Cicero’s political philosophy — VI — Politicians and virtue
Here is a thing or two that the Roman statesman Cicero could teach our modern politicians…
[This is the last installment of a six-part series on Cicero’s political philosophy. Here are parts I, II, III, IV, and V. The series is based on Cicero’s Skepticism and His Recovery of Political Philosophy, by Walter Nicgorski]
“For there is no other endeavor in which human virtue more nearly approaches the very nature of the gods than either in the founding of new polities or in the preservation of those already in being.” (Cicero, De Re Publica III.12)
These days, everybody loves to hate politicians. And, we must concede, for good reasons. In the past few years we have seen political leaders plotting to overthrow the state, behaving recklessly in the name of self-interest, and even starting wars to further their own financial advantage and achieve “glory” (more on this latter concept below).
And yet, as the Roman advocate, statesman, and philosopher Marcus Tullus Cicero says in the quote that opens this essay, politics understood as working toward the betterment of a polity arguably is the highest profession there can be, and the most consequential. The question, then, is how do we insure that our leaders are virtuous rather than wicked. Cicero’s answer is to go Socratic, sort of.
Socrates was the well known “gadfly” of ancient Athens, who eventually got convicted by an assembly of fellow citizens of the crimes of impiety and corruption of the youth, for which he was condemned to death by hemlock in 399 BCE. Socrates is the role model for many Greco-Roman philosophers, from Plato to the Stoics, because he spent his whole life in search of wisdom and virtue, even paying the ultimate price for his troubles.
And yet, Cicero tells us that Socrates himself wouldn’t have made a good politician (indeed, he didn’t even try), because he was actually disdainful of both politics and of one of its crucial tools: rhetoric. Even to this day rhetoric has a somewhat bad reputation, especially among my colleagues in both philosophy and science. Rhetoric is seen as the art of manipulation, and it is repulsive to those who…