Translated by Andrew P. Peabody Annotation of text copyright 2008 David Trumbull, Agathon Associates. All Rights Reserved.

The year is 44 B.C. and the Republic that Cicero (106-43 B.C.) loved, served, and saved during the Catiline conspiracy of 20 years earlier, is demolished, wrecked by ambitious men who placed self above the commonwealth. The senate and the lawcourts being silenced, Cicero, out of this forced retirement, culls what good he can–leisure to write and pass on his reflections on the moral duties of a man. The essay is addressed to his son Marcus, then in Athens as a student of Cratippus of Pergamum, a Peripatetic philosopher and, as Cicero states in Book I Chapter 1, a leading philospher of his time.

Book I

In the introductory chapter Cicero explains that in this work–as in others that have proven serviceable to Roman readers both those having and those lacking knowledge of Greek literature–he intends to convey to the Latin reader some of the insights of Greek philosophy, for as he says, that "while in the science of philosophy I may have many superiors...I claim for myself what belongs properly to the orator, aptness, perspicuity, and elegance of diction."

In Chapter 2 he dismisses those schools that pervert philosophy by saying that convenience, not duty and virtue, define the highest good. Cicero is in agreement, rather, with the Stoics, Academics, and Peripatetics in asserting that "it is in the obvervance of duty that lies all the honor of life, in its neglect all the shame." In this treatise Cicero says he will follow the arguments of the Stoics for this essay.

Cicero proposes, in Chapter 3, to follow second century B.C. stoic philosopher Panaetius and determine what we ought to do through the consideration of three questions–

  • The discernment of justice or injustice of an action (in the present book)
  • The discernment of expediency of an action (Book II)
  • Reconciling apparent conflicts between justice and expediency (Book III)
Justice and expediency each may be further divided into two subheads as regards degrees of justice or of expediency as we compare action to action, as the question of between two just acts which is the more just, and likewise of two expedient acts which is the more expedient.

Animals, Cicero reminds us in Chapter 4, are endowed with instinct for self-preservation and for seeking food, shelter, and reproduction. Man alone, because he is possessed of reason, sees the causes and connects and associates the future with the present. Natural reason, Cicero argues, prompts man to–

  • Seek society with his fellow-men,
  • Develop special love for his children,
  • Attend social gatherings and public assemblies,
  • Desire to provide for the support and nourishment of himself and of those he holds dear and is bound to protect,
  • Apply his mind to efficient action in providing for himself and his dependents,
  • Research the truth, and
  • Crave precedence (so that he by nature is willing to render obedience to no one, except one who hold just and legitimate sway for the general good).

From these fruits of reason Cicero says are derived greatness of mind and contempt for the vicissitudes of human fortune. "Man," says Cicero, "alone has a sense of order, and decency, and moderation." Because man "feels the beauty, elegance, symmetry, of the things that he sees [he] transferring these qualities from the eyes to the mind, considers that much more, even, are beauty, consistency, and order to be preserved in purposes and acts, and takes heed that he do nothing indecorous or effeminate, and still more, that in all his thoughts and deeds he neither do nor think anything lascivious." Thus, according to Cicero, the concept of duty arises from the nature of man as a rational creature apart from the animals.

In Chapter 5 comprehends all that is right under four heads–

  • perception and skilful treatment of the truth,
  • maintaining good-fellowship with men, giving to every one his due, and keeping faith in contracts and promises,
  • greatness and strength of a lofty and unconquered mind, and
  • the order and measure that constitute moderation and temperance.

We can here recognize the familiar four cardinal virtues. In this instance Cicero's order is–

  • Wisdom/prudence
  • Justice
  • Fortitude
  • Temperance

Wisdom and prudence are discussed in Chapter 6. Of the cardinal virtues, wisdom, says Cicero, is the closest to human nature for every man wishes to be wise rather than ignorant. Cicero warns of two faults to be shunned with regard to wisdom: first, assuming one knows what one in fact does not, and second, wasting one's time on trival and useless knowledge.

The discussion of justice begins with Chapter 7 and continues through Chapter 19. In Chapter 7 he speaks in general about justice and its opposite, injustice. "The first demand of justice," says Cicero, "is, that no one do harm to another, unless provoked by injury." The second precept of justice is the Inviolability of private property. Likewise, injustice has two parts–the unjustified infliction of injury and the failure to repel injury when one has the means. Covetousness, Cicero states, is the most common fault that leads men to injure one another and while in Chapter 8 he holds that seeking wealth for the good that can be done with it is honorable, he insists that "wrong-doing for the sake of gain is never to be tolerated." He concludes this chapter with the observation that injuries inflicted on a sudden impulse are less culpable that those that are premeditated.

In Chapter 9 Cicero revisits the two kinds of injustice–inflicting injury and failing to repel injury– and remarks that we err as much in what we have left undone as in what we have done. Sometime, as in the case n Chapter 10 where one has promised someone something but sees that under the current circumstances it were to his detriment, then even the fullfilling of a promise is itself contrary to justice, and one's duty to is look to the wellfare of a friend and deny him the promised thing if that thing is contrary to his well-being. The duty to do good and to, as far as it is in one's power, to repel evil does not change, but its application may be modified by circumstance. Therefore, one may break a promise–thus acting in an unjust manner– if the keeping of the promise would occassion an even greater injustice, whether on the part of the recipient or the giver. In this chapter Cicero also condemns as unjust all sharp dealing based in legalistic technicalities that attempt to avoid the obvious meanings of words.

As noted above, Cicero's ethics permit the inflicting of injury in return for injury (no "turn the other cheek" man was Tully), but in Chapter 11he places limits. Forbearance is to be preferred in the case where the offender repents, and retribution, although permissable, must not be cruel and inhuman. Vanquished foes at war are better converted to allies than utterly destroyed, for "Wars are to be waged in order to render it possible to live in peace without injury," write Cicero, who adds "peace is always to be sought when it can be made on perfectly fair and honest conditions." Further, Cicero distinguishes, in Chapter 12, between "wars waged for superiority in honor or in dominion," which he says "should be conducted with less bitterness of feeling than where there are actual wrongs to be redressed." His final comments on justice in the prosecution of war are found in Chapter 13, where he lays down that in the case of "a promise to a public enemy, good faith must be observed in keeping such a promise."

Turning from war to peace, Cicero would have us bear in mind that justice is to be maintained even toward those of the lowest condition–slaves. Slaves ought to be treated as hired servants, to have their daily tasks assigned them, and to receive a just compensation for their labor.

In Chapter 14 Cicero takes up beneficences and liberality, reminding those who would, as the saying goes "rob Peter to pay Paul," that one must be just before one is generous. In Chapter 15 he says that while one ought to do good to all persons who display some measure of virtue, at the same time those have the highest claim to our kind offices who are most richly endowed with the gentler virtues, moderation, self-control, and justice. This is especiallt true in the case of those who have done us some kindness, for while there are two kinds of generosity, one that of bestowing, the other that of returning good offices, whether we bestow or not, it is for us to choose; but to omit the returning of kindness is impossible for a good man. In Chapter 16 Cicero sets forth a sort of pagan lists of "works of mercy" stating certain kindnesses the performance of which gives aid to the recipient while costing the giver nothing, such acts as allowing one to drink from a running stream, to light fire from fire, and give faithful advice to one who is in doubt.

Cicero, in Chapter 17 first acknowledges the natural bonds of kinship, but then goes on to say that of all associations none is more excellent, none more enduring, than when good men, of like character, are united by the common possession of virtue, and of all associations none is closer than that which united each of us with our country. He also reminds us (in Chapter 18) that our duties to our fellow men are not all alike but vary with us owing one sort of kindness to kinsmen, another to neighbors, and so forth.

For Cicero justice is central to the discussion of all four virtues, as he makes clear in Chapter 19, quoting the Stoics as defining courage (or fortitude) as the virtue that contends for the right (justice). Fortitude is then taken up in Chapter 20 through Chapter 26. In Chapter 20 Cicero says that greatness consists in two things: esteeming justice alone as good and freedom from disturbing passions. The good man is is not mastered either by fear pain or by love of gain, neither vanquished by hard labor nor made soft by sensuality.

In Chapter 21 and Chapter 22 applies a ranking to the pursuits of man. While there be some who, due to superior mental ability that is best applied to the life of the mind, or due to physical impediment cannot take part in military or civil service, for most men there is no higher calling than public service. Those whom nature has endowed with ability in management of public affairs have a duty to become candidates for office, for only thus can the state be well governed. Against the commonly-held view that military achievements outrank those in civil administration, Cicero notes that while Themistocles the general may have saved Athens at Salamis, it was teh constitution created by Solon that made Athens an ideal worth saving. Similarly, the military valor of Pausanias and Lysander both served Sparta and were the product of the Spartan constitution frame by Lycurgus. Cicero further cites his own actions, as consul, in 63 B.C., when he exposed and put down the Conspiracy of Catiline and others to overthrow the Republic.

The discussion of temperance begins at Chapter 27

Book II

Book III

Following a general introduction (Ch. 1), Cicero proposes (Ch. 2-3) to take up the subject of one's duty to oneself when a course of action presents as expedient but not virtuous.

Beginning with the mistress and queen of all virtues he demontrates that nothing can be expedient that is not just (Ch. 4-11). Holds (Ch 12) that "mere thinking that what is wrong is expedient is in itself a misforture," and (Ch. 8) that "there is crime in the mere hesitation, even if they do not go so far as the outward act." This axiom (similar to the saying of Jesus in Matt. 5:27-28 regarding "adultery in the heart") also appears in chapters 4 and 19. Next he demonstrates that while sharp dealing may present itself as prudence, it is contrary to the law of nature that binds all mankind and is, therefore not expedient (Ch. 12-25). In chapters 26 through 32 demontrates expediency cannot be in conflict with fortitude, nor, as he states in Chapter 33, with temperance.