An Introduction to the Work of Cicero


The vast range and oft-regarded excellence, in myriad places and times, of Cicero’s overall achievements is stunning.  His major achievements fall easily into six categories: orator extraordinaire, student, scholar and master of the art of rhetoric, as lawyer, legal and constitutional theorist, as statesman as philosopher and finally as an eager and engaged correspondent.  Even more surprising, is how much of his achievement we still possess.  It is often remarked that Cicero’s orations are the first and last of his achievements.  First, because it was first by means of his gifted oratory that he elevated himself to public office.  Last, because today they remain the most studied and acclaimed and least controversial of his achievements.  We even have the texts of some 58 orations, polished, nearly perfect, and never actually delivered.  His oratorical achievement, first begun in his studies as a youth, culminates in the seven books of his, the most important, perhaps is the three-book dialogue, De Oratore.  This work, like his other oratorical writings, were completed after his political service in the highest office in Rome.

Similarly, his mastery of legal matters, first a route to political statesmanship, then finally embodied in his masterful dialogue on the foundations of law, De Legibus.  Cicero pursued legal inquiries, like the art of rhetoric, first and foremost, as a way to political leadership in Rome, a role in which he excelled and accomplished much.  He held every major office in the Roman Republic at the earliest possible age up to , and including, the highest elective office, that of consul.  Indeed, his turn to philosophical writing, was not simply a deepening of his youthful appreciation of it’s importance, but served also, his goal of instilling a possible future for the Republic despite the triumph of tyranny and the closure of the courts and forum.

And then there is Cicero the correspondent.  Alone among ancient writers so far as we know, Cicero left us 900 letters between friends, family, allies, enemies, and various associates, in effect, as has been observed, leaving us the first autobiography.

Finally, Cicero turned to burning philosophical inquiries in the last dozen years of his life.  In the time after he held the office of counsel, from 55 BCE until his death in 43 BCE, he authored at least 14 philosophical works, of which 11 we possesses more or less as written.

Of Cicero’s books, six on rhetoric have survived, and portions of eight on philosophy; of his speeches, 88 were recorded, but only 58 survive.  More than 900 letters to others survive, and more than 100 written to him we still possess.

Political Philosophy

Cicero’s Political Philosophy is found primarily in his writings, De Re Publica, De Legibus, De Finibus, and De Officiis, where we find his most comprehensive views on the foundations and aims of the political community, law, the common good, and moral duties.  But these works are best not viewed as simply a narrow compendium of Cicero’s political philosophy, delimiting the range of concerns that preoccupy him.  We must also include his extensive writings on the art of rhetoric, which he himself counts among his works of philosophy (Div., 2.4).  Moreover, his interest in claims of the divine, epistemological issues, and with various treatments of the human soul are just as essential to a careful study of Cicero’s political philosophy.  For Cicero, like the great political philosophers, before and since, the beginning questions of moral and political philosophy – What is a good life?  What is happiness?  How best to order my life individually and collectively? – appear front and center in all his works of political philosophy, no less than in these other inquiries mentioned.  Cicero’s work invites us to cross-reference these various inquiries in search of a genuine grasp of the truth about our situation.

Cicero’s political philosophy is both an act on behalf of philosophy and on behalf of politics.  He undertakes to clarify our situation in these works in order to find guidance for action.  Time and again, he insists that philosophy give moral direction and is drawn to judge philosophers on the basis of their effective stewardship (Fin. 1.11; 2. 51; Off. 1.4-5).  According to him, the priority of political philosophy is traceable to Socrates, who first brought philosophy down from the heavens and into the homes and everyday lives of people (Tusc. 5.10-11; Brut. 31).  But he is not beyond appreciating the love of inquiry for its own sake, or the delights of philosophy pursued for no other reason than the progress in understanding.  But duty and necessity, does not allow such indulgence for the talented, most of the time.  It is this practical orientation that constitutes Cicero’s own substantial contribution to the broadly Platonic-Aristotlean foundations upon which he built (Div. 2.2, Fin. 4.14).

Cicero also sought to place his not inconsiderable talents in the service of philosophy, which he regarded was “the richest, the most bounteous, and the most exalted gift of the immortal gods to humanity.”  Thus, he conceived of his task as the introduction of philosophy into Rome.  And by philosophy he meant not the dogmatic teachings of the schools, but a specific way of life.  And his task was not simple.  For while philosophy is always under “suspicion and dislike” by the majority of human beings, it is even more suspect which its origins are regarded as foreign.  So Cicero had the double difficulty of introducing Greek teachings in the face of Roman prejudices in order to justify the life of philosophy in Rome.

Cicero presents himself as an Academic skeptic, a school going back to the Platonic academy, but which had by then come to stress the impossibility of absolute knowledge.  We may seek higher degrees of probability by examining a la Socrates, various opinions, we will never at any point ascertain absolute certainty.  And yet we must act, despite acknowledging the problematic character of the principles we use as guidance for action.  But the very skepticism with its suspension of any final judgment may animate the philosophical life, if disseminated and adopted by the political community en masse, their very existence would become precarious.  For example, the popularization of such Socratic doubt may lead the populace to doubt whether the common good is preferable to the private good of citizens, and in this and other ways imperil the foundations of the political community.  Fully alive to the dangers that philosophy posed to the political community, and aware of the dependence of philosophy on the political community, he set out to promote the healthy political order.

It is in light of such a comprehensive consideration, that Cicero’s choice of the dialogue form is best understood.  In this way, he can present and examine different and conflicting  opinions; like his predecessor Plato, he can guide the discussion, point out strengths and weaknesses of various positions, while suggesting by various hints the direction and thrust of his own thought.  A writer of dialogues may guide the discussion, but it is up to each reader to follow the reasoning to the end of the road on their own.  By means of the dialogue, Cicero is enabled to due his duty to both philosophy and the political order.


As Richard Tuck has observed, “For fifteen hundred years, from the fourth century to the nineteenth, school children in Europe were exposed to two books.  One was the Bible, and the other was the works of Cicero.”  And this quite simply because he was the master of Latin prose, the man who forged Latin into a literary tongue capable of expressing philosophical thoughts clearly and forcefully.  As a famous graffito in Pompeii has it, “you will like Cicero, or you will be whipped.”  His subjects varied widely in line with the Hellenistic philosophical and rhetorical traditions from which he haled and very much made his own.

The Church fathers admired him greatly, Augustine of Hippo goes so far as to credit Cicero’s lost Horensius for his conversion to Christianity.  And St. Jerome, had a feverish vision in which he was accused of being “a follower of Cicero and not Christ” before the judgment seat.  Medieval authors were also greatly under Cicero’s sway, especially for discussions of natural law and morality: more of his writings survived than any other Latin author.  Petrach’s rediscovery of Cicero’s letters probably did more to aid the hunt for ancient Greek and Latin writings scattered throughout the monasteries of Europe and the Mediterranean, which would flower into the Renaissance than any other single literary act.  As a result, for the humanists, Cicero was more or less synonymous with Latin, and Latin words or phrases were not to be used unless one could find them employed somewhere by Cicero.

With the invention of the printing press, De Officiis was the second book to be printed, second only to the Gutenberg Bible.

If the humanist Cicero inspired the Erasmus, the republican Cicero was crucial for the 17th and 18th Centuries and for the revolutionaries in America and France.  Jefferson names Cicero as a crucial inspiration for the Declaration of Independence; and Adams quipped, “As all the ages of the world have not produced a greater statesman and philosopher united than Cicero, his authority should have great weight.”  And in France, Desmoulins wrote, “they were mostly young people, who, nourished by the reading of Cicero at school, had become passionate enthusiasts for liberty.”