Ancient and modern

What Cicero knew that David Davis doesn't

Security vs liberty. Home win

14 February 2015

9:00 AM

14 February 2015

9:00 AM

The MP David Davis has lamented that the British seem to prefer laws that protect their security rather than guard their liberty. But the first duty of the state is to protect its citizens. If it could not do that, argued Thomas Hobbes, citizens had the right to disobey.

The Latin for state is res publica, ‘the people’s property/business/affairs’, and the Roman statesman Cicero took the view that the res publica was best served by laws whose sole aim was the republic’s ‘security and common interests’ (salus atque utilitas rei publicae). The 17th-century thinkers Hobbes, Locke and Spinoza and 18th-century Americans such as the key republican ‘founding father’ John Adams eagerly took up Cicero’s formulation.


But what does salus actually mean? Hobbes used it to justify state control, Adams independence from British rule. But in the famous Roman formulation salus populi suprema lex esto (‘the security of the people will be the highest law’), the context makes it clear that salus refers to the soldiers’ absolute priority — the protection of citizens and state that only soldiers could provide in times of military crisis.

As for libertas, during the Roman republic that meant equality before the law and protection from abuse by officials; for the elite, it also meant freedom to compete for high office on equal terms (no dictators). Speech did not come into it — unless it threatened public order or state security.

Thanks to the internet and a global world, threats from free speech to the salus of our state are far more severe. They must therefore meet with a more severe response. Since we do not want a Hobbesian solution — people taking the law into their own hands because the state will not protect them — the question becomes: how far can the law protect us? Lawyers assent to the proposition fiat iustitia, ruat caelum: ‘let justice be done, though the heavens fall in’ (1602). But one needs life to enjoy liberty; and if the heavens do fall in because the law does not deliver security, where is the liberty (let alone justice) in that?

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


Show comments
  • WirralBill

    “Thanks to the internet and a global world, threats from free speech to the salus of our state are far more severe.”

    Threats to liberty come from those who would deny us free speech. What the internet has done is put boneheads in medieval countries in contact with countries where free speech is, and has historically been, valued. Why should a Danish cartoonist using his right to free speech in a free country fear a nutjob in some authoritarian, medievalist, pseudo-religious hellhole?

    To curtail free speech in the name of liberty, therefore, as the author seems to suggest, represents little more than surrender to terrorists, authoritarians and totalitarians.

    It is *actions* that threaten the state and our liberties, not words

  • expatrius

    At least DD is still relatively intact after a long career in politics. I seem to to remember that Cicero ended up with the hands that wrote those words and the tongue which spoke them nailed to the door of the Roman Senate House.
    Those who put their security ahead of their liberty will inevitably end up with neither.

  • Earthenware

    “But the first duty of the state is to protect its citizens.”

    I keep seeing this sentiment popping up to defend the erosion of our liberties, but I’m not sure it appears anywhere in our constitution.

    I’m no expert, but I thought that Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights were about limiting the power of the state over the individual, not about allowing the government to steal hard-won liberties in the name of “security”.

    Where does this idea that the safety of citizenry is the government’s responsibility and that it excuses all and any abuses come from?

    • Ali

      From Hobbes, as he says- It is the only legitimate role the state has, protecting citizens so life does not become nasty, brutish and short, as it would for example if IS members and apologists were granted the kind of freedom in this country that Libertarians, and I consider myself one, would allow to all the subjects of this country if we lived in an ideal world. It is a dreadful dilemma and I think the only way to look at it is to say as Milton did that liberty is not the same as licence, libertarianism not the same as anarchy. In that way one can square the circle partly, but when the threat is severe the temptation to clamp down harshly becomes stronger and proves too much for the authoritarians, left and right. Mix that difficulty with the ridiculous tiptoeing through the tulips of political correctness in order not to offend Muslims and we have the situation whereby the freedom of every individual must be curtailed so that apologists for Muslim extremists don’t feel targeted and you have our present, stupid mess.

  • Peter Stroud

    I have an inkling that David Davis would have made a better leader than Cameron.

  • trace9

    You can Learn from the past, but its main Lesson, is that things change & you have to come up with yiour Own solutions to your own Problems. Dead wood makes a bad crutch.

  • greggf

    “The MP David Davis has lamented that the British seem to prefer laws that protect their security rather than guard their liberty.”

    It’s inevitable that each will be at the expense of the other.
    The rise and rise of hate-speech laws is an example of this.

Close