Essential Traits for Political Regimes: Insights from Aristotle and Cicero

Categories: Cicero
About this essay

Political regimes are built upon specific mechanisms of how people interact in government. These regimes are often dependent upon some formal structure, determining who rules whom and how. However, the nature of politics is dependent, also, upon the character of the political actors. Though study of ancient political thinkers points to a sense of justice as the driving force behind success in political regimes and actors, it is not the sole determinant.

Aristotle argues in Politics that justice is essential to politics, and he is not wrong.

However, he does not go far enough. Through an understanding of Aristotle’s Politics and Cicero’s On Duties, one gains a more full image of the ideal traits for political regimes and actors: Justice, wisdom, and courage.

In Politics, Aristotle discusses the various types of political regimes and the characteristics of distinct societies that lead a certain regime to arise. In his treatise on regime types, he takes for granted that, “it is necessary first to take as the beginning point that many sorts of regimes have arisen because… all agree regarding justice and proportionate equality” (Aristotle 5.1.2). He even goes so far as to presuppose an idea of justice is essential to the formation of a political regime. His qualifier that “many sorts of regimes” have these roots can lead one to perhaps disqualify tyrannies and monarchies from this list. However, based on his presuppositions, one should include rule by the few (oligarchy and aristocracy and rule by the many (democracy and polity), as the division of power should operate according to some sense of “proportionate equality”.

Yet, Aristotle contends that justice has a variable definition. In disputes over regime type, he argues that it is necessary to grapple with “what justice is [from] both… [points of view]. For all fasten on a certain sort of justice… and do not speak of the whole justice” (3.9.1). 

Though he would surely assert that “the whole justice” is a more universal concept, hinging on equality, equitability, and virtuousness, it is left open to individual interpretation under various regime types. He suggests that the most stable regime type would be “made up of the middling elements” (5.1.16), inherently combining multiple perceptions of justice. In turn, regimes lose their stability through failings in this regard, as “polities and aristocracies are overturned above all through a deviation from justice in the regime itself” (5.7.5). The regime can be sustained through a relentless effort at justice, but risks collapse when it strays from its obligations.

Though Aristotle addresses the types and structures of regimes, he falls short of a complete understanding of all that politics encompasses. His Politics does not discuss the motives and character of individuals in politics, and therefore does not fully address that which is essential to the success of political regimes. Conversely, Cicero’s On Duties discusses at length the individual’s obligation with regard to politics and the virtues that are most necessary to fulfilling those obligations.

On Duties is, foremost, a message from Cicero to his son about the way in which a good, politically active citizen must conduct himself and the virtues he must possess and practice. It describes the character that one must have to fulfill his duty to serve the public. 

While he cites justice among these virtues, it is not the sole quality that he would want for his son. It is the virtue that is essentially interwoven among the others, and yet is counted as a distinct entity. These virtues, justice, wisdom, courage, honorableness, and seemliness, are essential to the success of a political actor. Success with regard to each pillar will in turn yield success in the political arena.

In order to achieve political success, Cicero argues that his son must be wise. Wisdom, he posits, is “the foremost of all the virtues”, but is not merely common sense, but wisdom “based upon sociability” (Cicero 1.153). In order to contribute politically, Cicero argues that one must have deep knowledge of human interaction. Without a fundamental understanding of the interactions between and among men, and the interaction between man and the gods, he cannot be considered wise, and will be unable to fully contribute. He continues to argue, “those who have devoted their entire life to learning things have, after all, managed to contribute to the benefits and advantages of mankind” (1.155), further underscoring the emphasis that he places on wisdom as a virtue.

In the life of a Roman politician, being a soldier in the army and engaging in battle during a military campaign was not uncommon. On the topic of courage, Cicero suggests that “a brave and great spirit” should not only aspire to that which is “honorable and seemly”, but also “undertake difficult and laborious tasks which endanger… life itself” (1.66). He suggests the latter as a way to earn glory, but that it is only brave to earn glory without desiring it. Bravery is essential to fulfilling one’s duty to serve in public life, especially with regard to how a politician relates to his fellow man. A politician must acknowledge that “we are not born for ourselves alone” (1.22), and must define that which is good and bad, that which we praise and fear, through a “connection with virtue” (1.5). A brave man is a leader, acting on behalf of his fellow man.

Chief among the words that recur throughout text are “seemly” and “honorable”. The two often appear side-by-side as inextricably intertwined, though seemliness is sometimes used to refer to practicing moderation. In order to act in the most seemly and honorable way, one must “[do] nothing licentious” (1.14), living a life of modesty and morality. However, it is not just with regard to personal conduct that one must act in a seemly manner. Rather, seemliness underlies each of the other virtues. With regard to wisdom, it is “bad and dishonorable… to be ignorant, to be deceived” (1.18). It is further honorable to “despise money”, as “nothing is more the mark of a mean and petty spirit” (1.68) than greed and avarice. Practicing moderation in one’s lifestyle will yield honor. Yet, in order to fully grasp Cicero’s emphasis on honor, one must consider one of his first assertions: “Everything that is honorable in life depends upon [duty’s] cultivation, and everything dishonorable upon its neglect” (1.4). Should one cultivate a sense of duty, honorableness will follow, provided one sticks to the precepts of seemly moderation.

Justice alone may be sufficient for politics. Cicero concedes that “justice without good sense will be able to do much”, and acknowledges that “good sense will avail not at all” (2.34), indicating that justice is perhaps the most important virtue for politics. Yet, he still finishes short of saying justice is the only quality necessary for politics. Moreover, ‘sufficient is not and should not be the goal of any government, nor any set of people. 

James Collins, though certainly not a political theorist, perhaps posed this notion best: “Good is the enemy of great… We don’t have great government, principally because we have good government” (Collins 1). I would argue that Collins’s statement is applicable to the virtues deemed necessary for politics. While having a just regime and just actors may be ‘good’, if they lack for the other qualities that Cicero points to, that is all they can ever aspire to be. The regime and the actors will never be ‘great. Though justice is deemed, by all parties cited in this paper, to be “enough for politics” (Nacol), without other resources, politics falls short of its idealized potential. Though Aristotle devotes significant verbiage to acknowledging the potential impracticalities of his ideal regime and the benefit of a more realistic system, it would behoove us, as politically active citizens, to always strive for the ideal. Aspiring to anything less would be an affront to the notion of greatness.

Works Cited

  1. Cicero, Marcus Tullius. On Duties. Translated by M. T. Griffin and E. M. Atkins. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  2. Collins, James C. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t. New York, NY: HarperBusiness, 2001.
  3. Nacol, Emily, and Alex Ayris. PSCI 2202 Second Writing Assignment. Autumn 2016. Vanderbilt University, Nashville.
  4. Aristotle. The Politics. Translated by Carnes Lord. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.
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Essential Traits for Political Regimes: Insights from Aristotle and Cicero. (2022, Apr 03). Retrieved from

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