Cicero between the res publica and the cosmopolis: a tension in Roman political philosophy
Despite how Cicero himself may have conceived of his philosophical efforts, the
beginning of Cicero’s philosophical career marked the end of his political one. By 56, the
consolidation of the extra-constitutional alliance of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus had rendered
Cicero politically impotent. His effective retirement from public life and the burst of
philosophical writings which followed, however, do represent (along with Lucretius’ De rerum
natura) the birth of Roman political philosophy, a tradition inestimably indebted, of course, to
the Greeks. Nevertheless, Cicero’s choice of Latin and his selection of Roman characters,
contexts and exempla marked his philosophical works with a distinctly Roman novelty, and his
first philosophical treatise, De re publica, composed between 54 and 51, from its very title is
thoroughly Roman (See Griffin 1991, Morford 2002, Reydams-Schils 2005). However,
characterizing Roman political philosophy from its very inception is a particular tension between
the demands of political responsibility at home and the need for a more panoramic, universal
vision through which one might better glimpse humanity’s place in the cosmos—what might be
characterized in other words as a Romanized encounter with the philosophical problematic
between the political and contemplative life, that is, between the res publica and the cosmopolis.
In order to better characterize this tension, I aim first to point to particular exemplifying
passages in Cicero’s De re publica, where this problem is first encountered. Of particular interest
are the extant portion of Cicero’s prologue to book I, wherein he identifies reasons for entering
public life and criticizes the appealing Epicurean turn to the quiet life; Scipio’s definition of the
res publica, whose foundations are in human nature, also in book I; Laelius’s speech on justice
and law in book III; and the elder Scipio’s description of the universe and exhortations for
patriotism in book VI. Second, I argue that such a commitment to both res publica and
cosmopolis represents a severe discordance for ethico-political activity, whose consequences
lead to the disintegration of personal integrity and thus the impossibility of politics as such.
Lastly, I seek out the resources of Cicero’s final philosophical treatise, De officiis, in which
Cicero’s appropriation of Panaetian personae theory offers a possible resolution to this
dangerous problematic by assigning these divergent commitments among the four divisions of
personae (See Gill 1988, Reydams-Schils 2005). To conclude, I shall very broadly gesture at
residual elements of this problematic still present in Roman philosophy as late as Marcus
Gill, Christopher. 1988. “Personhood and personality: the four-personae theory in Cicero, De
officiis I.” Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy. Vol. 6. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 16999.
Griffin, M. T. and E. M. Atkins., trans. 1991. Cicero: On Duties. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ.
Morford, Mark. 2002. The Roman Philosophers: from the time of Cato the Censor to the death of
Marcus Aurelius. New York: Routledge.
Powell, J. G. F., ed. 2006. M. Tulli Ciceronis: De re publica, De legibus, Cato Maior de
senectute, Laelius de amicitia. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.
Rudd, Niall, trans. 1998. Cicero: The Republic and The Laws. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.
Winterbottom. M., ed. 1994. M. Tulli Ciceronis: De officiis. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.
Reydams-Schils, Gretchen. 2005. The Roman Stoics: self, responsibility, and affection. Chicago:
Univ. of Chicago Press.
Zetzel, James E. 1995. Cicero: De re publica Selections. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.