Cicero is perhaps the most famous of the Roman Stoic philosophers. He wrote many philosophical works, the two most famous being On the Republic/Commonwealth and The Laws. We will begin to look at Cicero’s anthropology, and how it influences his views of political philosophy beginning in The Republic. (It should be noted that the work is in poor condition, it has not been preserved in full – the fullest copy of it belongs in the Vatican Library, but parts have been restored thanks to St. Augustine quoting heavily from it in City of God, which allowed for some degree of restoration and understanding of missing pages.)
The title, The Republic, is a direct homage paid to Plato. Cicero was an avid reader of the Greeks and began to incorporate Greek philosophical ideas into his own work. While Roman Stoicism had a decidedly more political nature than Greek Stoicism and Cynicism, it also shared with Greek Stoicism the idea that the passions were bad and needed to be purgated from one’s soul. You are a slave to the passions, in other words, and you need rationality to purge it, so you don’t fall into folly, disappointment, and engage in emotional behavior. This is what Roman Stoicism shares with Greek Stoicism. However, the Roman Stoics advocate an active, participatory, and engaged public (or political) life because this is deeply embedded in us – we are, as Aristotle said, “political animals.”
Cicero opens his treatise by reinforcing the old belief common in the ancient world of philosophy that humans are social animals. Cicero also critiques, as we can recover from other quotes of Cicero’s introduction, that he is criticizing the Greek Stoics and Epicureans for their rejection of community and politics (they lack patriotism – love of land, people, and community). Cicero states, “nature has given to mankind such a compulsion to do good, and such a desire to defend the well-being of the community, that this force prevails over all the temptations of pleasure and ease.”
While Cicero speaks of “desire” here, Cicero believes desire is natural but that it is properly a pathway that directs us to wisdom and knowledge. We crave knowledge and wisdom, but in attaining it, satisfy desire, and this is how we purge desire and become satiated through wisdom. Thus, Cicero is also one of the first intellectualists in philosophy (along with Aristotle). Cicero continues that this compulsion in human nature to do good for others and protect community is a result of our communitarian and social animus.
This is where he takes a shot against the Epicureans who advocate flight into the countryside and abandonment of ‘worldly politics.’ “Yet it is not enough to possess moral excellence as a kind of skill, unless you put it into practice. You can have a skill simply by knowing how to practice it, even if you never do; whereas moral excellence is entirely a matter of practice.” Cicero is now logically connecting the dots: if humans are social animals, then why should they abandon the most social of organically evolved bodies – the civil political? Humans should be engaged in the realm of the civil precisely because they are social animals and the civil political is the highest evolved body of human sociality that also allows for the putting into practice knowledge and moral excellence to serve a most basic aspect of our nature. As he concludes, “Its most important field of practice, moreover, is in the government of a state.”
It is important to remember the time when Cicero is writing. Like with the other Roman Stoics who took cues from him, this is the late republican period. The wars of the Triumvirate are brewing, the impassioned plebeians threaten to overturn the republic by hoping to have their passions fulfilled by a dictator (Julius Caesar), and Cicero is obviously also writing this treatise to rally those aristocratic, gentlemanly, and educated members of Roman society to save the republic. As mentioned in the other post on Roman Stoicism, Roman Stoic philosophy cannot be divorced from the fact it has obvious political goals in mind.
Nevertheless, Cicero’s basic outline of human nature in the first two paragraphs of the first treatise ring true to many and are already familiar to us. He asserts, as do Plato and Aristotle, that humans are social animals. Like Aristotle, he maintains this sociality has led to the organic evolution of the civil political as the highest fulfillment of human social impulses. Following Aristotle yet again, he argues that moral excellence is a matter of virtue ethics cultivated by a combination of knowledge and habit. This should serve, primarily, the cause of politics.
Cicero continues to argue that another reason for the engagement in politics is because it is larger than yourself. Here Cicero rejects the sophists of ancient Athens. Politics is not about your self-advancement through a comprehensive knowledge of political structures and laws (e.g. ethical egoism), but that engagement in politics is yet again a part of our social animus, our want to do good for others, and to put into practice our knowledge and moral excellence:
Yet, being the sort of man I was, I did not hesitate to brave the wildest storms and almost the very thunderbolts themselves to protect my countrymen, and, by risking my own life, to win peace and security for the rest. For our country did not give us life and nurture unconditionally, without expecting to receive in return, as it were, some convenience, providing a safe haven for our leisure and a quiet place for our relaxation. No, it reserved the right to appropriate for its own purpose the largest and most numerous portions of our loyalty, ability, and sagacity, leaving to us for our private use only what might be surplus to its needs.
In this most striking passage, Cicero is doing multiple things all rooted in his understanding of what it means to be human. First, as already mentioned, engagement in political life is the fulfillment of sociality for the intellectual and knowledgeable. It is what you were, in some sense, called to do. Second, Cicero claims that in this knowledge of sociality and patriotism he was compelled into action to protect his home and countrymen, “I did not hesitate to brave the wildest storms and almost the very thunderbolts themselves to protect my countrymen.” This is, again, like with Aristotle, the result of knowledge leading to action which cultivates habit as the outcome of knowledge. It is not merely good enough to know, the important question is how do you act?
Additionally, Cicero’s traditionalism is on full display when he makes the argument for patriotism wrapped up in his statement over sociality. Humans, as social animals, naturally seek love. But we must also know what love is. Love is not simply an emotion or passion. It is something nurturing. It is something social. It is something that embodies companionship that is greater than yourself. It entails a coming into union with another. Cicero extends this logic to the country. The country is like the extended family. This is rooted in pietistic filialism. “Ah Rome, sweet Mother!” Rome is mother to the Romans, she has nurtured them with her lands, filled their stomachs with her resources, and now calls upon her sons and daughters to defend her in her moment of need. This is the true root of patriotism: the love of fatherland. It is also, to this extent, the love of one’s brothers and sisters who also live in the household, so to speak.
This is what Martin Heidegger would later call the rootedness of one’s Dasein (being). It is rooted in the land that one was raised, worked, and lived in. This leads to attachment, and the first sign of sociality and love. It subsequently expands as one grows older and wiser. We are social animals, but we are also animals with roots and attachment. Not simply to others, but to our homes, our land, which acts in a metaphorical (but still true) way as our parents so to speak. Thus, Cicero says he understands this filial love that is part of our social animus which is why he willingly braved the storms for his countrymen and fatherland. All of this is just from the first few pages of reading The Republic. One should be able to see just how dense a philosophical reading can be – especially since Cicero does more than just comment on human nature and anthropology in the first book. We will look at the second part of his commentary over politics in another post.
Continuing onward, toward the middle of Book I, Cicero defines a republic as “the property of the public.” This entails a notion of common good, common cause, and common sacrifice. This is another buttress against the Epicureans. In order to have a republic, there must be a common good, common cause, and common sacrifice that binds the people together. Cicero thinks this is going to be a notion of right and wrong, and he is not without his detractors. Nevertheless, this common moral excellence is what binds a republic together because it comes about through knowledge, wisdom, and engagement. Knowing right and wrong is what leads to actions and allows for common good, common cause, and common sacrifice.
But is any public association a republic? No. As Cicero states quite clearly, “A public is not every kind of human gather, congregating in any manner, but a numerous gathering brought together by legal consent and community of interest.” Here is the common good, common cause, and common sacrifice that I just spoke of. People who gather together simply to live do not constitute a republic. For readers of Hobbes and Locke and the liberal tradition in political philosophy, Cicero has harsh implications since Hobbes and Locke assert exactly the opposite – a republic or commonwealth is an association of people who have gathered in their weakness to have life and self-advancement in that society. It is as if he anticipated the rise of Hobbes and Locke when he writes, “The primary reason for its coming together is not so much weakness as a sort of innate desire on the part of human beings to form communities. For our species is not made up of solitary individuals or lonely wanderers. From birth it is of such a kind that, even when it possesses abundant amounts of every commodity…[page is missing].”
To be fair, Cicero is not critiquing a future Hobbes and Locke. He is still critiquing the Greek Cynics and Epicureans. However, students of the history of philosophy will know that Epicurus was a major influence on both Hobbes and Locke and their political philosophies. So this is why Cicero can easily be read as anticipating and rebutting Hobbes, that is because Hobbes rejects the social animus and virtue ethics of the classical political philosophers and advocates for an augmented form of Epicureanism mixed with the ethical egoism of classical sophistry.
Thus, when reading Cicero’s Republic and looking at his commentary over human nature, we see several things with profound political implications. First, humans are social animals. Second, as a result of this, the realm of the civil political is the organic continuity of our social animus. Third, knowledge translates into action and power. It is not good enough to know and do nothing about it. The question is how does one act with the knowledge and virtue that they have cultivated from knowledge? Fourth, Cicero argues it is entirely natural to love one’s land (country). In fact, this is part of what it means to be human. We have rootedness and attachment, not just to others, but to the land which can be understood (metaphorically) as a sort of parent who has nurtured us. Thus, just as we love our biological parent (hopefully), we also love our adopted parent (the land/country). This is natural Cicero tells us. Fifth, not all associations are republics. In fact, a republic is only an association of people united in something: common good, common cause, and common sacrifice. Sixth, this association (which is the political) is the result of human nature and organic evolution – not weakness, because, as Cicero states, “For our species is not made up of solitary individuals or lonely wanderers.” Cicero, like Aristotle, is another virtue ethicist and virtue political theorist and virtue best manifests itself through the love and duty to one’s fellow countrymen in political life.
This was originally published on Hesiod’s Corner, September 6, 2017.
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor of VoegelinView and a writer on art, culture, literature, politics, and religion for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology (biblical & religious studies) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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