Knowing the skepticism of his age, he based his moral and political treatises on purely secular grounds, independent of supernatural sanctions. He begins (in De Finibus ) by inquiring for the road to happiness, and hesitantly agrees with the Stoics that virtue alone suffices. Therefore (in De Officiis ) he examines the way of virtue, and by the charm of his style succeeds for a time in making duty interesting. “All men are brothers,” he writes, and “the whole world is to be considered as the common city of gods and men.” The most perfect morality would be a conscientious loyalty to this whole. More immediately a man owes it to himself and society, first of all, to establish a sound economic basis to his life, and then to fulfill his duties as a citizen. Wise statesmanship is nobler than the subtlest philosophy. Monarchy is the best form of government when the monarch is good, the worst when he is bad- a truism soon to be illustrated in Rome. Aristocracy is good when the really best rule; but Cicero, as a member of the middle class, could not quite admit that the old entrenched families were the best. Democracy is good when the people are virtuous, which, Cicero thought, is never; besides, it is vitiated by the false assumption of equality. The best form of government is a mixed constitution, like that of pre-Gracchan Rome: the democratic power of the assemblies, the aristocratic power of the Senate, the almost royal power of the consuls for a year. Without checks and balances monarchy becomes despotism, aristocracy becomes oligarchy, democracy becomes mob rule, chaos, and dictatorship. Writing five years after Caesar’s consulate, Cicero cast a dart in his direction:
Plato says that from the exaggerated license which people call liberty, tyrants spring up as from a root… and that at last such liberty reduces a nation to slavery. Everything in excess is changed into its opposite…. For out of such an ungoverned populace one is usually chosen as leader… someone bold and unscrupulous… who curries favor with the people by giving them other men’s property. To such a man, because he has much reason for fear if he remains a private citizen, the protection of public office is given, and continually renewed. He surrounds himself with an armed guard, and emerges as a tyrant over the very people who raised him to power.
Nevertheless, Caesar won; and Cicero thought it best to bury his discontent in melodious platitudes on law, friendship, glory, and old age. Silent leges inter arma, he said- “laws are silent in time of war”; but at least he could muse on the philosophy of law. Following the Stoics, he defined law as “right reason in agreement with nature”; i.e., law seeks to make orderly and stable the relations that rise out of the social impulses of men. “Nature has inclined us to love men” (society), “and this is the foundation of law.” Friendship should be based not upon mutual advantage but upon common interests cemented and limited by virtue and justice; the law of friendship should be “neither to ask dishonorable things, nor to do them if asked.” An honorable life is the best guarantee of a pleasant old age. An indulgent and intemperate youth delivers to age a body prematurely worn out; but a life well spent can leave both body and mind sound to a hundred years; witness Masinissa. Devotion to study may make one “unaware of the stealthy approach of old age.” Age as well as youth has its glories- a tolerant wisdom, the respectful affection of children, desire and ambition’s fever cooled. Age may fear death, but not if the mind has been formed by philosophy. Beyond the grave there will be, at the best, a new and happier life; and at the worst there will be peace.