Our Roman Heritage
"There is a true law, a right reason, conformable to nature, universal, unchangeable, eternal, whose commands urge us to duty, and whose prohibitions restrain us from evil. Whether it enjoins or forbids, the good respect its injunctions, and the wicked treat them with indifference. This law cannot be contradicted by any other law, and is not liable either to derogation or abrogation. Neither the senate nor the people can give us any dispensation for not obeying this universal law of justice. It needs no other expositor and interpreter than our own conscience. It is not one thing at Rome and another at Athens; one thing to–day and another to–morrow; but in all times and nations this universal law must for ever reign, eternal and imperishable. It is the sovereign master and emperor of all beings. God himself is its author,—its promulgator,—its enforcer. He who obeys it not, flies from himself, and does violence to the very nature of man. For his crime he must endure the severest penalties hereafter, even if he avoid the usual misfortunes of the present life."On the surface, the above quote could have been written by Thomas Jefferson or John Locke. It was, however, written in 51 BC by Marcus Tullius Cicero in his work on political philosophy, The Republic. In his classic history of political philosophy, Prof. George H. Sabine writes:
“Cicero’s true importance in the history of political thought lies in the fact that he gave to the Stoic doctrine of natural law a statement in which it was universally known throughout Western Europe from his own day down to the nineteenth century. From him it passed to the Roman lawyers and not less to the Fathers of the Church. The most important passages were quoted times without number throughout the Middle Ages. … its most striking passages had already been excerpted … and so had become matters of common knowledge.” George H. Sabine, A History of Political Theory, 1937
Cicero, while sympathetic to the Hellenic schools of philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, accepted many Stoic ethical tenets. Indeed, Cicero is a main sources for the Hellenistic schools of thought of which Stoicism was the most influential in the Roman Empire.
Stoicism advanced the idea of ethical universalism and natural law. Law, or logos, is the driving force in nature. Their idea of God (although not Cicero’s) was the pantheist notion of a force of nature. In Roman hands, Stoic thought influenced legal theory. Sabine writes: “Legalism – the presumption that the state is a creature of law and is to be discussed not in terms of sociological fact or ethical good but in terms of legal competence and rights – had hardly existed in Greek thought; it has been an intrinsic part of political theory from the Roman times to the present.” Leo Strauss disagrees “that this change marks an epoch in the development of natural right doctrines” but holds that it is a seamless continuation of Hellenic philosophy [P135]. The relationship between Roman thought and Hellenic philosophy is complex; suffice it to say that the Roman thinkers were more applied, thorough, and complete in their exposition and in their aspirations for universal rights.
On the other hand, Sabine goes too far when he argues that “[t]he astonishing fact is that Chrysippus and Cicero and closer to Kant than they are to Aristotle.” The Stoic philosophers sought to build their ethnic system on the notion of self-preservation as the underlying telos. Cicero severely criticized the Stoic notion of “virtue of virtue’s sake” in his critique of the Hellenistic schools of philosophy, De Finibus. I’ll argue, in the future, that Cicero sought to establish Stoic normative ethics on a Hellenic meta-ethical foundation. Kant, whose emphasis was meta-ethics, rejected this foundation completely.
Sabine correctly notes the influence of seminal ideas such as “the great human brotherhood,” and the notion of “common goods or a commonweal,” but Cicero was quite clear by the use of his examples. He defended private property and objected to the redistribution of wealth. He remained part of the Hellenic eudiamonia school of thought. The excesses of Stoicism would re-emerge in later Roman writers. Cicero, however, took exception to the pessimism of the Early Stoa while avoiding the world-weariness of the Late Stoa. Virtue is a Roman word that like virility has as its root, vir -- manliness. Cicero is Roman virtue par excellence.
The rule of law brought Rome respect and loyalty. At its height Rome’s security required a military of less than 1% of its population. Almost all (about 300,000) were employed in border operations fighting barbarians. The whole of France required only 500 men situated at the seat of power at Lyon; there remained only 10,000 men in northern Africa, from Morocco to Tunisia [P211]. Even the earliest Christian writers expressed admiration for Roman law; Paul invoked his privilege as a Roman citizen to be tried under Roman law instead of Hebraic law. In Romans 13, he expresses unbounded respect for Roman authority.
Roman jurisprudence was the crowning achievement of the Roman civilization. Underwritten and refined by Greek philosophy, it was eventually absorbed by the Christian regimes of the later Roman Empire. Justinian, in the 6th century, commissioned an extensive compilation -- digest of Roman law -- even as he was closing the schools of philosophy that nurtured and fortified the development of these very laws. The revival of Roman law, starting in the 11th century, became the foundation of continental European law.
We owe to Rome a highly developed notion of law, universality, and rights. At its height, Roman was able to integrate and assimilate peoples from Britain to Syria in a peaceful and prosperous empire. Edward Gibbon, writing in the 18th century, says: “If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.”