7. The Reception of Stoicism by Cicero
8. Moral Goodness and Duty
9. The Four Virtues
Cicero learned the doctrines of Panaetius primarily through Posidonius of Rhodes (c. 135-51 BC), who personally taught him, as well as Pompey and other Roman nobility. Posidonius taught an even milder form of Stoicism than that of his teacher Panaetius, accepting that passions were part of human nature, not faulty judgments. Still, like the Platonists or Academics, he held that humans, as rational creatures, are obligated to subordinate their irrational faculties to reason, in order to properly realize our natural good.
Posidonius' written works do not survive, though the pseudo-Aristotelian work De mundo has been partially attributed to him (E.S. Forster, 1914 ed.), but this identification is problematic. (See I.G. Kidd, Posidonius: The Commentary, 1988, II, p. 818.) Nor is Apuleius of Madaros the author of De Mundo, as is sometimes affirmed; rather, he did the Latin translation from the Greek. An illustrious author in his own right, he had no need for unearned praise. Since De Mundo is not attributable to Posidonius, our primary knowledge of his doctrine comes through his Roman students, most notably Cicero.
As Paul Oskar Kristeller took pains to emphasize, Cicero was not a Stoic, but an Academic in his general philosophical views. In particular, he followed the skeptic teachings of Philo of Larissa, who was stridently anti-Stoic, though tolerant of Peripatetics (Aristotelians). Philo opposed Stoic epistemology and claimed nothing was certain, though he was not so radically skeptical as to believe all judgment should be suspended. We should make judgments, but not hold to them as certain. Cicero also held to teachings of Antiochus of Ascalon, a more dogmatic Academic who incorporated both Peripatetic and Stoic ideas into his thought. Accordingly, Cicero held a sufficiently eclectic philosophy - as was common among Academics at that time - to admit Stoic ethical doctrines into his thought.
This ethical eclecticism can be found in the teaching of Antiochus, who found the ethics of Zeno the Stoic to be generally in agreement with that of Plato and Aristotle, though using different terms. As a dogmatist, he agreed with the Stoics that knowledge is possible, but unlike them, he held that, besides moral virtue, there are also bodily and external goods (as did Plato and Aristotle). In the pursuit of bodily goods, our primary concerns are our body's constitution, its preservation and development, not pleasure as Epicurus thought. Pleasure is only incidental to the pursuit of these bodily goods; it exists so that we will pursue them. Moral virtue is good insofar as it perfects our reason, Antiochus says, but the bodily or external goods are also proper to our natural concern, though they are lesser goods. Virtue is sufficient for happiness (vita beata), but to be completely happy (vita beatissima) requires external goods as well.
This more balanced, commonsensical doctrine would fit nicely with the mild form of Stoicism Cicero learned from Posidonius. Epicureanism was rejected, and virtue remained the highest good, sufficient for happiness, but it was not the only good, for external goods could be legitimately sought to perfect our happiness.
In several of his works, Cicero presents various Stoic doctrines in the course of an argument or discussion, only to set them aside in favor of an Academic conclusion. It is only in De Officiis (and, to a lesser extent, in the Tusculanarum Disputationum) that Cicero presents Stoic doctrines as his own. The structure and content of De Officiis closely follows an ethical treatise by Panaetius, not as a straight translation, but as a commentary, amplified by Cicero's own nuanced ideas. Since De Officiis takes the moderate doctrines of Panaetius, as taught by the even milder Posidonius, and adds Cicero's own Academic enhancements, this work may be regarded as Stoicism's "best foot forward," where we can find the most favorable representation of Stoic ethical thought, even if it is not the most "orthodox".
The first two books of De Officiis were based on Panaetius' treatise in three books on Stoic "duty" or kathekon). Cicero translates kathekon) as officium, which like the English 'duty,' suggests an extrinsic obligation. The Stoic kathekon, by contrast, is a behavior by which a creature determines and pursues the good that is proper to it. The third book of De Officiis is based primarily on a treatise by Posidonius, and also on the teachings of Hecaton, another student of Panaetius. Cicero discusses the relationship between his work and its sources in his letters to Atticus (the famous collection discovered by Francesco Petrarca in 1345).
The De Officiis, so far as Panaetius is concerned, I have finished in two books. He has three: but, though at the beginning he makes a three-fold division of cases in which duty has to be determined, one when the question is between right or wrong, another when it is between expediency and inexpediency, and the third, how we are to decide when it is a conflict between duty and expediency... he treated of the first two brilliantly; the third he promises to add, but never wrote it. Posidonius took up that topic: but I have ordered his book and written to Athenodorus Calvus to send me an analysis of it, and that I am expecting... As to your query about the title, I have no doubt that kathekon corresponds with officium, unless you have any other suggestion to make. But the fuller title is De Officiis. I am dedicating it to my son. It seems to me not inappropriate. [Ep. ad Atticum, 16.11 (p. 409, vol. 3 in E.O. Windstedt, ed.]
Cicero dedicates his ethical treatise to his son, much as Aristotle did with his Nicomachean Ethics. He finds this fitting, since our principal concern in teaching ethics is instructing our posterity in their obligations, so that they may lead a virtuous life. He asserts here and in a later letter [Ep. ad Atticum, 16.14, p. 419] that officium ("duty") is a good translation of kathekon, since both refer to what is "right" (recte) to do. He is correct in averring that both terms involve a sense of obligation, but with kathekon the mode of determining one's obligation is intrinsic, whereas with officium or duty this is more commonly determined extrinsically. Yet kathekon further resembles duty in that the Stoics considered there to be an objectively right course of action in each determinate set of circumstances. Thus, we are inclined to agree that the best Latin translation of kathekon is officium. Kristeller has suggested that 'proper' is a better translation, and indeed the meaning that term has held since the thirteenth century - "adapted to some purpose" - is in keeping with the Stoics' intent. However, in classical Latin proprius meant simply "one's own", without any teleological significance, so this option was not available to Cicero.
Our objective is primarily philosophical, not historical, so I will not attempt to reconstruct how much of De Officiis is Cicero and how much is Panaetius and Posidonius, nor will I attempt to separate "orthodox" Stoicism from the more eclectic elements added by later thinkers. Rather, I present De Officiis as a culmination of Stoic ethical teaching by the first century BC, as interpreted by a most capable rhetorician and exponent of civic duty. Cicero's work will contribute to our broader objective of building a theory of natural ethics.
In the opening of De Officiis, Cicero identifies the theme of ethics as dealing with moral duty (officium), which is what one ought to do. Note that the physical sciences, notwithstanding the pretensions of some scholars, cannot help us here, since physical science can only tell us about what "is," "was," "will be," or "might be," but it would be logically invalid to infer from such statements a nomological principle about what one "ought to" do. Attempts to give an "evolutionary" explanation of morality are not truly scientific. Rather, they assume moral utilitarianism and then use science to show that certain behaviors are more useful to given ends. Science may show that a certain behavior is useful or advantageous to a given end (e.g., survival), but it cannot decree which end we ought to pursue (e.g., that we ought to maximize our chances of survival). If we make such a decree in the name of empirical science, we have made an invalid inference from "is" statements to "ought to" statements. For example, science may show that promiscuity will maximize my chances of perpetuating my physical traits, but it cannot infer that I "ought to" be promiscuous without making the unfounded assumption that I "ought to" perpetuate my physical traits as a moral imperative. Utility does not translate into duty without an invalid logical leap.
Though I use modern evolutionary theory as an example, the notion of reducing moral duty to utility is nothing new. It was known to Cicero, who rejects it with scorn, saying:
For he who posits the supreme good as having no connection with virtue and measures it not by a moral standard but by his own interests — if he should be consistent and not rather at times overruled by his better nature, he could value neither friendship nor justice nor generosity; and brave he surely cannot possibly be that counts pain the supreme evil, nor temperate he that holds pleasure to be the supreme good. (De Officiis, I, 2)
We see similar self-contradiction today among those who preach that animalistic utility is the basis of human morality. Disregarding their own philosophy, they often find themselves helping and caring for those who are useless to them, and valuing friendship for its own sake and not for the sake of some advantage. They may even find that they will brave many pains, even death, for a higher good. These examples of virtue do not vindicate utilitarianism, but on the contrary undermine it, as they prove that even its preachers do not really believe it.
Cicero considered that those who pretended to reduce duty to utility had no claim to teach ethics at all, since they misunderstood the nature of duty. Among those who at least understood that duty is something more than utility, he identified the Stoics, the Academicians (followers of Plato), and the Peripatetics (followers of Aristotle).
I have always thought it a strange thing that, with the revival of paganism in the West, secular intellectuals should become, ethically speaking, all Epicureans and no Stoics. If our thought were as open and free as we pretend it to be, we should expect there to be a mixture of schools, as there was in antiquity. Instead, everyone marches in lockstep with Epicureanism, blind to the absurdity of reducing nomological principles to physical principles. I can hardly think of a greater example of the idiotic conformity of modern liberalism. It is aided, no doubt, by the near-total philosophical ignorance of virtually all intellectuals who do not specialize in philosophy. Even those who do teach philosophy are prone to reduce it to an exercise in symbolic logic or rationalization of the findings of the other sciences. The logicists are ethically helpless, for they think identifying a "logical fallacy" in an ethical argument entitles them to dismiss it, when in fact this only proves the argument is not tautological. Indeed, we have seen that all ethics requires an intuitive leap to what one "ought to" do. Somehow we are capable of knowing ethical truths, though they cannot be inferred from empirical truths. This would logically imply that there is more to reality than empirical truth, a supposition utterly noxious to the ethos of scientism in much of modern philosophy. Accordingly, there are few philosophers today who would make ethics the core of philosophy.
Yet Socrates and Plato famously made knowledge of the good a fundamental duty of the philosopher. The philosopher does not seek knowledge for its own sake, but for the sake of becoming a better man. The "wisdom" that a philosopher loves is not information as such, but the truth that leads to a more perfect realization of one's highest nature. The moral basis of philosophy stretches to the Far East, where it can be seen in Confucius and Lao Tzu. In the Tusculan Disputations, Cicero says that discerning beauty and harmony is the highest faculty of man. Modern Epicureans, by contrast, disparage this faculty as deluded, saying there is no intrinsic meaning in nature. The modern Epicurean, if he were consistent, ought to lobotomize himself, since man's capacity for attributing meaning to the external world is nothing but delusion. He would know things more truly as they are if he understood no meanings at all. Nonetheless, Epicureanism, historically one of the weaker Greco-Roman schools, is the most dominant in our age of philosophical illiteracy.
Cicero acknowledges the existence of a good beyond utility; further, this good is something more than virtue itself. Some Stoics, including Aristo, Pyrrho, and Erillus, had held that the only good was in moral virtue itself, so it mattered not, for example, whether one chose health or sickness, pleasure or pain, as long as one developed personal virtue while acting. This meant there was no basis for making value judgments about anything but virtues themselves. Cicero says these opinions have been long since rejected, and moreover, such philosophers have no right to discuss moral duty, for they leave us no basis for choosing among things, since no thing is intrinsically good or evil.
We noted earlier that morals are customs, yet we are concerned only with a certain kind of custom, that which imposes an obligation on people. We want to know why some customs are more obligatory than others, and if we can distinguish good customs from bad. It is natural, then, that a discussion of ethics should involve a discussion of duty.
Cicero expresses surprise that Panaetius did not bother to give a definition of duty, which is the subject matter of ethics. Consequently, Cicero gives his own definition of moral duty. This does not mean defining the word "duty," which everyone understands, but defining the scope of duties that may be properly considered ethical.
Every treatise on duty has two parts: one, dealing with the doctrine of the supreme good (finem bonorum); the other with the practical rules by which daily life in all its bearings may be regulated. The following questions are illustrative of the first part: whether all duties are absolute; whether one duty is more important than another; and so on. But as regards special duties for which positive rules are laid down, though they are affected by the doctrine of the supreme good, still the fact is not so obvious, because they seem rather to look to the regulation of everyday life; and it is these special duties that I propose to treat at length in the following books. (I, 7)
Although Cicero believes in a supreme or ultimate good to which we are duty-bound, independent of any practical considerations, he also acknowledges a more practical dimension to ethics, and in fact this will take up the greater portion of his work. Cicero was not given to lofty, abstract theorizing, but held that the good was most perfect when it was realized in practice. Ethics does not direct us how to think, so much as what we should do. It is in action that we manifest ethics, which Cicero, like a good Roman, conceives in a social context.
It has been said that Socrates is universal precisely because he was Athenian, meaning that his thought has universal applicability because he was able to manifest it in the real culture of his time, rather than as an abstract utopian ideal. Had he tried to divest himself of any cultural trappings, we would not be able to understand him at all, much less recognize something of ourselves in his thought. This is why it is misguided to downgrade the influence of Western philosophers simply because they are Western, as if what they had to say is therefore of local applicability. The same is true of Cicero. It is precisely because he is Roman, and shares the Roman conception of duty to society, that he is able to bring out forcefully the social dimension of ethics, which all can recognize. We might see a similar emphasis in the thought of Confucius (to be treated in another work), though in a style manifested not so much in ethical treatises, but in the very structure of Chinese society.
Cicero will distinguish between those duties that are absolute (or categorical, as Kant would say), and those that are motivated to achieve some good (utility). Many modern schools of ethics would try to reduce all ethics to utility (indeed, a purely evolutionary account of morality would compel such a conclusion), but Cicero refers even utilitarian virtues to the highest good.
Cicero was not concerned with abstract speculation, but with the practical question of determining what is the correct course of conduct in various contexts. Following Panaetius, he identifies three classes of ethical questions: first, whether a contemplated act is morally right (honestum) or wrong (turpe); second, whether an act is conducive to comfort, happiness and wealth; third, when what is expedient (utilitas) seems to conflict with what is morally right. We might say that these are questions of (1) categorical good, (2) utility, and (3) conflicts between categorical good and utility. Note that Cicero uses the Latin term honestum, meaning "honesty, integrity, virtue," for categorically righteous acts. Its opposite is turpe, which means "disgrace," but Cicero means what is objectively disgraceful, not what merely appears to be so in the eyes of men.
Cicero finds Panaetius' classification scheme to have omitted two important distinctions. In actual practice, he says, we often consider not merely whether an action is right (honestum) or wrong (turpe), but sometimes wish to choose the better of two morally right actions, or the more expedient of two expedients. Choosing between two goods can often be much more challenging than choosing between good and evil. Thus the first two questions of Panaetius will be subdivided into (1A) choosing between right (honestum) and wrong (turpe), (1B) choosing between two goods(honestis utrum honestius), (2A) choosing between the expedient (utilitas) and non-expedient, and (2B) choosing between two expedients (utilibus utrum utilius). (I, 10) Choosing among multiple options is reducible to a succession of binary choices, if goodness (honestum) and expedience (utilitas) are well-ordered.
Like modern biologists, Cicero recognizes that Nature has endowed all living creatures with the instinct of self-preservation, of avoiding what is likely to cause injury, and of procuring the necessities of life, such as food and shelter. Additionally, he acknowledges a reproductive instinct whose purpose is the propagation of the species, as well as a degree of concern for its offspring. However, unlike those who would ignorantly presume to reduce all human morality to these instincts, Cicero acknowledges an important distinction between man and beast. The beast is moved by the senses with little perception of past or future, so it adapts itself to the moment. Man, by contrast, is endowed with reason, enabling him to comprehend a chain of consequences, perceive relations of cause and effect, draw analogies and associate the present with the future. Thus he can plan the course of his life and prepare for the future. Man also has a social or political dimension, prompting him to form assemblies and take part in them. This social aspect also causes man to wish to provide for his family and friends, which in turn stimulates his courage, making it stronger for active duties.
Most of the instincts defined above, though they are unique to man to varying degrees, are nonetheless utilitarian on some level. Yet Cicero goes further, and says that man also has an instinct for the pursuit of truth. When he is free from the cares of business, he is eager to learn something new, and to understand the wonders of creation, in order to be truly happy. There is also a yearning for independence, so that he will submit to no one except those who give rules of conduct or are teachers of truth or just lawgivers. "From this attitude come greatness of soul and a sense of superiority of worldly conditions." In the desire for truth and liberty, man transcends worldly expediency, and seeks things that are good in themselves. Truth is an unqualified good, while liberty is circumscribed by just rules of morality and law.
Lastly, man is the only animal that has a sense of order, propriety, and moderation in word and deed. He alone appreciates the beauty and harmony in the visible world. With Reason, he can find analogous beauty and harmony in the world of spirit, where order is even more necessary to maintain. We should "do nothing in an improper (indecore) or unmanly (effeminateve) fashion," nor should we think or do anything capriciously. These elements constitute moral goodness (honestum) - the categorical good - which "merits praise even though it be praised by none." (I, 14) Here moral goodness (honestum) is clearly posited as an objective reality; it would be good even if no one praised it. Man is not the measure of all things.
At this point, we should take care to clarify Cicero's terms for moral goodness and duty, and compare them with their Greek analogues. As noted previously, Cicero uses the Latin honestum to express categorical moral goodness. It can be used as a noun or an adjective, signifying honesty or integrity. Kristeller found that this was a distorted translation of the Greek kalon, the term used by the Stoics. This word literally means "beauty," but in a more general sense not restricted to physical appearance. I think that Cicero made a good choice, for honestum contains the sense of "honor" or "honorable," words that inspire an admiration akin to that for beauty. Although it is not a good literal translation, honestum excellently captures the poetic intuition of kalon. Cicero himself evinces a grasp of the meaning when he says it deserves praise even if it is praised by none.
Whereas honestum may be translated as the "good" or "right" course of action, the Latin term rectum is used by Cicero to refer to a particular kind of duty, namely absolute duty. This, he says, is his translation of the Greek katorthoma. (I, 8) Rectum also translates into English as "right", but here it must be understood as referring to the act or means, not the end or goal, which is honestum, goodness or righteousness. Nor should we interpret rectum to mean a "right" in the Lockean sense, as something to which we are entitled. In Latin, as in much of the Continental jurisprudential tradition, a "right" is an obligation or duty to act in a correct way. In the present treatise, Cicero uses rectum to signify a duty that is the categorically correct way of doing things. He contrasts this with the term medium, which means falling short of the correct or perfect, to describe expedient goods. He sees utilitarian actions as good, yet imperfect, for even common, ordinary men can practice them, and they do little to distinguish man from beast. He understands the Greek term kathekon to embrace all forms of duty, including the rectum and the medium.
From the passages discussed thus far, we have already seen hints that Cicero identifies virtue with manliness and courage. This is unsurprising, since the Latin term virtus, from which we get our term 'virtue,' literally means "manliness." Morals are defined in terms of masculine traits, because boldness in the face of adversity, most perfectly exemplified in the masculine activity of warfare, is considered the stuff of moral fibre. Anyone can do good when it is easy and there is no obstacle, but we find virtue most prominent in those who do the good even when it is difficult and involves great personal risk. Virtue, then, requires an ability to overcome fear of danger, a trait that we call courage, which in antiquity was most often conceived in a military, masculine context. Courage gives sustenance to all other virtues, for without it, no man will dare to do any good deed that is difficult. A man without courage may know in his mind what is virtuous, but will rarely perform virtuous deeds of any significance.
The terminology and concepts described above are all very Roman, which is not to say that they do not have analogues in other cultures. Yet Cicero also includes some peculiarly Stoic concepts, such as the notion that we should not do anything capriciously. This imperative comes from the Stoic notion that all actions should be oriented to the highest good, which in its extreme form would do away with frivolity and fun of any sort. Cicero (and Panaetius for that matter) does not adopt this extreme, yet he retains the Stoic emphasis on seriousness. He leaves his own mark on Stoic thought by emphasizing the importance of putting virtue into action, especially in public life, reflecting his own sense of Roman duty to society and to the polity.
Cicero also adds a personal touch by addressing the book to his son Marcus, just as Aristotle addressed his Ethics to his son Nicomachus. Although both these men were of diverse accomplishments in learning and in deeds, what they saw most fitting to bequeath upon their own sons was their morality. It was more important in their hearts that a son be virtuous than that he be learned or accomplished. This was so important that they sought to teach their sons, undeterred by abundant evidence that virtue was not teachable, not only from Plato's argument in the Meno dialogue, but from the biographies of great men with dissolute sons. Cicero himself would be disappointed by his own son's conduct while away to study, giving further evidence that virtue consists less in knowing what the good is than in having the energy to do what is good.
Following the Stoics, who in turn followed ancient Greek tradition, Cicero identifies four kinds of moral virtue:
But all honor (honestum) rises from some one of four sources: it is concerned either (1) with the full perception and intelligent development of the true; or (2) with the conservation of organized society, with rendering to every man his due, and with the faithful discharge of obligations assumed; or (3) with the greatness and strength of a noble and invincible spirit; or (4) with the orderliness and moderation of everything that is said and done, wherein consist temperance and self-control. (I, 15)
Of these four virtues, only the first, usually called Prudence or Wisdom, is concerned with knowledge or contemplation, while the other three are concerned with the practical affairs of life. Thus ethics is predominantly a practical science concerned with social relations, yet this is not to say that the practical virtues are merely utilitarian. For, as Cicero adds, "greatness and nobility of soul may be revealed not only in increasing one's resources and acquiring advantages for one's self and one's family but far more in rising superior to these things."
The classical division four virtues, commonly called Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance, is not the only possible division of virtue, but it does seem to be exhaustive. If ethics is the study of how to know and do what is good, we will need to first (1) know the good in order to know what our duties are; then (2) discharge those duties in our dealings with our fellow men. Yet the ability to discharge these duties depends not merely on knowledge, but on (3) a certain strength to will and execute these duties by overcoming difficulty and adversity. Such fortitude does not mean simply imposing oneself roughshod over others, like some Nietzschean superman, but it must be balanced with (4) a sense of moderation and propriety, necessary for due consideration of others. Fortitude without temperance can come into contradiction with justice.
As an illustration of how a different classification of virtue can be congruent with the Greek tradition, let us briefly consider the Confucian virtues. In Confucian philosophy, a man can live in harmony with Heaven and his fellow man through obedience to Tao ("the Way"), much as Cicero's noble man will fulfill his duty to honestum. First, a man must be capable of compassion, love and empathy for his fellow man, a virtue of benevolence that is called Jen (or Ren). This is what we have called orienting the aesthetic to the ethical, so that we will truly want what is best for people, even if we do not yet know what the best is in a particular circumstance. Jen is not so much an ethical virtue as a spiritual disposition or precondition for truly ethical behavior. Cicero simply assumes as a given that men interested in ethics will already love their friends and kin, a fact he attributes to instinct or human nature. Ethics, for him, is concerned with identifying and executing the specific duties we have to those to whom we feel an attachment.
The second Confucian virtue is Yi, which is a sense of justice, obligation, and duty to others, much like the Greco-Roman virtue of Justice. Yi, like Jen, is a selfless virtue, grounded not in what is profitable to oneself, but in an absolute categorical imperative Tao. Thomas Merton notes that to a Confucian, "anyone who is guided by a profit motive, even though it be for the profit of the society to which he belongs, is not capable of leading a genuinely moral life." The love of the good must be the motive of any thought or deed that is to be truly considered moral. Modern attempts to reduce social virtues to collective self-interest, if taken seriously, would reduce all morality to amorality, as Nietzsche had the astuteness to realize. The idea that moral goodness transcends utility is not a peculiarity of the Stoics, but can be found throughout the world among those who valued goodness or righteousness for its own sake.
A third virtue, Li, is roughly analogous to temperance, insofar as it embodies acting with ritual propriety and decorum while discharging one's duties to others. Modern society places little value on elaborate ritual, leading to a coarseness in our dealings with others, just as we have also become an intemperate age.
A fourth virtue is Chih (Zhi) or wisdom, which is not merely an intellectual understanding of all other virtues, but includes the orientation of one's desires to the higher good. In other words, it includes the perfect subordination of the aesthetic to the ethical, so that we not only know the good, but hold it as our heart's deepest desire. This aspect of Chih is more of an ideal goal than wisdom in the ordinary sense, yet it is a necessary ideal that we should seek to fulfill if we are to have more than a slave-like relationship to the Good.
A fifth virtue, according to Mencius, is Shin (Xin), meaning fidelity or sincerity, which might be categorized with Yi in terms of duties to others. We should note that the Confucian conceptualization of virtues is grounded more explicitly in a sense of empathy for one's fellow man. In Greco-Roman ethics, such empathy is assumed as a fact of human nature, as we see in the Aristotelian dictum, "Man is a political animal." Confucius lived in a time of political chaos, so he felt compelled to exhort people to a sense of fraternity as the basis of virtue. In the Roman Republic and the Greek city-states, by contrast, the existence of a polity oriented toward the common good could be assumed, and it remained for the ethicist only to determine what specific duties society demanded of man.
Interestingly, there does not seem to be an analogue to Fortitude in the Confucian enumeration of virtues, though the Chinese undoubtedly recognized and admired courage. However, the early Confucians, including the Master himself, saw courage (yong) as a morally neutral characteristic that could lead to good or evil deeds. In the Analects, we read:
Zilu asked, "Does the gentleman admire courage?" The Master said, "The gentleman admires rightness above all. A gentleman who possessed courage but lacked a sense of rightness would create political disorder, while a common person who possessed courage but lacked a sense of rightness would be come a bandit." (Analects, 17:23)
It is certainly true that courage or fortitude, in the absence of other virtues, can be a force for evil, which hardly seems characteristic of a moral virtue. On the other hand, a righteous person who lacks courage would not be able to carry out any good deed in the face of adversity. Yet for that matter, he who lacks physical strength, skill, eloquence, and other morally neutral qualities might also find himself limited in the circumstances for positive moral action. Why, then, should we consider courage a moral virtue? We shall have to address this as we treat of each of the four Greco-Roman virtues in turn.
Cicero considers the first virtue, Wisdom, to be dearest to human nature. "For we are all attracted and drawn to a zeal for learning and knowing; and we think it glorious to excel therein, while we count it base and immoral to fall into error, to wander from the truth, to be ignorant, to be led astray." (I, 18) Intellectuals throughout history have had a tendency to define human nature or man's highest good in terms of the activities that they find ennobling, namely those of higher learning. It is doubtful that the majority of the human race has much interest in knowing truth for its own sake, much less that those most concerned with moral goodness should be most concerned with learning. Still, Cicero is less guilty than most philosophers of intellectualizing the good, for he shows concern that too much study may draw man away from a life of active virtue. He especially condemns excessive study of "matters that are obscure and difficult and useless." As examples of valuable learning, he cites astronomy, mathematics, dialectics, and civil law.
Cicero does not make a distinction between wisdom as an intellectual virtue and wisdom as a moral virtue. He speaks in general terms of a natural desire to know what is true and to avoid error. He says we should not let our desire for truth to cause us to believe too readily that we have found it, but rather we should carefully weigh evidence. This seems like more of an intellectual virtue than a moral virtue, and if Cicero did not add that the study of truth should be oriented toward the practice of active virtue, we might think he was simply saying that being intelligent or knowledgeable is a moral quality. Modern secular thinkers often make this error, claiming that their love of truth places them on a moral high ground, yet this truth often consists of nothing more than dry scientific learning without moral application. We should not consider someone who is better at weighing evidence or understanding subtle arguments to be more moral, only more intelligent.
Wisdom has a moral dimension insofar as it makes us aware of our moral duty, or gives us the ability to execute our moral duty. Thus Cicero cites as valuable those fields of study that are of clear benefit to society. It is this benefit that gives wisdom its moral value, for "the whole glory of virtue is in activity." (I, 19) The contemplative life is morally valuable, so long as it aids and does not deter from the active life in which virtue is realized.
Cicero's thought on the contemplative and active life has had a long legacy in Western intellectual history. The Christian saints, including the Fathers of the Church, made pains to distinguish "vain learning" from that which was conducive to moral and spiritual development. Thus the philosophical, ethical, grammatical, dialectical, and historical works of antiquity were preserved in the Middle Ages, since they were useful to Christian learning, while the mathematical and legal treatises, no longer useful after the disintegration of the Roman Empire, were generally neglected. Renaissance humanists believed that the Scholastic philosophers had become guilty of vain disputation over idle quibbles, and instead argued for a renewed emphasis on the active life, for it is more Christian to love and obey God than to simply know Him intellectually. During the Enlightenment, the philosophes explicitly cited Cicero in support of the active life, disparaging metaphysical theoretizing and rejecting contemplative religious asceticism as a moral ideal. The diverse uses of Cicero's thought shows that his principle admits of many applications, depending on what kind of knowledge we regard as "useful" or "valuable," which depends on what we perceive to be the highest good.
The second source of honor identified by Cicero is somewhat broader than what we normally call 'justice'. He identifies the second virtue as "the principle by which society and what we may call its 'common bonds' are maintained". This principle may be divided into two: the first division is justice (iustitia), and the other is beneficence (beneficentia), which may be also called kindness (benignitatem) or liberality (liberalitatem). (I, 20) Cicero recognizes that fulfilling one's social duty entails not only giving every man his due, but also having a certain generous nature beyond what strict justice requires. Justice and liberality are therefore under the same head, just as both Justice and Mercy sat at the throne of Zeus or Jupiter.
Cicero distinguishes between the public and private domains, saying common possessions should be used for common interests, and private goods should be for private use. He recognizes that private property is not established by nature, but by long occupancy, conquest, by law, bargain, purchase or allotment. In other words, private property is established by human agreements, out of expedience. In a primeval natural state, all things by right would be held in common. Cicero does not go into detail here about how private property is justly established; this is a topic treated at length by many classical authors. He accepts it as a fact, and briefly identifies the commonly recognized means by which a property claim is licitly established.
Justice requires that we do not appropriate to ourselves any common property beyond what has fallen to our lot by the lawful means mentioned. To do so would be to violate the laws of human society. Cicero, like other ancient thinkers, held it to be the gravest evil to appropriate public goods for private interests, as it opposed the most fundamental principle of human society. All property was common by nature, unless allotted to private individuals by lawful means. This presumption of public domain is antithetical to those supposedly "conservative" ideologies that would make private property the basis of society.
Not only is there a presumption that property is public unless it can be proved it is private, but even lawful private property is not to be used only for its owner's sake. For, citing Plato, Cicero says, "we are not born for ourselves alone, but our country claims a share of our being, and our friends a share." (I, 22) If our very selves belong in part to others, we cannot in justice withhold using our property for the benefit of others. A central tenet of human society, articulated by Plato, is that each of us belongs in part to others, both to the individuals near to us, and to society as a whole. Some of Confucius' "fellow-feeling" is clearly incorporated into what Cicero places under the heading of Justice and Liberality.
Mankind may appropriate any of the fruits of the earth for common use, for according to the Stoics, "everything that the earth produces is created for man's use". This tenet is not, as is commonly thought, a peculiarity of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Rather, it is a principle derivable from reason, as one sees the abundant bounty and usefulness of the earth's resources to man, resources which would go neglected without him. Cicero's unspoken assumption is that man is rightful sovereign over the earth and its creatures, for he alone has reason, and he alone is capable of rational or moral judgment. He may be a bad ruler at times, but the other animals are not fit to rule at all, for good or ill.
The principle that natural goods are created for man's use does not imply that man should selfishly or rapaciously appropriate these goods. On the contrary, man should imitate Nature, and use her fruits for the common good, just as she creates them for the common good of man. Cicero says we can "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, man to man." (I, 22)
The foundation of justice is good faith (fides), which is fidelity to promises and agreements. The Stoics offered the etymology that fides is derived from fiat, since, for the one who keeps faith, what is promised "will be done." Even if this etymology is not philologically accurate, it represents the insight that fides is manifested by deeds, not merely professions of belief or trust.
Cicero identifies two kinds of injustice. The first kind is on the part of those who inflict wrong, and the other is on the part of those who do not shield others from being wronged. These are opposed to what we might today call negative and positive justice, where negative justice is violating no one's right or due, while positive justice is actively protecting the rights of others. In both cases, Cicero compares the solidarity of people in society to that of kinship or friendship. He who "wrongfully assaults another seems, as it were, to be laying violent hands upon a comrade; but he who does not prevent or oppose wrong, if he can, is just as guilty of wrong as if he deserted his parents or his friends or his country." (I, 23)
Cicero offers two possible motives for injuring others deliberately. One motive is fear that if we do not do so, we may made to suffer some injury ourselves. The other, more common motive, is to secure some personal end. In the first case, fear is the controlling motive, and in the second case, according to Cicero, it is avarice. Avarice, then, is the trait most commonly opposed to justice, though fear can also play a role. We can see from this analysis of motive how the virtues of temperance and fortitude aid a man in acting justly. A temperate man is less likely to have immoderate desires that lead to avarice, while a courageous man will not be so fearful of injury that he will compromise his sense of justice to avoid it.
Cicero does not condemn the seeking of riches as such, but makes distinctions among the possible motives for this desire. He identifies these as: (1) to supply the needs of life, (2) to secure the enjoyment of pleasure, (3) to obtain power and influence and the means of bestowing favors. Cicero finds no fault with seeking riches as long as the claims of justice are respected. He finds that, in practice, those who seek riches for the third reason - which was quite common in the Roman Republic - often lose sight of the claims of justice and keep no faith. This vice is particularly repugnant to Cicero, for it is an offense against Roman society as a whole, and he cites the recent usurpation by Caesar as an example of unbridled ambition trampling over all divine and human law. (I, 25)
Cicero further notes that acts of injustice are less culpable if they are done out of passion and without premeditation. This follows the general, unspoken principle that morality is a subject of the will, so the less involved or less free the will is in its deliberation, the less responsible a person is for his action. Cicero accepts the psychological reality that the will acts with varying degrees of freedom, since it can be influenced or overwhelmed by the passions and other circumstances, and so there are varying degrees of culpability.
Having discussed the general motives for causing deliberate injury, Cicero turns to the causes for failure to prevent injury, which is also a failure to perform one's social duty. Here the motives are more varied: reluctance "to incur enmity or trouble or expense; or through indifference, indolence, or incompetence, or through some preoccupation or self-interest" that absorbs their attention. (I, 28) This last motive is used by Cicero to turn against Plato, who said that philosophers are busied with the pursuit of truth, and so cannot be bothered by civic affairs, except under compulsion. Cicero finds that such philosophers secure one sort of justice by doing no wrong (i.e., negative justice), but are guilty of the other kind of injustice by neglecting the fate of those whom they ought to defend. Cicero evidently holds that all men are to some extent responsible for the fate of others; indeed, he previously invoked Plato's own principle that we live, in part, for each other. Cicero's convictions about social responsibility (positive justice) compel him to condemn those philosophers who would espouse a purely contemplative life, to the neglect of their fellow citizens. Of course, Plato, in practice, was deeply concerned with civic and political affairs, but that it is another matter.
Civic duties ought to be performed voluntarily, "for an action intrinsically right (rectum) is just (iustum) only on condition that it is voluntary." (I, 28) Much as acts of injustice are culpable only insofar as they are voluntary, so just acts have merit only if they are voluntary. If I perform an intrinsically good deed, giving a man his due, only under compulsion, I hardly deserve credit for it. Today we are quick to recognize mitigating circumstances for crimes (e.g., psychological and physiological maladies) that render them less than fully voluntary, yet slow to recognize that there is no merit in civic duty that is performed only under compulsion. Modern liberalism's attempt to mandate all positive social duty through state regulation actually strips such intrinsically good acts of any moral character, by making them compulsory.
Cicero would have us care for our fellow man not out of external compulsion, but out of our own concern for our neighbors. He will have none of the excuse that a man is just because he tends to his own business and injures no one else. Such people "are traitors to social life, for they contribute to it none of their interest, none of their effort, none of their means." (I, 29) Here he is speaking not of liberality (which will be discussed in I, 42), but of what man is morally obligated to contribute to society.
Citing Terence, Cicero says that anything that concerns man should concern us. If we know what justice is, then we know what our duty is when a man is denied his due. Nonetheless, it is natural that we should have more concern for our own affairs than for the affairs of others, since we experience other people's affairs only as an outsider. Since we cannot judge their case as well as our own, he suggests the prudent principle: "not to do a thing, when there is a doubt whether it be right or wrong; for righteousness shines with a brilliance of its own, but doubt is a sign that we are thinking of a possible wrong." (I, 29) In other words, we should not meddle in the affairs of others unless it is unambiguously clear that justice requires us to act. On doubtful matters, it is better not to act, rather than risk performing a positive injustice. This principle seems to imply that it is better to omit doing right than to commit a wrong.
There are occasions when justice requires us to not keep a promise or fail to observe what truth would usually demand. This seems to be contrary to the idea that justice is grounded in fides, but we are in fact keeping a higher obligation, as Cicero expounds. The fundamental principles of justice are that no harm be done to any person, and that the common interests are conserved. When these principles are modified by circumstance, our duty is correspondingly changed. A promise or pact may turn out such that keeping it would prove detrimental to one who made it. For example, Theseus, in a fit of passion, prayed for the death of his son Hippolytus, as one of the three wishes granted to him by Neptune. The god granted his wish, causing him unspeakable grief. Such a promise (the granting of the wish) should not have been kept, if it was known that its fulfillment would cause great harm to its recipient. Neither are we obligated to keep a promise if it will cause ourselves more harm than it will do good to the recipient.
For example, if you have made an appointment with anyone to appear as his advocate in court, and if in the meantime your son should fall dangerously ill, it would be no breach of your moral duty to fail in what you agreed to do; nay, rather, he to whom your promise was given would have a false conception of duty if he should complain that he had been deserted in time of need. (I, 31)
In this example, we are not breaking a commitment we agreed to simply because it is onerous to us, but rather, a change in circumstances brought about a scenario where we would be brought greater loss than what we had originally agreed to give up (i.e., the mere time and effort of testifying). This breaking of the pact depends on an evaluation of the relative harm done compared to if we had kept it. Here we assume that the son's illness has more serious consequences than the litigant's case, or that a man's duty to his son is greater than that to his friend.
More clear-cut are the cases where promises or agreements are extorted by intimidation or obtained under false pretences. Such pacts are obviously not binding, and indeed were regularly annulled in Roman courts.
Sometimes injustice can be performed by keeping a pact or law in a subtle or fraudulent construction. One example is a general who ravaged the enemy's country by night, claiming the truce had stipulated thirty "days," not nights. This keeps the law in its letter, but opposes the parties' intent, which is more fundamental, and so faith has not been kept.
Man has duties even to those who commit injustice, for they are not to be punished inordinately. Cicero offers, as his opinion, that it suffices for the aggressor to be brought to repent of his wrongdoing, that he may not repeat the offence and that others are deterred.
All of the above deals with relations within society, yet in dealing with other nations, certain rights must be observed. Disputes among nations should be settled by force only as a last resort, for discussion is characteristic of man, while physical force is the tactic of a brute. Since man is fundamentally rational, he should not resort to force unless discussion is not possible. "The only excuse, therefore, for going to war is that we may live in peace unharmed; and when the victory is won, we should spare those who have not been bloodthirsty and barbarous in their warfare." (I, 34)
Cicero appeals to ancient Roman tradition regarding the laws of war. These are what we have come to know as "just war" criteria. First, an official demand for satisfaction or warning must be given and a formal declaration of war is then made. Those who take the oath of military service are licensed only to wage the war that has been declared, and may not on that account participate in another conflict. Only those who are legally soldiers have the right to fight the enemy. Here we see a balance against the soldier's duty not to fight civilians, for civilians are equally bound not to fight against the soldiers.
Not all wars are fights for survival, but some can be battles for supremacy, in order that one nation should be glorified above others. In this case, the combatants are more like rivals than enemies, and so they can be expected to be more merciful to each other. Cicero refers to some historical examples showing this was generally the case. Though the Romans fought with the Celtiberians and Cimbrians for survival, they warred with Latins, Sabines, Samnites and Carthaginians for supremacy. Among this latter group, all were merciful except the Carthaginians.
Cicero's approval of wars for supremacy may seem incompatible with his principle that force should be used only as a last resort, but he allows that it is compatible with justice for a nation to seek glory. He quotes a famous speech of Pyrrhus to the effect that he waged war not for riches, but to test his valor against his enemy and see who would prevail. This glorification of war for its own sake seems to be in tension with the idea that force is fit for beasts, but we may perhaps resolve the contradiction by proposing that the intent of wars of supremacy is not physical coercion so much as demonstration of one's superior courage and warrior abilities. The desire to show strength is deeply rooted in masculine nature; indeed, it is at the root of our word for virtue (lit., "manliness"). A Roman could hardly deny man the right to seek glory in battle without denying virtue itself.
Men are bound to keep their promises to the enemy even if they are made under duress. Thus Regulus, when sent to Rome as a prisoner of the Carthaginians to negotiate an exchange, refused entreaties to stay freed in Rome, but instead kept his word and returned as a prisoner, where he died by torture. This is a stark contrast with Cicero's earlier allowance that a promise need not be kept if we are to suffer an evil that is greater than the good obtained by the other party. Here, however, Regulus was already a prisoner, so there was no unforeseen change in circumstance. He was released only on condition that he would keep his word. While this might resolve the contradiction, we may suspect that Cicero's admiration of martial virtue is the cause of this exception. In war, there can be no yielding to the fear of death, so to violate a martial pact or truce on this account would be a supreme disgrace to a soldier, antithetical to his sworn duty.
The sense that honor prevails even in war, and in fact most especially in war, can be seen in another example. A deserter from King Pyrrhus promised the Roman Senate that he would poison the king, who was then warring against them. The Senate instead turned the deserter over to Pyrrhus, rather than commit murder even against a dangerous enemy who made unprovoked war on Rome. (I, 40) What a far cry this is from our "targeted assassinations" and "decapitation strikes" against countries and organizations far less powerful than our own! This lost sense of honor evinces a lack of virility in our win-at-all-costs mentality.
Duty compels us to observe justice to all men, including enemies, and also those of the lowliest station. Thus slaves ought to be treated as hired laborers, and given what is due to them (food, clothing and shelter) in exchange for their work.
As a final comment, Cicero observes that wrong may be done by force or fraud. Both are unworthy of man, but fraud is more contemptible, he says. This is probably because force at least exemplifies some virility, while those who resort to fraud tend to be weak and cowardly, so they have not even the virtue of fortitude. Worst of all, Cicero says, is "the hypocrite who, at the very moment when he is most false, makes it his business to appear virtuous." (I, 41) This is probably considered the greatest evil because it falsifies virtue itself. At least the man who is openly vicious may be recognized at such, but the one who clothes himself in false virtue may bring discredit on virtuous men, and even on virtue itself.
Cicero next discusses beneficence or liberality, which he includes under the same heading as justice, though it would be understandable if this were regarded as a distinct virtue. After all, we often speak of kindness, generosity and mercy as things that go beyond what justice requires, or act as tempering an excessive zeal for retribution. Nonetheless, it is similar to justice insofar as it involves concern for others, and mediates our relationships in society.
Although it would seem that beneficence or liberality is always a great good, Cicero notes that we must exercise it with caution. First, we should make sure that our act of kindness does not cause injury to anyone. Second, our generous act should not be beyond our means. Third, the act ought to be "proportioned to the worthiness of the recipient." (I, 42)
It is obviously contrary to moral duty to steal from one person in order to give generously to another. Liberality grounded in injustice is not generous, for we are not giving what is ours to give. Thus Cicero says, "nothing is generous if it is not at the same time, just." (I, 43) On this ground, we cannot regard as truly liberal those states which would help one class of people only by unjustly confiscating the goods of another.
We should not give beyond our means for two reasons. First, because we thereby do harm to our next of kin, denying them their just inheritance. Second, excessive largesse tends to engender "a passion for plundering and misappropriating property, in order to supply the means for making large gifts." (I, 44) History is filled with examples of kings, aristocrats, and other wealthy individuals who frittered away fortunes by giving extravagant gifts to their friends and acquaintances. As Cicero says:
...a great many people do many things that seem to be inspired more by a spirit of ostentation than heart-felt kindness; for such people are not really generous but are rather influenced by a sort of ambition to make a show of being open-handed. Such a pose is nearer akin to hypocrisy than to generosity or moral goodness. (I, 44)
Lastly, we should distribute gifts in proportion to the worthiness of the recipient. This last element most clearly shows an affinity between liberality and justice. The notion of merit was famously rejected in theory by the liberal political philosopher John Rawls, and is often rejected in practice by liberal governments, which tend to distribute goods independent of merit, and even in opposition to merit. Cicero holds that the worthiness of a recipient should be evaluated according to "his moral character, his attitude toward us, the intimacy of his relation to us, and our common social ties, as well as the services he has hitherto rendered in our interest." (I, 45) There should be nothing "random" about our acts of kindness, but rather they should be based on a rational assessment of a man's moral worth in relation to us. A complete stranger has less claim (though not none) on our generosity than a friend. There is no radical egalitarianism here, but relative worth is assessed in part through local social relations.
We should also give more to those who are close to us because we are in a better position to assess their moral character, which Cicero makes the touchstone of judging merit. Rawls, by contrast, denied merit on the ground that we can accomplish nothing without the cooperation of others, and even our virtues are received from upbringing. Such an analysis fails to consider the freedom of the human will to reject his received values and squander the advantages he has received. From this freedom of the will follows the rationality of making distinctions of merit based on moral character and accomplishment.
It would presumably be best to give to those who are perfect in wisdom, but in the absence of ideally wise men, we should give to those who best exemplify some degree of temperance and justice. Cicero deliberately excludes fortitude, for a courageous man who lacks wisdom is too impetuous. Courage, as Confucius observed, is a double-edged virtue that enables men to perform both great good and great evil. Thus Cicero finds that temperance and justice are more reliable indicators of a man's moral worth.
Cicero does not state why we should give greater reward to the morally virtuous. Since we are dealing with liberality, it is not a question of giving each man his wages earned. By rewarding the virtuous, we give glory to virtue and perhaps encourage others to strive for it, yet Cicero disparages showy or ostentatious acts of giving. He says we should give out of a heart-felt kindness. It follows, then, that a lover of virtue might feel greater kindness toward those who best exemplify moral virtue. We, give, then, more to the virtuous, because they are worthier of our favor. This principle may be seen in the Gospel parable of the talents: "For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him." (Mt. 25:29) That is to say, he who uses the divine favor or grace he has received to do good works will abound in grace even more, but he who does not do good works will lose that state of grace. Following a similar principle in temporal matters, we may further reward those who have made best use of what gifts they have received.
It might be feared that such a principle, when applied to material gifts, will only help the rich get richer (as indeed, a literal interpretation of the parable of talents suggests), as we direct our generosity to those virtuous people who may need it least. Perhaps, it will be said, we ought to distribute our gifts according to need rather than merit. After all, when we give to the poor, we do not inquire into their moral character, but only into their degree of destitution. Yet liberality is not concerned with providing for the needs of the poor, for that is an absolute duty, not a generous gift. It would be an insult to give a pauper a handsome gold wristwatch, when all he needs is food and shelter. Gifts beyond material necessity are awarded on merit. If an honorable man, however poor, perceives that he is offered such a gift out of pity rather than merit, he will refuse to accept it. There is no obstacle, then, to the Ciceronian principle - indeed, common to all ancient Greco-Roman society - that a man ought to be rewarded in proportion to his merit.
Cicero finds that there is a further consideration in distributing our gifts, namely that we ought to favor those who love us most. This is not a matter of self-flattery, but of moral duty. We would be cruel and callous to treat a complete stranger better than those who love us, and to give of our wealth to him before them, all other things being equal. In assessing who loves us most, however, we should not think in terms of a passion's ardor, as young people do, "but rather by its stability and constancy (stabilitate et constancia)." (I, 47)
The greatest demand of all on our liberality is to requite kindnesses received, "for no duty is more imperative than that of proving one's gratitude." (I, 47) If, as Hesiod says, we should repay with interest what was lent to us in our need, how much more should we repay a kindness we did not seek? "Shall we not imitate the fruitful fields, which return more than they receive?" (I, 48) This principle, too, is found in the Gospel parable of talents, as the good servant returns more to his master than was entrusted to him. Acts of gratitude, unlike other acts of liberality, are mandatory for the good man, not because he must repay a favor as wages due, but because he cannot consider himself virtuous if he fails to requite the favor. Should he fail to show gratitude, he would fail to acknowledge the virtue of kindness in others, and would show little love to those worthy of it. The moral obligation to requite a kindness received presumes, of course, that a man has the means to do so without violating the rights of others.
The obligation of gratitude is proportionate not only to the magnitude of the favor received, but also the spirit in which it was given. Those who dole out favors impulsively and indiscriminately do not deserve as much gratitude as one who gives a favor after mature consideration. The latter has done us a greater honor, for he has held us specifically in mind when giving us his favor, and has thoughtfully regarded us as meriting such kindness.
In both bestowing and requiting gifts or favors, "the first rule of duty requires us - other things being equal - to lend assistance preferably to people in proportion to their individual need." (I, 49) The purpose of giving is to help others, not to be helped, so we should not give primarily to those from whom we expect favors in return yet do not need our help. It is not yet clear whether an assessment of need should take precedent over assessments of moral worth and friendship. Cicero will attempt to sort out our relative obligations in what follows.
It was said earlier that we should be more generous to those who are close to us in relationship; now, it remains to show "the principles of fellowship and society that Nature has established among men." (I, 50) The first is the bond of reason and speech, which unites men in a natural fraternity, as they can communicate and discuss with each other. Cicero ignores the divisions of language among men, which has effectively split this fraternity to a degree. Thus St. Augustine would later say that a man would sooner converse with his dog than with a man who does not speak his tongue, expressing the profundity of the division among nations.
Interestingly, Cicero makes reason or speech the basis of "justice, equity and goodness" (iustitiam, aequitatem, bonitatem). Accordingly, though we may attribute the virtue of courage even to brute animals, we would never attribute to them justice and liberality, for they lack reason and speech. The virtues of justice and liberality, then, are virtues specific to human society, which is a society based on rational communication. Without reason, we cannot apprehend what is just or fair or merited, abstracted from determinate conditions, yet an irrational animal could show an ability to overcome fear, which we regard as courage. However, if an animal lacks free rational volition, even its acts of courage do not have a truly moral character, and it should not to be held responsible for lacking courage, nor credited for exhibiting it.
Now, some modern biologists do presume to attribute a sense of equity or fairness to other primates. I have discussed the conceptual errors of such thinking in my essay, Monkeys, Fairness, and Anthropomorphism. Even if this attribution were accurate, however, it would not undermine our principle that reason and speech are essential to justice and equity, for these same biologists also attribute a modicum of reason and speech to primates, another error I discuss in Vitalism and Psychology and Logic and Language.
The fraternity of man forged by reason and speech is the basis for the common right to all things that Nature produces to be used by man. Anything not legally assigned as private property shall be held in common, on the ground that there is a basic fraternity or friendship among all men.
If this seems too idealistic, Cicero gives some examples of how this notion of a universal fraternity of men was applied in the ancient world. Students of antiquity will already know that the ancients felt it a sacred duty to show hospitality to wayfarers and strangers. This duty reached extravagant extremes in Eastern cultures, but Cicero gives a more modest principle, citing Ennius.
Who kindly sets a wand'rer on his way Does e'en as if he lit another's lamp by his: No less shines his, when he his friend's hath lit. (I, 51)
In other words, we should deny our fellow man what it costs us nothing to give. From this one may derive the ancient maxims: "Deny no one the water that flows by," "Let anyone who will take fire from our fire," "Honest counsel give to one who is in doubt." (I, 52)
This principle of fraternity has been lost in modern civilization, which places claims of private or government ownership on everything, down to the last square foot of land and water from every stream. We are routinely denied access to what it would cost little or nothing to give, for some private entity or government has determined that we must pay for drinking water, or for electricity generated by running water, or for mere data connectivity (telephone, television, or internet) that in many cases costs literally nothing to give. We are not free to park our cars or walk where we please, since there is no plot of land unclaimed by a private or government interest. Most notably, our intellectual property laws violate Ennius' principle, insofar as I do not lose a thought by sharing it with another. It may be argued that charging for water, data, and intellectual property is necessary, for otherwise the distributor would suffer loss of income. However, the same may be said of one who extorts passers-by for use of water from a stream. The only loss would be of income he does not deserve, since it is for what is held in common. The man who first thinks a thought does not own that thought, for it is accessible to all.
Nonetheless, Cicero recognizes that this spirit of universal liberality must be regulated by the test "No less shines his," for if a man is thereby deprived of his means of income, he will hardly be able to continue in such generosity. Such an imprudent liberality, if universally practiced, would result in the impoverishment of all. Thus one might reasonably protect the secrets of one's trade, if relinquishing them would undercut one's means of subsistence. It would be more difficult to justify preventing someone else from discovering these secrets independently, for that would be to presume ownership of abstract ideas. Even the licit protection of trade secrets seems opposed to the notion of fraternity, though it is understandable that one should expect to be rewarded for his effort in discovering a certain idea or technique. Copyright and patent law need to weigh this need for individual reward or incentive against the need to benefit mankind as broadly as possible.
Beyond the universal fraternity of man, there are many degrees of relation among people in human society. These include groupings of language or ethnicity, yet Cicero finds that an even closer bond is to be citizens of the same polity. It must be recalled that in antiquity, government was typically organized on the scale of cities, so that political life was more local than one's language or ethnic group. This is in sharp contrast with modern government, which tends to operate on a very large scale, often transcending multiple language groups and ethnicities. Thus we might be inclined to see ethnicity as more closely binding, while we are only distantly related to our fellow citizen as such. In Cicero's world, however, citizenship involved active and intimate collaboration with one's fellows. Activities included participation in the forum, public temples, and law courts, as well as numerous social circles and business relations.
Closer still are the relations among kindred. Even in modern society, with the supposed destruction of the extended family, most people would feel greater obligation to aid their kin than any other citizen. Nature ordains that the closest bond of all is between husband and wife, then between parents and children. In the family's home, everything is held in common. "And this is the foundation of civil government, the nursery, as it were, of the state." (I, 53) Next follows the bond among siblings, and then of first and second cousins (who often lived in the same household). When the house is full, some move into other homes, like colonies, and there are further connections by marriage, and so on. Cicero holds that states arise from this process of growth, as indeed nations in those days identified themselves in terms of common ancestry, and ancient national histories were often genealogical in character.
Kinship in Roman culture meant more than common genetic ancestry, for it entailed observance of family traditions and domestic worship, as well as sharing ancestral tombs. The priestly role of the pater familias amplified the family bond, as it encompassed religious matters. The family was truly a society in miniature, with its own customs and traditions.
As important as the bonds of kinship were to the Romans, Cicero found that the closest bond of all was that of an intimate friendship. It was not an uncommon view among the Greeks and Romans that friendship was a bond closer even then marriage. In another work, De Amicitia, Cicero expounds at length how friendship is a gift of the gods, and how friendship more perfectly exemplifies charity, since it is grounded not in any obligation by blood ties, but is a love freely given, and motivated by a spiritual affinity, not carnal or utilitarian considerations. He expresses this sentiment briefly in De Officiis, saying that friendship is formed when we recognize moral virtue in another. Friendship, then, is most akin to a love of virtue itself, and thus Cicero rightly calls it the most noble of human relations, as it is grounded in love of the highest good, rather than in utility.
Justice and generosity are the moral virtues that we find most attractive in another person, and are most conducive of friendship. This only makes sense, since these are the virtues that mediate social relations. Friendship is also facilitated when two people have the same ideals and tastes, so that each recognizes himself in the other. A bond of fellowship can be forged by interchanging acts of kindness or generosity.
Until now, Cicero has followed a common Greek assessment of social relations, ascending from the most remote to the most intimate. It is jarringly out of place, then, when he asserts that the love of country is the closest, dearest relationship of all, especially since he already spoke of tribes and polities. Cicero, of course, was an eminent statesman who devoted his life to his country, and he may be excused for placing his dearest love at the summit of human relations.
It would seem that Cicero's exaltation of the duty to country above all else has some foundation in actual practice. After all, mothers are expected to give up their sons, and wives their husbands, for the sake of the national defense, and we should regard with contempt the man who shirks his patriotic duty in order to return to his family. On the other hand, the experience of modern nationalistic totalitarianism may cause us to recoil at the thought of preferring loyalty to the state over loyalty to one's friends and family. It would seem, then, that we cannot always rank our moral duties in a single order according to our relationships.
Cicero acknowledges that, although he would rank our moral obligations to various relations in a particular order, there are exceptions to this order. Generally speaking, our duty is first to country, then parents, then children and our other dependents, and finally our kinsmen. We owe material assistance to those named according to this order. However, more immaterial forms of aid, such as counsel, conversation, encouragement, comfort and reproof are best suited to friendship. (I, 58) Yet even in our ranking of material obligations, we must depart from this order if what is needful in each individual case merits it.
...for example, one would sooner assist a neighbour in gathering his harvest than either a brother or a friend; but should it be a case in court, one would defend a kinsman and a friend rather than a neighbour. (I, 59)
As with his ranking of social relations, Cicero here follows established mores without offering a rationale for them. He simply assumes that his reader will recognize the rectitude of this behavior. Even if we do not concur in every particular application, we may recognize that different circumstances may cause us to have greater or lesser obligations to one group of people over another, as we do not have the same kinds of duties to all in equal degree.
Continue to Part III
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