BMCR 2021.12.06

Cicero: political philosophy

, Cicero: political philosophy. Founders of modern political and social thought. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. Pp. 304. ISBN 9780199684922 £19.99.

The Founders of Modern Political and Social Thought series professes to offer ‘critical examinations of the work of major political philosophers and social theorists’ with the aim of providing ‘a clear, accessible, historically informed account of each thinker’s work, focusing on a reassessment of their ideas and arguments’. The primary audience is students of political thought and history approaching a major figure for the first time, looking to gain an understanding of their big ideas and why they might still have something to contribute ‘to current debates in political philosophy and social theory’. After a dip in popularity in the last century, Cicero is once more widely considered to be a major political philosopher. In the fields of political theory and intellectual history there is considerable and growing scholarly interest in distinctively Roman modes of political thinking and Cicero’s enduring impact on the traditions of republicanism and liberalism. But Cicero poses an unusual challenge for a book of this nature, which must take into account students approaching him and his writings for the first time, perhaps without much or any grounding in classics or ancient history. Cicero did not do political philosophy in a vacuum, and something has to be said about Roman political ideology, the wide range of earlier Greek thinkers with whom Cicero engaged, Roman political history and Cicero’s active role within it, Roman law, the importance of persuasive oratory, and the list goes on. A decision also has to be made about how to deal with Cicero’s mammoth literary legacy – numerous speeches of different kinds, almost a thousand letters, various works of rhetoric and philosophy, and even poetry – not to mention that for around 2,000 years Cicero has been a canonical figure in the Western humanistic tradition. Things can quickly feel dizzying. Fortunately, we are in safe hands. In this eminently readable book Malcolm Schofield provides a stimulating and elegantly written overview of Cicero’s major political ideas and arguments and his enduring contribution to political philosophy.

Rather than working through each ‘classic text’ in turn, the book is very successfully structured around chapters on key themes: ‘Liberty, equality, and popular sovereignty’; ‘Government’; ‘Cosmopolitanism, imperialism, and the idea of law’; ‘Republican virtues’; ‘Republican decision-making’; and an Epilogue on the place of philosophical debate when it comes to the tough political work of devising and enacting policy. All the central elements of Cicero’s political philosophy that one would expect to see get an airing: the nature of the best constitution and the best citizen; the emphasis on balancing libertas and auctoritas and uniting the people and the ruling class (the Senate); natural law and the best practicable law-code; private property; civic virtue; the tension between what is honourable (honestum) and what is expedient (utile) and its significance in practical politics. Taken together, the chapters provide a thorough account of Cicero’s efforts to formulate a comprehensive philosophical rationale for republicanism, set against the backdrop of the crises afflicting the Roman res publica in his own day. The main texts discussed are On the Commonwealth, On the Laws, and On Duties, but frequent use is made of the speeches and letters as well as other rhetorical and philosophical works when appropriate. This cross-generic approach is very welcome. In particular, the letters and speeches allow us to see more clearly how Cicero employs the methods and resources of philosophy in the realm of practical politics, and how aspects of his political thought relate to the particular circumstances of Rome. In addition, Schofield also makes a point of discussing Cicero’s ideas and arguments in the light of the ‘neo-Roman’ republican tradition, which allows us to see more clearly how Cicero really does have continuing relevance in current debates in contemporary political theory (on the concept of political freedom, for instance). There is unavoidably some overlap in places given the nature of the texts and the inter-connectedness of the key themes, but, if anything, that further highlights the central pillars of Cicero’s political thought. In particular, it becomes very apparent just how much importance Cicero consistently places on political leadership and civic virtue when it comes to sustaining freedom and the health of a res publica: good constitutional structures and just laws can do only so much; in the end, it is people – good citizens and, more than anything, great men (leaders) – that really matter. The need to shape such people through an effective educational and acculturative process is given huge prominence and is seen most tellingly in On Duties, in which he instructs his own son, Marcus.

This core line of argument differs from that of Benjamin Straumann in his influential recent book Crisis and Constitutionalism (Oxford University Press, 2016). Straumann contends that Cicero sees good constitutional institutions as more important for the stability of a res publica than the civic virtue of individuals. He makes a compelling argument: if leaders are prone to be corrupt and unreliable (and Cicero diagnoses this as a problem in his own day), and traditional customs and norms of political behaviour have largely lost their clout (as evidently they had in Cicero’s own day), it makes sense to focus on higher-order law and constitutional structure, which is what we see Cicero doing – hence the model of the best constitution put forward in the first books of On the Commonwealth and, most tellingly of all, the model of the best law-code, with its roots in right reason and natural law, put forward in On the Laws. The most contentious text for this debate is On the Laws, which may not have been completed or which Cicero may have returned to in the 40s having started it around 52-50 BCE. Schofield pays close attention to key passages in the third book that unequivocally stress the vital importance of a virtuous ruling class (pp. 90-93), and he makes a powerful case, including evidence from relevant letters and speeches, that Cicero is consistent on this point throughout the 50s and 40s.

An audience relatively unfamiliar with Cicero’s philosophical works, or who finds them hard going (not least because of their often fragmentary state), will much appreciate the manner in which the key ideas and arguments are expressed: historically situated without being overwhelmed by too many details; sympathetic to ‘Cicero the man’ and sensitive to his relationships with other key figures such as Caesar, his anxieties about his own morally honourable conduct, and the human challenges of the political and social dynamics in which he was entangled; efficient and to-the-point in pulling out and then following key threads in Cicero’s thinking as they develop across the vast swathe of his literary output. The primary texts are the main focus of each chapter, with scholarly debates and controversial issues judiciously mentioned and fleshed out further in the endnotes. This allows for Cicero’s distinctive voice and interests to come through strongly. The Latin is routinely translated, with extremely helpful explanations of certain difficulties surrounding technical key terms and the importance of getting the connotations just right in the English. A typical example is the detailed analysis of what is implied in the crucial phrase res publica (pp. 46-52). Schofield explains how common translations such as ‘republic’ or ‘state’ are misleading, and he carefully unpicks what is at stake with Cicero’s use of the phrase in its Roman context. Focusing in particular on Cicero’s definition of a res publica as a res populi (Rep. 1.39), with the genitive case populi indicating that it is something belonging to or owned by ‘the people’, he stresses that the Latin phrase captures the idea of ‘the common affairs or interests of the people’ (what in English might be best captured with the term ‘commonwealth’) and that it also enshrines a novel notion of ‘popular sovereignty’. The careful textual analysis, which also involves a consideration of Roman property law, leads to a striking insight into Cicero’s political philosophy: ‘To state that the public interest and the conduct of public affairs are something owned by the people is effectively to assert that they have ultimate rights in them superior to those of any possible contender. Such an assertion may reasonably be construed as tantamount to a doctrine of popular sovereignty, or even as the first clear articulation of the idea in Greek and Roman thought’ (p. 49). Examples such as this will be particularly instructive for a general readership who might not be aware such things were even an issue. All in all, I would recommend this book immediately as the first stop for anyone looking for a clear and accessible account of Cicero’s political philosophy.

It would be unfair to dwell on the deficits of this volume, which illuminates so much of what makes Cicero’s political thought distinctive and arresting. It might be noted that certain pressing issues that many people would no doubt assert to be urgent topics in political philosophy and social theory do not feature much: intergenerational justice and future generations, multiculturalism, decolonisation, to name a few. There is, to be sure, some discussion of pertinent issues in the cosmopolitanism and imperialism chapter, and there are some brief yet tantalising remarks about the applicability of Cicero’s model of civic virtue in multicultural societies at the end of the chapter on republican virtues (p. 175), but it would be interesting to see just how far Cicero could be pushed constructively into these debates, even with the obvious risks of anachronism (which is always deftly avoided in this volume) or that Cicero might not come off so well. That said, at the end of the book one is left with the feeling that Cicero still offers much serious food for thought in our contemporary political moment, particularly with his emphasis on promoting civic virtue and maintaining the traditions, customs, and norms of behaviour that bind free citizens or members of a community together: civility, respect, decency, good faith, justice, integrity, robust debate of different viewpoints but practical togetherness of purpose, a leadership class who collectively value and manifest selfless service for the common good, and are thereby truly worthy of honour, etc. etc. Such things create the conditions for a flourishing polity, and a free society neglects them at its peril. Of course, as this study of Cicero’s political thought makes abundantly clear, making the vision the reality was and remains the hard part.