Cicero, On Sustainable Government

Cicero’s work De Re Publica (‘On Commonwealth’) does for Classicists what Shakespeare will do for the Anglophone: it is so full of famous quotes that one begins to wonder if it is an authentic work, or just a string of famous Cicero quotes pieced together. This makes it tempting to pay little attention to those quotes. But perhaps it is worth paying more attention to them every once in a while.

Scipio, one of the main interlocutors of the first book, comes up with a famous definition of what is a res publica (Cic. rep. 1.39):

‘Est igitur,’ inquit Africanus, ‘res publica res populi, populus autem non omnis hominum coetus quoquo modo congregatus, sed coetus multitudinis iuris consensu et utilitatis communione sociatus. eius autem prima causa coeundi est non tam imbecillitas quam naturalis quaedam hominum quasi congregatio.’

Africanus said: ‘A commonwealth (res publica, lit. ‘the public matter’) is the matter of the people (res populi), and the people (populus) is not just a gathering of humans, come together in whatever way, but a gathering of a plethora (multitudo), united in their agreement on law and the sharing of usefulness. The prime cause of this gathering, however, is not so much (sc. individual) weakness, but a certain, natural sociability of humankind.’

Subsequently, Cicero makes Scipio reflect on the need for government (Cic. rep. 1.41-2):

Omnis ergo populus, qui est talis coetus multitudinis qualem exposui, omnis ciuitas, quae est constitutio populi, omnis res publica, quae ut dixi populi res est, consilio quodam regenda est, ut diuturna sit. id autem consilium primum semper ad eam causam referendum est, quae causa genuit ciuitatem. deinde aut uni tribuendum est, aut delectis quibusdam, aut suscipiendum est multitudini atque omnibus.

Consequently, the entire people (populus), who are a gathering of a plethora (multitudo) of the type that I have described, the entire state (ciuitas), which is a manifestation of the people, the entire commonwealth (res publica), which, as I said, is a matter of the people (res populi), must be steered with a certain sense of direction, for it to be of a lasting nature. This direction, however, must first and foremost always be related to the cause, which cause brought about the state (ciuitas). Subsequently, it must then be assigned to one person, or a certain selection of people, or it has to be shouldered by the plethora (multitudo), i. e. by everyone.

Ever since the 1990s, there has been a significant debate over the ‘sustainability’ of our societies, of our living conditions, and so forth. The focus of the political debate has largely been on political systems and regimes on the one hand and on economic, financial, and natural resources on the other – occasionally overshadowed by the question of the impact of disasters and global diseases.

Scipio’s words raise an interesting, in fact rather challenging, potentially even unsettling philosophical question: is the sustainability of human societies an end in itself?

Scipio’s suggestion is that, if (si) one wanted a state (ciuitas) to be of lasting nature (diuturna), then it would require a sense of direction (consilium). He defined a ciuitas as a structured manifestation (constitutio) of the people, somewhere between a mere gathering (coetus) and a res publica = res populi. First and foremost, according to Cicero’s Scipio, this sense of direction must bear in mind, at all times, the prime cause for the actual gathering of the people under one shared structure – and only after that one must talk about the best form of government.

What was the prime cause? Looking back at the earlier of the two passages, one makes an interesting observation: using the same phrase, prima causa, Scipio had explained that the prime cause for the people to unite under one structure was ‘a certain, natural sociability of humankind’ – the Latin term for ‘sociability’ being congregatio, a word related to grex, ‘flock’ -, and not an innate weakness of the constituents.

What is more, Scipio describes the motivation behind this ‘congregation’: it is the people’s being ‘united in their agreement on law and the sharing of usefulness’ (iuris consensu et utilitatis communione sociatus).

If Scipio is right, this offers an interesting perspective on sustainability of states, institutions, companies: can it be achieved with utter disregard of the motivation of those who constitute the populus, their agreement on common rules (iuris consensu) and their shared hope for usefulness (utilitatis communione)? Should it be achieved, overriding the prime cause for the people’s decision to give structure to their ‘gathering’?

Scipio suggests that responsibility for the ‘sense of direction’, the ‘plan’ (consilium) must be assigned (tribuendum est) to some decision-making body – but only secondarily so, and under the vitally important, non-negotiable condition that this consilium must always relate to the shared interest of what brought about a community in the first place.

It would seem as though any institution that fundamentally disregards this first principle does not have hope, or entitlement, to be sustainable.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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