Cicero's commonwealth represents a natural conclusion to his theory of man; that the state is a construct of human desire for companionship, consensus and sociability. The laws instituted within that state are there to protect the property and possessions of men and to allow them to show benevolence to mankind through sharing and donation. Laws are created to encourage men to participate in society, and engage in public duty and citizenship.
Cicero makes a passionate argument for the supremacy of law, that it must be observed and adhered to as the prerequisite of a stable and peaceful society. This essay seeks to outline Cicero's reasons for the creation of the state and his belief in the necessity of the Rule of Law for political stability and national success. In addition, this essay discusses some of the consequences for a society built on Cicero's assumption of the nature of man, and his belief that stable society can only be a product of defending the status-quo.
I argue that all sections of society must feel adequately protected and compensated in order for the state to be secure and harmonious. Cicero's commonwealth takes the first steps towards the foundation of a fair and stable society, but it fails to include all sections and groupings of society sufficiently for it to be effective. Cicero believes the state is an outcome of man's desire for community and his capacity for sociability when he reflects 'man is not isolated or prone to wandering alone' (De re Publica, Book 1).
The aim of the state is therefore to bring together a strong community 'created by mutual obligations being performed by friends in association' (De re Publica, Book 1). The state is not just a collection of men, but a group of men who hold values and motivations in common, and have 'need for virtue and such a desire to defend the common safety' (De re Publica, Book 1). The state is therefore a culmination of man's shared heritage and skills, such as language and a concern for the common good.
The state not only accommodates man's desire for fellowship, but is a stage for mankind to display its aptitude for benevolence and reciprocity within a community. Cicero's Scipio insists 'naturally men wish to increase the resources and prosperity of mankind' (De re Publica, Book 1). Cicero believes therefore that the state is a necessary creation, needed to gather together men of a common mindset, to facilitate their need for kinship and provide an opportunity for man to display an innate capacity for kind acts and compassion to others.
However, the state for Cicero is no mere collection of men concerned with the common interest. In his discussions in De re Publica, the state has the potential to be a sophisticated community that may be adapted and moulded in character to produce the most complimentary platform for harmony and stability. It is therefore important that the state reflects the different dynamics within society, and that power and political voice is given in the correct proportion to each section of the community.
Cicero's commonwealth is an acknowledgement that a state can take many forms but that his type of constitution is the most likely to flourish. This is because it reflects human nature, yet appreciates difference and offers stability by attempting to accommodate a plethora of human desires through consensus. But why are we asked to believe that a commonwealth with a mixed constitution is the best solution? Cicero's answer would be that pure forms of constitution are likely to degenerate into their 'corrupt equivalents', such as a virtuous monarchy descending into a tyranny.
Unrestrained power tends to taint and debase virtue, but a mixed constitution, involving a cross-section of interests, can be placed in check by a need for consensus, accord and balance. It is in this sense that Cicero makes two great boasts about Rome and his mixed constitution, that it is pragmatic and thus responds to the true needs of human nature and secondly that it has evolved over time as the outcome of not one great man, but many. If as Homer remarked (Coleman 2005), 'Captive Greece, captivated its barbarous conquerors', teaching the Romans theory, Rome lost no time in applying what they had been taught.
Cicero contests 'virtue consists entirely in its employment, moreover, its most important employment is the governance of states and the accomplishment of deeds rather than the words of the things that philosophers talk about in corners' (De re Publica, Book 1). This is more than an egotistical swipe at Plato's Philosopher king, it is testament to Cicero's belief that his constitution works because it involves participation and action in preference to theory, pragmatism over abstract concepts.
Secondly, Cicero believes that pragmatism has allowed evolution to deliver Rome the best of all types of government. It is from this that he asserts that law, which we will discuss later, has evolved through tradition, and that the state benefits from the genius of many men, rather than one. After all, 'never was a genius so great that he could never miss nothing' (De re Publica, Book 2). Law has therefore evolved for Cicero, established in the past through traditions and customs. It has come to be recognised as crucial to man but also as an essential contribution to the success of the state.
Cicero asserts that law is not natural, but it has arisen as a result of man's rationality. Law is therefore a response to man's innate nature. Man has a wish to be benevolent and care for his kin, and the law responds by providing ownership, enabling him to bestow gifts and demonstrate reciprocity. For Cicero, an absence of law to define ownership would make this impossible and is therefore essential if we are to respect our innate nature. Secondly law is a convenient way of acknowledging ownership, not only to avoid civil dispute and discord, but to ensure that things are cared for.
Cicero believes that despite ownership being unnatural, as only 'God has given us a home and a country to be shared with him' (De re Publica, Book 1), he asserts that personal ownership causes us to care for things more than if they were part of the collective. Ownership, protected by law, is therefore a convenient and pragmatic approach to dealing with society and human nature. Law also fulfils a second purpose for Cicero, in that it is necessary and must be adhered to in order to create a harmonious and stable society.
Cicero argues that 'to promote a happy and honorable way of life, it must be established on the authority of the commonwealth in part through institutions and in part through laws' (De re Publica, Book 4). Cicero is consistent in his conviction that the Rule of Law is paramount; within another text he asserts that laws were invented 'for the well-being of citizens, the safety of states, and the calm and happy life of humans' (On Laws, Book 2). But why are laws so vital for Cicero? I suggest two reasons, firstly laws create order and this is essential to the stability of any state.
Cicero sees the law as a civilising force, where everyone knows their place, what belongs to them and what they may and may not take. But more than this, it provides security, as people know that their home is secure, that there is an avenue of redress if they are a victim of crime or that certain rights are inalienable. Law is therefore firstly a solution to civil volatility; it is the ultimate authority and framework for behavior and action. The second reason is that for Cicero, law holds the answer to difficult questions arising from man's nature, such as 'what is justice?
And, 'if and how in what sense men can be equal? ' Law provides a tonic to this question because despite Cicero's belief that men hold innate qualities in common, he does not think this causes all men to be equal. On the contrary, each man is unique, possessing different skills, aptitudes and advantages over the other. Each man may only be happy when he pursues his skill and is secure in his own order. Law has no role in seeking to equalise man's differences, but it can provide security to each man in his rightful order.
Equity is established through the law of the commonwealth, so that each is permitted in law to possess his own, despite the amount of what is one's own differing from one person to the next. Cicero's narrator Scipio proclaims, 'the peculiar concern of a state and city is that every person's custody of his own property be free and undisturbed' (De re Publica, Book 4). Law provides the answer for Cicero to the question, 'what is justice? ' Justice is not equality, but proportionality and equity, protected in law.
Establishing the Rule of Law and the recognition of the state as a platform for debate on issues of the common good is based on the assumption that mankind is innately virtuous, that concern spans both self-interest and collective interest. If we accept that to be true for the moment, how does Cicero explain why people should have loyalty to their state? Cicero argues 'we have a greater obligation (to the state) than to our parents' (De re Publica, Book 1). By Cicero's logic, the state must be preserved to defend man's capacity for sociability, and to protect his way of life.
The institutions that protect our way of life through law must be upheld if we are to continue to utilise the characteristics that make us human and unique. Scipio argues, 'Our country did not give us birth or rearing without expecting some return from us' (De re Publica, Book 1). Citizenship, duty and obligation to one's country through participation are effectively the cost of a stable, just and harmonious state. Devotion and service to the state are therefore vital to ensure that each man continues to be protected and can be maintained in the sphere that allows him the freedom to pursue his interests.