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Cicero (106-43 BC)
Hilarius Bogbinder considers the inconstant career of the most famous politician-philosopher named after a legume.
The name comes from the Latin word for chickpea, cicer. Apparently, the statesman-cum-writer’s ancestors had grown this plant – although more unkind souls suggested that one ancestor had a mole shaped like the legume on his chin. In any case, Marcus Tullius Cicero was not an aristocrat. Rather he came from a provincial middle-class family. He was one of the ‘new men’ – novi homines – who entered public life in Rome to pursue a political career.
Cicero had been a student at the best schools (of oratory and philosophy) in Athens, had returned to Rome, and had made a name for himself as a trial lawyer. This experience catapulted him to the forefront of public life, when he prosecuted the notoriously corrupt former governor of Sicily, Verres, in 70 BC. Cicero’s chances were not rated very highly, as his opponent was Quintus Hortensius, a legal superstar who had just been elected to the Consulship, the highest position in the land. Yet, against all odds, and due to thorough preparation, Cicero won the case, paving the way for his subsequent political career. His prosecution speeches also contain insights that he would later make part of his political philosophy, and even his metaphysical writings. It is testament to his eloquence that John F. Kennedy lifted his famous line ‘I am a Berliner’ from Cicero’s line ‘I am a Roman citizen’: civis Romanus sum.
In his youth Cicero learned Greek, the language of the educated elite in the Roman Republic – so much so that in fact Julius Caesar never said the Latin ‘ Et tu, Brute?’ to his killer Brutus, but ‘And you too, child?’ in Greek (Suetonius, The Lives of Twelve Caesars, p.82). But that’s another story. The one I’m telling here is about the man who did everything in his power to prevent Julius Caesar from overturning the Republican constitution that had existed in Rome from about 500 BC to 49 BC. He failed.
Marcus Tullius Cicero
Cicero Writing & Thinking
If you studied Latin at school, chances are that you’ve read one or two of Cicero’s speeches, since he did more than anyone to transform the local Roman vernacular into a world language. The historian Jacob Burckhardt wrote: “From the fourteenth century, Cicero was recognised universally as the purest model of prose” (The Civilisation of the Renaissance, p.151, 1860). But his influence extended further than just his style. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is famous in ethics for his so-called Categorical Imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law” (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, p.30). But Kant was happy to admit that he was inspired by Cicero’s mantra from De Officiis (or On Duties), “We must act in such a way that we attempt nothing contrary to universal nature” (De Officiis, p.43, 44 BC).
While Kant could hardly contain his reverence for the Roman, his younger compatriot G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) was more cynical, and for good reason. While Cicero was an eminent moralist, he was not exactly moral. Hegel commented, “Cicero (and what fine things he has written about ‘ honestum’ and ‘decorum’ in his De Officiis) could divorce his wife in order to pay his debts out of his new wife’s dowry” (Philosophy of Right, p.217). Hardly honourable; but what you would expect from a trial lawyer? Certainly one could accuse Cicero of inconsistency, although he tried to defend himself against this charge: in a letter to a colleague, he noted, somewhat lamely, “Unchanging consistency of standpoint has never been considered a virtue in a great statesman” (Letters to His Friends, p.78).
As a writer Cicero was above all a moral philosopher, though he also dabbled in metaphysics. We know Cicero mainly as a writer on rhetoric and politics, and often overlook that Cicero was an also an able metaphysician whose works influenced philosophers in the Middle Ages. For instance, in his main work De Re Publica (54-51 BC), the section on ‘Scipio’s Dream’ established the cosmology uncritically adopted by Dante Algieri in the Divine Comedy.This divides the universe into nine spheres, with the Earth in the innermost circle and God at the apex. Cicero, a poetic soul, even described the music of the spheres. According to the theory of Musica Universalis as articulated by him, “Men by imitating this harmony on stringed instruments and in song, have gained for themselves a return to this region” (De Re Publica, p.273). The idea of the music of the spheres became commonplace in Medieval Europe, and continued to inspire writers from the philosopher Boethius (477-524) to the astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630). The latter completely adopted the Roman’s cosmological theory wholesale in his Mysterium Cosmographicum (1597). But Cicero’s metaphysical speculations didn’t stop with the music of the spheres. Rather like Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), Cicero also speculated that “the first cause has no beginning, for everything originates from the first cause”, and since “it never had a beginning, it will never have an end” (De Re Publica, p.281).
More Choice Words From Cicero
As a student in Athens, Cicero had idolised Plato (427-347 BC), and this admiration never ceased. He consciously mirrored the Athenian master in the titles of his books De Re Publica and De Legibus (On Law, 49 BC). The former followed the structure of Plato’s Republic, too: beginning with justice, then the origins of the best city and the underlying philosophical principles, and culminating in metaphysics and the afterlife. De Legibus likewise mirrored Plato’s Laws. And both were written in dialogue form, too. But as much as he revered the Athenian master, Cicero did not copy Plato’s philosophical system. Still less did he reach the same conclusions, and certainly not in his political philosophy. For starters, Cicero did not advocate rule by philosopher-kings as Plato did, but proposed a mixed constitution with monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements. Using a musical analogy, Cicero advocated a political system with a polyphony of voices: “what musicians call harmony in song is concord in a city”, that is, “the proportionate blending of unlike tones” – namely those of “the upper, middle and lower classes” (De Re Publica, p.69). Music of the polis, perhaps?
Much has been made of his mouthpiece Scipio’s assertion in De Re Publica that “res publica populi est” – loosely translated, “public affairs belong to the people” (p.39), and how this is apparently contradicted by the assertion later in the book that if “compelled to choose one unmixed form, I would choose kingship” (p.54). Yet the contradiction is easily explained, as kings should be elected (p.31). In modern language, Cicero wanted a presidential system; but he thought that this was only possible to establish under ideal circumstances. In practice, he argued on the basis of his experience that “the absolute rule of one man will easily and quickly degenerate into tyranny” (p.44). Sadly, that’s evidently still true today.
In language somewhat reminiscent of Aristotle’s defence of government by the many (ie democracy), Cicero advocated a political system that was the combination of many little wisdoms: “If people would maintain their rights they say that no form of government would be superior either in liberty or happiness, for if they themselves would be masters of the laws and the courts, of war and peace, and of international agreements, this government alone can… rightly be called a commonwealth” (De Re Publica, pp.74-75). Cicero was adamant that he wanted checks and balances, and that he would not give “the title of king… to a man who is greedy for personal power and absolute authority, a man who lords it over an oppressed people” (p.77).
Having written about the ideal state, and, in De Legibus, about the second best constitution, towards the end of his life Cicero summed up his lessons in De Officiis or On Duties (44 BC), a book that more or less consciously mirrored Plato’s Politikós (The Statesman). Reportedly written in a matter of weeks, On Duties summarised what is honourable (Book I); elaborated on what is to your own advantage (Book II); and sought how to reconcile the differences (Book III). To be honourable, no one “should be so taken up in the search of truth, as to neglect the more necessary duties of an active life” (p.9).
As a politician, Cicero held the maxim that “a governor should endeavour to make himself loved and not feared” (p.81). Readers who are interested in the impact of great books will note that centuries later, in 1513, Niccolò Machiavelli deliberately turned this maxim upside down: “it is difficult for one person to be both feared and loved, and when a choice has to be made, it is safer to be feared” (The Prince, p.80). Modern political philosopher John Rawls talks about a ‘reflective equilibrium’ between principles and intuition (A Theory of Justice, p.44, 1971). Cicero in some way foreshadowed this by noting that it was the statesman’s “duty to determine his choice [of action] if that which seems useful and expedient for him should come into competition with what is honest” (De Officiis, p.165).
Cicero The Politician
Despite his skills as a writer and thinker, above all, Cicero was a practicing politician, and was elected in 64 BC to the highest office of Consul. We still have his brother Quintus’s campaign manual for the election, which was published as A Handbook of Electioneering.
The brother was pragmatic, and a bit cynical. A successful politician himself, he counselled that a politician, “must promise his help to all, but give it to those in whom he expected he is making the best investment” (Handbook, p.437). This advice became fateful for Marcus Cicero. When Cataline, a self-aggrandizing demagogue, lost the election in 63 BC, he claimed the election was stolen, and urged his supporters to attack the Capitol, under circumstances not unlike what happened in the Capitol in Washington DC over two thousand years later. It was on this occasion that Cicero uttered his famous lament, ‘O tempora, o mores’ – ‘Oh what times, what customs!’ (In Catilinam, p.12). He warned that the attack could undermine popular government, but was ignored. So, acting rather swiftly, and perhaps without carefully considering the consequences, as Consul he ordered the execution of some of the protesters. But the legality of this move was dubious, and Cicero was exiled in 58 BC.
In the years following Cicero spent time in Greece, where he began to write his longer works, including De Re Publica and On The Orator. He was allowed to return to Rome; but after Caesar gained power, he was forced to retire. He tried to make a brief comeback after Caesar’s assassination, but fell out with Mark Antony. He spent his remaining time writing his last great work, the ethical treatise, De Officiis, and other shorter works, such as On Friendship, On Old Age, and On The Nature of the Gods.
Like many philosophers with a political career (the Irish-born Edmund Burke comes to mind), Cicero was a mediocre public servant, and as undistinguished as a politician as he was formidable as a writer.
The End of Politics & Philosophy
The great rhetorician asked rhetorically towards the end of his life, “Can we sufficiently express our sense of obligation we owe to philosophy?” (On Old Age, p.218, 44 BC). Cicero was not as great a philosopher as Plato or Aristotle, he conceded; but he was rather relaxed about this:
“It is no disgrace for one striving for first place to stop at second or third. Among poets… there is room not only for Homer. And in philosophy, I am sure, the magnificence of Plato did not deter Aristotle of writing, and nor did the later, with all his breadth of knowledge, put an end to the studies of others.” (On The Orator, p.311).
In any case, Cicero came to a sad and violent end at the hands of a contract killer hired by Mark Antony. He tried to hide amongst the household garbage when the assassin Herennius came to his house. The rest is recounted by Plutarch, a famous biographer: “He looked steadfastly at his slayers, his head all squalid and unkept, and his face wasted with anxiety, so that most of those that stood by covered their faces while Herennius was slaying him” (Plutarch, Parallel Lives VII, p.207).
© Hilarius Bogbinder 2022
Hilarius Bogbinder is a Danish-born translator and writer who studied theology at Oxford University.