Marcus Tullius Cicero was marginalized in the Roman senate. Frustrated without real power, Cicero began to write about how government should be run.
As Caesar conquered Gaul and subsequently crossed the Rubicon, plunging Rome into civil war, Cicero was writing some of the great works of political philosophy. While an accomplished orator and lawyer, Cicero’s most important achievement was his political career and writings.
He asked questions that still resonate today: What is the foundation of a just government? What kind of rule is better? How should a leader behave?
At the time of his writings, his political influence had declined. He wrote to a friend: “I used to sit on the deck and hold the rudder of the state in my hands; now there’s scarcely room for me in the bilge.”
1. There are universal laws that govern the conduct of human affairs.
Cicero would never have thought of this concept of natural law in terms used later by Christians, but he firmly believed that divine rules independent of time and place guarantee fundamental freedoms to everyone and constrain the way in which governments should behave. As the American Founding Fathers, careful students of Cicero, wrote in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
2. The best form of government embraces a balance of powers.
Even the most noble kings will become tyrants if their reign is unchecked, just as democracy will degrade into mob rule if there are no constraints on popular power. A just government must be founded on a system of checks and balances. Beware the leader who sets aside constitutional rules claiming the need for expediency or security.
3. Leaders should be of exceptional character and integrity.
Those who would govern a country must possess great courage, ability, and resolve. True leaders always put the interest of their nation above their own. As Cicero says, governing a country is like steering a ship, especially when the storm winds begin to blow. If the captain is not able to hold a steady course, the voyage will end in disaster for all.
4. Keep your friends close— and your enemies closer.
Leaders fail when they take their friends and allies for granted. Never neglect your supporters, but even more important, always make sure you know what your enemies are doing. Don’t be afraid to reach out to those who oppose you. Pride and stubbornness are luxuries you cannot afford.