14. Temperance and Decorum
15. Means of Gain Befitting a Freeman
We consider virtue to be magnified when a man's accomplishments are done in the face of danger or with great toil. The greater the obstacle that is overcome, the greater we consider the man who perseveres. Cicero notes, however, that such exaltation of spirit may be used for selfish ends (pro suis commodis) instead of the common good, in which case it is a vice, "for not only has it no element of virtue, but its nature is barbarous and revolting to all our finer feelings." (I, 62) Courage (fortitudo), then, is appropriately defined by the Stoics as "the virtue which champions the cause of right." For exaltation of the spirit to be called courage, it must be consonant with justice, and not involve treachery or cunning, "for nothing that lacks justice can be morally right."
The idea that an unjust pseudo-courage involves treachery or selfishness is also found in Plato, whom Cicero quotes as saying: "Not only must all knowledge that is divorced from justice be called cunning rather than wisdom, but even the courage that is prompt to face danger, if it is inspired not by public spirit, but by its own selfish purposes, should have the name of effrontery rather than courage." We can certainly understand why the ancients would have in mind selfishness and cunning as attributes of false courage, as the Greco-Roman world was rife with ambitious warlords who would subvert the state to their own glorification. However, we must wonder if there could not be genuine courage motivated by self-interest, as well as false courage that is not treacherous.
As a possible complement to Cicero's exposition of the proper motive of courage, we might add that a person could bravely face danger for the sake of his personal principles. This modern individualism has little place in Cicero's essentially social concept of justice. However, it may find some root in the austerities endured by the Cynics, who were motivated not by social duty, but by the pursuit of personal virtue. If what is good or right or natural can be found not only in society, but also in solitary acts, we must acknowledge that there can be courage even where there is no social motivation, as solitary acts can be fraught with danger or difficulty. This sort of selfishness is not a normless egoism, however, but is governed by a pursuit of authentic virtue defined by man's natural good.
Just as genuine courage need not be socially motivated, false courage need not be treacherous. A person may act rashly not because he intends to wrong someone, but because he has misjudged the danger and acts on impulse. Two soldiers may fight side by side in a just war; one understands the danger and chooses to endure it for the good of his country's cause, while the other recklessly rushes headlong into battle without having considered the danger or the rectitude of his cause. Though externally their actions are similar, their internal motives give their actions different moral characters. Courage, more so than justice, depends on internal disposition, not merely external acts.
Cicero follows the Stoics in asserting that those with greatness of spirit are motivated by the accomplishment of deeds, not with winning fame or glory (gloria). This is because the authentically moral man seeks to be virtuous in reality, not just in repute. Indeed, if courage depended on reputation, then the great man would depend on the capricious opinions of the ignorant rabble, and could hardly be considered superior to them. Cicero is aware that the Stoics might be setting too high a standard, for practically every man who accomplishes great deeds expects glory as his reward. (I, 65) This reality in Greco-Roman society enabled the Epicureans to claim that the Stoic pursuit of virtue for virtue's sake was in fact motivated by a desire for fame or glory.
If the courageous soul does seek glory, it is not of the sort most commonly sought by man, that of wealth and high office. Cicero identifies two characteristics of a courageous spirit: (1) indifference to outward circumstances, striving only after moral goodness, and (2) striving to do great deeds that are also arduous and fraught with danger to life and prosperity. The first characteristic is the rational cause of courage in a man, while the latter is the glory (splendor), greatness (amplitudo), and, Cicero adds, the usefulness (utilitatem) of courage. The splendor of courage expresses how this virtue is glorious of itself - it would be praiseworthy even if it were praised by none. The glory of human fame (gloria), by contrast, depends on the opinions of men. Unlike some of the more severe Stoics, Cicero does not think the love of virtue for virtue's sake entails a contempt for utility, for he finds that courage accomplishes greatly useful ends.
The first characteristic of a courageous soul - indifference to external fortunes - has two aspects: (1a) judging moral goodness (honestum) to be the good (bonum), and (1b) being free from all passion. The first aspect entails that the lover of moral goodness as the true good regards other, lesser goods with contempt. He disregards what most people think is grand or glorious - namely wealth and high office - since he is governed by fixed principles. To be governed by principle rather than by what is commonly thought is a sign of a strong character, as is the purposeful endurance of what is difficult or painful, without being shaken from his natural state, nor from his dignity as a wise man. Courage entails resistance to the sort of passions that would make us flee from what is painful or seek out what is only a superficial good. He who can resist fear is not governed by desire, and he who can endure toil cannot be a slave of pleasure.
Superficial goods include not only pleasure and riches, but also glory, since it robs us of liberty, making us dependent on the masses. (We may see this in some modern celebrities who are at once egotistical and resentful of the fact that their social power depends on the whims of the crowd.) Even military office ought to be declined sometimes.
While office should not be pursued for its own sake contrary to the moral good, Cicero does not approve of those philosophers - which included Academics and Stoics - who withdrew from civic duty in order to live unperturbed. He accuses them of having the same motive as kings: to be subject to no authority and to live freely as they please. He also derides as falsely virtuous those who content themselves with a meager estate, in order to live peacefully. These are shirking the duties and difficulties involved in great enterprises, while those who shun public office are similarly avoiding making greater contributions to the good of mankind.
Cicero allows exceptions for men of genius who have devoted themselves to learning, and thus help mankind in another way, as well as those who cannot hold public office due to ill health or some other exigency. The rest who shun public or military office, however, are to be held in discredit, for while it might seem virtuous for them to care so little about human glory, in reality they fear the toil and trouble of an active civic life, and dread humiliation or defeat. Their fear of risk and lack of fortitude is masked by their claim of indifference to glory.
We may recognize this false virtue among the cultural elites of our own time. Cicero's disdain for those who rejected political life was embraced by many philosophes during the Enlightenment, leading to a wholehearted repudiation of the reclusive asceticism that characterized many ecclesiastics and academics of the time. Monasticism in particular was despised as useless and not at all conducive to the public good. Whatever merit such arguments may have, it would seem that Cicero's criticism of retirement is not applicable to the monastic ethos, insofar as the monk does not shun toil or difficulty, but chooses this life precisely because it is the more difficult and objectively glorious path. For this reason, St. Benedict considered constant work to be essential to the monastic life, which is why monks excited admiration rather than disdain throughout the Middle Ages, at least when they were true to their ancient discipline.
Cicero has identified two Stoic ideals - recognizing moral goodness as the only good, and freedom from all passion - as the rational cause of courage in a man. If we were to dispense with the first criterion, then we would have to count effrontery as courage, and face the same problem that the Confucians saw with courage. This criterion makes courage purely virtuous. Now, it is not necessary that someone should always think that moral rectitude is the only good in order to be courageous, but at the moment in which he is acting courageously, he prefers moral good to other kinds of good. This is made manifest in his willingness to face danger, thereby risking his external goods. If he were risking his external goods only to gain greater external goods, we would not call such "courage" a moral virtue, as it is a purely utilitarian gamble.
If we were to dispense with the second criterion, the act of courage would not be possible, for fear and love of pleasure would induce him to avoid endangering himself. Again, it is not necessary for a courageous man to always adhere to the Stoic ideal of freedom from all passion, but in his act of courage he must necessarily overcome whatever passions would prevent him from fulfilling his deed. It is noteworthy that Cicero assumes that passion has a purely negative influence. Might there not be passions that actually help us act courageously? Affection for one's kin or countrymen might inspire us to act with courage, yet this does not fall under the Stoic definition of passion, as discussed earlier (see discussion of Chrysippus in particular).
Cicero holds that it is inconsistent for one who conquers fear to succumb to desire (I, 68), presumably on the assumption that fear is more difficult to overcome. This assertion is debatable, for people have different strengths and weakness, so a generally courageous man might still have a weakness for certain pleasures. Nonetheless, it is clear that for a particular act of courage to be performed, it is necessary to overcome any desire that would lead us to choose comfort over the danger to be faced.
Cicero associates courage with greatness of spirit, so a courageous man should desire those things fit for a noble soul. Love of riches, he says, shows littleness of soul, while it is noble to be indifferent to money. The implied rationale is that when you are indifferent to something, you are not subject to it. Those who have riches, Cicero says, ought to be liberal with their wealth. That is to say, they should use their wealth for virtuous ends, so that they serve virtue rather than money.
We should also beware of ambition for glory, "for it robs us of liberty, and in defence of liberty a high-souled man should stake everything." (I, 68) Cicero does not mean that the glory-seeker himself loses his liberty, but rather such a man is tempted to pursue tyranny over others. He asserts without justification that a man should fight for the liberty of others, as though this were an obvious truth. In our age, the idea that liberty is a fundamental categorical good is assumed without question, but a theory of ethics should not take anything for granted. Here Cicero is injecting his own political ethos rather than following the theoretical scheme of the Stoics.
Accordingly, the remainder of Cicero's discussion of fortitude is a digression about good government, much of which would seem better suited to the topics of justice or wisdom. Nonetheless, he does elucidate a concept of civic courage that is no less admirable than its military counterpart. Statesmen often need great personal courage to persevere in decisions that will serve their nation by averting war or ending it. This kind of courage requires the wisdom to anticipate possible outcomes, so we are not found helpless before unforeseen eventualities. Rashness, then, is incompatible with true courage, since it lacks self-reliant wisdom. Still, there are times when we must fight to the death, if the only alternative is slavery or some other disgrace unworthy of a great soul. (I, 81)
Cicero is concerned that the praise of courage is too often limited to the glorification of deeds in war, when acts that lead to peace can be no less courageous, and are often more beneficial to society. He requires courage to be conditioned by wisdom and justice, so the man of great spirit should not show wanton cruelty to the conquered. Here he stands against the martial spirit of antiquity, which often seemed to equate courage with boldness in battle. According to Cicero, such courage is meritorious only insofar as it benefits society, in which case we should not begrudge the statesman equal or greater honor, for his service which is of more lasting benefit.
This distinction between the virtue of courage and mere boldness in battle requires that courageous acts be conditioned by the wisdom to decide when a sacrifice is necessary for the good of society. We must strike a balance between being "craven in our avoidance of danger" and "exposing ourselves to danger needlessly." As Aristotle would put it, courage is a "golden mean" between rashness and cowardice. Yet how do we find this happy middle? Cicero offers an analogy with physical health: for light illnesses we use mild treatments, but for dangerous illness we use hazardous remedies. In other words, the risk we take ought to be proportionate to the evil that would result from not acting. In another analogy, he says only a madman would pray for a storm, but rather we should withstand the storm bravely when it does occur. (I, 83) That is, we should not seek danger, but only face those trials that are given to us.
Those who seek danger or battle are frequently motivated by the desire to promote their personal glory. Accordingly, Cicero gives an example of those who were willing to sacrifice their wealth and lives for their country, but not their personal glory. A Spartan admiral brought ruin on his nation because of his proud refusal to withdraw his fleet. (I, 84) Here personal glory wrongly took precedent over the security of the nation, to which true courage ought to be ordered. Again, Cicero provides a counterpoint to the Bronze Age martial ethics such as we see in the Homeric epics, where heroes seem to be motivated primarily by the desire for personal glory or honor. He makes this honor subservient to the good of the nation, and in this way courage is conditioned by justice.
Recalling the past civil wars between aristocratic and democratic supporters in Athens and Rome, Cicero holds that the truly courageous, patriotic citizen will care for the good of the whole nation, not just some part. He will face death rather than renounce justice. Accordingly, the courageous statesman will not pander to any party, but will be concerned with the good of all, as Plato recommends. (I, 86)
It is no sign of courage to show violent anger toward political enemies, for only those who take up arms against the state should be treated as enemies. In a free people who are equal by law (in iuris aequabilitate), we should show forbearance to those who disagree with us politically. (I, 88) Similarly, it is no mark of courage to punish crimes with undue severity. Punishment should be motivated by the welfare of the state, not the satisfaction of he who administers punishment. Again, courage is conditioned by justice.
In keeping with the Stoic ethos, Cicero contends that the brave statesman must be free from passion, especially anger, when administering punishment. This freedom from passion will help him determine punishment in proportion to the offense, avoiding both excess and defect, and arriving at what the Peripatetics (Aristotelians) call the happy mean. Cicero commends the Peripatetics' doctrine of the mean, but opposes their belief that anger can sometimes serve a good purpose. He holds that anger is always to be eradicated, and that punishment should never be led by wrath. (I, 89)
Similarly, the brave man should not succumb to feelings of haughtiness in his moments of triumph. Rather, he should keep an even temper in every condition of life, as did Socrates. Those who are exalted should take the greatest care to be humble and seek the counsel of others. Here Cicero is cautioning against the tendency to lionize courageous men into demigods. Instead, he proposes a humility among great men, so that they are disposed to the service of others, rather than self-glorifying. Men who are puffed with pride can be led to evil deeds or foolish blunders, so again courage ought to be conditioned by wisdom.
There are other walks of life in which men may demonstrate an exalted spirit, such as those who administer their own property, to be shared with friends and the state. These private citizens do not benefit as many people as the statesmen does, but they are magnanimous in their domain.
Cicero appears to have digressed from the topic of fortitude, only because he links it to magnanimity ("greatness of soul"), which can be found in a variety of ethical contexts. In English, we usually mean by a magnanimous person one who is especially generous or liberal in bestowing gifts. This is but one aspect of magnanimity, which can be found in any sort of moral excellence. Like most Romans and Greeks, Cicero found that moral greatness was most perfectly exemplified in the virtue of courage or fortitude. Indeed, the Latin term for virtue means "manliness," and positive virile attributes were best realized in boldly facing danger, as in war. Yet Cicero did not want to make the warrior the moral ideal. Rather, he has attempted to show how courage is a virtue only in a certain ethical context, namely when it is conditioned by wisdom and justice. Once we accept that fortitude is virtuous only insofar as the ends pursued are wise and just, then we can acknowledge a broader sort of courage, to be found even in the statesman, the philosopher, or the private man of property. This courage is grounded not merely in braving physical danger, but in persevering in one's desire to benefit society. Thus Cicero has made even courage a social virtue.
The fourth kind of virtue embraces considerateness and self-control, giving a sort of polish to life, as well as temperance, subjection of the passions and moderation. Under this heading also falls what the Romans called decorum and the Greeks called prepon. Decorum, or what is "proper," is essentially linked to moral rectitude, for what is right is proper and what is proper is right. Cicero admits, "The nature of the difference between morality and propriety can be more easily felt than expressed." (I, 93)
Propriety is manifested only when there is pre-existing moral rectitude. We can speak of propriety under all four divisions of moral goodness. "For to employ reason and speech rationally, to do with careful consideration whatever one does, and in everything to discern the truth and uphold it - that is proper." Thus all things just are proper, while all things unjust are improper, and similarly for the other categories of virtue.
Cicero explains the relationship between decorum and moral goodness with the following analogy: as comeliness and beauty of person are inseparable from health, so propriety is inseparable from moral rectitude. This is a potent analogy, for our sense of decorum or propriety has the feel of an aesthetic judgment, which is why it is so hard to define. While the aesthetic is not ethical, it can be a sign of the ethical. When someone does something evil, we perceive that it is ugly and ill-suited to a human being, but when we see a virtuous act, we perceive a beauty and harmony showing that this is proper to being human. As discussed in the beginning, we cannot use aesthetic judgments to prove ethical theses, but these judgments of propriety help us in practice to instantly recognize virtue. These judgments, of course, should be subjected to rational ethical criteria, in case we err in our gut feeling. By the same token, however, we may use judgments of propriety as a check on our ethical theorizing, lest we reach a monstrous conclusion by specious reasoning. Not all aesthetic judgments are purely subjective, if our sense of decorum can point us to genuine moral truths.
From the foregoing discussion, we may distinguish two senses of decorum. First is the general sort of propriety found in moral goodness as a whole, and second there is the sort of decorum that is specific to the fourth division of moral goodness. (I, 96) [N.B.: Cicero does not speak of "four virtues," for there are innumerable virtues or positive attributes that a man may possess. Instead he speaks of four divisions of honestum.]
Again, analogy may prove useful in explaining moral propriety or decorum. Poets observe propriety by writing dialogue so that the words spoken by each dramatic person is in accord with that person's character, even for the bad characters. (I, 97) The words are "proper," not by being good or evil, but being well-suited to the role of the person speaking. We have only to ask, then, what is the role that is proper to the man who would act morally.
According to Cicero, nature assigns us the roles of steadfastness, temperance, self-control, and considerateness of others, and also not to be careless toward our fellows. When we act accordingly, propriety shines in our conduct, gaining approbation "by the order, consistency and self-control it imposes upon every word and deed." (I, 98) Our perception of the admirable order and harmonious disposition of the temperate man is evidence that this is the role that is proper to man: to be temperate, steadfast, and considerate of others. Note that decorum includes social feeling, enjoining us from acting in ways that, though not objectively evil, are nonetheless offensive to others.
Underlying the belief in decorum is the assumption that nature indeed assigns a role to us. In other words, there must be purpose in nature in order for decorum to make much sense. Otherwise, all rules of decorum would be purely aesthetic judgments, and there would be no basis for determining certain types of conduct to be more or less "proper" to man. Once again, without teleology in nature, we cannot objectively determine what any man "ought" to do.
The exercise of decorum shows a sort of reverence toward other men. "For indifference to public opinion implies not merely self-sufficiency, but even total lack of principle." (I, 99) Even if certain decorous customs are culturally specific, derived from purely aesthetic judgments, nonetheless the respect of these customs is properly ethical, insofar as it expresses respect and consideration for the sensibilities of others.
In this vein, Cicero adds: "It is the function of justice not to do wrong to one's fellow-men; of considerateness, not to wound their feelings; and in this the essence of propriety is best seen." Now, in modern society, all sorts of offensive behavior is justified by noting that it does no palpable wrong to anyone, but such a defense fails to recognize that propriety is distinct from justice. We have a moral obligation to respect the feelings of other people because (1) we are not self-sufficient and (2) men by their nature are deserving of a certain degree of respect. The first thesis is obviously true, and its moral consequence is that we should show some respect for our fellows, who make it possible for us to live and to live well. Even if we were not dependent on our fellow men, we would still owe them respect by virtue of their dignity as rational beings. To be indifferent to the feelings of others is to be unprincipled, as indeed it is hard to see how such a person is practically distinguishable from the utterly amoral. After all, morality in large part mediates relations between people, so to behave ethically presumes some concern for the sensibilities of others.
Nonetheless, one may object that sometimes it is no wrong to offend another's sensibility, and indeed sometimes justice may demand that we do so. We may find that certain sensibilities and the customs that express them are not deserving of respect and even deserve contempt. Cicero, however, in exhorting us to respect our fellows, assumes that we live together in a society (not necessarily dependent on each other, though in fact this is always the case) and that certain aesthetic values are shared by a broad segment of society. Where there is such a general consensus, we are bound to show respect.
In this sense, we should understand St. Paul's famous boast that he did not permit men to have long hair, women to speak in church, and so forth. The point was not that such things were absolutely immoral, but rather that the freedom of Christianity does not excuse us from the obligation to respect recognized rules of decorum. Even though he knew certain things of Jewish law or Greek custom no longer bound the Christian, he still respected these things, because he respected the persons who held them. Even when a thing was not especially worthy of respect, he respected it for the sake of the people who held it dear. By this principle, we should show contempt for a custom only if it is positively immoral; i.e., contrary to natural morality. If a practice is contrary to revealed religion only (or any other form of positive law), then we cannot hold its followers as culpable for their ignorance, though at the same time the followers of the revealed religion cannot countenance the practice among themselves.
Our duty to respect decorum leads us to harmony with Nature and the observance of natural law. (I, 100) Again, it is not necessarily that the customs themselves are commanded by natural law, but rather our respect for other humans that such customs express. It is only when the movements of body and spirit agree with natural law that we should approve them.
The movements of the spirit is twofold: appetite (GK. orme) and reason. Appetite impels a man this way and that, while reason teaches and explains what one should do or not do. "The result is that reason commands, appetite obeys." (I, 101) This depends on the thesis that man, as a rational creature, ought to be ruled by reason, and his appetites be made subordinate. (See earlier discussion of Stoic physics.) Also, we assume that human reason can give us knowledge of the natural law.
In a Stoic vein, Cicero holds that every action should be free from undue haste or carelessness, nor should we act without a reasonable motive. (Note that reason is associated with deliberation.) "For in these words we have practically a definition of duty." Moral duty, then, is acting in accordance with reason, yet "reason" is here conceived as having teleological knowledge, rather than simply finding a means to an end. Reason tells us what our proper end should be. Such a concept of reason cannot exist in a purely materialist universe.
From the above it follows that the appetites should be reined in by reason. (I, 102) By natural law we are to be subject to reason. This is contrary to most modern thinking, which identifies the animal appetites as "natural" and therefore not to be restrained. Such thought fails to recognize that what is natural for a dog is not natural for a man. The exercise of higher rational faculties entails a higher imperative for man than for brute beasts, no matter how physiologically similar they may be. Attempts to obscure the moral distinction between man and beast are intellectually dishonest justifications of hedonism. The proof of this dishonesty is that no one holds that brute animals should be criminally responsible for their misdeeds, showing that no one truly believes that they are of the same moral order as man.
A rational person should not act randomly or on impulse without consideration and care. "For nature has not brought us into the world to act as if we were created for play or jest, but rather for earnestness and for some more serious and important pursuits." (I, 103) Sport and jest can be enjoyed as we enjoy sleep, as a relaxation after we have met our more serious demands. Even jesting should be confined within limits of good conduct, not "extravagant or immoderate, but refined and witty."
In our entertainment-saturated world, it is sometimes difficult to recall the essential seriousness of life. José Ortega y Gassett, having witnessed the rise of modern frivolous interests such as sports, beaches, and other time-killers, called these practices a falsification of life. In other words, to pursue amusement as a primary end is to reject human life and to choose a false surrogate in its place. When such things take a central role in our life, we effectively deny our rational nature. The secular man who thinks the purpose of life is just to get along pleasantly for as long as we are here is fundamentally devoid of seriousness. The falsity of this position is evidenced by the fact that even atheistic societies (e.g., the Communist states) have seen a need to devote themselves to great enterprises beyond the pleasures of the current generation.
Elegant and vulgar jest are distinguished: the former is fit for any dignified person, while the other is unfit for a gentlemen "if the subject is indecent and the words obscene." (I, 104) Even those who think coarse jokes are morally tolerable will acknowledge that they would seem ill fit coming from the mouth of a highly dignified person. This fact suggests that there is something objectively undignified about such speech. It is in some sense "improper". It is also "intemperate", as it results from being carried away by our passions: i.e., the desire to laugh, the desire to delight in mockery of others, the desire to take undue pleasure in sexual matters. This last, of course, is what Cicero generally means by "indecent" or "obscene," though it may also refer to excretory functions. While the physical functions regarded as indecent or obscene are morally licit to perform in certain contexts, it is inconsistent with high dignity to jest about such matters. We perform these tasks as concessions to bodily needs, not so that we may make reason subordinate to the passions. In the case of sexuality, the passion is sufficiently powerful to make man little better than a brute beast temporarily, which is why such acts are generally performed in private, even by the intemperate.
But it is essential to every inquiry about duty that we keep before our eyes how far superior man is by nature to cattle and other beasts: they have no thought except for sensual pleasure and this they are impelled by every instinct to seek; but man's mind is nurtured by study and meditation; he is always either investigating or doing, and he is captivated by the pleasure of seeing and hearing. (I, 105)
Any salutary discussion of ethics must emphasize the distinction between man and beast, if the moral imperatives of man are to be of the rational order. Those who wish to downplay the distinction between man and beast invariably seek to justify their own sensual indulgences. It is easy for man to act beneath his capacity, since he also has an animal nature. If he wished, he could go further and act like a vegetable. Yet plants and brute animals do not have the option of pursuing higher moral goods as can be found by rational contemplation.
Like many of the Greek thinkers, Cicero distinguishes base sensual pleasure from the higher pleasure of seeing and hearing. The sensual pleasure he condemns is primarily tactile: i.e., delight in food, sex and other irrational pleasures that even the brutes enjoy. By the pleasure of seeing and hearing, he refers to a more abstract pleasure. We appreciate beauty, harmony, and order in what we see or hear, and so these senses are directed to rational inquiry. The Greek belief (shared by Stoics and Academics) that the perception of beauty is of the rational order comes in conflict with the modern notion of reason, which is usually conceived as dry logic. In the modern view, the perception of beauty in nature and in man would be considered "emotional" or "poetic" or "irrational". Such a denial of the objective reality of harmony in nature amounts to a denial of teleology in nature, hence a denial of any possibility of objective ethics. Cicero and the Greeks, by contrast, considered the perception of beauty to be the highest use of reason. Indeed, even chimps are capable of simple computation and inference of a sort, but to perceive harmony or beauty in the Stoic sense entails an ability to perceive meaning in reality. And by "meaning," I refer to intensive meaning, not the dry extensive notion of "reference". It is only by impoverishing human thought, stripping it of its soul, that we can entertain the notion that it is of a kind with that of the brutes, differing only in degree of complexity.
Now, it is of course true that there is an emotional response associated with the perception of beauty and order, but this emotion is not itself the perception. Even brute animals may be emotionally impressed by physically beautiful sights and sounds, but they, being non-verbal, would not be able to conceptualize beauty in the sense of rational order or harmony. The beauty of the philosophers is not simply the sight of a pretty flower or a female; such sensualism is consistent with the capacities even of brute beasts. It is a rational beauty, such as is occasionally experienced even today by the mathematician or the physicist, if he allows it.
Sensual pleasure, by contrast, "is quite unworthy of the dignity of man". (I, 106) At most we should allow a moderate indulgence in such gratification.
One's physical comforts should be ordered according to the demands of health and strength, not according to the calls of pleasure. And if we will only bear in mind the superiority and dignity of our nature, we shall realize how wrong it is to abandon ourselves to excess and to live in luxury and voluptuousness, and how right it is to live in thrift, self-denial, simplicity, and sobriety. (I, 106)
Apart from this general exhortation to simple Stoic virtue, Cicero (and likely Panaetius) recognizes that there is a diversity of characters among men, and that propriety is at least partially defined by one's individual character, not just the universal character qua rational man. Some are witty, while others are plainspoken; some are jolly, while others are austere, and so on.
Each man "must resolutely hold fast to his own peculiar gifts" (I, 110) in order to act with propriety. This may entail forsaking a nobler career in order to pursue one more in keeping with our character. "For it is of no avail to fight against one's nature..." Here we find advice that is at home in modern society, with its political and social liberty, where every man is encouraged to seek out the career best adapted to his character. We may lose sight of this wisdom, however, by thinking that social liberty makes the highest stations available to all. Such ambition is guaranteed to frustrate the majority, who will ultimately accept a lower station only begrudgingly and with disappointment.
Even in our non-aristocratic society, it is still true that high rank and wealth are outcomes considerably dependent on chance, or on circumstances beyond our control. Yet in Cicero's time no less than ours, there was still a variety of vocations from which to choose, and this decision, the most important of our lives, should fall under the domain of propriety. Unfortunately, the question is extremely difficult. "For it is in the years of early youth, while judgment is most immature, that each of us decides that his calling in life shall be that to which he has taken as special liking." (I, 117) This irrational, unintelligent manner of choosing is hardly consonant with the rationality of virtue.
Still, Cicero acknowledges that few of us have the opportunity to dispassionately debate whether we should choose the path of Pleasure (i.e., the career that strikes our fancy) or Virtue (i.e., the career which we ought to choose, being the best use of our talents), as Hercules did. In practice, many of us either follow the customs of our parents or pursue those vocations which are currently popular and highly esteemed.
For those few who have sufficient talent or education as well as the opportunity to make careful deliberation of what career they should choose, Cicero advises them to follow Nature. While Fortune (i.e., the opportunities that are actually available to us) also plays a role in our choice of career, Nature is much more constant and steadfast. In other words, opportunities may come and go, but our natural aptitudes remain more or less fixed, so it is wiser to choose a career that is consonant with our (non-vicious) nature. Indeed, such consistency is a characteristic of propriety as Cicero has defined it. A career should be changed only if one finds that he has made a mistake in his original choice (i.e., it is not consonant with his better nature).
Our choice of vocation has a moral character since it defines what our specific duties will be throughout life. We should choose a career that enables us to practice virtue and accomplish worthy deeds, and this is best achieved with a career that makes use of our natural virtues. Such virtues are usually received by emulation of our parents or some other role model. While we cannot necessarily inherit all the talents of our parents, we can at least imitate their practice of justice, faithfulness, generosity and self-control. Our career choice should maximize our ability to exercise these virtues.
In modern liberal society, we have made it our ideal to eliminate the element of Fortune as much as possible in the choice of career path, affording equal opportunity to all. Universal higher education is supposed to give us time to make a deliberate choice of career, but unfortunately this freedom is often used irresponsibly, as youth are encouraged to pursue their fancy or desire. The idea that each person should choose the career that pleases him is essentially amoral, as it is grounded in the idea that a career is for one's own gratification and not for the exercise of one's moral duty. When society creates an artificial freedom from all constraint in the selection of careers, it can have the unfortunate effect of teaching youth to pursue their whim or fancy, since there is no penalty for doing so. In retrospect, it might not be such a bad thing to have limited choices, as that at least forces us to think prudentially. More fundamentally, there needs to be an ethos that makes clear that a career is the means by which we exercise our specific moral duties, so the selection of a career has an essentially moral character. This insight has been lost by our culture, which tends to view career selection almost as an amoral selection of a consumer good. In the past, there was a sense of duty or obligation, at least among the morally-minded, to continue the family enterprise, or to embark on a profession that will most benefit society. Such wise thinking still exists today, but it is rarely taught as a public ideal, and career choice is generally conceived in amoral terms.
Propriety also requires that our duties in life should be different at different stages of life. "It is, then, the duty of a young man to show deference to his elders and to attach himself to the best and most approved of them, so as to receive the benefit of their counsel and influence." (I, 122) This is not an arbitrary norm, but is grounded in the fact that elders have practical wisdom from experience that youth lack. The young must be admonished not to follow their passions to excess, and instead to direct their energies to toil, so they will grow strong. Cicero recommends that the young should share even their recreation with elders, in order to have their good influence. We see this in many Latin-derived societies today, where people of all generations, young and old, partake of the same feasts and other activities. When the generations are socially isolated, the youth typically fritter away their time on gross indulgences, and when this is carried to excess, it results in long-term weakness of mind and body.
The old, by contrast, cannot have much demanded of them physically any longer, so instead they should devote their energies to mental activity, in the service of their friends, the young, and above all the public. (I, 123) If they do not do this, they will become altogether idle, which can lead to a moral feebleness causing them to indulge in sensual luxury. This is especially evil for the elderly, since they should know better after having lived a life of discipline, and they give a bad example to the youth. Cicero strongly urges the old to resist the tendency to return to the feebleness and sensuality of childhood, and this is best accomplished by vigorous mental activity.
Propriety or decorum may also be taken to refer to external bodily attitudes. Indeed, in modern English, we usually understand the word decorum to refer to such externals. Cicero divides such decorum into (1) beauty of form, (2) good order, and (3) adornment for proper action (formositate, ordine, ornatu ad actionem apto). (I, 126) We take care of these external appearances out of respect for the opinion of others.
Cicero believes that human decorum is consonant with the order of Nature. Our faces, which are beautifully constructed, are positioned so they are in plain sight, while our unpleasant looking parts are positioned where they are out of view (i.e., between the legs, as in most animals). In covering these parts, the modest man is acting in accordance with Nature.
All right-minded people keep out of sight what Nature has hidden and take pains to respond to Nature's demands as privately as possible; and in the case of those parts of the body which only serve Nature's needs, neither the parts nor the functions are called by their real names. To perform these functions if it only be done in private is nothing immoral; but to speak of them is indecent. And so neither public performance of those acts nor vulgar mention of them is free from indecency. (I, 127)
The claim that Nature has hidden certain body parts from plain view presupposes that there is purposefulness in the placement of our organs. We commented in the beginning that the notion of purpose in Nature is essential to any system of objective natural ethics. Here we see an attempt to discern Nature's purpose in a specific domain, based on the assumption that Nature does nothing in vain. To Cicero, it is no accident that our ugly parts also happen to be hidden from plain sight, and if we take further efforts to cover them, we are only acting in accordance with Nature. Recall that, in true Stoic fashion (and the Academics coincide on this point), he is appealing to our distinctively human or rational nature. It is therefore no counterargument to point out that other animals have little compunction about meeting their natural needs out in the open. The ethical is concerned only with what is natural to man as a rational being.
Cicero's reticence to speak explicitly of our excretive and generative functions makes no appeal to religious prohibitions, but only to Nature herself. This is an important counterpoint to the modern humanistic notion that such so-called "prudishness" is an invention of religion in general, or of Christianity in particular. People raised socially (as opposed to feral children) do not need to be taught a minimum degree of bashfulness. In every culture, religious and secular, people perform these functions with a certain degree of discretion, and it requires a highly ideological commitment to libertinism in order to overcome these inhibitions. Even prostitutes exhibit modesty outside of their profession, and are reluctant to be seen nude by men in other contexts, even in prison. The most primitive tribes, which walk around naked due to extreme heat, nonetheless frequently take care to cover their genitals with mud or leaves. Sexual acts are usually performed at night, which is contrary to the practice of most diurnal mammals. These are all indications that modesty is natural to man, even if it is not natural to other animals. For Cicero, the fact these body parts and acts are offensive to our eyes and ears is sufficient evidence that Nature demands them to be done discreetly.
This notion of bodily decorum does not imply that the hidden parts or acts themselves are evil. Cicero makes an important distinction (also made by Plato): just because something is not immoral to do, it does not logically follow that it is moral to speak of it or to do it in public. This addresses the sophistry, heard even today, that just because a sexual act is not evil, it follows that there is nothing wrong with sexually explicit talk or pornography or even exhibitionism. Like most modern stupidities, this is not a new error, but was found even among the ancients. Many Cynics, as well as some Stoics heavily influenced by their Cynic predecessors, thought that acting in accordance with nature meant performing bodily functions in public just as casually as any other animal. They felt that the notion of modesty was created by man living in cities, rather than a natural characteristic. In this, they made the erroneous assumption that it is possible to abstract man's nature from his social nature, as if there was ever a time when man did not exist in society, or as if a feral man could remain a rational being.
Cicero notes that Cynics ridiculed the notion of decency and argued it was ridiculous to say that it is shameful to mention that which is not immoral, while we can speak frankly of robbery, fraud and adultery without being indecent. A similar line of argument is made today, when it is said that there is no harm in exposing children to sexually explicit images, especially since we allow them to see and speak of violent actions. This reasoning presumes that propriety of speech and public act is determined by the ethical status of the thing to be described or done publicly. Yet propriety or decorum is determined by altogether different criteria, which Cicero has identified (possibly following Panaetius) as beauty of form, good order, and adornment suited to an act. It involves no logical contradiction for an ethically licit act, such as excretion or copulation, to lack these three characteristics of decorum when described or performed publicly. They are licit only because they are physically necessary, but are not thereby beautiful or showing good order.
Cicero gives some specific examples of such decorum, noting that actors take care not to inadvertently expose themselves, while men do not bathe with their fathers or fathers-in-law at public baths. He does not attempt to explain or give a rational justification for these customs, but simply urges us to follow our better nature in keeping to this path of modesty. (I, 129)
Yet how are we to know when our feeling of disgust is really a dictate of our higher nature, rather than an arbitrary aesthetic judgment or useless prudishness? Cicero is at least aware of this problem, as he urges us to pursue a golden mean between two extremes: "our conduct and speech should not be effeminate and smooth, on the one hand, nor hard and rustic, on the other." (I, 129) The exact determination of this happy medium, however, would seem to depend at least in part on culturally specific norms. This does not necessarily make the notion of decorum unworkable, since we have acknowledged that it is properly ethical to show concern for the opinion of others in society. Still, a society is not free to define its mores as coarsely or as delicately as it pleases, if we admit that there is an aspect of decorum that comes from Nature.
Cicero (again, possibly following Panaetius) attempts to articulate the subject of decorum more precisely. There are two orders of beauty: one in which loveliness (venustas) prevails, and another of dignity (dignitas). The former is proper to a woman, and the latter to a man. This is why excessive finery and affectation of manner is ill-suited to a man, for it makes him appear lovely, which is incompatible with his dignity. Masculine dignity is manifested by simple, unaffected manners, as well as a neat, but not too exquisite appearance. (I, 130) Since the dignified man seeks to avoid excessive refinement and boorishness, his dignity is found to be a golden mean. He should not saunter listlessly nor hurry too quickly so he is out of breath, as both extremes are incompatible with dignified poise. (I, 131)
One may object that these examples are culturally specific, being informed by Roman notions of masculine austerity. While there may be differing views as to exactly where the boundaries of dignity lie, there is broad agreement across many cultures that both extremes are incompatible with dignity. Even in modern liberal societies, it is generally considered shameful to indulge in excessively affective behavior or delicacy of appearance, as was common in the court of Louis XIV, yet at the same time, we feel that we should have some degree of refinement, and not be utterly boorish in our conduct and careless in our appearance. So we too, have a sense of the golden mean, though we may differ as to the bounds of acceptable behavior.
When women participate in serious professional endeavors, they are expected to conduct themselves with dignitas and to downplay their venustas. Thus women in the workplace tend to speak and act as plainly as men, and they dress in a way that does not place undue attention on their beauty. This behavior shift suggests that it is social circumstance rather than biology that creates the ethical need for dignitas. When we wish to be judged by our character, it is best to behave in a way that does not distort our character or draw attention to irrelevant externals. Yet if we were to be utterly slovenly or careless in our acts or appearance, the externals would be just as distracting in their ugliness as they would be by their beauty. Thus dignitas, as applicable to decorum, would seem to entail the subduing of venustas so that beauty of character may shine and win admiration.
Venustas is an inferior sort of beauty since it is based only in superficialities, not in the intellectual or moral essence of a person. While women may creditably exhibit dignitas, it would be shameful for a man to try to make himself lovely, for such a person is not fit for serious endeavors. In the ancient world, only men were allowed to partake in the most serious public business, so it was excusable for women to have no greater concern than loveliness. In a world where both men and women are allowed to fully participate in society, dignitas is commendable in both. This social equality was occasioned by the rise of women in status, not by the descent of men, so it would not at all be praiseworthy for a man to be too concerned with his venustas, unless it is satisfactory for him to abstain from serious conduct. Yet what was once admissible for women on account of their weakness (be it natural or socially imposed) cannot be allowed to a man who suffers no similar limitation, and is therefore expected to participate fully in serious society. Thus the admiration of working women in no way compels us to show similar respect for the male homebody or dandy.
Cicero holds that decorum extends even to our interior mental operations, of which there are two kinds, appetite (appetitus) and thought (cogitatio). Thought, which is concerned with the discovery of truth, ought to be oriented to the best subject matter. Appetites, which impel us to action, ought to be subordinate to reason. (I, 132) This interior decorum is obviously not concerned with appearances toward others, implying that what is "proper" reflects an objective harmony that ought to be respected, even when no others are present. Following the Stoics, Cicero identifies this harmony as the subordination of the lesser faculties to the greater, with the greatest being reason. Similarly, in the exercise of reason, we should apply our thoughts to the noblest topics, which make fullest use of our faculty. He does not name specific topics, perhaps recognizing that different people may contemplate different subjects, depending on their vocation. Nonetheless, we should prefer to contemplate those topics which enrich our life by exercising our reason and exhorting us to virtue, as opposed to merely frivolous matters without intellectual or moral weight. The person who allows himself to be distracted constantly by base matters is acting indecorously in his own presence, and is making a shameful use of his mind.
Moving from thought to speech, Cicero notes that there is already a vast body of teaching on decorum in oratory, namely the discipline of rhetoric. Yet there is no similar science for ordinary conversation, though there ought to be, since decorum should extend even to non-political speech. Our speech should be clearly enunciated and musical. Following the Socratic model, conversation should be easy, not obstinate, and spiced with wit. One should not exclude others from the conversation, but rather allow each his turn. One's tone should reflect the seriousness or levity of the subject. Malicious or slanderous jests should be avoided, as they betray a defect in one's own character. (I, 134) Cicero allows that we may, in rare circumstances, give the appearance of anger toward one requiring reproof, but even then "anger should be far from us; for in anger nothing right or judicious can be done." (I, 136-137)
Decorum is to be exhibited even in a man's possessions, especially his house, which ought not to be ostentatious beyond his means or too large for the number of people he hosts. (I, 138-139)
Acting decorously as described enables us to ensure that (1) appetite obeys reason; (2) we carefully assess the importance of what we wish to accomplish, so we can expend the appropriate amount of care and attention; and (3) we show moderation in what is essential to our outward dignity. All three of these principles are essential to good conduct, and Cicero regards the first as most important. (I, 141)
Having completed his discussion of decorum or propriety, Cicero proceeds to other aspects of temperance: orderliness of conduct and opportuneness of times. Both these qualities fall under what the Greeks called eutaxia ("good arrangement"), and Cicero calls modestia, not in the sense of "moderation," but in that of orderly conduct. He quotes a Stoic definition: "Modestia is the science of disposing aright everything that is done or said." They also define such orderliness as "the arrangement of things in their suitable and appropriate places." By "places," they also mean opportune times for an action. In Greek, such an opportune time is called eukairia, while in Latin it is called occasio. Moderatio, then, is the science of doing the right thing at the right time. (I, 142)
Cicero notes that prudence or wisdom might also be defined in terms of doing the right thing at the right time, but here we are concerned only with the aspects that are particular to temperance and related virtues. (I, 143)
As an example from the Greeks, Pericles was discussing official business with Sophocles, when the latter remarked about a pretty boy. Pericles rebuked him: "A general should keep not only his hands but his eyes under control." Yet the same remark by Sophocles would have been acceptable at a trial of athletes. Place and circumstance help determine the appropriateness of a word or deed. Thus one should not rehearse a court case at dinner, for one is ignoring the proprieties of the occasion. (I, 144)
While behaving decorously entails that we show consideration to others, it is apparently not the case that decorum is nothing more than pleasing people. If that were so, decorum would be purely arbitrary, determined solely by the preferences of those present. Cicero believes that decorum is a real harmony, and the perceptions of others are grounded in a real human ability to perceive whether or not we are in harmony with the objective moral order.
He compares decorous behavior with playing a harp in tune. If the tone is even slightly off, it is quite noticeable. Similarly, we may learn to read the expression of others, whether it is a raised brow, a quick glance, a raising of the voice, or one of countless other indications, to learn if others perceive that we are acting out of harmony with duty and Nature. "For it happens somehow or other that we detect another's failings more readily than we do our own." (I, 146) Indecorous behavior is here spoken of as an objective fault, an offense against Nature rather than human custom.
The ability to read others' reactions is essential to harmonious social conduct, to be sure, but it is less obvious that these reactions indicate anything more than subjective displeasure. To uphold the assertion that judgments of unbecoming behavior are perceptions of a real disharmony with nature, we should have to show that these judgments are to some extent independent of specific culture. Just as we can all agree when a harp is clearly out of tune, as an objective reality, so perhaps there is something in our common human nature that enables us to perceive that certain acts are not in accord with what is proper to humanity.
Cicero is so convinced that moral questions have objective answers - for otherwise there would be no point to a science of ethics - that he advises us to consult men of practical wisdom on questions of practical duty, rather than merely follow along our natural inclinations, that is, our unconsidered appetites. When we seek such counsel, we should ask our advisor to give reasons for his opinion. Thus his advice, informed by reason, can help us improve our conduct in ways we may have overlooked. (I, 147)
In addition to general rules of decorous conduct, we must also follow the established customs and conventions of the community in which we find ourselves. Men of great virtue, such as Socrates or Aristippus, might be permitted to contravene custom in order to manifest their genius, but it does not follow that everyone should be granted this indulgence. The Cynic belief in disregarding conventional mores "must be rejected, for it is inimical to verecundiae, without which nothing can be right (rectum), nothing morally good (honestum)." (I, 148)
Verecundiae is a sense of shame or modesty. The idea that this sense is essential to morality perseveres even in modern Italian and Spanish culture, where saying that someone is "without shame" (senza vergogna or sinvergüenza) is equivalent to saying that person is without morality or civilization. Life in society requires that we have some regard for the sensibilities of others, or else we cannot be said to be truly part of society. Rather, we would just be autonomous individuals interacting with each other as independent sovereigns. What allows us to cohere as a real community is a genuine mutual concern, so communal life - which is essential to rational human existence, since a feral human is irrational - requires us to care about how we present ourselves to others, and whether others take offense. This does not mean that we must invariably be slaves to public opinion, and Cicero allows that convention may be flouted with sufficient cause, but it is inconsistent with man's social nature that he should have no regard for the mores of his community as a matter of principle.
In other words, even when a particular moral custom is a subjective communal norm, our rational social nature implores us to respect this custom out of respect for others. Indeed, if we have truly internalized this respect for others, we will respect communal customs not out of pragmatic necessity, but because we would truly be ashamed if we offended others. This sense of shame, though painful in a way, is not something to be avoided by having no regard for the sensibilities of others, but rather by respecting communal customs in order to avoid giving any occasion for us to experience this shame. The Enlightenment philosophes, heavily influenced by treatises on moral duty such as De Officiis, agreed that a sense of social concern was essential to moral life. Thus Diderot rebuked Rousseau for withdrawing from the world: "Interrogate your heart: it will tell you that the good man is in society, and only the bad man is alone." (Le fils naturel, Act IV, scene 3)
In the postmodern era, the Enlightenment sense of moral duty to society has eroded and become replaced by a strident individualism in the moral sphere. Deliberate flouting of moral conventions is advanced, in Nietzschean fashion, as an assertion of one's strength of character. Lack of shame or concern for the opinions of others is a mark of freedom or autonomy, the highest moral good of which a postmodern liberal can conceive. Moreover, the sense of shame is itself disparaged as a needless and irrational feeling of guilt, derived from arbitrary social mores. Yet Cicero indicates that the subjectivity of communal customs does not imply that a sense of shame is irrational. Rather, this sense is a direct consequence of our social nature, which is essential to our rationality. A sense of shame proves that we are truly moral beings, refraining from giving offense not out of mechanical or practical necessity, but because we are truly concerned with the sensibility of other members of our community. His belief that there can be no rectum or honestum without verecundiae is only confirmed by the amorality of those who lack a sense of shame.
Moral duty, Cicero says, also requires us to honor those whose lives are conducted with high moral standards, and who have rendered or are rendering effective service to their country. We must also respect the elders, cede precedence to magistrates, and distinguish between the fellow citizen and the foreigner. In the case of the foreigner, we should give respect according to whether he has come in an official or private capacity. Cicero explains these duties by the common principle that we should "respect, defend and maintain the common bonds of union and fellowship subsisting between all the members of the human race." (I, 149)
I would expand on Cicero's comments as follows: By honoring those who live publicly moral lives, we are giving praise to what is morally good and thereby setting a good example for others. Even if the person honored might be guilty of some unknown private vice, we are still right to honor him, for it is clear to all that we are praising his public virtue. Naturally, if that person's private vice should be publicly revealed, it will give scandal (scandalum, literally a stumbling-block) to many, possibly causing them to suppose that virtuous men are generally hypocrites, and therefore unworthy of emulation. Given this potential consequence, which is injurious to the public pursuit of virtue, we can understand why historically it has generally been customary to keep silent about the private vices of publicly virtuous men. Even if we recognize that the venerated man is not as virtuous as he appears, we might still do well by allowing him to remain as a public symbol of virtue, since the reality of his public works are not abolished by his private vice. Still, there is a question as to whether a duty to truth requires us to disclose such private vices, lest we cause even greater scandal by their prolonged concealment. Cicero does not address this issue here.
The principle of respecting and maintaining "common bonds of union and friendship" among all men is clearly applicable to the remaining duties of reverence Cicero enumerates. Those who are rendering public service certainly deserve reverence, since they are the means by which society is able to act as a cohesive whole. By respecting them, we respect our social unity and order. Respect for elders goes back to prehistory, and is undoubtedly ancient on account of the fact that the first societies were based on ties of kinship. Still, we respect even elders who are not our ancestors or patriarchs, thereby establishing a sort of kinship among all men. Social bonds are strengthened when we give reverence to all elders, not just those of our family, and the same is true when we show paternal concern for all children, not just our own. Cicero emphasizes the universality of human fraternity, a theme that would be taken up again in the Enlightenment, and integrated into Catholic teaching at the Second Vatican Council. It is only when we cast a wider net in our sense of moral duty, love and concern that we can more truly show love and concern for our own.
Still, this universal fraternity admits various grades of reverence according to one's relative station in a polity. Magistrates - that is, executive or judicial public officials - have greater authority than ordinary citizens, and should be given a greater degree of deference. Those who are actually citizens of our polity should command a closer fraternal bond than a foreigner, who does not participate in our political institutions. Among the foreigners, we should give greater reverence to those who come in official capacity, in order to show the fraternity of our nation with his. This is a higher order of social bond than that between a nation and an individual who comes out of purely private (e.g., commercial) interests, rather than out of a desire for political or moral fraternity.
Returning to De Officiis, we find that Cicero makes a distinction between professions suitable for freemen (liberales) and those that are vile (sordidi, lit. "filthy; dirty"). First, he rejects those which incur the hate of peoples, such as tax-collectors and usurers. (I, 150) It must be remembered that in Cicero's time, tax collectors received a share of the revenue collected, so it was in their interest to overtax the people. Similarly, moneylenders took advantage of the poor, charging usurious interest to those who borrowed to meet their subsistence needs. Cicero's rejection of these professions, therefore, is not grounded in a purely subjective popular dislike of paying taxes or interest, but rather in the objective immorality of these professions, as they existed in his day. Morality must take precedence over choice of profession, and some professions are intrinsically immoral, as their revenues depend on the unjust treatment of others.
Other "illiberal" professions (i.e., those unbecoming a free man) include hired labor of the sort that involves no artistic skill. This is because "the very wage they receive is a pledge of their slavery." (I, 150) Note that the objection is not to manual labor as such (for being a skilled artisan is commendable), but rather to work whereby a man is used only for his raw physical labor power. Seeing that hired manual labors do the same work as slaves, Cicero sees such a profession as incompatible with the dignity of a free man. Their wages do not make them free, but rather are the purchase price for their temporary enslavement over the course of the day. The hired laborer is used by his employer, just as a slave is used for the good of his master rather than his own sake. Thus neither the hired laborer nor the slave gets to own the fruits of his own labor. In Cicero's passing remark that a wage "is a pledge of their slavery", he offers the seed of a Marxist analysis of the exploitation involved in labor for hire, where the worker signs away his natural right to the fruit of his labor. The artist, by contrast, has a degree of independence, for his work is desired due to his unique creative input, and thus commands a premium beyond the cost of his manual effort. He can sell his work at full value and thereby reap the full benefit of his labor. His patron, who purchases his produce instead of profiting from his labor, is more of a client than a master.
Cicero also names as a "sordid" profession those commercial middlemen who buy wholesale and immediately sell at higher prices. They provide no real service, but enrich themselves by deceiving others. Cicero's critique of such traders would not be applicable to those who perform a real service in transporting or distributing goods from producers to consumers, if such action is genuinely necessary to make those goods available. Profit is not its own justification, for it is also necessary to obtain one's income in a way that is consistent with justice and honesty.
Beyond the positively immoral trades, Cicero also disparages those who labor in workshops, since there is nothing there becoming of a freeborn man (ingenuum). Here we must understand the reason for Cicero's prejudice is that many Roman workshops relied on slave labor. Sometimes master artisans trained their slaves as skilled workers who could earn their freedom and start their own workshops. This strong association with slavery made workshop labor incompatible with free birth, in Cicero's view.
We who have an appreciation of such crafts might recognize that they are the products of skilled artisans who deserve a respect analogous to what Cicero would concede for painters or sculptors. Still, while we should not consider the industrial crafts vile, we may nonetheless recognize that they are of a lower order, in terms of creative input and professional independence, than the fine arts. Even today, we regard such professions as less desirable, to be pursued only by those incapable of the higher professions that are taught in our top schools. This is why these trades are not counted among the "liberal arts," which we now understand to mean those arts most eminently worthy of perfectly free men.
"Least of the arts... are those which minister to sensual pleasure (voluptatum)." (I, 150) By "least," Cicero does not mean worse than the positively immoral professions, which are to be rejected altogether and are not arts at all, since they do not produce anything. Nor would he count hired labor among the arts, since there is generally no skill involved. Rather, these sensually oriented trades are least among the legitimate arts, which range from the liberal arts to the vulgar mechanical arts down to these, quoting Terence: "Fishmongers, butchers, cooks, and poulterers, and fishermen." Cicero adds: "perfumers, dancers, and the whole variety show (ludus talarius)." (I, 151)
Again, some cultural explanation is required. The professions described did not provide necessary functions, for most people produced and cooked their own food, or had servants to do so. Rather, these offered unnecessary sensual indulgences. Roman poulterers would overfatten pigeons until their legs broke, and sell them at exorbitant prices. The fishmonger was a proverbial loudmouth making extravagant claims about the special quality of his stock. Butchers provided expensive cuts of meat for the affluent. Since Cicero viewed such professions from an aristocratic perspective, he saw them as satisfying the sensual appetites of the well-to-do rather than as providing necessary means of subsistence. The modern analogy of these services would be restaurants, which are not necessary to feed people but rather to indulge their sense of taste.
Once this is understood, we can appreciate why Cicero pairs these food-based professions with other types of sensual entertainment. Perfumers serve only to indulge our sense of smell, just as the aforementioned professions indulge taste. Dance was not considered a fine art, but rather dancers were hired in order to titillate their wealthy clients during feasts. Even modern dance, considered as a fine art, has lately reverted to its vulgar origins. Lowbrow shows (ludus talarius) and other forms of idle amusement only divert us from any serious endeavors. I would add to this any indulgence in drink or drugs that is designed to overstimulate our sensual appetites, well beyond what is needed for their natural satisfaction.
Cicero condemns all these sensually-oriented professions because they direct man toward the satisfaction of his lower appetites (i.e., those shared with other animals), as opposed to directing to his proper, rational nature. While it is true that our higher nature does not abolish the need to care for the body and its appetites, the sensual professions stoke demand for sensual experiences that would not occur in ordinary natural life. We are reminded here of Socrates' boast that he was more satisfied with simple, healthy food than others were with gourmet treats. Some professions, driven by the profit motive, are constantly creating demand for artificial sensual pleasures beyond those required for the healthy maintenance of the body. By doing so, they are needlessly directing man away from his higher rational good and thus represent a disservice rather than a service to man.
As noted earlier, simple entertainment is allowable as a well deserved and needed respite from our labors, but when the pursuit of entertainment becomes an end in itself, it acts as an unworthy substitute for our nobler aims. The more time we squander in a self-induced stupor or sensual ecstasy, the less time we will devote to goals that are worthy of rational human beings, and the more difficult it will be to develop the good habits and discipline to perform great works that will be of genuine service to society. We must recall that Cicero does not merely accept the Stoic ethic in its disdain for sensuality, but he also subordinates this ethic to the service of humanity. Sensual professions are contemptible not merely because they are sensual, but because they inhibit the performance of great works of public service. Sensual professions instead perversely use human reason to direct us away from the noble purposes that it is uniquely equipped to fulfill.
By contrast, Cicero commends those professions which offer benefit to the public or require the exercise of high intelligence. Medicine, architecture and teaching are three examples he offers. Such professions are "proper for those whose social position they become." (I, 151) Mercantile trade "is to be regarded as vile" (sordida putanda est) if it is small, but if it is conducted on a large scale, transporting many goods to many people without vain misrepresentation, "it is not to be fully blameworthy" (not est admodum vituperanda). Even when acknowledging that these professions offer some public benefit, Cicero still looks down upon them as unworthy of the highest social classes. This outlook was not unique to the Roman nobility, but was also shared by the Greeks, and indeed by virtually every European aristocracy before the revolutionary era.
There are reasons for this disdain toward these professions, though they are not explicitly stated in De Officiis. Small trading was considered so unimportant that it was entrusted to slaves and servants, as we see illustrated in several Gospel parables. The technical professions involved some manual labor, making it slave-like in the sense that manual labor was generally entrusted to slaves. Thus we find that slaves sometimes practiced even medicine. A man of high social standing acted as a mind, while his servants were his body, executing his will in the enterprise he managed. As Stoicism makes reason nobler than the flesh, it is explicitly evident to the Stoic what was assumed by aristocrats: that it is nobler to act as the mind of an enterprise than as a bodily member.
St. Paul would apply this Greco-Roman conception to spiritual matters, noting that different people receive different spiritual gifts, and thus act like different members of the same body. Yet this disparity is not a cause for one to have disdain for the other, for "the eye cannot say to the hand: I need not thy help; nor again the head to the feet: I have no need of you. Yea, much more those that seem to be the more feeble members of the body, are more necessary." (1 Cor. 12:21-22) Differences in station do not abolish the need for mutual respect, even toward the most lowly, as all are interdependent.
Yet Cicero's aristocratic disdain for commerce extends beyond its servile nature. He finds successful tradesmen to be worthy of the highest respect only if, once satisfied with their fortune, they should "make their way from the port to a country estate, as they have often made it from the sea." (I, 151) In other words, commerce should never be an end in itself, but only a means to an end. Those who are never satiated, but constantly wish to make more money, are vulgar in character. The poor and lowly care about making money because they do not have enough, so it is unseemly for a successful man to act is if he were still lacking. Once he has made his fortune, he should rest from commerce and turn to the liberal arts, i.e., those most truly worthy of a man who is free from the necessity of labor.
Lest it be said that such an attitude is peculiar to aristocrats, we must note as a matter of historical fact that the highest aspirations of the early bourgeois capitalists was to become landed nobility. Commerce was not an end in itself, but a means to the end of achieving a desired social status. English cobblers would close their shops several days a week when their earnings exceeded what was necessary for the most comfortable life available to men of their status. Great captains of trade often would use their fortunes to purchase baronies or other landed estates. These nouveaux riches sometimes resented the hereditary aristocracy for refusing to accept them. Still, they aspired to join this type of society, even if their background was exposed by their lack of noble title. Indeed the term "snob" in the nineteenth century referred to a person of no breeding who pretended to join the ranks of the elites. It is said to derive from the expression sine nobilitate, but this might have been a retroactive interpretation. Even in the United States, which had no noble titles, we see a preference for landed estates among the founding fathers, and the republican Jefferson saw independent landholding as the mark of free men. As commerce became more acceptable in the nineteenth century, we nonetheless read of many authors, artists, and other men of genius who resented being forced to learn a trade. The distinct impression is that such banal business concerns were beneath the dignity of men destined for the liberal arts.
Still, we need some explanation of why a country estate is more worthy of a free man than a commercial enterprise. Cicero says "of all the occupations by which gain is secured, none is better than agriculture, none more profitable, none more delightful, none more becoming to a freeman." (I, 151) He refers the reader to his Cato Maior, also called De Senectute (On Old Age). Here we find a magnificent discourse on the pleasures of agricultural life, from which I extract a few salient points.
The land returns to the farmer an abundant revenue, giving back much more than what the farmer put into it. One cannot help but admire the miracle of growth from seeds to shoots to stalks, or into massive trunks and branches. Vines support their weight with hand-like tendrils, and the vine-dresser prunes it artfully in order to direct its growth. When the grapes appear, the sun slowly transforms their taste from sour to sweet, yet the leaves protect them from excessive heat. "I am charmed... not only with the utility of the vine, but equally with the whole process of its cultivation and with its very nature." In addition, there are the pleasures of irrigating and digging the soil to make it more fertile. The farm is made more cheerful "by gardens and orchards, then again, by the feeding of sheep, by swarms of bees, by a vast variety of flowers. Nor does one take pleasure merely in the various modes of planting, but equally in those of grafting, than which no agricultural invention shows greater skill." (De Senectute, XV)
The farm life that Cicero describes was a romantic ideal, not the ordinary means of agricultural production in Italy. It was enjoyed only by wealthy landowners, as smaller holdings had been mostly absorbed into their estates. Even for the wealthy, there was little need to plant grain, as it was more cheaply purchased from abroad. This is why Cicero focuses on vines and orchards, as grapes and olives were the main sources of agricultural wealth. These crops were especially pleasing to raise, as their cultivation required a subtle art. Cicero is describing a life of recreation, not toil, which is why he considers this most consonant with the status of a free man.
The pleasure of agricultural life consists primarily in participating in the marvelous creative works of nature. Instead of haggling over goods in an attempt to profit at someone else's expense, we take from nature, which gives to us abundantly "with interest." We not only get to enjoy the beauty of nature, but we help to give shape to its beauty and its fruitfulness. This is why Cicero finds it to be "the nearest approach to the life of the true philosopher." The philosopher strives to live according to nature, which for man means according to reason. In the agricultural life, he is directly interacting with nature, not simply taking it as he finds it, but helping to direct its growth rationally toward a more fruitful and beautiful state.
The delight of tending to gardens and other forms of cultivation has been appreciated by the elderly of every historical period and of every social class. This suggests that the agricultural life resonates with human nature, and that it is most appreciated when we are unburdened by the sensual appetites of youth. It is perhaps no accident that man became recognizably man - that is, a truly rational being - when he discovered agriculture. It was then that he began to truly exercise his creative capacity, yielding ever more fruitful cultural developments. When one cares for fields or animals, rather than simply chasing game or gathering berries, one learns the value of long-term planning, as when pruning a vine to direct its growth the following year, and more importantly, one learns to have a sense of responsibility for the creatures under one's stewardship. The hunter-gatherer allows nature to take care of everything, but the agrarian man uses his reason to direct and improve nature. Herein lies the seed of all higher culture. Extolling the country life, Cicero finds in it the purest form of a life that is at once natural and rational. It falls short of the philosophical life only in that it still has some concern for physically pleasing beauty, rather than the higher beauty of moral virtue and wisdom.
Another aspect of country life explains at once why it is both liberal and philosophical: the estate owner is fully self-sufficient, as he possesses an inexhaustible, natural means of production. He is truly free, depending on no one, never having to beg for more wages, and never at the mercy of the vagaries of market demand. By contrast, we who do not own the means of production can never be secure in our wealth, no matter how ample our salary may be. Thus, even the well-to-do bourgeois constantly worry over their business affairs, and the dread of unemployment adds a servile tinge to our conduct. The life of a free man, unencumbered by a preoccupation with income, is a practically necessary condition for a philosophical life, since the philosopher seeks to free himself as perfectly as possible from dependence on the satisfaction of sensual appetites.
As Cicero conceived the problem in his social context, only a few people can be liberal and philosophical. This is because true economic freedom - that is, freedom from deep concern over economic matters - was only possible to a few wealthy landowners, whose large holdings were necessarily managed by many servants and hirelings. In the Greco-Roman world, not only did the many labor to satisfy the physical appetites of a few, but it was also necessary that many should be enslaved or cast low so that a few could enjoy the freedom necessary to cultivate a life of moral virtue and philosophical contemplation.
Here, Cicero's Stoicism seems to be diametrically opposed to its Cynic origins, as now the frugal, simple life according to Nature appears to be accessible only to the wealthy. The original Stoics, we recall, regarded wealth or poverty as a matter of indifference, as did their Cynic predecessors. In Cicero's adaptation, freedom from concern over wealth is attained by possessing its natural source. This notion persisted among European aristocrats all the way through the nineteenth century Romantics. Here we have the basis of the idea that those with hereditary wealth are of greater moral virtue, since they are unconcerned with securing a fortune. The idea seemed vindicated through the early modern period, as most of the great achievements in the liberal arts and sciences were made by men of independent means. Even in the nineteenth century, scientific inquiry remained confined generally to the upper classes, as there was yet no state sponsorship of science.
Today, we would not be so quick to confine the liberal philosophical life to the country estates. There are now other means of production that can be owned, due to industrial and financial capitalism. A liberal arts education is now available to people of all social classes, and it is now possible, thanks to the mechanization of agriculture and industry, for a few to provide for many. This relative emancipation from heavy toil grants more possibilities for people of all classes to partake in the philosophical life to varying degrees, either in their profession or in their recreation time. Still, we might be excused if we see something of an ideal in the agricultural life praised by Cicero, as that seems to be the most natural of the rationally directed means of production.
Continue to Part IV
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