Ancient and modern

Cicero would have been quick to end the lockdown

9 May 2020

9:00 AM

9 May 2020

9:00 AM

The Prime Minister recently quoted Cicero’s famous dictum salus populi suprema lex esto, translating it as ‘Let the health (salus) of the people be the supreme law’. No surprise there: he had just returned from his sick bed. But as he knows very well, that injunction was military: salus meant ‘security, safety’. The consuls must do whatever was needed to ensure the state’s survival.

The state’s survival today is not a military but an economic issue. One interesting consequence is that it has become fashionable among the old to express a desire to help by being unlocked at once and so swept away by Covid-19. Then the young, most of them hardly affected by the virus, could get back to business as normal.

That sentiment would accord well with Cicero’s concept of the salus populi. It arose from the core belief that man was a communal animal. So, while laws were needed in extremis ‘for the safety of citizens and the survival of the state’, they also served to further the ‘peaceful, happy and honourable life of humanity’.

But there was another consequence. Cicero went on: ‘The laws put the safety of the whole community above that of individuals. Consequently, a good, wise, law-abiding man, who is not unaware of his duty to the state, looks to the advantage of all above that of any one, even himself.’ That, he explained, was why a man who died for his country was extolled: he proved that he held it dearer than himself.

This noble Roman sentiment that the salus populi overrode the salus of any individual member of that populus surely lies at the root of the argument of those among the 8.8 million over-seventies who would like the principle to be applied to them: if it will save the economy, let them be released back into the community and meet their end. Heroic! Economy restored! Unfortunately, there is a problem. Unlike the Romans, we do have a health service. It is called the NHS, and this wretched organisation is dedicated (shock!) to saving lives. Oldies would not be popular if they utterly overwhelmed it. So nice try, but no cigar.

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