Besides political commentary, although Cicero’s ruminations about education and philosophy are still tied to his political philosophy, Cicero’s other great undercurrent of thought in the Republic is the relationship between philosophy and education with the health of one’s soul and how this pursuit of wisdom impacts how one acts and engages in the world. Naturally this does have direct consequences to matters political, but this is additional commentary on basic philosophical themes at other ancient thinkers gave serious consideration to. As we turn our attention away from the strictly and explicitly political in Cicero, we turn to his tremendous legacy in the formation of educational theory, his view that philosophy is the handmaiden to healthy living and society, and also his supposed contributions to primordial humanism. For education Book III and what’s left of Book IV of the Republic detail Cicero’s concerns on the matter, as does Book V of another one of his famous dialogues, Tusculan Disputations, which I’m also drawing from.
Throughout Book III of the Republic, Cicero moves into a lengthy dialogue with Philus and Laelius concerning the roles of wisdom and justice, injustice, and their roles in society and the state. What emerges between these two characters is a dispute over the nature of wisdom in society, and what role it plays. This leads us into Book IV, in which Cicero explains his views on education, philosophy, and the humanities in general and their role in producing a healthy, literate, and educated society, which he thinks is necessary for the health, stability, and justice for any order.
Education as a Moral and Humanizing Force (Books III and IV)
It is important to remember that for Cicero, there are two poles of the human being. The first is the rational, intellectual, and thinking person. This is the man who is fully alive. The alternative to this is the “brute animal,” as he calls them, people who are ignorant, suppress their intellect, and consider themselves – like the vulgar youths he criticized in Book I – mindless imbeciles who think highly of themselves despite living a life akin to an oyster.
These are the two poles of humanity, of which philosophy, and the arts (when humanized and given philosophical substance), do battle with – with philosophy and Cicero’s humanized arts, calling persons away from being brute animals and becoming intellectual, thoughtful, and virtuous people through the pursuit of wisdom from which knowledge and virtue emanate. As he states in Book III, “Their minds rose higher and succeeding in achieving, in thought or action, something worthy of what I have previously called the gift of the gods. So let us regard those who theorize about ethical principles as great men, which indeed they are.” That gift of the gods, by the way, is rational thought and speech. The great men are not conquerors, but the philosophers – those who bring light to the human mind which illuminates our world and allows for the cultivation of virtue from said knowledge. Just as it was with Plato and Aristotle, who both maintained knowledge was the first principle for cultivating virtue which leads to rightful actions, Cicero is also in agreement, “Hence my opinion that anyone who achieves both objectives, familiarizing himself with our native institutions and with theoretical knowledge, has acquired everything necessary for distinction.”
The purpose of coming to know both the native institutions of Rome and universal philosophical wisdom is to allow one to act, so one knows how to act an in accord to what. This combination of practical virtue (understanding the roots and institutions of Roman life) and intellectual virtue (philosophy) leads to the fullest embodiment of wisdom according to Cicero (or as far as we can tell considering various pages are missing in his work). Philius and Laelius then engage, for the rest of Book III, on a lengthy discussion of the nature of justice and whether politics benefits from injustice or justice. This is another philosophical treatment of the nature of justice, to which Cicero opts in favor of a just state having more benefits than a politics that is built on injustice. This discussion doesn’t concern us for this post, so I will be moving on to Cicero’s blistering critique of Greek customs and dramatic arts in Book IV.
Because Cicero lived in a time when most laws, institutions, and understanding of politics was undergirded by philosophy, he maintained that the study of wisdom (philosophy) was integral to preserving the inheritance and modification of any existing order — however imperfect it is. Cicero believes that a lack of education (and by education he means an education in the arts and humanities: philosophy, literature, culture, etc.) leads to a general barbarism within society. “Too many people now, in their folly want to get rid of this admirable system.” Unfortunately for us, Book IV is in the worst shape of his surviving manuscripts, what has been preserved is gathered from the fragments of Cicero’s original work from the Vatican Library, and also from St. Augustine’s commentary in City of God, from which he quoted Cicero extensively.
In Book IV Cicero turns to a critique of the elements of Greek culture that he sees as anti-intellectual and stoking the passions of the masses: theater, plebeian rallies, and what we would call “safe spaces” today about “positive reinforcement” of one’s beliefs and actions. Cicero harshly condemns the notion that anyone should be praised simply because they are a living person (4.12). Those who are to be praised are to be praised based on their intellect, merit, and accomplishments for society rather than being able to whip the plebeian passions and emotions into a frenzy from which one indulges and gratuitous adoration from an irrational crowd or sycophants.
Cicero’s condemnation of the vices that he sees in Greek culture rests on his insistence on education. Theater, plebeian gatherings, and positive reinforcement all prohibit the development of the intellect according to Cicero. In theater, people lax their intellect and allow themselves to be swayed by the passions of emotion and allow themselves to be corrupted by others. For example, I should laugh because everyone else is laughing, even though I may not have actually found this moment of the play to be humorous.
Plebeian gatherings, Cicero says, often results in the same, and leads to positivity among the crowd. Cicero maintains that genuinely bad ideas are subsequently praised, and those with poor intellects are heralded as visionaries and geniuses, a corruption of the intellect if they ever was. Here, it should be maintained Cicero is not arguing for the absence of any of these things in society. He merely maintains that they have their proper, limited, place in a society. In other words, Cicero would be horrified by the entertainment and “infotainment” culture of modernity as a perverse corruption of natural reason and what it means to be human. “For our species is not made up of solitary individuals or lonely wanders,” as he says all the way back in Book I.
Cicero’s main concern for education is the maintenance, but also the inherited understanding, of the communities by which people come into the world. Hence his statement that those in their folly desire to destroy admirable, albeit imperfect, systems — one is lost in a sea of ignorance and confusion which causes him to lash out in a fit of rage and iconoclasm which brings immeasurable harm to society in general to satisfy his outbreak of ego. Cicero also believes the negative or harmful sides of culture can be tamed by education. Basically, art and drama do have their place in society despite the harm brought to society by the Greek dramatists who indulge in stoking the flames of erotica and the wild passions of the uncontrollable masses – but the purpose of art, literature, and drama should be primarily intellectual rather than the purgation of wild passions. Art should teach, heal, and grow the human being in understanding himself and understanding the Form of beauty, wisdom, and justice, etc. Art directs the intellect up toward heaven, in other words, rather than indulge the fantasies of the passions and emotions.
To this end, Cicero expounds on the necessity of the “moral education” of people through the humanizing of the arts. By that he does not mean to install, via education, particular values into people. Cicero, being a believer in the natural law, believes that such values are inherent to people and the human species itself. Like Augustine and the Catholic tradition, which actually drew upon Cicero, Cicero believes, by nature, humans tend to try to the right thing (or the good thing), though they often fail at achieving this through various ways: imperfect knowledge, temperament, and lustful desires (most of which stems from a lack of quality education and cultivation of intellect according to Cicero).
The purpose for education (which is strictly a “moral education” because education is supposed to teach you to think and thinking leads to the pursuit of wisdom, which is philosophy, which leads one to an understanding of morality) in Cicero is the cultivation of the intellect. Education and the cultivation of rationality are important to understanding and expounding law. As Cicero writes, “law, in the proper sense is right reason in harmony with nature” (3.33). Cicero believes that through education in the humanities (a term he coined): philosophy, literature, and the arts, people are able to properly balance the major intellectual streams and come to an understanding of nature and therefore, act in accord with natural reason (e.g. the natural law). Achieving this, much like achieving one’s telos, is what is meant by “moral.”
Failure of education in this manner leads to: corrupt rationality, which leads to folly, which then exhausts itself in humans through a desire to destroy rather than maintain. It follows in that order. Corrupt rationality leads to folly and ignorance, which leads to a desire to destroy rather than inherit and modify. Therefore, from Cicero’s observation, the collapse of rigorous intellectual education leads to the retardation of a civilization and culture, which may eventually lead to its demise. Thus, education (in the manner by which the classical world conceived of it) is a bulwark against instability and chaos.
More importantly, Cicero considers education to be a meritorious endeavor. (We must also remember that education in the ancient world was a rarity compared to today’s mass education standards). The allure of education would naturally draw out the meritorious, intellectual, and rigorous in society. Through that education, the best and brightest of society would be best equipped to maintain the order of the communities they grew up in, and understand that their love of self, community, country, and wisdom should necessitate concern for the well-being of their own communities. As Cicero again said at the very beginning of Book I, “I simply state this basic fact: nature has given to mankind such a compulsion to do good, and such a desire to defend the well-being of the community.”
Education and the Natural Order
Throughout the Republic, Cicero praises those who devote a life to politics. Here, we must again understand that by politics, just as it was for Aristotle, this is not equivalent to our modern understanding of politics via ideology and the “man of action” (i.e. the activist) from Aristotle. Politics, practiced in this sense, is the working within, or for, the political order that safeguards stability, justice, peace, and security for communities. Politics is about the preservation of the political order that has been established, passed on, modified, and inherited over generations, rather than a medium for the promulgation of ideology and the working toward an idealized eschatological end of history.
Cicero also believes that through education, people will be better equipped to be able to work toward the mixed constitution, the mixing of the best elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. (This was, again, a major theme that was picked up on in the political theologies of Augustine and Aquinas.) In a sense, Cicero can best be seen as advocating for an elective form of monarchy and aristocracy in which people will elect their king, and ruling elders/aristocrats. The election, however, would be permanent until the death of such persons.
Therefore, education bests allows for modifications of political order and civil law to occur with minimal unintended consequences and fallout.
More importantly, as hinted at already, education helps one understand law. Cicero believes in two sets of legal codes: the Natural Law and the Civil Law. (He establishes his philosophy of law in other works.) The two are not opposed to each other. In fact, they best cooperate with one another. The Natural Law is the instinctive desires inherent to all species: the desire for happiness, peace, security, etc. The Civil Law is the law established and codified by humans that, in its best form, reflects the Natural Law. As individual persons, all can participate in the Natural Law. Civil Society should also seek to emulate this, by doing so the most well-being, health, peace, and happiness can be opened to society.
Education plays a major role in allowing this to happen, but only through the cultivation of the intellect. As Cicero says in Book I of Laws, “Philosophy helps men understand themselves and their place in the Natural Order of the world.” If the world is rationally ordered through wisdom, then it follows that there is a natural order of the world to which we belong and our rational capacities help us understand this natural order and our place therein.
For Cicero, education is one of the most important, if not the most important, quality of the human and for human society. The lack of intellectual development and education is what separates humans from the rest of the animal world. Therefore, to refuse intellectual development is to be a brute animal. One becomes an inflamed plebeian, a vulgar youth, or, thanks to the Phoenicians, gives one life over to the pursuit of wealth and luxury rather than wisdom itself. For Cicero, education is the best means to avoid slipping into brute animals that lead to what we covered earlier in this post: corrupt rationality which leads to folly and the desire to destroy.
In sum, education, which is principally the study of philosophy – and the study of the humane arts and literature – is humanizing. It allows one to understand their humanity (as rational animals) rather than as brute animals (phenomenological animals). It allows one to cultivate virtue through the attainment of wisdom which leads to a knowledge of how to act, and when to act. Furthermore, education clearly still retains political overtures. The wise and educated society leads to an engaged citizenry, as Cicero states (historically true or not), “But if you recall, all the citizens were both common people and senators. A rota system decided which months they should serve as commoners and which as senators. They received payment in both capacities for attending meetings. The same men heard all cases, including those of a capital nature, in the theater and in the senate house. The senate had as much, and as much prestige, as the masses.”
Again, only an educated, literate, and philosophically inclined society can lead to virtue and the ability to overcome the brutish and foppish ways of plebeian animals and luxury-chasing weaklings who care not for anything besides how they look to the public. The struggle of politics is against those who destroy out of the folly (the brute animals) and those who cut themselves off from responsibility in pursuit of luxury and 24/7 sensual and material pleasure and gain (who, if aristocrats, also lead to aristocratic tyranny which is equally bad).
Book V: The Ideal Statesman
All of this education and study of philosophy finally permits us to move into the ideal form and understanding of politics, and hopefully the ability – through our virtue which comes with wisdom – to avoid the shortcomings of the three simple forms and our constant abdication of responsibility. As Cicero states quite clearly, “The good life is impossible without a good state; and there is no greater blessing than a well-ordered state.” The reason for that is simple and somewhat self-explanatory, especially considering the dialogues over the problem of politics from Book I. A well-ordered state, because of the order it provides, from which we can reasonably deduce justice flows, is the state that has an orderly society that is able to pursue happiness and attempt to align themselves in accord with the order of nature to derive happiness without constant fear, chaos, disorder, or embrace of hedonism.
In fact, having just concluded the importance of moral education, Cicero opens Book V by saying, “For it is not by some accident – no, it is because of our own moral failings – that we are left with the name of the Republic, having long since lost its substance.” Cicero retains the theme of responsibility and moral virtue here. A republic exists only when it has a population that is morally virtuous and takes responsibility for their lives, actions, and building of the common good necessary for a republic to flourish.
Education is equally important to understanding the ideal statesman and ideal nature of the political, which Cicero explains through the brief, but important and deep, farm-manager analogy. “So a farm manager knows about the nature of the land, and a steward knows how to read and write; but each of them concentrates on practical efficiency rather than enjoying that kind of knowledge for its own sake.” Again, this is Cicero’s debt to Aristotle. Phronesis, or practical wisdom. Knowledge is only worthwhile when put into action. This is true for the whole of society too. It is somewhat pointless to have accrued knowledge of how to till the land or how to read and write if one doesn’t actually apply that knowledge to real life circumstances.
Thus Cicero continues, “Similarly our statesman will indeed have taken trouble to find out about justice and laws and will certainly have studied their foundations.” Here, reaching back to the long conversation over justice from Book III, Cicero states that the ideal statesman is like the farm manager, or the steward. He is wise, philosophically astute, and has taken the time to dwell upon the subjects that are relevant to the nature of politics. He understands, to use Platonic language, the form of politics. Cicero entirely endorses Plato’s idea of the philosopher king, or the philosopher statesman. Yet, Cicero equally states that such a statesman remains like the farm manager, then delegating responsibility to others, “But he should not become involved in answering queries, reading up cases, and writing decisions. He must be free, as it were, to manage and keep account of the state.”
Therefore, the ideal statesman is like the farm manager. He knows the matters of the state and political just as the farm manager knows the nature of the land and how to work it. He teaches and instructs, and helps to build from solid foundations. The statesman doesn’t get bogged down in menial tasks and other such affairs, but has responsible people, such as the steward who would keep track of matters relevant to the farm manager, in order to run the state. As Cicero continues, “He will be well versed in the fundamental principles of law (without that, no one can be just); he will have some grasp too, of civil law, but only in the sense that a ship’s captain will have a grasp of astronomy and a doctor of natural science. Each of these men draws on those areas of knowledge in practicing his skill, without being diverted from his special business.” Basically, the statesman has to be well versed in just about everything. Which is why he needs to be a philosopher.
Through this knowledge, like a farm manager’s estate, the statesman protects the land, provides for the land, sustains the land, and knows how to do these things while having others work the land, keep track of finances, and so on. Everyone has areas of knowledge for practicing skills which makes a farm flourish. The purpose of politics is flourishing within the confines of the natural order. It is not about dreams of heaven come to earth. “The aim of a ship’s captain is a successful voyage; a doctor’s, health; a general’s, victory. So the aim of our ideal statesmane is the citizens’ happy life—that is, a life secure in its moral character. That is the task which I wish him to accomplish – the greatest and best that any man can have.”
Virtue, which is moral character, which comes from knowledge as a result of philosophical education, is the key to the good life. The political body that manages this, the natural flourishing of human teleology, is the ideal political city. A politics that does not cultivate virtue, a politics that does not lead to moral character, and a politics that shuns philosophy will always, and inevitably, slip into tyranny and chaos.
While Cicero has clear intentions to his own time as the Roman Republic was threatened (and it did fall), his cautionary tale is one that any educated person has read and takes seriously. Although the Republic is a small dialogue given the porous state that it is in, it was widely influential throughout the history of political philosophy. Much of it was integrating into Catholic political thought (especially in St. Thomas Aquinas). Two of America’s Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, considered themselves disciples of Cicero. A cursory reading of Cicero’s great work is not enough – there is so much going on between the lines, with serious implications concerning human nature, the cosmos, metaphysics, ethics, and political philosophy, as well as history. We would be wise to retain the classics and reread Cicero again and again.
“For lust sets over our thoughts like a cruel mistress, ordering and compelling us to do outlandish things. As there is no way in which they may be appeased or satisfied once they inflamed person with their seductive charms they drive men to every sort of crime,” Cicero writes concerning those who deliberately seek to destroy order and bring forth instability to society at the very beginning of Book VI which details the struggle over politics. The battle against the lust for domination, which Augustine would call libido dominandi, the struggle against the plight of self-alienation through the embrace of hedonism and nihilism, and the struggle against the general ignorance of society, are all battering rams aimed at the destruction of the healthy farm – which is the healthy society, and the good society.
The moral person is not the person who seeks the transformation of the world. The purpose of morality, for Cicero, which gets picked up in Catholic moral teaching, is primarily for the health of one’s soul (intellect), to be a virtuous individual, which is wrapped up with the teleologically flourishing and happy individual. The moral person is the virtuous person who comes to defense of that which is already good and beautiful against those, in their folly, nihilism, or passionate outburst, threaten to destroy the good and beautiful. Morality is about opposing one’s internal lust for domination, not the twisting of a “moral compass” to give oneself license to transform, dominate, or abuse others in the name of moral enlightenment or progress. It’s easier to blame the world, or others, than look at oneself in the mirror and change oneself.
Cicero is asking us what are we willing to do to confront the forces of nihilism, chaos, and tyranny? What makes us truly human, for Cicero, is the cultivation of our intellect which leads to the development of moral character – the embrace of the highest calling of the human, “Their minds rose higher and succeeding in achieving, in thought or action, something worthy of what I have previously called the gift of the gods.” Being human is quite the task with major responsibilities. It is no surprise, then, that Cicero sees the majority of humans as basically rejecting their own humanity and becoming brute animals who need not take responsibility for themselves, others, or care for the common good. This is the struggle of politics, but it is also the struggle of history and of human life itself.