Cicero: On Obligations

September 4, 2020

On Obligations
Marcus Tullius Cicero
Translated from the Latin by P.G. Walsh
(Oxford, 2000) [44 BC]
lx + 218 p.

After the assassination of Julius Caesar in March of 44 BC, Cicero retired from Rome to wait out the political turmoil. For the previous few years he had been writing a series of broadly philosophical works, and he used his time in the country to continue that effort. This book, De officiis, was written in the autumn of 44 BC, and is addressed to Cicero’s son (also named Marcus Tullius Cicero).

For this volume P.G. Walsh has translated the title as “On Obligations”; sometimes it is called “On Duties”. The subject is moral obligation: what actions are required of us, particularly as concerns duties to fellow citizens and to the state? He structures much of the book to follow the treatment given this same subject by a Greek Stoic called Panaetius, who had lived a few generations earlier. As usual, Cicero sees himself as a conduit through whom Greek ideas can be made available to Romans.

The central dichotomy that structures the book is that between what is honourable or virtuous, on the one hand, and what is useful or expedient, on the other. Cicero is in the tradition of both natural law (“nature is the basis of law”) and virtue ethics. By “honourable” he means consistent with the virtues of justice, prudence, magnanimity, and self-control. (Note the interesting departure from the canonical list of cardinal virtues.) He compares these virtues, discusses their application using a variety of examples, emphasises the need for our actions to be governed by reason, and prioritises those to whom we have duties — in his mind, first to the gods, then to the country, then to parents, and then to others. Oddly, considering to whom he is writing, he doesn’t talk about obligations to one’s children.

Under the banner of “the useful”, he focuses mainly on means of gaining influence with others, through gift-giving, public service, and good counsel. His main purpose is to counter the view that what is useful is in conflict with what is honourable. On the contrary, he argues that the two are properly inseparable: what is dishonourable or unvirtuous cannot be really expedient except in an inappropriately narrow sense. (Sure, cheating my rival might seem to be expedient for some reason, but by doing so I would harm my soul and put myself in peril of the law, which would not be expedient in the long term.)

The final section of the book examines cases in which virtue and expediency seem to be in conflict. Is it acceptable to conceal the defects in something you are selling? Must we always keep our promises? Throughout, consistent with his leading principle, he concludes that the usefulness of unvirtuous acts is illusory. His great exemplar of an honourable man is Regulus, who kept his word and served the interests of Rome rather than his own.

*

To my mind, De officiis seems a fairly minor work of moral philosophy. Whatever value it has in articulating the foundations of moral conduct or for explaining the virtues would seem to be eclipsed by, for example, Aristotle’s Ethics. (I do not know if Aristotle’s works were known to Cicero.) Its content is sound, and its leading idea — that what is virtuous cannot truly conflict with what is expedient — is noble, but the idea is more asserted than argued. Likewise, the important idea that a common moral framework can be based on our common human nature is simply stated, rather than defended. Moreover, the book has a somewhat rambling manner, with asides and comments to his son included in the main line of the discussion. And whatever glories the original Latin prose may possess did not survive this translation to English.

But history has judged De officiis more kindly than I have; the book has been immensely popular over the ages. Pliny the Elder apparently counseled that it should be read daily until it was committed to memory. Christian writers appropriated it, and St. Ambrose even wrote his own De officiis based on Cicero’s. It often formed part of the curriculum for medieval schoolmen, and Aquinas cites it several times in his treatise on the virtues in the Summa Theologiae. Cicero’s classification of dishonourable acts influenced Dante’s structure of hell in Inferno. During the Renaissance it was Cicero’s most widely read book; both Erasmus and Melancthon prepared editions of it, and it was the good angel to Machiavelli’s bad in The Prince. Traces of Cicero’s influence run through Hume and Kant, but in the nineteenth century the popularity of his philosophical writings faded, and the popularity of De officiis with it. I cannot say I lament its late fortunes, although its value would be markedly greater were we suddenly bereft of the tradition to which it partly gave rise. Its sons were greater than it.

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