A revolutionary doctrine? Cicero's natural right teaching in Mably and Burke

Journal Article (Review;Journal)

Why and how did (and do) political thinkers with radically different political agendas invest in Cicero's conservative political philosophy? What is it about Cicero's political thought that inspires radicals and conservatives alike? This essay explores these questions through a case study of the reception of the central Ciceronian political doctrine of natural right in the revolutionary writings of Gabriel Bonnot de Mably and Edmund Burke. The former's Des droits et des devoirs du citoyen was an important revolutionary work that anticipated key elements of the French Revolution; the latter's Reflections on the Revolution in France constituted the major conservative critique of the French Revolution. Despite their ostensibly different aims, I argue that these works reveal remarkably similar interpretations of Cicero's doctrine of natural right: it was flexible enough that a prudent statesman could adapt it to different circumstances, but it still contained revolutionary potential. Burke, the consummate rhetorician, attempted to domesticate Cicero's teaching by obscuring its revolutionary potential while utilizing aspects that are friendlier to the established political order. The case study suggests that the apparent bivalency of the reception of Cicero's political thought may result from the amplification of a bivalency within his thought itself. © 2014 The Author 2014.

Full Text

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Atkins, JW

Published Date

  • January 1, 2014

Published In

Volume / Issue

  • 6 / 2

Start / End Page

  • 177 - 197

Electronic International Standard Serial Number (EISSN)

  • 1759-5142

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

  • 1759-5134

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

  • 10.1093/crj/clt031

Citation Source

  • Scopus