Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Cicero's Republic, The Laws, and On Obligations.

Last week I read Cicero - a lot of Cicero: Republic, The Laws, and On Obligations. They're all of them short, but for me and my philosophy-resistant brain he's the kind of author I enjoy reading but find devilishly difficult to talk about and write about, so consider this yet another inadequate mini-post on ancient philosophy!


The Vision of a Knight, 
also called The Dream of Scipio by Raphael (1504-05).
Republic (De re publica) was written between 54 - 51 B.C. It's divided into six books and styled like the Socratic dialogues of the likes of Plato, however instead of Socrates being the one to represent the more wise and mature of those in the dialogue, Cicero uses Scipio Aemilianus, a Roman general (185 -129 B.C.). As the title indicates the major theme of this work is politics, and it begins with a discussion on the current state of Roman politics. They talk of the political theorists and education, and Cicero suggests that the theorists are worth a great deal less than the actual politicians who do more for society. They then discuss, as in Plato's Republic, what exactly is meant by the 'state', arguing that it is essentially a group of people bound together by certain ideas and values. The politicians represent their interests. Again as with Plato, they talk of different forms of rulership: dictatorship, monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, and argue a combination of the best forms of all three avoiding the worst aspects of them is the preferred route. The types of constitutions are discussed further later in the book, as is Roman history and the development of the current constitution as well as education and the idea of the 'ideal' citizen. The work ends with what is referred to as the "Dream of Scipio" (Somnium Scipionis), which is the part I was particularly looking forward to as it's referred to numerous times in the works of Chaucer - I'm specifically thinking of The Nun's Priest's Tale in The Canterbury Tales and in The Parlement of Foules. In this Scipio describes a dream in which he is visited by his grandfather Scipio Africanus who tells him his future, and in which he hears the music of the spheres and the composition of the universe, made up of nine celestial spheres - a theory that went on to influence Boethius and cosmology of the Middle Ages (also seen in, for example, Dante's Divine Comedy). The story itself is a retelling of the Myth of Er in Plato's Republic.

Henry VIII's copy of On Obligations: he's
written "This boke is myne. Prince Henry." on
the page.
The Laws

The Laws (De Legibus) is a natural progression from Republic. It was written later and again follows the style of a Socratic dialogue, this time between Cicero, his brother Quintus and their friend Titus Pomponius Atticus. There are three books, though it's believed there were originally six and three have been lost. They begin by discussing old fables and the relationship between such fables and accepted Roman history. From there they discuss law, Cicero arguing that the law is a natural part of humanity and ought to be based on justice, promoting the common good and inhibiting the bad. Humans, he says, are endowed with reason and rationality and so are, in part at least, divine. There is, therefore, a natural law that does not require legislation. Giving examples (such as the rape of Lucretia), he shows how there are actions that are immoral and unjust, and whilst they are not illegal per se, they are still perceived with revulsion. In the final surviving book, Cicero outlines his ideal constitution, writing on the judicial system, the role of the senate, magistrates, assemblies, and the voting process. It's an interesting work, but I imagine far more enlightening and engaging to those with at least some legal background.

On Obligations

The final book I read was On Obligations (De Officiis), which was written about ten years later than the Republic and The Laws - 44 B.C., and it was one of Cicero's final works. It's divided into three books - the first asks what it is to be honourable (he writes on wisdom, kindness, moderation, and a sense of justice)54`, the second what is beneficial and the dangers of selfishness, and the third is on how to combine what is both honourable and beneficial. I would dare say that this work isn't read as much these days, but in the Medieval and Early modern period it was hugely influential - both Thomas Aquinas, Voltaire, and a great many others praised it and were inspired in some way by it. It's an enlightening read, but, like the others, I would need at the very least a second read to begin to get to grips with it.

And that was my rather heavy reading for last week! As I say I do like and admire Cicero, but it will take more than a single read for me to truly understand him. Philosophy, I'm afraid, does not come easily to me!


  1. i tried to download a bunch of Cicero last week from Amazon, but it arrived all garbled up: unreadable... it's difficult to find a reasonably priced copy in real book form so maybe i'll try again... hummmph, he said... if C was alive today, and he had a tv show, maybe things would be better...

    1. I started to watch something on Youtube about Cicero - the idea was that one can tell a lot about society from the authors who are no longer as popular as they once were. I couldn't watch it - we have a very limited internet connection, but I wish I could have done...


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