More rare than athletes who have played both baseball and football in the major leagues are individuals who have achieved great distinction in both politics and philosophy, the vocations that Aristotle deemed most choiceworthy. Marcus Tullius Cicero, however, would hold a place of honor on any list of political and philosophical superstars. If he had never risen to eminence as a Roman orator, senator, and consul, he still would be remembered for his contributions to the great Greco-Roman synthesis at the base of Western civilization. And if he had never written on philosophy, he still would be honored for his courageous efforts to preserve the rule of law in the last years of the Roman Republic.
Cicero, of course, lost his battle to preserve the Roman Republic. He briefly allied with Mark Antony against the assassins of Caesar (whom he opposed), but Antony turned on him and displayed Cicero’s severed head. That Cicero is an honorable man is not in doubt, but whether he was a wise man is another matter. In St. Augustine’s view Cicero misunderstood the nature of a republic to begin with.
In July 2008 I reviewed Jean Bethke Elshtain’s excellent book on sovereignty, which cites Augustine’s critique of Cicero, who defined a republic as an assemblage of people of common interests.
Augustine [Book XIX, Chapter 23) makes the more unsettling claim that without faith in the true God, there can be neither republic nor people:
God rules the obedient city according to His grace, so that it sacrifices to none but Him, and whereby, in all the citizens of this obedient city, the soul consequently rules the body and reason the vices in the rightful order, so that, as the individual just man, so also the community and people of the just, live by faith, which works by love, that love whereby man loves God as He ought to be loved, and his neighbor as himself - there, I say, there is not an assemblage associated by a common acknowledgment of right, and by a community of interests. But if there is not this, there is not a people, if our definition be true, and therefore there is no republic; for where there is no people there can be no republic [emphasis added].No people, no republic: for Augustine the congregation comes first, then the people, and only afterwards its political life. But does Augustine intend to say that a people that does not recognize God is not a people to begin with? He means, I think, what Kevin Madigan and Jon Levenson wrote of the Biblical view of peoplehood in their book Resurrection, which I reviewed several weeks ago (Life and death in the Bible Asia Times Online, May 28, 2008). A people that foresees its own extinction experiences death in life, but God’s People, which believes it will endure forever, trusts in life beyond death.
It was the genius of the Church to create new peoples out of the chaos of Rome’s decline, and it was the tragedy of the Church to fail to meld them into a People. To Thomas Aquinas, as Elsthain notes, Christian universality was the overarching principal of political organization to which nations were subordinate. Aquinas, in fact, prescribes political organization only in one location, but his views are unambiguous.
Was the destruction of the Roman Republic inevitable? A widely-held interpretation attributes its collapse to the introduction of a slaved based economy:
The Roman conquests of Carthage, Macedonia and Greece in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC altered what was once a luxury and privilege for the ruling elite into the predominant factor driving both social and economic policies for the Republic as a whole. The mass influx of slaves during this time period first was a sign of great wealth and power, but later destabilized an already fragile Roman class system. Farms originally run by small business families throughout Italy were soon gobbled up and replaced by enormous slave run plantations owned by the aristocratic elite. Cheap slave labor replaced work for the common man and the roles of the unemployed massive grew to epidemic proportions. These issues had a great destabilizing effect on the social system which had a direct role in the demise of the Republic. As the rift between Senatorial elite (optimates) and social reformers (populares) grew, the use of the unemployed, landless, yet citizen mobs were an overwhelming ploy grinding away at the ability of the Senate to govern. Though there are many factors involved in the Fall of the Republic, slavery and its effects rippled throughout every aspect of that turbulent time period.
Not only did slavery help push the Roman lower classes into organized mobs, but the slaves themselves understandably revolted against oppression. The 3 servile wars in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, with the rebellion of Spartacus in the 70’s BC the most notable, showed that the social system was dangerous and unhealthy. By the end of these civil wars and general social disorder, slaves were abundantly present in Rome. The slave population was at least equal to that of freedmen (non citizens), and has been estimated at anywhere from 25 to 40% of the population of the city as a whole. One such estimate suggests that the slave population in Rome circa 1 AD, may have been as much as 300,000 to 350,000 of the 900,000 total inhabitants.
Augustine’s view that a people is founded upon a congregation bound together by love and right is most relevant here. A slave-state half of whose inhabitants live in unspeakable conditions is no such thing. Cicero bravely defended the indefensible.
In a world of failed and failing states, it seems to me that Cicero’s failures are more instructive than his virtues.