Tag: Philip Freeman

How to Run a Country: Ten Lessons for Modern Leaders


“I seem to read the history of all ages and nations in every page —
and especially the history of our country for forty years past.
Change the names and every anecdote will be applicable to us.”
John Adams on Middleton’s Life of Cicero


how to run a country

Marcus Tullius Cicero was marginalized in the Roman senate. Frustrated without real power, Cicero began to write about how government should be run.

As Caesar conquered Gaul and subsequently crossed the Rubicon, plunging Rome into civil war, Cicero was writing some of the great works of political philosophy. While an accomplished orator and lawyer, Cicero’s most important achievement was his political career and writings.

He asked questions that still resonate today: What is the foundation of a just government? What kind of rule is better? How should a leader behave?

At the time of his writings, his political influence had declined. He wrote to a friend: “I used to sit on the deck and hold the rudder of the state in my hands; now there’s scarcely room for me in the bilge.”

“People in power don’t give it up easily.”
— Warren Buffett


How to Run a Country: An Ancient Guide for Modern Leaders, a book by Philip Freeman, is a short anthology that provides a small sample of Cicero’s ideas that proves the uses and abuses of power have changed little.

“For those who will listen,” Freeman writes, “Cicero still has important lessons to teach. Among these are:

1. There are universal laws that govern the conduct of human affairs.

Cicero would never have thought of this concept of natural law in terms used later by Christians, but he firmly believed that divine rules independent of time and place guarantee fundamental freedoms to everyone and constrain the way in which governments should behave. As the American Founding Fathers, careful students of Cicero, wrote in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

2. The best form of government embraces a balance of powers.

Even the most noble kings will become tyrants if their reign is unchecked, just as democracy will degrade into mob rule if there are no constraints on popular power. A just government must be founded on a system of checks and balances. Beware the leader who sets aside constitutional rules claiming the need for expediency or security.

3. Leaders should be of exceptional character and integrity.

Those who would govern a country must possess great courage, ability, and resolve. True leaders always put the interest of their nation above their own. As Cicero says, governing a country is like steering a ship, especially when the storm winds begin to blow. If the captain is not able to hold a steady course, the voyage will end in disaster for all.

4. Keep your friends close— and your enemies closer.

Leaders fail when they take their friends and allies for granted. Never neglect your supporters, but even more important, always make sure you know what your enemies are doing. Don’t be afraid to reach out to those who oppose you. Pride and stubbornness are luxuries you cannot afford.

5. Intelligence is not a dirty word.

Those who govern a country should be the best and the brightest of the land. As Cicero says, if leaders don’t have a thorough knowledge of what they are talking about, their speeches will be a silly prattle of empty words and their actions will be dangerously misguided.

6. Compromise is the key to getting things done.

Cicero writes that in politics it is irresponsible to take an unwavering stand when circumstances are always evolving. There are times to stand one’s ground, but consistently refusing to yield is a sign of weakness, not strength.

7. Don’t raise taxes— unless you absolutely have to.

Every country needs revenue in order to function, but Cicero declares that a primary purpose of a government is to assure that individuals keep what belongs to them, not to redistribute wealth. On the other hand, he condemns the concentration of such wealth into the hands of the few and asserts that it is the duty of a country to provide fundamental services and security to its citizens.

8. Immigration makes a country stronger.

Rome grew from a small village to a mighty empire by welcoming new citizens into its ranks as it spread across the Mediterranean. Even former slaves could become full voting members of society. New citizens bring new energy and ideas to a country.

9. Never start an unjust war.

Of course the Romans, just like modern nations, believed they could justify any war they wanted to wage, but Cicero at least holds up the ideal that wars begun from greed rather than defense or to protect a country’s honor are inexcusable.

10. Corruption destroys a nation.

Greed, bribery, and fraud devour a country from the inside, leaving it weak and vulnerable. Corruption is not merely a moral evil, but a practical menace that leaves citizens at best disheartened, at worst seething with anger and ripe for revolution.

If you’re looking to learn more beyond How to Run a Country, start with Political Writings, The Republic and the Laws, The Nature of the Gods, and On Obligations. I also very much enjoyed Anthony Everitt’s Cicero.

Persuasion — Ancient Wisdom for Modern Leaders


We’re used to email and powerpoint so it’s hard for us to imagine the important role oratory played in the ancient world. In those days speaking to a crowd was essential. “But when Cicero talks about an orator,” Philip Freeman writes in his most recent book How to Run a Country: An Ancient Guide for Modern Leaders, “he means so much more than someone who gives speeches. To him an orator was above all a statesman who was able to express the power of an idea to the public based on knowledge and wisdom.”

Cicero writes:

Indeed oratory involves much more than people realize and depends on a wide range of skills and abilities. The fact that so few are good at it is not due to a shortage of eager learners or teachers or even a lack of natural talent. There are an infinite variety of interesting cases available, and the rewards of success can be splendid. Why then are there so few who succeed? Because an orator must master an enormous number of difficult subjects.

If a person has not acquired a deep knowledge of all the necessary disciplines involved in oratory, his speech will be an endless prattle of empty and silly words. An orator must be able to choose the right language and arrange his words carefully. He must also understand the full range of emotions that nature has given us, for the ability to rouse or calm a crowd is the greatest test of both the understanding and the practical ability of a speaker. An orator also needs a certain charm and wit, the cultured ways of a gentleman, and the ability to strike fiercely when attacking an opponent. In addition he needs a subtle grace and sophistication. Finally, an orator must have a keen mind capable of remembering a vast array of relevant precedents and examples from history, along with a thorough knowledge of the law and civil statutes.

I’m sure I don’t need to say much about the actual delivery of a speech. This includes the way in which an orator carries himself, how he uses gestures, the expressions on his face, the use of his voice, and making sure he is not monotonous. Pay special attention to that last one. You can see how important it is by looking at less serious art, by which I mean acting. For even though actors work very hard on their expressions, voices, and movements, there are precious few I would want to watch for long.

What shall I say about memory, that treasure house of all we know? Our minds hold all the words and ideas we use when thinking and speaking. Without a sharp memory, even the most carefully planned speech will be worthless.

So you can see why true orators are a rare breed. They must command a wide range of skills, though mastering even one of them would be considered quite an achievement. So let us urge our sons and anyone else whose reputation and glory matter to us to appreciate the magnitude and complexity of this task. They must not suppose they can become fine orators simply by following rules or finding a good teacher or going through some common exercises. They might have the ability to achieve their goal, but they must do much more.

I believe that no one can become a truly great orator unless he has a solid foundation in the whole range of human knowledge. This knowledge will ground and enrich everything he has to say. If an orator doesn’t have this kind of background and learning, all he says will be vain and childish. Of course I’m not saying that an orator has to know everything, especially amid the hustle and bustle of modern life, but I am convinced that anyone who calls himself an orator must be able to competently handle any subject that comes his way, so that both the form and substance of his speeches will be of high quality. . . .

What could be more pleasing to the ear and to the mind than a beautiful speech adorned with wise thoughts and words carefully chosen? Think of the amazing power a single orator has to move an audience, to sway the verdict of jurors, or to shape the opinion of the senate. What could be more noble, more generous, more beautiful? An orator has the power to rescue supplicants, to lift the downtrodden, to bring deliverance to those in need, to free the oppressed from danger, and to stand up for the rights of citizens. . . .

I declare that the highest achievement of oratory is that it alone was able to bring together scattered people into one place, to start a wild and intemperate race on the road to human civilization, to establish communities, and to furnish them with laws that guarantee rights and justice. I could go on forever, but instead I will simply say that when a wise and moderate orator speaks well, he brings not only honor to himself, but also salvation to his fellow citizens and indeed to his whole country.

In addition to How to Run a Country, Freemon also selected and translated How To Win An Election.