Cicero, Natural Law and Constitutionalism Transcript

Shaun Rieley (00:00:05):
Before we introduce our panel, let me say a quick word about the mission of the Van Andel Graduate School of Government. Now in its fifth year, the Van Andel Graduate School of Government was founded to bring serious education in the arts of liberty to Capitol Hill. The School of Government aims to fulfill George Washington’s desire for an institution dedicated to the education of statesmen on Capitol Hill by offering academic programs aimed at imparting the knowledge necessary for the development of prudence and judgment that’s necessary for good governance. Given that mission, our program requires a study of the great Roman statesmen, Marcus Tullius Cicero, long considered to be among the greatest statesmen and philosophers of the Western tradition, a thinker to whom innumerable generations have turned for wisdom in morality and the arts of government. It’s fitting then that Cicero is who we’ll focus on tonight for our discussion.

It’s my privilege now to introduce our co-sponsor, professor Joel Alicea of the Catholic University to then introduce our panelists. Jose Joel Alicea is the associate professor of law at Catholic Universities of America’s Columbus School of Law, and the co-director of the project on constitutional originalism and the Catholic intellectual tradition. He’s also served as a visiting professor at Notre Dame Law School and as a law clerk for Justice Samuel Alito on the United States Supreme Court. His scholarship is focused on constitutional theory and his scholarship has appeared in number of publications both academic and popular. Professor Alicea.

Joel Alicea (00:01:51):
Thank you Shaun, and thanks to Hillsdale for partnering with us for this event. As Shaun said, I’m Joel Alicea. I’m a law professor at Catholic University and the co-director of the project on constitutional originalism and the Catholic intellectual tradition, or CIT for short. CIT exists to explore the relationship between the Catholic intellectual tradition and American constitutionalism more broadly. We do that through events like this one, public events that explore important figures in the Catholic intellectual tradition and what they have to say about constitutionalism, Cicero being a prime example of that. We do it through fellowship programs and other endeavors initiatives. You can find out more at

We are really delighted to be hosting this event with Hillsdale. It’s our first partnership together and I’ll just introduce the speakers before turning it over to Dr. Mehan. Jed Atkins is the E. Blake Burns Associate Professor of classical studies at Duke University. His research focuses on Greek, Roman, and early Christian moral and political thought. He’s especially known for his scholarship on Cicero. I would personally recommend in particular his book Cicero on Politics and the Limits of Reason, which is truly outstanding. Professor Atkins is also the author of the book, Roman Political Thought, and the co-editor of the Cambridge Companion to Cicero’s Political Philosophy. He serves as the chair of the Classical Studies Department as faculty director of the Civil Discourse Project in the Keenan Institute for Ethics and as the faculty director for the Transformative Ideas Program.Professor Atkins earned his MFIL and PhD from Cambridge University and his undergraduate degree from Boden College.

Michael Hawley, in the middle here, is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Houston where he specializes in the history of political thought. His first book, Natural Law Republicanism, Cicero’s Liberal Legacy, examines the way in which the ideas of Cicero shape the development of early modern liberalism and the American founding. I’ve relied on it in my own research and again, highly recommend it. His articles have appeared or are forthcoming in American Journal of Political Science, journal of Politics, Polis, History of European Ideas, many other such prestigious journals. Professor Hawley earned his master’s and doctoral degrees from Duke, where he studied under Professor Atkins and his undergraduate degree from Tufts University.

Now, I could give a similarly laudatory bio for Matt Mehan, our illustrious moderator, but he has instructed me not to. I’ll just say that he is the associate dean of the Van Andel Graduate School of Government here at Hillsdale D.C., and has taught Cicero for many, many years. I can think of no one better really to serve as the moderator for this panel than Dr. Mehan, so I’ll turn it over to him. Thank you.

Matthew Mehan (00:04:37):
I don’t have much to say other than the order of the day, which is Professor Atkins will speak first, then Professor Hawley, and then I’ll give a brief comment afterwards. Then we’ll sit for some conversation. Then towards the end of the evening we’ll open it up for Q&A and discussion with the audience. Without further ado, please.

Jed Atkins (00:05:10):
Well, it is absolutely a pleasure to be here tonight. Joel and Matt, thank you so much for the kind invitation. It’s also great to know that Cicero is a key part of the Catholic intellectual tradition. One of my very first articles was on St. Ambrose’s De Officiis modeled on Cicero. Cicero has been baptized into the Catholic intellectual tradition by St. Ambrose. According to one attendee at the constitutional convention, after the delegates had finished their work, someone asked Benjamin Franklin what type of government the delegates had designed for the American people. Franklin replied “A republic, if you can keep it.” Those words give a sense of the fragility appropriate for the dawn of a new experiment in Republican government. But they can also, I think, be construed as a warning for future generations. Republican self-government requires the support and commitment of the people if it is going to survive.

This is the message communicated by a young Abraham Lincoln as the final members of the founding generation were passing away. When in a speech at the young men’s lyceum in Springfield, Illinois, he urged that the people must attend to the perpetuation of the Republican institutions if their form of government was to continue to exist, at a time when factional conflict threatened to erode these institutions. Now, I think, is a great time to take up a form of Franklin’s question, what is a republic and how can we keep it? Because as much as Lincoln’s age, our age too is ridden by factional conflict where we have people on both the right and the left of the political spectrum wondering and questioning whether our Republican order should continue.

I think in particular on this question, especially noteworthy here, is the decline of trust in the form of government and in our institutions that we have. Recently, Gallup has shown that trust in our institutions is at an all time low. Institutions like the presidency and Congress and the Supreme Court and banks and higher education where I labor, only 36% of Americans have a great deal of trust in higher education. We can go on and on and on. Against this background, this lack of trust in this question, what is a republic and should we keep it, I’m going to turn to Cicero. I’m going to turn to Cicero, the Roman and philosopher for thinking about what a republic is and how we can preserve it.

Now you might ask yourself, what does a first century B.C. philosopher in statesman have to offer us that on this question that’s worthy of our consideration today? I think I would answer and say Cicero is appropriate for three reasons here. First, Cicero stands at the top of a very short list of people who were significant philosophers, but also statesmen. Cicero published over two dozen works of philosophy books that are still taught today here at Hillsdale. A couple of the works are in the curriculum Officiis, I believe they are, still read today, but he also held the highest political office in his country. Our second president, John Adams once wrote, “The loss of Cicero’s book upon republics is much to be regretted as all the ages of the world have not produced a greater statesman and philosopher united in the same character. His authority should have great weight.”

Now it so happens that some 30 years after Adams wrote this, Cicero’s book on the republic was found or a great deal of the manuscript was found in the Vatican Library. The book on the republic that was lost to Adams can be read, at least a third of it today, by us. This brings me to the second reason for turning to Cicero, in his work on the republic, Cicero offers an important and influential definition of the republic, one that even in Adam’s day had caught the imagination of statesmen because it was preserved through St. Augustine’s City of God, which is bookended by an engagement with Cicero’s definition of on the republic. This is a very important definition. I’ll return to it in a moment. The third reason, despite the differences between our own age and Cicero, the important challenge, I think, facing both his day and our own is the same and that involves a divided political body and the lack of trust of the people and their leaders. Cicero, as we’ll see, speaks clearly to this issue.

Let’s turn to this book that was lost and now is found on the Republic, which offers the most direct, concise and influential definition of a Republic in the history of political philosophy. Cicero says that a republic, [foreign language 00:10:59] in the Latin is a [foreign language 00:11:01]. That is, it’s the business, affairs, or property of the people. The Latin here is instructive. [foreign language 00:11:08] means business, affairs, property, or wealth. To be truly public, [foreign language 00:11:12], the [foreign language 00:11:13] needs to be owned or to belong to the people. Well, Cicero continues on then to unpack what a people is. This is really important because at Rome, as today, people can mean two things. First of all, sometimes people means that it’s a part of the civic body, it’s the common people as opposed to the elite as in the activist slogan, power to the people. The second way of thinking about people is in a sense of the civic body as a whole, as in the preamble to the constitution. We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.

Well, Cicero in this definition understands people in the second second sense, but he’s very sensitive to the fact that in his day as in ours, there can be a danger for part of the people, a faction of the people to try to put forward their partial interest in the name of the whole people. While Cicero, speaking through Scipio, one of the characters in the dialogue, then goes on to unpack what it means to be a people. He says “A people needs to be sufficiently large size and it needs to be united around some sense of the common advantage or the common good and also justice.” Ultimately, the goal of a republic is to promote the affairs or interests of the people, of the citizen body as a whole. They are entitled to a degree of justice, which Cicero later unpacks as requiring the respect for individual rights and also a commitment to the common advantage.

The definition of a republic, and this is important, does not commit Cicero to what we might think of as republican governance in the Madisonian sense that is as people ruling through their representatives who serve as delegates on their behalf, elected representation in this sense is unknown in the Roman world. Cicero’s definition furthermore leaves open the precise form that this constitution is going to take. In fact, he moves on from setting up this definition to have a debate, a debate between the three classical forms of constitution. Is monarchy best way to govern a republic or is an aristocracy the best or is a democracy the best? Well monarchy argues in terms of wise, compassionate care because power is not divided, it’s held by one person. It can be most effectively focused on achieving the common good.

Aristocracy argues for its rule in terms of wisdom and deliberative capacity. The commonwealth as a whole will benefit, say the aristocrats, when the decision-making process is led by those with the most knowledge. A version of this argument has been resurrected in the past five or six years by people that argue for epistocracy, which is a fancy Greek word that means that rule by those who know who have knowledge. These people argue that elections should be arranged to privilege high information voters, but they don’t get the last word. Cicero moves on to give the case for democracy. The democrats, they argue that the only state in which liberty has any home at all is one in which the people have the power. In order for people to have the power, people must enjoy equal liberty. Equal liberty, the Democrats argue, means equality under the law and equal legal rights such as the right to vote. These rights are standard Roman guarantors of liberty. However, the Democratic partisans argue that these guarantees of liberty are necessary but not sufficient conditions to be a free republic, a Libra race, [foreign language 00:14:50].

If a republic is going to be truly free and to be a public in the full sense of the term, the Democrats argue all citizens must participate directly in rule. Here they cite, for instance, democratic Athens where the citizens are able, by lottery, to participate in share in the regular rotation of offices. Like the other participants in the debate, the Democrats accept a particular definition of liberty. Liberty here is to be the master over your own affairs. It means that you’re not dominated by the arbitrary will of somebody else. This definition of liberty is very common in Roman thought. We see it not just in Cicero, but we also see it in the Roman historian Sallust and Livy, and the Roman jurists, among others.

Now this definition of liberty as non-domination has special implications. To see this most clearly, I’m going to compare it to another famous definition of definition of liberty that has been proposed by or cataloged by Isaiah Berlin, the Oxford political theorist, negative liberty. Negative liberty means that you are free if your actions are free from external interference. I’m free to the extent that my actions, my will is not interfered with by law or by violence or by something out there. Freedom of non-domination says the criterion for external non-interference is not demanding enough. They say that if you’re subject to arbitrary power, the mere possibility of interference can be as restrictive to your liberty as actual interference.

I’m going to give you an example. I’m a professor. I’m going to give you an example from the classroom that may bring back some nightmares for some of you, I hope not. Consider the example of the arbitrary professor, the arbitrary professor who indicates at any time he may depart from the syllabus and implement another grading system maybe with different assignments thrown in it any kind of moment. I once had an arbitrary professor. That brings back nightmares. Even if this professor never does this, the mere fact that this can happen means that the students in the class can never be assured that they will be judged by fair standards and so they get stressed out and they’re never fully able to do their best work in the class.

As the example of the arbitrary professor shows, freedom as non-domination focuses on arbitrary power but not on participation. What’s the solution to the arbitrary professor? Well, it’s a policy that says, “Stick to the syllabus, man. Stick to the syllabus.” The students, they don’t need to have participation in designing the syllabus. They don’t need to have an equal share of power in the classroom. It just means that the professor has to have his hands bound by the policies of the syllabus, so too in Rome the solution to the arbitrary exercise in power is laws and rights. Take away the arbitrariness. There’s a whole menu of rights that were popular. The right to vote, the right to have a trial, the right to appeal to a popular assembly against the exercise of arbitrary control by magistrates.

Now, Scipio who’s moderating this debate between the democrats and the aristocrats and the monarchs appeals to the specific notion of freedom as non-domination. He turns it against the democrats. He blunts their argument for full participation because he talks about Rome’s history in book two, and he shows how the people acquired the rights to vote and the rights to appeal. Hence, he argues rulers are governed by the will and consent of citizens and the people as a result are free from arbitrary rule. Given that these conditions have been fulfilled, these conditions for non-domination, the idea of freedom as non-domination furnishes Democrats with no compelling counterargument to Cicero’s suggestion that a free people should entrust itself to the care and manager of a caregiver even at the expense of their own direct political participation.

At the end of the day, Cicero’s understanding of a republic as a [foreign language 00:18:50] points to none of the above. You all lose. It points to the mixed constitution, a constitution in which power, authority, and liberty is shared between the people, that is the common people and the elite, in a complicated system of assemblies, magistrates, religious offices, and the Senate. This, hopefully, he thinks will promote the civil good, the civic good of the people, the people understood as we the people, the people in the sense of the civic body as a whole.

Cicero’s republic then is not a democracy. But at the same time, by framing his definition of the republic, the [foreign language 00:19:28] in terms of the property or the affairs of the people, he does frame his whole constitutional project as requiring responsiveness to the interests of the people, the good of the people. Good government must be good for the governed, for their sake. To ensure this, it must consult the interests of the people. Lex Paulson in a recent book has even argued that Cicero has played a crucial role in developing the notion of the will and that one important extension of this development is that Cicero made it possible to speak of for the first time in the history of political philosophy the will of the people.

Now, one reason why those in government must consult the will of the people is that Cicero has confidence in the moral intuitions of the people. He grants that our common everyday intuitions are reliable to be led astray by customs or by mal education, which is why education is so important. But nevertheless, he believes that common everyday people can have some kind of general grasp of morality. And here’s where the argument from natural law comes in. In the title of this event, Cicero treats natural law from different angles and all of his major political works On The Republic, it’s prequel On The Order, De Oratore, it’s sequel On The Laws, and in his final work On Duties, natural law was talked about in all of these works. Nature, he argues in On The Order, gives everyone even the non-expert crowd, even the commoner, the capacity to discriminate about morality and to make moral judgments.

There’s little difference between the expert and the commoner when it comes to making judgements about politics just as in music, when non-experts can detect clashing notes in a chord which happens when I’m playing the piano more frequently than many, but you don’t have to be a music scholar to detect when I’m playing a wrong chord. Right? Just as you can detect clashing notes in a chord, there are some things so discordant to people’s ears that they strike us as wrong even if we can’t immediately give a philosophical or rational justification as to why. Here’s one reason for Cicero’s confidence in popular judgment and the reason why you need to have responsiveness to the people.

At some deep level, all of us in as much as we are human, have the capacity to perceive when words and thoughts and actions are discordant, when they disrespect the dignity of other human beings and disrupt human society. This moral, and I call this in my book on Roman political thought in aesthetic sense, can be aroused by auditory and visual means no loss by rational arguments. It’s neither strictly rational nor irrational, but it’s an aesthetic sense that when engaged can shape and change and enlarge popular opinion.

I’ll give you an example. In the late 18th century, the English abolitionists used gravings with the images of slaves depicting graphically the overcrowded slave ships to convey the dehumanization caused by the slave trade. This visual imagery appealed to a common notion of human dignity, that rational argumentation alone could not unlock. If you remember from the history, I mean Wilberforce tried everything, even trying even appealing to economic self-interest. But historians show that one of the big things that changed as graphically seeing human suffering and it appealed to something to some deep sense in …

… And it appealed to something, to some deep sense in the people of the time. So, if government must consult the interests of the people to earn their trust, then rulers must be seen by the people to be trustworthy. The way to accomplish this is you need to understand the proper role of the magistrate. What is the purpose? What is the end of being a magistrate, of being a statesman? Cicero argues in On Duties that the statesman bears the persona of the city and has his own proper function, which gives him the power and authority to do things such as use the coercive force in appropriate situations.

The exercise of coercive force, of course, would be wrong for private citizens. On the other hand, a magistrate that refuses to use coercive force when necessary would be a bad magistrate. So, magistrates’ rules are guided by what Cicero calls decorum of virtue that concerns what is fitting for agents to do in different situations. Decorous behavior is that we should garner applause from one’s fellows when they see it. As such, it’s not its own virtue only, but it accompanies all the other virtues, the cardinal virtues of justice, and wisdom, and courage.

And as a result, it builds community because people who play the role well elicit the applause of their fellows and strengthen community. And since the decorum is also tied to our rational nature, we may encounter some actions that we believe would be inconsistent with our role as human beings. And when we do that, we should refuse from performing activities that would conflict with our basic duties of social beings, such as, for instance, injuring another human being in pursuit of our own interests. Ultimately, Cicero’s project is not populist or democratic. He writes first and foremost from an elite perspective, and he’s concerned with reforming the elite. His vision for government is by the elite, but it’s an elite that is responsive to the interests and the advantage of the people as a whole, not the interest of a single faction. And this, I believe, makes him particularly relevant for a populous stage like today.

Like all movements, populism arises from many motivations and is based on lots of different considerations and grievances. It’s a complex movement with many voices and elements, not all of which I would want to personally endorse, but some of the yearnings that give rise to populism are extremely important and have been ignored by our elite. Photojournalist Chris Arnade, some of you may have read his important book Dignity, published about five years ago or so, seeking respect in back row America. In this moving book, Arnade captures the textures of the lives of the urban and rural poor who have too far often been forgotten by our experts in political class.

He sits with people who too often are nameless. He speaks their names and listens to their stories and shows their faces. It takes him to places that hold together urban and rural communities, but places that aren’t really part of the fabric of the lives of many of our elite, places like McDonald’s and houses of worship. Arnade aims to highlight folks who have been ignored by many of us, what he calls back row America. In this ignorance of considering the good of the whole people, shows up in our politics.

In my home state of North Carolina, the average life expectancy, in Orange County where UNC Chapel Hill is and where many Duke professors live, is nine years longer than in rural counties like Robeson County, North Carolina, which is incredible, and it deserves our attention if rule is truly to be seen in the interest of the good of the whole, and increasingly the polls tell us people are not seeing our rule as responsive to the good of the whole. So ultimately, Cicero’s project responds to the populism of our moment by asking the elite to be better, to define their actions and responsibilities by the purpose of their rules as leaders, as statesmen, to rule in the interests of all the people, to respond to the needs of the people as a whole. The problem of our day are complex, but I certainly think having a better, more responsive elite is an important part of ensuring the perpetuation of our republic. Thanks.

Michael Hawley (00:27:19):
I’ll keep time for myself here. Hi, everyone. I’d like to reiterate Professor Atkins’ thanks to Catholic University and Hillsdale, and especially the organizers, to Matt, Joel, and Shaun. I’m delighted to be here and I’m especially delighted to be here with Professor Atkins, which is a real honor for me because as was mentioned, Jed was in fact on my dissertation committee and he taught me if not everything I know about Cicero, at least all of the important things. And so, I’ll just say upfront that as we get into a conversation, if we disagree, the safest thing to do is to assume that Jed is right.

So, the timing of the event today I also think is kind of auspicious. I don’t know if any of you are following trends on the internet, but over the past month there’s been a trend on… I guess it’s not Twitter anymore, it’s X, of women asking their husbands and boyfriends how many times a week they think about Ancient Rome and the Roman Empire and being completely shocked that the answer is something like 40 times a week, and so I’m hoping that by the time we’re done today we get that up to like 50. So, this event is for all of you who are giving that answer.

So, Cicero has languished for a long time, and undeservedly as I hope we can persuade you if you’re not already persuaded by attending tonight. His thought was profoundly influential on the American founding fathers, John Adams, James Wilson, Thomas Jefferson, and also on the philosophers who stood behind the founding fathers, people like Montesquieu and John Locke. And therefore, I think he’s an almost uniquely valuable resource for us to understand ourselves. And these remarks of mine are meant just to sort of begin a conversation and provoke discussion, so I’m going to outline three ways I think Cicero can speak to us now or to people at all times living under free constitutional government. And the first of these is what Cicero calls the relationship between honestum and utile, which I’ll talk about in a second. The second has to do with the relationship of human diversity to constitutional order, and then the third has to do with something Jed talked a little bit about, which is statesmanship, leadership as service. So, I’ll start with the first. Cicero’s most influential book is probably his De Officiis, his On Duties, and that book sets itself the task of trying to show that the honestum, which is the morally good or the upright, the virtuous thing to do is ultimately one and the same. It’s one in being with the utile, which is to say the useful or the prudent thing to do. And I think in DC, a lot of people in politics would suggest that this is like a preposterously naive position to take. This is the view of someone who either doesn’t know anything about politics or who hasn’t played the political game all that well. But as Jed mentioned, Cicero was himself an extremely successful politician, but more than that, he was what the Romans called, and novus homo. He was A new man.

He didn’t come from an illustrious political family, or a particularly powerful or rich one. And in fact, unlike most of the other major political actors of the late republic, he also didn’t have an army at his back, and yet he rose from relative obscurity to the highest office in his state, to the consulship, on the basis of his merit and ability. And so, I think he’s earned himself a hearing at the very least when he claims that the honestum and the utile are one, and that maybe it’s possible that those who think that it’s wiser to be vicious are the foolish and shortsighted ones. I won’t elaborate or try to show you his entire case to prove that here. It touches on all sorts of aspects of human life, but I’ll focus on what I think is one of the central political upshots if you do buy the unity between honestum and utile, which is if the useful and the morally upright are one, it means that no political arrangement that is fundamentally unjust can be stable, that is to say the just is the only secure and stable political system.

And Cicero shows what he means by this in ways that Professor Atkins talked a little bit about already when it comes to political constitutions. He was one of the early defenders of what we call the mixed constitution, as Rome’s was, it blends elements of democracy, aristocracy and monarchy into one harmonious whole. This blending for Cicero though, on the one hand, it is pragmatic and prudential, but it’s also a matter of justice. That is to say on the one hand, the mixed constitution is for Cicero, and I think this is borne out historically as an empirical matter, generally far more lasting and stable than simple versions of a constitution, than simple monarchy or aristocracy and democracy, in large part because it’s much more difficult to corrupt because there are different loci of power and these enables something like checks and balances.

But Cicero also thinks that the claims of ordinary people and the claims of elites, and the claim of an energetic executive with something like executive discretion all have elements of justice to them. So, like many aristocratically minded individuals, Cicero is sympathetic to the complaint that the people are ignorant and irresponsible and shouldn’t be entrusted with too much political power. And he writes in his dialogues very sympathetic characters, including his own brother at one point, who advocate for a much pure aristocratic or even monarchical form of government. But Cicero does reject these arguments, again, partly for reasons that are practical, but also for reasons that are moral. So on the one hand, the people are, as Professor Atkins explained, the res publica is the public possession. The people are in a strict sense the owners of their political community. So, they have an undeniable moral claim to some sort of say in how it is wrong, even if it’s not an overwhelming say.

But Cicero also thinks if you deny them this, the injustice will make them restive and uncooperative and potentially rebellious. So, you should not deprive them of their say for prudential reasons as well, and I think thinking about our constitution this way is helpful in that it’s a spurious choice to claim often that we’re choosing between justice and stability. Exclusions, deprivations of rights on the grounds that providing them would make matters unstable or would upend political society is not in the long run a particularly wise policy according to Cicero. Not providing just rights and inclusion where it is due that is, in the long run going to make things more unstable. And this has been a lesson that you see over and over again in oppressive regimes across the world, but it’s also I think a lesson for us. There’s a second way in which this unity of on honestum and utile plays out for Cicero, which any of you who have read Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America might be familiar with.

So when Tocqueville travels around America in the early 1830s, he sees Americans practicing something he calls self-interest well understood. This is to say they buy into this almost moral intuition rather than a philosophical principle that helping out my neighbor, service to my community is in some ways in my self-interest. It’s to my self-interest, in other words, that I don’t know, that children in my local community are well-educated, even if I don’t have them myself, because I don’t want the little ragamuffins running around and causing problems, and my business will be better off if there are educated customers to buy from it. And according to Tocqueville, this belief that Americans, at least used to instinctively have that the honestum and the utile as it were are one, drives our associational life, it allows us to avoid on the one hand the sort of Scylla of what Tocqueville calls individualism.

That is to say a sort of selfish, self-regarding attitude that says, “The hell with everyone else,” but it also allows us to avoid the Charybdis of a sort of nanny state that takes care of everything for us. It’s what allows civil society to have life and vitality. And in fact, at one point in Democracy in America, Tocqueville laments that he can’t find a moralist who would defend and illustrate the principle he’s talking about. And so at one point he says, and I quote, “I see around me only people who would seem to want to teach their contemporaries every day by their word and their example that the useful is never dishonest. Shall I therefore finally discover none who undertake to make them understand how honesty can be useful?” And it turns out, at that the end of the quote, Cicero is that moralist. And Cicero, if you read On Duties, gives a pretty good account of why it is that honesty is useful.

And this leads me, by an indirect route, to my second point, which has to do with human diversity. So, the ancient Greek city states were by modern standards, relatively small political entities, a few tens of thousands of citizens, they were relatively homogeneous, they were built on bonds of tight loyalty, and a thick culture, and great political thought shares many of these characteristics. Citizens’ differences should be relatively minor. In Plato’s Republic, for instance, there are only three classes and everyone is taught that they are members of one family.

And even though Aristotle objects to this a little bit, his imagined polis is also fairly homogeneous. And as a result, Greek philosophy’s visions of the good life and virtue are at least a little bit more one size fits all. That is to say the good life is the life of philosophy, and the life of the statesman as a sort of distant runner-up, and the molds of the philosopher and the statesman look fairly similar, that is to say philosophers all look more or less alike, as do statesmen, and everyone else who can’t quite cut it should be placed in the class that best suits their ability.

And this to Americans, I think, is not a very appealing vision, nor was it to Cicero. Rome itself is much larger, much more like us in this respect, with a widely extended vision of citizenship and different classes and political groups. And Cicero, in his political thought, sort of takes up this idea and offers a vision of a good life more compatible with human diversity, but while accommodating human difference, doesn’t wander off into relativism or nihilism. And so, Professor Atkins mentioned that Cicero offers what’s known as a personae theory, personae in Latin means roles, and I do think it’s worth talking about two of the important ones here. So according to Cicero, we all have two roles given to us by nature. The first is what he calls [foreign language 00:38:45], universal nature, which all humans partake of. The second though he calls [foreign language 00:38:51], our unique nature. It’s what makes each individual one of us, unique and special.

And the first takes its bearings from what makes us distinctly human. So, all human beings have reason, and speech, and a social nature. And from this, we can develop a theory of virtue, visions of the highest way of life. Philosophy and statesmanship do have pretty strong claims here. Human qualities like wisdom and justice are most valuable because they are most uniquely human and therefore are supreme virtues, but that second nature is about what makes you you, it’s about your personality, and your interests, and your aptitudes. And Cicero gives a whole host of ways in which we might differ from each other here. Some people are funny and some people are serious, some people are artistic, and others are practical, some are straightforward, others ironic, all sorts of things. And Cicero says that while keeping within the bounds of that first nature, you ought to, in fact, you have an obligation, a duty to pursue your second, to pick a career and a way of life that fits with your unique abilities and aptitudes, to develop the aspects of your personality that are strongest as long as they’re not vicious.

And Cicero moreover insists that no one can know better than you what your unique nature is, even someone wiser than you, even a philosopher, or a teacher. And that means, as a practical matter, we can’t place people into classes. We have to take individuals one at a time. Now, this doesn’t mean you can do whatever you like. Cicero is quite insistent that that first nature places certain strict limits on what you can do in terms of harm to others, crime, viciousness, other failures of virtue. So, he’s nowhere near a relativist or nihilist, but the political upshot of this vision of human nature is that the libertas that Professor Atkins is talking about is essential to any healthy constitutional order. We cannot have the good life without the freedom to decide and pursue what a good life would be for each one of us specifically. And this brings me to my last point, which is one of those good lives that Cicero describes, statesmanship, just close to Cicero’s heart and relevant again to us here in DC.

And there’s a lot to be said about Cicero’s vision of statesmanship, but I’m going to focus on one element I think is a bit counterintuitive. So as we’ve been talking about, Cicero lived in a mixed regime and he was clearly familiar with the idea of things like checks and balances, even though he doesn’t call them that. And he appreciates the way in which different centers of power can prevent the accumulation of corruption and tyranny. He was very attentive to the dangers of ambitious men. In fact, he was himself an ambitious man, but his account of statesmanship doesn’t actually focus on that element, of a mixed constitution. It focuses on the way in which the ideal statesman is a uniter, a maker of harmony. His mixed constitution was not just checks and balances, sort of Newtonian physics of equal and opposite forces holding each other in place.

Instead, Cicero calls it a blended harmony, and he likens it more to something like the solar system with many moving bodies of different sizes, going at different rates, but producing a celestial music. Scipio calls it in De re Publica a sort of harmony through managed diversity. And the ideal statesman is kind of like the conductor of that harmony, and this picks up an element not just of Rome’s constitution, but of ours that I think is unappreciated. Most of you here I suspect are familiar with the Federalist Papers and arguments about ambition should check ambition and checks and balances, but even a close reader of the Federalist Papers should realize that isn’t all the American Constitution is, nor all that the founders expected of our political leaders. In some ways, checks and balances are contingencies because as Federalist 10 says, “Enlightened statesmen won’t always be at the helm,” but you can hope for them.

And in fact, the system of elections and the constitutional system is designed to call them up, statesmen who see the different goods and interests of the community and seek to harmonize them rather than set them against each other. And to sort of hammer this home, there’s a passage I want to come close to closing with from Federalist 64, which is by John Jay, who is very much like the third place of the authors of the Federalist Papers, but who deserves a hearing too, I think. Jay says this, “As the select assemblies for choosing the president, as well as the state legislatures who appoint senators will in general be composed of the most enlightened and respectable citizens, there is reason to presume that their attention in their votes will be directed only to those men who have become most distinguished by their abilities and virtue, and in whom the people perceive just grounds for confidence.

“The Constitution manifests very particular attention to this object, by excluding men under 35 from the first office and those under 30 from the second, it confines the electors to men of whom the people have had time to form a judgment and with respect to whom they will not be liable to be deceived by those brilliant appearances of genius and patriotism, which like transient meteors, sometimes mislead as well as dazzle. The inference which naturally results from these considerations is this, that the president and senators so chosen will always be of the number of those who best understand our national interests, whether considered in relation to the several states or to foreign nations who are best able to promote those interests and whose reputation for integrity inspires and merits confidence.”

So, Cicero’s vision of a constitution in statesmanship, I think it also has a home in the founder’s vision, which is to say there is an important role for checks and balances, but there is also an important role for harmonization. It’s not sufficient to just be a check. You need to look to the good of the whole, and this is for a statesman, the unity of utile and honestum. So, I’ll wrap up here and note that as most of you may know, Cicero does die a fairly gruesome death at the end of his political career. And so, there is a good case to be made that he was a man outside his time, but if you take seriously the way in which very serious thinkers have taken him, I think we may find he’s a man for our time and possibly for all times. Thanks.

Matthew Mehan (00:45:36):
Thank you both. It was excellent. First and foremost, I want to thank Professor Atkins and Hawley, Mike, and Jed, for their comments, especially, frankly, for their great efforts in revivifying Ciceronian scholarship, and I think in so doing, revivifying foundational truths about republican self-governance, some of which we’ve just heard, and hopefully we continue discussing tonight.

… and self-governance, some of which we’ve just heard, and hopefully we continue discussing tonight, and after you leave. It is one of my hopes, and it’s one of Hillsdale’s hopes, that this is designed to spark further study of Cicero by responsible leading citizens like yourselves.

While I want to say a few things in specific about both of your comments here tonight, we can do that during the Q&A, I also want to raise a few additional Ciceronian matters related to natural law and constitutional self-government, instead of at least a few items, some sticky wickets for us to take up.

One very common response that I hear very often, almost universally after any praise of this sort of Cicero, it’s a serious retort. Whenever you say that he’s an original Republican theorist and has something original to add, I usually hear something like this. ” No, no, no. That’s definitely in Plato. That’s definitely in Aristotle. It’s in the Greeks. It’s in Homer. No, it’s in Thucydides.” In fact, when an assertion of Cicero as a truly great and important thinker is uttered, it can often be taken as an affront to the Greeks.

So, like a good Ciceronian, or so I try, I think rhetorically about how to talk about Cicero’s contribution. And frankly, I’ll just throw in, why not complicate matters? Seneca’s as well. I alternate between calling the Romans the quote, “Last and fullest flowering of Hellenic thought.” that’s my catchphrase to calm the Grecophile down, and calling Cicero rhetorical reunification of Greek poetry, sophistry and philosophy or political philosophy, but perhaps that’s just repeating myself.

And so, there really are two questions that we could take up, and these I think imply a third. So, here are three collections or small batteries of questions. But the first question is what do you both think are the best or easiest grounds considering what you’ve already mentioned and what’s yet to be said about, upon which to establish among those in the academy and more popularly, the originality and further development of Ciceronian thought? It’s a long argument, but where do you start? What’s the strongest ground, the easiest handshake for that argument? And what aspects are easiest to illuminate this? Where would it be wisest to begin, et cetera.

The second question, what part of Cicero’s thought being mostly absent from the academy and from legal, political, and popular circles, do you think has in being forgotten, been most detrimental to our constitutional Republican order? Which one hurts most? Maybe it is, I’ll speculate, perhaps both of you focused on the fact that the statesman isn’t really living up to its duties. And maybe that’s simply it, but let me put it even more provocatively. And this is a graduate school program, so I’ll get a little nerdier in the weeds here.

What Greek insight has been most unfortunately affected by the absence of Ciceronian thought that, in all prior centuries since Cicero’s death, has ordinarily entered into dialogue with Greek thinkers and Greek political thought about constitutions? What Greek insight is most in need of Ciceronian refinement, correction, moderation, or interaction with Cicero in some other way I haven’t mentioned? Or is this sort of Virgilian Greeks verse Trojans frame a fruitless one? We shouldn’t do that.

And then third, the implied question from these two I think can be more poignantly be raised by a passage from Professor Hawley’s, truly fine book Natural Law Republicanism: Cicero’s Liberal Legacy. And here I’m just going to quote, but I’m going to throw in a few additions to embellish his powerful congery of Smithsonian influences on Western civilization, and I think in truth, our own Republican order.

This is from Professor Hawley. “Cicero’s thought remained admired long after the end of the Republic to which he dedicated his career and it appealed to a diverse list of readers. He seemed to offer something for everyone. Augustine, Ambrose and other church fathers condemned many of the works of the pagans, but they exempted Cicero whose ideas they freely borrowed. Medieval scholastics, such as Thomas Aquinas, appealed frequently to Cicero as an authority.” I would even mention that in the Scriptoriums, the number one copied book was Cicero’s On Duties second only to Song of Songs.

Michael Hawley (00:51:08):
I should have put that in there.

Matthew Mehan (00:51:09):
Yeah, [inaudible 00:51:11] from Desire For Learning or [inaudible 00:51:16] for God, LeClercq. But Cicero was immensely popular among the Renaissance Humanists, particularly Petrarch, and I would add more in Erasmus as you do elsewhere in your writings, who considered Cicero his favorite Roman. And I think that’s true of all three of those names, including Petrarch, Erasmus and more. Among the reformers, Martin Luther implied that Cicero’s prospects on Judgment Day were considerably better than those of many prominent Christians.

After the Bible, the next book to be printed on Gutenberg’s Press, was Cicero’s On Duties. People don’t remember that. Purpose of Gutenberg’s printing showmanship was, here are the texts of our civilization and they will be on the printing press. First, the Bible. Second, On Duties. That’s an amazing fact. Martin Nussbaum has called this book, Cicero’s On Duties, “Perhaps the most influential book in the history of Western political philosophy.” Emmanuel Kant, David Hume, I would add Adam Smith. As you all do elsewhere, two thinkers rarely in agreement, both acknowledge great debts to his work. And in the words of Michael Grant, quote, “The influence of Cicero upon the history of European literature and ideas greatly exceeds that of any other prose writer in any language.

So, that is all a long preamble to ask this. Why has our friend Tully Marcus Tullius Cicero, who used to be on a first name basis, Tully, with the West, with Europe, with America, why has he been so forgotten, so widely and so thoroughly in our day? I think it’s a really important question we need to take up, and I’m not convinced by the quick answer that German scholars turned him in the 19th century, some semi-successful beer hall [inaudible 00:53:17] the academy.

That doesn’t seem to account for the dramatic fall from utter ubiquity to near oblivion. I have my suspicions and speculations as to a wider answer, but rather than attempt to answer the third question, let me just offer an answer to the second question. So briefly, to stir the pot and to buy Jed and Mike a little more time to come up with some more sagacious answers. I’ll answer the question of what Ciceronian insight is, I think, most tragically in absentia today, due to his text and teachings being memory hold in the 20th century and only now through the work of scholars such as our esteemed guests are being rediscovered. In a word, Cicero’s insistence that man is more than a rational animal, man is a social and communal animal bound together by reason, ratio, and speech, oratio. This reorientation of man is not merely rational in that sort of technical sense, but also effective or rhetorical, and as Cicero puts it, charitable. He’s known as the philosopher of charity in previous generations.

It seems to me to have enormous ramifications for how we come to understand our constitutional order. If man is especially man, not because he can think simply, but because he can due to reason and its manifestation speech, share a reasonable and loving life with his fellow man, then a common life and the loving duties of the individual to build and maintain the social bonds of family, city and country come rushing onto center stage in a way that rational man doesn’t quite provide, doesn’t quite offer.

Now, the counterargument seems ready at hand. Cicero is a rhetorician, so we got to have counter argument, refutatio. Isn’t that just the Greeks? Do the Greeks do that? I’ve heard that in the Greeks, right? It’s in the Greeks. Doesn’t Aristotle say that man is a political animal? Doesn’t he argue well that men and women share goods and community in the household and village and more perfectly in the city? And the answer is, of course he does. But to say man is political and to say he’s rational is, I think, to say something different than that man is social and communal. The briefest version of this difference might be put this way. Reason operates alone as an individual and politics operates in a group. Reason is higher noble, more divine. Politics, lower and more servile. So much for the Greeks, obviously I’m doing horrible injustices in one sense, but I think it’s fair enough as it goes. For Cicero, social life is of the mind and speech. Communal life of the body, the political community and society is a mixture of both mind and body.

For Cicero, reason is higher, nobler and more divine. He agrees there. But reason itself is associated, forgive the pun, with speech, communication, socialization, caritas, charity, reaching out, unifying, harmonizing, perhaps harmonizing being a metaphor for loving and binding in unified love. Even reason is unifying with others even reason is social reason and speech, ratio et oratio. For Cicero, it is not just the necessities of the body and political life that draw men and women into the benefits, pleasures and virtues of friendship. It is the fundamental character of our rational soul, which is social, unitive and charitable.

What follows from this insight has I think, profound repercussions for everything from private property to pluralism. It changes the nature of education, the role of the university and the moral calculus surrounding a life of service in government. Forgive me for remaining on mission here at Hillsdale DC campus. Friendship, even in its seemingly lower form of civility and citizenship, suddenly becomes a noble expression of our highest attribute. A spark of the divine seen not in the lone candle of reason, but in the sharing of fire.

Cicero’s development of human nature, in accord with right reason. That is Cicero’s natural law teaching about humanitas, what it is to be fully and truly human, unfolds for us a way of life, a habit of Republicanism of self-government of Republican wit, of artful, duty-bound and self-sacrificial friendship at the falling of the Republic, which Mike just mentioned, which resulted in Cicero’s death. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the end of a Republican virtue is a one terse line. “Cicero is dead.” That’s it, gone. Now it’s empire time. Force and fear, no longer friendship and persuasion and right. It’s only might and a weak might at that, if justice is as Cicero says. At this end, Cicero engaged in an incredible campaign of writing to give the world an image of self-government, before the storm of violence and empire. And I cannot help seeing an analog in Cicero’s Provident foresight in Shakespeare’s wise old statesman. Gonzalo, and fittingly at the end of The Tempest. Prospero tells his daughter that, “This noble Neapolitan with providence divine out of his charity, who being then appointed master of this design, did give us with rich garments, linen stuffs and necessaries, which set at us much, showed us great gentleness. And knowing that I loved my books when I was being banished by my unjust brother to this lonely island, he furnished me with my own library of volumes that I prized above my dukedom.” A treasury of books that taught him, he says later, the liberal arts, the arts of liberty.

And when at the end of the play, Prospero, trained in these arts of liberty and poetry and persuasion, finally unites with his counselor and mentor, he says this provocative line, which I can’t help but note Shakespeare’s too smart to not know it’s from Cicero, “Holy Gonzalo, honorable man,” i.e. Ernesto, “Mine eyes, insociable to the show of thine. Societas. ” Fellow.” He drops, “I weep with you in unity.” I can’t help but think Cicero kitted out the rest of Western civilization with these books on Republican self-government as an incredible act of charity, which we are now reaping the benefits. With that, let’s have a conversation. Open floor, I know dropped a number of questions, but you can take up as you will.

Jed Atkins (01:00:35):
Well, I’ll start. I mean, first of all, right back at you, Mike, for the admiration. In fact, I was just editing, editing, going through the proofs of a work today. And I was citing Hawley-

Michael Hawley (01:00:45):
[inaudible 01:00:46].

Jed Atkins (01:00:46):
… and it gives me great pleasure to share the stage with Mike. And I’ve learned a lot from Mike, and I’m certainly proud with the scholar he’s become and the teacher he’s become as well. The originality thing, I’ll start with that.

I remember your graduate school and I went to my very first conference on Cicero when I was in graduate school at Cambridge. Cambridge organized a May Week, every May, you spent a week in the philosophy club reading a work in ancient philosophy. In 2006, it was Cicero’s On Duties. I remember there because I was writing my dissertation on Cicero. And with the exception of the late great Miriam Griffin, every single person that was invited to speak on Cicero’s work that was the second book off the printing press, off Gutenberg’s Press, with the exception of the late great Miriam Griffin, every single invited scholar was an Aristotle scholar. And every single talk was what would On Duties have said if Aristotle had written it? That was the entire conference.

And so, I went out to lunch with Miriam Griffin and we talked about why these people don’t know what they’re talking about, and Cicero has something valuable to say. And one of the things we talked about, and I’m citing Miriam here, and I’m going to cite somebody else who co-edited a translation On Duties, which I highly recommend Margaret Atkins. Margaret was also a student of Malcolm Schofield’s at Cambridge. And Margaret wrote an article on Cicero’s De Officiis and she said, “What’s important isn’t is it original? But is it true?” Isn’t it original? But is it true?

Now, I do think there are some things that are original, but I want to start there, by challenging the originality, the desire for originality. Because I think if you read Petrarch and you read Shakespeare and so on, St. Ambrose, the reason why they kept returning to Cicero is because they were seeking truth. And that was more important than originality at the end of the day.

Now, where do we begin with establishing originality of Cicero? Where I began in my first book had to do with rights, that Cicero was a Roman, and therefore he was in a society where you had something called Roman law. And individual civic rights were a very important part of Roman law, in a way that they were not important part of Greek law. And so, when Cicero is trying to understand what a political society is, he says it’s a partnership that’s based around rights, which is a very different way than Aristotle describes it.

Aristotle, when he thinks about justice, he thinks about justice in terms of fit. And right order. Same with Plato. Now that might be abstract, let me make it very clear but with an example. Let’s say you’re somewhere where it snows more than North Carolina and your kids are going to school and at the beginning of the day, they all turn in their coats to the teacher. And at the end of the day, the teacher has to distribute the coats back out. Well, if you’re distributing it according to rights, you say, “Who owns the coat?” That matters, that’s relevant. If you’re distributing it out according to fit, well, your kid might come home with a very different coat then he or she went to school with because maybe that coat fit them better than what you sent them.

So, it’s a very different understanding of how to understand rights and obligations and what you see in Plato and Aristotle. So, that would be one place that’s original and new. The emphasis of individual rights in a good society.

Michael Hawley (01:04:56):
It won’t be shocking to discover, I basically agree with the person who taught me Cicero, but I would say so similar to [inaudible 01:05:06], it’s in the same family as rights, but Roman libertas is something I think is central to Cicero’s thought, that is not entirely absent from Greeks or something that looks like it, something that looks like liberty as non-interference. But if you read Plato and Aristotle, they’re not huge fans of that sort of liberty. If you read the discussion of democracy in book eight of the Republic, it’s at best a mixed bag according to Socrates. Whether people doing what they want is a good thing. And Aristotle goes so far as to call it tyrannical, everyone living the way that they want. And so, I think Cicero is quite original, at least in the history of Western thought, to not only recognize this form of liberty, but defend it as an ideal worth striving for. And that implicates virtually everything else he has to say about politics.

But I also like the point about originality. I think there’s another way of putting it though, which is Cicero describes himself as a follower of Plato, specifically with respect to his skepticism. That is, he doesn’t feel bound to any of the particular philosophic schools, he feels free to borrow wherever he sees truth. And if the Stoics have it on this, then they’re worth following. But if the Peripatetics have it on that, they’re worth following. And if Roman law has it on the other, it’s worth following. And to say if Cicero does that, in much of his political philosophy, that is he picks from different places, there’s still an originality in what you choose to pick and what you combine. So, if I made a cake and someone were to say to you, “What’s original about this cake? Someone else made the flour and someone else made the sugar and someone else picked out the flavorings,” or whatever, I’d be able to say, “Yeah, but none of those was the thing you wanted, right?” It’s original to put those things in the particular combination that Cicero does.

And I think there is something particularly compellingly true about the way in which Cicero imagines human beings and their social nature and imagines a healthy political society as one that has rights and one that’s animated by a form of libertas that appeals even now, today.

Jed Atkins (01:07:12):
The other thing, and I echo all of that, Professor Hawley said, but I think the other thing, what’s original to Cicero, is again within the Roman context, you’ve moved outside of the Greek polis, and the polis, these cities are small. Even the largest city are going to be very much a face-to-face kind of society. And with Rome, the Roman Empire at its height under Aurelius, was larger than the territorial extent of the lower 48 states. So, Rome now is big. It has an empire.

And two of the places where I think Cicero is so important and original, is thinking about how the republic relate to the outside world and to other cities. And two areas where he’s certainly original, number one is the development of just war theory. Cicero was the first to develop a systematic understanding of just war, including the distinction that’s so common between justice within the waging of war versus justice that’s required to go to war. And there’s so many of the basic principles that we see within just war theory that have managed to come into the tradition through Ambrose in Milan, through St. Augustine, through Grotius and others.

And so, that was something that was very important. And then the other thing that is not only original, but I think is very worth considering for us today, has to do with Cicero is committed to human flourishing and he’s …

… [inaudible 01:09:00] is committed to human flourishing, and he’s committed to a good society. And he’s committed to justice that encompasses every human being, as he says in De Officiis, “By the very fact that you are a human being, justice is due to you.” So, we have obligations to everybody, every human being.

On the other hand, he wants to argue for the priority of the republic and for patriotism. And he argues that there is not a deep conflict between these two things, mainly because, “The republic is the society,” he says, “that is the locus of our deepest loves and affections, and it is also the society that can best meet our needs.” In the cosmopolis, it’s very hard to feel and to understand the interests of people across the world the way we can, our citizens, our fellow citizens.

And on the other hand, something that’s smaller than the res publica, the family, the household, the village, simply doesn’t provide the types of diversity that can enlarge our loves and broaden it from these natural loves for blood to encompass something larger than blood and kinship, to involve monuments and laws and all the things that can enlarge our loves. The res publica does this. And by doing this, it promotes sociability, which is the very thing that binds us all together, even in the human community outside of the res publica.

This is a very powerful argument, I think. And I think he does it with more force, and it’s more convincing than even somebody like Adam Smith, for instance, who has a version of this under the influence of Cicero in his writing. So, this would be something that I would commend to us because I do think when we think about international relations and patriotism, such an important question for us today, that Cicero is a really good person to think with.

Matthew Mehan (01:11:02):
I want to take up something that you mentioned, Mike, about baking the cake. This is an original recipe. I wondered, is this analogous? Is this the same thing put in another way, but part of what I think is a contribution that he offers in practical terms, practical philosophy is that he brings new attention to the rhetorical importance of how you put something for it to create the right kind of effect for action.

I’ll give the example that I use is his beef in De Amicitia with Aristotle on the categories that I hear used all the time of the three friendships, utility, pleasure, and virtue. He says, “I understand what Aristotle’s saying,” but he doesn’t name him. He says, “I understand what they’re saying when they say that, but you shouldn’t put it that way.” He’s very touchy about it. He says, “Don’t do that because what you’ve done is you should say, ‘It’s the occasion is utility, the occasion is pleasure, and the occasion is the pursuit of virtue.’”

But it’s actually an effective bond that is the beginning of friendship, so he temporizes it and shows that the friendship of utility is actually the beginning of a real friendship, potentially, if you and your freedom choose to ennoble it that way. But he’s nervous that if you say, “It’s a friendship of utility,” you’ve actually killed social bonds because, “Oh, is that my barber? Yeah. Well, it’s just my barber, and this is just a mere friendship of utility.” He’s like, “Don’t say that because you’ll actually wound the bonds and the potential for greater virtue and greater charity.”

Michael Hawley (01:12:52):
Yeah, no, I like this thought very much. My research right now is actually on issues of rhetoric in which I’m looking a lot at Cicero. I think you’re right. Cicero, in many of his works, goes out of his way to say, “I’m not ignorant of Greek learning. I’ve just also learned practically, from being an active Roman politician, a whole host of things that Plato and Aristotle don’t seem to appreciate.” I think one of the areas where he thinks he and many of the Romans have gone beyond the Greeks is their understanding of how rhetorically to touch the human psyche to actually produce political action.

Jed talked a little bit earlier about Lex Paulson’s book in which Cicero helps to develop the notion of the will. And I think that’s enormously important. You will look in vain for a clear understanding of the will, in Greek thought. It’s not clear that it’s absent, but it’s definitely not clear that it’s present. And if, when you’re trying to get people to do things, you have to appeal not just to their reason or their appetite, but this other thing that goes on in their mind, called the will, you may speak very differently to them.

So even if, again, Aristotle is right conceptually about the particular nature of this relationship, if you don’t understand that to touch a person’s will will require you to address them in this practically very different way, you’ll be politically ineffective. I think Cicero is very sensitive to the complexities of human psychology in this way, and I think only someone who has tried to get people to do things in politics would be.

Matthew Mehan (01:14:23):
Jed, you brought up the definition of a republic in your talk.

Jed Atkins (01:14:28):
Yes, mm-hmm.

Matthew Mehan (01:14:29):
I’m wondering if you could say a little bit more with regard to the extent to which everyone in a res publica has to share the same notions of justice. I know you’ve also thought about the City of God-

Jed Atkins (01:14:45):

Matthew Mehan (01:14:46):
… and Aristotle’s fight with that definition.

Jed Atkins (01:14:49):

Matthew Mehan (01:14:50):
What does Cicero teach us about fundamental disagreements about highest matters of justice? What is God owed? How do we bring him to bear on that question with regard to Republican self-government in America?

Jed Atkins (01:15:05):
Yeah. Big question. Good question. Yeah, so as I said in my talk, Augustine’s City of God kind of bookends itself by going back to this definition of Cicero where he says a republic is the res populi, the property, the people, and the people is united in a commitment and a common use, use commune, a common, a shared use. Now, what is that use? Now, use in Latin can be translated as right. It can be translated as rights. It can be translated as justice. How do we understand this?

Well, St. Augustine translates it. And he’s quite an interesting reader of Cicero and a creative reader of Cicero. He translates it as justice, and he understands justice, as Cicero does actually, to a large degree, which is you give to each his own, to each his own.

And then the critique of this is Augustine says, “If each one deserves your own, then God needs to get his own.” And Cicero is a pagan, doesn’t do that.

But the second critique of this says, well, look. Cicero goes on to suggest that if this criterion isn’t met, if you have a city that doesn’t have justice, then a republic, at all, fails to exist. You don’t have a bad republic. You have no republic. This actually is just side note going back to our earlier conversation. This does raise the question of legitimacy. Is a regime legitimate? In Greek constitutional thought, with the one exception is in stoicism, but generally, within Plato and Aristotle, you have good regimes. You have bad regimes. They don’t say, “If justice isn’t present, you have no regime,” which is what Augustine says Cicero is suggesting. Therefore, he says Cicero’s definition proves too much in a society. Where justice is not leavened by the love of the right things, by the right order of love, you don’t have a society at all.

Of course, Augustine then says, “Well, that’s silly because, truly, Rome did exist.” I don’t want to say that it didn’t exist at all. There was something called Rome, and it was a legitimate society. So, to save it, he says, “We need to move away from justice to love.” He says that, “Instead of having a shared justice, we have the shared loves.” And then he says, “The better the loves, the better the republic.” So he gives a criterion. You are what you love, and you can measure the goodness of your society based on its shared loves.

Now, I think where Cicero is going to differ is when Cicero comes back in Book 3 and talks about what justice requires. I think he has a more minimalist definition of justice where he really does want to say it’s a type of civic partnership that you have sociability around a commitment to shared rights, to shared legal rights. And then giving each one’s own means you respect the rights that the other people have. That’s part of sociability. Somebody that doesn’t respect other people’s rights is asocial and breaks apart the pact of human community.

So, I think Cicero has a more minimalistic definition of what’s required for a republic to be illegitimate. An illegitimate republic would be that in which the fundamental rights that make a Roman a Roman are just denied systematically, by a regime. Then it would fail to exist. Not that you have to fully have some more idealistic conception of justice such as what Augustine wants to read him as.

So, then how would that play for us? I mean, I do think, though, that where they may not be as far apart is Cicero has… I think if rights are a floor, he also does want to hold out the good, and that might be a ceiling. So, if Plato and Aristotle have an idea of the good regime, but no legitimacy, and Locke is going to focus on the legitimate regime, but not so much focusing on the good, Cicero wants them both. He realizes that we can have good and worse regimes. We can also have legitimate regimes.

So you have to have basic rights to be legitimate, but then focus more towards the good. And there, he does move in a direction in which is more, I think, conversant with Augustine. I think, for us, that’s important. We can analyze to what extent our regime is a good regime. We can have a legitimate regime and a legitimate government, and still be worse, and still be worse off. So, where Cicero, I think, is very valuable is he says, “Hold both of these questions in mind. Plus, just don’t worry about the legitimate thing. Don’t just worry about rights, but also worry about the common good. Keep the good on the table so we can have right and the good.”

Matthew Mehan (01:20:31):
Well, I think we have just a little time for some questions from the audience. Anybody, any burning questions? Yes, please, right there.

Speaker 1 (01:20:44):
Hello. Both of you talked about what Cicero might see is the ideal statesman, the fact that he was both a statesman and a philosopher. When I think of statesman and philosophers, there are far fewer today, but my mind comes to someone like Machiavelli. Machiavelli has lots of influence from Cicero. Machiavelli has lots of influence from Livy. And he writes the discourses on Livy, and he’s in favor of Republican government.

And then, yet, we talk about being an honest person, an honest guy. He also writes The Prince. He also works for Medicis. So, is Machiavelli the statesman we should aspire to be, or is he a failed version, not quite the highest form?

Jed Atkins (01:21:32):
This is Dr. Hawley’s-

Matthew Mehan (01:21:36):
Yeah, you just backed up what Hawley is-

Jed Atkins (01:21:36):
… chapter in his book.

Matthew Mehan (01:21:36):
Just looked up [inaudible 01:21:37].

Michael Hawley (01:21:36):
I wrote a chapter in my book in like a fit of peak at someone saying Cicero and Machiavelli were essentially the same thing. So, I dashed off 50 pages of like, “No.”

So, no, you’re not wrong. Machiavelli was deeply influenced by Cicero and is a Republican too. I take, though, exactly your question to get at the nub of their disagreement, though, which is Cicero insists that honestum and utile go together, and Machiavelli insists that they do not and that someone who tries to keep them together is going to lose his head, as Cicero eventually does. I mean, it’s worth pointing out Machiavelli was no great success at politics either, in fact, I think a much less success than Cicero was.

But I think there’s a political upshot to constitutionalism in their disagreement as well, that Machiavelli is a representative of a sort of answer to Cicero that remains common, which is Cicero, in uniting honestum and utile, it’s very close to doing the same thing when he insists, as Professor Atkins was talking about, that legitimacy is a question, but it’s not the only question. So, Cicero does have a notion of natural law to which any good regime is going to have to correspond in some way, but also the people have to agree to it. That is to say consent and an independent normative standard have to fit together.

And ever since Cicero wrote, people have been trying to pull those things apart. And there have been the people insisting on the binding standard regardless of whether or not people agree to it. And there are new natural law theorists who come very close to taking that position, like, “It doesn’t matter whether the people agree at all, as long as we have the right political policies.”

And then on the other side, the side which Machiavelli, I think, speaks more for, says, “Well, no, it is just the will of the people.” So, you read Machiavelli’s Republicanism, and he’s the first person to just wholeheartedly take the side of the people over the elites and insist that the people are where the power is, and so the smart person follows where that leads. In Cicero, I think part of the reason Cicero actually fades in the 19th century is people keep insisting on pulling apart the two things that Cicero wanted to put together. That’s what I’d say about that.

Matthew Mehan (01:23:48):

Speaker 2 (01:23:58):
Thanks everybody for your remarks. It’s really illuminating. I wonder if we could bring it to the modern moment a little bit, just because we are in the halls of modern Rome, and here, and there’s so many parallels.

I was really struck by the comparison of the common men will understand bad music, and yet I don’t know that that’s true right now. Or with art, is that just speckles of paint, or is it a masterpiece? I think there is some confusion today around some of the words that we’ve been using tonight as though they have clear definitions. Rights, equality, these things are somewhat up for grabs, positive and negative rights, quality of outcome, quality of opportunity. This is an ongoing thing. I’m wondering, does Cicero offer us a path through this, or is this fate and our heads shall roll too? I wonder if you could just explore some of those issues.

Jed Atkins (01:25:12):
Yeah. Absolutely. Well, very generally, why Cicero is so relevant to us in our moment is because Cicero is… There was this person named Cato, who was an idealist, and always following… He was a politician as well, and he also loved the republic, but he was an idealist. He followed the stoics, and he was known for his idealism.

And Cicero kept saying, “Remember that we’re in the dregs of Romulus, not in Plato’s Republic.” In other words, we’re done in the muck, the muck, in the dirt of political life filled with conflict and confusion and chaos and fighting over terms. And Cicero says, “That’s where philosophy begins.” That’s especially where we need for philosophy. That’s especially where we need to have a commitment to dialog, to questioning, to seeking the truth wherever it may lead in midst of the chaos. That’s exactly the moment for philosophy.

Cicero is very best friend with somebody named Atticus. Atticus was an Epicurean. They disagreed on everything. In fact, there’s a group at Duke called the Ciceronian Society. They call themselves Ciceronians because they want to provide a place where you can disagree about politics in the spirit of friendship and have these debates where, absolutely, you disagree about what is a right. You disagree.

I mean, and I will say that almost every term in political philosophy is contested. That’s one of the values of studying the history of it. Aristotle, when he gets to justice in his politics, he says… Well, this is where he starts to talk about… He talks about equality and justice, and he says, “Now, this is where political philosophy needs to step in because here comes the disagreements.” So, I would just say, generally, the reason why Cicero is a philosophy for our time is because he embraces that. He embraces the dirt of the world. He says, “Look. Let’s not ask ourselves to step out of this and look for utopias.”

So, in your question about the natural law thing, yeah, absolutely, just as, for instance, during Wilberforce’s Day, when the man argued for 30 years against the slave trade and no one was budging, like customs can deeply corrode the extent to which people can feel and be sensitive to the truth. And yet Cicero suggests, because we are human and we are rational, we do have a touchstone. We have a touchstone that’s there, and from time to time, we can see it. We can strike it. And when we do, it can change us, and it can awaken us to truth.

And the last thing I’ll say on this is that was St. Augustine’s story, actually. He read the book of Cicero, he says, and it awakened him to the need to search for truth. In the midst of a cacophony of voices and alternatives, that was extreme or even more extreme as what we have today.

Michael Hawley (01:28:24):
Can I just add maybe a little, an addendum to that, which is I think also on the question specifically about, can we trust the ear? One of the things I like about the Ciceronian analogy is that when I hear the wrong cord, I could not get up there and then play the right one and say, like, “No, no, this is what you ought to have done.” Cicero’s view of the people is often like this, which is to say they can spot the bad. They can tell when something is not right, which doesn’t mean we defer to them in that whatever it is that is proposed to fix things. It’s more a trusting of the diagnostic power, the spotting that something is wrong, rather than a mindless deference to them when proposals come.

Jed Atkins (01:29:11):
That’s a really good point. Let me just piggyback on that example because it’s an important point and a good point. I think over… I mean, I’ve taught at Duke since 2009-2010, and I don’t know when the heyday of relativism is. I think students are becoming less relativistic than they used to be. But we get in debates about, is there objective truth? And students don’t like that. They generally want to argue for relativism. And if you start with beginning with natural law and basic goods and the act of the will, you lose them.

But if you start with something that’s clearly bad, a place when somebody is clearly not flourishing… I mean, I have a friend, for instance, whose uncle was the biggest drug dealer on the East Coast, and he remembered going in and seeing his cousin, a little infant there, sitting in the high chair with cocaine just stacked there. This is a situation where the students cringe. It moves you. There’s something wrong here. It’s not right. It’s not right. So, by looking at the bad, it can jump out at us. And I have yet to see a student, when I tell them that story, that says, “Oh, yeah. That was perfect. Each to his own. That’s a good position. That’s a good environment for a baby to be in.” No, it’s not.

Okay. So we get that, and now we’re ready to… Now, we have to try to look for an account of the good. Why do we think that’s wrong? What is it that when we see that situation, I tell that story, that seems so dehumanizing? What is it that it’s unlocking in you? And all of a sudden we can begin to talk. We can begin to get some more disagreement that, all of a sudden, we have people from across the world, very different viewpoints, very different backgrounds, and we’re all saying, “This is wrong. This is not good,” which also suggests that there might be a good.

Matthew Mehan (01:31:05):
Well, I’ll just close our evening by noting that I believe postmodern art museums are the least visited by the American people. So, we’ll leave it there. Thank you for both of our guests, please.

Jed Atkins (01:31:21):
Thank you.

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