Virtue and irrationality in republican politics : Cicero’s critique of popular philosophy
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This dissertation examines the political thought of Cicero in order to shed light on the question of the extent to which politics is or can be made rational. Much of modern political science and policy-making treats citizens as calculating pursuers of interests and preferences, if not as consistently rational. But this view has been powerfully challenged by evidence that human beings are far less adept at the determination and pursuit of our preferences than we believe ourselves to be. As a result, political scientists and policy-makers alike have begun to grapple with the question of how regimes committed to self-government ought to address the limits of our rational capacity, not only in the crafting of particular policies, but also in the rethinking of foundational and constitutional principles and institutions. By considering Cicero’s presentation of virtue and republican politics together with his analysis of the popular philosophical schools that were widely influential in his day, I show that Cicero recognizes and reflects on the pervasive irrationality in human decision-making. Like our modern critics of the irrationality of republicanism, the popular philosophical schools of Cicero’s day both deprecated politics for its inherent unreasonableness and sought to make the world as they experienced it conform to strict rules of reason. Through a reading of Cicero’s evaluation and critique of the schools in De Finibus, De Natura Deorum, and De Officiis, this dissertation aims to shed light not only on his account of the limits of reason in the political arena and the danger of attempting to overcome them, but also on his insistence that the irrational parts of human nature are the source of much that is beneficial in republican politics. Only by understanding this aspect of Cicero’s thought can we understand his reflections on the virtues of republicanism.