young Cicero reading (Tymon Zhou, Seasoned Writing Salt & Iron)

What Has Skepticism to Do with Conservatism?

Skepticism and conservatism are often at odds. If one acknowledges the limitations of knowledge, why would one defend a troubled system? The great Roman orator, statesman and philosopher Cicero gives us an example of a conservative skeptic, however. He compared himself to a single voice and argued in terms of probabilities, yet he raised his voice clearly in defense of a constitution that he compared to a fading picture. Thus, Cicero demonstrates how skepticism and conservatism can be reconciled. 

The Skepticism of Cicero

Skepticism comes in many varieties. In the context of classical philosophy, academic skepticism was the most influential. It examined a topic from two distinct angles and determined what conclusion was most probable. If an equal amount of evidence supported both propositions, skeptics would temporarily suspend their judgment.  

Cicero exemplifies the tendencies of academic skepticism, particularly because he admits his limitations: “I’ll speak as a mere mortal, one of many, developing likely arguments through the use of reasonable inference.”

Cicero’s skepticism is best demonstrated by his religious views. In On The Nature of The Gods, he chooses to present two rival philosophies: Epicureanism and Stoicism. Each school of thought is represented by a spokesman. The Epicurean argues against traditional piety, preferring a materialistic approach. The Stoic, on the other hand, argues for a divine providence. Finally, a third party asserts that he believes in the gods based on tradition, but challenges some of the Stoic’s assumptions.

Which does Cicero favor? He does not directly declare it, but instead suggests that he finds the Stoic position more plausible. Similarly, when contemplating the existence of an afterlife, Cicero remains uncertain, stating that he is inclined to believe in some future existence. These conclusions demonstrate Cicero’s skepticism. He challenges assumptions but appears unwilling to unequivocally commit to a position. Given his skepticism on the most fundamental questions, one might expect a similar uncertainty in his political philosophy.

Cicero’s Conservative Commitment

Time limits our ability to locate a historical figure on the contemporary political spectrum, as political climates shift dramatically. Cicero can nonetheless claim a place as a conservative, if we define conservative according to the Cambridge dictionary: emphasizing the importance of preserving traditional cultural and religious values, and opposing change. Cicero understood himself as preserving traditional cultural values and defending the Roman republic’s institutions through his philosophy.

In the Republic, Cicero laments the deterioration of the constitution:

“Our generation, after inheriting our political organization like a magnificent picture now fading with age, not only neglected to restore its original colors but did not even bother to ensure that it retained its basic form, and as it were, its faintest outlines.”

The Republic seeks to demonstrate the strength of the Roman constitution by arguing that it successfully incorporates elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. It then expounds on the constitution’s history, describing the emergence of a republican system after the Romans overthrew their monarchy. 

The Republic’s account of Roman history does not demonize Roman monarchs despite Cicero’s arguments against monarchy. Cicero praises Romulus for setting Rome on a trajectory towards glory, and Numa for establishing Roman religious rituals. When Cicero relates how the Roman monarchy was overthrown, he emphasizes the continuity of Roman politics. Investing substantial authority in consuls preserved the advantages of monarchy; limiting the consuls’ terms of office removed its disadvantages. Thus, the Romans acquired a mixed constitution through gradual reforms rather than the designs of revolutionary radicals. Overall the Republic leaves an impression of gratitude for the Roman constitution and the necessity of defending it.

Reconciliation in the Roman Constitution

Why should a skeptic be so enamored with a decaying system? Typically skeptics challenge established authorities and traditional approaches. Machiavelli, a quintessential skeptic, engages in philosophical iconoclasm by rejecting the classical understanding of leadership. He proposes a new theory arguing that what is right and what is expedient are often in conflict.

Someone like Cicero could easily have decided that Caesarism would resolve Roman social ills. Harsh political realities tend to produce radicalism. Under these conditions, a skeptic might conclude existing political institutions must be overthrown. One can imagine a Cicero who argued for autocracy instead of a Cicero who argued for preserving the Roman republic’s constitution. In an era where ruthlessness was becoming commonplace, why did he reach a different conclusion? Why did Cicero persist in his conservativism?

Cicero states that practical experience must guide statesmanship along with philosophy. His Republic is not based on hypotheticals. Instead, he relies on Roman history to illustrate the necessity of a mixed constitution. This account emphasizes that no one individual statesman produced the Roman constitution: it is the creation of multiple minds. Each individual statesman applied intellect and reason to lawmaking, but the Romans developed their constitution through experience rather than an outburst of intellectual creativity. 

The strength of the mixed constitution is its recognition of the respective limitations of the theories supporting monarchies, aristocracies, and democracies. Each theory possesses disadvantages which experience and reasoning illuminate. A skeptical approach demonstrates the necessity of a mixed constitution.

Moreover, Cicero states that philosophy itself has limitations. While he exults in the capacity of the human intellect and reason, he does not believe that philosophy alone can lead one to success in politics. Properly understood, philosophy provides a unique and powerful instrument, but it must be accompanied with experience and a knowledge of other subjects to operate at its fullest extent. 

Cicero attributes his own political success not to his understanding of philosophy alone, but his command of law and history. Consequently, Cicero’s skepticism can be reconciled with his conservatism as he relies on practical experience and history to support reason when he is uncertain. In other words, Cicero’s conservatism was not dogmatic. He could acknowledge the advantages of political systems other than Rome’s. His conservatism was not built on a simple sense of nostalgia, but a product of deliberate intellectual investigation. 

Author: Tymon Zhou

Tymon Zhou attends the Elon University School of Law, having graduated with a political science major from Brigham Young University. He enjoys reading and playing piano in his spare time. He writes to explore and refine his thinking.

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