Tuesday, September 16, 2014


Jed W. Atkins, Cicero on Politics and the Limits of Reason: The Republic and Laws. Cambridge classical studies. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xiv, 270. ISBN 9781107043589. $95.00.

Reviewed by Catherine Steel, University of Glasgow (catherine.steel@glasgow.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site


Recently James Zetzel, in his chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Cicero, noted that 'Cicero's political theory has been discussed very little in English until fairly recently and there is still no satisfactory full-length treatment of De re publica...'. 1 Atkins' elegant and probing analysis in this monograph, the recasting of a 2009 Cambridge PhD thesis, goes a very long way to filling that gap.

Its focus is not simply De republica; that work is considered alongside De legibus. After a brief Introduction, largely dedicated to indicating the monograph's contents, chapter one ('Reading the Republic') surveys the basic problems which face a reader, particularly one who comes from contemporary political philosophy, in reading this work: the role of Cicero and his relationship to Scipio; the use of dialogue form; and the grounding of philosophical activity in a firmly Roman context. It concludes by suggesting that 'it is a helpful rule of interpretation to conceive of the dialogue as a cooperative investigation' (p.42). Chapter two, 'The dream of Scipio and the science of politics', tackles a major speed-bump head-on: what on earth is the dream of Scipio doing in the work? Atkins outlines the peculiar reception history which has made, and continues to make, attractive a discrete engagement with this part of the work, before suggesting an alternative. Scipio's dream fits because it revisits the role of reason in political theory and practice. The cosmos is rational, but humans are not: the contrast indicates why De republica rejects ideal states for Roman reality, and opens up space for the politician, or statesman, to contribute to the beneficial running of a state. In chapter three, 'Constitutional change and the mixed constitution' (arguably the most important in the monograph), the focus is on the mixed constitution. Atkins takes this apparently familiar concept and, through meticulous and probing analysis, demonstrates the gulf between Polybius and Cicero in their use of the mixed constitution. He shows how Cicero rejects Polybius' understanding of human nature as predictably and rationally motivated by fear in favour of one in which humans can be and are motivated by the benefits and advantages of associating with one another in political communities. At the same time, De republica does not locate the stability of the mixed constitution in a system of checks and balances, as Polybius does, but instead in its capacity to moderate unrestrained desire for liberty among the citizen body.

Chapter four, 'Political Society and Citizens' rights' sets up De republica as an introduction to De legibus by considering the legal framework that Cicero seems to invoke in the earlier work. Atkins argues that the concept of rights can be traced in De republica and, importantly, that these citizen rights are distinct from and can be asserted against the position given to them by those who govern. Thus the Roman people can make a claim, usually for freedom, against the res publica. (It's a pity that very close publication dates mean that Atkins is not here in dialogue with the work of Valentina Arena ( see BMCR 2013.08.51); that will in due course be an interesting conversation). Atkins notes, too, the way that nature is apparently absent from De republica, permitting Scipio to avoid the problem of how non-ideal states can claim legitimacy. That issue comes to the forefront in chapter five, 'Natural Law', which explores the philosophical history of this concept in De legibus, concluding that its first book offers a reasonably orthodox Stoic account of natural law. The crunch point is chapter six, 'Legislation for the best practicable regime', where Atkins offers a delicately nuanced interpretation of De legibus' approach to the misfit between written law in any particular state and the universal claims of natural law. Some neat close-reading underscores Atkins' claim that Cicero was well aware of the problem. A conclusion offers some observations on other modern readings of these two works.

Atkins' attempt to offer a sustained reading of these two dialogues as serious contributions to political philosophy is, to a very large extent, a great success. He deftly analyses Cicero's positions within the existing philosophical framework, showing not only the extent to which he differs from Plato, Aristotle and their successors but also explaining why those differences are interesting and productive. In addition, his alertness to Cicero's ability as a writer enables him to relate structure to argument in consistently productive ways: so, for example, the discussion of astronomy (49-56) as a flawed analogy for politics which shows why the discussion in the first book of De republica begins where it does. It's true that he wants Cicero to be a good writer of political philosophy, an assumption which may be prior to the arguments we find here; by and large the assumption pays off, but the monograph does raise questions which perhaps point to a less consistent and less effective Cicero. One feature of the monograph that struck me was how distant Cicero frequently feels; although there is a lot of detailed discussion of individual passages, the process of forming a coherent argument takes the author, and reader, a long way from the Ciceronian texts. In part of course this is due to their fragmentary state, but not entirely. Making sense of Cicero in terms of contemporary political thought does involve a lot of rewriting and recasting, and we shouldn't lose sight of that gap: whatever De republica and De legibus were initially intended to achieve, it involved a rather different conceptualisation of talking about one's community than we have. In this connection, it's perhaps a pity that Atkins did not bring De oratore into his argument to a greater extent. That work offers us an example, in a text which we have complete, of Cicero's approach to structuring and formulating a complex argument across a number of books and between a number of interlocutors. Fox's analysis of De oratore as a text which evades fixity could offer a stimulating counter to Atkins' approach; 2 for all Atkins' skill as a close reader and his alertness to Cicero's own sceptical moves, this monograph feels fairly dogmatic in its final interpretative positions.

Atkins notes that (6-7) that these treatises were being written alongside major political change and a transformation, at the hands of a large number of intellectuals and writers, of Rome's cultural landscape. Yet the implications could be pushed further. In particular, his analysis of natural and statute law – and the ways in which Cicero allows for the difference between the two – cries out for contextualisation not only in the political life of the 50s but also in Cicero's own approach to dealing with opposition. As Harries in particular has shown, the slippage from opposing Cicero to opposing the res publica to no longer being a part of the res publica happens with extraordinary frequency and consistency in Cicero's writings.3 Creating a position, as Cicero does in De legibus which permits him to judge what statute law meets the criterion of being a law, is a very important element in his ability to enforce discrimination between acceptable and unacceptable political activity; conversely, it is very tempting to see Cicero's experience of Clodius in his formulation of the relationship between natural law and what passes for law at Rome in De legibus.

The book is excellently produced and largely free from presentational errors.


1.   Zetzel, J., 'Political Philosophy', in Steel, C., ed., The Cambridge Companion to Cicero, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2013, 181-195, at 195.
2.   Fox, M., Cicero's philosophy of history, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2007, 111-141.
3.   Harries, J., Cicero and the Jurists: from Citizen's Law to the Lawful State, London: Duckworth 2006.

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