A statue of the great Roman orator and jurist, Marcus Tullius Cicero.
ideas on republicanism and freedom still influence and nurture
democratic governments around the world.
What it Means to be 'Republican'
public spirit of republicanism is the antidote to the deleterious effect of
corruption. It is what dispels lies and pretence, including the ideology that
undermines mutual trust between rulers and ruled so necessary for the proper functioning
of democratic and republican institutions."
By Dr. Celso Lafer*
Translated By Gemma Bouchereau
September 17, 2012
– Estadao – Original Article (Portuguese)
The sculpture in front of the Brazil Federal Supreme Court: Reminding his readers about the meaning of the world 'republic,' Dr. Celso Lafer compliments the Barzil Supreme Court for taking up a case highlighting corrution in the ruling Brazil Workers' Party.
What does it mean to behave like a republican? Why is this reference
to an assertion of public spirit so important to the national debate?
The term "republic," among its various meanings, means
in its broadest sense, an organized political community. Hannah Arendt’s 1972
of the Republic: Reflections on the Pentagon Papers, focuses on this
broad sense of political community, but at the same time indicates that in
1972, the crisis in the United States had its roots in the unethical republican
use of deception and the glorification of violence.
More specifically, in terms of forms of government, a republican
opposes monarchy. This highlights the difference between power exercised on the
basis of hereditary rights and a power that is elected by the people, whether
directly or indirectly. In this sense, a republic has a natural affinity for
democracy and tends toward equality.
The contradistinction of monarchy and republic dates back to
the Romans, who, after abolishing kings, replaced government by one with government
by a collective body. Cicero’s
reflections on republic continue to carry great weight. He differentiated the
- the common wealth - from private, domestic and family property, thus
establishing the distinction between private property, property belonging to a
specific individual(s), and public property, which is property owned communally
and which there should be common knowledge of. Hence the origin of the
principle of announcing the opening of government posts as enshrined in Chapter IIV, Section I, Article 37 of the [Brazil]
For Cicero, the public respects the good of the people, which
does not consist of a crowd of dissociated individuals. Rather, in a republic, the
public represents a large group of people linked by adherence to equal rights
and all focused on achieving the common good. This dedication to the common
good is at the root of the principle of morality in public administration,
which is also stated in Article 37 of the Constitution.
The reason I make these references to the public good is
that this is inherent to being a republican, which means first, that one doesn't
combine public and private, and that in a republic, the patrimonial use of public
things for private use is unacceptable. This last point is at the heart of republicanism.
In terms of contemporary political theory, little interest
remains in the battle between monarchy an republic. The issue is no longer a
part of the 21st century political agenda. Today what we face are the
consequences of a lack of ethics in our politics and society, a symptom of
which is the general lack of any sense of shame - always an expression of moral
sentiment. One example of this is the brazenness of conduct among bankers, which
led to the financial crisis.
the principle that best explains the dynamics of a republic, or in other words,
the feeling that keeps it alive and thriving, is a sense of virtue. In this
context, one could say that the motivation of ethics is natural to republicans.
That is, as Maurizio Viroli says, the civic desire to live with dignity presupposes
that one cannot do so within a corrupt polity.
In a conversation with Viroli, Norberto Bobbio said that the first duty of a ruler is to have a
sense of the state, namely, the duty of striving for the common good rather
than the good of oneself, or a smaller group. Likewise, the first duty of the
citizen is to respect others and a selfless realization that one does not live
in isolation, but in the midst of others.
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It is for this reason that when rulers act at the expense of
this sense of state, and when political parties motivated by a factional spirit
fail to focus on the common good, but rather to ensure privileges and benefits for
groups, parties, and leaders, the republic is compromised. The intense and
profound "machinery of the state" characterized by the [ruling] Brazilian
Workers’ Party, is not a demonstration of republican behavior.
The concept of a republic points to a legal consensus on a government
of law and not men, i.e.: the value of the rule of law. Consequently it is no
accident that the role of a constitution and constitutionalism was established
in the United States, which, like France, marks the emergence of the modern
republic. By maintaining general standards of equality and at the same time guaranteeing
the foreseeability of individual action, and by extension, the exercise of
freedom, a government under law hinders the corrupting effects of abuses of
power related to the personal preferences of rulers and lawmakers. It is
therefore a way of governance based on a respect for the law. For this reason, the
principles of legality and government impartiality are enshrined in Article 37
Naturally, good rules, such as Article 37, do not necessarily
lead to good government. They must be adhered to. It is for this reason that
impunity is a factor in the erosion of a government under law, and constitutes a
modality of its corruption. It is therefore worth celebrating the republican behavior
of the Brazilian Supreme Court with reference to the mensalão
Big Monthly Allowance Scandal. This deals with the payoffs of legislators said
to have been made during the administration of Brazil's previous president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, to delay a trial on vote-buying by members of the
ruling Brazilian Workers’ Party].
In a republic, good laws must be accompanied by good conduct
on the part of both leaders and the led, and to which they give both force and
effect. The absence of morality leads to corruption,
a word that comes from the Latin word corrumpere
signifying destruction, and therefore goes beyond offenses outlined in the
Penal Code. When discussing the ways in which a political regime can be
destroyed by corruption, Polybius,
addressing the pays a political regime is destroyed by corruption, uses a
metaphor to clarify the issue. Corruption within a political system plays a role
analogous to rust on iron or termites on wood: it decomposes the substance of our
The public spirit of republicanism is the antidote to the deleterious
effect of corruption. It is what dispels lies and pretence, including the
ideology that undermines mutual trust between rulers and ruled so necessary for
the proper functioning of democratic and republican institutions. Consequently,
the affirmation of the republican ethic is no "trivial moralism."
For Brazil and the rest of the world, when it comes to the demands of good governance,
this is the order of the day.
*Dr. Celso Lafer is Professor Emeritus,
Institute of International Relations, University of Sao Paulo
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