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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?


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