In “On Duties,” Cicero throws down the gauntlet, defining one of the most important aspects of Western civilization: There is no greater philosophy than the discovery of what our duties are to one another, to our communities, and to our God.
A divorce, the death of a beloved daughter, the absence of his only son, and the death of the Roman republic with the loss of the Senate and the courts plagued Marcus T. Cicero’s last few years in this world of sorrows. For consolation, he turned to philosophy, and, in particular, to Stoic philosophy. In general, Cicero had identified with one of the competing schools of the Stoics, the more skeptical New Academicians, throughout his writing career. Under the instruction of Philo, the New Academicians had promoted what was “probably true” over what could be known with certainty as true. Cicero believed that the various schools existed only as a means of understanding Socrates and Plato, thus proving the various schools of thought more alike than different.
At the end of his life, though, perhaps reaching for something more concrete than what Philo had allowed, Cicero hoped to bring all Greek schools together in a sort of synthesis under the umbrella of Stoic ethics and morality. Inspired by Panaetius’ work, entitled On Duty, written exactly a century earlier, Cicero wrote his own On Duties (De Officiis) as a letter to his absent son, Marcus, then a twenty-one-year-old studying philosophy in Athens.
Whatever his exact reasons for adopting a more Stoical approach to life, Cicero unwittingly (but perhaps gracefully?) prepared Rome for Christianity in ways that other pagans and paganisms could never have allowed or done. That generation of Stoics, including Virgil and Seneca, expected, amazingly enough, the human incarnation of the God of gods. It is little wonder, then, that so many of the early Church fathers—such as Jerome, Augustine, and Ambrose—considered Cicero to be a pagan Christian, more related to Christ and his teachings than not. Most certainly, his martyrdom on December 7, 43 BC, did not hurt his cause among Christians, either.
Cicero begins his treatise, On Duties, by praising his son for having chosen philosophy as a discipline of study, and Athens as the area in which to study. He should, however, never forget that he is a Latin, not a Greek, and he should, accordingly, combine things Latin with things Greek.
Then, Cicero throws down the gauntlet, defining one of the most important aspects of Western civilization. A man, if judged properly, will never be judged by his rights. Instead, all right judgment is judgment of the success and execution of one’s duties.
Although philosophy offers many problems, both important and useful, that have been fully and carefully discussed by philosophers, those teachings which have been handed down on the subject of moral duties seem to have the widest practical application. For no phase of life, whether public or private, whether in business or in the home, whether one is working on what concerns oneself alone or dealing with another, can be without its moral duty; on the discharge of such duties depends all that is morally right, and on their neglect all that is morally wrong in life.*
In a modern and post-modern world saturated with our talk of rights, more rights, and still more rights, Cicero seems somewhat antiquated. Yet, he holds his ground. Virtue, by its very nature—that is, “virtue” as the very “power of man”—is the nature of man and at the heart of man and all good, right, and proper living and order. Following the teachings of Aristotle, especially, Cicero notes that man, of all creatures, not only has the desire to procreate and continue the species, but he also has a share of reason.
Reason, when properly employed (the practical Latins always care more about the usefulness of a thing than do the Socratic Greeks), leads one to seek all that is blessed in life. Reason, after all, brings real diversity to life. “Above all, the search after truth and its eager pursuit are peculiar to man,” he advises his son. “And so, when we have leisure from the demands of business cares, we are eager to see, to hear, to learn something new, and we esteem a desire to know the secrets or wonders of creation as indispensable to a happy life.” As such, there is no greater philosophy, or love of wisdom, than the discovery of what makes life worth living, and what our duties are to one another, to our communities, and to our God.
Moreover, the subject of this inquiry is the common property of all philosophers; for who would presume to call himself a philosopher, if he did not inculcate any lessons of duty? But there are some schools that distort all notions of duty by the theories they propose touching the supreme good and the supreme evil. For he who posits the supreme good as having no connection with virtue and measures it not by a moral standard but by his own interests — if he should be consistent and not rather at times over-ruled by his better nature, he could value neither friendship nor justice nor generosity; and brave he surely cannot possibly be that counts pain the supreme evil, nor temperate he that holds pleasure to be the supreme good.
In these vital matters, Cicero continues, only the Stoics fully understand. Others come close, but they fail to grasp the essence of goodness, of virtue, and of duty.
Never would God have given man the ability to pursue goodness, truth, or beauty without the desire that we do so. Even our sight alone, Cicero tells his son, allows us to see the strangenesses, the quirks, the oddities, and the congruences that hold the diverse together, that bring the gothic aspects into the whole. As such, then, men have the duty to pursue God’s will and to make whole what has been shattered. One cannot do this with rights, but only with duties.
Even if one fails in discovering the unity that holds all things together, it is honorable to try. This, after all, is man’s highest duty.
This is the sixth essay in Bradley J. Birzer’s “Cicero’s Republic” series.
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*All quotations are taken from Walter Miller’s 1913 translation, unless otherwise stated.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is “The Young Cicero Reading” (c. 1464) by Vincenzo Foppa (1427-1515), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.