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Cicero on Justice, Law and Liberty


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

Gary Galles

Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and an adjunct scholar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He is also a research fellow at the Independent Institute, a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network, and a member of the Heartland Institute Board of Policy Advisors.