Cicero’s On Duties

A series of short commentaries on Cicero’s On Duties, a book that Frederick the Great called “the best work on morals that has been or can be written.” It was Cicero’s last book, written before he was killed on the orders of Mark Anthony, and Cicero himself considered it his masterpiece. It is strongly influenced by the writings of the middle Stoic Panaetius, informed by Cicero’s own Skepticism and eclecticism. It’s not just one of the classics of western literature, but one of the most eminently useful books you will ever ponder.

I.4: On the discharge of our duties depends all that is morally right, and on their neglect all that is morally wrong in life.

I.5: Brave he surely cannot possibly be that counts pain the supreme evil, nor temperate he that holds pleasure to be the supreme good.

I.7: Every treatise on duty has two parts: one, dealing with the doctrine of the supreme good; the other with the practical rules by which daily life in all its bearings may be regulated.

I.9: Consider if what you are doing is: (i) morally right; (ii) conducive to your happiness; and (iii) whether you may be rationalizing doing something wrong simply because it brings you comfort.

I.12: Nature by the power of reason associates man with man in the common bonds of speech and life; she also prompts men to meet in companies, to form public assemblies, and to take part in them themselves.

I.15: Cicero argues that there are four fundamental concerns of morality: truth; the organization of society (including our duties toward others); the development of our character; and doing everything while exercising temperance.

I.18-19: If we truly want to become better human beings, Cicero counsels, we should avoid two common mistakes. Let’s take a look at what they are, and reflect on whether we ourselves have sometimes committed them.

I.22: We ought to follow Nature as our guide, to contribute to the general good by an interchange of acts of kindness, by giving and receiving, and thus by our skill, our industry, and our talents to cement human society more closely together.

I.25: I do not mean to find fault with the accumulation of property, provided it hurts nobody, but unjust acquisition of it is always to be avoided.

I.29: There are some also who claim that they are occupied solely with their own affairs. They are traitors to social life, for they contribute to it none of their interest, none of their effort, none of their means.

I.42: Cicero argues that we ought to consider what is the best way for us to engage in acts of kindness. And that the fundamental criterion by which to judge their soundness is justice.

I.49: Cicero reminds us that in virtue ethics intentions are fundamental. If you do an act of kindness in order to receive a favor, then you have done no kindness at all.

I.55: Of all the bonds of fellowship, there is none more noble, none more powerful than when good people of congenial character are joined in intimate friendship.

I.59: Eric Weiner, the author of The Socrates Express, put it nicely: “Duty [is] not obligation. There is a difference. Duty comes from inside, obligation from outside.”

I.62: The Stoics, therefore, correctly define courage as “that virtue which champions the cause of right.” For nothing that lacks justice can be morally right.

I.68: There is nothing more honourable and noble than to be indifferent to money, if one does not possess it, and to devote it to beneficence and liberality, if one does possess it.

I.72: Those whom Nature has endowed with the capacity for administering public affairs should put aside all hesitation, enter the race for public office and take a hand in directing the government.

I.85: First, keep the good of the people so clearly in view that regardless of your own interests you will make your every action conform to that; second, care for the welfare of the whole body politic and do not let the interests of one party betray the rest.

I.89. In administering punishment it is above all necessary to allow no trace of anger. It is to be desired that they who administer the government should be like the laws, which are led to inflict punishment not by wrath but by justice.

I.98: Cicero tells us that there is a harmonious beauty in the relationship between one’s virtuous character and that person’s actions. The relationship being analogous to that between physical beauty and health.

I.103: Here is how to balance the serious and the playful components of your life, what psychologists call the eudaimonic and hedonic aspects of existence.

I.107 & 115: Cicero relates that the Stoic Panaetius thought there are four fundamental aspects to our character, and that they shape our roles in society.

I.117: We are called to make important decisions about our life and career when we are young and immature. That’s why engaging in critical philosophical reflection as soon as possible is crucial for our happiness.

I.142: Moderation is the science of doing the right thing at the right time.

I.153: If wisdom is the most important of the virtues, as it certainly is, it necessarily follows that that duty which is connected with the social obligation is the most important duty.

II.3-4. And since my mind could not be wholly idle, I thought that the most honourable way for me to forget my sorrows would be by turning to philosophy.

II.5. And if someone lives who would belittle the study of philosophy, I quite fail to see what in the world they would see fit to praise.

II.7: As other schools maintain that some things are certain, others uncertain, we, differing with them, say that some things are probable, others improbable.

II.9: It is nowadays accepted that a thing may be morally right without being expedient, and expedient without being morally right. No more pernicious doctrine than this could be introduced into human life.

II.13-14: Think of the aqueducts, canals, irrigation works, breakwaters, artificial harbors; how should we have these without the work of people?

II.41-42: The reason for making constitutional laws was the same as that for making kings. For what people have always sought is equality of rights before the law. For rights that were not open to all alike would be no rights.

II.63: Relieving the poor is a form of charity that is a service to the state as well as to the individual.

II.68: We must apologize also, to the best of our ability, if we have involuntarily hurt anyone’s feelings, and we must by future services and kind offices atone for the apparent offense.

II.75, 77: But the chief thing in all public administration and public service is to avoid even the slightest suspicion of self-seeking. For to exploit the state for selfish profit is not only immoral; it is criminal, infamous.

III.11: Whether moral goodness is the only good, as the Stoics believe, or whether, as the Peripatetics think, it is the highest of many goods, it is beyond question that expediency can never conflict with moral rectitude.

III.12: There were, broadly speaking, two major clusters of Hellenistic philosophies: the Socratic ones and, for lack of a better term, the ataraxic ones. Let’s take a look at the differences.

III.19: If your friend were a tyrant, would you kill him? That is the situation that Brutus faced with respect to Caesar, and which Cicero analyzes in this episode.

III.21: Injustice is fatal to social life and fellowship between people. For, if we are so disposed that each, to gain some personal profit, will defraud or injure his neighbor, then the bonds of human society must of necessity be broken.

III.27: Those who say that regard should be had for the rights of fellow-citizens, but not of foreigners, would destroy the universal brotherhood of mankind.

III.33: Cicero explains that ethical reasoning is akin to mathematics: it begins with certain axioms that are taken for granted. Which axioms does your ethical thinking assume to be true?

III.35: Cicero presents the Stoic argument that we are born to be virtuous, meaning prosocial. The Epicureans thought we are born to seek pleasure and avoid pain. They both had a point.

III.42. “When a man enters the foot-race,” says Chrysippus with his usual aptness, “it is his duty to put forth all his strength and strive with all his might to win; but he ought never with his foot to trip, or with his hand to foul a competitor.”

III.81. Pray, tell me, does it coincide with the character of your good person to lie for their own profit, to slander, to overreach, to deceive? Nay, verily; anything but that!

III.99-115. Marcus Atilius Regulus in his second consulship was taken prisoner in Africa by the stratagem of Xanthippus, a Spartan general serving under the command of Hannibal’s father Hamilcar. …