You have won greater laurels than the triumphal wreath, for it is a greater achievement to have extended the frontiers of the Roman genius than those of the Roman empire.
~ Julius Caesar to Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero was a 'new man', someone who rose to the position of consul in the Roman Republic despite the fact his family had no history of political office. Having enjoyed an illustrious political life, he was excluded from politics during the period of Julius Caesar's dictatorship. After the Ides of March, Caesar's policies were continued by his successors; Cicero considered the Roman Republic to be dead. On Duties contains many references to the noble deeds of Romans past, and much chastisement of the policies of tyrants. Tyrannicide is frequently endorsed.
On Duties is written in the form of a letter addressed to his son of the same name who was at the time studying philosophy under Cratippus at Athens. It was published posthumously as Cicero died in the year it was authored, 44BC. In other works such as the Republic and Laws (much of which are lost), Cicero favours the dialogue form over straight prose. However, this fairly short exposition was more suited to the latter form.
Cicero was much influenced by the Greek philosophical school of Stoicism, which he favoured over the rival Epicurean school. The Stoics believed that one should be ruled by reason and so far as possible be free of the passions, and they also believed in the commonality of all of humanity. They believed that to live in accordance with reason was to live in accordance with nature, and their influence can be seen strongly in Cicero's frequent pronouncements on natural law. Ciceronian ideas about community and humanity remained dominant in the Western world for over a millennium, and On Duties was the second book to be printed after the Gutenberg Bible. His ideas only began to be displaced by reason of state theorists in the sixteenth century, most notably Niccolo Machiavelli.
On Duties is divided into three parts. The first part furnishes an introduction and discusses the nature of the virtues. The second part discusses those things that are held to be beneficial to human life, such as wealth, power, and the esteem of others. Times when there is an apparent conflict between the virtuous and the beneficial are discussed in the third book, which is the crux of the work. Cicero embarked on the project to dismiss the popular notion that there was a difference between the virtuous and the beneficial for those in public life, a notion that would henceforth become highly controversial until Machiavelli's attack on it over one and a half thousand years later.
The crux of the work is Book III, so if you don't want to read the whole thing skip to the last section.
When choosing between duties, the chief place is accorded to the class of duties grounded in human fellowship.
In Book I Cicero discusses the topic of virtue. He decides that there are four virtues which require discussion. The first is wisdom, the search for knowledge and the perception of truth. This virtue is what separates man from beasts, as while all animals desire, man alone can exercise reason. The second virtue is the social virtue, which boils down to justice to others and liberality towards your fellow men. The third virtue is greatness of spirit, or courage. The fourth virtue is seemliness or moderation in actions. The virtues are also interconnected; for example, to be just is to be seemly.
The virtue of knowledge had been branded by Plato and Aristotle as the highest. Aristotle's 'action of the soul according to virtue' which was associated with happiness primarily meant intellectual action, not action in politics. However, Cicero is adamant that 'all the praise that belongs to virtue lies in action'. This is not to say he depreciated intellectual accomplishment, as he regarded it as paramount that a young man be well-educated and thought philosophy a fit subject for a man to spend his leisure time dwelling on. Those who spent their entire lives devoted to political philosophy likewise did a great service to their nation, but it was the man who actually carried out practical politics that was more virtuous. The learning of truth should not be disassociated from its implementation.
Justice is 'the most illustrious virtue', says Cicero. To give to all what they deserve is just and to deprive someone of what they deserve is unjust. Cicero also went a step further than previous philosophers and defined negative justice, the idea that if you fail to stop an unjust action happening when it is in your power you have committed an unjust act. It is just above all else for one to serve the state, as the state has given you so much and deserves to be repaid by service. Also within the compass of social virtue is kindness and liberality. However, this only goes so far: for a start, kindness should always benefit the individual and be sure not to harm them by making them dependent. It is also never just to give beyond one's means and make oneself destitute through kindness.
Greatness of spirit is defined by Cicero as a contempt for external goods (wealth, property, etc.) and a love of service to the community, enduring hardships of body and property for the state. Cicero regarded honour as the highest good, but this is not the dubious honour of the brutal conqueror. It is those who prevent injury rather than inflict it who are to be most honoured, for the legislator provides much more thoroughly for the good of his country than the warrior who wins a transient victory. Good deeds gain a man honour, and not the glory he attains thereby. Finally, all men who are in public office should shun the desire for money and work only for the good of the community. All men capable of seeking public office should take it up to prove their courage, for it is dishonourable to fear hard work and the humiliation of failure.
The final virtue is seemliness or moderation. All the virtues are seemly, but the group of virtues which are contained in moderation are particularly well-described by this concept. Moderation is the idea that passion must be controlled by reason, that pleasure should be scorned as it is more suitable to the beasts than man. In addition, each man should follow his own nature and take up a profession which is most suited to this nature. If he does this he is more likely to be constant and level in his actions. The virtuous man is orderly in that he puts everything in its correct place and makes a distinction between leisure and work.
Cicero ends the chapter by discussing which of the virtues takes precedence over the rest. He decides that the social virtue takes precedence over all others, infusing them with their meaning. Wisdom, he says, would be 'solitary and barren' if it were not applied to the practical problems of humankind and did not assist in helping men live the most excellent lives. Greatness of spirit would be savage and brutal if it were detached from notions of justice and sociability which direct it down the proper and honourable channels. Just before the end of the book, he sums up by saying: 'When choosing between duties, the chief place is accorded to the class of duties grounded in human fellowship.'
They hate the men they fear; and whom one hates one would have dead.
~ Ennius, Latin poet and playwright
In Book II, the topic is the beneficial. These are the things which need to be acquired to live life. Cicero's focus is on the support of other men, which he describes as necessary for any endeavour in public life. The book is hence devoted to a discussion of how to acquire the esteem of other men, or glory. Glory is the best way to acquire the support of other men, as support gained through fear is ineffective. Cicero quotes Ennius in support of this view: 'They hate the men they fear; and whom one hates one would have dead.'
Cicero finds that the best way to attain glory is to be considered just by your fellow men. Goodwill towards fellow men is just because it strives to benefit many and will make others more likely to trust us. Keeping faith in contracts will make others more likely to make contracts with us and engage in business dealings with us. Seemliness and moderation, excelling in virtue and avoiding vice], is also a good way to build a reputation as trustworthy.
Another way to gain admiration and respect is through financial liberality, throwing your money around. Some men think this consists in being extravagant and spending huge amounts of money on bread and circuses, but in fact it is more virtuous to invest in public utilities and to spend money on deserving individual cases, like bailing a friend out from debts or ransoming a hostage from bandits. Such glory is appreciated more because it makes a real difference to the lives of the people of the community.
Even better than just throwing money around for gaining you glory is liberality of service, for instance defending someone in the law courts or performing a good deed. When doing so it is most virtuous and most beneficial to favour the good man over one who is well-connected and rich, as the poor but good man is likely to be much more grateful. One should also always be on the side of justice for this will gain you the most admiration from other men, and is honourable in itself. Service to the nation is the best way of all to provide service to the community, and it should always be carried out in an uncorrupt fashion with only the good of the people in consideration.
One then are we to decide between various courses of action which are beneficial? What rule can be applied to show that beneficial actions are always the honourable ones? This is the subject of the last book.
Reconciling the beneficial and the virtuous
It is never beneficial to do wrong, because it is always dishonourable. Moreover, because it is always honourable to be a good man, it is always beneficial.
Cicero accepts without criticism the Stoic idea that the beneficial and the honourable are one and the same. He writes that it is dishonourable to even consider a bad act for the sake of one's own benefit, but concedes that often men can be confused by what the right action is. For instance, it is wrong to kill a man, much less a friend - yet the tyrannicide of Julius Caesar was justified, and many men considered it a noble action. It is easy to see how in such situations it can be difficult to decide whether the beneficial action is really the most honourable one, as definitions of virtuous actions can shift depending on whether the subject is a tyrant or good citizen.
Cicero finds the answer to his question in natural law. His argument is that it is contrary to nature to harm another for one's own benefit, as this undermines the concord and commonality of the human race. Humans should not allow themselves to be reduced to the level of beasts. To keep an untarnished soul it is necessary never to descend to the level of the beasts, and it is better to let your body die than to kill your soul; necessity is no excuse. However, the answer has another side to it. As it is the community of humankind which takes precedent, then the killing or robbing of a tyrant can be justified. If a just and good man kills a tyrant then he has done a service to humanity as the tyrant had himself descended to the level of a beast. Imagine the human race as the limbs of a person. If the limbs fight one another then the body cannot function. However, if one limb begins to lose blood and sap the strength of the whole, it must be amputated.
Cicero continues to discuss the virtues one by one, and how to live by each always results in the most honour, which is the most benefit. He begins by saying that it is always best to be wise as this informs the other virtues, and because to seek to harm others is never wise as it will eventually rebound on you. The wise man will realize it is never good sense to favour dishonour as it tarnishes his soul and eventually brings only bad things upon him. As for justice, it is always contrary to nature to defraud another man and profit from his ignorance, as this is tantamount to forcefully disadvantaging him for your own gain.
A long admonition is given against tyranny. One who succumbs to the temptation of becoming a tyrant will instantly lose their reputation for honour and honour itself, and the latter is more important than any external goods or power that can be gained. The tyrant is forced to live in constant fear that he will be violently overthrown - Dionysius used to have his hair singed with coals for he feared the barber's knife. Such a man is stained and disgraced and anyone who kills him will have done a great service to mankind. No-one who lives in such a state can be regarded as possessing honour and virtue.
Cicero's discussion of courage in the final book focuses on whether one should break faith from a deal or contract because of the hardships (the most extreme of which is physical torture) one would have to endure. On a less extreme level, what is to be said of the man who chooses the pleasant and quiet life with his children over the dangers of politics and war? They are to be censured, as great men should endure anything for honour. As a man who had been heavily involved in public life, Cicero was a firm believer that it was virtuous to take on risks and possible penalties for the good of the soul and for the state. Whatever penalties the body endured would be amply repaid by having a virtuous soul.
Cicero ends the work with a tirade against hedonism. Hedonism is the cardinal sin, making a mockery of all the other virtues. By enshrining pleasure as the ultimate goal, reason is made its handmaiden: the sole goal of reason becomes merely picking between the most pleasurable things to pursue. The virtue of courage disdains pain, but hedonism does everything it possible can to avoid it and prefers to pamper the body with luxury. And of course, moderation takes a bashing when the individual gives himself completely to the pursuit of pleasure. Finally, all the virtues become meaningless if they are purusued merely for the pleasure they give the individual, and not for the only true good: the natural concord of all of mankind.