October 31, 2016

On Cicero

I recently added some texts from the ancient Roman politician and philosopher Cicero (106 – 43 BC) to this blog. 1 Cicero rose to the highest political offices in Rome, and he defended the Roman Republic, a limited version of democracy within an oligarchy, against various attempts by individuals and small groups to usurp power. He saw the rise of Caesar, and was present at his assassination in the Senate, but he was not one of conspirators. 2 In the volatile political situation after Caesars’ death, he gave speeches in which he tried to defend the Senate and the Republican System against the revenge of Mark Antony, one of Caesar’s generals. 3 These speeches became famous as the “Philippicae” or “Philippics,” 4 and shortly afterwards, he paid for them with his life. After his assassination, Cicero’s head was displayed at the Senate as a warning to other Senators.

Cicero devotes his life to the defense of a political system that tries to civilize political power, and human affairs, through the rule of laws. (He is, however, also famous for saying: The more laws, the less justice.) His life is a testimony to Carl Schmitt’s argument, that a political system does not just rest on a Constitution, it rests on people who are courageous enough to enter the political fight and defend the rule of law. But even Carl Schmitt, who is commonly seen as a political realist, is still somewhat idealistic for relying on an enlightened ruler. The line where the political power struggle becomes a game of corruption is fluid. Cicero’s life also shows that politics is messy; it depends on the personality of the power players. The people who win are mostly not shining examples of humanity.  Bad rulers have brought endless miseries to humankind.

Reading Cicero’s speeches gives a sense of politics on the edge of violence. Two conceptions of the state clash with each other: In one perspective, the state brings peace to its people because it is built on a foundation of justice and law, and in the other, the state is a system of organized violence, where politics is often a power struggle to the bitter end. The Roman Empire combines both sides. Cicero was killed in 43BC, and afterwards the Roman Republic entered a period of political struggle that ended only in 27BC, when Octavian took power by defeating Mark Antony. He became Augustus, the first official Roman Emperor, and ruled for 41 years, until his death in 14CE. The early Roman Empire brought peace through strength, or Pax Romana, two centuries of relatively peaceful growth and development. Cicero’s legacy survives, and his voice resonates through the centuries, outlasting the rulers and politicians of his time.

There seems to be a logic in the politics of power and of the state that reaches beyond situational struggles, driven by individuals, their aspirations, and their relations to one another. Once someone has reached the center of power, it is in his interest to use the advantage to stabilize power by eliminating his closest competitors. This leads to a logic of the state based on self-preservation, which naturally drives the political entity towards accumulation of power, and expansion. It also creates a paradox of representation: The ruler has to act on behalf of the State as a whole, but he came into power representing only a partial interest, for instance the nobility, the farmers, a region, the proletariat, a political party, or the army.

In the tradition of political thinking that emphasizes the logic of the state as the guarantor of stability, the key conflict is always between power and justice. The degree to which the citizens accept the actions of the state is secondary, and institutions of democracy, like the Roman Senate, are seen as dangerous. In modern times, we have learned that the interests of the state overwrite the interests of individuals so quickly that we need to build strong safeguards against state power. In early modern political theory, the idea of the state was build predominantly on the concept of defending the “common good,” even though this is hard to define and poses many problems. In a modern perspective, the “state” is a concept that bundles the interests of everyone who lives within it, but in different ways.

Western political and philosophical thinking constructs its own history by creating a retroactive lineage that reaches back through the history of Europe, Rome, and ends in Ancient Greece, somewhere in the vicinity of the Trojan war. The origins are mythological, militaristic, and at the same time artistic. The history is also marked by a celebration of war. It can be subtle, realistic like in Homer, Thucydides or Pericles, or triumphant as in the Roman processions, when the victorious army returns home. Cicero is also considered to be the father of Just War theory.

Cicero’s life is an example for the fate of the losers. His fight for the rule of law reflects an awareness of the human catastrophes that occur at the intersection between power, laws, and human affairs. Antigone, Achilles and Agamemnon, the Peloponnesian War, the Melians, Athens, Socrates and Jesus, Cicero: Things tend to go wrong, even for the heroes. Cicero has fierceness and humanity, because he realizes that human aspirations, and our collective projects, have a tendency to fail.

Here is a short quote from Cicero’s First Speech against Catiline, who tried unsuccessfully to take power in Rome:

Shame on the age and on its principles! The senate is aware of these things; the consul sees them; and yet Catiline lives. Lives! aye, he comes even into the senate. He takes part in the public deliberations; he is watching and marking down and checking off for slaughter every individual among us. And we, gallant men that we are, think that we are doing our duty to the republic if we keep out of the way of his frenzied attacks.

Notes:

  1. The front page of my blog does not reflect the additions and changes that happen “behind the scenes” on the pages and in the deeper structure of this website. If you look through the indexes and menus, you will find about 500 pages of texts, resources, and longer essays.
  2. Cicero was not included in the conspiracy, even though the conspirators were sure of his sympathy. When Brutus, one of the killers, lifted his bloodstained dagger after the assassination, he called out Cicero’s name, beseeching him to “restore the Republic!”. Cicero wrote a letter to Trebonius in February 43 BC, one of the conspirators: “How I wish that you had invited me to that most glorious banquet on the Ides of March!” Cicero felt that Mark Antony, for whom he had no respect, should have been assassinated as well.
  3. In 44 BC and 43 BC
  4. The speeches were named and modeled after Demosthenes’ Philippic, which Demosthenes had delivered 300 years earlier against Philip of Macedon, and were similar in style.

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Ancient Philosophy, Political Theory

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