The Origins of American Political Thought Part 1: Cicero and Natural Law
What precisely does it mean for truth to be “self-evident?” What makes it so, and who among us is equipped to identify those fundamental truths which lay immune to the influence of a ruling elite, or to the will of public opinion? When the fundamental questions of individual freedoms versus authority cannot be justly resolved by any member(s) of the human race due to an unavoidable bias, nature herself becomes our predominant magistrate. Thomas Jefferson liked this idea, which is portrayed with confidence and authority in the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence, but it did not originate with him or his contemporaries.
While the origins of a “natural law” that pervades and precedes those which can be instituted by even the wisest and most reasonable governing bodies can be traced back to Plato and Aristotle, it is a Roman politician, bearing witness to the disintegration of that first great republic that I first wish to bring attention. Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE.) Roman Statesman and consul, consummate orator, and preeminent moral and political philosopher, Cicero left behind a significant written legacy which gives substantial weight to the natural, and therefore universal basis of justice and right. It is on this basis of “universal right” that Jefferson hangs the strongest arguments for independence, and for which he explicitly credits Cicero in later writings.
Natural law is something that we humans have learned over millennia to fall back on when the competing ideas and beliefs of men reach a state of deadlock. It determines that regardless of the finer points, certain rights exist inherently in human nature and therefore cannot be overturned by any human authority; to do so would merely constitute the absence of justice. It is not, strictly speaking, a matter of faith, but is understood to require the use of reason to analyze human nature in order to deduce the binding rules of moral conduct from what exists in nature’s (or God’s) creation of humankind. And yes, it can be a very slippery slope.
As mentioned, Cicero lived through the period when Rome’s experimentation in democracy was failing. It was during this period when he observed that “When we inherited the Republic from our forebears, it was like a beautiful painting whose colors were fading with age. We have failed to restore its original colors, nor have we taken the trouble to preserve its overall composition—or even its general features.”
These general features, which he would refer to as natural law in his De Legibus (“On the Laws”,) determine that justice and law originate from what nature has given to man, in her mighty authority. It is what the human mind embraces when we seek security and prosperity and what unites us as a species. Cicero believed that it was this commonality, inherited from nature itself that obliges each individual to contribute to the good of the larger society thereby receiving in return the “safety of citizens, the preservation of states, and the tranquility and happiness of human life.”
If you are an American, and can recall from high school civics even the most general sentiments of the Declaration of Independence, this should sound extremely familiar.
“The safety of citizens, and the tranquility and happiness of human life.”
“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Perhaps then, what is crucial in identifying self-evident truths is recognizing those fundamental ideas which have remained alive and persevered across the great abyss of time and the ages, particularly those which have caused societies to flourish when embraced, and to collapse when infringed upon.
“Wicked and unjust statutes are anything but ‘laws,’” he wrote, “in that within the very definition of the term ‘law’ there exists the idea and principle of choosing what is just and true. Law therefore, ought to be a reformer of vice and an incentive to virtue. The virtues which we ought to cultivate always tend toward our own happiness, and the best means of promoting them consists in living with men in that perfect union and charity which are cemented by mutual benefits.”
Under Cicero’s pen, natural law is a powerful elixir. So much so that it would be used in in the coming centuries to challenge the divine right of kings. And despite the fact that, following Cicero’s death, Caesar would win dominion over what constitutes the rights of any living being in his realm, the belief in an unalienable right to happiness would persevere. It would outlive and unseat the even the most benevolent of rulers.
Thomas Jefferson first encountered Cicero as a schoolboy in the course of his Latin studies. He would continue to seek council in his writings for the duration of his life, and their sentiment would provide the rational justification in the document which would separate the American colonies from the British crown.P