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.”