Finishing My Final Paper and Closing Reflection

Well, this is my last blog post of the independent study. Earlier today, I finished my final paper, titled, “Government of the People: Populi as a Genitive of Possession in Cicero’s De Re Publica.” You can see it on my “Final Paper” page of this blog. Now, I want to reflect on my overall thoughts about the independent study.

This has been a truly amazing experience. I have hardly ever learned as much as in this independent study, and I think the overall process is what caused that. Even though I did not think of it like this while planning, I now see three distinct phases of the study: learning Greek over the summer, reading Plato and broadly studying Classical political theory in the first and beginning of second quarter, and reading Cicero and working on my final paper since then. Learning Greek was extremely fun, and I have already written about that extensively in other blog posts and reflections. When the school year started, I began reading Plato’s Republic in Greek. The text exposed me to new and fascinating philosophical ideas. I mostly focused on Plato’s ideas about forms of governments and constitutional stability, but I also got to learn about some of his philosophy as a whole. Even though this did not really influence my final project, I am very glad that I spent time on it. Just studying Plato’s theory of Forms on a basic level has been valuable, and I cannot count the number of times I have heard references to philosophical ideas that seem easily traceable to his own. I even got to talk to Dr. Monahan’s husband, who has a philosophy PhD, about these topics. This reflects one aspect of my study that I am most happy about: that it was not too focused on my final product. I had a plan of what I would study from the outset, but I did not feel like I was just trying to reach some final destination. I learned what seemed most interesting to me instead of just what would assist one end-goal. Moving on from Plato, I spent a week or two reading about two Greek political theorists that came between him and Cicero, Aristotle and Polybius. Even though this was only a short portion of my study, it was certainly one of the most valuable, and I completely credit Dr. Monahan for advising me to do this. I gained a much better understanding about the development of Classical political philosophy, both with respect to methodology and specific theories, especially the mixed constitution. After this, I started reading Cicero’s De Re Publica. It is honestly hard to express how much I love this text. I had not read Cicero since 9th grade, and his writing style amazed me. The interlocutors follow such a clear, logical progression of ideas, but there is still so much to unpack about the text’s meaning. I quickly latched onto one specific part of the text, one which it is possible I may never stop thinking about, Cicero’s definition of the state, “res publica res populi.” As soon as I came across these words, I was obsessed by thinking about what Cicero meant, along with his elaboration on a people joined by agreement of law and shared interest. I kept pursuing this idea, reading the discussion of it in Book III and researching academic thought on the definition. Since I have extensively discussed my paper in other posts, I won’t write about that hear, but I eventually decided to write it on specifically the word populi as a genitive of possession over res. I am definitely happy with how the paper turned out, and I hope to use it in a more official capacity in journal, such as publishing it to an undergraduate journal or submitting it to a conference. The paper was my first opportunity to spend an extensive period of time working on one specific problem, engaging with other academic research and formulating my own, new ideas. Overall, I am extremely happy about how this study went. It has probably been the most fun thing about my senior year and truly one of my best experiences in high school. I especially want to thank Dr. Monahan for this; she was the best independent study advisor possible and was always unbelievably generous with her time, whether answering my many Greek questions over the summer, meeting weekly to discuss Classical political philosophy always having prepared new resources to show me, or guiding me through the research process.

On a separate note, I in fact enjoyed my independent study so much that I decided to do one next semester too! With Dr. Shores as my advisor, I will primarily be learning Old English but also studying translation theory, a topic I have long been interested in but never explored in a formal setting. Though I haven’t started editing it at the time I write this, here is the link to my new blog, where I will post regularly beginning next week:

Government of the People: Populi as a Genitive of Possession

As I enter the final days of my independent study and complete my paper, I thought it would be good to write my last regular blog post that summarizes the paper’s argument. I am writing it on Cicero’s use of the word populi as a genitive of possession in De Re Publica. To understand this problem, I first have to describe the passage I have talked about on practically every blog post recently, which is when Cicero says that “res publica res populi” or “the state is the property of the people.” One issue arises from the meaning of the word res itself, which many scholars have identified as property. I somewhat agree with this translation, as I believe Cicero uses res (which more generally means “thing” or “affair”) as the public infrastructure of a society, such as temples or walls, but also metaphorical property, such as the public wealth or shared interests of the people. The placement of populi as a genitive of possession over this property establishes some relationship between them, and the nature of this relationship is what my paper really examines. To break this down, we must first understand the significance of the phrase res populi as a necessary qualification for a government to be a res publica. Cicero distinguishes between good forms of government and degenerate ones, such as tyranny, which do not count as res publica. For a state to be a res publica, there must exist res populi, or in other words, the property must be of the people. So, we can assume that under any good form of government, there is res populi, and the opposite must be true under degenerate governments. A problem quickly emerges. Monarchy and aristocracy are two of the good forms of government, but under those, the property is clearly not controlled by the populus. Cicero clearly understands this and says that, in one monarchy, “the property of the people (res populi) was ruled (regeretur) by one man.” So, this populi phrase that determines res publica status clearly does not imply the ability to rule over property, even though scholars have characterized it as in-line with the Roman legal conception of property ownership, which does include such control. Instead, I propose that the phrase has two distinct meanings. One of these actually does imply control of property, even to a severely negative extent. These instances come when Cicero refers to ochlocracy (mob-rule, or the degenerate form of democracy) as a state where “omnia sunt populi” or “all things are of the people.” By this phrase, I think he clearly means that the people have complete control. He also uses the genitive of possession to denote control when describing a tyrant over the people. However, we know that this is not what he means by res populi. Additionally, his saying that “omnia sunt populi” does not imply satisfaction of the res populi condition because an ochlocracy is not a res publica. The only alternative is that there are two conditions for res publica status, one being res populi and the other being a populus joined by common law and interest, which Cicero does describe in his definition. However, I do not think Cicero considers these two separate conditions, and he seems to say that common law and interest already implies res populi (and after all, the public interest is part of the res that belongs to the populus). Thus, there must be some other meaning of populi to which Cicero refers in his definition. I argue that he refers to the property being designed in the interest of the people. The property belongs to the people because they may use it and it serves them. However, the populus does not have to have any potestatem or power over it for this condition to be satisfied. In the paper, I do not come to a full conclusion on what exactly this means and looks like, but I do show the problems with current conceptions of legal possession and demonstrate the necessity of the dual meaning, while explaining why one seems to be along the lines of common interest. When I finish the paper on Wednesday, I will create a new page on my blog to post it.

Property or Power — What Belongs to the Populus in a Res Publica?

First, I’m sorry for the long post; I don’t expect anyone to read all the way through, but it was good for me to write down all my ideas. As I mentioned in my last post, I recently narrowed down my study to a final paper topic. The topic falls under the definitional issues in De Re Publica that I have been learning about. I specifically want to look at the meaning of a specific phrase that Cicero repeatedly uses without clearly defining — “populi,” when used as a genitive of possession. The most obvious example of this term is one I’ve talked about many times here, Cicero’s definition of the res publica as the res populiPopuli, meaning “of the people,” is possessive, but what is it that the people actually possess? To understand this, we can turn to Cicero’s other use of populi as a possessive. In Book III, Cicero says that, when the decemviri (a tyrannical legislative commission) ruled in Rome, “populi nulla res erat” or “no property was of the people.” The decemviri are an example of a degenerate form of government, and Cicero does not consider these degenerate forms to be rei publicae, which in this case seems natural because, if nothing is of the people, and the res publica is the property of the people, there is no res publica. However, we cannot simply conclude that there is nothing of the people in any degenerate state or one not classified as a res publica. Later in Book III (and in his original discussion in Book I), Cicero describes an ochlocracy as one where “populi [sunt] omnia” or “all things are of the people.” His objection to an ochlocratic government’s designation as a res publica comes from the latter half of his original definition, where he explains that the populus must be bound by an agreement of law, which is not true under mob-rule. Additionally, Cicero clearly does believe that there are rei populi in a monarchy because he classifies this form as a res publica. 

So, Cicero certainly does not say populi in the sense that we say a “government of the people;” he does not refer to popular ownership of political power. Instead, he seems to refer to property, both literally and metaphorically as the things and affairs that are of common interest. He says that Syracuse had expansive infrastructure, but it was not a res publica because “nihil enim populi et unius erat populus ipse” or “indeed nothing was of the people, and the people were of one man.” Even aside from the brilliant chiastic combined with parallel structure, I love this line because it gives insight into some of the ideas I’m looking at — Cicero uses “unius” here as a possessive genitive. So, the populus can have ownership over property but also be owned by another with total power over them. This may be telling for what Cicero actually means by the possessive populi, though it could alternatively be a different usage by which he does specifically refer to ownership of political power. I still have more questions: in a monarchy or aristocracy, what type of ownership does the populus have over property? How is this different from some degenerate governments in which nothing is of the populi? I’m still trying to grapple with these questions, but I have definitely made progress in analyzing this problem and hope to have a full thesis soon so I can write the abstract of my paper before break.

Populus, Iuris Consensus, and Degenerate Forms of Government

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here; in the last month, I’ve been collecting my thoughts as I’ve tried to narrow down a final paper topic through reading and research. I recently came up with an idea I might use for that paper, so it’s possible I’ll do another blog post about that in a few days, but right now I want to summarize some of what I’ve learned about since my last post. I have become very interested in Cicero’s definitions of certain terms like res publica (the commonwealth), populus (the people of a res publica), and iuris consensus (common agreement of law). As I wrote last time, he defines the res publica as the res populi (the property/affairs of the people), but he says that a populus must be joined by iuris consensus and “utilitatis communione” (common interest/advantage). I started wondering what kind of government Cicero would not consider a res publica, which led me to read a certain passage of Book III in which he explores that question. The interlocutors conclude that the degenerate forms of states, those that exist corrupted from good constitutions such as tyranny from monarchy, are indeed not res publica because the populus does not have an agreement of law or a common interest. However, this certainly raises interesting questions: in a monarchy, where one man reigns, do the people have an agreement of law? Under ochlocracy or mob rule, the degenerate form of democracy, do the people not share a iuris consensus, even if their laws are unjust? These questions may be answered through Cicero’s discussion of natural law earlier in Book III, providing evidence that a government must rule according to universally correct and just legal standards to be a res publica. Some argue that Cicero sees the res publica as a public partnership, one that is broken in a degenerate government, though I think other explanations are possible, such as the necessity of willful subjugation of the populus to the ruling class. However, there certainly are elements of public ownership of political power (as Cicero says the res publica is the res populi, or property of the people), but that may be a topic for a future blog post and potentially a final paper.

“Res Publica Res Populi” — Cicero’s Definition of the State

Over the past couple weeks, I started reading Cicero’s De Re Publica in Latin. For some context, De Re Publica is a Socratic dialogue written as an imitation or response to Plato’s own Republic, which I studied in the first quarter. As Socrates primarily speaks for Plato in his Republic, Scipio Africanus acts as the voice of Cicero in De Re Publica. In the passages I read, Cicero starts his in-depth discussion on forms of government. Scipio first defines the state, using the interesting phrase “res publica [est] res populi.” The word res is a tricky one to translate, but it generally means thing, matter, or business. The phrase “res publica,” the very subject of Cicero’s work, is often translated as republic (you can probably see why), but more accurately refers to the state, and a literal translation would be “the public matter.” Cicero equates this with the “res populi,” an almost identical phrase meaning “the matter of the people.” I found this quite interesting because at first sight it seems almost a meaningless definition. However, Cicero uses it to emphasize that the state is made of its people, and it carries the interests of those people. In that sentence, he goes on to clarify that the populus itself cannot be any organization of people but one under which they are united by law and common interest. For me, this raised an interesting question: would Cicero consider a tyranny, or any other “evil” form of government that he proposes later in this work, to be a state? In those governments, the people do not seem allied by a common interest (“utilitatis communione sociatus”), so does that mean they are not a true populus whose res could define the res publica? I am excited to see how Cicero addresses this issue as I continue my reading.

Quarter 1 Reflection

For this week’s blog post, I’m writing a reflection on my progress in the first quarter and my thoughts about the future of my study.


I have learned a tremendous amount about Classical political philosophy this quarter. I spent most of it studying Plato’s Republic. I read selections from Book I in Greek, which was an amazing opportunity to improve my translation skills and build on my Greek work this summer, and I simultaneously studied Book VIII in English. As I primarily focused on Plato’s theories about forms of government and the progression of a constitution, I also tried to learn about his philosophy that underpins those ideas. After this, I started transitioning towards reading Cicero’s De Re Publica, studying some of the ideas of Aristotle and Polybius, two political theorists who came between Plato and Cicero. That furthered my understanding of the different methods of political philosophy and the spectrum between a deeply-theoretical and a more empirical approach, while also giving valuable context for the field of Classical political philosophy as a whole. Recently, I started reading De Re Publica, which I have loved so far. I have enjoyed both Cicero’s writing style and his ideas about constitutional theory. Overall, I think I have learned even more than I expected about Greek, philosophy, and political science, and I can’t wait to continue.


I think the process has been smooth so far. I have generally followed my initial plan and have met my learning goals each week. I have had meetings every week with Dr. Monahan, which have all been very productive. So far, my main goal has been to learn as much as possible each week, without too much focus on my final paper, allowing myself to explore a wide variety of ideas related to my study.

Looking Ahead

In the coming weeks, I want to start thinking more intently about my final paper topic. Recently, I have realized that I might end up writing my paper just about Cicero’s De Re Publica, not a comparison of this text with Plato’s Republic as I initially thought. I want to find a specific topic, whether that be one of Cicero’s philosophical ideas or a literary aspect of the text, that I can realistically research, come up with my own idea about, and write as a roughly 6-8 page paper. However, I also don’t want to force it by choosing a topic I’m not interested in. As I read, I’ll be looking for any problems that I find especially fascinating and would like to look more into so that I can gradually narrow down to a paper topic.

Aristotle, Polybius, and Methods of Political Theory

Last week, I started transitioning from Plato into Cicero by reading about two political theorists who came between them, Aristotle and Polybius. Plato practically never references history in his political philosophy; he does not rely on real-world evidence for his conclusions, sticking to abstract accounts of the development of a theoretical city. In his Republic, he also relies on a parallel between soul and city, describing how the appetites (one of the three parts of the soul according to Plato) of a city’s rulers lead to instability and decline. Aristotle, Plato’s student, moves away from this method, introducing historical evidence to go along with his philosophical arguments. Polybius, more of a historian than a political philosopher, goes further in that direction. He describes a set of three constitutions based on the number of rulers, kingship (rule by the one), aristocracy (by the few), and democracy (by the many). These forms are good, but they have deviant counterparts. So, Polybius suggests that a mixed constitution, one that combines elements of the three, is best, an idea that actually goes back to Plato (in other dialogues, not the Republic) and Aristotle. This ensures stability, as the three parts of government provide a check on each other’s power. Polybius says the Roman constitution is a perfect example of this mixed system, with the consuls, senate, and people filling in the three roles (a good example of Polybius’ real-world, historical analysis instead of pure philosophy). Cicero adopts a similar political philosophy to Polybius, critiquing Plato’s refusal to consider history and promoting a mixed system. As I continue to read Cicero (which I have started this week), I will be looking to see where he falls on this history-philosophy spectrum, as well as other differences with Plato like ethics versus practicality and psychological analysis versus thinking about systems of power.

Forms: Plato’s Metaphysics and Epistemology

Last week, I went deeper into Plato’s philosophy and its connections to his political theory. On Monday, I talked to Dr. Monahan’s husband, Dr. Phillips, who has a philosophy PhD. I especially wanted to formulate and clarify some of my thoughts on the relationship between Plato’s theory of Forms and constitutional instability. For a quick explanation of Forms, Plato believes that everything on Earth is a reflection of higher objects of reality. The Forms, which include abstract concepts like Beauty and Equality, are pure and unchanging, and objects on Earth reflect these characteristics but never mirror them completely. The Form of the Good is the highest object on Plato’s hierarchy of reality; it gives being to all other Forms. To truly know anything, one must first understand the Form of the Good, which shows the connection between the Forms and epistemology. My current thinking is that Plato designs his ideal aristocracy to emulate the Form of a City, and that this Form would be stable, but the imperfections of implementation lead to the aristocracy’s downfall. I’m still thinking about the cause of transitions between types of constitutions. Plato generally says that the Forms are always the first cause of something; for example, the Form of Beauty causes something to be beautiful. However, new governments emerge as an opposite reaction to the excesses of the previous type, such as the movement towards equality in a democracy stemming from the extreme inequality of an oligarchy. One possible explanation for this potential contradiction is that Plato thinks souls are mutable and can cause change, so a change in the souls of the populous could lead to a change in government. I will further explore Plato’s theories of causality and the connection to instability in the future. This week, I have started transitioning towards Cicero by reading about two political theorists who came between Plato and him, Aristotle and Polybius. 

Constitutional Instability and Plato’s Five Regimes

The past two weeks, I read all of Book VIII of Plato’s Republic, and I have begun researching the philosophical arguments and historical context for his theories. In this section, Plato describes the five types of constitutions — aristocracy (rule by the best), timocracy (rule by the honored), oligarchy (rule by the wealthy), democracy (rule by all), and tyranny (rule by one). Aristocracy is his proposed ideal form of government, which he describes in previous books. Under this system, the guardians choose the best people from the next generation to be the new guardians, the best of whom become the ruling philosopher kings. However, in Book VIII, Plato says such a city will never last forever, as eventually the wrong people will be chosen as guardians. They will value honor over virtue, strength over wisdom or education, and eventually the city will shift to a timocracy. After this, Plato describes four more transformations of government. When rulers become more obsessed with money than honor, the city shifts to an oligarchy. The oligarchic city has so much wealth inequality that the people rise up and create a democracy. These people are so free and willing to let any of their appetites control them that a corrupt, populist leader will rise up as a tyrant. I’ve become especially interested in these transitions and why Plato does not seem to think there is any stable form of government. One key distinction that I noticed is that the aristocracy seems to only be unstable because of the impossibility of perfect implementation, whereas the other forms seem more fundamentally unstable. A problem only arises in the aristocracy when the guardians do not perfectly determine the correct time for births (because of their ignorance of the nuptial number, as I discussed two blog posts again) and do not choose the correct future leaders, but this is a problem of human imperfection rather than fundamental instability. However, the other forms have other problems baked into the system. Socrates says that “τὸ ἄγαν τι ποιεῖν μεγάλην φιλεῖ εἰς τοὐναντίον μεταβολὴν ἀνταποδιδόναι” or “any excess is wont to bring about a corresponding reaction,” such as the wealth inequality in an oligarchy leading to total equality in a democracy. This week, I am trying to learn about Plato’s theory of Forms to better understand these ideas about constitutional instability.

Interim Reflection

This week, my blog post is a reflection on how the independent study has gone so far. My next post will be about my deeper exploration of Plato’s philosophy over the past two weeks.

I am extremely happy with how my independent study has gone so far. It has exceeded my (already very high) expectations both for how much I would learn and how much fun I would have. Overall, I think I have closely followed my initial proposal. Over the summer, I finished exactly the amount of Greek I planned to, the two-part introductory Greek textbook Athenaze. It took a tremendous amount of time to learn the language, but this was absolutely worth it, as both the process itself and the reward of reading the original text of Plato’s Republic have been incredible. Since then, I have stuck mostly to my original plan. The one modification is that I have been reading Book I of The Republic in Greek, while I initially planned to read Book VIII in Greek. This is because the text I found for Book I has much better commentary for a beginner/intermediate reader. However, I am still focusing my study of Plato’s political theory on Book VIII, which I have read in English, and I will additionally read key passages from it in Greek.

Practically all aspects of my study have been fascinating and exciting. Learning Greek over the summer was one of the most engaging intellectual experiences of my life, and my level of enjoyment has not decreased since. I am very happy with my ability to translate Greek, and I think it is improving every week. Even though it is of course much slower than reading Latin, I have found it a steady, manageable, and always extremely fun process. The same goes for reading Plato in English. The text is dense with complicated information, but not beyond my ability to comprehend, and I have found Plato’s ideas about governmental structure and decay fascinating. In the past two weeks, as I have been diving deep into his philosophy on these concepts, on which my study is primarily focused, I have been writing down my questions in a Google document. This has helped me generate many possible ideas for final paper topics, and I will continually refer and add to it as I read more Plato and eventually Cicero.

My time management and the general logistics of the course have been good, though not perfect, so far. Between my Greek and English reading, I have been meeting the 5-7 hour expectation. Each week, I have a meeting with Dr. Monahan on Day 1, during which we talk about the concepts I’ve learned in Plato and, if we have time, read some Greek together. This gives me the rest of the school week and weekend to complete my work. I have tried to distribute it somewhat evenly throughout the week, but I’ve noticed that I have ended up doing much of it on the weekends. I don’t think this is necessarily a major problem, especially since I at least spread that work throughout various sessions during the weekend, but I would ideally like to spend more time during the school week.

Overall, I feel great about how the study is going and have high hopes for its future. There are of course many challenges, but ones that are helping me grow intellectually and as a manager of my learning, and they are matched by many equally important successes.