“Most foolish of all is the belief that everything decreed by the institutions or laws of a particular country is just. What if the laws are the laws of tyrants? If the notorious Thirty* had wished to impose their laws on Athens, even if the entire population of Athens welcomed the tyrants’ laws, should those laws on that account be considered just? No more, in my opinion, should that law be considered just which our interrex** passed, allowing the Dictator to execute with impunity any citizen he wished, even without trial.” Marcus T. Cicero, The Laws 1. 42. in The Republic and The Laws, trans. Niall Rudd (Oxford 1998), p. 111-112.
Cicero wrote these words in his dialogue on the nature of laws and community. It includes discussions of personal morality, ethics, the State, and punishment. If one reads the text, it reveals Cicero’s familiarity with the Greek philosophical tradition including Plato, Aristotle, the Skeptics, Epicurus, and Stoics. After his examination of just punishments for criminals and the tormented consciences of the wicked, he stated the words above. In these words, Cicero powerfully asserts that the State’s decrees can be immoral and unjust. Justice transcends mere human convention because god or the gods have implanted it in human souls. He concludes:
“There is one, single, justice. It binds together human society and has been established by one, single, law. The law is right reason in commanding and forbidding. A man who does not acknowledge this law is unjust, whether it has been written down anywhere or not. If justice is a matter of obeying the written laws and customs of particular communities, and if, as our opponents*** allege, everything is to be measured by self-interest, then a person will ignore and break the laws when he can, if he thinks it will be to his own advantage. This is why justice is completely non-existent if it is not derived from nature, and if that kind of justice which is established to serve self-interest is wrecked by that same self-interest. And that is why every virtue is abolished if nature is not going to support justice.” Ibid. 43., p. 112.
*The Thirty were pro-Spartan tyrants who seized power in Athens in 404 BC. They established a dictatorship then imprisoned and executed many people without due process or trial.
**Interrex was the position of interim ruler in the Roman Republic. Cicero is referring to the dictate that made Sulla a dictator in 82 BC. Sulla executed thousands of people without trial.