Tag Archives: Polybius

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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The evils of democracy and the mob: Quotes from some of the greatest minds in history.

Fisher Ames: “A democracy is a volcano, which conceals the fiery materials of its own destruction. These will produce an eruption, and carry desolation in their way.”

John Jay: “Pure democracy, like pure rum, easily produces intoxication, and with it a thousand mad pranks and fooleries.”

Lord Acton: “The one prevailing evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections.”

George Washington: “It is one of the evils of democratical governments, that the people, not always seeing and frequently misled, must often feel before they can act.”

Alexander Hamilton: “If we incline too much to democracy, we shall soon shoot into a monarchy.”

Alexander Hamilton: “Real liberty is neither found in despotism, nor in the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments.”

James Madison: “Where a majority are united by a common sentiment, and have an opportunity, the rights of the minor party become insecure.”

James Madison: “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”

Alexis de Tocqueville: “The will of the nation is one of those phrases most widely abused by schemers and tyrants of all ages.”

Cicero: “No tempest or conflagration, however great, is harder to quell than mob carried away by the novelty of power.”

Cicero: “This excessive licence, which the anarchists think is the only true freedom, provides the stock, as it were, from which a tyrant grows.”

Plato: “Is it not the excess and greed of this and the neglect of all other things that revolutionizes this constitution too and prepares the way for the necessity of a dictatorship?”

Plato: “And is it not true that in like manner a leader of the people who, getting control of a docile mob, does not withhold his hand from the shedding of tribal blood, but by the customary unjust accusations brings a citizen into court and assassinates him, blotting out a human life, and with unhallowed tongue and lips that have tasted kindred blood, banishes and slays and hints at the abolition of debts and the partition of lands.”

Plato: “And a democracy, I suppose, comes into being when the poor, winning the victory, put to death some of the other party, drive out others, and grant the rest of the citizens an equal share in both citizenship and offices.”

Plato called democracy “a delightful form of government, anarchic and motley, assigning a kind of equality indiscriminately to equals and unequals alike!”

Polybius: “And hence when by their foolish thirst for reputation they have created among the masses an appetite for gifts and the habit of receiving them, democracy in its turn is abolished and changes into a rule of force and violence. For the people, having grown accustomed to feed at the expense of others and to depend for their livelihood on the property of others, as soon as they find a leader who is enterprising but is excluded from the houses of office by his penury, institute the rule of violence; and now uniting their forces massacre, banish, and plunder, until they degenerate again into perfect savages and find once more a master and monarch.”

Most popular quotes from The Path to Tyranny

Amazon’s Kindle has a cool feature that enables readers to highlight passages. Amazon is then able to record this and show the most popular passages from the book. Here are most popular highlights from the Kindle version of The Path to Tyranny:

Aristotle calls democracy a perversion of constitutional government in the interest of the needy.

In 1914, John Basil Barnhill said in a debate about socialism, “Where the people fear the government you have tyranny. Where the government fears the people you have liberty.”[†]

politicians promise the right to high quality education, the right to free or affordable health care and housing, and many more so-called rights. These are not genuine rights. They are benefits at the expense of others. The rights to private property, free speech, and freedom of religion are true rights because they have no cost.

Choosing an absolute ruler and the organizational skills of a large government is often advantageous in a time of crisis, but the difficult part is rolling back the large government and tyranny after the emergency has ended, which Athens was unable to do.

Therefore, the best way to prevent invasion and coup is to maintain a small and decentralized government with a strong defense, a well-armed population, and the courage to defend one’s rights and liberty.

More than two thousand years ago, the Greek historian Polybius warned that “democracy in its turn is abolished and changes into a rule of force and violence” as the people grow more “accustomed to feed at the expense of others and to depend for their livelihood on the property of others.”[14]

A drawback of large government with control over people’s lives is that it attracts ruthless men of ambition who wish to use the power of government for their own benefit.

Nevertheless, this use of government power to direct or coordinate society is a form of tyranny, because there can be no greater tyranny than an individual or group controlling the lives of an entire population, even if popularly elected.

The senators had hoped that killing Caesar would solve Rome’s problems, but the problem was not just Caesar the dictator, it was also the people’s desire to use government as a tool to redistribute land and wealth.

The tyrant also builds grand public works, acting as if he is helping the people, but his real goal is to impoverish them and keep them occupied.

 

Some perspective on the angry mobs in Wisconsin

It is being reported that angry mobs have taken over the Capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin. I am reminded of the famous George Santayana quote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” So I’ve been tweeting about it, trying to give some perspective on the broader historical and political ramifications. Here are my tweets, as is:

  • Message to the unions & those who still believe they are forces for good: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
  • Motto for the angry mobs in #Wisconsin: “We are bound by no laws. There are no fortresses which Bolsheviks cannot storm.” ~ Stalin #walker
  • Polybius was right “Democracy comes into being; and in due course the licence and lawlessness of this form of government produces mob-rule.”
  • More Polybius: “When by their foolish thirst for reputation they have created among the masses an appetite for gifts and the habit of receiving them, democracy in its turn is abolished and changes into a rule of force and violence. For the people, having grown accustomed to feed at the expense of others and to depend for their livelihood on the property of others, as soon as they find a leader who is enterprising but is excluded from the houses of office by his penury, institute the rule of violence; and now uniting their forces massacre, banish, and plunder, until they degenerate again into perfect savages and find once more a master and monarch.”

We don’t want democracy in Egypt! We want republicanism.

Now that Hosni Mubarak has stepped down, the media, analysts, politicians, and just about everybody else is calling for democracy in Egypt. For example:

I believe these calls for democracy are made out of ignorance of the word’s real meaning. While we want a democratic system over there, we don’t want true democracy. Alexander Hamilton said at the Constitutional Convention:

“We are now forming a republican government. Real liberty is neither found in despotism, nor in the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments.”

Here are some more quotes about the evils of democracy:

“Now the first of these to come into being is monarchy, its growth being natural and unaided; and next arises kingship derived from monarchy by the aid of art and by the correction of defects. Monarchy first changes into its vicious allied form, tyranny; and next, the abolishment of both gives birth to aristocracy. Aristocracy by its very nature degenerates into oligarchy; and when the commons inflamed by anger take vengeance on this government for its unjust rule, democracy comes into being; and in due course the licence and lawlessness of this form of government produces mob-rule to complete the series.” [Polybius, The Histories 6.4.7-13.]

“And hence when by their foolish thirst for reputation they have created among the masses an appetite for gifts and the habit of receiving them, democracy in its turn is abolished and changes into a rule of force and violence. For the people, having grown accustomed to feed at the expense of others and to depend for their livelihood on the property of others, as soon as they find a leader who is enterprising but is excluded from the houses of office by his penury, institute the rule of violence; and now uniting their forces massacre, banish, and plunder, until they degenerate again into perfect savages and find once more a master and monarch.”[Polybius, The Histories 6.9.7-9.]

“And a democracy, I suppose, comes into being when the poor, winning the victory, put to death some of the other party, drive out others, and grant the rest of the citizens an equal share in both citizenship and offices.”[Plato, Republic 557a.]

“Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” [James Madison, Federalist No. 10.]

“I do not say that democracy has been more pernicious on the whole, and in the long run, than monarchy or aristocracy. Democracy has never been and never can be so durable as aristocracy or monarchy; but while it lasts, it is more bloody than either. … Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty. When clear prospects are opened before vanity, pride, avarice, or ambition, for their easy gratification, it is hard for the most considerate philosophers and the most conscientious moralists to resist the temptation. Individuals have conquered themselves. Nations and large bodies of men, never.” [John Adams letter to John Taylor, 1814]

“The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections.” [Lord Acton]

I for one shall hope that Egypt forms a republican and moderate government, just as Alexander Hamilton recommended for our own country more than 220 years ago.

Ballot propositions: The voice of the people or the tyranny of the majority?

When I moved to Phoenix in 1986, the sales tax was 6.7%. Today it stands at 9.3%. How have we let our state legislature, county, and city councils raise our taxes so? Well, actually, they didn’t. We did! Correct me if I’m wrong, but every sales tax increase in Arizona, Maricopa County, and Phoenix, except the recent food tax, has been approved by us at the ballot box.

That’s democracy for you. Aristotle, Polybius, and the Founding Fathers all warned about the evils of democracy. Tocqueville called it the tyranny of the majority. In our case, the majority votes to raise taxes, collected mostly from the rich, to distribute as gifts among themselves.

But hey! We are doing it for the kids. We are doing it because we need more cops and firefighters to protect us. Spending ever-increasing amounts of money on schools, most of which goes to bureaucrats, is not “spending” but an “investment.” An investment in the future.

Just about every year we have tax increases on the ballot. Some fail, but some pass. The result is steadily rising taxes. But when we voted to raise taxes for more police and fire, Phoenix announced cutbacks just a few months later. Taxes rose while the number of police and fire remained largely unchanged. It was all a big shell game. A trick to raise our taxes.

So why do we fall for it time after time? More than 2000 years ago, Polybius wrote that the people become “accustomed to feed at the expense of others and to depend for their livelihood on the property of others.” We just can’t help ourselves. If we didn’t receive our free schools for the kids, our free police and fire services, our cheap public transportation, our welfare, our unemployment, and our food stamps, we’d all suffer the consequences.

Most of you may find this a shock, but I hate democracy. I hate referendum and initiative. Politicians use it to skirt responsibility, saying that they weren’t the ones who raised taxes. Public unions use it to push for bigger government.

Our Founders knew the evils of democracy. Democracy had its place in American cities of the 1700s, at a very small local level, but the Founders knew that it could not work for large numbers of people. It only worked in small communities where just about everybody knew everybody else. The largest American city back then had just 100,000 people or so. Phoenix with well over a million people, Maricopa County with three million people or so, and Arizona with six million or more are just too large for democracy. That’s why the Founders made the US a republic. Except possibly for small communities, all our governments should be republics.

Democracy is based on majority rule. Republics are based on rule of law. I prefer the protection of stable and well-known laws than the whims of the public. The public’s job is not to vote for higher taxes or more “free gifts” either. As Jefferson said, the people are the “ultimate, guardians of their own liberty.” That is our job. To protect our liberty. Protect our liberty from foreign invasion. Protect it from our government. Protect it from each other.

So what is the true purpose of ballot propositions? Are they to defend our liberty? Sure doesn’t seem that way. Or are they designed to trick us and grow government? Based on our history, it sure seems that way.

Favorite Polybius Quotes

Polybius on the evolution and de-evolution of political systems:

Monarchy first changes into its vicious allied form, tyranny; and next, the abolishment of both gives birth to aristocracy. Aristocracy by its very nature degenerates into oligarchy; and when the commons inflamed by anger take vengeance on this government for its unjust rule, democracy comes into being; and in due course the licence and lawlessness of this form of government produces mob-rule to complete the series. [The Histories 6.4.7-13]

Polybius describes how democracies kill themselves:

And hence when by their foolish thirst for reputation they have created among the masses an appetite for gifts and the habit of receiving them, democracy in its turn is abolished and changes into a rule of force and violence. For the people, having grown accustomed to feed at the expense of others and to depend for their livelihood on the property of others, as soon as they find a leader who is enterprising but is excluded from the houses of office by his penury, institute the rule of violence; and now uniting their forces massacre, banish, and plunder, until they degenerate again into perfect savages and find once more a master and monarch. [The Histories 6.9.7-9]

Polybius on checks and balances in government:

The constitution should remain for long in a state of equilibrium like a well-trimmed boat, kingship being guarded from arrogance by the fear of the commons, who were given a sufficient share in the government, and the commons on the other hand not venturing to treat the kings with contempt from fear of the elders, who being selected from the best citizens would be sure all of them to be always on the side of justice; so that that part of the state which was weakest owing to its subservience to traditional custom, acquired power and weight by the support and influence of the elders. [The Histories 6.10.6-10]

Polybius on how the Roman Republic created its “best of all existing constitutions” through trial and error:

The Romans while they have arrived at the same final result as regards their form of government, have not reached it by any process of reasoning, but by the discipline of many struggles and troubles, and always choosing the best by the light of the experience gained in disaster have thus reached…the best of all existing constitutions. [The Histories 6.10.13-14]

Polybius on the success of the Roman Republic’s system of checks and balances:

Such being the power that each part has of hampering the others or co-operating with them, their union is adequate to all emergencies, so that it is impossible to find a better political system than this… For when one part having grown out of proportion to the others aims at supremacy and tends to become too predominant, it is evident that…none of the three is absolute, but the purpose of the one can be counterworked and thwarted by the others, none of them will excessively outgrow the others or treat them with contempt. All in fact remains in statu quo, on the one hand, because any aggressive impulse is sure to be checked and from the outset each estate stands in dread of being interfered with by the others… [The Histories 6.18]