De Legibus - Book One

Book One

The book opens with Cicero, Quintus and Atticus walking through the shaded groves at Cicero's Arpinum estate, when they happen across an old oak tree linked by legend to the general and Consul Gaius Marius, who also was a native of Arpinum. Atticus questions whether or not it still exists, to which Quintus replies that so long as people remember the spot and the associations connected with it, the tree will exist regardless of its physical presence. This brings the trio into a discussion of the porous border between fact and fable in historians' writing of the day. Cicero lets on that even in their day, many of the stories of the Roman kings, such as Numa Pompilius conversing with the severed head of his wife Egeria, were thought of as fables or parables rather than as actual incidents which happened.

Atticus takes the opportunity to prod Cicero to starting a promised work on Roman history (if such a work existed, it has not surfaced to any extent in modern times) and flatters him by pointing out that in any case, Cicero may be one of the more qualified men in Rome to do it, given the numerous flaws of Roman historians of the era. Cicero begs off, mentioning that he has his hands full with studying the law in preparation for cases. This brings us to the meat of the book, an exposition of the wellspring of the law. Atticus, as a divertissment, asks Cicero to put some of his knowledge to use right then and there and give them a discussion on the law as they walk across his estate.

To Cicero, law was not a matter of written statutes, and lists of regulations, but was a matter deeply ingrained in the human spirit, one that was an integral part of the human experience.

His reasoning goes thus:

  • Humans were created by a higher power or powers (and for the sake of argument, Cicero has the Epicurean Atticus concede the point that this higher power is engaged with the affairs of humanity).
  • This higher power which created the universe did, for reasons known to itself, endow humans with a bit of its own divinity, giving the human race the powers of speech, reason, and thought.
    • Due to this spark of divinity inside humans, they must de facto be related to the higher power in some fashion.
  • Because humans share reason with the higher power, and because this higher power is presumed to be benevolent, it follows that humans, when employing reason correctly, will likewise be benevolent.
  • This reason is what Cicero considers the law. To him, the law is whatever promotes good and forbids evil. What holds us back from upholding this absolutely is our human failings, our lusts for pleasure, wealth, status, other inconsequentials outside of virtue and honor.

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