Did Cicero writing in 44AD predict the rise of libertarianism and Donald Trump?

Did Cicero writing in 44AD predict the rise of libertarianism and Donald Trump?

In his dialogue De Re Publica (The Republic) Cicero wrote an eerily prescient description of the libertarian movement. In this passage, the character of Scipio quotes from Plato’s Republic. The context is a private gathering where the group try to understand the best form of government. Scipio describes what happens when the people have complete power.

“Therefore, he concludes, “the final result of this boundless licence is that the minds of the citizens become so squeamish and sensitive that, if the authority of government is exercised in the smallest degree, they become angry and cannot bear it. On this account they begin to neglect the laws as well and so finally are utterly without master of any kind.” (De Re Publica Book 1 XLIII 67)[1]

The desire for licence leads the multitude to shake off the rule of law.[2] They will follow their appetites and passions, whatever the mob wants they get no matter the consequence. The consequence from such licence is not more freedom, it leads to tyranny.

We want to be free so let’s elect a tyrant to protect our freedom

Scipio departs from Plato for his own understanding of the situation. He describes how a tyrant emerges from this excessive licence. The passage could easily describe Donald Trump or even Vladimir Putin.

“This extreme liberty gives birth to a tyrant and the utterly unjust and cruel servitude of the tyranny. For out of such an ungoverned, or rather, untamed, populace someone is usually chosen leader against those leading citizens who have already been subjected to persecution and cast down from their leadership—some bold and depraved man, who shamelessly harasses often times even those who have deserved well of the State, and curries favour with the people by bestowing on them the property of others as well as his own.” (De Re Publica Book 1 XLIV 68)

The situation he describes in 44 AD seems to resemble what is happening in both Russia and the United States. What is striking is the way that bold and depraved men emerged in Russia and America.

A bodyguard as a sign of a love of tyranny

In all cases, the leading men who sought tyranny, or praised tyranny, were also surrounded by armed guards. What Cicero suggests is that leading figures that have bodyguards do so to the extent that they desire tyranny.

“To such a man, because he has reason to be afraid if he remains a private citizen, official power is given and continually renewed; he is also surrounded by armed guards[3], as was Pisistratus at Athens; and finally he emerges as a tyrant over the very people who have raised him to power.” (De Re Publica Book 1 XLIV 68)

What is consistent is that leaders like Trump or Putin emerges when one political faction wants to have revenge against another. Such leaders exploit anger, resentment, and fear, by promising their followers they will punish those who create their problems. In the United States, Trump claims that he will make America Great Again. To do this, he will stop those who undermined America’s greatness. Yet, Americans ought to be suspicious of his claims.

Voters may want revenge, but at the cost of their own freedom?

The fable of the horse and the stag is a salutary tale for today’s voters. If you want to punish your political opponents [insert the faction you despise] be careful it is not at the cost of your own freedom.

“The horse agreed to the terms and the man mounted him, but instead of obtaining vengeance on the stag, the horse from that time became the man’s slave. So then,” said he, “do you take care lest, in your desire to avenge yourselves on the enemy, you be treated like the horse. You already have the bit, since you have chosen a dictator; if you give him a body-guard and allow him to mount you, you will at once be the slaves of Phalaris.”[4]

As Cicero explained, a fearful people intoxicated by licence will turn to a tyrant. They will accept his promises of protection to ensure their continued licence.

Will America turn to Trump?

[1] Cicero Volume XVI Loeb Classical Library 213 On the Republic. On the Laws Translated by Clinton W. Keyes 1928 DOI: 10.4159/DLCL.marcus_tullius_cicero-de_re_publica.1928

[2] Lincoln warned America that it had to remain faithful to its civil religion, obedience to the laws, or it would be destroyed from within. In its zeal for freedom, the Libertarian movement encourages a disdain for government and the laws which encourages political licentiousness. http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/lyceum.htm

[3] It is worth noting that Roger Ailes goes with an armed security detail and his home is protected by armed guards. One wonders if the need for armed guards reflects his sympathy if not desire for tyranny.

“Ailes begins each workday buffered by the elaborate private security detail that News Corp. pays to usher him from his $1.6 million home in New Jersey to his office in Manhattan. (His country home – in the aptly named village of Garrison – is phalanxed by empty homes that Ailes bought up to create a wider security perimeter.) Traveling with the Chairman is like a scene straight out of 24. A friend recalls hitching a ride with Ailes after a power lunch: “We come out of the building and there’s an SUV filled with big guys, who jump out of the car when they see him. A cordon is formed around us. We’re ushered into the SUV, and we drive the few blocks to Fox’s offices, where another set of guys come out of the building to receive ‘the package.’ The package is taken in, and I’m taken on to my destination. ”Ailes is certain that he’s a top target of Al Qaeda terrorists. “You know, they’re coming to get me,” he tells friends. “I’m fully prepared. I’ve taken care of it.” (Ailes, who was once arrested for carrying an illegal handgun in Central Park, now carries a licensed weapon.) Inside his blast-resistant office at Fox News headquarters, Ailes keeps a monitor on his desk that allows him to view any activity outside his closed door. Once, after observing a dark-skinned man in what Ailes perceived to be Muslim garb, he put Fox News on lockdown. “What the hell!” Ailes shouted. “This guy could be bombing me!” The suspected terrorist turned out to be a janitor. “Roger tore up the whole floor,” recalls a source close to Ailes. “He has a personal paranoia about people who are Muslim – which is consistent with the ideology of his network.””


For a counter argument consider

Allegation: “Ailes had two bodyguards escorting him into the building.”

Ailes: “I don’t have two bodyguards, I have one part-time bodyguard.”


However, FOX appears to attract special NYPD attention depending on threat information.


[4] Aristotle. Rhetoric Book 2 Chapter 20 section 5 http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0060:book=2:chapter=20&highlight=body%2Cguard

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
This entry was posted in corruption, justice, republicanism, statesmanship and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.