The Rule of Law ensures everyone

If we understand Cicero's creation of the state and laws are based on the aforementioned precepts, then I believe Cicero's opinion is in parts valid, but in other parts based on assumptions that can be argued to be wrong. The supremacy of Cicero's commonwealth is based on an untested conjecture. For example I agree that man is a sociable creature, yet it is possible that man's inclination to gather together is an outcome of necessity, that man knows instinctively he is stronger and safer within a group or a network, rather than out of any desire to help another man within a community or to contribute something beyond one's own self interest.

The creation of the state is therefore a marriage of convenience between man's innate self-interest and a dependence on social networks to aid his survival. If this is the case, then it calls into question Cicero's conviction that a community represented by consensus government will work towards a common good. If man is inherently self-interested, then there will be any number of desires and the group or individual with the greatest strength or authority will prevail.

In order for Cicero's mixed constitution to be a success, it must be strong enough to incorporate and bind together conflicting opinion and enforce compromise whilst avoiding power being consolidated within any one group. Despite the mixed constitution being most suited to serving the different interests of society, Cicero has not invented a constitution immune to corruption. Again, Cicero makes an assumption, that the lower class in his society has no desire for reallocation of wealth or access to equality, but it only desires freedom from oppression. For our thinker, it is the elite who desire power and authority.

In De re Publica, Scipio asserts that the Optimates, endowed with the most in society, have the most to gain from participating in politics – as only political participation can ensure their way of life. Therefore, they have the most to lose if they do not serve the collective interest. Conversely however, I argue that, the lower sections of society have nothing to gain by maintaining the status-quo – they are under-represented, have few opportunities for social mobility or to increase their prosperity – but they also have nothing to lose from civil disturbance.

I fail to see how it is justifiable to argue that the lower ranks of society desire no reward, either in terms of political voice or in terms of fair distribution of income, for being the backbone of the economy, and are happy to be led by the privileged. Cicero's inability to redistribute income or properly involve everyone in government can only lead to the sort of instability he dreads and thinks impossible of his commonwealth. The Rule of Law ensures everyone has a kind of equality, but this is of little value if one has nothing to protect.

Laws have evolved from tradition and custom according to Cicero, but does that make the law unquestionably right? If sections of a community have emerged with nothing over time, whilst others have prospered, the law only protects the status-quo; it provides no indication whether this is in fact morally right. Where is the benevolence and social compassion that Cicero believes innate to all humans in a state that thinks it has no role in assisting or improving the conditions of the more vulnerable in society?

This in itself conflicts with Cicero's model of man: are we not meant to be gregarious and concerned enough for the plight of our fellow man to reject a constitution that favours privilege and compounds the misery of the unfortunate? I argue that Cicero's constitution is a convenient way for the elite to disguise their dominance and the in-built advantages they have in law. Unlike Aristotle, Cicero offers no redistribution of income to assist the poor in society and to improve their circumstance, and no money to assist their participation in the political. Only the rich in Cicero's commonwealth can afford the time to participate in politics.

The role of public opinion is narrowly limited to the Plebeian tribunes, who have minimal input and no authority. Rome's poor effectively voted in groups, rather than as individuals, and they voted last – once enough votes had been received for a majority the voting stopped. The vote of the poor in Rome was consequently worth less and more likely to go unheard. Cicero was open in his dislike for democracy, fearful of 'the madness and license of the mob' (De re Publica, Book 1) and warned of the requirement of statesmen to connect emotionally rather than rationally with the people he thought incapable of realising virtue through wisdom.

Power within Cicero's constitution, despite appearances, is consolidated within one main group. If this is the extent of public involvement, then consensus government is overstated and the commonwealth is limited. All of these factors contribute to political instability and a social contract that has been exhausted. Cicero's commonwealth is reliant on a notion of man who is not only benevolent in his nature but also happy with his position in society. If we contest this view, and suggest man is more concerned for himself than his community, we begin to encounter problems.

We see that although a mixed constitution stands the best chance of accommodating each man's desire, it is necessary that the constitution has enough strength to include all sections as representatively as possible. Cicero recognises 'it is possible to have one senate and one people, and if we don't we are in very deep trouble' (De re Publica, Book 1). The strength of a mixed constitution is that it is holistic, involving everyone. A mixed constitution that pays only lip-service to some parts, whilst favouring established elites, will not function effectively or thrive in the long-term.

If man is by nature not as virtuous as Cicero assumes, those who hold the greatest power can potentially exploit the constitution to their own advantage. Although Cicero argues that 'no just ruler would implement laws he himself would not obey', opportunities are limited for weaker sections of society to participate in politics and prevent such injustice from happening. Cicero's constitution fails to address inequality in any sense; rather it compounds it, based on one assumption: lower classes desire freedom from oppression rather than a renegotiation of society's structure.

Cicero in affect offers the less fortunate a worthless social contract. I believe that rather than a fellowship of equals, this is an unequal society with power consolidated at the top. Cicero's vision constitutes a weak consensus government that could certainly not exist today, as it conflicts with our more egalitarian social values and beliefs. Because the commonwealth can only function by dividing society between those who have the protection of the law and those with nothing to protect and little expectation of social mobility, there is neither hope of social cohesion nor the stability Cicero's theory envisages.


Cicero, De re Publica, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought 4th Edition, published 2005 Cicero, On the Laws, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought 4th Edition, published 2005 Homer, cited in Coleman, Janet, A History of Political Thought, From Ancient Greece to Early Christianity, chapter 5, published 2005 Bibliography: Annas, J. Cicero on Stoic moral philosophy and private property in M. Griffin and J. Barnes eds. , Philosophia Togata I (Oxford, 1989/97) Shotter, David, The Fall of the Roman Republic (London, 1994).