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hciceroHow do I define the Natural Law? Taking my cue from Cicero—especially from On the Republic, On Duties, and On the Laws—I can state that Natural Law theory argues that there is a supreme being who holds everything together through his love or his force or his will or whatever it might be that moves him. His will then radiates into time and creation, thus holding all things together in a brotherhood and sisterhood under his parentage. He bestows dignity upon us by shining a part of his light into us. We, though understanding through a glass darkly, perceive only very small parts of the infinite. We perceive them by looking behind us, discerning what should be inherited and what should be discarded, and we look forward, deciding what should be promoted and what should be forsaken. Through it all, we anchor our understanding to the transcendent, thus preventing any single one of us from proclaiming the status of law giver or law maker. We are, instead, poetically, discoverers of Natural Law. Never creators but always discoverers. By definition, the natural law must already exist, but through our various gifts and perceptions, we see dimly and partially what has been forgotten or never been seen before. (See end note information on forum for this lecture.*)

Let me also state at the beginning of this lecture that I am not a scholar of Republican Rome, or of Imperial Rome, or a biographer of Cicero—I’m a scholar—at best—of republicanism, though. I presume everyone in the audience knows this. My interest with this talk, then, is not to look at Republican or Imperial Rome or to present a life and times of Cicero. Instead, I would like to look at Cicero as a symbol for the West and for American civilization.

This means that much of what I present will be “idylized,” that is, history as many in our past wanted it, not as it actually was. In his own dialogue, On the Laws, Cicero wisely notes that the oak tree planted by the poet’s verse will last much longer than the one resulting from the farmer’s cultivation.

The same, I believe, can be said of Cicero and his role within the West. He becomes a figure much larger than he himself actually was in hindsight, he a touchstone, a fountainhead, a rock, upon which we can place our fondest and dearest dreams.

As Cicero cautioned of those who would attempt to deconstruct the image planted by the poet:

“you should not be too particular in your researches into things that are handed down in stories of this kind.” [On the Laws, 106]

Indeed, when it comes to republicanism, there’s probably no greater figure than Cicero. For all intents and interests, he is the embodiment of the republic, the res publica (what we can loosely translate as “the common good,” “the good thing,” the “common wealth”).

If we love the idea of a republic, we love Cicero. If we strive for the ideal of a republic, we strive to be as Cicero. He serves as our exemplar; he serves as the republic itself.

Even the Roman senator’s very murder serves to remind us—critically—of the fragility of a republic, of goodness, and of life itself. Just as Cicero had a birth, middle age, and a death, so too a republic. Every republic begins with a built-in expiration date. It would not be a republic if it lasted for ever, it would be something, but it would be something else, something other than a republic. The Greek slave Polybius understood this well, as did everyone of the American founding fathers.

During his own life, it’s worth nothing, Cicero considered himself a “New Academician,” allied with the Stoics, though he became increasingly stoic with age.

American Founding Fathers tended to focus almost entirely on his Stoic ethics (especially James Wilson solidified this in his College of Philly/UPenn lectures, 1790-1791: as Wilson quoted in the lectures: “The nature of the law is the to be sought from the nature of man himself”).

I had studied Cicero extensively prior to coming to Hillsdale, but only through the eyes of the Founders. They certainly had a skewed view of him—a rather idyllic (there’s a form of that word again) and idealized view of him.

During my first four or five years here, after each Western Heritage course in which we read the selections of Cicero’s On Duties, I would annually get a very kind and gentle note from Lorna Holmes. “Dear Brad, Cicero was not a Stoic. Yours, Lorna.” Of course, there was no way I was going to challenge her, but it did force me to dig more deeply into the part of Cicero that did not influence the American Founding.

Regardless of the fine and accurate caution raised by Dr. Holmes, I’d like to start here, as I feel it necessary not only to explain my own views, but I think it gives us a better understanding, perhaps, of what we at Hillsdale College mean by America existing—at least at its founding—as the culmination of the Judeo-Christian/Greco-Roman tradition, an experiment of liberty under law.

At its most obvious, it should be clear that Cicero served in much the same way that Socrates did for philosophy and Jesus did for Christianity. Cicero was a martyr for the republic and republicanism. I state this only from a somewhat/quasi-objective standpoint. As John Reist would lovingly remind us with a quack or two, “Cicero ain’t walking us to heaven.”

And, I find the more I study the history of western civilization, interestingly enough, the best figures tend to come at the end of their ages: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle at the end of Classical Greece; Cicero at the end of the Roman Republic; St. Augustine at the end of the Roman Empire; Sir Thomas More at the end of the English Spring and so forth.

But, back to Cicero. . . .

Born into a well-off (only monetarily; not a connected, old, or established family—hence, Cicero had to talk about himself often to secure a place that others enjoyed by mere birth into nobility) in 106BC, Cicero was, as Plutarch later claimed, a child prodigy, and signs and portents surrounded his birth as well as his youth.

Of his birth it is reported, that his mother was delivered without pain or labor, on the third of the new Calends, the same day on which now the magistrates of Rome pray and sacrifice for the emperor. It is said, also, that a vision appeared to his nurse, and foretold the child she then suckled should afterwards become a great benefit to the Roman States. To such presages, which might in general be thought mere fancies and idle talk, he himself erelong gave the credit of true prophecies. For as soon as he was of an age to begin to have lessons, he became so distinguished for his talent, and got such a name and reputation amongst the boys, that their fathers would often visit the school, that they might see young Cicero, and might be able to say that they themselves had witnessed the quickness and readiness in learning for which he was renowned. And the more rude among them used to be angry with their children, to see them, as they walked together, receiving Cicero with respect into the middle place. And being, as Plato would have, the scholar-like and philosophical temper, eager for every kind of learning, and indisposed to no description of knowledge or instruction, he showed, however, a more peculiar propensity to poetry; and there is a poem now extant, made by him when a boy, in tetrameter verse, called Pontius Glaucus. And afterwards, when he applied himself more curiously to these accomplishments, he had the name of being not only the best orator, but also the best poet of Rome. And the glory of his rhetoric still remains, notwithstanding the many new modes in speaking since his time; but his verses are forgotten and out of all repute, so many ingenious poets having followed him [Plutarch, Kindle]

He married well around 79bc, later divorcing in a manner that caused questions about his reputation, became a senator in 75, a Consul in 63 and helped stop the radical movements of Cataline, the so-called “Cataline Conspiracy.” Because of political problems at home, Cicero was exiled to Greece for a few years. After his return, he began to write a series of books, many of them philosophical and metaphysical. In 44BC, he completed his letter to his son, De Offices (On Duties), a significant part of which every Hillsdale freshman must read. Cicero left it in his will that this be a part of our Hillsdale course core curriculum, and we as faculty have done our best to live up to this charge. A year later, Marc Antony massacred 300 Senators and 2,000 equites (representatives), including Cicero.

From all accounts (and there really aren’t that many), Cicero could be as prickly as he was brilliant. He was thin skinned, especially about the lack of previous family achievements.

Before I explore the natural law of Cicero, let me offer nine points of commentary on the significance of Cicero, which, I believe, are critical to understand his legacy and the importance of his natural law theories.

First, Cicero was the most important figure of his day. Historians refer to the era of his life as “The Ciceronian Age.”  He was, in essence, the embodiment of the Republic. As Russell Kirk has written, “With Cicero fell the Republic.” [Kirk, Roots, 107]  While this statement could never sustain real historical criticism and analysis, it makes sense mythically and symbolically.

Second, he was perhaps the greatest orator who ever lived. He delivered at least 106 famous orations, many of them models of classical rhetorical perfection.

Third, he was perhaps the greatest Latin prose stylist, ever. Happily, several books and 900 of his letters survive.

Fourth, his arguments for the Natural Law, beauty, decorum, and republican government (the four issues are inseparable, really, one from another) are some of the best ever articulated. Here, I think, we see his writings and beliefs are derivative, but derivative in the sense that Eliot adopted modernist forms while shunning modernist philosophy. He took the best of the past and made it palatable for his generation—or for those deep in the future.

“True law is right reason in agreement with Nature. . . . it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting; it summons to duty by its commands, and averts from wrong-doing by its prohibitions. And it does not lay its commands or prohibitions upon good men in vain, although neither have any effect upon the wicked. It is a sin to try and alter this law, nor it is allowable to attempt to repeal a part of it, and it is impossible to abolish it entirely. We cannot be freed from its obligations by Senate or People, and we need not look outside ourselves for an expounder or interpreter of it. And there will not be different laws at Rome and at Athens, or different laws now and in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and for all times, and there will be one master and one rule, that is, God, over us all, for He is the author of this law, its promulgator, and its enforcing judge.”

Really one of the first expressions of universality—not a polis, not an empire, but all of creation—from beginning to end.

Here, I think, we might see the most Stoic and Virgilian part of Cicero.

Fifth, and connected intimately to number four, there is a universality to all human persons. We are brothers and sisters under the patriarchy of God.

“A human being, [sic] was endowed by the supreme god with a grand status at the time of its creation. It alone of all types and varieties of animate creatures has a share in reason and thought, which all the others lack. What is there, not just in humans, but in all heaven and earth, more divine that reason? When it has matured and come to perfection, it is properly named wisdom. . .reason forms the first bond between human and god,” the Roman Republican Cicero wrote in On the Laws [Cicero, On the Laws, Book 1].

I’ll come back to this toward the end of my talk.

Sixth, Cicero served as the single most influential Roman on the Church fathers: Sts. Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine. Also, as our own beloved scholar of Shakespeare and Thomas More Professor Steve Smith has argued, Cicero has proven central to every Renaissance experienced throughout western civilization since his death. I think Richard Gamble has done the same with this magnificent The Great Tradition; and Mark Kalthoff and David Whalen in Artes Liberalis and elsewhere.

Seven, Cicero speaks for the ancient world not just to the medievals, but to the moderns (and maybe even the post-moderns?) as well. From certain perspectives, we might even state that he’s shouting to us, calling us from the edge of eternity to consider the highest things in life.

He helped guide the Scottish (though “Celtic” might be better since we need to include at least one Irishman in this list) Enlightenment and Common Sense movement of the 18th century. Cicero’s influence hung over Hume, Burke, and Smith.

Over a drink a few summers ago at an outdoor cafe in Holland, Michigan, I had opportunity to tell one of my oldest and closest friends, Jim Otteson—arguably the leading scholar of the Scottish Enlightenment in the world today—that Adam Smith was so great precisely because he was rewriting all of Cicero. Somewhat aghast, the usually scarily articulate Jim muttered something about having to take away my “man card.”

My point was meant to be absurd and needling, and it worked. But, the point stands—even if taken down a few notches. In no way could one understand Smith’s 1759 masterpiece, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, without recognizing its debt to a Ciceronian Stoicism.

Eight, Cicero was the single most influential Roman for the American Founding Fathers. One can trace the American conception of Natural Rights directly to Cicero’s understanding of the Natural Law. John Adams once admitted in his diary that he loved reciting Cicero’s orations as much as anything: “The Sweetness and Grandeur of his sounds, and the Harmony of his Numbers give Pleasure enough to reward the Reading if one understood none of his meaning. Besides, I find it a noble Exercise. It exercises my Lungs, raises my Spirits, opens my Porrs, quickens the Circulation, and so contributes to [my] Health” [Richard, Twelve Greeks and Romans, 187].

Charles Carroll of Carrollton considered him the greatest of ancients. After the person and teaching of Jesus Christ, he once wrote, give me the words of Cicero. He considered Cicero a constant companion in his life, the two never out of conversation.

Tellingly, when Carroll, the longest lived of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, died in November 1832, the headlines that went out into the states: “A great man hath fallen in Israel; the last of the Romans has passed into eternity.”

Ninth, Cicero served significant influence on the post-war right as well. Mighty men such as Eric Voegelin, Russell Kirk, Friedrich Hayek, Leo Strauss looked back to the example of Cicero. While Cicero never had the influence on the post-war right (I realize the problems with a left-right spectrum; I use this term here merely for convenience) that Edmund Burke and de Tocqueville did, his spirit and his words hovered over a world of men unsure of the new power and future with atomic weaponry. Interestingly enough, Voegelin distrusted Cicero, believing him to have misused the basic symbols of Greece; Kirk saw him as the embodiment of Rome; Hayek bought almost completely into Cicero’s understanding of a commonwealth as developing slowly over time, organically evolving through a process of discovery and trial/error; and, Strauss, while considering the pious Cicero perhaps one of the greatest men of his age, disagreed with the organic founding, but argued for a founding offered by a single person, endowed with leadership and charisma. At the end of Natural Right and History, Strauss concluded with the idea that Edmund Burke represented the Cicero of his day, two men of memory and piety, but rigidly adhering to the idea that society by its very nature must develop slowly over time, gradually, as no one man could have the depth or foresight to bring forth a single constitution in an act of grand creation.

Let me sum up these previous nine points by looking back to the American founding. No republicans held greater sway over the Americans than did Cicero or Cato the Younger, with the one exception being the rather mythic being of Cincinnatus (as we find him—albeit briefly—in Livy). I would like, at some point in the not so distant future, to write a short book (a long essay) on Cicero as American Founder. Perhaps something like Cicero’s America.

It’s worth remembering at this point in the talk the words of Plutarch—fervently embraced by the founding generation—described the brutal assassination by the hands of the henchmen of Marc Antony.

Antony on this was at once in exultation, and everyone was in alarm with the prospect that he would make himself sole ruler, and Cicero in more alarm than anyone. For Antony, seeing his influence reviving in the commonwealth, and knowing how closely he was connected with Brutus, was ill-pleased to have him in the city. Besides, there had been some former jealousy between them, occasioned by the difference of their manners.

And Cicero, perceiving Herennius running in the walks, commanded his servants to set down the litter; and stroking his chin, as he used to do, with his left hand, he looked steadfastly upon his murderers, his person covered with dust, his beard and hair untrimmed, and his face worn with his troubles. So that the greatest part of those that stood by covered their faces whilst Herennius slew him. And thus was he murdered, stretching forth his neck out of the litter, being now in his sixty-fourth year. Herennius cut off his head, and, by Antony’s command, his hands also, by which his Philippics were written; for so Cicero styled those orations he wrote against Antony, and so they are called to this day.

Antony was holding an assembly for the choice of public officers; and when he heard it, and saw them, he cried out, “Now let there be an end of our proscriptions.” He commanded his head and hands to be fastened up over the Rostra, where the orators spoke; a sight which the Roman people shuddered to behold, and they believed they saw there not the face of Cicero, but the image of Antony’s own soul.

Reading these lines of Plutarch should give us a better understanding of what the founders meant when they concluded the Declaration of Independence with their ringing words: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

The last to have done such a thing ended with his head mounted on the Senate Rostra and Chancellor Palpatine. . . . I mean Marc Antony declaring the death of the Old Republic.

But, also must recognize that the Founders knew Cicero as intimately as they knew anyone. The classical liberal arts vision was critical to their view of the world. Many have written re: this: Trevor Colbourn; Carl Richard; Gary Gregg; Bruce Thornton; V.D. Hanson; Don Lutz; and the McDonalds.

As Forrest and Ellen McDonald have written: when an American student entered college (usually at age 14 or 15) in the time leading up to the American revolution, he would need to prove fluency in Latin and Greek.  He would need to “read and translate from the original Latin into English ‘the first three of [Cicero’s] Select Orations and the first three books of Virgil’s Aeneid’ and to translate the first ten chapters of the Gospel of John from Greek into Latin, as well as to be ‘expert in arithmetic’ and to have a ‘blameless moral character.’” [McDonald and McDonald, Requiem, pp. 1-2]

“Furthermore, Americans who had had any schooling at all had been exposed to eight- and ten-hour days of drilling, at the hands of stern taskmasters, in Latin and Greek. This was designed to build character, discipline the mind, and instill moral principles, in addition to teaching language skills. (Educated French military officers who served in the United States during the Revolution found that even when they knew no English and Americans knew no French, they could converse with ordinary Americans in Latin).” [McDonald and McDonald, Requiem, pp. 5]

In 1786, when there was a dispute about Alexander Pope’s translations of Homer’s Iliad, The Massachusetts Spy printed Pope’s translation on one side and the Greek on the other, allowing Americans “the opportunity to decide for themselves” if it was good or not. [McDonald and McDonald, Requiem, pp. 5]

The world of the founding was a deeply classical world, a Protestant world immersed in antiquity.

And, we can think of more tangible examples. The U.S. Capitol: A Roman Republican building; the Senate (from Latin—“old man”); Congress (probably from Latin for “come together”, but might be related to Anglo-Saxon “witan”); and the Fasces [Latin for “bundle”].

Or, perhaps, we might think of Alexander Hamilton’s pseudonym, later adopted by Madison and James Jay as well, Publius.

Indeed, the education of the founders followed a pattern. Not only did they study the classics, but they also connected the classical tradition through the Christian tradition, Catholic and Protestant, to a mythologized view of the liberties and common law of the Anglo-Saxons. “The minds of the youth are perpetually led to the history of Greece and Rome or to Great Britain,” Noah Webster wrote, as “boys are constantly repeating the declamations of Demosthenes and Cicero or debates upon some political question in the British Parliament.”

In the most authoritative study on the sources of the Founding, Professor Donald Lutz quantifies the references made to various sources, ca. 1761 to 1802. During that time, he found 36 widely cited authors: including St. Paul, Montesquieu, Blackstone, Locke, and Hume, and Plutarch in the top 6. Cicero is #12, Livy #21, Tacitus #24, and Plato #25. Aristotle does not make the list.

This, however, is not to suggest that the founders did not absorb the teachings of Aristotle—they did through the works of Machiavelli, Sidney, Harrington, Locke, and Montesquieu.

When writing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson explained that he drew on ancient sources:

This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.

John Adams, the first American to argue for independence, as early as 1765, said the same as Jefferson in 1774:

These are what are called revolution principles. They are the principles of Aristotle and Plato, of Livy and Cicero, of Sidney, Harrington, and Locke; the principles of nature and eternal reason.

This necessity of the teaching of the liberal arts as central to the American character extended well into the nineteenth century:

“Should the time ever come when Latin and Greek should be banished from our universities and the study of Cicero and Demosthenes, of Homer and Virgil, should be considered as unnecessary for the formation of a scholar, we should regard mankind as fast sinking into an absolute barbarism, and the gloom of mental darkness is likely to increase until it should become universal.” So wrote the frontier newspaper, the Cincinnati Western Review, in 1820.

Let’s go back to James Wilson’s lectures (and it’s worth remembering that he was one of six to sign the Declaration and the Constitution) at what would become the University of Pennsylvania. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and other luminaries attended.  Memory and belief go together, as memory is tied to wisdom.  In his lectures, frequently drawing upon Cicero, Wilson stated: “A great memory is often found without a great genius: but I will not admit, on the other, that a great genius is often found without a great memory. The contrary I believe to be generally, I will not say always, the case.  Men of the most extensive abilities have been men also of the most extensive memories: Themistocles, Cicero, Caesar, Bolingbroke.” [Wilson, 597]

With the importance of Cicero’s ideas, life, and martyrdom for the western and American traditions, please indulge me as I try to offer a definition of Cicero’s understanding of the Natural Law. For this, we should draw upon three of Cicero’s primary texts: On Duties, On the Laws, and On the Republic. Keeping all of the above in mind, I think we can state three things with some assurance. First, that rights and duties correspond to one another, with duties serving first and foremost as that which defines us. Second, that Cicero means really, by natural law, something no less than the immense structure of Justice itself. Finally, that through the natural law, we discover the overwhelming importance of each human person, born into a certain place and certain time.

  1. That rights and duties correspond. That duties define us.

On Duties:

“But if the exaltation of spirit seen in times of danger and toil is devoid of justice and fights for selfish ends instead of for the common good, it is a vice; but not only has it no element of virtue, but its nature is barbarous and revolting to all our finer feelings. The Stoics, therefore, correctly define courage as ‘that virtue which champions the cause of right.’ Accordingly, no one has attained to true glory who has gained a reputation for courage by treachery and cunning; for nothing that lacks justice can be morally right. . . . And so we demand that men who are courageous and high-souled shall at the same time be good and straightforward, lovers of truth, and foes to deception; for these qualities are the centre and soul of justice.” [Cicero, On Duties (Loeb Ed.), 65]

On Duties again:

When the Stoics speak of the supreme good as ‘living comformably to Nature,’ they mean, I take it, something like this: that we are always to be in accord with virtue, and from all other things that may be in harmony with Nature to choose only such as are not incompatible with Nature to choose only such as they are not incompatible with virtue. This being so, some people are of the opinion that it was not right to introduce this counterbalancing of right and expediency and that no practical instruction should have been given on this question at all. And yet moral goodness, in the true and proper sense of the term, is the exclusive possession of the wise and can never be separated from virtue; but those who have not perfect wisdom cannot possibly have perfect moral goodness, but only a semblance of it. And indeed these duties under discussion in these books the Stoics call ‘mean duties’; they are a common possession and have wide application; and many people attain to the knowledge of them through natural goodness of heart and through advancement in learning. But that duty which those same Stoics call ‘right’ is perfect and absolute and ‘satisfies all the numbers’ as that same school says, and is attainable by none except the wise man. On the other hand, when some act is performed in which we see ‘mean’ duties manifested, that is generally regarded as fully perfect, for the reason that the common crowd does not, as a rule, comprehend how far it falls short of real perfection; but, as far as their comprehension does go, they think there is no deficiency. This same thing ordinarily occurs in the estimation of poems, paintings, and a great many other works of art: ordinary people enjoy and praise things that do not deserve praise. The reason for this, I suppose, is that those production shave some point of excellence which catches the fancy of the uneducated, because these have not the ability to discover the points of weakness in any particular piece of work before them.  And so, when they are instructed by experts, they readily abandon their former opinion.”[Cicero, On Duties, 281-283.]

Second, that Cicero’s discussion of natural law is really a discussion of Justice—its structure and immensity beyond our finite understandings individually or collectively.

Third, that the natural law connected us into a brother and sisterhood under the One.

Once recognized, a man finds himself “not bound by human walls as the citizen of one particular spot but a citizen of the whole world as if it were a single city,” the stoic cosmopolis [Cicero, On the Laws, Book 1; Cambridge texts]

The great and grand things bestowed upon men and women, though, Cicero cautions, come with a price, a steep one. We must protect the republic—that which shelters our private desires—with our very lives:

“Ancestral morality provided outstanding men, and great men preserved the morality of old and the institutions of our ancestors. But our own time, having inherited the commonwealth like a wonderful picture that had faded over time, not only has failed to renew its original colors but has not even taken the trouble to preserve at least its shape and outlines. What remains of the morals of antiquity, upon which [the Roman poet] said that the Roman state stood? We see that they are so outworn in oblivion that they are not only not cherished but are now unknown. What am I to say about the men? The morals themselves have passed away through a shortage of men; and we must not only render an account of such an evil, but in a sense we must defend ourselves like people being tried for a capital crime. It is because of our vices, not because of some bad luck, that we preserve the commonwealth in name alone but have long ago lost its substance.” [Cicero, On the Commonwealth, Book 5; Cambridge Texts]

Though written around 44bc, someone might have easily written these words in 1860 or, dare I say it, 2013.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

This lecture was given for the Hillsdale College Graduate School on February 19, 2013.

Let me please offer huge thanks to R.J. Pestritto for inviting me, and Sarah Gillary Lewis for organizing this. This is a quite an honor.

And, it’s an even greater honor—if a bit of a humbling and nerve-wracking one—to speak on this topic in front of so many students and colleagues—all of whom I love dearly. I can state without exaggeration, that teaching the western and American heritage core courses have taught me more than any other single thing in my adult life.  I learn from them every time I teach them anew.

Our weekly (usually) department meetings—led ably by the avuncular and immensely wise Mark Kalthoff—have further honed my own ideas.  While I don’t want to burden my colleagues in the department with any absurdities I might state today, I will note that much of what little I might get right comes from their thoughts and, especially, their encouragement.  I especially want to dedicate this talk to Drs. Kalthoff and Connor who have repeatedly shown me the way in all things humane.

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6 replies to this post
  1. An excellent and interesting lecture on a worthy man. I must admit, however, that the Platonic arguement for Natural law always seemed more compelling to me than the one presented at the beginning of this text as Cicero’s, resting on the basis of belief in a higher being.

    This is because Platonic Natural Law, while certainly leading to a higher being (Being itself), had reason at its foundation and did not therefore stand or fall with belief in a higher being. In Plato’s Laws, the Athenian stranger discovers Natural Law when he attempts to compare and contrast the laws of different cities. Since those laws are all given by higher beings (the gods), it is a strange thing to discover that they are different in some respects. Wondering about these differences, the interloceteurs find that though they come from different legal traditions, it is possible to come to arguments about which laws are better or worse on the basis of reason, which is a common and natural law governing the human mind.

    Now, of course a more sophisticated elaboration leads to the discovery of God via the rational faculty, but at a very basic level God is ultimately questionable (if for no other reason than that our minds are fallible and do not always see Him clearly: thus the Christian need for grace and faith).

    Meanwhile, Socratic rationalism happens to be so common sensical, that really the only good arguments against the Natural Law come via a mental process so nuanced as to be ironically similar to the arguement for God (I.e. Heidegger’s theories regarding the lack of “grounding” in Natural law).

  2. Brad, this is marvelous and many thanks – how fortunate your students are!

    A question please: Cicero speaks as if he were a monotheist when I thought that the Ancient Greeks were polytheist. What is the explanation?

  3. Your assessment of old Marcus Tullius was delightful, eloquent and certainly idyllic. I admire Cicero’s prose and the way in which he attempted to educate the Roman upper classes about Greek philosophy. My admiration for Cicero is tempered, however, by the fact that as a novus homo, he was forced into bed with all kinds of scoundrels-to-be. He, Pompey and Crassus all worked for Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix who, in his power struggle with Gaius Marius, introduced proscriptions into the political mix of the time. Sulla and Marius proved that ruthless men with an army could kill and intimidate anyone in the name of saving the res publica. As a young man, Pompey, (who was idolized by Cicero) was known as “the butcher boy” for his dirty work done for Sulla. Crassus engaged in what we would call extortion and polished off the slave army of Spartacus. In many ways, Marcus Tullius Cicero was, in Mike Duncan’s words, the man who saw the res publica crashing down around his ears and said, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” The men of that era learned their lessons not from Cicero’s Laws or his Duties, but from the blood and thunder of Marius and Sulla. Caesar might have been judged as a bright spot in Rome for four years, but Gaul suffered mightily at his hands. Marius and Sulla stabbed the republic in the heart, Cicero watched it bleed and kept choosing the wrong side of the argument. Antony tortured the republic’s last hours. Augustus and Agrippa put it in its coffin and Tiberius nailed the lid shut!

  4. The author of this article, and readers who come across this page, might want to try reading what Thomas Jefferson actually said about Cicero, Plato, and Stoicism, if they value the truth and not the standard Academic line this article contains. Two places to start:

    Thomas Jefferson to William Short, October 31, 1819

    As you say of yourself, I too am an Epicurean. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us. Epictetus indeed, has given us what was good of the stoics; all beyond, of their dogmas, being hypocrisy and grimace. Their great crime was in their calumnies of Epicurus and misrepresentations of his doctrines; in which we lament to see the candid character of Cicero engaging as an accomplice. Diffuse, vapid, rhetorical, but enchanting. His prototype Plato, eloquent as himself, dealing out mysticisms incomprehensible to the human mind, has been deified by certain sects usurping the name of Christians; because, in his foggy conceptions, they found a basis of impenetrable darkness whereon to rear fabrications as delirious, of their own invention. These they fathered blasphemously on him who they claimed as their founder, but who would disclaim them with the indignation which their caricatures of his religion so justly excite. Of Socrates we have nothing genuine but in the Memorabilia of Xenophon; for Plato makes him one of his Collocutors merely to cover his own whimsies under the mantle of his name; a liberty of which we are told Socrates himself complained. Seneca is indeed a fine moralist, disguising his work at times with some Stoicisms, and affecting too much of antithesis and point, yet giving us on the whole a great deal of sound and practical morality.

    Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, July 5, 1814:

    I am just returned from one of my long absences, having been at my other home for five weeks past. Having more leisure there than here for reading, I amused myself with reading seriously Plato’s Republic. I am wrong, however, in calling it amusement, for it was the heaviest task-work I ever went through. I had occasionally before taken up some of his other works, but scarcely ever had patience to go through a whole dialogue. While wading through the whimsies, the puerilities, and unintelligible jargon of this work, I laid it down often to ask myself how it could have been, that the world should have so long consented to give reputation to such nonsense as this? How the soi-disant Christian world, indeed, should have done it, is a piece of historical curiosity. But how could the Roman good sense do it? And particularly, how could Cicero bestow such eulogies on Plato! Although Cicero did not wield the dense logic of Demosthenes, yet he was able, learned, laborious, practised in the business of the world, and honest. He could not be the dupe of mere style, of which he was himself the first master in the world. With the moderns, I think, it is rather a matter of fashion and authority. Education is chiefly in the hands of persons who, from their profession, have an interest in the reputation and the dreams of Plato. They give the tone while at school, and few in their after years have occasion to revise their college opinions. But fashion and authority apart, and bringing Plato to the test of reason, take from him his sophisms, futilities and incomprehensibilities, and what remains? In truth, he is one of the race of genuine sophists, who has escaped the oblivion of his brethren, first, by the elegance of his diction, but chiefly, by the adoption and incorporation of his whimsies into the body of artificial Christianity. His foggy mind is forever presenting the semblances of objects which, half seen through a mist, can be defined neither in form nor dimensions. Yet this, which should have consigned him to early oblivion, really procured him immortality of fame and reverence.

    The Christian priesthood, finding the doctrines of Christ levelled to every understanding, and too plain to need explanation, saw in the mysticism of Plato, materials with which they might build up an artificial system, which might, from its indistinctness, admit everlasting controversy, give employment for their order, and introduce it to profit, power and pre-eminence. The doctrines which flowed from the lips of Jesus himself are within the comprehension of a child; but thousands of volumes have not yet explained the Platonisms engrafted on them; and for this obvious reason, that nonsense can never be explained. Their purposes, however, are answered. Plato is canonized; and it is now deemed as impious to question his merits as those of an Apostle of Jesus. He is peculiarly appealed to as an advocate of the immortality of the soul; and yet I will venture to say, that were there no better arguments than his in proof of it, not a man in the world would believe it. It is fortunate for us, that Platonic republicanism has not obtained the same favor as Platonic Christianity; or we should now have been all living, men, women and children, pell mell together, like beasts of the field or forest. Yet “Plato is a great philosopher,” said La Fontaine. But, says Fontenelle, “Do you find his ideas very clear?” “Oh no! he is of an obscurity impenetrable.” “Do you not find him full of contradictions?” “Certainly,” replied La Fontaine, “he is but a sophist.” Yet immediately after he exclaims again, “Oh, Plato was a great philosopher.” Socrates had reason, indeed, to complain of the misrepresentations of Plato; for in truth, his dialogues are libels on Socrates.

  5. Garnetloyalist comments on “the standard academic line the article contains.” The standard academic line on the Founders and early America is summarized by David J. Bederman, Classical Foundations of the American Constitution (Cambridge, 2008) 222-3: “It would be easy to dismiss the influence of the classical tradition on the Framing generation as some peculiar and pretentious residuum of the elite culture of the times. Indeed, in the modern historiography of the intellectual life of the early republic, that is precisely the prevalent view: that classicism was a mere window dressing to the pragmatic, hard-knuckled politics of the period… In accordance with this view, when the script of the Framing morality play veers off into unexpected pieces of dialogue—as when the Framers speak of God’s providence and the role of churches in the new society, or of classical models of government and republican virtues—our modern, internal dramaturge excises these scenes, or, worse yet, annotates them as irrelevant.” Birzer’s experience with Jim Otteson is typical. Michael Zuckert of Notre Dame patiently explained to me when I quoted Jefferson’s letter to Henry Lee of May 8, 1825, (which mentions Aristotle and Cicero as among the influences on the Declaration), “No one thinks Aristotle influenced Jefferson.” That is the standard academic line, although there are heroic opponents, like Birzer and Carl Richard. That Jefferson in his old age did not care for Plato (and preferred Xenophon) does not refute the view that he loved the classics or that Cicero was a model for him and many other great men of his time, e.g., John and John Quincy Adams, Burke, Hume, Adam Smith etc. TJ bestows high praise on Cicero even in these two critical letters. This is an excellent article and throws down the gauntlet to “the standard academic line” on the Classics and the Founders.

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