Tag Archives: Julius Caesar

Review of Cicero’s The Republic and The Law with some of my favorite quotes

 

The Republic and The Laws by Marcus Tullius Cicero

 

I really enjoyed Cicero’s writing and insight into politics and government, but too much of Cicero’s Republic is missing to make it a compelling read. What parts do exist are reminiscent of Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics, and Polybius’s Histories and Cicero certainly built upon those sources. It is interesting to read what this great man who fought against Cataline, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Octavian/Octavius/Augustus has to say on the topic. I certainly recommend Cicero’s Republic to anybody interested in Roman history or the history of political thought. However, to the more casual reader or those more generally interested in political thought, there is little benefit to reading this book if you already read or plan to read Plato, Aristotle, and Polybius. If we had all of Cicero’s Republic, I’d likely be giving it four or five stars, but it deserves only two or three stars as it exists to us today.

Turning to the second half of the book, The Laws, which appears to be more complete and thus easier to read and review, Cicero argues that laws come from nature, not men. Cicero explains, “Law was not thought up by the intelligence of human beings, not is it some kind of resolution passed by communities, but rather an eternal force which rules the world by the wisdom of its commands and prohibitions… That original and final law is the intelligence of God, who ordains or forbids everything by reason.” In this respect, I found sections of Cicero’s The Laws to be quite similar to Frederic Bastiat’s The Law.

Cicero explains that the Latin word for law, lex, comes from the word for choosing, lego. [Pages 103 and 125. But there is much uncertainty whether this is the actual etymology of the word law.] Thus, the book is primarily designed “to provide a code of living and a system of training for nations and individuals alike.”

Cicero then makes the case that “the highest good is either to live according to nature or to follow nature and live, so to speak, by her law.”

Cicero then describes Rome’s legal code and proposes some changes. This section is sometimes interesting from a historical perspective, but less so in terms of political philosophy. However, it becomes extremely tedious and dull at times when Cicero describes certain aspects of Rome’s laws in depth.

All in all, very insightful, though a bit tedious at times. But the worst aspect is the incongruous nature of the work because of all the missing text. I also wish the notes were put on the bottom of each page rather than in the back. I for one enjoy reading every note and found it difficult to flip back and forth four or five times per page.

In total, I am giving Cicero’s The Republic and The Laws just three stars (out of five). I am sure this would disappoint Cicero greatly, but I place little blame on him. If his writing existed in full, I’m sure he would easily earn four stars and possibly five, though Cicero himself admitted in The Laws that he could not compete with Plato’s writings on the same subject, which is why it would likely earn just four starts while Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics deserve five stars.

Some great quotes (besides those above) from the book:

History is “the witness of the times, the light of truth, the life of memory, the teacher of life, the messenger from the past.” [From De Oratore 2.36]

“You cannot start a history without setting free time aside; and it cannot be finished in a short period. Moreover, I tend to become confused if, after starting a project, I have to turn to something else. And it’s not so easy to pick up the threads again after breaking off as to take a thing through from start to finish.”

“Without that [authority], no house or state or clan can survive–no, nor the human race, nor the whole of nature, nor the very universe itself. For the universe obeys God; land and sea abide by the laws of the universe; and human life is subject to the commands of the supreme law.”

“Nothing is more damaging to a state, nothing so contrary to justice and law, nothing less appropriate to a civilized community, than to force through a measure by violence where a country has a settled and established constitution.”

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Could a Nazi-type takeover happen in America?

The Kindertransport Association (my grandfather and his brother were on the kindertransport) recently asked, “Could a Nazi-type takeover of our Federal government happen in America. Why? Why not? Could it happen in Western Europe?” My response made the front page of their newsletter:

History teaches us that society is always at risk of losing its freedom and descending into tyranny because there are always people who wish for and actively seek to rule over others and profit at their expense.

With the separation of powers and checks and balances, western civilization has created systems, best exemplified by the United States Constitution, designed to prevent demagogues from gaining power. However, when people think the political system no longer functions properly, they will demand change, thinking that “anything else will be better than this.” At this point, a demagogue may convince them that he will fix the nation and bring prosperity to all with relative ease. These demagogues tell the people that all they need to do is vote for him and their problems will be solved.

Demagogues seeking to take over the government create or find an enemy to attack and blame. The demagogue informs the public that it is not their fault the economy is bad, they lost in a recent war, or that they are poor. Instead, it is somebody else’s fault. Hitler’s blamed Germany’s problems on both the communists and capitalists, with the Jews supposedly supporting both groups. Julius Caesar blamed the Roman Senate. The Communists in Russia blamed both the Czar and the democrats. With the recent economic weakness and increased partisanship in the United States and Western Europe, there has been a lot of blame bandied about, especially by politicians looking to win election.

Weak economies, a wide disparity between rich and poor sparking class warfare rhetoric, and the perception of a broken political system open the door for an eloquent demagogue to trick the people into voting for him, increasing his power, and paving the way for him or his successor to become a tyrant.

So it is possible for a Nazi-type takeover in the United States or Western Europe? Most certainly. In fact, we have already seen something similar happen just recently in Venezuela, which had been a prosperous western-style nation until the late 1980s when an economic crisis and political corruption paved the way for Hugo Chavez and his Bolivarian socialism.

Fortunately, the Founding Fathers of the United States created a system specifically designed to prevent one man or faction from gaining too much power. Western Europe has largely copied that system, with some alterations. Additionally, our long tradition of liberty is not one that people will throw away lightly. However, an eloquent demagogue promising peace and prosperity at no expense amid economic and political chaos may, at times, be able to overthrow the delicate political, economic, and social system we have. This happened in ancient Greece, ancient Rome, ancient Israel, Russia in the 1910s, Italy in the 1920s, Germany in the 1930s, and Venezuela in the 1990s, to name just a few of the most notable examples.

Only through eternal vigilance against demagogues, their false promises, and their scapegoating of minority groups can we prevent Nazi-type takeovers in the United States and Western Europe.

Michael E. Newton, KT3

— Michael E. Newton is the author of the highly acclaimed The Path to Tyranny: A History of Free Society’s Descent into Tyranny. His newest book, Angry Mobs and Founding Fathers: The Fight for Control of the American Revolution, was released by Eleftheria Publishing in July.

Usurping the Constitution to avoid default?

A number of political pundits, legal experts, and even government officials argue that President Barack Obama should use the 14th Amendment to circumvent the debt ceiling and avoid default. The New York Times reports:

A few days ago, former President Bill Clinton identified a constitutional escape hatch should President Obama and Congress fail to come to terms on a deficit reduction plan before the government hits its borrowing ceiling.

He pointed to an obscure provision in the 14th Amendment, saying he would unilaterally invoke it “without hesitation” to raise the debt ceiling, “and force the courts to stop me.”

On Friday, Mr. Obama rejected the idea, though not in categorical terms.

“I have talked to my lawyers,” Mr. Obama said. “They are not persuaded that that is a winning argument.”

Despite President Obama’s resistance to this idea, some House Democrats are pushing it. Politico reports:

Rep. James Clyburn and a group of House Democrats are urging President Barack Obama to invoke the 14th Amendment to raise the debt ceiling if Congress can’t come up with a satisfactory plan before the Tuesday deadline.

Clyburn, the third-ranking House Democrat, said Wednesday that if the president is delivered a bill to raise the debt ceiling for only a short period of time, he should instead veto it and turn to the phrase in the Constitution that says the validity of the U.S. government’s debt “shall not be questioned.”

According to the New York Times article, “Jack M. Balkin, a law professor at Yale” argues:

“This is largely a political question,” he said. “It is unlikely courts would decide these questions.”

“At the point at which the economy is melting down, who cares what the Supreme Court is going to say?” Professor Balkin said. “It’s the president’s duty to save the Republic.”

Similarly, Eugene Robinson writes at the Washington Post:

It seems to me that definitive action — unilateral, if necessary — to prevent the nation from suffering obvious, imminent, grievous harm is one of the duties any president must perform. Perhaps the most important duty.

This seems all too familiar because it comes straight out of history. In ancient Rome, Sulla was given dictatorial power to restore the republic. By violating Rome’s constitution, Sulla and the Senators that gave him power established a precedent that enabled Julius Caesar to become dictator for life and destroy the republic. Similarly, men like Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler also rose to power and expanded their control under the guise of saving the nation.

The Founding Fathers, being students of history, knew that extra-constitutional actions would only undermine the republic in the name of restoring it. As George Washington explained in his farewell address:

If, in the opinion of the people, the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.

— Michael E. Newton is the author of the highly acclaimed The Path to Tyranny: A History of Free Society’s Descent into Tyranny. His newest book, Angry Mobs and Founding Fathers: The Fight for Control of the American Revolution, was released by Eleftheria Publishing in July and is now available in stores.

Supporters of Liberty Are Always Attacked

Members of the tea party have been called tea baggers, extremists, racists, and Nazis by opponents of the grass-roots pro-liberty movement. While this shows the lack of “civility” of the left, supporters of liberty are always attacked for their beliefs.

Socrates spent his life fighting for freedom of speech and freedom of religion and became a martyr for these causes. In 399 BC, Socrates was charged and put to death for disbelieving in the official Greek pantheon and for corrupting the youth of Athens. But Socrates had also angered most of Athens for praising Sparta while the two were at war with each other, insulting the intellectuals of Athens by claiming he was the wisest man alive, criticizing the leaders of Athens, and arguing against democracy. Admitting that he enjoyed stirring up trouble, Socrates said at his trial: “For if you put me to death, you will not easily find another, who, to use a rather absurd figure, attaches himself to the city as a gadfly to a horse, which, though large and well bred, is sluggish on account of his size and needs to be aroused by stinging. I think the god fastened me upon the city in some such capacity, and I go about arousing.” [Plato, Apology 30e.] Socrates’ criticism of ancient Athens’ political system and leadership got him killed.

Demosthenes fought bigger government, higher taxes, and political corruption in ancient Athens. But he is best remembered for his opposition to Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great. For years, Demosthenes spoke constantly against Philip, but had little success gaining allies. Nevertheless, Demosthenes demanded action, arguing it is “better to die a thousand times than pay court to Philip.” [Demosthenes, “Speeches” 9.65.] When Philip finally marched against Greece, his army easily won the battle and occupied Thebes but spared Athens. When Philip was assassinated, Demosthenes again attempted to form alliances and encouraged the territories under Macedonian control to rebel. But Philip’s son Alexander marched on Thebes, which immediately submitted to him. Thebes and Athens rebelled yet again upon mistakenly hearing that Alexander was dead, at which Alexander destroyed Thebes and placed Athens under Macedonian control. When Alexander the Great died, Demosthenes again tried to rally the people for independence, but Antipater, Alexander’s successor in Greece and Macedon, defeated the Athenians in battle, forced them to dissolve their government, and Demosthenes committed suicide before he could be arrested and executed.

Cicero was one of the most powerful men in ancient Rome and its Senate. Cicero fought for property rights, arguing “I do not mean to find fault with the accumulation of property, provided it hurts nobody.” [Cicero, De Officiis 1.25.] Cicero also fought against government-provided welfare, abolition of debts, and redistribution of land and wealth. But he is best remembered for his fight against imperial power. In his quest for power, Julius Caesar asked Cicero to join his Triumvirate with Pompey and Crassus, but Cicero declined, fearing it would hurt the Republic. When Julius Caesar was assassinated, Cicero as leader of the Senate and Mark Antony as consul and leader of those who supported Caesar became the two leaders of Rome. Cicero opposed Antony and made a series of speeches against him, known as Philippics for the similarity of his speeches to those of Demosthenes against Philip of Macedon. Mark Antony formed the Second Triumvirate with Octavian, Julius Caesar’s heir, and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, a former consul and strong supporter of Julius Caesar. They immediately sought to exile or kill their political opponents, especially Cicero. Cicero was captured on his way to the coast, where he had hoped to escape to Macedonia. Cicero’s capturers “cut off his head, by Antony’s command, and his hands — the hands with which he wrote the Philippics.” [Plutarch, Parallel Lives Cicero 48.6.]

Cato the Younger was a very stubborn man who vehemently opposed corruption, demagoguery, and immorality. In the Senate, Cato focused especially on taxes and wasteful government spending. When Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus created the First Triumvirate, Cato was an immediate opponent. Cato opposed Caesar’s first major proposal to distribute public lands to the people. “No one spoke against the law except Cato, and him Caesar ordered to be dragged from the rostra to prison.” [Plutarch, Parallel Lives Cato 33.1.] Though the Senate disagreed with Cato’s position, they forced Caesar to free him from his unjust imprisonment. Seeing the growing tyranny, “Cato warned the people that they themselves by their own votes were establishing a tyrant in their citadel.” [Plutarch, Parallel Lives Cato 33.3.] But the people refused to listen to Cato and continued to support Caesar. Ten years later, Caesar and his army crossed the Rubicon, thus declaring war on the Roman Senate. The Senate fled and Caesar chased after them. Seeing that Caesar had won and knowing Caesar would have him executed, Cato committed suicide.

When you are attacked for supporting liberty, know that you stand on the shoulders of giants. And let us thank God and country, for we live in a society in which we have freedom of speech and in which the supporters of government tyranny can do no more than insult their opponents.