BMCR 2023.11.37

Cicero and the people’s will: philosophy and power at the end of the Roman Republic

, Cicero and the people's will: philosophy and power at the end of the Roman Republic. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2022. Pp. xv, 269. ISBN 9781316514115.



This book begins with some arresting observations. In English we routinely use the same term ‘will’ in two seemingly distinct domains – the psychological and the political. We use ‘will’ to denote the idea that each individual has ‘an inner force by which we try to direct the course of our lives’ (p. 1); but we also use ‘will’ when we talk of ‘the will of the people’ as indicated through something like the vote. Why? Perhaps the answer lies in the genealogy or history of the idea of ‘will’. Scholarly histories of the idea of ‘will’ traditionally centre on Augustine of Hippo and his use of the Latin term voluntas, with links back to Greek antecedents in the thought of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics. But Augustine by his own account was more at home with Latin than Greek, and the Latin term voluntas has no direct equivalent in Greek. So is there a missing piece of the story in Latin letters? Enter Cicero. Paulson notes that the word voluntas occurs 644 times in Cicero’s literary corpus: 84 times in his rhetorical treatises, 280 times in his speeches, 206 times in his letters, and 74 times in his philosophical works. In contrast, ‘all extant texts prior to the 1st century BCE yield around two dozen occurrences’ (p. 2). So what is going on with Cicero and his uses of the Latin term voluntas? Are there significant patterns to be uncovered in Cicero’s various uses of the term that in turn might shed fresh light on the development of the idea of the will in Western thinking? And, moreover, might we learn something from Cicero about the idea of ‘will’ that is of practical application in our current political moment?

In this highly stimulating book Paulson provides a comprehensive study of Cicero’s use of the term voluntas, with an eye to addressing each of those three concerns. In practice, the majority of the book is dedicated to close readings of select bodies of evidence from the Ciceronian corpus in which the term voluntas appears. The case for placing Cicero in the genealogy of the idea of will is made mostly in an Epilogue, which also contains some encouragement to see Cicero as useful in increasingly fraught contemporary concerns about the relationship between the people and the governing elite in so-called ‘democracies’ (which are in fact, as Paulson reminds us, in effect ‘republics’ of a kind Cicero would readily recognise).

The first chapter, ‘Forebears of will’, offers a survey of the pre-Ciceronian examples of voluntas in Latin, particularly in the Roman playwrights Plautus and Terence, as well as relevant Greek terms. It becomes clear that well before Cicero the Latin voluntas had a variety of meanings and connotations, largely dependent on context – goodwill, consent, support, favour, wish or intention, a decision backed by authority or law, political power, power to act without external constraint, reasoned decision to act a certain way, and so on. This is also immediately evident in Cicero’s myriad uses of the term. As Paulson helpfully states in the introduction: ‘Voluntas, in other words, is not a specific and determined concept; it is a notion that assembles a constellation of meaning’ (p. 4). But a big challenge is to order the material (644 examples, plus associated terms!) in a way that does not just dissolve into a series of more or less related sets or case-studies.

That challenge is met effectively by breaking the study up into two Parts. The first Part, ‘The Practice of Voluntas’ (Chapters 1-5), focuses on Cicero’s use of voluntas as he navigates Roman legal, social, and political space, from a young man forging his way through persuasive oratory in the law-courts through to the 50s and the advent of civil war, when he was a distinguished ex-consul but largely constrained by the power politics of Caesar. In chapters entitled ‘Innocence and Intent’, ‘Cartographies of Power’, and ‘An Economy of Goodwill’, Paulson provides detailed close readings of selected speeches and letters, drawing also on Cicero’s youthful De inventione in which ‘appear the qualities that would come to characterize the will for Cicero: the passage from ad hoc decision to durable faculty; its variety and measurability; and the will’s bivalence, its tendency toward virtue or vice’ (p. 34). In particular, the close readings of the use of voluntas in the letters do much to bring out the complex social and political dynamics between men of the political elite who could wield serious power and influence. It is shown how the language of voluntas especially in professions of goodwill and support – was a key element of aristocratic discourse in the management and maintenance of personal relationships and wider networks in which men had standing and could rely on, or at least have fair expectations of, mutual support, even in the most turbulent of times. As well as offering descriptive or performative accounts of these high-stakes interactions, in these chapters Paulson also provides a clear picture of Cicero’s ‘normative’ theorising about power and its legitimacy and limits, couched in the language of voluntas. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Cicero has big anxieties about political power being exercised by the arbitrary will of an individual person. There must be a role for reason and virtue, as well as a role for individuals collectively.

This political element features most prominently in the chapter ‘Voluntas Populi: the Will of the People’, which concludes Part 1. The speech Pro Sestio and the dialogues De re publica and De legibus are the main focus here. Paulson traces Cicero’s development of a political model in which ‘the Roman people’ constituted as a voting body express their will in the election of a ruling elite who are properly trained and educated, who then exercise reason and virtue in their governance of the res publica. In this way voluntas finds its appropriate limits through a free decision of the people, by which the people consent to have their freedom curbed and to be ruled by those who are best qualified to do the job for the good of all. The Republic thus rests ultimately on the ‘will of the people’ who are sovereign and themselves choose to be governed via an educated elite with reason and virtue rather than to govern themselves without such things that provide the appropriate limits on power. This system should work so long as the ruling elite uphold their end of the bargain and ensure the people benefit fairly from their good leadership. In the Epilogue, Paulson argues that Cicero’s model (which in effect is the ‘democratic’ model familiar to many today) remains of enduring impact and interest as we now confront many of the same issues that beset the Roman Republic, not least the sense that the ruling elite are venal and beholden to other interests, that they offer neither virtue nor reason, and that the people are not getting a fair deal. As Cicero diagnoses, in such conditions civil strife, populism, hatred of politicians, and general political instability should be of no surprise, and there is an urgent imperative for the ruling elite to reform themselves to get things back on track (a task to which much of his own philosophical enterprise is directed). Or, it is high time to offer the people a greater role to participate directly in the governance of the state rather than through elected representatives. Or, perhaps we must seek alternative models altogether. Paulson is heartfelt in conveying that this is something we should all care about and should all be involved in addressing given what is at stake, and that Cicero can be a guide.

The second Part, ‘The Philosophy of Voluntas’ (Chapters 6-8), focuses on Cicero’s treatment of voluntas in his philosophical works of the 40s, looking foremost at Academica, De finibus, Tusculans, De fato, and De officiis. Paulson detects in these works significant developments in Cicero’s thinking about the will, in particular a turn inward where ‘voluntas is the driver of independent personhood and the engine of moral progress’ (p. 146). The chapters ‘Willpower’, ‘Freewill and the Forum’, and ‘The Fourfold Self’ trace the shift in attention from the political realm to the individual soul, while stressing the connection that holds between the two domains, reminiscent of the famous city-soul analogy in Plato’s Republic. Paulson goes so far as to claim that ‘indeed, Plato’s analogy of the city and the individual soul may have been the core insight underlying [Cicero’s] philosophical project in the 40s BCE’ (p. 149). It is a feature of the book that at times such grand claims, often in the form of rhetorical questions, appear without much further elaboration – they are certainly provocative, but one would not want to put much weight on them as they stand. That said, Paulson shows that, for Cicero, questions of voluntas in politics are mirrored in questions of individual virtue, which are not just private matters internal to the soul but also have a real public impact. So, the turn to the soul is not just an escapist retreat from politics and public life, but rather it can be seen as another way of thinking through pressing political issues, including personal failure, the importance of individual choices and decisions in the course of great events, and the ability to maintain individual integrity and dignity under dictatorship. This is not in itself a radical rethinking of the nature of Cicero’s philosophical practice in the 40s, but Paulson’s focus in these chapters on Cicero’s use of the language of voluntas opens up fresh perspectives into the relationship between his systematic philosophical thought and the realities of Roman political life.

Much of the value of the book lies in the targeted close readings which depend largely on the specifics and particularities of the texts in question. But a cumulative effect emerges as well. The book succeeds in bringing out the very Roman flavour of Cicero’s philosophical innovations and what makes him distinctive as a thinker. In particular, Cicero’s normative treatment of voluntas is tied up with Roman cultural norms and expectations, and with lived experience – the political, legal, social traditions and customs of everyday Roman elite life. By offering a normative model of the familiar, Cicero takes what exists and offers it back in its ‘best’ form, often with the Roman historical past exemplifying that Cicero’s is a realised (and therefore practically attainable) rather than an idealised (and practically unattainable) model. This aspect of Cicero’s practice has been noted with things such as amicitia, but the case of the multiform voluntas is another fascinating example. The success of the case for connecting Cicero with Augustine as a key part of the story of the development of ‘will’ is more questionable. Cicero’s normative account of voluntas that emphasises reason and virtue is clearly resonant with much of the tradition to come; his treatment of voluntas, although informed by Greek ideas (in Tusculans it is his translation of the Stoic term boulēsis), is distinctively Roman; Augustine read Cicero and so there is a clear link for influence and transmission; it is hard to disagree with the spongey conclusion that ‘it would take others to explore and systematize the paths he had opened. But it would be difficult to imagine these systems without the contributions Cicero provided’ (p. 219); but the precise details are yet to be fully spelled out. That said, Paulson has pointed the way into an area that looks ripe for further study.

In sum, this is an ambitious study that tackles an enormous body of evidence and offers an engaging and wide-ranging account of the multiple dimensions of the Latin term voluntas in Cicero’s literary corpus. It will be of value to all those interested in the social, political, and intellectual history of the late Roman republic.