- Expanding the Liberty Canon: Aristotle Barry Stocker, NOL
- Expanding the Liberty Canon: Rome and Carthage in the Histories of Polybius Barry Stocker, NOL
- Expanding the Liberty Canon: Cicero’s On the Republic Barry Stocker, NOL
- Florentine Liberty II: Guicciardini, Dialogue on the Government of Florence Barry Stocker, NOL
(This text was written for the European Students for Liberty Regional Conference in Istanbul at Boğaziçi University. I did not deliver the paper, but used it to gather thoughts which I then presented in an improvised speech. As it was quite a long text, I am breaking it up for the purposes of blog presentation)
There is a gap between ancient Athens and classical liberalism, and covering that gap will explain more about the development from antique republics to modern liberty. The trio of major antique republican thinkers mentioned above, Aristotle, Polybius, and Cicero, sets up the tradition. They establish the idea of the best state – polity/politea in Greek, republic/res publica in Latin – as one of hearing political power between groups in the context of shared citizenship and decision making.
For Aristotle, that is the sharing of power between oligarchs (the rich, in practice those wealthy through commerce), aristocrats (the virtuous, in practice the educated land owning classes) and the poor majority. Polybius was a later Greek thinker who admired the Roman republic and Cicero was a Roman aristocrat-philosopher from the last years before the republic gave way to the one-man emperor rule system.
Both use arguments from Aristotle but tend to refer to Sparta rather than Athens as the ideal republic, which indicates the difficulties for antique thought in accepting a commercial and free thinking republic as model. Polybius and Cicero both admire the Roman system because they see it as based on law and on sharing power between the people (citizens’ assembly), the aristocracy (senate), and a monarchical function shared between two year-long co-rulers (consuls).
Their arguments also rest on the idea of the state as military camp. It is interesting to note that Pettit the egalitarian liberal prefers this Roman model to Athens and that Arendt prefers the Athenian model. This suggests that Arendt has something to say to classical liberals and libertarians, though she is rarely taken up within that group, and that egalitarian liberalism is rather caught up in strong state ideas, the state strong enough to force redistribution of economic goods rather than impose extreme military spirit on its citizens, but a strong intervening state.
All three of the ancient republican thinkers had difficulty with the idea of a commercially orientated republic and has some idea of virtue in restraining wealth, though Cicero in particular was staggeringly rich suggesting that ancient republican thought had some difficulty in accommodating commercial spirit, more so than some ancient republics in practice.
There is one major step left in ancient republican thinking which is the account the senator-historian Tacitus, of the early Roman Emperor period, gives of liberty in the simple tribal republics of ancient Germans and Britons. He sees them as based on independence of spirit and a willingness to die for that independence, in a way largely lacking amongst the Romans of that time.
The admiration for such ‘barbarian’ liberty also gives some insight into the difficulty of combining commercial spirit with republicanism in ancient thinking. Wealth is seen as something tied to benefits from the state, state patronage, so reduces independence of the state whether the local state or a foreign invading state.
Republicanism takes the next great step forward when some way of thinking of wealth as existing at least partly independently of state patronage appears. This is what happens in northern Italy from about the thirteenth century. To some degree this Italian republicanism has older roots in the maritime republic of Venice, but the trading wealth is still very tied up with aristocratic status and a rigid aristocratic hold on politics.
It is Florence, which serves as a thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth century Athens, where Italian culture, commercial wealth, and republican thinking all thrive. The cultural greatness goes back to the poet Dante and the republicanism to his tutor Bruno Latini. The really great moment in Florentine republicanism comes in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, though, with Francesco Guicciardini, but mostly with Niccoló Machiavelli.
Commentary on Machiavelli is heavily burdened by the image of Evil Machiavel or at least of Machiavelli the cynical advocate of power politics in The Prince. This is just a completely false image of a man whose ideal was the revival of the Roman republic, not the rule of absolute and absolutely immoral princes.
The supposed wickedness and cynicism of The Prince related to comments on how kings seize and maintain power, in which as far as Machiavelli advocates rather than analyses, he advocates minor acts of political violence. The age of Machiavelli is the age of the Catholic Inquisition torturing heretics and passing them to the state to be burned at the stake, the mass persecution and expulsion of Iberian Jews and Muslims, wars of religion and conquest, which involved systematic and mass destruction of property, torture, rape, and murder.
Those who chose to condemn the ‘wickedness’ of Machiavelli at the time were often those engaged in such activities. Machiavelli’s advice to princes does no more than advocate at the most extreme, very limited amounts of violence to institute and maintain rule, certainly very limited by the standards of the time.
Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE) was a prominent lawyer, politician, and thinker in the last years of the Roman Republic. His death was a murder in revenge for his attacks on Marcus Antonius (known in English as Mark Anthony), in the form of a speech in the Senate against tyranny known as the First Philippic. It is known as the Philippic in tribute to the speeches of Demosthenes (384-322 BC), which attacked the tyranny of Philipp II of Macedon over Athens and the other Greek city states.
The background to this is that the Roman Republic had been falling into the hands of military strong men for some time, who stretched the institutions and laws of the republic in order to exercise supreme power. Gaius Julius Caesar was the last in this sequence. After his conquest of Gaul (France) he taken supreme power in Rome out of a mixture extreme drive for power and as a protective measure against enemies after the lost the immunity associated with the governor’s post he had during his war of expansion.
After winning a way against his most important rival, Caesar offered mercy to previous opponents allowing them to be influential in Rome. However, Caesar was increasingly looking like a new king, a hated office in Rome, and the political system was designed to prevent any one person having complete power except for a short period in exceptional circumstnces. Caesar used this office of dictator, originally designed to offer emergency powers to a general during a time of military crisis for no more than six months, to become the permanent absolute ruler of Rome. He publicly rejected the offer of a crown from Mark Anthony, but was suspected of waiting for the right moment to proclaim himself king.
A conspiracy developed against Caesar amongst aristocrats who wished to preserve republican practices in which no one man could dominate Rome, so that power was shared between the aristocracy, with some influence granted to the common people. Cicero was a not a member of the conspiracy, but approved of its action against Caesar, which was led by Cicero’s friend Marcus Junius Brutus. It is highly pertinent to Cicero’s vision of the republic that Brutus was, or appeared to be, the descendent of the Marcus Junius Brutus who led the overthrow of the last King of Rome in the early years of the sixth century BCE.
The conspiracy against Caesar resulted in his assassination by a group of senators in 44 BCE. However, the assassins were not able to take over Rome and moved to eastern Mediterranean parts of the Roman lands to raise forces and organise for a war against Caesar’s followers. After the assassination Caesar’s friend and colleague, mark Anthony allied with an 18 year old nephew of Caesar, who was his legal heir. The boy became the Emperor Augustus. The rest of the story would go beyond the limits of this post, so it will enough for now just to mention that Mark Anthony took power in the city of Rome, leading to the murder of Cicero, while the future Augustus built up a position which enabled him to become the political successor to Caesar, not Mark Anthony.
Mark Anthony is reported to have ordered Cicero’s hands to be removed during the assassination and nailed to the door of the Senate house, in a tribute of a kind to the power of an eloquent speaker arguing for liberty and demonstrating liberty in the act of speaking, using his hands as ancients did in a rhetorically guided way as a major part of emphasising points. Though after the First Philippic the likelihood of violent retribution from Mark Anthony led Cicero to confine himself to writing further Philippics that were not read out in the Senate.
Cicero had previously served as consul (one of two officers of the Republic who shared the powers of a king for one year), the governor of Cilicia (modern day Adana in Turkey), and other offices. His political career included some very rough measures to defend the republic against what he thought of as existential danger and we should not turn Cicero into defender of pure constitutionalism and law in life, as well as in his writings. His writings do suggest a strong wish to live under laws rigorously enforced, and it has to be conceded that it was practically impossible to participate in politics at that time without being party to some very rough actions.
Cicero’s writings are not merely an important moment in antique thinking about liberty, but a major event in the linguistic and conceptual translation of Greek philosophy into Latin. Cicero’s Latin became the model for educated Latin style and usage under the Empire. His influence as a Latin stylist, thinker, and republican, was important on many generations of the more educated members of the aristocracy and the upper classes in Europe into the 19th century, because of the centrality of Latin to elite education.
Cicero wrote a number of texts concerned with liberty apart from On the Republic, including On the Laws, On Duties as well as various texts about oratory, letters and speeches. Online versions of On the Republic can be found here and here. The book connects with the issue of the apparent lineage of Brutus the assassin of Caesar going back to Brutus overthrower of monarchy, because it emphasises tradition. Laws are understood to be good if coming from venerable custom and that reinforced the arguments for a Senate connected with the Roman past through the ancestry emphasised by the aristocracy. Cicero was himself from a provincial family that had recently became rich, but felt that the connections of many other Senators with the deep Roman past was very valuable.
The aristocracy, organised politically in the Senate, provides the real heart of Cicero’s ideal republic as it provides a means of government midway between the disorder of democracy and the tyranny of one man rule. The people should have a share in the political system, but one constrained to prevent imbalances arising. Monarchy existed in the Roman republic, in the form the consuls who shared power for two years. Democracy existed in the role of citizen assemblies and tribunes who had veto powers and were elected by the lower classes as a guarantee of their rights.
Cicero saw the benefits of aristocratic power as a so great that except where the people had become unusually virtuous it is a good thing for the aristocracy to be able the how the lower classes voted, so that patrons could influence the votes of those who depended on them financially. This could be seen as very self-interested on the part of Cicero since he was a member of the aristocracy, but also fits in with his argument about the importance of avoiding the bad government of individuals with absolute power and of disorderly democratic assemblies. Both extremes are bad for a republic.
Cicero was certainly very horrified by the idea of a tyrant, suggesting that such people were vicious beasts and enemies of humanity. Unfortunately, like the other ancient thinkers, it just seemed obvious to him that Romans were a free people not worthy of slavery, while other peoples were worthy only of slavery. Roman readiness for liberty was based on customs and traditions that endured over the centuries. Cicero’s vision of law was as the outcome of virtue cultivated over over centuries. Laws were based on what could be found in customs so reducing the chances of laws appearing that impinged on the rights of any citizen.
Cicero’s understanding of law, custom, rights, and virtue was rooted in Roman history, in which he thought the early Roman kings Romulus and Numa, had built the institutions needed by a republic concerned with respect for a divine sanction underlying laws. Cicero probably did not believe in the standard Roman paganism, but evidently thought it suitable for making the laws as respected as possible. Cicero’s view of virtue also led him to favour a republic not too open to trade and other forms of connection with the outside world. He thought that Rome’s position on a river rather than the sea was ideal for keeping foreign influences down to an acceptable level. Carthage, Rome’s old enemy in what is now Tunisia, was less blessed in that it was a city on the sea and had been dominated by trade.
Cicero’s suspicions of trade and cosmopolitan interaction was regrettable, but was part of the antique way of thinking in which individual liberty in a city rested on virtue, state enforcement of public behaviour, as was the responsibility of Roman ‘censors’, and detachment from money making activities. Liberty could only fully existed where an aristocracy accustomed to self restraint dominated institutions in which the recklessness of the lower classes and the greed of those trying to rise up could be held down.
It was difficult for Cicero to imagine strong laws and institutions, as able to guarantee liberty, except in a society where the rapid innovations and changes of trade and commerce were sufficiently dampened to allow the old to remain in place. There are modern problems in integrating effective laws and institutions with change and variety, and no one had an obviously better idea of how find a balance than Cicero did in antiquity.