Cicero and Individual Rights

A major gap exists in the contemporary defense of individual rights.

Fortunately, a recent article by Joseph Loconte (“A Brief History of Individual Rights”) enables us to reconsider on how best to defend the “inherent dignity” and “equal and inalienable rights” of individuals in the 21st Century.

In order to follow development of individual rights across “the long road from Athens to America” with Loconte, it first behooves us to pause and test a critical link in the logical chain proposed between Athens and Rome.

Mr. Loconte traces the idea of individual agency back to the ancient Greeks. Beginning with the trial of Socrates -- the Athenian gadfly -- in Plato’s Apology, Loconte proceeds straight to Cicero’s Republic with the declaration that “[w]hat was implicit in Greek philosophy was made explicit by Rome’s greatest statesman, Marcus Tullius Cicero.” 

While we agree that both sources are important landmarks on the intellectual road from Athens to America, we reject the claim that Cicero simply bears out what is implied by the Greeks (i.e., Plato and Aristotle). Rather, we think that the proposed relationship between Cicero and Greek philosophy actually makes it more difficult to understand and defend human dignity and inalienable individual rights in the modern age.

Let’s being by considering one of the most famous passages from Cicero’s Republic: “the commonwealth, then, is the people’s affair; and the people is not every group of men, associated in any manner, but is the coming together of a considerable number of men who are united by a common agreement about law and rights and by the desire to participate in mutual advantages. The original cause of this coming together is not so much weakness as a kind of social instinct natural to man.” 

So, what then is a commonwealth, i.e. a republic? The people’s affair, who are united by a common agreement about law and rights and who seek mutual advantages. Granted. The novelty arises in Cicero’s account of the “original cause” of political association as such -- a cause that is not so much weakness but rather is a kind of social instinct natural to man. Significantly, this distinction between weakness and a social instinct as the primary cause of the political order explicitly rejects key components of Aristotle’s (and implicitly, Plato’s) argument about the nature of man, the political animal.

What is this weakness? This so-called weakness can be seen in numerous ways in Aristotle’s Politics and revolves around the problem of self-sufficiency. Simply put, what Cicero rejects as weakness is understood by Aristotle as a basic fact of the human condition -- that no individual as such can be self-sufficient on his or her own.

The insufficiency of any single individual is manifest in the natural longings of the coupling animal (i.e. the instinctually sexual animal) for whom “there must of necessity be a conjunction of persons, who cannot exist without one another: on the one hand, male and female, for the sake of reproduction (which occurs not from intentional choice but… from a natural striving to leave behind another that is like oneself)...” What we see here is that Aristotle traces the origin of the city back to the reliable operation of the sexual instinct which naturally culminates in offspring and provides the spur to form households. Yet, whereas the coupling instinct provides the origin of the city in time, the origin of the city by nature is found in reason and exists for the sake of living-well.

Critical for our case, Cicero rejects the Greek method of tracing the effective cause of the commonwealth back to human sexuality and instead asserts a natural social instinct as the impetus to political life. The ground for Cicero’s radical break from Aristotle is found in the supposedly immediate operation of natural law in the conscience, or what Cicero describes as “a true law -- namely, right reason -- which is in accordance with nature, applies to all men, and is unchangeable and eternal. By its commands this law summons men to the performance of their duties; by its prohibitions it restrains them from doing wrong. Its commands and prohibitions always influence good men, but are without effect upon the bad.”

This reversal of the order of self-sufficiency has major implications for the defense of human dignity and inalienable rights today. Whereas Aristotle sees self-sufficiency as the end and what is best, Cicero’s introduction of an immediately effective natural law in the human soul makes man, as it were, politically self-sufficient at our origin. Aristotle begins his account of political things with human insufficiency as the spur to political association and holds that “the city belongs among the things that exist by nature, and that man is by nature a political animal” because the education to liberty -- learning how to rule and be ruled in turn -- is integral to the telos, or fulfillment of the human potential. In sharp distinction, natural law operates in the conscience pre-politically and independently of the formation and development of a political order. In the language of Aristotle, such a person who intrinsically and effectively knows what is right and wrong, without learning to moderate their passions through an education to liberty, stands as one who is “superior to man,” i.e., a god. 

The elevation of the immediately social instinct of man over the immediately sexual instinct of the potentially political animal has serious cultural consequences. For instance, if we begin from the presumption of natural law operating effectively in the conscience, then we could accept Loconte’s assertion that “there is no coherent view of human personality stripped of the imago Dei.” But, considering the all-too-human tendency of the mores of the people to fall apart, we hold instead that it makes more sense to build a coherent view of the human personality upon Aristotle’s observation that “...without virtue, [man] is the most unholy and the most savage [of the animals], and the worst with regard to sex and food.”

The contemporary defense of our inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights requires a rigorous realism which resists making state-of-nature-like mistakes in which we read the outcomes of our cultural habituation back into our primordial becoming. Specifically, we cannot afford to interpret the principle (i.e. the end, or that for the sake of which we do a thing) of human sociality as a self-evident fact.

The larger issue here is how we speak about political things in the first place. If we are going to mount a coherent defense of the West while confronting the actual state of the world in which we live, then we must keep the dark side of the human condition at the forefront of our attention. Least of all can we presume that which we most need to achieve today: the effective summoning of people to the performance of our duties and the restraint from doing wrong (i.e. that which natural law presumes in the first place).

So too, the timeless work of a free people striving toward a “common agreement about law and rights” requires that we grapple together with the question of what is the proper ideal for a coherent human personality. We believe that a prerequisite to this work is reversing the order of self-sufficiency proposed by Cicero and certain natural law theorists in order to proceed from our reliable, though dangerous, sexual instinct toward reason’s beckoning vision of liberty.

Such realism oriented toward the pursuit of noble ends would enable us to defend human dignity and inalienable rights by upbuilding thousands of variations on the apprenticeship to liberty in our households, churches, schools, places of employment, and voluntary associations. In turn, such a cultural ‘small r’ republican endeavor would enable us to return to the first principle of the American Republic: virtuous self-rule. 

Image: Jebulon

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