On the Laws (De Legibus)


On the Laws (De Legibus), Books 1–3 (Excerpts)

By Cicero

[Marcus Tullius Cicero. On the Laws. Translated by David Fott. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. 2014. Books 1 and 3. Copyright David Fott. Used with permission.]

Bold numbers in brackets indicate the standard divisions in Cicero’s texts in which are found in whole or part the sections reproduced here. Bracketed words or phrases usually represent Professor Fott’s efforts to supply a missing or unclear part of the text. Sometimes bracketed material represents my effort to clarify a term or reference, and I do so at times with the benefit of material Professor Fott presents in the notes accompanying his translation. –Walter Nicgorski



Book 1

In the section that follows the discussion among Cicero (M for Marcus), Atticus Pomponius (A) and Quintus (Q) is turning to the topic of the law and, as the reader will see, with a zealous interest in the true foundations or bases for any good legal order.


[13] A: Therefore, in this spare time, as you say, why do you not explain to us these very things themselves and write about civil law more precisely than the others? For I remember that you have studied law from the earliest time of your life, when I myself also kept coming to Scaevola [famed jurist and teacher]. You have never seemed to me to have so given yourself to speaking that you scorned civil law.

M: You call me to a long conversation, Atticus. Nevertheless, unless Quintus prefers that we discuss something else, I will undertake it; and since we are free, I will speak.

Q: Indeed I would gladly listen. For what would I rather discuss, or how would I better spend this day?

[14] M: Therefore, why don’t we proceed to our paths and seats? When there has been enough walking, we will rest. Surely we will have no lack of delight as we inquire into one topic after another.

A: That is fine with us, and indeed, if it pleases you, this way to the Liris along its bank and through the shade. But now I beg you to begin to explain what you feel about civil law.

M: Shall I? I think that they are the highest sort of men in our state who have regularly interpreted it to the people and given legal advice. But although they have made great claims, they have dealt with small things. For what is so great as the law of the state? But what is so tiny as this service of those who are asked for advice, even though it is necessary to the people? In fact I do not think that those who were in charge of this service have been ignorant of universal law, but they have trained in what they call civil [law] only so far as they wanted to furnish this service to the people. Yet it is thin material for study although necessary in practice. So to what do you call me, or what are you urging on me? That I produce pamphlets on the law  about rainwater falling from the eaves of houses or the law about walls of houses? or that I compose formulas for covenants and judgments? Those things have been attentively written by many people, and they are lower than what I think is expected of me.

[15] A: But if you ask what I expect, since you have written on the best form of a republic, the sequel seems to be that you also write on laws. For I see that that Plato of yours did so, at whom you marvel, whom you rank ahead of all, whom you greatly cherish.

M: Then do you want this: as with Clinias the Cretan and Megillus the Spartan [fictional characters in Plato’s Laws], as he describes, during a summer day in the cypress groves and woodland paths of Cnossos, often stopping, occasionally resting, he argues about the institutions of republics and about the best laws, so let us, walking among these very tall poplar trees on the green and shady bank and then lingering, seek something fuller concerning these same matters than forensic practice calls for?

[16] A: Indeed I desire to hear those very things.

M: What does Quintus say?

Q: [There’s] no subject [I want to hear about] more.

M: And indeed rightly. For recognize that in no kind of arguing are more honorable things brought into the open: what nature has granted to man, what a number of the best things the human mind encompasses, what service we have been born and brought into light in order to perform and accomplish, what is the connection between men [and gods], and what natural fellowship there is among them. For when these things have been explained, the source of laws and right can be found.

[17] A: So you don’t think that the discipline of law should be drawn from the praetor’s edict, as many do now, or from the Twelve Tables [archaic set of basic Roman laws], as earlier people did, but from within the profoundest philosophy?

M: In fact, Pomponius, in this conversation we do not seek how to safeguard interests in law, or how to respond to each consultation. That very thing may be a great matter, and it is, which formerly was undertaken by many famous men and is now undertaken by one man of the highest authority and knowledge [Servius Sulpicius].  But in this debate we must embrace the entire cause of universal right and laws, so that what we call civil [law] may be confined to a kind of small, narrow place.  For we must explain the nature of law, and this must be traced from human nature. We must consider laws by which states ought to be ruled; then we must treat these laws and orders of peoples that have been composed and delineated, in which indeed what are called the civil laws of our people will not be hidden.

[18] Q: Truly, brother, you trace deeply and, as is proper, to the fountain head of what we are asking about. Those who pass on the civil law otherwise are passing on not so much ways of justice as ways of litigating.

M: That is not so, Quintus; ignorance of the law is more litigious than knowledge of it. But this later; now let us see the beginnings of law.

Therefore, it has pleased very learned men to commence with law–probably rightly, if only, as the same men define it, law is highest reason, implanted in nature, which orders those things that ought to be done [and] prohibits the opposite. When the same reason has been strengthened and perfected in the human mind, it is law. [19] And so they think that law is prudence, the force of which is such as to order people to act rightly [and] forbid them to transgress. And they think this thing has been called [according to] the Greek name for granting to each his own, while I think it comes from our word for choosing.  For as they put the force of fairness into law, we put the force of choice into it. And nevertheless each one is appropriate to law. But if it is thus rightly said, as indeed in general it usually seems to me, the beginning of right should be drawn from law. For this is a force of nature; this is the mind and reason of the prudent man; this is the rule of right and wrong. But since our entire speech is in the people’s business, sometimes it will be necessary to speak popularly and to call that a law which, when written, consecrates what it wants by either ordering [or forbidding], as the crowd calls it. Indeed let us take the beginning of establishing right from that highest law, which was born, before any law was written, for generations in common [corrupt text here], or before a state was established at all.

[20] Q: That is truly more convenient and suitable for the method of conversation we have begun.

M: Then do you want us to trace the birth of right itself from its source? Once we have found it, there will be no doubt how to judge what we are seeking.

Q: Truly I think it must so be done.

A: Join me as well to your brother’s sentiment.

M: Since, then, we should maintain and preserve the form of the republic that Scipio taught to be the best in that book, and since all laws should be adapted to that kind of state, and since customs should be sown and not everything should be consecrated in writing, I will trace the root of right from nature, with which as our leader we should pursue the entire debate.

A: Most rightly, and indeed with it as leader there will be no way to err.

[21] M: Then, Pomponius, do you grant me this (for I know Quintus’s sentiment): all nature is ruled by the immortal gods’ force, nature, reason, power, mind, will, or whatever other word there is by which I may signify more plainly what I want? For if you do not approve this, I must begin my case from there before anything else.

A: I grant it, to be sure, if you expect it. And indeed because of the harmony of the birds and the rumbling of the rivers I do not fear that any of my fellow-students [fellow Epicureans] will clearly hear.

M: And yet beware: for they are accustomed to becoming totally angry, as good men are. Truly they will not bear it if they hear that you have betrayed the excellent man’s first sentence, in which he wrote that god cares for nothing, either his own or another’s.

[22] A: Continue, I beg you. For I expect [to hear] how what I have admitted to you is relevant.

M: I will not make you wait longer. For it is relevant at this point: this animal–foreseeing, sagacious, manifold, sharp, mindful, filled with reason and judgment–that we call man, has been begotten by the supreme god in a sort of magnificent condition. For it alone, of all the kinds and natures of animate beings, has a share in reason and reflection, in which all the others have no part. Moreover, what is more divine than reason–I will not say in man but in the entire heaven and earth? When it has grown up and been perfected, it is rightly named wisdom. [23] Therefore, since nothing is better than reason, and since it [is] in both man and god, the primary fellowship of man with god involves reason. Moreover, among those who have reason in common, right reason is also in common; since that is law, we should also consider men to be united with gods by law. Furthermore, among those who have a sharing in law, there is a sharing in right. Moreover, for them these things are [missing text here] and they must be recognized as being of the same state–indeed, if they obey the same commands and powers, even much more so. Moreover, they obey this celestial configuration and divine mind and very powerful god, so that now this whole universe should [be] thought to be one state in common between gods and men. And the fact that in states positions are distinguished by blood relations of families–according to a sort of method that will be spoken of in a suitable place–is all the more magnificent and excellent in the nature of things; thus men are held to be in the “blood relation” and “race” of the gods.

[24] For [the things that] are usually argued when all of nature is inquired about are without doubt as they are argued: in the perpetual celestial courses [and] revolutions there emerged a sort of ripeness for sowing the human race; when it was scattered and sown over the earth, it was increased by the divine gift of souls. And although men have taken the other things of which they are composed from mortal stock and those things are fragile and frail, the soul has been implanted by god. From this, in truth, there is what can be recognized as a blood relation, or a family or a lineage, between us and the heavenly beings. And so out of so many species there is no animal besides man that has any notion of god; and among men themselves there is no nation either so tame or so wild that, although it is ignorant of what sort of god it ought to have, does not know that it should have one. [25] From this it follows that he recognizes god because he, so to speak, recollects whence he arose. Moreover, the same virtue is in man and god, and it is not in any other species besides; and virtue is nothing other than [nature] perfected and taken all the way to its highest point. There is, therefore, a natural similarity between man and god. Since this is so, what in the world can be a nearer, more definite kinship?

And so nature has generously given so great a richness of things for human convenience and use that those things that are begotten seem to have been donated to us by resolution, not originated by chance–not only those things that are poured out as the produce of the earth laden with crops and fruits, but also cattle, which it is clear have been procreated partly for human use, partly for enjoyment, partly for feeding on. [26] Indeed countless arts have been found by the teaching of nature, which reason imitated in order to attain skillfully the things necessary for life.

Moreover, the same nature not only adorned man himself with swiftness of mind, but also allotted [him] the senses as escorts and messengers, as well as the obscure, insufficiently elucidated understandings of many things as, so to speak, a sort of foundation of knowledge. And it gave a shape to the body manageable and suitable to natural human abilities. For although it cast down the other animate beings for grazing, it raised up man alone and aroused him to a view of heaven as if heaven were his kin and original domicile. Then it shaped the appearance of his face so as to portray in it the character hidden within. [27] For the expressive eyes say beyond measure how we have been affected in the mind, and what is called the countenance, which can exist in no animate being besides man, indicates character; the Greeks know the significance of this, but they do not at all have a name for it. I leave out the fitness and the abilities of the rest of the body, the moderation of the voice, the force of speech, which is the greatest matchmaker of human fellowship (for not all things are for this debate and time, and Scipio expressed this point sufficiently, as it seems to me, in the book [On the Republic] you have read). Now since god [thus] begot and adorned man–that is, he wanted him to have precedence over remaining things–it is clear (so that not everything might be discussed) that nature itself proceeds farther by itself: even with no one teaching it, having commenced with those things the kinds of which it recognized from its first, unfinished understanding, it strengthens and perfects reason by itself.

[28] A: Immortal gods, how you trace from afar the beginnings of right! And you do it in such a way that, not only am I not in a hurry to get to those matters I was expecting from you regarding civil law, but I readily [also] allow you to spend this day, even all of it, in this very conversation. For these things, which perhaps you include for the sake of other things, are more important than those very things for the sake of which these things are a preface.

M: Indeed these are important things that are now briefly taken up. But of all the things involved in debate by men’s teachers, surely nothing is preferable to its being plainly understood that we have been born for justice and that right has been established not by opinion but by nature. This will already be evident if you have examined the fellowship and connection of men among themselves.

[29] For there is nothing so similar one-to-one, so equal, as all people are among ourselves. But if the perverting of habits and the vanity of opinions did not twist the weakness of minds and bend it in whatever direction it had begun, no one would be so similar to himself as all people would be to all people. And so whatever the definition of man is, one applies to all people. [30] This is enough of an argument that there is no dissimilarity within the species. If there were, no one definition would encompass all. And indeed reason, by which alone we excel the beasts, through which we are effective in drawing inferences, through which we bring forward proof, disprove, discuss, demonstrate something, make conclusions–it certainly is in common, differing in education, while equal, to be sure, in the capacity to learn. For the same things are grasped by the senses of all people; and the things that move the senses move them in the same way in all people; and the things that are imprinted upon minds, about which I spoke before, the unfinished understandings, are imprinted similarly upon all people; and speech, the interpreter of the mind, differs in words but is congruent in sentiments. There is no one of any nation who, having found a leader, cannot arrive at virtue.

[31] Not only in right actions but also in instances of depravity there is a remarkable similarity of the human race. For all people are captivated by pleasure, which, although it is an enticement to disgrace, has a sort of similarity to a natural good; for it delights through its frivolity and pleasantness. So as a result of an error of the mind it is received as if it were something salutary, and by a similar ignorance death is fled as if it were a dissolution of nature, life is sought after because it holds us in the state in which we were born, pain is regarded as among the greatest evils both because of its own roughness and because the ruin of our nature seems to follow; [32] and because of the similarity of honorableness and glory, those who have been honored seem blessed while those who are without glory seem wretched. Troubles, joys, desires, fears wander through the minds of all similarly; and if people have different opinions, it does not follow that for that reason those who worship dog and cat as gods are not tormented by the same superstition as other nations. Moreover, what nation does not cherish kindness, benevolence, or a soul that is grateful and mindful of a benefit [conferred]? What nation does not despise, does not hate the haughty, the nefarious, the cruel, the ungrateful? Since from these things it may be understood that the whole race of men has been united among themselves [is one]; and the final result is that consideration [knowledge] of living rightly makes people better. If you approve these things, I will continue to the remaining matters; but if you lack something, let us explain that first.

A: Certainly nothing for us, if I may respond for both of us.

[33] M: It follows [Next], then, that we have been made by nature to participate in right, one with another, and to share it among all people. And I want this to be understood in this entire debate when I say that [right] is from nature. But there is so great a corrupting of bad habit that it is as if the sparks given by nature are extinguished by the corrupting, and the opposite faults arise and are strengthened. But if whatever is according to nature were also according to judgment, men “would think that nothing human is alien to themselves” (as the poet [Terence] states), and right would be cultivated fairly by all. To those to whom reason has been given by nature, right reason has also been given, and therefore law, which is right reason in ordering and forbidding; if law has been given so has right. And reason has been given to all people; therefore right has been given to all people. [text is missing] And Socrates rightly used to curse the person who first separated advantage from right, for he used to complain that this was the source of all disasters. [text is missing] For whence comes that Pythagorean saying?

[A gap of uncertain length occurs in the manuscript.]

[34] From this it is clearly seen that, when a wise man offers this goodwill, spread so wide and far, to someone endowed with equal virtue, what follows is something that seems incredible to certain people but is necessary: he cherishes himself no more than he does the other person. For what is there that differs when things are entirely equal? But if anything could differ only a little, the name of friendship would already have passed away. Its significance is such that as soon as someone prefers his having something [to another’s having it], it does not exist.

All these things are provided as advance fortification for the rest of our conversation and debate, so that it can be more easily understood that right is based in nature. When I have said a very little bit about this, I will come to civil law, from which all of this speech originated.

Q: In fact you need to say very little. For from what you have said, it indeed certainly seems to me–[even if otherwise] to Atticus–that right has arisen from nature.

[35] A: Could it seem otherwise to me, since these things have already been fully developed: first, that we have been furnished and adorned as if by gifts of the gods; second, moreover, that there is one equal, common manner of living for men among themselves; then that all people are held together by a sort of natural indulgence and goodwill among themselves, as well as by a fellowship of right? Since we have admitted–rightly, as I think–that these things are true, how is it allowed for us to separate laws and rights from nature?

[36] M: You speak rightly, and that is how it is.


[In the following segment, also from Book 1 of On the Laws, Cicero or “M” is speaking quite continuously until the very end of the selection.  He brings into focus the tension between a true and natural justice and ordinary notions of utility and pleasure.]

[40] But if the penalty, not nature, ought to keep men from wrong, tell me what torment would harass the impious once the fear of punishments has been removed? Nevertheless, none of them was ever so daring that he did not either deny that he was guilty of a crime or fabricate some reason for just indignation and seek a defense of the crime in some right of nature. If the impious dare to call it this, with what eagerness will good men worship them, I ask!

But if a penalty, if fear of punishment, and not disgrace itself, deters from a wrongful, criminal life, no one is unjust, and instead the wicked ought to be held to be incautious. [41] Then, moreover, those of us who are moved to be good men not by what is honorable itself but by some advantage and enjoyment are cunning, not good. For what will a man do in the darkness who is afraid of nothing except a witness and a judge? What will he do in a deserted place if he has found someone whom he can deprive of much gold, someone weak and alone? Indeed our man who is just and good by nature will even speak with him, help him, lead him on his way. In fact he who will do nothing for the sake of another person and measure everything by his own convenience–you see, I suppose, what he is going to do. But if he denies that he is going to snatch his life and take away his gold, he will never deny it on the ground that he judges it disgraceful by nature, but that he fears that it might become known and the result might be bad. O worthy deed, for which not only learned but also boorish men may blush!

[42] But truly the most foolish thing is to think that everything is just that has been approved in the institutions or laws of peoples. And if those laws are from tyrants? If the Thirty at Athens had wanted to impose laws, or if all the Athenians delighted in tyrannous laws, surely those laws should not be held to be just for that reason? No more, I suppose, than that one that our interim ruler provided, that the dictator could kill whomever of the citizens he wanted with impunity, even for an unspoken reason. For right is uniform; human fellowship has been bound by it and one law has established it, which law is right reason of commanding and prohibiting. He who is ignorant of it is unjust, whether it has been written somewhere or nowhere. Now if justice is compliance with the written laws and institutions of peoples, and if (as the same men say) everything ought to be measured by advantage, he who thinks that it will be enjoyable for himself will neglect and burst apart those laws if he can. So it happens that there is no justice at all if not from nature, [and] what is established for the sake of advantage is undermined by that advantage.

[43] And if right has not been confirmed by nature, they may be removed [missing portion of the text] In fact where will liberality be able to exist, where affection for the fatherland, where dutifulness, where the will either to deserve well of another or to return gratitude? For these things originate from this, that we are inclined by nature toward cherishing men; that is the foundation of right. And not only allegiances toward men but also ceremonies and religious observances for the gods are removed, which I think ought to be preserved not by fear but by the connection that exists between man and god. But if rights were established by peoples’ orders, if by leading men’s decrees, if by judges’ verdicts, there would be a right to rob, a right to commit adultery, a right to substitute false wills, if those things were approved by votes or resolutions of a multitude. [44] But if there is such power in the sentiments and orders of the foolish that the nature of things is changed by their votes, why don’t they establish that those things bad and destructive should be held to be good and salutary things? Or if law can make right out of wrong, can’t the same law make good out of bad? But we can divide good law from bad by no other precept than that of nature.

Not only right and wrong are distinguished by nature, but also in general all honorable and disgraceful things. For nature makes common understandings for us and starts forming them in our minds so that honorable things are based on virtue, disgraceful things on vices. [45] Moreover, to think that these things have been based on opinion, not on nature, is for a madman. For what is said to be the virtue of a tree or a horse (in which cases we misuse the name) has been situated not in opinion but in nature.   And if that is so, honorable and disgraceful things must also be distinguished by nature. Now if the whole of virtue were determined by opinion, its parts would also be determined by the same opinion. Therefore, who would judge a man to be prudent and, as I will say, clever not from his own deportment but from some external circumstance? In fact virtue is perfected reason, and this is certainly in nature; therefore all honorableness is in nature in the same way. For as true and false things are judged on their own terms, not by other terms, and the same with consequences and opposites, so also a constant and perpetual manner of life, which is virtue, and also inconsistency, which is vice, will be tested according to their nature.[missing portion of text] Do we not do the same with young persons’ character? [46] Or will character be judged by nature,and the virtues and vices that emerge from character otherwise? Or if those things are not otherwise, yet will it not be necessary for honorable and disgraceful things to be measured according to nature? [missing text] Whatever good thing that is praiseworthy necessarily has in itself that for which it is praised; for good itself is not by opinions but by nature. For if it were not so, people would also be blessed by opinion. What more foolish thing can be said than that? Therefore, since good and bad are judged by nature, and these things are elements of nature, certainly also honorable and disgraceful things must be distinguished in a similar manner and measured according to nature.

[47] But the variety of opinions and the disagreement among men disturb us; and because the same thing does not hold for the senses, we think they are certain by nature, and those things that appear one way to some people and another way to others, and not always one way to the same people, we say are false. That is far off the mark. For neither a parent, nor a nurse, nor a teacher, nor a poet, nor the stage perverts our senses, nor does the agreement of the multitude distract them from the truth. Against our minds all [sorts of] plots are directed, either by those whom I just listed, who have taken them when they were delicate and unrefined and stain and bend them as they want, or by that which occupies a place entangled within our every sensation, pleasure, that imitator of the good and mother of all bad things; corrupted by her flatteries, they do not sufficiently notice what things are good by nature, because they lack this sweetness and itch.

[48] What follows–to conclude my whole speech–is before our eyes from what has been said, that both right and everything honorable should be sought for their own sake. And indeed all good men love fairness itself and right itself, and it is not for a good man to err and to cherish what should not be cherished in itself; therefore, right should be sought and cultivated for its own sake. Now if that is true for right, so also for justice; and if for that, then the remaining virtues should also be cultivated for their own sake. What about liberality? Is it disinterested or mercenary? If a good man is benevolent without a reward, it is disinterested; if for payment, it is hired. There is no doubt that he who is said to be liberal or benevolent is following duty, not enjoyment. Therefore, justice also elicits no reward, no repayment; therefore, it is sought for its own sake, and the same motive and sense exist for all virtues.

[49] And even if virtue is weighed according to its gains, not according to its own nature, there will be one virtue, which will most rightly be said to be badness. For as much as each man judges what to do according to his own convenience, so little is he a good man, as those who measure virtue by reward consider nothing to be a virtue except badness. For where is the benefactor if no one acts benevolently for the sake of another? Where is the grateful man if even those who are grateful do not respect the person to whom they return gratitude? Where is that sacred friendship if not even the friend himself is loved for his own sake, with whole heart, as it is said? He should even be deserted and cast aside, once hope of gains and enjoyments has been lost. What more monstrous thing can be said than that? But if friendship should be cultivated for its own sake, human fellowship, equality, and justice should also be sought for their own sake. But if that is not so, there is no justice at all. For the very height of injustice is to seek payment for justice.

[50] Indeed, what shall we say about modesty, what about temperance, what about self-control, what about a sense of shame, decency, and chastity? Are we not to be impudent for fear of infamy, or of laws and law-courts? Then are people innocent and shameful in order to hear good things [about themselves], and do they blush in order to collect good hearsay? I am ashamed to speak of chastity at this point, and I am ashamed of those philosophers who think it is [a word cannot be translated] to avoid any judgment without avoiding the vice itself [uncertain text here].  [51] What then? Can we say that those people are chaste who are kept from defilement by fear of infamy, although infamy itself follows on account of the disgrace of the matter? For what can be rightly praised or disparaged if you withdraw from its nature what you think should be praised or disparaged? Will misshapen bodies, if they are very remarkable, give some offense, and deformity of the mind give none, the disgrace of which can be most easily perceived from its very vices? For what can be said to be fouler than avarice, what more monstrous than lust, what more scorned than cowardice, what more despicable than dullness and foolishness? What then? Do we say about those who are conspicuous for their individual vices, or even many vices, that they are wretched because of losses or damages or tortures, or because of the force and disgrace of their vices? That again can be said as praise in the matter of virtue, in the opposite [direction].

[52] Finally, if virtue is sought because of other things, necessarily there is something better than virtue. Is it then property, or honors, or beauty, or strength? When these are present, they are very small, and it is in no way possible to know for certain how long they are going to be present. Or is it–what is most disgraceful to say–pleasure? But indeed virtue is most noticed in spurning and rejecting that.

But do you see what a series of matters and thoughts this is, how some things are woven out of another? I would slide farther if I did not hold myself back.

Q: In what direction, I ask you? For gladly, brother, would I slide forward with you where you are leading with that speech.

M: Toward the end of good things, by which all things are judged and for the sake of obtaining which all things should be done: a disputed matter and full of disagreement among very learned men, but which must nevertheless be judged at some time.


[Cicero (M) is speaking in this brief segment drawing special attention to the importance of knowledge of self in the context of the whole of the universe and nature’s way and then of being able to defend the understanding gained with rhetorical abilities.]

[58] But surely the matter is such that, since it is proper for the law to be the corrector of vices and the recommender of virtues, teaching about living is drawn from it. It so happens that [text missing] the mother of all good things, wisdom (from the love of which philosophy found its name in a Greek word).  Nothing given for human life by the immortal gods is richer, nothing is more flourishing, nothing is preferable. For this alone has taught us, along with all the other things it has taught us, what is most difficult: that we should know ourselves. There are such force and sense behind this principle that it was credited not to a man but to the Delphic god.

[59] For he who knows himself will think first that he has something divine, and that his own natural abilities within himself are like a sort of consecrated image. And he will always do and feel something worthy of such a great gift of the gods. And when he has examined and completely tested himself, he will understand how he has come into life equipped by nature, and how great are the furnishings he has for obtaining and securing wisdom, since in the beginning he conceived the first, so to speak, sketchy understandings of all things in his soul and mind. When they have been made lucid, with wisdom as leader, he discerns that he is a good man and that for this very reason he is going to be blessed.

[60] For once the virtues have been recognized and perceived, then when the soul has departed from the allegiance to and indulgence of the body, and has crushed pleasure like some stain of dishonor, and has escaped all fear of death and pain, and has entered the fellowship of affection with his own, and has regarded as his own all those joined with him by nature, and has undertaken the worship of the gods and pure religion, and has sharpened the sight of his native mental ability, like that of his eyes, for culling good things and rejecting the opposite (a virtue that has been called prudence from foreseeing)–what can be said or thought that is more blessed than that?

[61] And when the same man has examined the sky, lands, seas, and the nature of all things, and he has seen whence they have been begotten, whither they will return, how they will perish, what in them is mortal and frail, what is divine and eternal, and he has almost grasped [the god] himself who controls and rules these things, and he has recognized that he is not surrounded by the walls of some place, but is a citizen of the whole universe as if it were one city–in this magnificence of things, and with this view and knowledge of nature, oh immortal gods, how he will know himself (as Pythian Apollo has instructed), how he will scorn, how he will look down upon, how he will think those things are for nothing that the crowd says are the most distinguished!

[62] And he will fortify all these things as if by a sort of barrier through the method of discussing, the knowledge of judging true and false, and a sort of art of understanding what follows each thing and what is opposite to it. And when he senses that he has been born for civil fellowship, he will think that he must use not only precise argument but also speech that is continual and extended more broadly, through which he may rule peoples, stabilize laws, chastise the wicked, protect the good, praise famous men, issue precepts for health and fame suitable for persuading his fellow citizens, be able to urge to splendor, turn back others from shame, console the stricken, and pass on in everlasting memorials the deeds and resolutions of the courageous and the wise with the ignominy of the wicked. So many and so great are the things that are clearly seen to be present in man by those who want to know themselves; their parent and educator is wisdom.


Book 2

[Book 2 opens with another approach to the foundation and true nature of law, this one starting from the divine force and mind behind all things.  Quintus is speaking initially in this excerpt.]

[7] But if it seems good, let us settle here in the shade and return to the part of the conversation where we digressed.

M: You exact [a debt] magnificently, Quintus (but I thought I had escaped!), and no [debt] can be left unpaid to you.

Q: Then begin, for we are granting you the entire day.

M:  “From Iupiter the beginnings of the Muses,” as I began in my Aratean poem.

Q: What is the point of that?

M: Because now too we must take the beginnings of our discussion from the same [Iupiter] and from the other immortal gods.

Q: Truly well done, brother, and so it ought to happen.

[8] M: Then let us see again, before we approach individual laws, the significance and nature of law, so that, since we must judge everything according to it, we do not occasionally slide into error in the conversation and ignore the force of its reason, by which we must mark out rights.

Q: Certainly, by Hercules, and that is the right way of teaching.

M: Therefore, I see that this has been the sense of very wise men: law was not thought out by natural human abilities; it is not some resolution of peoples, but something eternal that rules the whole universe through the wisdom of commanding and prohibiting. So, they said, the first and the last law is the mind of the god compelling or forbidding all things by reason. As a result of that, the law that the gods gave to the human race has been rightly praised: for it is the reason and mind of a wise being, suitable for ordering and deterring.

[9] Q: Several times already you have touched on that point. But before you come to laws concerning the organization of the people, explain, if you please, the significance of that law of heaven, so that the tide of habit may not swallow us and drag us to the custom of usual conversation. M: In fact, Quintus, from childhood we have learned to name “If he calls into court” and other things of that sort laws.  But it is truly proper for it to be understood that this and other orders and prohibitions of peoples have the force of calling them to deeds rightly done and calling them away from faults, a force that is not just older than the age of peoples and states, but also equal to that of the god protecting and ruling heaven and earth. [10] In fact the divine mind cannot exist without reason, nor can divine reason not have this force in prescribing by law things that are right and depraved. The fact that it had been nowhere written that one man should stand on the bridge against all the enemy’s troops and order the bridge to be cut off from behind him does not mean that we will think any less that Cocles performed so great a deed in accordance with the law and command of courage. The absence of a written law at Rome concerning defilements during Lucius Tarquinius’s reign did not mean that Sextus Tarquinius did not violate Lucretia, daughter of Tricipitinus, contrary to that everlasting law. For reason existed, having originated from the nature of things, both impelling toward doing rightly and calling away from transgression. Reason did not begin to be a law precisely when it was written, but when it arose. But it arose together with the divine mind. On account of this, the true and chief law, suitable for ordering and forbidding, is the right reason of Iupiter the Highest.

[11] Q: I agree, brother, as what is right and true is [also eternal], and it does not either rise or fall with the letters by which resolutions are written.

M: Therefore, as that divine mind is the highest law, so too when it is in man, it has been perfected in the mind of the wise man. Moreover, when things have been written down for peoples variously and to suit the occasion, they hold the name of laws by enthusiasm more than by substance. For they teach that all law that can indeed rightly be called law is praiseworthy by the same such arguments. It is surely settled that laws have been invented for the health of citizens, the safety of states, and the quiet and blessed life of men, and that those who first sanctioned resolutions of this sort showed to their peoples that they would write and provide those things by which, once they have been received and adopted, they would live honorably and blessedly, and that they would of course name “laws” those things that had been so composed and sanctioned. From this it is fit to be understood that those who have written down orders that were destructive and unjust to their peoples, since they did the opposite of what they promised and claimed, provided something other than laws, so it can be clear that interpreting the very name of law involves the significance and sense of choosing what is just and true.

[12] I ask you, then, Quintus, just as they [probably the Stoics] usually do: if the state lacks something on account of the lack of which it must be held to be worth nothing, must that thing be counted among the good things?

Q: And indeed among the greatest things.

M: Moreover, should a state lacking law be held to exist in no place for that very reason?

Q: It cannot be said [to be] otherwise.

M: Then it is necessary that law be held to be among the best things.

Q: I agree precisely.

[13] M: What of the fact that peoples approve many things destructively, many things disastrously, that no more approach the name of law than if robbers consecrated certain laws in their own meeting? For the instructions of physicians cannot be so called in truth if in ignorance and inexperience they have prescribed deadly things in place of salutary ones; nor will it be a law of any kind among a people even if the people accepts something destructive. Therefore, law is a distinction between just and unjust things, modeled on nature, that most ancient and chief of all things, to which human laws are directed that visit the wicked with punishment and defend and protect the good.

Q: I understand very clearly, and I now think that anything else must indeed be neither held to be, nor called, a law.

[14] M: Then you think that the Titian and the Apuleian laws are no laws?

Q: Indeed, and not even the Livian.

M: And rightly, especially since they were repealed in one moment by one little line of the senate. But that law, the significance of which I have explained, can be neither removed nor repealed.

Q: Then of course you will propose laws that may never be repealed?


Book 3

[Cicero is speaking as M., and there is an approach being made to specific and particular applications of the true law; in this instance, the text is running up to specific legal regulations about the magistrates in the republic Cicero is structuring.]

[2] You see, then, that this is the significance of the magistrate, that he rule over and prescribe things that are right, advantageous, and linked to the laws. For as the laws do to the magistrates, so the magistrates rule over the people; and it can truly be said that a magistrate is a speaking law and a law is a silent magistrate. [3] Furthermore, nothing is so suitable to right and the condition of nature (when I say that, I want it understood that I am speaking of the law) as command, without which no home or state or nation or the whole human race can exist, nor can the entire nature of things or the universe itself. For the universe obeys the god, and the seas and lands obey the universe, and human life complies with the orders of the supreme law. [4] And so that I may come to things “nearer home” and more known to us: all ancient nations formerly obeyed kings. This kind of command was first entrusted to the most just and wisest men, and that was extremely effective in our own republic, as long as regal power ruled over it. From that time forward it was passed on in turn to their descendants; and that remains among those who even now reign. But for those whom royal power did not please, they wanted not to obey no one, but not always to obey one man. But since we are giving laws for free peoples, and since I have previously spoken in a book what I feel about the best republic, at this time I will adapt the laws to the form of state that I approve. [5] Therefore, there is need of magistrates, without whose prudence and diligence the state cannot exist; the entire control of the republic is encompassed in their configuration. Not only must a mode of commanding be prescribed for them, but also a mode of complying for the citizens. For it is necessary that he who commands well should obey at some time, and he who temperately obeys seems to be worthy of commanding at some time. And so it is proper both for him who obeys to hope that he will command at some time, and for him who commands to think that in a brief time he will have to obey. In fact we prescribe not only that they comply with and obey the magistrates, but also that they respectfully remember and cherish them, as Charondas carries out in his laws. Our Plato truly concluded that just as those who oppose the heavenly beings belong to the race of Titans, so are these who oppose the magistrates. Since this is so, let us now come to the laws themselves, if you please.

A: Both that very thing and that very order of things truly please me.

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