this he is simply re-engaging the sophists of Plato and Aristotle’s era and arguing against their views that self-interested action is what is just (an argument made by Glaucon in Book II of Plato’s Republic), and that no one follows any laws because they will break it if they think they will gain an advantage in not following the law.  Hence, if you don’t follow the law it is not really a law at all. Properly speaking, Cicero’s natural law theory is a synthetic unity of physis and nomos, but through the infiltration and corruption of wrong reasoning, we can produce a nomos contrary to physis and this becomes a dialectical struggle which is often ruinous for both people and society.


Having completed his commentary on the nature of reason and how reason – as the “divine spark” – is what allows to come to know (which is important in the coming to know the natural law and our nature), Cicero now turns his attention to how our coming to know the natural law leads to virtue and why virtue has a contingent relationship to nature itself.  This continues what he had begun to outline in the preceding paragraphs concerning the contest between nature and convention (reason and anti-reason).

Concerning the relationship of virtue and nature, Cicero makes the fundamental claim – as one would expect – that virtue is sought in-of-itself because it is what is natural.  We seek virtue because it will make us happy. And happiness is the telos of human life and, therefore, of reason. Virtue is also moral so virtue is bound up with the moral end of the natural law as well.  We do not seek virtue for praise and adoration, although they might follow and itself reflect the truth of virtue being natural and the virtuous individual – in being recognized by the crowd, might awaken the crowd’s moral stupor to pursue virtue for themselves.

Just as Cicero explained that patriotism is a natural product of one’s social animus, so too does Cicero believe patriotism (the love of one’s landed roots) is virtuous and natural.  “What room will there be for patriotism; or for the wish to serve others or to show gratitude?  These virtues are rooted in the fact that we are inclined by nature to have a regard for others; and that is the basis of justice.”  Since justice is linked to nature, and virtue is linked to nature, the virtuous person is also the just person (by definition).  This is an aspect of patriotism at its fundamental core.  Through the love of one’s land, which is natural and therefore virtuous, one is moved to be just to his fellow countrymen as a result.  Those who otherwise seek to destroy the natural and care not about their fellow countrymen are, by definition, unvirtuous – but they are unvirtuous because they are self-interested, not in harmony with nature or the natural law, and seek only their own self-gain at the expense of others and promote stories of opinions to justify their actions in front of others.

Therefore, we can say that all virtue, that is true virtue, is a product of nature.  Through the embrace of one’s nature one can attain the cardinal virtues (the foremost of those cardinal virtues being justice itself).  Yet, to return to the world of false belief and opinion, “Yet we are confused by the variety and incompatibility of men’s opinions.”  Confusion remains a thorn in the side of virtue and nature; confusion is what corrupts the mind (or soul) and alienates us from ourselves and the calling of nature to embrace our nature in which our happiness is to be manifested.  The struggle for reason, the struggle for knowledge, the struggle to embrace one’s nature, is the struggle to achieve moral excellence.

The struggle to achieve moral excellence is also the highest good according to Cicero.  Since it is through moral excellence – which is the highest embodiment of nature (which is to say right reasoning) – that joy and happiness as an individual is found.  Hence, our entire life is aimed at the struggle to attain the highest good possible.  As Cicero aptly states in language that cannot be misunderstood by even the youngest of his readers, “the highest good is either to live according to nature (i.e. to enjoy a life of moderation governed by moral excellence) or to follow nature and live, so to speak, by her law (i.e. as far as possible to omit nothing in order to achieve what nature requires, which means the same as this: to live, as it were, by the code of moral excellence).”  To embrace one’s nature, which is to live in accord with one’s nature, is the pathway to the life of the good, true, and beautiful.


The end of the first book concludes with Cicero’s proclamation that philosophy helps us understand our place in the natural world, and that it also helps us understand our fundamental nature.  We cannot avoid the fact that Cicero’s humanism – as all proper humanisms are – is rooted in his belief in a fundamental nature.  You cannot, properly speaking, be a “humanist” unless you believe in human nature.  Yes, there are many self-declared “humanists” who are anti-humanists.  If that’s you, you’re a transhumanist or a post-humanist and should start using the correct words and descriptions to describe yourself lest you be a proponent of universalizing false opinion which is the pinnacle of tyranny.

This follows Cicero’s belief in political philosophy that philosophy was the handmaiden to politics.  Likewise, philosophy is the handmaiden to understanding nature since philosophy is about the pursuit of the good, true, beautiful, and understanding of wisdom.  Since we already established, from the beginning of the first book, that this is what reason is for, it naturally follows that Cicero would see philosophy as the gateway to understanding nature and our place in nature.

Readers of Augustine and Plotinus will recognize the first recognition of introspection in Cicero.  “The person who knows himself will first of all realize that he possesses something divine, and he will compare his own inner nature to a kind of holy image placed in a temple.”  The coming to know thyself is simultaneous discovery of Divinity (or God) which is implanted in our mind/soul by the gift of reason.

From this coming to know thyself, which is the coming to know nature and God, “Once the mind, on perceiving and recognizing the virtues…and once it has put behind fear of pain and death, and entered a loving fellowship with its own kind, regarding as its own kind all who are akin to by nature…the same mind examines the heavens, the earth, the sea, and all the nature of things, and perceives where things have from and to where they will return.”  Cicero is claiming that humanity as at the top of the natural pyramid of the world precisely because of our ability to reason, to know, and to catalogue the world.  The word catalogue, in Greek, is broken down into cata-logon (“according to reason/word”).  Once humanity – through philosophy – understands itself and the natural world, humans can begin to catalogue and grow in knowledge of the world.

We are called, in the end, to participate with Wisdom itself.  Through our coming to know our nature and place within the natural world, we can bring order and “new creation” (so to speak) to the world around us.  This is achieved through knowledge.  Knowledge is achieved through right reason and right reasoning, which is the imparted gift of the Transcendent to us.  Cicero’s humanism, natural law, and embrace of nature is decidedly anthropocentric.  There is, in other words, something very special – even “Divine” – about being human.

Nature is also calling us to moral excellence.  It is calling us to be just.  It is calling us to knowledge.  It is calling us into “union” with it.  And all of this is made possible through the gift of reason which is what fundamentally distinguishes us from the rest of creation.


Cicero’s commentary in the first book of the Laws was his most important, though the latter two books are equally important to rounding out the natural law and its relationship to political society.  That said Cicero’s declaration that the natural law can be known by reason, and that this right reasoning is principally concerned with the attainment of moral excellence, and from this happiness is consummated, was highly influential.  Furthermore, his commentary on the struggle between reason and anti-reason (opinion) as what corrupts our minds found a strong friend in early Christianity which saw much of Cicero’s commentary as reflective of their own beliefs.

But the most important contribution of Cicero’s natural law theory contained in the Laws is that the natural law is – by its own definition – moral.  Thus, the embrace of nature and living in accord to natural law would make the world (theoretically) a better and more moral place to be.  Whether we achieved this remains in doubt.  Cicero, however, would likely claim that failure to see this manifested in the world is the result of corrupt reasoning – a rejection of nature and human nature, and the embrace of the world of opinion.  From which, as he himself said, fear, confusion, self-interested destructionism, and all other sorts of ills, befall us since we are at war with ourselves.

This post is adapted from a post which was published on Hesiod’s Corner, October 31, 2017.


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