Cicero’s On Duties: A Guideline to Morality by Pete Fagella

Throughout history human kind has struggled with making the right choice. Moral guidance has been offered through religion, philosophy, law, and pure instinct. In antiquity, at a time of great civil strife, during the final days of the Roman Republic, Marcus Tullius Cicero created a foundation for western moral guidance that would last throughout the ages. De Officiis (“on Duties”) was written as advice to his son, and exists for us here, today. Cicero will be heavily quoted throughout this article. Unless otherwise stated, for the sake of simplicity, all quotations are to be assumed to be from Cicero.

Historical Context

Before we examine Cicero, we must provide some historical context. Somewhere near the year 140 BCE the stoic school was brought to Rome. Panaetius, the seventh leader of the school composed a work of moral guidelines that was entitled “on the appropriate”. Very little of his work remains and most of what we have has come from secondary sources. One of those secondary sources is Cicero who used “on the appropriate” as the backdrop for On Duties.

Cicero was born in the year 106BCE, however is career really took off around the year 81BCE and continued until he died in 47BCE. At this time in the Roman Republic, the goal of any young man was to have political aspirations. Like most Romans he began his career as an advocate in the courts. Remarkably, he was accepted into the Senate as a novus homo (new man), as his family was not a member of the Patrician class. He rose to the top of the political latter to the rank of Consul. As Consul he discovered a conspiracy to overthrow the government and was declared father of the country. In the first publicly recorded debate on the death penalty, Cicero moved for the immediate execution of the conspirators, he was opposed by Julius Caesar in the courts but ultimately won the case.

Cicero wrote many other works including, De Oratore (“on the speaker”), De Re publica (on the republic), De Legibus (“on the laws”), and many others. He was regarded widely for his reputation in rhetoric, law, and his devotion to the republic. Although he opposed Caesar during the civil war, Caesar pardoned him because he was still father of the country and respected by all.

 January, 44BCE: The Roman Civil war between Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompey is over. Caesar is the victor and is elected dictator for life by the Roman Senate. During the war, Cato the great Stoic and friend of Cicero has committed suicide rather than serve under Caesar. Public support from the lower classes for Caesar has grown to disturbing levels, the aristocracy fears the republic is coming to an end.

The ides of March, March 15th, 44BCE: The normally used Senate chambers are unavailable. Caesar, now sole leader in Rome presides in the theatre of Pompey to address the Senate. It is a normal meeting, Cicero, now just a Senator is in attendance. Suddenly under the pretext of filing a grievance, one senator approaches Caesar. This was the signal to attack, many senators lunged at Caesar, daggers in hand. The assassination was violent, bloody, and perfectly in Cicero’s view.

Summer, 44BCE: The conspirators having misjudged public reaction to the assassination were forced to flee Rome, forming an army in Greece. Marcus Antony, now a Consul, seizes power and moves his base to what is now Spain. Cicero having witnessed the assassination, takes time to see what develops. He goes home to his villa and writes to his son. He creates a moral guideline to steer him for the rest of his life entitled “On Duties: (De Officiis) which consisted of three books. The first two having been influenced by stoic leader Panaetius and his work “on the appropriate”. The third book being of his own creation. There is little time to write, a new civil war between the Senate, Antony, and the Conspirators is inevitable.

On Duties

Cicero was himself not a student of the Stoic School, but rather of the Academy, which was based on the teaching of Plato. However, some overlap between stoicism and the Academy does exist. Cicero, in the beginning of On Duties cites the Stoics as being the best qualified to highlight our duties. Consequently, even though Cicero was not Stoic, On Duties was written as moral guidance from a Stoic perspective. 

 There is no aspect of life, public, private, judicial, domestic, personal, or involving others to which duties or responsibilities are irrelevant. All that is honorable in life comes from duties, all that is shameful is neglecting it. 

In his treatise he shows us that which our duties require. Book one shows us to do what is honorable, book two shows us how to do what is advantageous, book three shows us what to do when what is honorable conflicts with what is advantageous.

When faced with choosing an action, or deciding between more than one possible action, must we consider if the action is honorable or shameful, and out of multiple honorable choices or shameful choices, which is the more honorable and which is the least shameful. We must also consider if the action helps you achieve a goal by giving you an advantage, and if there are multiple actions, is one more advantageous than the other. Finally, we must examine if there is a conflict between what is honorable and what is advantageous.

Book One What is Honorable (Virtuous)

Each instance of honorable conduct falls into one of four categories: It entails perception and discernment of the truth; or safeguarding bonds amongst humans, by assigning to each his own in securing relations of trust; or it originates in the magnificent strength of a lofty, unconquered soul; or in a temperate, moderate order measured in word and deed.

This is of course talking about the four cardinal virtues first introduced by Plato, that are used as the foundation of Stoic philosophy, wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance.

“A salient characteristic of humankind is our quest for truth”. In seeking wisdom, we must accept three precepts: 1) our natural ability to reason, generally speaking, makes humans different than other animals, 2) what is true, simple and uncorrupted, is best suited for human nature, and 3) the wisest is he who perceives the truth, and can explain in the most accurate way. Immediately we are introduced to stoic connection to nature. However, Cicero goes beyond the Stoic precept that we must live in accordance with nature. He extends this concept to human nature. Living in accordance with nature is thus extended to mean living in accordance with your own personal human nature.

The quest for wisdom will inevitably be met with distractions along the way. We must consider two simple rules that can help us to avoid making errors in our quest. First, do not make assumptions, avoid this error by gathering all the facts. Often, we make judgements with only fractions of information that do not show the full picture. Occasionally those fractions present misinformation with regards to that full picture. If we than act on that misinformation we risk moving away from the very wisdom that we have sought.

The second rule that we must consider is that we must not waste time on unimportant issues. When we are seeking wisdom, we must first determine if what we are trying to learn is really essential to living a virtuous lifestyle. Life can be very distracting, often our passions can mislead us and we become consumed with unessential and unimportant issues. We must be aware of what we really need and stay the course.

There is nothing deadlier than the behavior of people who will act as though they are honorable men, even as they commit acts of great deception.

Justice from a Stoic perspective is synonymous with fairness with regards to how people should treat each other. This is not to be confused with criminal justice which will be left to the state to determine. Here we are talking about being just to one another, to act with justice with our human interactions.

The two fundamental precepts of justice are to do no harm, and to be of service to others. We must not cause harm to others for we are all part of a greater community and our motivation should fundamentally be for the common good and not self-interest, as that is the virtuous path. As we are all connected to this community, to attack a stranger is essentially the same as an attack on a loved one. We must be strong as courage struggles on behalf of fairness.

We provide service to others through acts of kindness and generosity. Through these acts we must remember to learn all of the facts of the circumstances of which we are involved. Taking precautions to ensure that our kindness does not hurt those who we want to help or anybody else is essential. We must also be aware of our own limitations; we are useless to others if we overextend ourselves. We must therefore have a system in place that ensures our priorities are met. We should not waste our time helping those who cannot be helped when we could have used our time to provide useful help elsewhere.

The application of justice and the prioritization of our resources must therefore follow this order: First, “To our country and parents because we are bound to them by the greatest benefits.” Second, “To our children and the entire household who look to us alone and have no other source of security.” Third, “To the relations with whom we are on the terms and often share even our possessions,” finally, if able and we are not overextended we must be just with those to which we can do the most good.

The brave and steady soul is not disturbed by difficult circumstances, or forced from his place, as saying goes. He relies on his ready wits and does not veer from a rational plan of action.

The brave soul shows courage and disregards externals, the brave soul will undertake great and useful projects, understanding the risks and difficulty involved.

Externals are the distractions in life that keep us from being virtuous. These externals can be as simple as the puddle we step in that upsets us because we are no wet, to be as extreme as the death of a loved one. Externals can also be our own ego and preconceptions that we must overcome. As a means to avoid externals we must assent only to what’s honorable and be free of emotional disturbance. We must avoid arrogant, disdainful and self-aggrandizing behavior. We must not be judgmental and be more accepting of people who keep to themselves to better themselves.

One who undertakes great and useful projects, understanding the risks and difficulty involved must “be disciplined and conditioned to be able to abide by rational advice while completing projects and enduring strain.” It takes far more courage to make peace then war, it is far easier to fight then it is to forgive.

Nothing is more deserving of approval or better suited to a great, distinguish man then clemency and the ability to make peace.

However, with success we run the risk of allowing our ego to run wild. We may even encounter others who have let their egos run wild. Stoicism requires us to teach or to tolerate.

Men who become uncontrollable and overconfident as a result of success need to be put through a round of training in reason until they recognize the fragility of human affairs and the uncertainty of fortune.

One further aspect of integrity for honor remains to be discussed. It involves modesty and a certain elegant manner of life, temperance, restraint, the calming of emotions, and due measure in possessions. The nature of decorum is such that it can’t be separated from good and honorable behavior. For what’s appropriate is good and what’s good is appropriate.

Decorum is of the greatest relevance to our present topic of moderation, for movements of the body and even more so the mind must accord with nature.

We are coming back to the idea of living in accordance with nature, and more so with our own human nature. We must create a virtuous plan for our lives that aligns with our own personal nature. For nothing is right if it is incompatible with our personal nature.

In all that we do we must show a degree of moderation and restraint. Living to excess with anything amounts to an addiction and thus dependance on externals for happiness. This concept must extend even to our character. As an example, when joking be witty and spontaneous, not extravagant or tasteless. Our joking must also reflect a basic decency of character.

From decorum our words, deeds, bodily movements and stances have created beauty, orderliness, and a polish suited to public presentation.

However, what is orderliness? Order is defined as fitting things together in appropriate places. While the place of an action is defined as the suitability of time. Thus, orderliness is knowledge of the proper occasions for an action. A simple example of this is that we know not to bring up politics or religion at our place of employment.

Decorum is the tool that we use to reach the virtue of temperance. We must teach ourselves how to behave in public, but also in private. We must not do anything to excess. Foul language is an excess of speech if we do so casually, gluttony is an excess of appetite if we continue to eat after we are full, adulty is an excess of desire, etc.

First and foremost, we need to decide who we are, what kind of person we want to be, what kind of life to lead.

Finally, with regards to what is honorable we must consider three basic guidelines: Impulse must obey reason, we must consider the significance of the action and apply neither more nor less attention than it demands, and maintain a sense of proportion in all matters of status and appearance, as we have an obligation to excel at the things we have under our control.

Book Two: What is Advantageous (Expedient)

Being honorable and virtuous does not mean that we must live as monks. We are allowed to have goals, dreams, and preferences as to what we want to do with our lives.

I must ask those critics to make a greater effort to understand our position. For in spite of our negative attitude towards the certainty of knowledge we are very far from being just intellectual drifters who flounder about without any idea of what we’re looking for.

How can we determine what action or decision is advantageous towards the accomplishment of our goals?

Paneatius said: “No leader, either in war or in peace, could ever have performed an important or beneficial actions unless he gained the cooperation of his fellow man.” Human being as individuals, as members of the animal kingdom are inherently weak. We do not exhibit great speed like wolves, we are not especially strong like bears, our teeth are small, we do not have claws, and our bodies are not well insulated from weather. Our survival as a species was only possible because of our ability to reason and our sense of community.

In the beginning, hunter gatherers banded together for a common purpose of survival. As tribes began to form and grow, cities were created. With the creation of cities was the development of laws and customs, which led to a distribution of rights. This spirit of humanity and of mutual consideration created stability, mutual respect, and the sharing of resources.

Any position that argues for advantageousness must begin with the premise of moral goodness, that nothing can be advantageous if it is not morally good. What is moral goodness? Moral goodness is the sum of three abilities: the ability to distinguish truth from falsity, the ability to restrain from passions, and the ability to behave considerately and understandingly in our associations with other people. We have already discussed at length the first two abilities in the section above on what is honorable. To determine what is advantageous we must therefore discuss the ability to behave considerately and understandingly in our associations with other people. Fundamentally, it is better to be loved then feared, and we must be careful only to trust those with whom exists genuine mutual loyalty and mutual affection.

Having established that moral goodness is a requirement for advantageousness it therefor surmises that we must first establish a reputation for moral goodness before we can gain an advantage. To establish this reputation, we must perform acts of goodwill, we must gain the confidence of our peers, and we must earn the kind of respect which would inspire our elevation to a leadership position.

To establish this reputation through acts of goodwill we have two options. We can either perform a service, or demonstrate a willingness to perform a service if you had the means to do so but don’t. The first of these options requires resources but has a greater effect, the latter option requires only mutual trust in the sincerity of your intent. The easiest service to perform for a person is to give them money, however we can also offer our skills as trade, or even our ears to listen. Regardless of what we do, resources are still required and are limited so we must be careful not to over extend ourselves. If we find ourselves overextended, we simply express the intent to offer a service and if you have a trusting relationship with that person, they will believe your sincerity and you’ll have established a reputation of moral goodness through goodwill.

 To establish a reputation of moral goodness through gaining the confidence of our peers we must first be intelligent, just, and honest.

If a man is not regarded as honest, the more shrewd and sharp he is the more he will be disliked and distrusted.

Using intelligence and charm to engage in a dishonest act is morally disgraceful.

The best of us will establish a reputation for moral goodness while earning the kind of respect which would inspire our elevation to a leadership position. Those of us who accomplish this will exceed all expectations of goodness towards a noble goal. They will be a decent person, regardless of what happens to them or around them. They will not become distracted by external circumstances, good or bad, while perusing that noble goal.

Having a reputation for moral goodness is useless unless that reputation is grounded in truth. Moral goodness requires kindness and generosity. The question of whether or not we should be kind and generous is moot, as we are required to be on a moral level. If helping others in need is within our means, we are obligated to help. These acts of kindness and generosity towards others can have additional benefits, as the people you help can gain the means to help others.

However, as resources are limited, we must maintain that we only help those deserving of help. We must never help a person who demonstrates moral disgracefulness.

The main rule in deciding when to offer your assistance is this. You should never agree to back a case which takes the wrong side against the right. For since the root of all lasting reputation and renown is justice, nothing from which justice is absent can conceivably deserve our support……those who have not perfected the art of wisdom may adopt the outward semblance of moral rectitude, but cannot possess moral rectitude itself.

So, what is the most advantageous? To achieve gains through a demonstration of moral goodness. Understanding our own capabilities and limitations while contributing to both to a community of all and a community of one. Uniting society without partisanship.

Book Three: Conflicts Between The Honorable And The Advantageous?

As the foundation to our society is socialization which created small tribes that developed into cities. We must remember that “what is advantageous to a single citizen and what is advantageous to the group as a whole should be the same.” This premise therefor suggests that it is against nature to steal from each other, even if not doing so allows our continued harm. For, an attack on others is the same as an attack on ourselves. “The neglect of the common good is against nature, it is patently unjust”, and if an attack on one is the same as an attack on all, then to attack one is against nature itself. Of all the virtues “justice is by far the most important virtue, the empress and mistress of them all.”

Chrysippus of Soli, third head of the Stoic school once said “He who runs in an athletic race ought to compete and struggle as intensely as he can. But in order to win, he ought not to trip or push over a fellow competitor. So, in life, it is not unjust for a man to seek what he needs for his own use; but to steal something away from someone else is, in fact, unjust.”

Nothing should be aspired to for its own sake except that which is morally right.

Whereas anything that is morally right is also advantageous, the deliberation of an immoral is itself is morally disgraceful, regardless of if it is followed by action. We must be morally good not just in our actions, but also in our thoughts.

The real issue is not whether moral goodness will be abandoned because of the great attractiveness of the competing (advantage) but rather whether the (advantageous) thing can be gained without moral disgrace.

We must make an analysis of what is to be done when conflicting duties are being compared.

Natural law is the ultimate source of guidance; it is in accordance with nature that no one should act in a way that preys on the ignorance of another. No greater obscenity in life can be found then when wickedness cloaks itself with the pretense of intelligence.

Nature requires moral goodness to be imbued with advantageousness, to suggest otherwise is an erroneous concept. “The belief that a morally corrupt thing can be advantageous is truly a ruinous concept” Fundamentally, nothing unjust is advantageous.

However, at times we find ourselves in situations where we are unclear as to what is the morally right choice as both scenarios may result in a morally questionable outcome. A good example of this would be whether or not you are required to keep a promise. For example, if you promise to return a phone call by a certain time and a family emergency occurs in between, you can’t keep that promise. So, what factors should we considers as to whether or not we must keep a promise.

 The value of keeping a promise is such that we maintain a relationship of trust and create a reputation for moral goodness. However, if in keeping the promise we do something morally questionable then that reputation is unwarranted. Keeping in line with the three principles of how to earn a reputation for moral goodness as discussed above, we must evaluation the content and the consequences of the promise in question. If keeping a promise harms you or the person with whom you made the promise then you need not keep that promise. If keeping the promise to a person allows that person to hurt others you need not follow the promise. If keeping the promise results in any morally disgraceful act than you need not keep the promise. We must always err on the side of moral goodness.

During the first of three wars with Carthage, Rome had a hero who was challenged with a moral dilemma. Marcus Atilius Regulus was a Roman Consul who was captured during a great naval battle. Upon his capture the Carthaginians decided to attempt to use him as part of a hostage exchange. He was sent back to Rome by Carthage to negotiate a prisoner exchange. Himself for Carthaginian Nobles, with instructions to return to Carthage if negotiations fail. While in Rome he was in a position to stay in Rome, with his family, and continue as Consul.

 He spoke to the Roman Senate, recusing himself from the vote, informed them of the Carthaginian proposal. “He said as long as he was bound by oath to the enemy, he was not a senator.” He then pointed out that the Carthaginian prisoners were young, vigorous leaders, while he was old. He advised the Senate not to accept the deal. Afterwards he returned to Carthage, knowing torture awaited him.

Keeping his word was the primary object in his mind. So, when he was slowly executed through sleep deprivation, it was still a better fate than if he had puttered around in Rome as an old, broken captive, a consul unworthy of the name.

 A generation past Regulus during the second Punic war, after the Carthaginian victory at Cannae, Hannibal captured 8,000 Romans who were left in the camp who did not participate in the battle. He attempted to use them to force Roman surrender.

The senate decided not to pay a ransom for these captives; even though it would have cost little money, it was believed to be better to send our soldiers the message that they should either be victorious or die fighting. Hannibal, having heard this news, became truly demoralized; for although Rome had suffered a huge disaster, the senate and the people still retained their fighting spirit. Thus, when we compare these options, what appears to be advantageous is eclipsed by what is morally correct.

When we are trying to make an evaluation as to how to handle a conflict with what is advantageous vs what is morally correct the answer becomes clear. Any circumstance that shows the outcome to not be morally correct is proven to be not advantageous. Advantageousness and moral goodness must concurrent. Advantageousness and moral disgracefulness are mutual exclusive, as it is always advantageous to be morally good.

Historical Context: What Happened to Cicero After “On Duties”

September, 44BCE: After six months away from Rome, and having completed at least three major philosophical works. Cicero returns to deliver the first of 14 major speeches against Marc Antony. Octavian, 19-year-old nephew and adopted son to Caesar, and heir to his fortune, raised his own private army with his inheritance from Caesar’s veterans. Cicero believing, he could control the young Octavian convinced the Senate to allow him to lead his army alongside two other armies provided by the Senate, to defeat Antony. Antony was defeated; however, the two commanders of the Senatorial armies were killed, leaving Octavian to absorb the entire force. Then the unthinkable happened.

In 43 BCE Antony, Octavian, and a third man, Lepidus reconciled and divided the republic into three. Creating essentially an oligarchy. A list of men was created between them to be executed and their wealth distributed amongst them. Antony demanded Cicero be put on the list in retaliation for the speeches made against him. In the end Cicero, realizing it would be futile to run, calmly waited for the executioner. In a grizzly display, Antony had his head and hands removed and nailed to the forum. This was a statement of what would happen to the hands the write against him and the head that speaks against him.

Plutarch, a first century Roman historian recalls an event,

A long time afterwards, so I have been told, Caesar (Octavian) was writing to one of his daughter’s sons. The boy had a book of Cicero’s in his hands and, terrified of his grandfather, tried to hide in under his cloak. Caesar notice this and, after taking the book from him, stood there and read a great part of it. He then handed it back to the young man with these words: “A learned man, my child, a learned man and a lover of his country.”

Pete Fagella has been studying Stoic philosophy for the past 10 years. He currently runs the New England Stoics philosophy group out of Boston but lives in New Hampshire. He is  currently studying Latin and for fun spends time with his children.

5 thoughts on Cicero’s On Duties: A Guideline to Morality by Pete Fagella

  1. Kirstyn Kralovec says:

    I’d like to see this material turned into a continuing education course for Congress.

  2. Rob Jaworski says:

    In reading Book Two: What is Advantageous, my mind kept going back to last week’s events in Washington, DC. All of what we witnessed there was contrary to what is discussed in Book Two.
    Those involved with these events must have no concept of moral goodness. “What is moral goodness? Moral goodness is the sum of three abilities: the ability to distinguish truth from falsity, the ability to restrain from passions, and the ability to behave considerately and understandingly in our associations with other people.” It would help if many of those people who appear to have difficulty spotting truth from lie would pick up on some of this thought.

  3. Mark Trumble says:

    Thank you

  4. Leo Frank says:

    There is a duplicitous, untrustworthy, foolish person in my life who constantly leads me into trouble and misery. That person is me.
    Thanks for posting this article. Guidelines like this provide a structure and wisdom that gives us a shot at making choices that could bring lasting joy, equanimity and tranquility into our lives.
    The example of Regulus, the Senate and Cicero himself are powerful exemplars of the level of commitment to the good life that is being called for.

  5. Kevin White says:

    Does anyone have a preferred version on “On Duties” that they would recommend?

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