Western World needs a dose of Cicero

Western World is currently in social turmoil. Countless anti-government protests in Greece, substantive increase in unemployment and stagnated economic growth. It is evident the material wealth and prosperity the West had obtained during the last several decades, has evaporated. Yet, more importantly, the West and, especially the Eurozone, have forgotten how to live a virtuous life without material goods. Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 B.C.) was a Roman philosopher, orator and statesman of the Roman period. Although some argue Cicero was not an exceptional thinker, he was influential in introducing the Romans to the dominant schools of Greek philosophy. One of his philosophical contributions was Stoicism. One argues the Western World should examine Cicero’s stoicism and inject some of his teachings upon both the individual and state to remediate the West’s current social and economic system.

Cicero argued that philosophy and rhetoric are interdependent and necessary for the improvement of human life and society. With the decline of oratory, Cicero wanted to enhance Roman philosophy on the grounds that Romans needed to be able to philosophise without resorting to the Greeks, and to this end he sought to provide them with a kind of philosophical encyclopaedia. He hoped to make every department of philosophy accessible in Latin; Cicero says ‘what greater or better service, could I offer my country than teaching and instructing the young’. With regards to modern day society, it is evident that the individual and the state must revert back to fundamental philosophies concerning political ideology and morality to improve human life and society. This is because there is an inherent tendency for humans to act selfishly and think about their own ‘ego’. This has cost the Western world a ‘Second Great Depression’ akin, if not worse, to ‘The Great Depression’ in the 1930s. A stoic moral framework will promote spiritual actualisation through duty and thus, allow individuals to attain virtue. Stoicism promotes spiritual needs, not material needs. It is easier to sustain spiritual needs than material needs. Greater the fulfilment of spiritual needs, the closer people are to a more moral and well-off life. It follows that it would be more sustainable to formulate policies which increase spiritual welfare and not, economic growth. If an absolute criterion of what constitutes as spiritual needs can be created and has minimal overlaps with material needs, this framework is practical and thus, applicable. Therefore, the state should employ Cicero’s stoic framework by which individuals ought to follow in order to improve their own life.

Cicero came into the Scepticism school of Hellenistic Philosophy. He was renowned to be an Academic sceptic “who asserts nothing but refutes arguments of others”. Cicero employed Stoic teachings, particularly when discussing politics and ethics. Stoicism as Cicero understood held that gods existed and loved human beings. Human beings were all meant to follow natural law, which arises from reason. Both during and after a person’s life, the gods rewarded or punished human beings, according to their conduct in life. The gods had also provided human beings with the gift of reason. This starkly contrasts to Epicurean hedonism, which Cicero despised, on the grounds that the theory is incoherent and morally subversive and hedonists have unbridled passion which are devoid of a sense of virtue and duty. Given this innate characteristic, stoicism should be imposed by the state to improve individual character and morality.

A dosage of Cicero’s philosophy would improve the political ideas which modern western governments believe. Cicero argued true law was reason, good is always good and bad is always bad; all which were part of traditional Roman values. Cicero argued high moral standards could only be sustained with a great deal of determination and self-discipline. He wanted these principles to continually be applied to the Roman Republic. This is because, drawing from his work, “On Duties”, the corruption of moral values in Rome has gone too far, hoping such the people need to be aware of the loss of true Roman values in that period he was writing in. Furthermore, he felt corrupt leadership that took away the rights of citizens and their purpose to promote virtuous, altruistic actions to Rome for duty’s sake, not for hedonistic consequences. With regards to current society, current politicians have abused their power and have conducted policies to maximize their political ‘point tally’. Cicero urged the Roman elite to adopt stoic ethical teachings and so, should current modern society on the grounds of minimising corruption for a more well off society.

In the work, “On the Republic”, Cicero challenged the utopian slant of Greek political theory established by Plato’s Republic. He argued that the best constitution, which was attainable, was largely found out in Rome, where a unique combination of “monarchy, aristocracy and democracy formed a mixed constitution“- this, in turn, would provide an allegedly stable and just government. Furthermore, he defined the ‘Republic’ (res publica) as “a people’s affair” (res populi) and a people as a community “united by consensus about right and by mutual interest”. Cicero criticised all other constitutions for breaching the people’s rights and interests and argued that no political system is legitimate unless it distributes legal rights equally to all, according to merit and wealth. In other words, one must remove the aristocracy and inequality which modern Western Capitalism has produced. Therefore, the state should promote policies which promote equality, meritocracy and welfare. Individuals must learn there is a limit to their wants and thus, embrace the notion of ‘enough’ with their pursuits in life. This asks the question as to how people can realise the limit of their satisfaction? If and only if this policy is implemented, virtuous life can be achieved within sustainable and ethical means; however this is an entirely different question. Cicero, if alive in these times, would argue individuals must accept any hardships, through loss in disposable income or job loss, and repress their despair and ‘keep going’ in this current economic climate. This would lessen the economic and social demands individuals have upon themselves and on the state. As consequence, if the premises of stoic philosophy holds, when government’s macroeconomic objectives i.e low unemployment, are not achieved, public disappointments will not turn into the violent protests against current governments, which are very evident in Greece and Spain. In short, individuals of the Western World must adopted a stoic-orientated deontological approach to survive, on welfare grounds, and maintain virtuosity in such difficult times.

In the final analysis, Cicero seems to devote most of his life in articulating his ideas behind his lifelong goals of a stoic democracy. In order to progress from the current western predicament, western politicians must harmonise agent’s competing interests to a just and stable society and provide a thorough stoic framework. In other words, stoic teachings should be injected, upon both the individual and state, to replenish this Western socioeconomic system.

Contributed by Wafiq Islam

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