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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/2917/cicero-on-justice-law-and-liberty/

Cicero on Justice, Law and Liberty

January 4, 2005 by

Marcus Tullius Cicero was born 2,111 years ago yesterday.

According to Anthony Everitt, he was “an unknowing architect of constitutions that still govern our lives.” John Adams said of him, “All ages of the world have not produced a greater statesman and philosopher combined.” Thomas Jefferson said the Declaration of Independence was based on “the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.”

It is appropriate to remember why our founders considered him so important.

Cicero (January 3, 106 BCE – December 7, 43 BCE) was a Roman Senator, who held every important Roman office at the youngest permissible age. And he left an extensive written record, about which Historian Edward Gibbon said, “I breathed the spirit of freedom.” He argued that a virtuous life required active involvement to improve the well-being of one’s community, and feared that a loss of virtue was the source of Rome’s difficulties.

Particularly influential was Cicero’s idea of natural law, echoed in John Locke and other enlightenment thinkers: Human nature included reason, which could be used to discover justice, which was the basis of law. Murray Rothbard wrote that he was “the great transmitter of Stoic ideas from Greece to Rome — Stoic natural law doctrines — helped shape the great structures of Roman law which became pervasive in Western civilization.” Voltaire said “He taught us how to think.”

Cicero stayed loyal to the Roman Republic against Julius Caesar. His defense of that ideal also led to his murder by Antony, who had his head and hands nailed to the Senate speaker’s podium as a warning to others. Therefore, revolutionary leaders also found him a model of determined resistance against tyranny.

Cicero’s ideas, particularly on justice, law, and liberty, still merit consideration, over two millennia later.

On Justice

Justice is the crowning glory of the virtues.

Justice consists in doing no injury to men…

Justice is the set and constant purpose which gives every man his due.

The foundations of justice are that no one should suffer wrong; then, that the public good be promoted.

…justice must be observed even to the lowest.

Justice does not descend from its pinnacle.

Justice extorts no reward, no kind of price; she is sought…for her own sake.

Extreme justice is extreme injustice.

If our lives are endangered by plots or violence…any and every method of protecting ourselves is morally right.

On Law

True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application…

The welfare of the people is the ultimate law.

The precepts of the law are these: to live honestly, to injure no one, and to give everyone else his due.

According to the law of nature it is only fair that no one should become richer through damages and injuries suffered by another.

The strictest law often causes the most serious wrong.

The more laws, the less justice.

…the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled…

The administration of government, like a guardianship, ought to be directed to the good of those who confer, not of those who receive the trust.

When a government becomes powerful…it is an usurper which takes bread from innocent mouths and deprives honorable men of their substance for votes with which to perpetuate itself.

On Liberty

We are in bondage to the law so that we might be free.

The essence of liberty is to live as you choose.

Freedom is a man’s natural power of doing what he pleases, so far as he is not prevented by force or law.

Freedom is a possession of inestimable value.

What is so beneficial to the people as liberty…to be preferred to all things.

Liberty is rendered even more precious by the recollection of servitude.

Freedom suppressed again, and again regained, bites with keener fangs than freedom never endangered.

Only in states in which the power of the people is supreme has liberty any abode.

Peace is liberty in tranquility. Servitude is the worst of all evils, to be resisted not only by war, but even by death.

Cicero was among the most important influences behind the American Revolution. He was a symbol of dedication in opposing tyranny, and his ideas on justice, law and liberty are represented in our founding documents.

There is a good reason why Jim Powell’s The Triumph of Liberty begins with Cicero’s story, and why F.A. Hayek lamented that society was “abandoning … the basic individualism inherited by us from Erasmus and Montaigne, from Cicero to Tacitus, Pericles and Thucydides… .”

Not only was Cicero an important influence on our founders’ attempt to defend our liberty by tightly constraining government, his understanding of why such constraints were necessary was thoroughly modern: “Never was a government that was not composed of liars, malefactors and thieves.”

If Americans are serious about reclaiming and maintaining that liberty, by resurrecting our founding documents to be more than mere words on paper, he merits renewed attention today.

For further discussions of Cicero, some of the most extensive websites include:

Useful Books about Cicero include:

  • Anthony Everitt, The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician
  • Elizabeth Rawson, Cicero: A Portrait


Vanmind January 4, 2005 at 8:24 pm

This also demonstrates how far “modern” American governance has retreated from the principles of Cicero and the founding fathers.

The time has come for a true statesperson to pull a Cincinnatus on those a-holes around the beltway…

Martin Timothy January 3, 2008 at 10:20 pm

Nowhere does Gary Galles mention Cicero’s towering misdeeds, from his false exposure while Roman Consul of a political rival Catalina, a noble Roman Senator, as a treasonous plotter which cost Catalina his late house guest his life, and the lives of many other of Catalina’s supporters. A crime which was to dog him for the remainder of his life. He was prime mover in the plot that murdered Julius Caesar another of his house guests, who had previously pardoned Cicero for conspiracy in an earlier plot to kill him.

Tim January 3, 2008 at 11:50 pm

The following extract may be of interest to those who enjoyed the blog post.

It’s from (journalist) H. J. Haskell’s book “The New Deal in Old Rome : How Government in the Ancient World Tried to Deal with Modern Problems”. (1936?). The entire book is available online care of the mises.org website.

“Another shining example of Roman practicality was the development of law. By the middle of the third century before Christ, traders were putting in at Roman ports. Friction arose from the lack of understanding by foreign merchants of the Roman law of contracts. So Rome set up a special court for foreigners in which the practices of other nations were recognized. For the first time the Roman Republic realized that its procedure failed to take into account some of the wider interests of commerce. This was a jolt to local complacency. But under its stimulus the Roman courts directed their efforts to searching out general rules of equity on which decisions might be based. They became convinced that there was a “natural law” whose principles might everywhere be applied.”

“It was not until two centuries later that Cicero formulated the Roman practice in words that have had a far-reaching influence upon European history. ” True law,” he wrote, ” is right reason consonant with nature, world-wide in scope, unchanging and everlasting.. . . We may not oppose or alter that law, we cannot abolish it, we cannot be freed from its obligations by any legislature, and we need not look outside ourselves for an expounder of it. This law does not differ for Rome and for Athens, for the present and for the future, but one eternal and unchanging law will be valid for all nations and all times. . . . He who disobeys it denies himself and his own nature.”

“Here was laid down the principle of natural rights, so familiar in the eighteenth century, to which Jefferson appealed in the Declaration of Independence. In practice, the principle has proved its value through all the long struggle for human freedom. This paragraph from Cicero, Professor Frank says, “has wrought greater progress in jurisprudence for nearly two thousand years than any other statement of the same length/’ Without the Roman law the Roman Empire could not have carried on.”

Mark Sunwall January 5, 2008 at 5:08 am

Cicero’s value is mainly as a transmitter. There were more courageous republicans, more deep thinking philosophers, more careful historians. But his legal skills gave him an eye for the essentials, and in the process by which the literature of antiquity was sifted it was his works which transmitted more classical culture to Western Europe than any other…at least if we exclude post-classical Christians such as Augustine and Boethius. His “De Officiis” alone survives in more medeval manuscripts than any other secular Latin work.

Inquisitor January 5, 2008 at 8:29 am

Sort of like Rand, then? She too was a system builder.

Manuel January 5, 2008 at 2:41 pm

Also read Ronald Syme’s book “The Roman Revolution” which chronicles the conversion from Republic to Empire. He is not so friendly to Cicero. While he died standing up to a corrupt man Antony, he was implicitly supporting the first emperor (ie, sole ruler) Augustus. His value indeed lies greatest as a transmitter.

Jim Baxter January 7, 2008 at 12:25 am

Neither Cicero nor any of the other Roman or Greek philosophers ever saw their ideas become fruitful in the own culture or society. Sad to say, both countries remained more than 90% slave throughout their entire histories.

It remained for Judeo-Christian principles to birth individual value and Rights, the democratic process, separation of powers, and Constitutional law, to make possible the createst nation in human history, The United States of America, and thereby validate the early-on but limited rhetoric.

Salute Honorable Cicero!

Jim Baxter January 7, 2008 at 12:31 am

The way we define ‘human’ determines our view of self,
others, relationships, institutions, life, and future. Many
problems in human experience are the result of false
and inaccurate definitions of humankind premised
in man-made religions and humanistic philosophies.

Human knowledge is a fraction of the whole universe.
The balance is a vast void of human ignorance. Human
reason cannot fully function in such a void; thus, the
intellect can rise no higher than the criteria by which it
perceives and measures values.

Humanism makes man his own standard of measure.
However, as with all measuring systems, a standard
must be greater than the value measured. Based on
preponderant ignorance and an egocentric carnal
nature, humanism demotes reason to the simpleton
task of excuse-making in behalf of the rule of appe-
tites, desires, feelings, emotions, and glands.

Because man, hobbled in an ego-centric predicament,
cannot invent criteria greater than himself, the humanist
lacks a predictive capability. Without instinct or trans-
cendent criteria, humanism cannot evaluate options with
foresight and vision for progression and survival. Lack-
ing foresight, man is blind to potential consequence and
is unwittingly committed to mediocrity, collectivism,
averages, and regression – and worse. Humanism is an
unworthy worship.

The void of human ignorance can easily be filled with
a functional faith while not-so-patiently awaiting the
foot-dragging growth of human knowledge and behav-
ior. Faith, initiated by the Creator and revealed and
validated in His Word, the Bible, brings a transcend-
ent standard to man the choice-maker. Other philo-
sophies and religions are man-made, humanism, and
thereby lack what only the Bible has:

1.Transcendent Criteria and
2.Fulfilled Prophetic Validation.

The vision of faith in God and His Word is survival
equipment for today and the future. Only the Creator,
who made us in His own image, is qualified to define
us accurately.

Human is earth’s Choicemaker. Psalm 25:12 He is by
nature and nature’s God a creature of Choice – and of
Criteria. Psalm 119:30,173 His unique and definitive
characteristic is, and of Right ought to be, the natural
foundation of his environments, institutions, and re-
spectful relations to his fellow-man. Thus, he is orien-
ted to a Freedom whose roots are in the Order of the

That human institution which is structured on the principle, “…all
men are endowed by their Creator with …Liberty…,” is a system
with its roots in the natural Order of the universe. The opponents
of such a system are necessarily engaged in a losing contest
with nature and nature’s God. Biblical principles are still today
the foundation under Western Civilization and the American
way of life. To the advent of a new season we commend the
present generation and the “multitudes in the valley of decision.”

Let us proclaim it. Behold!
The Season of Generation-Choicemaker Joel 3:14 KJV

INSTITUTO DE DERECHO ROMANO August 13, 2011 at 11:00 am

“EL RESPETO A LA PALABRA DADA Y LA BUENA FE EN LOS CONTRATOS. En la antigua Roma y en el derecho actual”. Tema de la conferencia que pronunciarán el Dr. Alfredo Di Pietro y el Dr. Bernardo Nespral en el Colegio Público de Abogados de la Capital Federal (Argentina).
Día: Jueves 8 de septiembre de 2011, a las 18 hs.
Lugar: Salón Humberto Podetti. Av. Corrientes 1455, piso 2°, Ciudad de Buenos Aires
Informes e inscripción: (54-11) 4379-8700, int. 452/3/4
Email: infoacademicas@cpacf.org.ar
NOTA: El Dr. Bernardo Nespral es el Director fundador del Instituto de Derecho Romano, Director Académico de la Diplomatura de Derecho Romano Público y Privado y miembro del Comité Académico de la Escuela de Posgardo del Colegio Público de Abogados (Argentina). Es autor del libro “El derecho romano en el siglo XXI” (Ediciones Jurídicas Cuyo).

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