Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Pursuit of Happiness: Cicero and the Declaration of Independence, Part 2

CICERO WAS INVOKED BY THOMAS JEFFERSON in his letter to Richard Henry Lee* as one of the classical sources that fed or informed the Declaration of Independence as a whole, and we have focused upon the notion of "pursuit of happiness" in particular. In a prior posting we looked at Cicero's On Moral Ends.** In that posting it is clear that Cicero advanced a Platonic/Aristotelian/Stoic amalgam of eudaimonistic ethic, one based upon virtues and recognizing the existence of a natural law, an objective, non-conventional moral law that governed all men and that was discoverable by man by the use of right reason. In this posting, we shall focus on Cicero's dialogue On Laws or De Legibus and what it says about happiness from the perspective of the law.***


What Cicero had written about personal happiness in his On Moral Ends he consistently applies to the happiness of the State in his On Laws. In his On Laws, however, he clearly links his jurisprudential theory to participation in the eternal law of God. Our experience of law in general, and the act of human legislation in particular, is a participation in a divine thing: a divine ordering of reason. Law is therefore not an invention of man, but a gift of the gods:

[L]aw was not brought up by human minds; that it is not some piece of legislation by popular assemblies; but it is something eternal which rules the entire universe through the wisdom of its commands and prohibitions. Therefore, they said, that first and final law is the mind of God who compels or forbids all things by reason. From that cause, the law which the gods have given to the human race has rightly been praised: it is the reason and mind of a wise being, suited to command and prohibition.

De leg., II.8.

The link between human law and divine law is reason, for reason is the life blood of the law and the quality or characteristic which is most divine in man.
And, therefore, since nothing is better than reason, and it is found both in humans and in God, reason forms the first bond between human and God. And those who share reason also share right reason; and since that is law, we humans must be considered to be closely allied to gods by law.
De leg., I.23.

Law, reason, nature, justice and divinity are all intertwined, and in Cicero's view, it would be wrong to separate law from reason, law from nature, law from justice, law from God, as it is apparent that all these come very close to being threads in one single rope:

Law is the highest reason, rooted in nature, which commands things that must be done and prohibits the opposite. When this same reason is secured and established [perfected] in the human mind, it is law. . . . .

[L]aw is a power of nature, it is the mind and reason of the prudent man, it distinguishes justice and injustice.

De leg., I.18, 19.

Human law, Cicero concludes, must be informed by this law above all laws, this eternal law which, for man, is found in his reasonable nature, and which informs him of all which is good and which is just, and allows him to distinguish that which is good and just from that which is evil and unjust:
Law, therefore, is the distinction between just and unjust things, produced in accordance with nature, the most ancient and first of all things, in accordance with which human laws are constructed which punish the wicked while defending and protecting the good.
De leg., II.13.

Indeed, it may be said that the motto of Cicero might be: "I will seek the roots of justice in nature," Repetam stirpem iuris a natura. De leg., I.20. Justice is, for Cicero, clearly not a matter of mere convention. At its foundation, justice is something that is found in the nature of things. Indeed, anyone who thinks that justice is merely conventional is nothing less than a madman:

[T]here is no justice at all if it is not by nature, and the justice set up on the basis of utility is uprooted by that same utility: if nature will not confirm justice, all virtues will be eliminated. . . . To think that these things are a matter of opinion, not fixed in nature is the mark of a madman.

De leg., I.42-45.

We ought perhaps to close with that classic paean of praise to the natural law found in the De republica of Cicero. Although the majority of that work had been lost, and so unavailable to Jefferson, and parts of it have only recently be re-discovered in the last century, one part of this work remained available, and that was the part of it containing the famous Dream of Scipio, where the need for eternal life was urged as importance for the maintenance of public order. In that text, however, was the classic encomium for the natural law. There can be no doubt that Jefferson would have been familiar with it:
For there is a true law: right reason. It is in conformity with nature, is diffused among all men, and is immutable and eternal; its orders summon to duty; its prohibitions turn away from offense . . . . To replace it with a contrary law is a sacrilege; failure to apply even one of its provisions is forbidden; no one can abrogate it entirely.
De rep., III.33.

To the extent Jefferson referenced Cicero's books of "public right," in his Declaration of Independence and in its phraseology "pursuit of happiness," it is indisputable that he envisioned happiness as something that is achieved by the following of the natural law, a law that participates in the eternal law of God, a law that is discovered by us, not made by us. A law that is learned through reason and which inerrantly leads us to true justice, to the good, to right. It is one acquired by virtue, and one which encompassed moral absolutes. Ultimately, this natural law was immutable, unchanging, constant, inabrogable.

*See Pursuit of Happiness: The Declaration of Independence's Intent.
**See Pursuit of Happiness: Cicero and the Declaration of Independence, Part 1.
***We have devoted significant time in prior postings to analyzing Cicero's De Legibus as well as Cicero's De republica (
On the Commonwealth or Republic)).

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