Dear president, this is how to govern

(Translated from El confidencial with apologies for the translation deficiencies:

There are lives that HBO gives us a hint of without exposing them completely. The life of Marcus Tilius Cicero (106-43B.C.) is just one example. Although he only  had a glancing appearance in the much-loved series Rome (2005), Cicero’s political career could very well lend itself to a Roman West Wing, where his rise to consulship, the pinnacle of Roman Republic, could be depicted. But it did not come at a good time: the economy had stagnated and unemployment had become a threat to political stability. This is a story remains valid now. The use and abuse of power have not changed much in two thousand years.

During his consulship, Pompey, Crassus and Julius Caesar formed a triumvirate which they used to govern Rome. Cicero did not wish to join this illegal cartel, but he tried to keep god relations with everyone. Thus, once his power was stripped  and his pride hurt, he began to write about how to govern.

There are numerous essays, treatises and letters in which he put rules, he advised and he defined all from his own experience. In these works he answered a question which, regrettably, still hasn’t really been resolved: What are the tenets of a just government? Which system is best? How shoud an official conduct himself or herself?

Cicero is a statesman, not a politican, who speaks from the past and forms “a ancient guide for modern politicans”, such is the subtitle to the book How to govern a country (a bilingual edition of Latin and Spanish)*. The Classicist Philip Freeman came up with this brief anthology on the political ideas of a moderate conservative: “condition increasingly difficult to find in our modern world”.

The author defines Cicero as an unwavering believer in collaboration with other parties for the good of the nation and its peoples. For Cicero, the ideal government is one that combines the best of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, such as that of the Roman Republic. Below is the legacy of the first statesman, summarised in ten advices and soon forgotten.

  1. Government should possess an exceptional integrity. Cicero spoke of the ability to lead of those who aspire to ensure peace and direct the course of the country: “They stand out through their courage, suitability and resolve, because in our nurtured citizenry where there are many who aspire to revolution and the State’s downfall through burden [, and this is conducive to creating] mistakes that they know they have committed.” That is to say that in those who govern a nation should be borne valour, capability and notable resolve.
  2. Intelligence, insight and eloquence. If the rulers do not posses a meticulous knowledge of what they are talking about, their argument will be chatter of vane words. So soundbites has already existed for twenty centuries. Yet today it is not easy to get an idea of the importance given to oratory in the ancient world and that those who seek to lead will not do so unless it masters the art of leading with eloquence. “To enhance a speech it is not only the choice of words that matters, but also its correct order.” To this one must add “wit, humour, a free-thinking man’s own erudition, as well as the speed and brevity when rebutting or attacking, that will always be tied to a subtle charm and a clear refinement.
  3. Corruption destroys a nation. We know this one. We know where greed, bribery and fraud leads and how they devour a State from the inside and renders it weak and vulnerable. What did Cicero think in terms of corruption? That it disheartens the citizenry, makes them overcome with anger and brews revolution… In his speech against Gaius Verres, the ancient governor of Sicily and the prime example of a crooked politician, Cicero did not mince his words: “He treats himself like the King of Bithynia, carried around in an litter by eight men, furnished with a elegant cushioned stuffed with rose petals from Malta. He sits a garland on his forehead and wears another on his neck, and by his nose a thick mesh bag of the most delicate linen and also filled with roses. In this guise he conducted his travels…
  4. One does not have to raise taxes. At least if it is not absolutely necessary. “He who governs a nation should see to it that each man keeps what is their own and that the properties of no citizens should be diminished because of the State’s work.” The principal purpose of a government consists of guaranteeing that individuals can keep safe whatever they own and that there will not be a redistribution of wealth. Yet he also condemns the concentration [of property and wealth] in the hands of a select minority. He claims that the State has an duty to offer its citizens security and basic services. “Also it is a duty for those who govern a State to guarantee wide availability of whatever is required to live.”
  5. Immigration strengthens a country. Rome became a powerful empire thanks to the reception is gave to new citizens as it extend through the Mediterranean. Even the freed slaves could have the right to vote. “I put forward the case that in all the regions of earth there exists no-one either so hostile to the Roman people through hate or disagreement, or so attached to us through loyalty and goodwill that we could not take into our fold or grant it citizenship.”
  6. No to war. If it is unjust… the Romans could justify any armed conflict that they wish to embark as much as other nations that came after them could. Yet for Cicero at least, the ideal war cannot be waged if it is conduced through volition rather than to defeat a nation or as a punishment. “How do you all feel knowing that just one order [of Mithradates] could cause a massacre of thousands of Roman citizens in a day?”
  7. The best government is a balance of powers. With no equality the free men could not live long. Without it there can not be stability. Cicero warns that it is not difficult for vice to be born from virtue and for “the king to degenerate into a despot, aristocracy into faction, and democracy into mob and rebellion.” Monitor and balance [is necessary]. So “the executive should have for itself the own outstanding qualities of a sovereign, but always conceding authority to the outstanding citizens and to the judgement and will of the majority.”
  8. The art of what is possible. He considers irresponsible the adoption of stubborn posture, since in politics everything can evolve and change. “When there is a group of people that governs a republic by din of their wealth, lineage or some other advantage, one should consider it a faction, though they wish to be known as leading citizens.” Refusing to compromise is a sign of weakness, not of strength.
  9. Be near your friends and your enemies. Our special envoy to Rome knew how to deal with an offended ally and tackle a problem in a direct and stylish way. Leaders fall away when they underestimate their friends and allies.  This makes it more important to ensure that you know what your adversary are doing. For Cicero he must build ties with his opponents. In 63B.C., five years after his consulship, his political enemies managed to exile Cicero on false charges and twenty years later Mark Anthony ordered his death. His own suppositions did not help him.
  10. Universal laws govern human conduct. He did not know the concept of natural law. He firmly believed in the existence of divine laws, altered according to no time or space, that guarantees the fundamental freedom of human beings and limit the actions of the governments. “There will be a single god who acts as a master and governor of all that is common, a creator of this right, a judge and a legislator.

*Philip Freeman’s book is also available in an English version.

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