Cicero’s Views on Law

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Jeffrey Thayne

Aristotle believed that there were abstract truths, or natural laws, in response to which men formed positive laws. This was accompanied by a distinction between theoretical and practical reason; while theoretical reason would tell us that it is wrong to steal, practical reason might tell us how long a robber ought to remain imprisoned for theft, etc. This distinction was important to Aristotle, because it rooted laws into an eternal cosmic order, but also allowed flexibility in the enactment of laws due to varying human circumstances. It allowed for a heterogeneity of laws across various nations and times. It also recognized the distinction between natural law and positive law; the prohibition against robbery is a natural law (or natural reason, a glimpse into the cosmic order), but that a robber would spend three years in prison is a positive law, and is as binding on the conscience as the dictates of natural reason. Positive laws are enacted and made binding by a legislature, and Aristotle believed that they must be written in order to be considered laws.

Only One, Universal Law

Cicero. According to Cicero, in a sense, law is one and the same with conscience, or those natural principles of right and wrong which we all can discern.

According to Letwin, Cicero ignored this distinction. Letwin explains that according to Cicero, “‘Law is not the product of human thought’ nor any enactment of peoples.”1 It is not a human invention. Thus, there is no such thing as positive law in Cicero’s worldview; there are only the dictates of reason, which are binding as law regardless of legal enactment. Cicero said, “Reason did not first become law when it was written down, but when it first came into existence.”1 “In short,” says Letwin, “Cicero identified ‘law’ with ‘reason,’ and by reason he meant the directing principles of the universe.”1

Let’s decode this: Aristotle and Plato both recognized the need to “translate” the eternal verities of reason into positive laws enacted by a legislature of some kind; this would naturally introduce human fallibility into the picture of law. Cicero did not see the need for this. This is because, for Cicero, the eternal verities of reason do not need translation; he “wholly ignored the mortal element in man.”1 Letwin continues:

[Cicero’s] view of human reason as identical with the mind of God enabled Cicero to describe law as an innate idea present in all human beings and identical with the divine element in human nature. If only men were willing to consult it, the divinity within them would tell them what to do with complete certainty. Law need not, indeed could not, therefore be derived from edicts.1

In other words, as Cicero said, there is “only one principle by which men may live one with another, and that this is the same for all, and possessed equally by all.”1 In Cicero’s view, there is a homogeneity to law. There is no variance across nature, culture, or time.

Universal Law is Intuitive

This is a very one-sided response to the central tension in Plato’s views on law. Is law a human invention, developed in response to a human need? Or is it a legal enactment of a higher cosmic order? However, Plato recognized that human beings are fallible and that not everyone had equal access to knowledge of the cosmic order. In fact, the idea of a philosopher-king (the ruler with privileged access to the cosmic order) seemed impractical to him. Cicero’s response to this tension in Plato is essentially this: there is no human element to law, and we are all philosopher-kings with complete access to the cosmic order, which is one and the same thing as the only proper law. Hadley Arkes describes an analogy that Cicero uses to illustrate his belief in intuitive knowledge of the cosmic order. The principles of rhythm and verse, Cicero believed, are based upon immutable mathematical principles. This Pythagorean metaphysics was evidenced, according to Cicero, by the innate knowledge we have of proper rhythm and verse. Cicero explained,

When verses are being repeated, the whole theatre raises an outcry if there is one syllable too few or too many … Not that the mob knows anything about feet or metre; nor do they understand what it is that offends them, or know why or in what it offends them. But nevertheless nature herself has placed in our ears a power of judging of all superfluous length and all undue shortness in sounds, as much as of grave and acute syllables.2

In other words, people intuitively know when a musical score is off beat, or when a verse has too many syllables. This, according to Cicero, is evidence of a universal and intuitive knowledge of unchanging truths. Arkes explains,

There was no reason to believe that this power of judging was confined to matters of rhythm. There was more reason to believe that this understanding reached other subjects, which drew on that same logic, ‘placed in our ears’. … At a certain level … he sought, I think to teach … that a discordant law was as instantly known and felt by a public of ordinary men as a discordant note was instantly recognized by a common audience. … When Cicero spoke and wrote of the principles of justice, he seemed to understand that the maxims of public and private honesty were written so plainly on our souls that they naturally produce a social recoil when they are violated”2

Majorities Cannot Change Universal Law

According to Cicero, this intuitively discerned moral order is the only genuine law. Man-made laws that differ from this moral order aren’t even really laws; we call them laws “rather by favor than because they really are such.”1 In the end, it is a misnomer. Letwin explains that Cicero

concentrates on denying that the principles of justice are founded on the decrees of peoples, the edicts of magistrates, or the decisions of judges. If this were so, he argues, then “Justice would sanction robbery and adultery and forgery of wills, in case these acts were approved by the votes or decrees of the populace. But if so great a power belongs to the decisions and decrees of fools that the laws of Nature can be changed by their votes, then why do they not ordain that what is bad and baneful shall be considered good and salutary?” This concern of Cicero’s echoes one that appears also in both Plato and Aristotle, the concern to combat an infatuation with democracy that leads men to conclude that the only standard for law is whatever the majority finds desirable. But the elaborate arguments and distinctions considered relevant to this question that appear in Plato and Aristotle are not to be found in Cicero. He simply insists that the only escape from the whims of the mob is to recognize a natural, universal, eternal standard of justice.1

In other words, people cannot be the final arbiter of right and wrong, lawful and unlawful, as positive law may suggest. If so, they would merely vote away true morality and legislate that what is bad “shall be considered … good.”1 If law is merely a human invention, then there is no eternal standard against which to critique this law. Cicero responds to this positivist threat by denying positive law altogether.

Weakness in Human Discernment

Letwin responds very critically to Cicero. Her concerns are mainly that Cicero does not address the human and mortal weaknesses of men’s reasoning. She says:

At no point does Cicero stop to consider the question that both Aristotle and Plato addressed with such careful attention—how in a mortal world, where both human beings and things are constantly altering, could unchanging law be equally suitable for all times and places. He says nothing about distinctions between more or less abstract principles, nor could he have done so without qualifying his simple conclusion that what is true law is absolutely certain and divinely ordained. For if in law there is a movement from more to less abstract principles, and if that is not a purely logical or automatic movement but a genuine attempt to take account of contingent circumstances, then there can be no such certainty. Nor does Cicero consider the implications of saying that we need not look outside ourselves for an expounder or interpreter of law. For if, as he says, the true law is imprinted on all men, how can there be false interpretations? In short, Cicero’s identification of law with justice and nature, and his insistence that the one true law is known intuitively by all men, takes no account of the mortal character of the human world.1

Letwin’s spares no effort in pointing out the inconsistencies and weaknesses of Cicero’s position. Cicero is elsewhere known as a skeptic, who does not believe that knowledge can be known indubitably. The realm of law seems to be an exception to Cicero’s normal skepticism.

Letwin does create a space for what she sees as a more favorable reading of Cicero when she quotes a few passages which imply that Cicero did not always adhere strictly to his natural law philosophy; he sometimes recognized law as serving human purposes. “The chief purpose in the establishment of constitutional state and municipal governments” was the security of property, said Cicero, and “although it was by nature’s guidance that men were drawn together into communities, it was in the hope of safeguarding their possessions that they sought the protection of cities.”1 If, as we are to assume, that property is to be protected by laws, then this idea lends support to the idea that law is a human invention, designed for human purposes. This idea, however, completely contradicts Cicero’s position that law is identical with reason, and is binding despite legislative enactment or enforcement. All in all, Cicero represents a one-sided response to the tensions found in Plato, and he is not entirely consistent in his philosophy.


1. Robin Letwin, On the History of the Idea of Law.
2. Arkes, Hadley. “That ‘Nature Herself Has Placed in our Ears a Power of Judging’: Some Reflections on the ‘Naturalism’ of Cicero.” In Natural Law Theory: Contemporary Essays, edited by Robert P. George, 245-277. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 1992.


  1. Any criticism of Cicero’s concept of natural law scares me. We live in an age when the whole world groans under the weight of the oppression created by government edicts which justify theft, enslavement and murder by the very institutions created by men to prevent such crimes, namely the government itself. Whereas a even a mafia may harm thousands, when theft or other crimes are perpetrated by the ‘law’ it affects the lives and corrupts the hearts of billions. Anyone unaware of this state of affairs doesn’t know what the Book of Mormon says.

  2. I agree, Robert, that government today has stepped far outside of its proper bounds. We as citizens must diligently oppose the expansion of government and the abuse of power. That is one reason why it is vital that we find solid arguments on which to base our critique of bad government.

    Cicero passionately defended his view of law as a universal truth in the sky. The challenge, however, is that this provides little defense against bad and corrupt government, especially when the powers that be feel as though universal truth is on their side. When government believes it has a divine mandate to implement a particular divine order on earth, it can feel free to disregard the will of the people and use force to implement its particular ideological view.

    Although, Robert, you are right that natural law theorists have been the most avid defenders of freedom. I just wonder if it’s possible to find a stronger argument, one that doesn’t require metaphysical speculation. Other philosophers have been able to defend small government without appealing to unknowables and uncertainties, and I’ll discuss them later on. There’s still good stuff to come!

  3. Robert, this post piqued my interest, too, because previously I had only heard supportive explanation’s of Cicero’s natural law ideas. It was interesting to hear limitations pointed out. I’m still trying to figure out what I think. Do you think the critiques of Cicero’s view are valid? How would you resolve them for this Letwin person?

  4. For more information, here is a research paper I wrote for my philosophy of law class. I wrote the paper to the professor’s specifications, but I do not really have a settled opinion on the issue. I hope nobody interprets this as my immutable opinion.

    The prompt for the paper was: “Critique Shirley Robin Letwin’s treatment of Cicero’s philosophy of law.”

    Here is the link.

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