Political "Ideals" Versus Political "Realities": A Dilemma of Theory

By Daniel S. Guenther
2010, Vol. 2 No. 06 | pg. 1/1

In theories of political practice and institutional design, there is a clash between what should be done ideally, and what can be done realistically. Many philosophers and politicians offer unique takes on this dilemma of making human law and government adhere to higher law. There are also side arguments about if there even is a higher law and if it can be adhered to, but that is not the main issue of this article. In this article, I will articulate the position of Cicero on idealist philosophy and evaluate his claims about dealing with the problem of ideal versus practical.

Of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, Cicero stands out as the most “realist” writer. The strictest realist theory of politics would entail adhering to that which is the most practical and practicable, while the most idealist theory would believe there is a highest form of perfection and justice to which all ends must strive toward.

In a continuum with idealism and realism at opposite ends, their positions would be as follows: Plato the most idealist, Aristotle the most moderate and Cicero the most realist. While Cicero best exemplifies the realist position, a full understanding of his take on the subject includes understanding that he 1) favored practicality and feasibility, 2) espoused the benefits of real life experience in the political world and, 3) saw ultimate virtue as spending time on things useful to the state. Cicero was generally right to say that that which is both practical and practicable makes for good institutional design and community administration, but his ideas should be qualified by the understanding that on a larger level, philosophical thought must be encouraged while humanity continues to attempt to interpret natural law through reason.

I will begin by giving a more in depth account of idealism versus realism, followed by the arguments and ideas that support Cicero’s experience and virtue arguments, concluding with my own qualifications that I think would make the argument for realist political theory even stronger.

Idealism versus Realism

By idealism, I mean a type of philosophy that focuses on the perfection, the higher or natural law, and the truth of political theory best articulated by Plato in The Republic:

“I was only going to ask whether, when we find out what justice is, shall we require the just man to answer the description precisely, and be an exact counterpart of what justice is? [No.] Then it is an ideal pattern we were looking for when we tried to say what justice and injustice are in themselves…That was our purpose, rather than to show that the ideal could be realized in practice…”1

Plato’s answer is purposefully vague- he is not concerned with specific ordinances and the intricacies of running the show. The last line is absolutely critical in understanding how Plato and Cicero clash over political theory. Cicero will ultimately challenge the validity of evaluating theories that might not even be feasible, something Plato has no issue with.

A realist take on political theory gives more credibility to virtue through actions, civil laws, and one’s participation in public life. Cicero articulates the fundamentals of realism in the first book of On the Commonwealth:

“Furthermore, virtue is not some kind of knowledge to be possessed without using it…virtue consists entirely in its employment; moreover, its most important employment is the governance of states and the accomplishment in deeds rather than words of things that philosophers talk about in their corners.”2

“Action speaks louder than words” would be a statement Cicero would agree with—his philosophy is more of an active, real world scenario theory that does not try to imagine what the best might be. Instead, from his experience as a political leader, he claims that the aim of theories that should govern institutional design must be practical and pragmatic.

Cicero’s First Basis for Realism: Practicality

Cicero, in the narrator voice of Scipio, mentions Laelius and Tubero discussing a recent solar eclipse in a first attempt to argue his realism.3 While all are contemplating what exactly may be the ramifications and impact of this solar event, Laelius (most likely Cicero’s thought process) tells them to stop worrying. He explains that they should not worry about the implications of the “second” sun because they either 1) do not know what happened, 2) cannot know what happened, or 3) would not be any happier if they were to find out.4

This is a perfect example of aspirational theory clashing with practicality. Cicero voices his inclination towards practicality by claiming this seemingly “big question” of life is in fact not even worthy of contemplation. Plato most certainly would have considered a worthwhile aspiration to understand more of the human world to figure out what was occurring in the sky.

Cicero’s Second Basis for Realism: Experience

Not just speaking of all the experience he had as a politician, Cicero wrote at length about how realistic theory benefitted and was benefitted by experience:

At this point you will see the political circle turning; you should learn to recognize its natural motion and circuit from the very beginning. This is the essential element of civic prudence: to see the paths and turns of commonwealths, so that when you know in what direction any action tends, you can hold it back or anticipate it.”5

This is what that lengthy thought means: the more you study real current politics, the more practical experience you will gain. With this gained experience, you will be able to accurately predict what kind of policies the state is pursuing in the future by their actions in the present. Or, possibly more importantly, you can look to past events and see what your government is really doing right now; you know when a state starts passing these laws, you should take this action. Therein lies the practical and beneficial elements of realist theory, according to Cicero. 

Cicero’s Third Basis for Realism: Civic Virtue

Cicero would therefore prefer that those in charge of ruling be well educated, first, in the “methods of organizing and preserving commonwealths” and “public administration” which he claims the idealists do not emphasize enough.6 This administration is in fact the types of things that will actually affect people’s daily lives. As in the example of the unexplained solar eclipse, Cicero did not view the subject as relevant because it had no real policy or administrative implications. Those who study and apply this “political science”7 are acting the most virtuous, says Cicero.

Continuing, Cicero explains a theory of state and individual level interaction that emphasizes duty to society:

“Our country did not give us birth or rearing without expecting some return from us…she did so with the understanding that she has a claim on the largest and best parts of our minds, talents, and judgment for her own use…”8

His quotation means that the virtuous citizen will give his or her best back to the state, and in the form of things that will best benefit the state. Staring at the solar eclipse and thinking what it might be was not exactly what Cicero meant by civic virtue.

Cicero’s Critiques of Idealism

Cicero’s critique of philosophical idealism is evident in his criticism of those who he felt just sat around in corners (or gazed at stars), presumably discussing what the ideal state would be like, and never actually involved themselves with the hands on experience of governing.9 A career politician, Cicero scoffed at those who think their ruminations about ideal political theory properly prepare them for real governing:

“And I am particularly amazed by this feature of the philosopher’s argument, that people who admit their incapacity for steering in calm weather-because they have never learned how or wanted to know-these same people offer to take the helm at in the greatest storms.”10

Similarly, as a practical matter, Cicero implies studying the politics of their forefathers would be useless because no commonwealth of his day is comparable.11 He sees the subject of studying the Greek city states as futile because their current state is so much more advanced, they have nothing to learn from them.

Cicero makes a final brush at the idealists by claiming that even though they may have purposefully avoided practicing politics, they were indeed performing a public function because they “did much research and writing about government’.12 It becomes clear then, that even though both realism and idealism seem in conflict with each other, Cicero was philosophizing and Plato was taking part in civic virtue.

Qualifications to Cicero’s Argument

Cicero’s argument would be strengthened if he acknowledged that idealism and realism have different implications depending on how one views the timeline of political affairs. For instance, political realism may in fact be a better paradigm in a single generation of a state. Over the course of all human governance however, perceptions about political ideals have changed so drastically that proper attention must be given to philosophers of political ideals. Answers to the question “what is the best form of government?” varied from the Platonic era to the time of Cicero, and even more dramatically from today.


It might be considered ideal for a government to impose low taxes, have clean electoral races, and always have the snow plowed on time. Some politicians might even run on platforms with those tenets. What most politicians would tell you in private is that you will never see the day. While the specific issues may differ between today and 50 B.C.E., the dilemma is the same. As political institutions and governments that practice politics have evolved and continue to evolve, there will be those who advocate both a pragmatic realist view and those who counter with the idealist view.

Cicero’s nearly complete argument has the strength of actually being able to make substantive differences in the daily life of an entire city. His concern is that which has the greatest influence on the practice of politics in any particular state. AFor any one given state, his attitude toward finding specific practical solutions seems to outweigh the search for the great truths and ideals of justice.

Where Cicero’s ideas are lacking is the consideration of the machinations not just of a city, or a whole state, but instead of the grand machinations of human history and political thought. Neither theorist has the complete picture of how to best design institutions or practice politics, but they both give credible explanations as to how they would or actually did.


1 Plato, Henry Desmond Pritchard Lee, and Melissa S. Lane.The Republic. London [etc.]: Penguin, 2007. Print. (472 b-d, 190)

2 Cicero, Marcus Tullius, and James E. G. Zetzel.On the Commonwealth ; And, On the Laws. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. Print. Citations have been simplified as follows: (Book, [Section] pg number) (Commonwealth (C), [2] pg 3)

3 (C, [31] pg 15)

4 (C, [31] pg15)

5 (C, [45] pg 47)

6 (C, [10-11] pg 6)

7 (C, [37] pg 17)

8 (C, [8] pg 5)

9 (C, pg 3)

10 (C, [10] pg 6)

11 (C, [70] pg 31)

12 (C, [12] pg 6)

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