“. . . as Socrates used to express it so admirably, ‘the nearest way to glory . . . is to strive to be what you wish to be thought to be.’” 

–Cicero, On Duties

“Even if there is nothing in glory that should be sought, yet it follows virtue like a shadow.”  –Cicero, Tusculan Disputations

“. . . . as Plato has admirably expressed it, we are not born for ourselves alone . . .”

–Cicero, On Duties


Walter Nicgorski, professor in the Program of Liberal Studies and concurrent professor of political science, has written widely on Cicero, including his dissertation at the University of Chicago and articles for journals such as Political Theory, Interpretation, and the Political Science Reviewer. In an interview with The Rover, he discussed Cicero’s political thought.

Professor Nicgorski encountered Cicero for the first time in high school, where he studied Latin. He described his Latin education as “quite intense,” but he emerged from it with “a love for Cicero the orator.” Later, Professor Nicgorski would write, “Measured by influence upon the thinking, writing and speaking of subsequent centuries, Cicero was clearly the most influential figure of the late Roman Republic,” (“Cicero,” The Sage Encyclopedia of Political Theory, (2010), 1:174). 

When it came time to choose a dissertation topic, his director, Leo Strauss, pointed him to the rhetorical writings of Cicero, a set of writings that are “not much worked on.” Although he frequently thought he would at some point move on from Cicero, his interest in the political theorist continues, as evidenced by his current efforts on a “large work” that has been in progress for around twenty years.

Professor Nicgorski agrees with Cicero on all the large issues of his political theory, but on one “rather fine point” they disagree. In De Officiis, Cicero “wants to assure us that doing the right thing will never be at variance with true expediency…[that] it’s unlikely that virtue will contradict utility.” Professor Nicgorski claims Cicero fails to face the instances in which the community goes awry, and public opinion draws one away from doing the right thing. In such a case, the good citizen is no longer the good man, and utility and community-based virtue are not in harmony.

One of the strongest points of Cicero’s thinking, according to Professor Nicgorski, is his shift of focus from the model state, as represented in earlier political theorists, to the model statesman. This “very interesting notion” was picked up by the Founding Fathers, as he pointed out, citing the Federalist Papers:  no single lawgiver is seen as the sole designer of our Constitution. The best people in political institutions have come from good systems and laws. Professor Nicgorski explained, “Cumulatively, through generations…we approach a good constitution and a good life.”

Cicero, according to Professor Nicgorski, defines justice and right as “virtues in accord with natural law.” Concretely, this means “meeting your responsibilities to the community and never harming anyone.”

The natural foundation for justice and right comes from the reflection of man’s reason on his other inclinations. In this way, he decides the basic rules about the right way to live and what is truly excellent. Natural law, in short, is human reason tapping into divine law; it can be found in the properly ordered human nature. Thus the prudent man shares the mind of God, and virtues are nature’s laws. Professor Nicgorski says this is “a gift we’re given…a sense of justice and right, and the power of reason to examine our human nature and inclinations.”

Cicero, like Plato, thought that an understanding of who we are, our nature, in the context of the whole, would make virtue very attractive to us and pull us toward it. Professor Nicgorski says that Cicero almost anticipated the later Christian ideas of original sin, that is, the fact that it dims the intellect and weakens the will. Both Plato and Cicero believed we are basically oriented toward the good.

When asked how Cicero’s notion of justice differs from prevalent  modern conceptions of justice, Professor Nicgorski responded that in De Officiis, Cicero states that the duties related to justice apply both to our relationships with others and to ourselves individually. The modern notion, Professor Nicgorski says, neglects individual restraint in situations that have little or no effect on others. Cicero, on the other hand, claims “we have responsibilities to ourselves in terms of our development.”

To Professor Nicgorski, the most appealing aspect of Cicero’s work is his discussion of the education of a statesman, and his emphasis on the practical. Imitating Cicero, Professor Nicgorski said “My golly, there’s a question I answer every day of my life, and I’d better get clear on it. Every action has an implicit answer to what is good.”

Socrates was the first to bring philosophy down from the heavens and into the homes and everyday lives of the people, and Cicero “emphatically embraced” this Socratic turn. He argued that “if you have the talent, and if you have the choice, you should apply that talent to political leadership.”

Cicero’s opinion of politics as the completion of ethics is in line with Aristotle’s thoughts on the matter. Both agree that one has to be nourished by good laws and customs in order to attain his potential.

Finally, Professor Nicgorski observes that, while Cicero strongly critiqued Roman religion, leading some to believe he was an atheist, there are “strong implications” in his writing that he was open to the notion of monotheism. He found order in nature, and admired philosophers before him who believed in a single God.

For the novice with a newly burgeoning interest in Cicero, Professor Nicgorski recommends Pro Archia, an oration that defends poetry and the liberal arts, the ethical treatise De Officiis, addressed to his son who was “not studying hard enough in Athens, having a foreign study junket,” or the first book of De Legibus.

Ward Pettibone is a freshman psychology/math major from Rhode Island. He doesn’t know how to write a funny byline because there are no funny people in Rhode Island. Contact him at wpettibo-at-nd.edu.