Amid the recurrent crises of the twentieth century there is a curious topicality in the spectacle of this highly intelligent but far from superhuman personality, first struggling to eminence in a great state, and then having to face, as well as he could, a crushing series of emergencies and convulsions. Very few other men have both stood at the centre of events and written so well and fully about the part they played. The character that emerges is a complicated one, composed of brilliant but discordant and sometimes contradictory qualities.
His story essentially consists of his repeated efforts, in spite of frequent and formidable discouragements, to oppose the autocratic modes of rule which were gradually throughout his life encroaching on the Republican system: and which reached their climax in the wholly authoritarian dictatorships of Sulla (82-79 BC) and Caesar (49-44 BC), and the scarcely less formidable committee regimes, both cynical and the second efficiently ruthless, of the two sets of Triumvirs (60-50 and 43-31 BC).*
Cicero was not often a very successful politician, but he derives unmistakable greatness from his insistence, against odds, that such dictatorial rulers were in the wrong because they unjustifiably curtailed the freedom of the individual: whereas the ultimate authority should be not themselves but certain unchangeable moral principles which they are incompetent to annul or amend. His own words on the subject, in his treatise On the State (III.33), written during a period of profound political disappointment, represent an early and fundamental statement of one side’s position in a perennial controversy.
“True law is Reason, right and natural, commanding people to fulfil their obligations and prohibiting and deterring them from doing wrong. Its validity is universal; it is immutable and eternal. Its commands and prohibitions apply effectively to good men, and those uninfluenced by them are bad. Any attempt to supersede this law, to repeal any part of it, is sinful; to cancel it entirely is impossible. Neither the Senate nor the Assembly can exempt us from its demands; we need no interpreter or expounder of it but ourselves. There will not be one law at Rome, one at Athens, or one now and one later, but all nations will be subject all the time to this one changeless and everlasting law.”
That is to say, right and wrong are irreconcilable, and no legislation can make one into the other. But Cicero was not content to enunciate moral principles from the study. For he was one of those politicians, never too numerous and in his day outstandingly rare, who have proposed, in their finest and most unhampered moments, to put their moral principles into practice in the conduct of political affairs.
True, when he came to write his treatise On the State – as the government was visibly collapsing – he was prepared to envisage a ‘guide’ for the Republic. Though the conception was general and ideal, his own qualifications as well as Pompey’s (or those which he had once hoped that Pompey might possess), cannot have been wholly absent from his mind.
But this was to be a constitutional, philosophical sort of guidance from the sidelines: dictatorship was and remained the negation of all that he stood for. Indeed, he attempted, at decisive moments of his career, to prevent such regimes from taking root and suppressing the free operation of Republican institutions – which alone, in his opinion, could supply the ideal of a stable and balanced state where human beings might express themselves as social creatures.
However, a description limited to those terms does not show the peculiar nature of Cicero’s political achievement. The austerely grand picture of a high-minded man resisting tyranny was what he would have liked the world to accept, but the truth is more complex and more interesting.
Men often move to the right as they grow older, when their temperaments cool and they acquire vested interests in the status quo. But in Cicero’s case the change was due not only or even principally to this general tendency but to alterations in his political environment. When he was young, the dangers to the Republic came from the right: the dictatorship of Sulla had favoured the aristocracy against the middle classes, and then the misgovernment of men like Verres, which so discredited the Republican system, was still supported by the same traditional elements. In those days, therefore, Cicero had stood to the left of the regime. When he was older, however, the threat came from Caesar, who aimed to put a revolutionary stop once and for all to the free operation of the consuls, Senate, and other Republican institutions; so Cicero, standing with those who opposed Caesar, found himself (with misgivings) the associate of the traditionalists and the right.
But fundamentally, at all times, he was a moderate, a ‘middle-of-the-road man’; to the two tyrannies, reaction and revolution, he was equally opposed, and whenever either of them became menacing he was on the other side.
* Pompey, Caesar, Crassus (died 53); Antony, Octavian (Augustus), Lepidus (dismissed 36).
From the Introduction by Michael Grant to Cicero: Selected Works, 1975, London: Penguin Books Ltd