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Neal Wood


University of California Press, Berkeley, 1988, 288 pgs., index, bibliography, notes, paperback


Reviewer Comments - This is an important book that fills in much information on Cicero's life, contemporary Roman political and social history, and the influence of Cicero's thought for today. The contents includes the following:
1 description of Roman society and politics in the period contemporary to Cicero and why he considered it so deplorable.
2. A summary of Cicero's education and career. And an outline of his written legacy and his thought.
3. The concepts of Laws, Justice and Human Nature
4. His beliefs on the organization of society; wealth, rule of economic classes, and the critical basis of society in private property
5. Cicero's concept of 'the State' as separate from government and society - compared with the usual Greek and Roman thought on this subject.
6. The Greek and Roman theory of the types of government.
7. The role of Politics as an human activity.
From a quick survey of recent literature on Cicero available on Amazon, it seems to me that Cicero has enjoyed rather more attention recently than Dr. Wood finds in his introduction in 1988.
Dr. Wood presents a very clear and detailed analysis of Cicero's extensive written and oral work. But his analysis of Roman society is strongly Marxist in its focus on 'class warfare' and exploitation during the slavery epoch. The reader will find a much mor explicit Marxist analysis of society in his Tyranny In America: Capitalism and National Decay
The book is valuable reading for its comparison of Roman politics and Cicero's thoughts on both the ideal statesman and real politicians with politics and politicians today. It also provides much detail that is not in history books of the Roman civil war such as in Richard Alston's excellent book - Rome's Revolution; Death of the Republic and Birth of the Empire.


Chapter I - Introduction: Cicero's Significance
- Dr. Wood writes that Cicero is no longer read or studied as he once was. Yet the influence of his ideas remains imbedded in the work of generations of political thinkers including those who created modern political institutions. Wood provides a summary (naming individuals) Why was Cicero so influential in both content and style? Was it sheer luck due to the unusual survival of his literary output. (One might consider the reverse, that the survival was due to the continued influence.) Why, Wood asks, came the decline, and he answers it was largely due to German scholarship influence in the late 19th century, when Caesar was the great hero, so Cicero, being his opponent, naturally was dismissed..


Chapter II - Ciceronian Society
- Dr. Wood summarizes the huge social change in Roman society after the Punic Wars with destruction of Carthage and Corinth. The result was the transformation of Rome from a republic based on a society of farmers to and an empire based on slavery and tribute from conquered cities and societies. He presents excellent data-based descriptions of the reality of Roman Society and its deterioration.
While his discussion is necessarily brief, it is more vivid and direct than the much more extensive description in Richard Alston's excellent book, Rome's Revolution: Death of the Republic and Birth of the Empire. And Ronald Syme in his geat classic The Roman Revolution, published in 1939 provides the most extensive detail on the role of Roman families in the civil war that resulted in the revolution and dictatorship of Augustus. He also included much detail on Cicero's involvement.

Wood hits the key point stressed by Alston and Syme - that the wealthy elite destroyed itself by losing focus on its collective survival by its vicious internal, personal combat in which each family fought each other over acquisition of wealth. In the process they turned the purpose of government itself into a machine to exploit citizen and foreigner alike to achieve their quest for wealth and power. He shows the intrinsic degradation that flowed from a slave society. He employes the Marxist concept of 'exappropriation of 'labor surplus".
In another section Wood focuses on he organizational characteristics of Roman government. He refers to Polybius and the theory of mixed political social structure with the classic categories of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. But he notes that actually Rome became 'a military state'. In this he predates Simon James who authored 'Rome and The Sword: How Warriors & Weapons Shaped Roman History.

Wood presents a clear description of the role of the Senate, the Comitia curiata, Comitia cengturiata, Comitia tributa and the role officers of government such as the consul, tribune, praetor. But eventually the official (actually traditional) structure and way of doing business, he calls a 'sham'. So does Alston in his book of 2015. It was in reality an oligarchy of wealthy landed propriators whose wealth was based ultimately in land - that is agriculture worked by slaves. He discusses the dictatorship of Caesar. Alston's whole theme is about the role of Augustus Caesar in establishing the new empire.


Chapter III - Cicero's Life and Works
This chapter is biographical background and fine. Wood is able to describe Cicero in unusually great detail due to the rare, extensive survival of his massive volume of letters, speeches, and philosophical works. The result is that Dr. Wood shows that Cicero's philosophy and outlook and political activism are congruent with his private life from early years and education to his final days.


Chapter IV - Law, Justice , and Human Nature
This chapter contains the essence of Cicero's philosophy. These concepts are central to Cicero's thought and our inheritance. The Law of Nature is implanted in all things. True law is right reason in agreement with Nature. The law of nature is implanted in all things. The rule of nature is applicable to humans as simply the divine reason ruling the soul. This law is absolute, eternal, immutable, and universal. The law of nature that is applicable to humans is justice.
Wood writes, "Cicero distinguishes the law of nature from both statutory law and customary law." Justice requires that we consider the interests of other, mankind, give to each his due, and respect the property of others. Justice, Cicero argues (as Wood writes) is absolutely necessary for the preservation of society.
The essential principles of justice are:
1 not to injure others, physically without cause
2 to respect private and common property
3 to fulfill obligations promised
4 to be kind and generous to others
The four cardinal virtues are:
Cicero's concept of man: Man is created by god - his soul is a gift of god - he belongs to a single world-wide commonwealth, but not a Christian 'brotherhood'


Chapter V - Moral Equality and Social Inequality
In this chapter Dr. Wood shows the central disconnect (in our modern view) in Cicero's approach - To paraphrase Orwell, everyone is equal but some are more equal than others. Cicero divides society into the superior and inferior categories. He does not notice a difference between his belief in moral equality and existence of real social inequality. Like many of is contemporaries (even going back to Plato and Aristotle) they all take for granted that inequality exists. Moral equality rests on the idea that all have a god given divine reason (ability to reason) - each individual shares in this. But Cicero believes social inequality is essential. He believes in proportionate distribution based on worth. There is social hierarchy. How to define who is socially superior is a problem when each individual possesses both the divine universal persona and also a unique persona so that each has a different make up.

There is a conflict in Cicero's concept of moral equality and social inequality. He believes in a natural aristocracy of virtue and ability. There are two life-styles - the vulgar and the gentlemanly callings. Cicero classifies occupations into these categories - Commerce, shopkeeping, retail trade, tax collecting are vulgar and not suitable. Medicine, architecture, teaching are OK, but not for real gentlemen. Gentlemen engage in war, politics, law, philosophy, oratory, and farming. They can engage in large scale (not retail) commerce and invest profits in land. Of course these are exactly the fields in which he and his fellow elite social family members engage - especially large scale agriculture. Working for wages, being a tradesman or craft artisan are vulgar. Any occupation that results in economic dependence instead of intellectual activity is vulgar.


Chapter VI - Private Property and Its Accumulation
Dr. Wood writes: "If for Cicero the quintessential consequence of man's rational nature is his potential for moral virtue, another significant result is the human propensity to acquire and accumulate private property.' This is due to the instinct for self-preservation which then is secured by having private property. Furthermore, it is reason that enables man to create a government (Wood uses the term 'state' ) that will defend private property. Dr. Wood continues, "Because he is the first major thinker to give such emphasis to the notion of private property and to make it a central component of his structure of social and political ideas, the neglect of the subject by most commentators is strange." Again, his theory conforms to his own personal desire to obtain and retain private property. In this he joins his contemporaries. As Wood notes, "Real property was the major form of capital investment for the gentlemanly classes as well as a mark of prestige and social status." He describes the frenzy here, as mentioned in Chapter II and by Alston. Wood also describes in detail Cicero's personal activities in this sphere. "Cicero collected properties just as our own wealthy amass paintings" He had vast wealth, but also huge debts - again in common with so many in his social class. (This brings up the question of the role of credit in ancient including Roman economies, which is not often discussed.)

"An Enlighten Economic Individualism" is the heading of the next section in which Dr. Wood describes Cicero's transference of his private desires for property into his political writing. Again, he notes, Cicero's idea - "So, in fact, the accumulation of possessions is rooted in man's nature." Cicero's views in this subject are complex and fully explained by Dr. Wood.

"Town versus Country" is the heading of the next section in which Dr. Wood demonstrates that the landed country gentleman, Cicero, naturally extols this mode of living. One is reminded of Thomas Jefferson's similar attitude. Cicero is all for farming and farmers (however, absent land lords certainly count for more than actual physical labor). But Cicero does quote from Xenophon (Oeconomicus) Commerce is corrupting. Absent the kind of banks that Jefferson denounced, Cicero is relieved from making similar assertions. Dr. Wood concludes, "For him a farm is basically a capital investment to help maintain the standard of life to which he is accustomed."


Chapter VII - The Idea of the State
Part 1 is "Dedication to the State and Politics" In this chapter we come to significant political theory. Namely, Dr. Wood focuses on this concept and term 'the State'. It can have several meanings. Dr. Wood's 'discovery' of the abstract concept of 'state' in Cicero is significant because, as he notes himself, the modern concept of 'state' is attributed to Bodin, Machiavelli, Grotius, Hobbes and Locke. We do not find the concept in medieval political theories and not in general in ancient classical authors either.

Dr. Wood writes: "In view of the revival of inerest in the state among social scientists, and rehabilitation of the notion by many students of politics, Cicero's thought on the subject is of fundamental significance. He is the first important social and political thinker to give a succinct formal definition of the state, and to conceive of its major purpose largely in non-ethical terms, as the protection and security of private property. He is, furthermore, the first to distinguish state from government conceptually, and possibly to take the initial step in differentiating state from society." I believe this is stretching Cicero's thought a bit. But no question, as Wood notes, that Cicero was deeply patriotic to Rome whether it be 'state' or 'society'.

This is indeed a momentous concept even though apparently Cicero's influence on the subject was absent during the 'middle ages'. Wood, continues, "All that is distinctively human, according to Cicero, depends on the existence and well-being of the state." Cicero writes to counter the Epicurean opposition to politics as a human activity. Cicero believes its the 'state' that provides the opportunity for society to flourish in its culture, namely philosophy. And it is philosophy that provides guidance to the state. Moreover, it is service to the state that results in the highest virtue in men. Men owe their service to the state. The active political life is best despite the risks and dangers and abuse it involves. Cicero believes the ideal life will combine active politics - statecraft- and philosophy.

The second part of the chapter is "2 Definition of the State" Der. Wood repeats his point that recent academic interest in the concept of 'state' has increased and that the general view is that this concept originated in late medieval times. He notes that the term, 'state' has various meanings, specific or generic. A broad generic definition would include any organizational structure that exerts power over its subjects on the basis of its claimed monopoly of coercion. But a narrower specific sense is attached to the early modern concept that came into use in Western Europe after 1200 and specifically can be seen in Italy, then Germany, France and England with the use of specific terms like 'state' 'stato' 'etat' and the like. He notes particularly the usual commentators: Machiavelli, Bodin, Grotius, Hobbes and Locke. This concept of 'state' stresses that it is abstract and separate from either society or government. But again, it is seen as the holder of exclusive legal sovereignty and application of coercion. An important distinction of this conceptual political structure is that it does not have the purpose of enhancing morals and ethical behavior of its members. Rather it has a purely secular role in protecting the lives and property of its citizens. It exists apart from society and government.

Now Dr. Wood's point is that this second definition of the 'state' did have at least its beginning in Cicero's thoughts and writing. Wood then seeks to describe how this may be found in Cicero's opus. He cites Cicero's two books - in English translation as Republic and Laws, in which he described the nature of the 'state' , its best form, and his ideal state. He then demonstrates from the original Latin terms that the Roman's themselves did NOT have an abstract connotation to their 'populus Romanus - the people of Rome. Like the Greeks, they conceived of the political body (polis) as the society of citizens themselves. So Dr. Wood writes: "Cicero, at least, tended to conceive of the state in somewhat more abstract terms. Dr. Wood cites the Roman terms res pubilcae versus res privatae and indicating some conception that the former refers not only to the idea of public property but 'state' property rather than society's property - or rather that society is itself the property of the 'state.

Dr. Wood next examines Cicero's definition of this 'state' in detail. Cicero b believed that the two functions of this 'state' were the administration of justice and advancement of the common interest. Thus a political order that does not insure justice and the common good is NOT a state. Dr.. Wood continues to quote Cicero that various collections of people that did not meet these requirements were NOT states. Thus the regimes of Julius Caesar and the conspiracy of Catiline were not states according to Cicero's writing.
The third part of the chapter is 3 'Purpose of the State'. Dr. Wood writes: "The objective of the state given in Cicero's formal definition is the common inerest, utility, or advantage." And advantage means security and security is obtained and preserved by power and that requires protection of private property. Dr. Wood writes more: "The state is an association in justice for the common interest. Without justice there could be no true state, and the common inerest cannot exist without justice... The foundation of the common interest, and hence of the state, is always justice."


Chapter VIII - Types of State Section one
- The Three Simple Constitutions "In the Republic, before Cicero shows that Rome is the ideal polity he surveys other forms of state, catalogues their strengths and weaknesses, and indicates why they do not measure up to his standard of the best." Naturally he is biased in favor of his beloved republic that he sees being destroyed.

Dr. Wood credits Cicero with the concept of the 'state' but I believe Cicero is describing types of government rather than 'state' as this and the following discussions indicate. Cicero adopts the same caterization as Polybius and others - there are three basic forms based on the number of people holding power - one - a group - or many but not all. And these three each has two forms depending on the motivations and policies of those in power - the one is either monarchy or tyrany, the group is either aristocracy or oligarchy - and the many is either democracy or ochlocracy. Since these forms come and go, alternating sometimes rapidly in the leadership of a polity but the polity itself continues as a society they cannot be considered as catagories of something permanent - a 'state'. Cicero is deeply patriotic to the Roman polity and describes its history as one in which these forms have changed while the polity has continued.


Chapter IX - Essentials of the Mixed Constitution
In this chapter Dr Wood discusses Cicero's preference for the classical concept of a 'mixed constitution considering that such form would reduce the fundamental deterioration and degeneration inherent in human institutions and life. The concept is to distribute power to governming bodies of all three forms - monarchy,aristocracy, and democracy.


Chapter X - The Art of Politics
As Dr. Wood noted earlier he repeats his point to begin this chapter., "Cicero is the only important political thinker who devoted a life to politics and attained the highest governmental office. We might, therefore, expect that in addition to his discourses on justice, law, and the state, he might convey in some form to his readers the wisdom and insight gained in the actual conduct of weighty political affairs."
Dr. Wood notes that the common view is that Machiavelli was the most significant political thinker to also be a practicing politician. But Machiavelli held a much inferior and non-elective such position. Wood cites commentators' failure to study ALL of Cicero's extensive writing, and also that much of the Roman's major works on the subject were lost. Wood's assessment is; "The result is that Cicero, no less than Machiavelli, comes across as a hard-headed realist, well versed in the pitfalls of power, the complexities of manipulation, and the uses of violence. Furthermore, Cicero goes beyond Machiavelli in his concern over questions of economic policy in politics."

In this chapter Dr. Wood reconstructs a more comprehensive view of Cicero's ideas and provides his own assessment and critique. He begins with Cicero's concept of the 'ideal statesman'.
"Cicero's ideal statesman is far removed from the politicians of his own day. who are driven solely by cupidity and libido dominandi. The common good is his only object." "What then are the chief characteristics of the ideal statesman? Many of the qualities assigned to him by Cicero seem to be derived from the model of the Stoic sage. The ideal statesman is a man of prudence or practical wisdom. Guided by reason he is a person of moderation, able to control his passions, for who can govern others if he cannot rule himself? Above all, he is an individual of justice, just in all he says and does because of a full knowledge of justice. A man of honor, integrity, and good faith, he resists bribery and all other kinds of corruption. Always the true lover of glory, he displays manliness, courage, and magnaminity, and he labors with energy and industry...." The list of attributes continues.


Chapter XI - Conclusion




Return to Xenophon.