Justice according to Cicero. How is it to be upheld in the republic?

Essay, 2018

9 Pages, Grade: 68


What is justice, according to Cicero, and how is it to be upheld in the republic?

Carolina Gerwin

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106- 43 BC) is one of the most famous philosophical and political figures in the world. He has written several influential works such as On Duties, which has been seen as a “source of moral authority” since its publication in 44 BC.[1] Several scholars have analysed Cicero’s works to understand and evaluate his political and philosophical ideas, also regarding Cicero’s view on one of his key concepts: justice. This essay complements current literature by discussing what justice is, according to Cicero, and how it is preserved in the republic. I argue that for the philosopher, justice is the superior virtue among all people that prevails over other virtues and promotes sociability, thereby upholding the community and the state. Justice is upheld in the republic if everyone acts according to certain rules that are outlined below and if power is divided between the monarchic, aristocratic and democratic elements in Cicero’s account of a mixed constitution. The essay starts by explaining the relevant context, then continues by outlining Cicero’s view on justice, and finally, it discusses how it is preserved in the republic as described in On the Commonwealth and On Duties.

Writing On the Commonwealth (54- 51 BC), Cicero aimed at two points: He wanted to outline the characteristics of the best constitution but, more importantly, he sought to “determine how the Roman state can be prevented from collapsing under the present strain of disunity”.[2] The reason for this is that the Roman republic suffered under factionalism because, as pointed out by Laelius in Cicero’s On the Commonwealth, due to the demise of Tiberius Gracchus and his tribunate, ‘there are two senates and almost two peoples’ (1.31). During Cicero’s times, there was an ideological struggle between the ‘populares’ and ‘optimates’: The former view is associated with Caesar and the Gracci brothers, while Cicero had “overtly republican optimate preferences.”[3] According to Laelius, if unity was achieved again, ‘then we will live both better and happier lives’ (On the Commonwealth 1.32). As On Duties complements On the Commonwealth, it serves the same purpose, probably even more: After Cicero’s return from exile in 57 BC, the triumvirate between Pompey, Caesar and Crassus was renewed and although Cicero opposed the alliance, he had to bent down for the sake of the stability of the Republic and his own life.[4] Consequently, although he already recognised in 54 BC that the Republic is divided and reigned by “individuals exercising power for their own good”, he did not take action but rather preferred to express his opinion by writing texts such as On the Commonwealth.[5] As reasonably pointed out by Asmis, his apprehension to give offense against Pompey and Caesar is probably the reason why Cicero used Scipio in On the Commonwealth to express his views.[6] After the death of Crassus in 53 BC, the triumvirate collapsed and the following competition between Caesar and Pompey culminated in the beginning of a civil war in 49 BC after Caesar had crossed the Rubicon.[7] Cicero himself supported Pompey but remained more or less inactive during the war.[8] Finally, Caesar became the dictator of Rome in 49 BC and once more, Cicero “turned to study as a profitable way of spending his time and consoling himself for the loss of the res publica”.[9] However, after the assassination of Caesar in 44 BC, Cicero’s view on his writing changed and his philosophical works become much more political.[10] Consequently, as Long puts it, On Duties is also written as an “attack on the perversion” of the ‘mos maiorum' by Caesar[11] in order to accuse him as the “Republic’s destroyer”.[12] Therefore, regarding Cicero’s view on justice, the crisis of the republic, provoked by factionalism, tyranny and Caesar’s death, had a major influence . Consequently, to prevent the collapse of the Roman Republic and to re-establish its stability, the author suggests in On Duties to persuade the rulers of the Republic to govern according to duties that reflect both honesty (in accordance with virtues such as justice) and usefulness because ‘whatever is honourable is beneficial’ (On Duties 3.35).

Regarding the question what justice is, it is important to understand Cicero’s account of humanity. Cicero begins his reflection of the roots of human society with a “general account of animal oikeiosis”, which can be translated as an instinct for sociability, and uses therefore the “properly ethical approach” to justice[13]: In On Duties 1.11, Cicero explains that every creature has a drive for self-preservation, an urge for procreation and a ‘certain care’ for new-borns. In contrast to animals, humans have ‘reason’, creating a desire to unite with other humans for the ‘fellowship of both common speech and of life, creating above all a particular love for his offspring’ and the wish to share useful things with others (On Duties 1.12). This aspect is especially important for the creation and upholding of a community and, as we will see, for Cicero’s view on justice. A second characteristic of humans is their ‘search for truth and its investigation’ (On Duties 1.13). Consequently, humans want to develop by getting new knowledge to live a pleasant life by recognising that ‘what is true, simple and pure’ is most natural to humans (On Duties 1.13). Furthermore, this characteristic is associated with an ‘impulse towards pre-eminence’, resulting in the wish to only be ruled by a leader legitimate and just, in a ‘(g)reatness of spirit’ and a disdain for human concerns (On Duties 1.13). While the former points are crucial for making a society possible, the last two points show the tendencies for conflict, reflected in the crisis of the Roman Republic as outlined in the beginning. However, our ability to digest our environment leads to the thinking that ‘beauty, constancy and order should be preserved’ in all aspects (On Duties 1.14) and counteracts such a potential for disputes. Therefore, ”sociability” is the natural foundation of justice and humans consequently seek to live in the ‘res publica’.[14] According to Cicero, justice is the consequence of our “innate instincts” and our “truly human desires” are those for justice,[15] implying that justice is natural to all humans.

Therefore, next to wisdom, courage, and temperance, justice is one of the four cardinal virtues (On Duties 1.15). As justice is ‘the mistress and queen of all virtues’ (On Duties 3.28), it is the most important virtue and most far-reaching source of duty, acting as the guardian of the state by preserving the drive for unity in every individual. Atkins’ argument stresses this point by stating that the role of justice is the “building up of societas.[16] This is confirmed by the definition of justice in its broader perception, namely its “obligation to maintain human association”, the main idea in Cicero’s first book of On Duties.[17] However, one can also find a definition of justice in the “narrower sense” that is more similar to the “orthodox Stoic definition.”[18] Justice is more explicitly defined as upholding the community ‘with faithfulness to agreements one has made’ and ‘with assigning to each his own’ (On Duties 1.15) by treating ‘common goods as common and private ones as one’s own’ (On Duties 1.20). A further crucial part of justice is that ‘no man should harm another unless he has been provoked by injustice’ (On Duties 1.20). This definition of justice is significantly influenced by the crisis of the republic and Cicero’s own experiences: He probably included the part about not hurting each other as he was a witness of the civil war, and from his time in exile follows his defence of private property (On Duties 1.21), a point stressed several times in On Duties because according to the philosopher, the ‘proper function of citizenship and a city’ is to guarantee for all a ‘free and unworried guardianship of his possessions’ (2.78). Moreover, as the republic suffered under factionalism, the author stresses that in order ‘to bind fast the fellowship of men with each other’, it is just to share what has been given to people by nature and one should help each other (On Duties 1.22). Furthermore, two kinds of injustice follow from these points: To commit injury and to not prevent someone of inflicting an infringement (On Duties 1.23).

Therefore, in sum, the main elements of justice are to not hurt anyone and to act with regard to the common good (On Duties 1.31), as well as to prevent others from committing injustice. If everyone acts according to these rules, justice becomes the main driver for a stable and flourishing state because, as it is the most important human association that unites all that means something to us (On Duties 1.57), the republic becomes the main reference point of one’s actions (On Duties 1. 58). As Cicero was a witness of the civil war beginning 49 BC between Caesar and Pompey, two men focusing on their own advantage and seeking to rule over the Republic,[19] it is understandable that in his theory of justice, the virtue has to establish a state where people and especially politicians care about other citizens and serve the common good rather than their own one.


[1] Benjamin Patrick Newton, “Introduction,” in On Duties by Marcus Tullius Cicero, translated and edited by B.P. Newton (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2016), 1.

[2] Elizabeth Asmis, “The State as a Partnership: Cicero’s Definition of “res publica” in his work “On the State”,” History of Political Thought 25 (Winter 2004): 572.

[3] E.M. Atkins, “’Domina et regina virtutum’: Justice and Societas in “De Officiis”,” Phronesis 35 (1990): 281.

[4] Elizabeth Asmis, “A New Kind of Model: Cicero’s Roman Constitution in “De republica”,” American Journal of Philology 126 (Autumn 2005): 386-87.

[5] Asmis, „A New Kind of Model,” 387.

[6] Ibid., 391.

[7] E.M. Atkins, “Cicero,” in The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Political Thought, edited by C. Rowe and M. Schofield (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 502.

[8] Atkins, “Cicero,“ 502-03.

[9] Ibid., 503.

[10] Ibid., 504.

[11] A.A. Long, “Cicero’s Politics in “De Officiis” ,” in Justice and Generosity, edited by Laks & Schofield (1995) [repr.in his From Epicurus to Epictetus: Studies in Hellenistic and Roman Philosophy (2006)], 215.

[12] Long, “Cicero’s Politics in “De Officiis”,” 219.

[13] Malcolm Schofield, “Two Stoic Approaches to justice,” in Justice and Generosity, edited by Laks and Schofield (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 193-194.

[14] Atkins, “’Domina et regina virtutum’,” 281.

[15] Ibid., 288.

[16] Ibid., 266.

[17] Schofield, “Two Stoic Approaches to justice,” 204.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Atkins, “Cicero”, 502.

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Justice according to Cicero. How is it to be upheld in the republic?
University College London
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Cicero, Caesar, On the Commonwealth, On Duties, justice, virtues, Roman Republic, duties, usefulness, honesty, wisdom, courage, modesty/moderation, mixed constitution, Gerechtigkeit, Römische Republik, Tugend, Pflichten
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Carolina Gerwin (Author), 2018, Justice according to Cicero. How is it to be upheld in the republic?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/510903


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