Peter Jones

Property’s not theft

Cicero had a clearer vision of ownership than Sir Trevor Nunn’s new play

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Sir Trevor Nunn is directing a play called ‘Dessert’. It seems to be a virtue-signalling riff on the evil of possessions. Doubtless Cicero and Aratus will not feature.

On the face of it, the Roman statesman Cicero (1st c bc) was a passionate upholder of property rights. He said ‘it is the proper function of the state and its citizens to ensure for everyone the free and undisturbed guardianship of their possessions’. But that did not mean ownership of property overrode the state’s central purpose and therefore duty — the maintenance of social cohesion and so social harmony, that concordia to which Cicero returned again and again. His whole point was that property rights, arising from men’s natural desire to safeguard their own, were one of many features that actively contributed to that harmony.

So Cicero thoroughly approved of Aratus. He was a Greek statesman from Sicyon, who led a league of Greek states during the 3rd c bc. Some 50 years before Aratus came to power, many citizens were sent into exile and had their property seized by the ruling tyrant, who redistributed it among his friends. With Aratus now in power, the exiles returned and wanted their property back. Violence was threatened against current owners, many after so long a period wholly innocent of any wrongdoing. Aratus solved the problem by borrowing a large sum of money from the king of Egypt. With this he bought out some of the current owners, restoring the property to the original ones, or simply compensated the original owners, case by case.

Cicero commented: ‘Aratus thought everyone’s concerns should be taken into account, and that is the ultimate example of a good citizen’s wise exercise of reason — not to tear communities... apart, but to unite everyone under the banner of impartial judgment.’ Cicero acknowledged here that ownership of property was as capable of creating divisions between people as it was of uniting them. But handled with a view to the common good, i.e. seen not as an end in itself, it became a means to an end, and that end a just one — concordia.

The word ‘property’ itself, by the way, derives from the Latin proprius: ‘one’s own.’