The Library of Original Sources, Vol 3


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The Best Form Of Government

Then Laelius said—But you have not told us, Scipio, which of these three forms of government you yourself most approve.

Scipio.—You are right to shape your question, which of the three I most approve, for there is not one of them which I approve at all by itself, since, as I told you, I prefer that government which is mixed and composed of all these forms, to any one of them taken separately. But if I must confine myself to one of the particular forms simply and exclusively, I must confess I prefer the royal one, and praise that as the first and best. In this, which I here choose to call the primitive form of government, I find the title of father attached to that of king, to express that he watches over the citizens as over his children, and endeavors rather to preserve them in freedom than reduce them to slavery. So that it is more advantageous for those who are insignificant in property and capacity to be supported by the care of one excellent and eminently powerful man. The nobles here present themselves, who professthat they can do all this in much better style; for they say that there is much more wisdom in many than in one, and at least as much faith and equity. And, last of all, come the people, who cry with a loud voice, that they will render obedience neither to the one nor to the few; that even to brute beasts nothing is so dear as liberty; and that all men who serve either kings or nobles are deprived of it. Thus, the kings attract us by affection, the nobles by talent, the people by liberty; and in the comparison it is hard to choose the best.

Llius.—I think so, too, but yet it is impossible to dispatch the other branches of the question, if you leave this primary point undetermined.

XXXVI. Scipio.—We must, then, I suppose, imitate Aratus, who, when he prepared himself to treat of great things, thought himself in duty bound to begin with Jupiter.

Llius.—Wherefore Jupiter? and what is there in this discussion which resembles that poem?

Scipio.—Why, it serves to teach us that we cannot better commence our investigations than by invoking him, whom, with one voice, both learned and unlearned extol as the universal king of all gods and men.

How so? said Llius.

Do you, then asked Scipio, believe in nothing which is not before your eyes? whether these ideas have been established by the chiefs of states for the benefit of society, that there might be believed to exist one Universal Monarch in heaven, at whose nod (as Homer expresses it) all Olympus trembles, and that he might be accounted both king and father of all creatures; for there is great authority, and there are many witnesses, if you choose to call all many, who attest that all nations have unanimously recognized, by the decrees of their chiefs, that nothing is better than a king, since they think that all the gods are governed by the divine power of one sovereign; or if we suspect that this opinion rests on the error of the ignorant, and should be classed among the fables, let us listen to those universal testimonies of erudite men, who have, as it were, seen with their eyes those things to the knowledge of which we can hardly attain by report.

What men do you mean? said Llius.

Those, replied Scipio, who, by the investigation of nature, have arrived at the opinion that the whole universe [is animated] by a single Mind. (Text missing.)

XXXVII. But if you please, my Llius, I will bring forwardevidences, which are neither too ancient, nor in any respect barbarious.

Those, said Llius, are what I want.

Scipio.—You are aware, that it is now not four centuries since this city of ours has been without kings.

Llius.—You are correct, it is less than four centuries.

Scipio.—Well, then, what are four centuries in the age of a state or city; is it a long time?

Llius.—It hardly amounts to the age of maturity.

Scipio.—You say truly, and yet not four centuries have elapsed since there was a king in Rome.

Llius.—And he was a proud king.

Scipio.—But who was his predecessor?

Llius.—He was an admirably just one; and, indeed, we must bestow the same praise on all his predecessors, as far back as Romulus, who reigned about six centuries ago.

Scipio.—Even he, then, is not very ancient.

Llius.—No, he reigned When Greece was already becoming old.

Scipio.—Agreed. Was Romulus, then, think you, king of a barbarous people?

Llius.—Why, as to that, if we are to follow the example of the Greeks, who say that all people are either Greeks or barbarians, I am afraid that we must confess that he was a king of barbarians; but if this name belong rather to manners than to languages, then I believe the Greeks were just as barbarous as the Romans.

Then Scipio said—But with respect to the present question, we do not so much need to inquire into the nation as into the disposition. For if intelligent men, at a period so little remote, desired the governing of kings, you will confess that I am producing authorities that are neither antiquated, rude, nor insignificant.

XXXVIII. Then Llius said—I see, Scipio, that you are very sufficiently provided with authorities; but with me, as with every fair judge, authorities are worth less than arguments.

Scipio replied—Then, Llius, you shall yourself make use of an argument derived from your own senses.

Llius.—What senses do you mean?

Scipio.—The feelings which you experience when at any time you happen to feel angry at any one.

Llius.—That happens rather oftener than I could wish.

Scipio.—Well, then, when you are angry, do you permit your anger to triumph over your judgment?

No, by Hercules! said Llius, I imitate the famous Archytas of Tarentum, who, when he came to his villa, and found all its arrangements were contrary to his orders, said to his steward—"Ah! you unlucky scoundrel, I would flog you to death, if it were not that I am in a rage with you."

Capital, said Scipio. Archytas, then, regarded unreasonable anger as a kind of sedition and rebellion of nature, which he sought to appease by reflection. And so, if we examine avarice, the ambition of power or or glory, or the lusts of concupiscence and licentiousness, we shall find a certain conscience in the mind of man, which, like a king, sways by the force of counsel all the inferior faculties and propensities; and this, in truth, is the noblest portion of our nature; for when conscience reigns, it allows no resting place to lust, violence, or temerity.

Llius.—You have spoken the truth.

Scipio.—Well, then, does a mind thus governed and regulated meet your approbation?

Llius.—More than anything on earth.

Scipio.—Then you would not approve that the evil passions, which are innumerable, should expel conscience, and that lusts and animal propensities should assume an ascendancy over us?

Llius.—For my part, I can conceive nothing more wretched than a mind thus degraded, or a man animated by a soul so licentious.

Scipio.—You desire, then, that all the facilities of the mind should submit to a ruling power, and that conscience should reign over them all?

Llius.—Certainly, that is my wish.

Scipio.—How, then, can you doubt what opinion to form on the subject of the commonwealth? in which, if the state is thrown into many hands, it is very plain that there will be no presiding authority; for if power be not united, it soon comes to nothing.

XXXIX. Then Llius asked—But what difference is there, I should like to know, between the one and the many, if justice exists equally in many?

And Scipio said—Since I see, my Llius, that the authorities I have adduced have no great influence on you, I must continue to employ yourself as my witness in proof of what I am saying.

In what way, said Llius, are you going to make me again support your argument?

Scipio.—Why thus. I recollect when we were lately, at Formi,that you told your servants repeatedly to obey the orders of not more than one master only.

Llius—To be sure, those of my steward.

Scipio.—What do you at home? do you commit your affairs to the hands of many persons?

Llius.—No, I trust them to myself alone.

Scipio.—Well, in your whole establishment, is there any other master but yourself?

Llius.—Not one.

Scipio.—Then I think you must grant me that as respects the state, the government of single individuals, provided they are just, is superior to any other.

Llius.—You have conducted me to this conclusion, and I entertain very nearly that opinion.

XL. And Scipio said—You would still further agree with me, my Llius, if, omitting the common comparisons, that one pilot is better fitted to steer a ship, and a physician to treat an invalid, provided they be competent men in their respective professions, than many could be, I should come at once to more illustrious examples.

Llius.—What examples do you mean?

Scipio.—Do you observe that it was the cruelty and pride of one single Tarquin only, that made the title of king unpopular among the Romans?

Llius.—Yes, I acknowledge that.

Scipio.—You are also aware of this fact, on which I think I shall debate in the course of the coming discussion, that after the expulsion of King Tarquin, the people was transported by a wonderful excess of liberty. Then, innocent men were driven into banishment; then the estates of many individuals were pillaged, consulships were made annual, public authorities were overawed by mobs, popular appeals took place in all cases imaginable; then secessions of the lower orders ensued; and lastly, those proceedings which tended to place all powers in the hands of the populace.

Laelius.—I must confess this all too true.

All these things now, said Scipio, happened during periods of peace and tranquility, for licence is wont to prevail when there is too little to fear, as in a calm voyage, or a trifling disease. But as we observe the voyager and invalid implore the aid of some competent director, as soon as the sea grows stormy and the disease alarming! so our nation in peace and security commands, threatens, resists, appeals from, and insults itsmagistrates, but in war obeys them as strictly as kings; for public safety is after all rather more valuable than popular licence. And in the most serious wars, our countrymen have even chosen the entire command to be deposited in the hands of some single chief, without a colleague; the very name of which magistrate indicates the absolute character of his power. For though he is evidently called dictator because he is appointed (dictur), yet do we still observe him, my Llius, in our sacred books entitled (Magister Populi), the master of the people.

This is certainly the case, said Llius.

Our ancestors, therefore, said Scipio, acted wisely. (Text missing.)—On the Republic, Bk. I.



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Chicago: "The Best Form of Government," The Library of Original Sources, Vol 3 in The Library of Original Sources, ed. Oliver J. Thatcher (Milwaukee, Wisconsin: University Research Extension Co., 1907), 229–233. Original Sources, accessed September 30, 2023,

MLA: . "The Best Form of Government." The Library of Original Sources, Vol 3, in The Library of Original Sources, edited by Oliver J. Thatcher, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, University Research Extension Co., 1907, pp. 229–233. Original Sources. 30 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: , 'The Best Form of Government' in The Library of Original Sources, Vol 3. cited in 1907, The Library of Original Sources, ed. , University Research Extension Co., Milwaukee, Wisconsin, pp.229–233. Original Sources, retrieved 30 September 2023, from