BMCR 2021.12.08

The Ciceronian tradition in political theory

, , The Ciceronian tradition in political theory. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2021. Pp. 232. ISBN 9780299330101 $99.95.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

It is no secret that interest among political scientists in Roman authors has long lagged behind their enthusiasm for the ancient Greeks, but Cicero’s reception has been particularly tepid. The contributors of this volume, and their choice of subjects, demonstrate that while Cicero enjoyed relevance among political thinkers up to the 19th century, the withering critiques of Mommsen brought about an age of indifference. Some saw Cicero’s political philosophy as a crude repackaging of Greek predecessors. Others have sneered at its rootedness in the practicalities of Roman politics, preferring instead the more abstract thought of Plato. Yet, thanks in large part to many of the scholars involved with this volume, there has been a resurgence of interest in Cicero’s political thought since the late 20th century.[1] Daniel Kapust has termed this volte-face the “Roman turn,”[2] and The Ciceronian Tradition in Political Theory seeks to aid its momentum.

The volume opens with one of Cicero’s most devoted readers. Augustine was open, often hyperbolic, about the impact Cicero had on him as a thinker, author, and even (somewhat surprisingly) as a Christian. Brandon Turner’s contribution instead examines the more awkward points of Augustine’s reception of Cicero, wherein he accepts some tenets of Ciceronian thought while relegating others to a secondary level of importance. Most intriguingly, Turner unpacks the ways in which Augustine reconciled Cicero’s definition of the res publica in Book 1 of the De Re Publica with his own two-city theory advanced in the City of God. Whereas Cicero’s republic was a collection of people in agreement on justice (Rep.1.39), Augustine pivoted his definition, arguing that the people of a commonwealth agreed instead on the objects of their love.

Cary Nederman’s chapter on John of Salisbury is the most expansive of the volume in the scope of its inquiry into the relationship between receiver and received, detailing several ways in which John adopted—and adapted—Ciceronian political philosophy. Topics range from ideas about the origins of society, to friendship, to the use of naturalistic metaphor in thinking about community. Throughout all, Nederman shows clearly the importance of John’s Ciceronian “proclivities” to his own philosophical project, especially in his affinity for the practicality that guided Cicero’s thought. Gary Remer’s chapter stays with Cicero’s practical philosophy, focusing on how Thomas More builds the conflict between Hythloday and More (the character) in the Utopia around the Ciceronian rhetorical practices of decorum, in utramque patrem argument, and reliance on “communal values and custom as criteria of probable truth and morality” (pg. 55). His contribution compellingly establishes the immense extent of Cicero’s influence on the Utopia. It also presents a novel approach to rhetorical interpretation, which focuses on rhetoric as a “way of understanding” rather than a persuasive posture.

Keeping with Ciceronian rhetoric, the themes presented in Daniel O’Neill’s contribution on Edmund Burke resonate with those in the chapters already discussed. Burke himself alluded to Cicero’s Verrine Orations during (and after) his attempt to prosecute Warren Hastings for his conduct as governor general of Bengal. O’Neill’s chapter, however, examines this comparison (Burke as Cicero, Hastings as Verres) more closely to show how each man’s prosecution sought to confirm the utility and justification of destructive imperial projects by scapegoating, to put it colloquially, “a few bad apples.” The piece, which more than others (save Remer’s) focuses on Ciceronian rhetoric, nicely shows the influence of Cicero’s famous persuasive sleight-of-hand in an important modern moment for the discourse on empire.

Now on to the “anti-Ciceronians.” In the chapters on Augustine, John, and More, each author shows how his subject—although an enthusiastic receiver of Cicero—maintained some critical distance from him in his own philosophy. The pieces on Machiavelli and Montaigne invert this theme by focusing on subjects who, while maintaining some degree of ostensible hostility to Cicero, nevertheless end up embracing some key points of his thought. Michelle Clark’s chapter provides a valuable new examination of Machiavelli’s engagement with Cicero’s De Officiis. Clark discusses the obvious differences in each man’s views on how political bodies operate, but then skillfully shifts to reveal some notable similarities. Most significantly, Clarke does an excellent job of laying out the way in which Cicero brought a more abstract Greek philosophical tenet (in this case the Stoic belief that the honorable is the only good) into his more practical philosophical program by arguing that the honorable and the advantageous work together to advance societas, a move that Clarke convincingly argues may anachronistically be labeled Machiavellian. Eric Mcphail’s chapter details Montaigne’s struggles with his ambivalence towards Cicero. First, he details the complicated ways in which Montaigne grapples with his dependance on and dislike of Cicero, showing how Montaigne’s stated rejection of Ciceronian thought often masks an underlying agreement with it. Ultimately, Mcphail argues that Montaigne’s reticence about Cicero stems largely from his inability to reconcile Cicero the author (with whose ideas he often agreed) with Cicero the man (whose vanity and indecisiveness he found unbecoming), a frequent problem among readers of Cicero since at least Petrarch (see his letters to Cicero, Epistolae Familiares 24.3&4).

Among the anti-Ciceronians, Hobbes stands out as the only one who is not brought back to a subconscious or reluctant reliance on Ciceronian political thought. Instead, Daniel Kapust argues that Hobbes sought to “redirect the conversation” of political theory away from the central Ciceronian concepts (the natural sociability of humanity, the intersubjective development of personality, humanity’s natural tendency towards society) that had previously defined it. Of course, Hobbes famously argued for a decidedly unsociable (and therefore un-Ciceronian) human nature, but there are further points of departure. Whereas Cicero unsurprisingly afforded oratio a leading role in the development of nascent political communities, Hobbes denied that early language possessed the “copiousness” of language necessary to facilitate such action. These differences speak to a fundamental dissonance in the men’s conception of the foundation and maintenance of society, where Cicero envisions a more positive process of community building based on the combination of reason with the eloquence necessary to communicate it, while Hobbes argues for the necessity of manipulation (that is to say, misleading communication). Hobbes’ latent anti-Ciceronianism is, Kapust argues, even more apparent when we consider that his eighteenth- century detractors (e.g. Shaftesbury, Hume, and Smith) were more sympathetic to the Roman thinker.

Moving back to more Cicero-friendly subjects, the chapters on Locke and Smith both provide thoughtful readings of the De Officiis. Emily Nacol’s contribution on Locke ambitiously and effectively approaches Cicero’s rather vague and infrequent statements on political economy[3] and attempts——successfully—to uncover their influence on the more explicit thoughts of John Locke on the matter. While admitting that any systematization of Cicero’s thoughts on property is difficult, Nacol shows that property, both common and private, plays an important role in Cicero’s conception of how communities are maintained. For Cicero, common property ultimately stems from nature and requires members of the community to take an interest in its preservation. Private property, on the other hand, is a mostly artificial concept, but one rooted in respect for the law and a sense of morality. This explanation thus stands in stark contrast with Locke’s thought on the topic, which is rooted in natural rights. Yet, having discussed this fundamental difference in each thinker’s understanding of property, Nacol then partially collapses it, showing that Cicero and Locke share much in the role they afford property in facilitating sociality. This reading would, Nacol suggests, cause us to rethink characterizing either Cicero or Locke as “strict individualists.”

In the volume’s eighth chapter, Michelle Schwarze shows how Adam Smith was influenced by (and adapts) Ciceronian ideas about anger and resentment. Particularly important for the connection with Smith is Cicero’s condoning of anger only on behalf of others. Smith echoes Cicero’s sentiments on first-person resentment (namely, that it is mentally and emotionally self-destructive), but goes further in giving a larger role to second-person resentment—which Schwarze terms “spectral resentment”—in the pursuit of justice. This type of resentment is productive because it flows from the natural sociability of human beings (a Ciceronian concept throughout the volume). For an example of how this works, Smith returns to Cicero, citing his Catilinarians as a good case study for the ways in which anger and resentment, when properly restricted and policed, can serve justice.

In his contribution (the volume’s last), Dean Hammer masterfully marshals and synthesizes a wide variety of ideas and arguments. The piece picks up where the Introduction left off by tracing engagement with Cicero in political thinkers from the nineteenth century to the present. He structures his account by focusing on five “strands” of political thought that have “guided contemporary understanding of Cicero”: “constitutionalism,”[4] “informal power,” “higher truths,” “civic republicanism,” and “recasting vision.” On each point Hammer accounts for the previous neglect of Cicero before showing how more recent approaches can benefit (or already are) from new, Ciceronian readings. Underlying all is Hammer’s argument that Cicero’s insistence on rooting his political philosophy in real contexts and often-messy practicalities—up to this point one of Ciceronian thought’s most damaging liabilities for inclusion in modern programs of study—is now a major reason for his recent popularity.

The Ciceronian Tradition in Political Theory is an impressive and valuable contribution to a burgeoning interdisciplinary field, and certainly accomplishes its stated goals of (1) tracing the history of Ciceronian thought in a select group of canonical political theorists and (2) demonstrating the value of further work on Cicero in this vein. Further, the high quality of its chapters is remarkable in its consistency (a difficult achievement in a collected volume). I would offer only two minor points of critique. The first is methodological. In many instances contributors look at places in which their subjects deal explicitly with Cicero’s work (most frequently the De Officiis), but in several others they examine an author’s engagement with an idea that could be called Ciceronian, but is neither cited as such nor necessarily unique to his writings (e.g. the natural sociability of humans, the concept of decorum). This is a reasonable critical move, but more could have been done to justify the labelling of some ideas as “Ciceronian.” The second is organizational. After dedicating entire chapters to extensive consideration of individual thinkers from the medieval world, Renaissance, and Enlightenment, the sweeping discussion of more contemporary authors like Hannah Arendt, Quentin Skinner, and Philip Petit in a single chapter feels cursory. This is not a critique of Hammer’s piece, but rather of the structure of the volume. Given that the volume briefly acknowledges at its beginning and end that the work of these twentieth- century scholars (who do, at different levels, engage explicitly with Cicero) laid the foundations for the current “Roman turn,” the addition of one or two more chapters discussing them would have both further reinforced the broader narrative the volume presents and provided the reader with a richer understanding of the Ciceronian tradition as it stands today.[5]

Even with these minor critiques in mind, The Ciceronian Tradition in Political Thought is an excellent and exciting work that will surely appeal to a wide audience. This is true for both the strength of its scholarship and the case it makes for further inquiry into Cicero and Roman political thought.

Authors and titles

“Introduction” Daniel J. Kapust and Gary Remer.
1. Brandon Turner, “Augustine’s Reception of Cicero.”
2. Cary J. Nederman, “A Medieval Ciceronian: John of Salisbury.”
3. Gary Remer, “More’s Utopia and Its Ciceronian Roots.”
4. Michelle T. Clarke, “Machiavelli: Menace to Societas.”
5. Eric McPhail, “Montaigne in the Mirror of Cicero.”
6. Daniel J. Kapust, “Thomas Hobbes, Cicero, and the Road not Taken.”
7. Emily C. Nacol, “Locke and Cicero on Property, Labor, and Value.”
8. Michelle A. Schwarze, “Smith and Cicero on Anger, Resentment, and Retributive Justice.”
9. Daniel I. O’Neill, “Burke, Cicero, and the Personalization of Imperial Justice.”
10. Dean Hammer, “Cicero’s Legacy in Contemporary Political Thought.”


[1] Among the more recent, Cicero-focused monographs see (e.g.): Baraz’s A Written Republic (Princeton, 2012), Atkins’s Cicero on Politics and the Limits of Reason (Cambridge, 2013), Zarecki’s Cicero’s Ideal Statesman in Theory and Practice (Bloomsbury, 2014), Woolf’s Cicero: The Philosophy of a Roman Skeptic (Routledge, 2015), and Nicgorski’s Cicero’s Skepticism and his Recovery of Political Philosophy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). Several of the authors in this volume have been integral contributors to the “Roman turn,” see (e.g.): Kapust’s Republicanism, Rhetoric, and Roman Political Thought: Sallust, Livy, and Tacitus (Cambridge, 2011), Remer’s Ethics and the Orator: The Ciceronian Tradition of Political Morality (Chicago, 2017), and Hammer’s Roman Political Thought and the Modern Theoretical Imagination (Oklahoma, 2008) and Roman Political Thought: From Cicero to Augustine (Cambridge, 2014).

[2] Political Theory. 45.5. 2017. pgs. 705-19.

[3] These occur passim in the De Officiis, but particularly interesting in his attack on the Gracchi starting at 2.78ff. Nacol discusses on pg. 143-4.

[4] This section features a good explanation of the importance of Straumann’s Crisis and Constitutionalism (Oxford, 2016).

[5] The Introduction mentions Cicero in Arendt’s Human Condition (Chicago, 1958), but see also Hammer’s excellent chapter on Arendt and the Tusculan Disputations in Hammer (2008). For the influence of Cicero on Skinner and the “Cambridge School” see Eric Nelson’s “Republican Visions” in the Oxford Handbook of Political Theory. (eds.) Dryzek, Honig, and Philips. 2008. Oxford. pgs. 193-210. Petit’s mention of Cicero in Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford, 1997) is admittedly limited, but he does give him pride of place among the figures associated with the republican tradition (pg. 19).