Alan Keyes
Lessons from the rise of Roman tyranny
Self-government of the heart makes self-government of the people possible
By Alan Keyes
November 15, 2016

According to Plutarch, before Rome's greatest orator, Cicero, began his ultimately ill-starred political career, he consulted the oracle at Delphi. He asked "how he should attain most glory." Came the answer: "by making his own genius and not the opinion of the people the guide of his life." Yet during the tumults by which the Caesars rose to power, Cicero was fated to play his part in events that allowed Octavius Caesar to construct the first institutions of Rome's imperial government.

Of course, Cicero's greatest glory was only revealed in the light of events long after Rome's political wars. He greatly influenced the course of historic human events, including the emergence of the republican form of government, of, by, and for the people of the United States. That form of government may or may not redound to their glory in generations to come. That may remain to be determined, like Cicero's promised glory, in view of lessons to be drawn from it by people long hence – people eager to understand what, in historic terms, they have only recently rediscovered. If it is accurate, the account those future students read of the history of America's republic will probably lead them to appreciate the irony of Cicero's influence upon the thinking that informed the Constitution of the United States.

The demagogic character of politics in his day made it difficult for Cicero to follow the Delphic oracle's warning to disdain the opinion of the people. Try as he might, he could not defend the institutions of the senatorial republic against the rising imperial power of the Caesars. That power relied for its forcefulness on the unruly passions of the people. But on account of the rational inclination of his own mind, respect for the rule of law – rooted in a natural sense of propriety, right, and justice – preoccupied Cicero's political thought.

As one who studied Plato and Aristotle, Cicero appreciated the possibility that piety (which is to say reverence for the powers made manifest in natural things) was critical to any effort to contend with unruly human passions. But he lived in a political environment in which one could not rely on the distinction between human powers and the transcendent powers of nature, represented by the gods. Conquering heroes might be so worshiped by the masses that they became as gods, whose worship ultimately demanded absolute loyalty, exemplified and enforced by human sacrifice.

Given the demagogic reality of politics in his day, Cicero could not prudently decline the challenge of working with the unruly forces that decided political issues at the time. He had to cater to the opinion of the people. And he had somehow to deal with the demagogues who became the focal points of the people's passions. These were the leaders, capable of directing the destructive energy popular passion produced. In the end, Cicero tried to play one such demagogue, Octavius, the legal heir of the first Caesar, against the natural heir apparent of Caesar's military prowess (Marc Antony).

But both demagogues owed their first allegiance to fear, inspired by the military power that created their opportunity to rule. So, when Marc Antony moved to exact implacable (and therefore awe-inspiring) revenge against Cicero, for the opposition the orator had sustained against him, Octavius was content to let Cicero perish. This he did even though Octavius had been the beneficiary of Cicero's influence among Rome's patricians. But Cicero's eloquence was of material importance to Octavius only so long as reason and the laws still played a role in swaying the allegiance of his cohort of patricians. Once fear prevailed as the decisive factor, Marc Antony was not the only would-be tyrant threatened by Cicero's ingenious ability to mobilize piety as an effective antidote to fear – or benefited by the striking conclusion, proven by his demise, that his genius offered no protection against the now unbridled forces of Rome's triumphant imperators.

America's prevailing founders often referred to the genius of the American people. Like Cicero's, this genius had much to do with a certain understanding of piety and the role it played in mitigating the effect of unruly human passion, thereby helping to secure the rule of laws. But the piety of the American people took account of the transcendent character of the power nature made manifest. It did so in a way that made that power accessible to ordinary men and women. They could therefore aspire to heroic deeds for the sake of the rule of law, rather than as fodder for ambitious rulers disdainful of its constraints.

This was the key that opened the way to successful self-government – of, by, and for the people – in which the force of the people's ordinary ambitions was to be mobilized against the inordinate ambition of would-be tyrants. The tyrant's ambition pushes passion beyond the bounds of human reason, in order to deploy power without respect for the bonds and constraints of human propriety. It exploits our nature so as to torture and annihilate it.

Though it is tragically forgotten these days, it was the special understanding of humanity made possible by the ministry of Jesus Christ that allowed America's founders to appreciate the error Cicero made when he sought to fight tyranny with tyranny, validating the principle of fear by which tyrants rise to invincible power. They sought to bring the naturally more modest ambition of ordinary people into play. And they did so by means that invited capable men and women to become the focal points not of the people's irascible passions, but of their decent hopes and aspirations.

Because they are disposed to trust in the indwelling presence of God, through Jesus Christ, people of Christian faith live with the knowledge that human nature already transcends itself, by and in the intention and promise of God for our life in His Kingdom. We therefore respect God's provisions for human nature, made manifest in the laws that define and govern it. We do so in order to reflect the love, consistent with God's infinite being, by which He becomes the substance of our own. To be as He would have us be is therefore not a constraint upon our nature, but the very freedom of God by which it is made to exist. It becomes the perfection of our way of being, as we accept the perfect gift of love that is God's being with and within us, in Christ.

Governed by this acceptance of love, our ambition follows the path that nourishes our life, which is the purpose of God made manifest. We are therefore disposed to do all that may become humanity, and eschew all that degrades and disgraces it, in the eyes of God. Not on account of the law, but as evidence of God's account of it, we accept the rule by which each is served and all are preserved. At least, this was our goal before we abandoned ourselves to pursue the error that cost Cicero his life. Why have we forgotten the prudence Christ's Apostles learned from Christ's example:
    Finally, be all similarly disposed, with sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart and humble disposition. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary bless, for to this you were called that you may obtain a blessing. (1 Peter: 8-11)

This is the self-government of the heart, as subject to the mind and heart of Christ. Without it, the self-government of the people is inconceivable, except as a marker along the way that returns to ancient tyranny. Departing from it now, we meanly let go the liberty wherewith Christ can make us free.

To see more articles by Dr. Keyes, visit his blog at and his commentary at and

© Alan Keyes


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Alan Keyes

Dr. Keyes holds the distinction of being the only person ever to run against Barack Obama in a truly contested election – featuring authentic moral conservatism vs. progressive liberalism – when they challenged each other for the open U.S. Senate seat from Illinois in 2004... (more)


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