Cicero’s political philosophy is the most comprehensive from among the Roman philosophers. In fact, we owe much to Cicero, since he was the one who translated politeia as “republic” with regards to Plato, hence forever passing on Plato’s great work to us as The Republic. Cicero paid homage to Plato by the name De re publica. And in his Republic, Cicero famously charts out the three forms of government and the cycles of constitutions in building from Plato’s arguments.
Like Aristotle, Cicero sees three natural (simple) forms of government: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Cicero does not see democracy as the devolved or perverted form of constitutionalism as does Aristotle. In fact, Cicero doesn’t really see these three forms of having a “perverse” form per Aristotle. Instead, he just sees these three as having pros and cons that plague each – but all three have positives and negatives and he outlines them toward the end of Book I. In terms of pure theory, Cicero agrees with Aristotle that democracy/constitutional government is the best (“on paper”).
The discussion of the three simple forms of government come about when Laelius presses Scipio (essentially the stand in for Cicero in the dialogue) as to which of the three forms Scipio (Cicero) prefers. Cicero is clear that “[he] prefers a mixture of all three,” but he goes into a defense of each, then follows the defense by extrapolating on the flaws of each. Cicero owes much to Aristotle here, but he also comes to different conclusions than Aristotle does through his much darker picture of politics (which was undoubtedly influenced by the times he was living in as the Roman Republic was collapsing toward Caesarism and empire).
The Benefits of Democracy
Like Aristotle, if we understand Cicero’s ‘democracy’ as akin to Aristotle’s ‘constitutionalism,’ Cicero states that of the three forms ideal democracy would be the best, “The nature of every state depends on the character and will of its ruling body. So liberty has no home in any state except a democracy. Nothing can be sweeter than liberty.” Cicero acknowledges that political liberty is the greatest good to be had in politics, since liberty itself is the gateway to truth, beauty, and happiness. He then says, “Yet if it isn’t equal throughout, it isn’t liberty at all.” Thus, liberty is definitionally egalitarian and there is no conflict, per contemporary libertarians (American-style) of the zero-sum game between liberty and equality. Cicero sees the two as tied together, two sides of the same coin as it were. One cannot have ‘more liberty’ than another and claim to be a society that values liberty itself. If liberty is valued, it must be shared equally with everyone. This is what democracy, on paper, claims to stand for.
Another benefit of democracy is that it is predicated on universal merit (again, we do not need to quibble whether this plays out in real life – Cicero is looking at the forms hypothetically). Anyone can rise to the top if they are industrious, intelligent, virtuous, and hard-working. No consideration of wealth, family lineage, or filial honor is taken into consideration. Though we have limited writings from Cicero on the topic due to missing pages, his argument is rather simple: democracy is not merely the rule of people, is the universal enshrinement of liberty and merit. It is free and open to all, and anyone can rise to the top through their own hard work and talent. Democracy functions on equality, and equality is the proper understanding of liberty. But if you think Cicero is going to choose ‘democracy’ as his preferred government choice – you’d be wrong. This is a purely hypothetic defense of ‘ideal democracy.’ Real life is a problem.
In a democracy, however, the common good, common cause, and common sacrifice that unites people together is the cause of egalitarian liberty. This is the glue which makes a democracy a republic, the public thing. We must remember that in ancient political thought, a republic is simply that – the public thing, it a republic can exist within monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. They’re not mutually exclusive. But Cicero’s democratic-republic is not an atomized and individualistic democracy; it is a democracy that is communitarian, inculcates social relationships, and creates a spirit of sacrifice for others. For without this social dynamic, it is not a republic.
The Benefits of Aristocracy
Moving onto the benefits of aristocracy, Cicero claims that aristocracy is the result of the despotism that befalls democracy. People turn to “the best men” of society (the aristocrats) for the purpose of re-imposing order and security because democracy “has been ruined by people who cannot think straight.” (The issue of education and philosophy to politics is addressed throughout Cicero’s book, esoterically mostly in Book I, more explicitly so in the latter books, especially Books III and IV.)
According to Cicero, aristocracy is the most moderate form of government. It sits between the tyranny of absolutism (rule of one) and the reckless chaos of the mobs (devolved democracy). Cicero writes, “Hence the aristocrats have taken over the middle ground between the inadequate autocrat and the reckless mob. Nothing could be more moderate than that. With such men protecting the state, the people must be very fortunate; they are freed from all trouble and anxiety, having made others responsible for their carefree life.” This statement is interesting because Cicero, following Plato, asserts that the mobs are feckless and do not actually care for liberty. They care about nihilistic hedonism instead. They don’t want to take responsible for their life, community, and their actions, so they push it off onto others. The question becomes, do we have a legitimate reason to complain when tyranny in its aristocratic form rears its ugly head?
For Cicero, aristocracy’s benefits are that it allows people to live their feckless and carefree lives with some resemblance of order and law (assuming the mobs aren’t toppling the aristocratic state), that aristocracy is orderly and stable, and that it usually does, for a time being at least, produce the rule of best men in society. The purpose of aristocracy, as rule of best, men, is to maintain order and moderation in political society. As Cicero stated, no other form of government is more moderate than an aristocracy.
What makes an aristocracy a republic is that the public is invested in the common good, common cause, and common sacrifice of moderated order. These manifests itself in the rule of best men. In short, an aristocratic-republic values order from which the fruits of liberty can be enjoyed.
The Benefits of Monarchy
For Cicero, Monarchy is the best of the three simple forms – even if it is not the most ideal. After all, Cicero claims that democracy – in an ideal world that does not exist – would be best. In the real world, however, monarchy suffices. It is before Cicero defends monarchy that he states, “I prefer a mixture of all three.” However, when pushed come to shoves, Ciceronian realism takes precedence as Scipio informs Laelius that monarchy is ultimately the form of the three that is best.
The reason for this is because monarchy, properly speaking (i.e. non-tyrannical) is most reflective of filial foundationalism and beauty. Like Aristotle, Cicero considers the family household as the basis of all civilization and politics. “The name of king is like that of father, in that a king takes thought for his subjects as if they were his children, and looks after them more conscientiously than [others].” Thus, the king is like the household father and his subjects are his children. A good father loves his children and only wants the best for them, so he provides the best for them and nurtures them to be honorable and virtuous men and women as they grow older.
Furthermore, Cicero discusses the attraction to monarchy because we have an inherent want for beauty. And there is nothing more beautiful than the ritualism, symbolism, and allegory of monarchy, “Accordingly, kings attract us by affection, aristocracy by good sense, and democracies by freedom. So in comparing them it is hard to choose which one likes best.” That said, Cicero then argues that the beauty and affection of monarchy wins out. We are social animals who desire love and beauty – this comes out most explicitly in monarchy. Cicero even pivots the discussion to nature itself – human nature that is.
“Yet in this discussion of ours we are not concerned with nationality but with nature. If sensible men, not very long ago, wanted to have kings, then my witnesses are not so very ancient; nor are they wild and uncivilized,” Cicero tells us through Scipio. What is meant here is simply this: monarchy has been the most common and natural form of government throughout human history, it attracts us by affection, want for beauty, love, and belonging, it deeply embodies human nature, wisdom, and desire all at once. Monarchy attracts us by its very nature because we share the nature of what monarchy symbolizes: beauty, compassion, fatherliness (or motherliness with a queen), filialism, and general affection. Thus, monarchy allows us to participate with, and installs us with, deep reverences for beauty, family, traditions, and closest reflects the ordered hierarchy of the world.
Monarchy as republic is tied to the common cause, common good, and common sacrifice of filial affection and defense of beauty. One lays down his life for his “father” (the fatherland) so that others may enjoy the fruits of nurturing health. Monarchy demands a common virtue found in common affection. Cicero, again, thinks that monarchy tugs at the human heart (nature) most profoundly because humans have an innate nature which seeks the beautiful, filial, and affectionate which is what a monarchy is supposed to embody – and since we all, as humans, share in this nature, that is why a monarchy can be a ‘public thing’ too.
The Cycles of Constitutions
What follows from Cicero’s defense of the three forms is one of the most remarkable analyses of the history of politics and constitutional evolution (or devolution) in ancient history and philosophy. Cicero basically argues that politics is the constant devolution of political order into tyranny. Monarchy starts first. Eventually, one king or queen is terribly unjust and cruel. The aristocrats rise in their mutual power and overthrow the monarch. A new constitution is established proclaiming the rule of aristocrats. Eventually, the aristocrats become oligarchs and tyrants. The masses rise and form a democracy in its place. Claiming liberty and equality, the revolution is successful. That said democracy quickly descends into anarchy by which large segments lift-up ‘strong men’ to restore order as the people want to return to their sensual and frivolous lives. This is the push back to aristocracy. Eventually the aristocrats become self-obsessed and cruel, giving way to Caesarism and the restoration of monarchy as a single ‘fatherly figure’ arises and wins the adoration and praise of the masses whereby he overthrows the aristocracy. The cycle continues without end.
Therefore, Cicero prefers a mixture of all three forms – a mixture is better able to safeguard against all the problems that come with the three simple forms alone. Cicero’s commentary on the nature of cyclical constitution evolution/devolution is very thought-provoking since it has much resonance today. The drive to democracy is the push for greater liberty and equality, but once this is achieved, the people grow weak and licentious with their wealth and prostitute their liberty and equality away in favor of hedonism and nihilism, from which chaos and anarchy emerges because of lack of wisdom and virtue from among the population. The return to order commences and the cycle starts anew, moving from democracy back to monarchy. And then from monarchy back to democracy and from democracy back to monarchy, etc.
According to Cicero, not even a mixed constitution can prevent this. Although a mixed constitution has the most built in mechanisms to prevent the descent into tyranny as it calls us to defend it by filial virtue and affection (monarchial aspects), through the promise of order and rule of best men (aristocratic aspects), who seek to guarantee and uphold liberty and equality (democratic aspects), only an educated, virtuous, and courageous people can prevent the slip into tyranny and anarchy. And this struggle for virtue is why philosophy is important to society – it buttresses against Caesarism and against nihilistic hedonism. (Again, we cannot divorce the historical reality away from the Roman Stoics and their obvious political goals of wanting to save the Roman Republic regardless of whether it was worth saving – Cicero, Seneca, and Cato certainly thought so.) But Cicero argues that the growth of constitutions and constitutional rights is the result of the flight from tyranny which produces a new constitution which nevertheless fails and dissolves into tyranny at a future point in time when people have lost their virtue.
On this note, Cicero sees History as cyclical but essentially political in nature. The human being is tied to the political world, as should be clear from our social animus and following Aristotle’s dictum that the State is the highest reflection and manifestation of social animus and cannot escape the essentially political nature to History. History, then, is the tragic story of the decline and fall of political orders and their constitutions, of the story of virtuous people collapsing in their common virtue and forgoing the responsibilities necessary for preserving the republic. They give themselves over to nihilism which leads to tyranny. When people get upset with tyranny they revolt, and the constitutions change to reflection revolution. However, all people (at some later point in time) grow weak in their virtue and renege on the constitutional compact that was birthed from revolution, and they fall into tyranny once again. At which point they rise for a restoration of peace and order, and the cycles of constitutional change and political change continue like clockwork. Again, it is obvious from Cicero’s own historical situation that he feels like this is what the Roman Republic is experiencing. The march to Ceasarism is forthcoming, and he has more than just mere thoughts to express on the subject.
Cicero, then, is not a historicist. History is not unfolding to any grand consummation (because History cannot have a teleology as it is not something with a nature like humans). However, History is impacted by the ebb and flow of humans either embracing their nature (the call to excellence which leads to an excellent politics) or the rejection of their nature (which is the plight downward to hedonism and eventually nihilism, from which all politics sinks too). That said, Cicero is offering up an early account of a philosophy of history that is 100% tied to his philosophy of politics. Certainly, many people today might find resonance with Cicero on this point.
The Cons of Democracy
Democracy suffers from two, or three, major problems. Three if you count the third separate from the second, two if you consider the third problem contingently related to the second. According to Cicero, wealth is a major problem for democracy. Democracy is premised on equality. Too much wealth becomes an obvious problem unless it is distributed. But even when it is, “the faint-hearted and the weak give way and succumb to the haughtiness of wealth.” Basically, people become so obsessed with wealth they do not care for liberty, even equality, and they certainly no longer care about virtue, moderation, and wisdom. As Cicero later says, the destruction of democracy into tyranny is a direct result of over commercialization, wealth pursuit, and the destruction of the natural land that was required in the pursuit of wealth, “As the death of aristocracy comes from its own excessive power, so freedom itself plunges an over-free populace into slavery. All excess, whether the over-luxuriance has occurred in the weather or on the land or in people’s bodies, turns a rule into the opposite.” In other words, “extreme freedom produces a tyrant” because extreme freedom demands no virtue – it is hedonism writ large where one just prostrates their body to the endless pursuit of fleeting bodily pleasure. This is what follows, according to Cicero, when we give ourselves over to money. (This is Cicero’s critique of the Epicureans, basically arguing that Epicureanism is not only false, it is the bane to society because we will not isolate ourselves due to our social nature, we become perverse hedonistic atheists within society which brings about society’s collapse from within.)
The second problem to democracy is the lack of educated people. The commoners are, overall, dumb. Let’s not sugar coat the fact that this is Cicero’s views of plebeians, they’re just not intelligent and thoughtful people. They give themselves over to their passions – which is why they renege freedom (which demands virtue) and decide to prostitute and weather their bodies, giving themselves completely over to the desires of their passions while pushing off responsibility to others (thus giving rise to aristocracy or monarchy to bear their irresponsible lifestyle). The exhaustion of this is the descent into chaotic anarchy.
From this lack of education flow the collapse of virtue since virtue demands moderation and the control of one’s passions and emotions. Again, Cicero and the Stoics see the two as linked, though you can see the two as separate issues. But as Cicero says in Book IV, “Too many people now, in their folly, want to get rid of [an] admirable system; they advocate a new distribution of wealth through some resolution of the plebs whereby senators would have to resign their equestrian status.” In other words, the collapse of education leads to a collapse in virtue which leads to the collapse of an orderly, admirable, and virtuous body politic.
Just like with Plato, Cicero sees the mob as a danger. Not only to themselves, but to the preciousness of God-given liberty and admirable systems that have emerged to buttress against too much haughtiness, hedonism, and nihilism. Democracy, theoretically as Cicero previously said, would be the best form of politics. Human nature and reality get in the way of this. Anyone who says otherwise is an ignorant fool and captivated by his own delusional “folly.”
From this folly flows the danger of youth arrogance and vulgarity. Cicero tells us, “Youngsters assume the authority of older men; the latter lower themselves to take part in the youngsters’ amusement for fear of becoming unpopular and disliked. As a result, even slaves behave with excessive freedom, wives enjoy the same rights as their husbands, and in this all-pervading freedom dogs and horses and even asses charge around so freely that one has to stand aside for them in the street.” Lack of wisdom, virtue, and moderation, which stems from ignorance and poor education, leads to chaos. Young men fancy themselves as the arbiters of knowledge. ‘Those stupid old people,’ in other words, are the problem while the youth are the virtuous and enlightened people in society. But Cicero doesn’t cut the elderly generation any slack. Older people, especially those who are not virtuous and moderate, stoop themselves down to the level of young drunkards and fools for want of acceptance.
This is the ‘man-child’ phenomenon of today – older people who don’t want to grow up and take responsibility, they would rather ‘fit in’ with the times. They ride the waves of populism to be accepted by the Ciceronian equivalent of Plato’s Cave society rather than defend the good, the true, and the beautiful. It is the complete collapse of orderly harmony because ignorant people fancy themselves as intelligent and the elderly generations, for fear of being shamed and attacked by the younger generation, prostitute themselves to the passions and idiocy of the young.
Essentially Cicero describes what sociologists call “the arrogance of youth” – people who are dumb but think they’re smart despite having never done serious study. They just like to hear themselves talk and think they can solve all the problems that older people have been unable to resolve. The result of this is perpetual mistrust as Cicero states, fathers distrust sons, sons distrust fathers, people across all strata of society distrust one another – distrust runs amok in society now.
For Cicero, democracy is the hardest form of government to maintain for the reasons stipulated hitherto. That said we must never forget that ‘on paper,’ Cicero does think democracy would be the best.
The Cons of Aristocracy
Aristocracy of course, is not without its own problems. For Cicero, the obvious problem with aristocracy is the temptation that the aristocrats have. Like with democracy, the temptations tend to be material goods and wealth – as Cicero states, “When as a result of vulgar misconception, a few with money, not worth, have gained control of the state.” Basically, aristocracy is the conflict between virtuous, noble, and honorable ‘best men’ who serve the interest of the common good vs. those aristocrats who care not for worth, honor, virtue and give themselves over to the pursuit of material goods and wealth. “Money, name, and property, if divorced from the good sense and skill in living one’s own life and directing the lives of others, lapse into total degradation and supercilious insolence,” Cicero tells us. Servants of greed degenerate aristocracy into tyranny.
Another way of looking at the problem of aristocracy is this. Men are tempted by their passions just like the mob. Aristocrats, however, have the time and ability to devote themselves to philosophical and intellectual pursuits. This would prevent them from falling prey to internal licentious and material desire. But not all men are strong enough to avoid such temptation. The result is the giving way to excessive power in the pursuit of wealth, which awakens the masses from their hedonistic stupor who demand action, either looking for the ‘man of the people’ (if the cycle is up-swinging back to monarchy) or “revolution” (if the cycle is down-swinging to democracy).
In the end, aristocracy has the best chance of being preserved in its simple form – but temptation runs throughout all levels of its governance; this ultimately expires in unvirtuous aristocrats essentially rigging the system for themselves. This will eventually lead to backlash – as it should according to Cicero. The difference here is that temptation and descent into tyranny is the result of the corruption of a few who then begin to rig the political system to their benefit at the expense of the masses who have entrusted them to be fair, honest, and noble. Cicero is telling us that no matter how virtuous, noble, and honorable “best men” are, they are constantly fighting temptation and the weak (i.e. the perverse) prevail over those aristocrats who remain true to virtue and fairness.
The Cons of Monarchy
The problem with monarchy is much like the others: a single ruler can always give in to his own temptations and become a tyrant. However, for Cicero, the more serious problem with monarchy is you just never quite know how the ruler is going to turn out to be. You can have a great king, like Cyrus of Persia whom Cicero highlights as an example for a good king who exhibited all fatherly and just characteristics and virtues, but the moment the king begins to sink into tyranny, the aristocrats will jump him on the spot. “As soon as a king begins to rule unjustly, that kind of government vanishes on the spot, for that same man has become a tyrant. That is the worst king of government, and at the same time the closest neighbor to the best,” writes Cicero.
This is Cicero’s paradoxical defense of monarchy. Even after the overthrow of monarchy by the aristocrats, “It is somewhat like monarchy in being a paternal council of leading men [(fathers)] who have the best interests of the people ([children]) at heart. If the tyrant has been killed or expelled by the people acting directly, the latter behave with reasonable restraint as long as they remain wise and sensible.” However, the push back toward monarchy usually ends with him becoming a tyrant, “Like Peisistratus at Athens, he is surrounded by a bodyguard. He ends up by tyrannizing over the very people whom he emerged. If that man is overthrown, as often happen, by decent citizens, constitutional government is restored.” Even after throwing off monarchy for aristocracy, or moving to democracy, the idea of filial affection and family togetherness remains ever present in aristocratic or democratic governance. The common good never leaves us because we are social animals.
However, monarchy is a shot in the dark so to speak. One never knows if they will have a good and just monarch, or if they will have a cruel, unvirtuous, and tyrannical monarch. But then another irony is this, better to suffer under a single tyrant according to Cicero instead of thousands of tyrants. Nevertheless, there always remains a mystifying element to monarchy – especially when it is done right.
This is perhaps Cicero’s most longstanding contribution to political philosophy – his bleak assessment of politics, the unruliness of the mob, uncontrollable passions, dangers of wealth, lack of an educated and virtuous citizenry, all of which come together in a tour de force which produces youngsters who are ignorant wretches but think themselves as intelligent, older people who fear the young and attempt to court over them by prostrating themselves to their causes, from which disorder gives way to tyranny. That said, Cicero does begin to offer us a pathway out of this problem: the study of philosophy, from which virtue can emerge.
Education, which comes from philosophy, is the only avenue of escape in Cicero’s outlook. Philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom and the attempt to derive knowledge. From this knowledge flow virtue, understanding, and moderation; only these things can prevent political collapse. When we continue with Cicero, we will directly look at this claim that philosophy is the handmaiden of politics.
However, in this most remarkable tour de force in his writings and thought, we see incredibly insight and posing questions for us today. Basically, democracy is good (in theory) because it steadfastly holds to the principles of liberty and equality. Aristocracy is good because it is the rule of moderation and virtuous men which perpetuates longstanding order. Monarchy is good because it is most reflective of human nature: want for beauty, affection, and attachment. However, the reality of politics is not some starry-eyed utopia. It is a brutal and gruesome cycle of revolutions that always exhausts itself in tyranny and nihilism. To confront this tyranny and nihilism Cicero suggests we study philosophy. But after studying philosophy and cultivating virtue, the next question follows: how do you act?
Basically, Cicero’s political philosophy is one of virtuous responsibility. But we know, even as Cicero saw in his day, people would rather pretend to be intelligent or embrace sensual hedonism and nihilism instead of owning up to the weight of virtuous responsibility. Politics is not about passion. It is about virtue. Like Aristotle, Cicero is a virtue ethicist and political theorist. The highest virtue that calls us in politics is how to successfully integrate egalitarian liberty (democracy), moderated order and compromise (aristocracy), and filial obligations, affections, and willingness to die for father and fatherland (monarchy and patriotism) into a mixed constitution and then remain virtuous enough to defend it. Perhaps it is a bridge too far. But Cicero remained true to his commitments to the very end of his life, being captured and executed for his opposition to Julius Caesar and Caesar’s de-facto heir, in 43 BC, Mark Antony.
A variation of this was originally published on Hesiod’s Corner, September 6, 2017.