Monday, March 26, 2007

Cicero on Private Property

Cicero’s views on private property reveal in a nutshell his political worldview. In De Officiis he continually returns to the topic to reiterate that the “right of ownership is inalienable” (Book I paragraph 37). His reasons are rooted in natural law and the “laws of human society” (I 21) but his exposition has a very different emphasis from contemporary libertarian arguments. Instead of the laissez-faire notion of protecting domains of individual seperateness, Cicero sees rights as unifying; and the violation of property rights as a grave injustice that destroys society’s harmony and the “common bonds” between men. Men of good will do not plunder their neighbors wealth, directly or through the apparatus of the state.

His notion of the origin of private property is not quite the immaculate conception of Locke: “There is, however, no such thing as private ownership established by nature, but property becomes private either through long occupancy … or through conquest … or by due process of law, bargain, or purchase, or by allotment …Therefore, inasmuch as in each case some of those things which by nature had been common property became the property of individuals, each one should retain possession of that which has fallen to his lot; and if anyone appropriates to himself anything beyond that, he will be violating the laws of human society” (I 21)

While the motive for property is understandable, Cicero worries about the excesses: “... men seek riches partly to supply the needs of life, partly to secure the enjoyment of pleasure. With those who cherish higher ambitions, the desire for wealth is entertained with a view to power and influence and the means of bestowing favors; … Fine establishments and the comforts of life in elegance and abundance also afford pleasure, and the desire to secure it gives rise to the insatiable thirst for wealth. Still, I do not mean to find fault with the accumulation of property, provided it hurts nobody, but unjust acquisition of it is always to be avoided.” (I 25)

Nevertheless government policy should be clear: “The man in an administrative office, however, must make it his first care that everyone shall have what belongs to him and that private citizens suffer no invasion of their property rights by act of the state. It was a ruinous policy that Philippus proposed when in his tribuneship he introduced his agrarian bill. … he often played the demagogue … [and his speech] deserves unqualified condemnation, for it favored an equal distribution of property; and what more ruinous policy than that could be conceived? For the chief purpose in the establishment of constitutional state and municipal governments was that individual property rights might be secured. For, although it was by Nature's guidance that men were drawn together into communities, it was in the hope of safeguarding their possessions that they sought the protection of cities. The administration should also put forth every effort to prevent the levying of a property tax …” (II 73)

Clearly no socialist, Cicero condemns confiscatory taxation time and time again. “Now, there are many — and especially those who are ambitious for eminence and glory — who rob one to enrich another; and they expect to be thought generous towards their friends, if they put them in the way of getting rich, no matter by what means. Such conduct, however, is so remote from moral duty that nothing can be more completely opposed to duty. We must, therefore, take care to indulge only in such liberality as will help our friends and hurt no one. The conveyance of property by Lucius Sulla and Gaius Caesar from its rightful owners to the hands of strangers should, for that reason, not be regarded as generosity; for nothing is generous if it is not at the same time, just.” (I 43)

“.. to exploit the state for selfish profit is not only immoral; it is criminal, infamous. … But they who pose as friends of the people, and who for that reason either attempt to have agrarian laws passed, in order that the occupants may be driven out of their homes, or propose that money loaned should be remitted to the borrowers, are undermining the foundations of the commonwealth: first of all, they are destroying harmony, which cannot exist when money is taken away from one party and bestowed upon another; and second, they do away with equity, which is utterly subverted, if the rights of property are not respected. For, as I said above, it is the peculiar function of the state and the city to guarantee to every man the free and undisturbed control of his own particular property.” (II 77-78)

By book III, Cicero rhetoric reaches a crescendo: “Finally, if a man wrongs his neighbor to gain some advantage for himself he must either imagine that he is not acting in defiance of Nature or he must believe that death, poverty, pain, or even the loss of children, kinsmen, or friends, is more to be shunned than an act of injustice against another. If he thinks he is not violating the laws of Nature, when he wrongs his fellow-men, how is one to argue with the individual who takes away from man all that makes him man? But if he believes that, while such a course should be avoided, the other alternatives are much worse — namely, death, poverty, pain — he is mistaken in thinking that any ills affecting either his person or his property are more serious than those affecting his soul.” (III 26)

He still expresses this as the harmony of interests: “This, then, ought to be the chief end of all men, to make the interest of each individual and of the whole body politic identical. For, if the individual appropriates to selfish ends what should be devoted to the common good, all human fellowship will be destroyed. And further, if Nature ordains that one man shall desire to promote the interests of a fellow-man, whoever he may be, just because he is a fellow-man, then it follows, in accordance with that same Nature, that there are interests that all men have in common. And, if this is true, we are all subject to one and the same law of Nature; and, if this also is true, we are certainly forbidden by Nature's law to wrong our neighbor. … This attitude demolishes the whole structure of civil society. Others again who say that regard should be had for the rights of fellow-citizens, but not of foreigners, would destroy the universal brotherhood of mankind; and, when this is annihilated, kindness, generosity, goodness, and justice must utterly perish; and those who work all this destruction must be considered as wickedly rebelling against the immortal gods. For they uproot the fellowship which the gods have established between human beings, and the closest bond of this fellowship is the conviction that it is more repugnant to Nature for man to rob a fellow-man for his own gain than to endure all possible loss, whether to his property or to his person . . . or even to his very soul — so far as these losses are not concerned with justice; a for this virtue is the sovereign mistress and queen of all the virtues.” (III 26-28)

Cicero believes in complementing the protection of acquisition and ownership of property with the virtue of liberality -- but within reason, with taste, to those worthy of aid, for the right things, and with one’s own wealth. “There are, in general, two classes of those who give largely: the one class is the lavish, the other the generous. The lavish are those who squander their money on public banquets, doles of meat among the people, gladiatorial shows, magnificent games, and wild-beast fights — vanities of which but a brief recollection will remain, or none at all. … Again, the expenditure of money is better justified when it is made for walls, docks, harbors, aqueducts, and all those works which are of service to the community.” (II 55) But he is a practicing politician and accepts the social reality of his day. “To conclude, the whole system of public bounties in such extravagant amount is intrinsically wrong; but it may under certain circumstances be necessary to make them.” (II 60)

But never over do it! “The second point for the exercise of caution was that our beneficence should not exceed our means; for those who wish to be more open-handed than their circumstances permit are guilty of two faults: first they do wrong to their next of kin; for they transfer to strangers property which would more justly be placed at their service or bequeathed to them. And second, such generosity too often engenders a passion for plundering and misappropriating property, in order to supply the means for making large gifts. We may also observe that a great many people do many things that seem to be inspired more by a spirit of ostentation than by heart-felt kindness; for such people are not really generous but are rather influenced by a sort of ambition to make a show of being open-handed. Such a pose is nearer akin to hypocrisy than to generosity or moral goodness.” (I 44)

Cicero believes the state exists to protect private property and to outlaw “force and fraud.” His concept of fraud is broader and includes actions that might be allowed under the doctrine of caveat emptor. He sees no problem with charging more for food when it is dear but the deception of market conditions by commission or omission that leads to taking advantage of momentary ignorance (perhaps failing to hear of the news of the bumper crop) is seen as fraud in Cicero’s book. In the end of book III he gives both sides of a debate on this issue citing two “highly esteemed” thinkers. (III 51)

De Offisiis consists of three books, the first on honor, the second on utility, and the third on the inherent identity of honor and utility. He argues that the moral is the practical; that it respects the interests of all, and brings about the good will and harmony of a civilized order. Despite the fragile nature of the Roman Republic, Cicero never despairs on human nature. The title, often translated to “On Duties” would be better translated to the lengthier “On the Moral Obligations of a Gentleman of Public Affairs.” It served that purpose as a core text in Renaissance and Enlightenment liberal arts curricula. It is a core text of the Western tradition.


Blogger Mr. Ducky said...

"Still, I do not mean to find fault with the accumulation of property, provided it hurts nobody, but unjust acquisition of it is always to be avoided."

In other words --- once a libertarian hits a conflict of interest he checks out and lets the philosophy fall.

3/26/07, 2:04 PM  
Blogger Jason Pappas said...

By "unjust" he means theft. By "hurt" he means attacking another's person or property.

3/26/07, 2:07 PM  
Blogger Mr. Ducky said...

"The peasant who hires land, the manufacturer who borrows capital, the tax-payer who pays tolls, duties, patent and license fees, personal and property taxes, &c., and the deputy who votes for them, — all act neither intelligently nor freely. Their enemies are the proprietors, the capitalists, the government."

--- Proudhon ---

"All property is theft"

Anarchy strikes me as unattractive but a damn sight better than Roman oligarchy.

3/26/07, 2:09 PM  
Blogger Allen Weingarten said...

Jason raises an important point, when noting the contrast between Libertarians and Cicero with regard to rights. The former see the relation of rights to individuals, while Cicero also notes their contribution to society. It is unfortunate that some Libertarians, in their desire to restrain government, and defend against the collective, overlook the role of societal and communal issues.

I think that Cicero and Locke are partners, in that the former starts from the first principle of justice “everyone shall have what belongs to him”, while the latter explicates the rules for determining what belongs to each person. Thus morality and effectiveness go hand in hand, or as Jason emphasizes “the moral is the practical”.

3/26/07, 4:24 PM  
Blogger madmax said...


Yes Cicero was a giant and to read him is to gain an appreciation for the Western tradition. But after Ayn Rand, it is clear what exactly Cicero's errors are just as John Locke's errors are clear. Neither of them justified private property (or rights generally) on a fully consistent pro-reason, pro-self-interest philosophy. Or in other words, both of them tried to base freedom and private property on altruism and mysticism (ie God and religion); granted a very watered down version as compared to socialists or leftists like Ducky, but altruism nevertheless.

And the sad part of it is that Cicero and Locke will not be enough to argue against consistent altruists like a marxist or our friend Ducky. All they will have to do is say that "harmony" or the public good demand free this or free that and "Lockeans" or "Ciceronians" will cave. In fact, that is exactly what happened as the history of America bears out. Leanord Peikoff has said that Locke and the Founding Fathers ultimately were not enough to maintain freedom and capitalism and that their experiment in liberty had to fail. He's right. Look around you.

Ayn Rand is the first person in history to ground private property in a fully consistent egoistic approach to morality and individual rights with no basis in religion or any version of the mystical. Only when her philosophy gains control over the culture will there be any true property rights (as in fundamental and consistent).

Until then we have Locke and Cicero, and thank goodness for them. But of themselves they will not be enough. Without Rand, capitalism will fall.

3/26/07, 8:55 PM  
Blogger madmax said...

As case and point that Locke and Cicero are not enough, notice what the conservative poster Weingarten had to say:

"It is unfortunate that some Libertarians, in their desire to restrain government, and defend against the collective, overlook the role of societal and communal issues."

"Societal and communal issues" he says. He has already conceded the premise that morality revolves around society and not the individual. As much as he might deny or evade it, he has already conceded altruism as the ideal morality, even if he would try to limit it like Cicero. That is not enough. Committed altruists like Ducky will beat Weingarten every time. After all, Ducky too believes in "societal and communal issues" and he sees no reason for restraint. What the people want they should get. Who the hell is Cicero to be so greedy.

A Lockean or Ciceronian conservative can not answer him fundamentally. But an Objectivst can rip is liver out and hand it to him for breakfast. To use and expression.

3/26/07, 9:03 PM  
Blogger Jason Pappas said...

I agree, madmax (Eastbrook?), that Cicero’s treatment isn’t as powerful as the contemporary defense such as Rand’s. One of the problems in presenting Cicero’s ideas is the ambiguity involved in some of his rhetoric. For example, the notion of “common good” can mean too many things to too many people. With Cicero I believe he means what we have in common as individuals, i.e. our rights. I don’t believe he means the collective good, a notion that holds that the individual is merely a part of the organic whole disposable depending on the needs of the whole. Of course, I just presented the distinction that he only makes implicitly. A socialist could ignore his examples and pretend his “civic pride” “common good” “harmony of interests” is a desire to subordinate himself to the collective.

My view is that his egoism is implicit but it is inadequate given what we know now. His examples suggest “take care of your own first” and fully respect other’s right to use their wealth to further their own interest. He may not always respect how they use their property but he respects their rights. I take his notion of harmony as the good will that comes when people don’t see their neighbors as objects to be sacrificed but as fellow human beings with rights and aspirations. This reminds me of Rand’s notion of “good will” that people are capable in a free society and only a free society. His notion of harmony of interests seems closer to Rand’s essay of the fallacy of the conflict of interests in a free society.

Nevertheless, I don’t think I’d understand Cicero as much as I do without the conceptual artillery of Rand and perhaps a few others. In today’s context, the anti-concepts and contemporary prejudices can blind one to a very different way of thinking especially when it is implicit and expressed in examples. On the other hand, I’m trying hard not to see my view in Cicero when he differs. That’s why I tried to indicate some differences and limitations – and why I use his (translated) words as much as possible.

Let’s remember that Cicero was never “lost.” I often say that to show his importance but it also shows that Cicero wasn’t enough. Still, he was an important historical writer on private property rights and against the use of the state to plunder the most productive members of society. The founders saw Cicero as a voice fighting a losing battle for the Republic and rights of man. They intended to get it right!

3/26/07, 9:35 PM  
Blogger Allen Weingarten said...

Madmax criticizes the errors of Cicero and Locke, as basing rights on altruism and mysticism (i.e., God and religion). He concludes that this approach is not comparable to that of Ayn Rand, who does not hold to any facet of religion or mysticism. Now I hold that Rand, while validating that which is objective, leaves out that which is poetic, intuitive, and inspirational. So we fundamentally disagree in our approach to existence. I would welcome the opportunity to debate these fundamentals (and have in the past done so). However, what I wish to point out at this moment is that Madmax has not adequately stated my position.

First he refers to me as a “conservative poster”. That is a misnomer, for although I recognize certain virtues in conservatism, I overwhelmingly criticize it as theoretically unsound, and politically mistaken. What is most erroneous however, is how Madmax interprets my statement that Libertarians overlook the role of societal and communal issues. He writes that I have “conceded altruism as the ideal morality”. Now I have frequently denounced altruism as the ideal morality, and have advocated Ayn Rand’s concept of ‘selfishness’ (which I claim would better be called ‘self-enhancement’). I do allow that there are secondary ways in which it benefits an individual to give another a helping hand, but that is another matter.

Yet I have written that the Libertarians “see the relation of rights to individuals, while Cicero *also* notes their contribution to society.” Thus, *I was not addressing a view that was solely based on society, but one that included both individuals and society.* Consequently, I cannot hold Madmax’ view that altruists would beat me every time, for I consistently oppose altruism on the same basis that Ayn Rand does.

In sum, I hold that individualism is primary, while societal matters are secondary, whereas Madmax interprets this as though only society matters. Apparently, it is he who takes the either/or position that only individualism matters, while there is no role for society. So I would argue with him whether society matters at all, but only after he acknowledged that both of us hold to the primacy of the individual.

I concur with Jason that “With Cicero I believe he means what we have in common as individuals, i.e. our rights. I don’t believe he means the collective good, a notion that holds that the individual is merely a part of the organic whole disposable depending on the needs of the whole.” I also hold with Jason that “The founders saw Cicero as a voice fighting a losing battle for the Republic and rights of man. They intended to get it right!” I do not concur with Madmax and Peikoff that the history of America shows that the Lockians or Ciceronians will cave, and that the Founding Fathers experiment in liberty had to fail. It is surely not logical to say that this is shown by the argument “Look around you” which addresses the reality of our demise, but cannot in theory constitute an explanation. My explanation is that America did not fight the war of ideas that was necessary, but I would never say that my evidence for this is “Look around you”.

I believe Madmax’ error is the perennial treatment of a dichotomy as though only one component existed. Thus there are philosophers who treat the mind/body dichotomy as though all was mind, or all was body, and treat the nominalism/realism dichotomy as though there were only members or only groups, and treat the individual/collective dichotomy as though there were only individuals or only society. I submit that there are both individual and societal issues, as well as intangible and tangible matters.

3/27/07, 10:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cubed here.

Cicero was a giant; it wouldn't surprise me if, at some point in her lifetime, Ayn Rand might have thought to herself, as Newton did, "If I have seen farther than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants."

Cicero was an amazing man, and Ayn Rand had two thousand years' worth of thinking such as the great thinkers who preceded her to add fuel to her own fire. She was so damned smart she might have been able to do all she did without the likes of Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, etc., but those guys had to make it easier for her, and as her "springboard," they must surely have enabled her to reach greater heights more quickly than she otherwise might have done, had she been obliged to start from scratch.

Concepts like "rights" aren't all that easy to derive, and I think we ought to give Cicero et al. a lot of credit for getting as far as they got.

I think that in the context of Cicero's thoughts in the rest of Jason's post, Jason's interpretation of what Cicero meant by the "common good" was probably correct.

After all, if the rights of each individual are protected, then all of society is protected. We are, sociobiologically, a group-living species, so it is legitimate for us to consider the well-being of the group. However, this in no way disparages the notion that in order to protect the group, we must first respect the rights of each individual in it.

My associations are a tad loose this morning, but the part of the discussion involving the "common good" reminds me of the relationship between Mr. Spock and the rest of the tiny society that lived aboard the Starship Enterprise.

The reason Mr. Spock was so well respected and so popular among the other characters in the series wasn't because he went out of his way to be thoughtful, kind, or to "make people feel good." Here he was, the "emotionless logician" (an ridiculous dichotomy), yet he was admired by millions of people around the world.

He was loved precisely because of his absolute respect for rights and justice; everyone aboard the Enterprise knew, without fail, that nothing could sway Spock from his committment to objectivity and fairness.

That's a very comforting notion for most of us, and it's the kind of relationship that generates trust.

3/27/07, 1:15 PM  
Blogger Allen Weingarten said...

Cubed has it right "in order to protect the group, we must first respect the rights of each individual in it."

As said by Mr. Spock, "Live Long and Prosper"

3/27/07, 5:44 PM  
Blogger Oberon said...

.......only two levels above death......acceptance and for all and all for one......and don't forget morihei ueshiba and the art of peace.

3/29/07, 5:48 PM  
Blogger Ronbo said...

Liberty And Culture is my top pick!

The Thinking Blogger Award Nomination

3/30/07, 4:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My friend, I have recognized you as one of five blogs that make me think. You are now entitled to the Thinking Blogger Award. For more information, and to determine if you wish to participate, please visit Social Sense.

Semper Fi

3/30/07, 12:27 PM  
Blogger Always On Watch said...

Excellent post!

Cicero condemns confiscatory taxation time and time again.

At this time of year, I get in a snit over taxes. So much money taken from my pockets, which aren't at all deep!

Cicero believes the state exists to protect private property and to outlaw “force and fraud.”

Aren't we well beyond that function of government today?

4/1/07, 12:42 PM  
Blogger Allen Weingarten said...

Those who share the views of Jason on Cicero, as well as on Christianity, will appreciate the following article: "What Has Jerusalem to Do with Athens--What Pope Benedict Reveals About Christianity, Islam, and the Greek Spirit" by Robert Tracinski, 'The Intellectual Activist' Nov. 2006. It is well written, scholarly, and insightful.

For religionists, a philosophical rejoinder to the above concepts can be found in "Science, Religion, and the Human Future" by Leon Kass, 'Commentary' April 2007.

4/2/07, 3:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, I've got to read more Cicero. Thanks!

4/4/07, 10:05 PM  
Blogger bbarron2 said...

The laws of nature have always been recognized.There are many that belong to man of his very nature.It is interesting that the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution,which are natural law documents,are relegated to the dust bin of history by most jurists in the US,meaning lawyers as well.One can hardly argue in court that such and such a law is contrary to the natural law,which law is easily provable.Contingent on natural law is natural rights which necessarily follow.I think Cicero is at the forefront of this exposition.

2/9/12, 4:30 PM  
Blogger bbarron2 said...

Cicero certainly knew of the Natural Law which few of our jurists and lawyers admit. In fact,most deny it even in the face of the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence and the statements and teachings of out Founding Fathers.
The proof of it's existence is very simple as given by St.Thomas Aquinas.

2/9/12, 4:35 PM  

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