On the Commonwealth represents Cicero's first serious attempt to bring Greek theories of political life to the circumstances of the Roman Republic. While some passages have been lost or reduced to fragments, it remains an important work of political philosophy and essential reading for political science students.
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On the Commonwealth
Marcus Tullius Cicero
Published by Logos, 2017.
On the Commonwealth by Marcus Tullius Cicero, translated by Charles Duke Yonge. First published in Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, translated by Yonge, in 1877. Revised translation © 2017 Logos.
Cover, interior design and editing © Copyright 2017 Logos Publishing.
First e-book edition 2017.
Further Reading: Peace of Mind
I. [Without the virtue of patriotism], neither Caius Duilius, nor Aulus Atilius, nor Lucius Metellus, could have delivered Rome by their courage from the terror of Carthage; nor could the two Scipios, when the fire of the second Punic War was kindled, have quenched it in their blood; nor, when it revived in greater force, could either Quintus Maximus have enervated it, or Marcus Marcellus have crushed it; nor, when it was repulsed from the gates of our own city, would Scipio have confined it within the walls of our enemies.
But Cato, at first a new and unknown man, whom all we who aspire to the same honors consider as a pattern to lead us on to industry and virtue, was undoubtedly at liberty to enjoy his repose at Tusculum, a most salubrious and convenient retreat. But he, mad as some people think him, though no necessity compelled him, preferred being tossed about amidst the tempestuous waves of politics, even till extreme old age, to living with all imaginable luxury in that tranquility and relaxation. I omit innumerable men who have separately devoted themselves to the protection of our Commonwealth; and those whose lives are within the memory of the present generation I will not mention, lest anyone should complain that I had invidiously forgotten himself or some one of his family. This only I insist on—that so great is the necessity of this virtue which nature has implanted in man, and so great is the desire to defend the common safety of our country, that its energy has continually overcome all the blandishments of pleasure and repose.
II. Nor is it sufficient to possess this virtue as if it were some kind of art, unless we put it in practice. An art, indeed, though not exercised, may still be retained in knowledge; but virtue consists wholly in its proper use and action. Now, the noblest use of virtue is the government of the Commonwealth, and the carrying-out in real action, not in words only, of all those identical theories which those philosophers discuss at every corner. For nothing is spoken by philosophers, so far as they speak correctly and honorably, which has not been discovered and confirmed by those persons who have been the founders of the laws of states. For whence comes piety, or from whom has religion been derived? Whence comes law, either that of nations, or that which is called the civil law? Whence comes justice, faith, equity? Whence modesty, continence, the horror of baseness, the desire of praise and renown? Whence fortitude in labors and perils? Doubtless, from those who have instilled some of these moral principles into men by education, and confirmed others by custom, and sanctioned others by laws.
Moreover, it is reported of Xenocrates, one of the sublimest philosophers, that when someone asked him what his disciples learned, he replied, “To do that of their own accord which they might be compelled to do by law.” That citizen, therefore, who obliges all men to those virtuous actions, by the authority of laws and penalties, to which the philosophers can scarcely persuade a few by the force of their eloquence, is certainly to be preferred to the sagest of the doctors who spend their lives in such discussions. For which of their exquisite orations is so admirable as to be entitled to be preferred to a well-constituted government, public justice, and good customs? Certainly, just as I think that magnificent and imperious cities (as Ennius says) are superior to castles and villages, so I imagine that those who regulate such cities by their counsel and authority are far preferable, with respect to real wisdom, to men who are unacquainted with any kind of political knowledge. And since we are strongly prompted to augment the prosperity of the human race, and since we do endeavor by our counsels and exertions to render the life of man safer and wealthier, and since we are incited to this blessing by the spur of nature herself, let us hold on that course which has always been pursued by all the best men, and not listen for a moment to the signals of those who sound a retreat so loudly that they sometimes call back even those who have made considerable progress.
III. These reasons, so certain and so evident, are opposed by those who, on the other side, argue that the labors which must necessarily be sustained in maintaining the Commonwealth form but a slight impediment to the vigilant and industrious, and are only a contemptible obstacle in such important affairs, and even in common studies, offices, and employments. They add the peril of life, that base fear of death, which has ever been opposed by brave men, to whom it appears far more miserable to die by the decay of nature and old age than to be allowed an opportunity of gallantly sacrificing that life for their country which must otherwise be yielded up to nature.
On this point, however, our antagonists esteem themselves copious and eloquent when they collect all the calamities of heroic men, and the injuries inflicted on them by their ungrateful countrymen. For on this subject they bring forward those notable examples among the Greeks; and tell us that Miltiades, the vanquisher and conqueror of the Persians, before even those wounds were healed which he had received in that most glorious victory, wasted away in the chains of his fellow-citizens that life which had been preserved from the weapons of the enemy. They cite Themistocles, expelled and proscribed by the country which he had rescued, and forced to flee, not to the Grecian ports which he had preserved, but to the bosom of the barbarous power which he had defeated. There is, indeed, no deficiency of examples to illustrate the levity and cruelty of the Athenians to their noblest citizens—examples which, originating and multiplying among them, are said at different times to have abounded in our own most august empire. For we are told: of the exile of Camillus, the disgrace of Ahala, the unpopularity of Nasica, the expulsion of Laenas, the condemnation of Opimius, the flight of Metellus, the cruel destruction of Caius Marius, the massacre of our chieftains, and the many atrocious crimes which followed. My own history is by no means free from such calamities; and I imagine that when they recollect that by my counsel and perils they were preserved in life and liberty, they are led by that consideration to bewail my misfortunes more deeply and affectionately. But I cannot tell why those who sail over the seas for the sake of knowledge and experience [should wonder at seeing still greater hazards braved in the service of the Commonwealth].
IV. [Since], on my quitting the consulship, I swore in the assembly of the Roman people, who re-echoed my words, that I had saved the Commonwealth, I console myself with this remembrance for all my cares, troubles, and injuries. Although my misfortune had more of honor than misfortune, and more of glory than disaster; and I derive greater pleasure from the regrets of good men than sorrow from the exultation of the worthless. But even if it had happened otherwise, how could I have complained, as nothing befell me which was either unforeseen, or more painful than I expected, as a return for my illustrious actions? For I was one who, though it was in my power to reap more profit from leisure than most men, on account of the diversified sweetness of my studies, in which I had lived from boyhood—or, if any public calamity had happened, to have borne no more than an equal share with the rest of my countrymen in the misfortune—I nevertheless did not hesitate to oppose myself to the most formidable tempests and torrents of sedition, for the sake of saving my countrymen, and at my own proper danger to secure the common safety of all the rest. For our country did not beget and educate us with the expectation of receiving no support, as I may call it, from us; nor for the purpose of consulting nothing but our convenience, to supply us with a secure refuge for idleness and a tranquil spot for rest; but rather with a view of turning to her own advantage the nobler portion of our genius, heart, and counsel; giving us back for our private service only what she can spare from the public interests.
V. Those apologies, therefore, in which men take refuge as an excuse for their devoting themselves with more plausibility to mere inactivity do certainly not deserve to be listened to; when, for instance, they tell us that those who meddle with public affairs are generally good-for-nothing men, with whom it is discreditable to be compared, and miserable and dangerous to contend, especially when the multitude is in an excited state. On which account it is not the part of a wise man to take the reins, since he cannot restrain the insane and unregulated movements of the common people. Nor is it becoming to a man of liberal birth, say they, thus to contend with such vile and unrefined antagonists, or to subject one’s self to the lashings of contumely, or to put one’s self in the way of injuries which ought not to be borne by a wise man. As if to a virtuous, brave, and magnanimous man there could be a juster reason for seeking the government than this—to avoid being subjected to worthless men, and to prevent the Commonwealth from being torn to pieces by them; when, even if they were then desirous to save her, they would not have the power.
VI. But this restriction who can approve, which would interdict the wise man from taking any share in the government beyond such as the occasion and necessity may compel him to? As if any greater necessity could possibly happen to any man than happened to me. In which, how could I have acted if I had not been consul at the time? And how could I have been a consul unless I had maintained that course of life from my childhood which raised me from the order of knights, in which I was born, to the very highest station? You cannot produce extempore, and just when you please, the power of assisting a commonwealth, although it may be severely pressed by dangers, unless you have attained the position which enables you legally to do so. And what most surprises me in the discourses of learned men, is to hear those persons who confess themselves incapable of steering the vessel of the State in smooth seas (which, indeed, they never learned, and never cared to know) profess themselves ready to assume the helm amidst the fiercest tempests. For those men are accustomed to say openly, and indeed to boast greatly, that they have never learned, and have never taken the least pains to explain, the principles of either establishing or maintaining a commonwealth; and they look on this practical science as one which belongs not to men of learning and wisdom, but to those who have made it their especial study. How, then, can it be reasonable for such men to promise their assistance to the State, when they shall be compelled to it by necessity, while they are ignorant how to govern the republic when no necessity presses upon it, which is a much more easy task? Indeed, though it were true that the wise man loves not to thrust himself of his own accord into the administration of public affairs, but that if circumstances oblige him to it, then he does not refuse the office, yet I think that this science of civil legislation should in no wise be neglected by the philosopher, because all resources ought to be ready to his hand, which he knows not how soon he may be called on to use.
VII. I have spoken thus at large for this reason, because in this work I have proposed to myself and undertaken a discussion on the government of a state; and in order to render it useful, I was bound, in the first place, to do away with this pusillanimous hesitation to mingle in public affairs. If there be any, therefore, who are too much influenced by the authority of the philosophers, let them consider the subject for a moment, and be guided by the opinions of those men whose authority and credit are greatest among learned men; whom I look upon, though some of them have not personally governed any state, as men who have nevertheless discharged a kind of office in the republic, inasmuch as they have made many investigations into, and left many writings concerning, state affairs. As to those whom the Greeks entitle the Seven Wise Men, I find that they almost all lived in the middle of public business. Nor, indeed, is there anything in which human virtue can more closely resemble the divine powers than in establishing new states, or in preserving those already established.
VIII. And concerning these affairs, since it has been our good fortune to achieve something worthy of memorial in the government of our country, and also to have acquired some facility of explaining the powers and resources of politics, we can treat of this subject with the weight of personal experience and the habit of instruction and illustration. Whereas before us many have been skillful in theory, though no exploits of theirs are recorded; and many others have been men of consideration in action, but unfamiliar with the arts of exposition. Nor, indeed, is it at all our intention to establish a new and self-invented system of government; but our purpose is rather to recall to memory a discussion of the most illustrious men of their age in our Commonwealth, which you and I, in our youth, when at Smyrna, heard mentioned by Publius Rutilius Rufus, who reported to us a conference of many days in which, in my opinion, there was nothing omitted that could throw light on political affairs.
IX. For when, in the year of the consulship of Tuditanus and Aquilius, Scipio Africanus, the son of Paulus Aemilius, formed the project of spending the Latin holidays at his country-seat, where his most intimate friends had promised him frequent visits during this season of relaxation, on the first morning of the festival, his nephew, Quintus Tubero, made his appearance; and when Scipio had greeted him heartily and embraced him—How is it, my dear Tubero, said he, that I see you so early? For these holidays must afford you a capital opportunity of pursuing your favorite studies. Ah! replied Tubero, I can study my books at any time, for they are always disengaged; but it is a great privilege, my Scipio, to find you at leisure, especially in this restless period of public affairs. You certainly have found me so, said Scipio, but, to speak truth, I am rather relaxing from business than from study. Nay, said Tubero, you must try to relax from your studies too, for here are several of us, as we have appointed, all ready, if it suits your convenience, to aid you in getting through this leisure time of yours. I am very willing to consent, answered Scipio, and we may be able to compare notes respecting the several topics that interest us.
X. Be it so, said Tubero; and since you invite me to discussion, and present the opportunity, let us first examine, before anyone else arrives, what can be the nature of the parhelion, or double sun, which was mentioned in the senate. Those that affirm they witnessed this prodigy are neither few nor unworthy of credit, so that there is more reason for investigation than incredulity.
Ah! said Scipio, I wish we had our friend Panaetius with us, who is fond of investigating all things of this kind, but especially all celestial phenomena. As for my opinion, Tubero, for I always tell you just what I think, I hardly agree in these subjects with that friend of mine, since, respecting things of which we can scarcely form a conjecture as to their character, he is as positive as if he had seen them with his own eyes and felt them with his own hands. And I cannot but the more admire the wisdom of Socrates, who discarded all anxiety respecting things of this kind, and affirmed that these inquiries concerning the secrets of nature were either above the efforts of human reason, or were absolutely of no consequence at all to human life.
But, then, my Africanus, replied Tubero, of what credit is the tradition which states that Socrates rejected all these physical investigations, and confined his whole attention to men and manners? For, with respect to him what better authority can we cite than Plato? in many passages of whose works Socrates speaks in such a manner that even when he is discussing morals, and virtues, and even public affairs and politics, he endeavors to interweave, after the fashion of Pythagoras, the doctrines of arithmetic, geometry, and harmonic proportions with them.
That is true, replied Scipio; but you are aware, I believe, that Plato, after the death of Socrates, was induced to visit Egypt by his love of science, and that after that he proceeded to Italy and Sicily, from his desire of understanding the Pythagorean dogmas; that he conversed much with Archytas of Tarentum and Timaeus of Locris; that he collected the works of Philolaus; and that, finding in these places the renown of Pythagoras flourishing, he addicted himself exceedingly to the disciples of Pythagoras, and their studies; therefore, as he loved Socrates with his whole heart, and wished to attribute all great discoveries to him, he interwove the Socratic elegance and subtlety of eloquence with somewhat of the obscurity of Pythagoras, and with that notorious gravity of his diversified arts.
XI. When Scipio had spoken thus, he suddenly saw Lucius Furius approaching, and saluting him, and embracing him most affectionately, he gave him a seat on his own couch. And as soon as Publius Rutilius, the worthy reporter of the conference to us, had arrived, when we had saluted him, he placed him by the side of Tubero. Then said Furius, What is it that you are about? Has our entrance at all interrupted any conversation of yours? By no means, said Scipio, for you yourself too are in the habit of investigating carefully the subject which Tubero was a little before proposing to examine; and our friend Rutilius, even under the walls of Numantia, was in the habit at times of conversing with me on questions of the same kind. What, then, was the subject of your discussion? said Philus. We were talking, said Scipio, of the double suns that recently appeared, and I wish, Philus, to hear what you think of them.
XII. Just as he was speaking, a boy announced that Laelius was coming to call on him, and that he had already left his house. Then Scipio, putting on his sandals and robes, immediately went forth from his chamber, and when he had walked a little time in the portico, he met Laelius, and welcomed him and those that accompanied him, namely, Spurius Mummius, to whom he was greatly attached, and C. Fannius and Quintus Scaevola, sons-in-law of Laelius, two very intelligent young men, and now of the quaestorian age.
When he had saluted them all, he returned through the portico, placing Laelius in the middle; for there was in their friendship a sort of law of reciprocal courtesy, so that in the camp Laelius paid Scipio almost divine honors, on account of his eminent renown in war and in private life; in his turn Scipio reverenced Laelius, even as a father, because he was older than himself.
Then after they had exchanged a few words, as they walked up and down, Scipio, to whom their visit was extremely welcome and agreeable, wished to assemble them in a sunny corner of the gardens, because it was still winter; and when they had agreed to this, there came in another friend, a learned man, much beloved and esteemed by all of them, M. Manilius, who, after having been most warmly welcomed by Scipio and the rest, seated himself next to Laelius.
XIII. Then Philus, commencing the conversation, said: It does not appear to me that the presence of our new guests need alter the subject of our discussion, but only that it should induce us to treat it more philosophically, and in a manner more worthy of our increased audience. What do you allude to? said Laelius; or what was the discussion we broke in upon? Scipio was asking me, replied Philus, what I thought of the parhelion, or mock sun, whose recent apparition was so strongly attested.
Laelius. Do you say then, my Philus, that we have sufficiently examined those questions which concern our own houses and the Commonwealth, that we begin to investigate the celestial mysteries?
And Philus replied: Do you think, then, that it does not concern our houses to know what happens in that vast home which is not included in walls of human fabrication, but which embraces the entire universe—a home which the Gods share with us, as the common country of all intelligent beings? Especially when, if we are ignorant of these things, there are also many great practical truths which result from them, and which bear directly on the welfare of our race, of which we must be also ignorant. And here I can speak for myself, as well as for you, Laelius, and all men who are ambitious of wisdom, that the knowledge and consideration of the facts of nature are by themselves very delightful.
Laelius. I have no objection to the discussion, especially as it is holiday-time with us. But cannot we have the pleasure of hearing you resume it, or are we come too late?
Philus. We have not yet commenced the discussion, and since the question remains entire and unbroken, I shall have the greatest pleasure, my Laelius, in handing over the argument to you.
Laelius. No, I had much rather hear you, unless, indeed, Manilius thinks himself able to compromise the suit between the two suns, that they may possess heaven as joint sovereigns without intruding on each other’s empire.
Then Manilius said: Are you going, Laelius, to ridicule a science in which, in the first place, I myself excel; and, secondly, without which no one can distinguish what is his own, and what is another’s? But to return to the point. Let us now at present listen to Philus, who seems to me to have started a greater question than any of those that have engaged the attention of either Publius Mucius or myself.
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