Reply to Long on Cicero, Democracy, and Bastiat’s Critique of the Ancients

Roderick Long’s response to my essay is an excellent counterbalance for the Founding Fathers’ enthusiasm for Rome. Cicero was not the only influence who made an impression on the Founders, nor is he the lone ancient thinker classical liberals ought to consult.

This response consists of three main parts. First, I will reply to Long’s assessment of Cicero. Second, I want to point towards two examples of ancient Greek influence on the Founding Fathers. And lastly, I will be briefly discussing how Bastiat repudiated classical sources and attempt to answer how classical liberals ought to react to his condemnations.

Long aptly notes that both Jefferson and Bastiat saw that the flaw in classical thinking was a lack of a universal ethical approach. One’s allegiance to their tribe or nation always outranked abstract notions of humanity. Saint Paul, when accosted by Roman soldiers, did not protest by referencing his natural rights as a person deserving of dignity regardless of status, he said “Civis romanus sum,” “I am a Roman citizen.” This phrase, whether Paul was aware or not, originated from Cicero’s speeches against the corrupt governor Verres.

Cicero was not a perfect person by any stretch. He readily accepted the brutal imperialism of Rome and had no great qualms with slavery. And while Cicero deserves credit as one of the first theorists to ground human equality in natural law, Long points out the obvious issue that the theoretical equality found in Cicero’s writings is nowhere to be seen in the social order of Rome he praised so often.

On the topic of slavery, Long is correct; Cicero did not produce any substantial arguments against slavery even though he described a world order in which all rational beings deserve dignity. This does not sully his legacy entirely. After all, the majority of Founders are guilty of the same charge. Where Cicero does deserve credit is for his attempt to rework Roman imperialism. Cicero is one of the first thinkers to extensively discuss just war theory, and his ideas were adopted by thinkers such as Augustine of Hippo, Vattel, and Hugo Grotius.

For classical liberals, libertarians, anarchists (whatever label floats your boat), war, especially any form of aggressive warfare, is a moral catastrophe that must be avoided. Regardless of our disgust, war at times is inevitable, and thus we must think about how we act within our limits to defend ourselves while avoiding excessive cruelty to our opponents. Cicero wrote that “Wars, then, ought to be undertaken for this purpose, that we may live in peace, without injustice; and once victory has been secured, those who were not cruel or savage in warfare should be spared.”

In Rome, a highly militaristic society, war was a way for the elite of society to distinguish themselves through victory, conquest, and plunder. Many of the great Roman names are accomplished generals and tacticians. Cicero stands out amongst other Romans in Plutarch’s Lives alongside Cato the Younger, not as a man who distinguished himself through military might, but through good conduct. An important aspect of Cicero’s moral work De Officiis is his deflation of military glory; Cicero argued glory could be attained not just in war but through just conduct and keeping one’s promises. In De Re Publica Cicero wrote, “unless I am mistaken, it is argued [there] that no war is undertaken by a good state except on behalf of good faith or for safety.” While not perfect by any means, Cicero can be commended not only for his pivotal role and influence in theorizing about the reasoning and conduct of a just war, but also for his attempt at shifting the focus away from military glory and towards other more peaceful and moderate virtues.

I argue that overall, of all the ancient thinkers evoked as great authorities during the American Founding, Cicero outranks the rest in terms of the impression he left on his readers in both a moral and political sense. Cicero was a moral role model, a respected political thinker, and a symbol of a republican man alongside esteemed figures such as Cinncinatus, Cato, and Brutus. Cicero was a major player in the drama that is the fall of the Roman Republic. Republics were often commended by political thinkers for their commitment to the rule of law and equality, but often the record of republicanism was fraught. Few republics stood the test of time, and by the Founders’ day, few functioning republics existed, and these only on a small scale. The Roman Republic however lasted nearly five hundred years. In this context the musings and advice of Rome’s foremost representative of the republic became an increasingly important source.

The example of Rome and the writings of Cicero provided positive advice for the budding republicanism of the revolution. Though deemed the cradle of western civilization today, Athens did not fare so well. While today democracy seems to be a term used with almost universal adulation in the western world, this was not always the case. Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle gave damning accounts of Athenian democracy and its supposed excess. These less than stellar assessments of stuck, and for almost two millennia democracy was feared for its erratic and unstable nature. Thus, for the Americans, as Long has already noted, democracy was a dirty word for quite some time. Democracy was blamed for the disastrous consequences of the Peloponnesian War, and most shockingly, the execution of Socrates, who has been crystallized in history as the martyr of freethinking and philosophy, killed by a democratic jury.

Despite the negative connotations of democracy, by no means was classical Greece wholly ignored by the Founders. The Persian Wars, in which a small alliance of Greeks opposed the largest empire on the planet, illustrated the value of liberty for nervous Americans who saw themselves in the same situation against Britain. The Greek triumph over the Persians affirmed to the Americans Herodotus’s observation that “Free men fight better than slaves.” The moral example of Greece was not relegated solely to the Persian Wars. Historians such as Plutarch also pointed toward moral exemplars such as Aristides and Phocion, both of whom were held in high esteem by American readers with many often using their names as pseudonyms in political pamphlets. To a lesser extent than Romans such as Cicero, Cato, and Brutus, the Greeks still produced their fair share of disinterested and patriotic statesmen.

Through Plutarch, Polybius, and Demosthenes, Americans learned of Philip of Macedon and his conquest of Greece. American readers inferred from these accounts that the autocratic Philip quickly subdued the Greek powers because they lacked the unity of a sufficiently strong central government. Federalists argued that Greece had been conquered due to an excessive amount of decentralization. Founders such as James Wilson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison researched the Greek world’s federations in an attempt to find a system that would secure liberty and fend off foreign threats. James Madison extensively studied the ancient confederacies of the Greeks while formulating his vision of federalism.

Lastly, we have the issue of Bastiat’s disdain for the classical world and his contemporaries fawning over what he saw as brutal societies based upon war and slavery. In his wonderfully polemical essay “The Law,” Bastiat condemned socialists for dividing humanity into two parts, the legislator and the rest. He believed that socialists viewed themselves as separate from humanity. Socialist leaders might think of themselves as gardeners, while the people at large are shrubs, plants, and flowers that have to be taken care of and cultivated by the benevolent gardener. Bastiat’s revulsion at this idea comes from the fact that the hypothetical legislators place themselves above the population and believe that they can perfectly shape and mold every aspect of human life. In their vision, humans are inert unless someone comes along and organizes their lives. Bastiat located this pernicious tendency to fantasize about being an omnipotent legislator over a mostly passive population in the nature of classical sources. Bastiat dubs this tendency “the child of classical studies and the mother of socialism.”

Athens and Sparta both had semi-mythical lawgiver figures, Solon and Lycurgus, who in times of crisis were given near-unlimited power to rewrite the laws of their society radically. But as Long has noted, Cicero briefly resembles a sort of proto-Hayekian by arguing that Rome’s laws were made not by a single man from a bygone age, but that they developed over time through collective wisdom. Bastiat’s disdain can apply to societies such as Sparta, which rigidly stuck to their laws, but Athens and Rome developed and changed over time. Any who believed one great man was behind the glory of either society is sorely misreading history.

Bastiat is right to condemn the idea of a benevolent, omnipotent legislator in “The Law” and to attack the violent virtues of classical societies in his speech entitled “Academic Degrees and Socialism.” However, this does not mean we should abandon the classics. Bastiat attended a prestigious high school at Sorèze dedicated to educational reforms such as studying modern languages and implementing collaborative work. Instead of reading Latin and Greek, Bastiat learned German, English, and Spanish; instead of reading Tacitus, Cicero, or Seneca, Bastiat studied mathematics, science, and economics. His hostility to classical education can be explained by holding his much more holistic and applied education in preference to the traditional curricula, which emphasized the hallowed classical past to the detriment of more modern subjects.

In the medieval ages, John of Salisbury recounted the words of his teacher Bernard of Chartres, who “used to compare us to dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. He pointed out that we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.” While figures like Bastiat are right to point out the flaws of classical thought, they were wrong to abandon it as a whole. The thinkers of classical Greece and Rome, for better or worse, have had a colossal impact on our understanding of politics, whether we like it or not. The ancients asked many of the same questions we wrestle with today. Their writings echo throughout history and affect the predispositions and ideals of thinkers over a thousand years later. For anyone who wishes to uncover the intellectual roots of our most hallowed principles, institutions, and ideas, they have no choice but to engage with the ancients who set the stage for us moderns.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Paul Meany begins the discussion with an appreciation of Cicero, the Roman orator, statesman, and philosopher whose works were central to the western intellectual canon as the American Founders understood it. Though Cicero is rarely read today, he exerted a strong influence both on the Founders directly and on John Locke, another of their key influences.

Response Essays

  • Roderick T. Long argues that the American Founders’ classical influences were not limited to Roman republicanism. He faults them, however, for too readily dismissing Athenian democracy, which, contrary to its reputation, was surprisingly stable. Certain Founders also explored ancient ideas of a stateless society, in part prompted by their own experience of state disruption during the Revolutionary War.

  • C. Bradley Thompson notes several threads in the Founders’ understanding of the classics, including a deep mistrust of Plato and an admiration for Cicero’s idea of the republic, in which preserving the property of the people was taken as the main business of government. The ancients’ moral ideas, however, were perhaps the most important. It is here, he suggests, that the truest link between the ancient and the modern idea of liberty is to be found.