Cicero on Civic Duty

CiceroDaily Dabble in the Classics, Cicero

These reasons, so certain and so evident, are opposed by those, who, on the other side object,—the labours that must necessarily be sustained in maintaining the Commonwealth. These form but a slight impediment to the vigilant and industrious, and a contemptible obstacle not only in these grand affairs, but also in common studies, offices, and employments. They add, the peril of life, that base fear of death, which has ever been opposed by brave men, to whom it appears far more miserable to waste away in inglorious old age, than to embrace an occasion of gallantly sacrificing their lives to their country, which must otherwise be sacrificed to natural decay.

On this point, however, our antagonists esteem themselves copious and eloquent, when they collect all the calamities of heroic men, and the injuries inflicted on them by ungrateful states. Here they bring forward examples borrowed from the Greeks. They tell us that Miltiades, the vanquisher and exterminator of the Persians, with those unrecovered wounds which he had received in his renowned victory, only preserved his life from the weapons of his enemies to be cast into chains by the Athenian citizens. They cite Themistocles, expelled and proscribed by the country he had rescued, who could not find shelter in the Grecian ports he had defended; and was obliged to fly to the bosom of the barbarous power he had defeated. There is, indeed, no deficiency of examples to illustrate the levity and cruelty of the Athenians to their noblest citizens, — examples which originating and multiplying among them, are said at different times to have abounded in our own august empire. Such were the exile of Camillus, the disgrace of Ahala, the unpopularity of Nasica, the expulsion of Lænas, the condemnation of Opimius, the flight of Metellus, the cruel destruction of Marius, the massacre of our chieftains, and the many atrocious crimes which followed. — My own history is by no means free from such calamities, and I imagine, that when they recollect, that by my counsel and perils they were preserved in life and liberty, they will more deeply and tenderly bewail my misfortunes. But I cannot tell why those who sail over the seas for the sake of knowledge and experience, should wonder at seeing still greater hazards braved in the service of the Commonwealth.

Since, on my quitting the consulship, I affirmed in the assembly of the Roman people, who reechoed my words, that I had saved the Commonwealth, I console myself with this remembrance, for all my cares, troubles, and injuries. Indeed, my dismission had more of honour than misfortune, and more of glory than disaster; and I derive greater pleasure from the regrets of good men than sorrow from the exultation of the reprobate. But if it had happened otherwise, why should I complain? Nothing befel me unforseen, or more painful than I expected, as a return for my illustrious actions. I was one, who on occasion, could derive more profit from leisure than most men, on account of the diversified sweetness of my studies, in which I have lived from boyhood. And if any public calamity had happened, I might have borne no more than an equal share in the misfortune. Yet I hesitated not to oppose myself almost alone to the tempests and torrents of sedition, for the sake of preserving the state; and by my own danger, to secure the safety of my fellow–countrymen. For our country did not beget and educate us gratuitously, or without the expectation of receiving our support. She does not afford us so many blessings for nothing, and supply us with a secure refuge for useless idleness and self–indulgence; but rather that she may turn to her own advantage the nobler portion of our genius, heart, and counsel; and give us back for our private service, only what she can spare from her public interests.

Those apologies, therefore, which undertake to furnish us with an easy excuse for living in selfish inactivity, are certainly not worth hearing. They tell us that to meddle with public affairs and popular demagogues, incapable of all goodness, with whom it is disgraceful to mix; and to struggle with the passions of the insensate multitude, is a most miserable and hazardous life. On which account, no wise man will take the reins, since he cannot restrain the insane and unregulated movements of the lower orders. Nor is it acting like a gentleman (say they) thus to contend with antagonists so unwashed and so unrefined (impuris atque immanibus adversariis) or subject yourself to the lashings of contumely, of which the wisest will always have most to bear. As if to virtuous, brave, and magnanimous men, there could be a juster reason for seeking the government than this, that we should not be subjected to scoundrels, nor suffer the commonwealth to be distracted by them, lest we should discover, too late, when we desire to save her, that we are without the power.

But this restriction who can approve, which would interdict the wise man from taking any share in the government, at least if the necessity of circumstances does not compel him to it? Surely no greater necessity can happen to any man than happened to me. In this, how could I have acted if I had not been a Consul? And how could I have been a Consul, unless I had maintained that course of life, even from childhood, which raised me from the order of knights, in which I was born, to the very highest station. You cannot produce extempore, and just when you please, the power of corroborating a commonwealth, whatever be its dangers, unless you have attained the position which enables you to act effectively. And what most surprises me in the discourses of our philosophers, is to hear the same men who confess themselves incapable of steering the vessel of the state in smooth seas, (which indeed they never learnt, and never cared to know,) profess themselves ready to assume the helm amid the fiercest tempests. It is a subject on which they like to talk in an elevated style, and to indulge in a large share of boasting, but they never inquired, nor can they explain the means which conduce to the establishment and the stability of states; and they look on this practical science as foreign to the meditations of sages and philosophers, and leave it to those men, who have made it their especial study. Is it reasonable for men who are so totally devoid of experience, to promise their assistance to the state, when they shall be compelled to it by necessity, while unequal to a much easier task, they know not how to govern, when the state is free from all such perils. Indeed, admitting that the wise man loves not to thrust himself as a matter of choice into the administration of public affairs, but that, if circumstances oblige him to it, he will not refuse the office; yet I think this science of civil legislation should in nowise be neglected by the philosopher, that all those resources may be ready to his hand, which he knows not how soon he may be called on to use.


Source: Cicero: “The Political Works of Marcus Tullius Cicero: Comprising his Treaties on the Commonwealth; and his Treatise on the Laws. Volume I.” Francis Barham is the translator. 54 BC.


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