Conservatism and the Crisis of the Republic

This is an extract from Cicero’s legal defense of Sestius, delivered in 56 BCE. Cicero is often considered to be the founding father of ‘republicanism’ but has influenced the likes of Edmund Burke and Friedrich von Hayek. In the speech, he articulates the conservative program for defending the republic against ‘populist’ reform. The names and the policies may be different, but the underlying issues remain the same:

‘Lucius Cassius moved his law concerning the secret ballot: the people thought its liberty was at stake in its passage; the foremost men of the community disagreed, fearing that the masses’ rashness, exercised in wanton use of the ballot, endangered the well-being of the best sort of men. Tiberius Gracchus moved his agrarian law: it found favour with the people because it seemed to set the fortunes of poorer citizens on a more stable footing; the best sort of men struggled against it, because they saw it as a way of stirring up discord and judged that the commonwealth would be stripped of its defenders if the rich were dislodged from their long-time holdings. Gaius Gracchus moved his grain law: a delightful business for the plebs, for it generously provided sustenance free of toil; patriots, by contrast, fought back, because they reckoned that the plebs would be seduced from the ways of hard work and become slothful, and they saw that the treasury would be drained dry.’

Cicero, Pro Sestio 103

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