Cicero: On Duties Summary

Marcus Cicero

Cicero: On Duties

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Cicero: On Duties Summary

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On Duties, or De Officiis, is a treatise written by Marcus Cicero concerning the best ways to live, behave, and live a moral life. It was written around 44 BC and completed in just under four weeks. It was written in the form of a letter to his son.

In book 1, Cicero analyzes what is morally correct by introducing the four virtues: prudence, courage, justice, and moderation. He discusses what is honorable by saying that it should be what is just, what is expedient (or to one’s advantage), and what makes amends between the two.

He outlines his own philosophical leanings. He stands between the Stoics and the Epicureans, preferring to follow Panaetius instead. He begins his discussion of Panaetius’s middle way in order to bring together the history of his philosophical and moral choices. He says that nature has endowed every living thing with a sense of self-preservation, but that men have the power of reason, and the power to think of both the present and the future.

Cicero says that we must have justice in mind for even the humblest human, because it is in the interest of society to have this common bond. Duty plays a key role in the development of social well-being, as well as abiding the law rather than just listening to whatever the current ruler says. Also, one of the most honorable relationships is the duty man has to government. This relationship is required for honorable societies that care for all humankind.

In book 2, he analyzes what it means for an act to be expedient, or in the cause of one’s own good. He notes the ways that people have taken advantage of the political system to further their own gain and criticizes such behavior. In the Roman world at that time, nothing could be more advantageous than attracting a political following, and Cicero attempts to reconcile these demands with what is morally right.

His main point is that, although there are things that must be present for a good life, for example wealth or necessary resources, selfishness must be absent when making good decisions. An honest leader does not desire glory and must use reason to keep impulses under control. The best kind of leader is shrewd and honorable.

He also explores the appeal of what is expedient, and the different ways that someone might fall into thinking only of what is advantageous for him or herself. He states that one cannot be completely moral and expedient at the same time. There must be an examination and reconciliation between the two concepts.

In book 3, Cicero analyzes the conflict between moral duty and what is expedient or in one’s own interest. He expounds on his own idea of the moral man, the man who has been tested and appears immune to expediency. It is only this wise man that can be sure his actions are moral. Most people are to subject to the impulses and cannot know the reasons for their actions.

He claims that the absence of political rights is a corrupting factor when considering moral virtues. He says that there is a natural law that governs humans and gods, and we must take this law into consideration when considering morality. For example, when a man is honest, he can reconcile what is expedient with what is moral without any issue.

The final point Cicero makes is that of confidence. It is easy to follow someone with confidence and courage in a time of panic will do you well. This was a time of political unrest, with people vying for power and over stepping boundaries.

One of the major themes of the book is that of the four personas. The first is universal, in which all humans participate in the superior intelligence given to humans and not to that of animals. In the second, the individual, we participate in the pursuit of morality through our differing strengths and talents. The third is situational, for example, political office or high birth, and the fourth is the role we choose for ourselves.

Although Cicero is not considered one of the foremost philosophers of the period, or of any period, his political experience is unparalleled for this time in Roman history. He was attempting to give advice to others and rein in the free fall of ethics and political ambition. The text is a mix of practice and theory, drawing heavily from Greek philosophical traditions, particularly the Stoics.

Cicero could not conceive of revamping the political institution to reflect changing ideas; he believed in rallying around what remained of the ancient institutions. He could conceive of the morality of assassinating a political climber like Caeser, but not necessarily of changing the way things were.

Critics are divided as to whether On Duties is an insightful philosophical text or just a rehashing of all the political ideas of the time. Cicero certainly intended the document to give his son and others like him a practical look at morality and the forces that work together to give us knowledge.