Cicero, De Officiis, A ON THE HOUSE

As a Roman moralist, Cicero is seen at his best in the three books of his De Officiis, a work that Dr. Johnson said ought to be read once a year.  Officia are not public offices but duties, the responsibilities it is incumbent upon us to carry out.  Cicero  draw his primary inspiration from Plato and his followers in the Middle Academy, a phase of Platonism that emphasized epistemological skepticism.  However, he was  also very eclectic and fair-minded, seeking useful truths wherever he could find them--especially from Aristotle but also from the Stoics whose extremism he objected to.  For all his objections to Stoic extremism--no one could be good unless perfectly good, he did borrow the Stoic concept of duty that is to a great extent absent (or at least from Plato and Aristotle or, at least, less emphasized in their writings.

Cicero's main goal was to provide a moral framework for the demoralized ruling class of his day.  The work was actually written in the months following Caesar's assassination, as a blueprint for a new Rome in which the contest between populares and boni would be replaced by a stable constitutional order that provided for the welfare of the lower classes but preserved the influence of an aristocracy that dedicated itself to the public good.  Although the work is sometimes now dismissed as second-rate scissors and paste, it is a remarkably unified compendium of the best political-moral thought of ancient world.

Although Cicero in the beginning pronounces himself as essentially a Peripatetic (that is, Aristotelian), the source for much of the work (especially Books I-II) is a treatise on duty by the Stoic philosopher Panaetius, who died a few years before Cicero's birth.  Panaetius, who belonged to the Scipionic circle, was an important influence on Roman thought.  He adapted the rigid and austere Stoic ethics to reality of Roman upper class life.  Cicero, to some extent following Panaetius, does not take as his subject moral theory of the type usually discussed by philosophers but rather how a man may carry out the practical duties of everyday life.  Man has duties because he is not a beast but a being endowed with reason, a sense of kinship with his fellows, a regard for truth, and moral instinct.  There are thus four cardinal virtues: wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance which are the basis of all human duties.

Knowledge and wisdom are an important part of duty, because one must know what one's duty is. Cicero's approach is clear from his warning about the pursuit of truth.  One must be skeptical about evidence (as his masters in the Middle Academy taught) but also limit one's pursuit of knowledge to the knowable.  Abstruse disciplines are thus impractical.  Pure knowledge is valuable, but virtus is displayed in a life of action, not in bookish seclusion.

In his treatment of justice, Cicero breaks no new ground.  He follows Plato in regarding (mistakenly, I should say) private property as a useful innovation rather than a part of nature, but justice requires us not to take another's property.  Nature, however, teaches us to have a benevolent regard for our fellow-men, and not to use our property in any anti-social manner. This is not socialism at all, for nature teaches us to contribute to society by engaging in an exchange of kindnesses.

One of the most important sources of injustice is ambition of the type that led Julius Caesar (I.26) to make himself a tyrant, but a more passive sense of self-interest may also lead us in the same direction.  Although a rather stern moralist (at least in theory), Cicero understands that morality cannot consist of absolute rules: there are occasions when a promise must be broken or property not restored, because keeping faith would cause harm.  There are limits even to righteous punishment.  Discussion is a better way of resolving disputes than war, and when victory has been secured, benevolent treatment of the losers will make them peaceful and law-abiding.

Cicero's discussion of the rules by which Romans went to war (I.36) anticipates a good deal of just-war theory.  War is embarked on only when Rome has been wronged and after demands for satisfaction have been rejected.  Different methods are appropriate to different types of war: Wars for survival will use harsher means than wars for supremacy.  As an afterthought, Cicero gives sound advice on the treatment of slaves, who often submitted to slavery after being captured in battle. It is best to treat slaves as employees: the slave is required to work, but the master is obligated to furnish what is right.

For Cicero, doing one's particular duty is the difference between virtue and vice:

For there is no part of life--neither in our public nor private affairs, neither at home nor in the marketplace, neither if you conduct some business with yourself nor if you make an arrangement with another person--that can be without duty; all honest living consists in cultivating duty, all baseness in neglecting it.

This Roman view of duty, comprehensive as it is, imposes no unusual burden of obligation; in fact, it is only a higher expression of the common opinion of ancient pagans--that there are specific duties, arising out of one's station in life, owed to neighbors, relatives, friends, and political allies.  Greeks and Romans, Jews and Assyrians all made the obvious distinctions between neighbors and strangers, kin and non-kin, compatriots and aliens, noble and base-born, and--most sweeping--between friends and enemies.

This view of particular duties stands in stark contrast with most moral philosophy since Descartes.  Jefferson, famously, in his redaction of the Scriptures, wanted to remove "the wretched depravity of particular duties."  If there is only one lesson we can learn from Cicero, it is to recover a sense of what Bradley referred to as "my station and its duties," a brilliant chapter some of whose good Bradley undermined by going on to repeat the arguments for universal duty made familiar by philosophers--the very philosophers who have made it so difficult for modern men and women to understand their duties.


Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina