16. Choosing Between Morally Right Actions
17. Expediency or Utility
18. Political Influence
20. The Utility of Liberality
21. Public Service
22. Health and Property
23. Conflicts Between Expediencies
Having completed his discussion of the four virtues, Cicero now turns to a problem he says was overlooked by Panaetius: how to choose between two morally right actions that are in conflict with each other. He depicts moral duty (honestum) as springing from four sources: wisdom (cognitio), social-feeling (communitas), greatness of spirit (magnanimitas), and temperance (moderatio). (I, 152) Social-feeling or communitas encompasses what Cicero earlier called justice and liberality. We previously said that the Confucian Yi most closely corresponds to Greco-Roman justice, but when we consider justice in terms of an underlying communitas or fellow-feeling, the virtue of ren is the more appropriate analogue. In any case, the present problem is how to choose among the duties enjoined by each of these four virtues (or sources of duty, as Cicero calls them) when they conflict with each other.
Cicero holds that duties imposed by communitas should take precedence over the demands of wisdom. He asks us to consider a man who is free to ponder everything worth knowing in perfect peace. "Still, if the solitude were so complete that he could never see a human being, he will die." Yet the foremost of virtues is what the Greeks call sophia, the knowledge of things human and divine, as opposed to the lesser phronesin, which is the practical knowledge of things to be sought or avoided (i.e., prudence). Cicero resolves this difficulty by pointing out that wisdom or sophia "is concerned also with the bonds of union between gods and men and the relations of man to man." Since wisdom is the most important virtue, it follows that the duty connected with social obligation is most important. (I, 153)
Here we are presented with a paradox: wisdom is reputed to be the greatest virtue, yet we are so constituted that we need companionship more than wisdom. At first glance, it seems that Cicero is engaging in some dubious sophistry to resolve the paradox, as he defines wisdom to include social obligation, thereby confusing cogitatio and communitas. Yet the key to his argument is that wisdom is knowledge of things human and divine. To truly understand man, you must understand him as a social being, for that is essential to his nature. A man without any companionship is not a man at all; "he will die" in the sense that his human nature will not be able to act as such. For Cicero, sociability is an indispensable fundament of being human, so any true wisdom about humanity must be social knowledge. Without any other humans, you cannot claim to know anything about humanity and what the duty of being human entails. It is the same with religious contemplation. Wisdom about the divine is necessarily concerned with the bonds between gods and men. If you know nothing of these bonds, you know nothing of religious duty. We might say that wisdom is impotent in human and religious matters unless there is some social matter for it to act upon.
We must recall that we are discussing moral virtue rather than intellectual virtue. The identification of wisdom as a virtue in the Greco-Roman tradition is problematic, since there is potential for confusion between its intellectual and moral aspects. Wisdom is a moral virtue only because it teaches us what our duty is. Yet in the absence of actual social relations, there can be no knowledge of what our moral duties are in the human or divine orders. Cicero conceives ethics as fundamentally social, since man's nature is essentially social, so the question of what man as man ought to do is necessarily a question of how man should conduct himself in society. A man who is a perfect hermit, without the companionship of gods or men, has no ethical questions in his conduct. There is no occasion to exhibit justice, liberality or decorum, and consequently there can be no moral courage, since magnanimitas is a virtue only insofar as it gives us strength to perform a just, generous, or decorous deed. In such a scenario, then, there can be no moral wisdom, as there is no moral duty. As Cicero says, "the study and knowledge [of nature] would somehow be lame and defective, were no practical results to follow." (I, 153)
This line of reasoning makes moral wisdom superior to intellectual wisdom or speculative knowledge. The value of wisdom comes from its practical implications, and there can be practical implications to human knowledge only if it directs actual human behavior. Humans truly act as humans only when they are in society. The question of what a human qua human ought to do is necessarily a social question. According to Cicero, it is to be answered in terms of what most benefits human society.
The superiority of practical moral action for the good of society over purely speculative knowledge is proven by the conduct of the best men, Cicero argues. "For who is so absorbed in the investigation and study of creation, but that... he would drop all those problems and cast them aside, if word were suddenly brought to him of some critical peril to his country, which he could relieve or repel?" (I, 154) We recognize that our social duties to country, parent or friend take precedence over any devotion to theoretical knowledge. After all, if such learning has any value, it is because of the benefit it offers to human society.
For this reason, Cicero holds that it is better for the learned to share their wisdom through much speaking, rather than retreat into self-centered speculation. (I, 156) This is reminiscent of what Plato says regarding the allegory of the cave: the philosopher's noblest duty is not to discover what is outside the cave, but to go back into the cave and teach others.
This need to help others is not conceived as an extrinsic duty, but as something that wells up from man's gregarious nature. Just as bees do not make a honeycomb for the sake of making honeycomb but because of their gregarious nature, so it is the same with man, who would consider wisdom barren if it was not accompanied by social concern. Similarly, fortitude would be brutal if it is not constrained by social bonds. (I, 157)
By staking out this position, Cicero places himself at odds not only with modern individualism, but also with those ancients who thought there was nothing nobler than philosophical or theological contemplation. His subordination of wisdom to social ends denies that wisdom is valuable for its own sake. The same is true of fortitude.
Cicero allows that communitas should not always have precedence over temperance and moderation.
For there are some acts either so repulsive or so wicked, that a wise men would not commit them, even to save his country. Posidonius has made a large collection of them; but some of them are so shocking, so indecent, that is seems immoral even to mention them. But the problem is the more easily disposed of because the occasion cannot arise when it could be to the state's interest to have the wise man do any of these things. (I, 159)
Since society would never have a reason to command individual intemperance, there is never a realistic scenario when the moral duty of communitas is trumped by any other duty.
Cicero defends the supremacy of social duty against those who say that society exists only to help us provide our individual wants, much like Lockean liberals. According to such a view, were it not for the merely practical necessity of living in a society, every first-rate man would devote himself to private study. On the contrary, Cicero claims, the best sort of people would want to escape loneliness and share their studies by teaching and speaking. (I, 158)
This confidence in the superior demand of social duty does not seem to be well warranted. There are many scholars who are quite content to work in isolation, valuing learning for its own sake, while being ill at ease in society. Cicero himself feels obligated to explain why he is writing philosophy instead of serving the state, since the latter had succumbed to despotism. (II, 2) It is one thing to say that social duty is superior to the demands of private learning, but it is going to far to deny that wisdom can have any moral value apart from its relevance to social duty. Wisdom is still valuable in itself since it helps us know what all our other moral duties are, so that it is fittingly considered the supreme virtue. Further, we have seen that moral duty extends even to purely private matters, including interior thoughts, emotions and dispositions.
Cicero's exaltation of social duty over other moral obligations is his own innovation, not the teaching of the Stoics. Nonetheless, it raises an important fundamental question of ethics, namely its applicability to the private and public spheres. Today it is especially popular to think that private conduct should not be subjected to general norms. Perhaps this belief could find support in the idea that ethics is intrinsically social, and exists only for the sake of managing social relations. Even ethical nihilists find themselves respecting established conventions in order to get along in society. They may do this thinking that being in society is a selfish practical necessity, but Cicero instead appeals to our intrinsically social nature.
Cicero justifies his ranking of social duty as supreme by noting that prudentially deliberate action (considerata actio) presupposes learning and practical wisdom (cognitionem prudentiamque). It follows then, that such actions (agere considerate) to merely thinking prudently (cogitare prudentur. (I, 160) When we fulfill our social duties, we are putting wisdom (both theoretical and practical) in action, so this is manifestly superior than mere prudential speculation, since it completely contains the latter and adds to it virtuous activity. This is why Cicero literally says that deliberate action (considerata actio) is "more than" (plures sit quam) mere speculative wisdom. We see in Cicero's analysis some parallel with Aristotle's claim that man's felicity is to be found in virtuous activity, rather than virtue itself.
Cicero's ranking of duties is not inconsistent with the Greek notion that wisdom is the highest virtue. After all, wisdom is the virtue that makes all other virtues possible. Yet living a moral life does not mean merely possessing virtue as a potentiality, but actually using it to perform good deeds. Thus when some social obligation presses itself upon us, it is incumbent on us to act dutifully, even though this means setting aside our contemplation of wisdom for the moment. The moral value of speculative wisdom consists in its potential for use in the performance of good deeds. Social duties allow us to perfect wisdom by realizing it in action. So while wisdom may be a greater virtue than communitas, the duty imposed by the latter deserves priority, since it calls us to the activity which is the very purpose of wisdom. We should recall that Cicero does not speak of "four virtues," but of "four sources of duty," so by this conception, it may be fitting that something other than wisdom should deserve primacy.
Among social duties there are various degrees of duty. Cicero briefly ranks them as follows: first, to the immortal gods; second, to our country; third, to our parents, and so on descending. It is interesting that Cicero includes duty to the gods under the heading of communitas. Indeed, the Latin religio referred to giving the gods their due, just as justice and liberality are the means by which we give each man his due. Like all of the ancients, Cicero does not see any rational need for a distinction between religious and natural ethics.
The second book of De Officiis continues to follow Panaetius' scheme, which now embarks on a discussion of expediency or utility.
Five principles, accordingly, have been laid down for the pursuance of duty: two of them have to do with propriety and moral rectitude; two, with the external conveniences of life — means, wealth, influence; the fifth, with the proper choice, if ever the four first mentioned seem to be in conflict. (II, 9)
Though Cicero does not explicitly state here what these five principles are, we may gather from elsewhere in the treatise that they are: (1A) choosing what is morally right (honestum); (1B) choosing between two (or more) right or proper things; (2A) choosing what is expedient (utilitas); (2B) choosing between two (or more) expedient things; and (3) choosing between the good (honestum) and the expedient. Cicero has already covered the first two principles (1A and 1B) in his first book, and now he will cover the second pair (2A and 2B). We should recall from Book I that principles 1B and 2B are not found in Panaetius, but rely on distinctions that Cicero has introduced.
Cicero complains that the usage of the word "expediency" (utilitas)...
...has been corrupted and perverted and has gradually come to the point where, separating moral rectitude from expediency, it is accepted that a thing may be morally right without being expedient, and expedient without being morally right. No more pernicious doctrine than this could be introduced into human life. (II, 9)
It is not immediately evident that Cicero's complaint is sound. After all, it is arguably essential to sound morality to make a strong distinction between what is good and what is expedient, and much of virtue seems to involve renouncing what is expedient for the sake of a higher good. Cicero indeed acknowledges that some of the greater philosophers made a threefold distinction among that which is both morally good and expedient, that which is good but not (apparently) expedient, and that which is expedient but not good. Such philosophers generally held that all that is morally good is also expedient (utilitas) on some higher level. Yet Cicero objects even to the claim that there can be expediency without moral goodness.
If it is acknowledged that there can be expediency without goodness, Cicero fears, many will mistake craftiness for wisdom and seek to obtain what they desire without regard for moral goodness. Instead, men must be taught "that it is only by moral character and righteousness, not by dishonesty and craftiness, that they may attain to the objects of their desires." (II, 10) Though this is a noble motivation, it seems contrary to facts to deny that immoral men are frequently able to obtain wealth and other expedients. Cicero's belief that only the good man prospers results from his conviction that only temporal rewards are available for the virtuous man. We find this belief throughout many ancient cultures, including those of the Middle East and the Far East. The wise, good man is rewarded with wealth and acclaim, while the foolish, wicked man is thwarted in his designs. This conviction seemed to be essential to promoting good morals and order in society.
Yet some of the ancients recognized that wealth and honors did not always go to the more righteous. A strong distinction between the good and the expedient, where the former is preferred over the latter, entails the rejection of wealth and social status as measures of virtue. The Cynics and Stoics partly realized this ideal, as did the Buddhists in the East. Cicero was not willing to abandon the Greco-Roman norm of making temporal rewards the incentive for virtue, but the advent of Christianity would introduce a contrary ethic in an especially forceful manner. Wealth and temporal honors did not merely fail to be a measure of virtue, but they were things to be despised, and are even presented in the Gospels as demonic temptations. Christ openly proclaimed that the greatest virtue can be found in the poor and humble, while the greatest vice is often found in the wealthy and esteemed. This disconnect between temporal and spiritual status made possible a more radical distinction between the good and the expedient, where the former is valued purely for its own sake, not in view of some temporal reward.
Still, even those who make a strong distinction between the good and the expedient acknowledge that there is goodness in expedient things as such, insofar as they are beneficial to man. We take this anthropocentric view because we are dealing with ethics, and man is the only known ethical being. Accordingly, Cicero classifies expedient things according to their benefit to man.
Various types of things sustain the life of man, ranging from the inanimate to the divine. The inanimate things include gold, silver, and the fruits of the earth. Among the animate things, some are rational and others irrational. The irrational creatures include horses and cattle, who contribute labor to the subsistence of men. The gods, when worshiped and honored by our purity of character, can be the greatest help of all. Second to them, fellow men are most helpful to men. (II, 10)
It should not be surprising that Cicero includes even the gods as a kind of expedient, rather than invoking them as a reason for preferring heavenly goods over earthly goods. This conception of divine activity was common among the ancient pagans, and even the Jews were not entirely free of this idea. Religious worship was generally conceived as a profitable activity, designed to win some temporal favor from the gods. Thus it fits neatly under the definition of utilitas, which primarily means usefulness or advantage. This way of thinking was so firmly entrenched that Christ found it necessary to teach his contrary ethic in the terminology of profit or advantage, e.g., "What does it profit a man if he gains the world but loses his soul?"
The same kinds of things that are used to man's advantage may also be used for his harm. The only exception is the gods, who bring no harm to man, leaving man himself as the creature who is most harmful to man. (II, 12)
The various inanimate and animate resources of the earth are generally helpful only insofar as man applies his labor to them. He quarries stone and metals, cultivates fields, stores their produce, and domesticates beasts for labor. Additionally, there are various services that are purely the result of human labor, such as medicine, navigation, and commerce. Lastly, by living in cities, men are "far removed from the standard of the comforts and the wants of the lower animals." (II, 15) It is only by mutual association that men are able to build such advantageous cities.
In consequence of city life, laws and customs were established, and then came the equitable distribution of rights and a certain social discipline. Upon these institutions followed a more gentle spirit and a sense of shame, with the result that life was better supplied with all it requires, and by giving and receiving, by mutual exchange of commodities and conveniences, we succeeded in meeting all our wants. (II, 15)
Here Cicero may seem to give a strictly utilitarian summary of the origin of morality and law. In fact, he is showing only how a modicum of morality is needed in order to secure temporal blessings in greater abundance. It is not so much that men pursue virtue in order to profit, but rather Cicero is concerned with demonstrating that virtue is in fact profitable. City life has improved our material welfare, yet at the same time, living together closely has brought about a necessary degree of refinement and self-restraint, which we appropriately call "being civilized." This suppression of our more violent and barbarous impulses makes possible commerce and industry, further enhancing our material status.
Once again, social cooperation ranks highest in Cicero's scheme of virtue, here considered with respect to utility. Citing Panaetius, he points out that the feats of great men in war and peace could not have been accomplished without human cooperation. Yet, by the same token, "there is no curse so terrible but it is brought down by man upon man." A book by the Aristotelian philosopher Dicaerachus (c. 350-285 BC), De interitu hominum (On Human Destruction), describes various means - "floods, epidemics, famines, and sudden incursions of wild animals in myriads" - by which entire tribes of men were wiped out. Yet Dicaearchus shows that far more men have been destroyed by assaults of other men in war or revolution than by all other sorts of disaster. (II, 16)
Cicero takes it as proven "that man is the source of both the greatest help and the greatest harm to man." (II, 17) In the first half of this formula, he has neglected the gods mentioned a short while earlier. This omission reflects Cicero's humanistic focus on communitas as the greatest benefit to mankind. Accordingly, the utility of virtue is its ability to "win the hearts of men and attach them to one's own service." While we enlist the service of inanimate objects and brute beasts with industrial arts, it is through wisdom and virtue that superior men are able to secure the service of other men.
The usefulness of virtue is found in its three constituent properties: (1) the ability to perceive what is true and real in a given instance, as well as its relations, consequences and causes; (2) the ability to restrain the passions (Gk. pathe), and to make impulses (Gk. hormas) obedient to reason; and (3) "the skill to treat with consideration and wisdom those with whom we are associated," so we can obtain natural wants through their cooperation, ward off trouble, and wreak vengeance on those who try to injure us. The first property considers wisdom in its practical or utilitarian dimension, enabling us to associate means to ends. The Stoic restraint of the passions is also useful, since our emotions and impulses can often lead us to act irrationally to our disadvantage. Lastly, the communitarian aspects of virtue enable us to enlist the help of others and deter those who would harm us.
Again, Cicero places emphasis on communitas, since it is by the help of others that we may reliably improve our own fortunes. It is true that Luck or Fortune (fortuna), a power beyond our control, can cause benefit or harm to us. Yet natural disasters are comparatively rare occurrences. Instead, our fortunes are more commonly determined by the actions of other men, as in victory or defeat in war, military honor or exile, civil honor or popular hatred. Although there is an element of chance even in human affairs, there are ways we can win the cooperation of our fellows and thus improve our lot.
People may raise the social status of one of their fellow men for one of several motives: (1) good will toward his person; (2) esteem of his character; (3) confidence in his future success, for the furtherance of their interests; (4) fear of his power; (5) hope for some favor or gift; (6) expectation of payment or reward. Cicero regards this last motive as sordid, since it would ruin society if honors were bestowed for money instead of merit. This motive is distinct from the fifth named, where the honored man offers favors or gifts freely to his supporters, not out of obligation. We can recognize a political dimension to this list of motives, as we support politicians when we are confident they will advance our interests, for example. Indeed, Cicero says people will go so far as to submit to the authority and power of another by a similar list of motives: (1) good will; (2) gratitude for favors; (3) hope that submission to one so eminent will be advantageous; (4) fear that they would be compelled to submit anyway; (5) hope of gifts; or (6) being themselves bribed with money. (II, 21)
Fear is an unreliable method of securing influence, for those who are feared are hated, and will be killed or deposed as soon as the opportunity arises. Even one as powerful as Julius Caesar was not exempt from this rule. While severity may be employed by masters against slaves, who cannot be controlled otherwise, only "the maddest of the mad" would try to make themselves feared in a free state. (II, 24) No matter how strong the oppression, the people will assert themselves through "unvoiced public sentiment" or secret ballots. Modern history has borne out this opinion, as autocratic regimes rarely last more than a man's lifetime, and the swift restoration of popular government shows that there was only a veneer of obedience. This has been true throughout the West since the eighteenth century; that is, for as long as there has been a politically conscious populace.
The abuse of power only encourages rebellion and civil war. Cicero says that when the empire of the Roman people "maintained itself by acts of service, not of oppression, wars were waged in the interest of our allies or to safeguard our supremacy". Wars ended with "acts of clemency" or minimal severity, and Roman statesmen were concerned primarily defending their provinces and allies. (II, 26) Yet Sulla and other dictators oppressed not only allies, but even Roman citizens, confiscating their property as supposed spoils of victory. (I, 27) The Roman people accordingly have been punished with civil wars for their tyranny, and a private citizen who acts tyrannically can hardly expect to avoid similar punishment. (I, 29)
Since fear is so weak and transient a means of securing political influence and power, we should instead look to win the good will and affection of others. Depending on our station in life, we may need the support of many or few. At a minimum, all of us need the love and support of friends who value our worth. (I, 30) Although Cicero here speaks of friendship only in view of its utility for gaining influence, in De Amicitia he makes clear that he also recognizes a higher dimension of friendship, calling it a gift of the gods. Friends act out of pure benevolence, since they are not bound by kinship or obedience to help each other.
A man who obtains influence not through fear but from popular acclaim may be said to have attained glory or fame. True glory depends on (1) the affection, (2) the confidence, and (3) the admiration and esteem of the people. These sentiments can be aroused by similar means in individuals and in the masses, though "there is also another avenue of approach to the masses, by which we can, as it were, steal into the hearts of all at once." (I, 31)
Good will is won by advocacy on behalf of another, as in a law-court. It can be aroused even if no actual service is done, but if it is only intended, or if a man simply has a reputation for generosity, kindness, justice and other virtues. Honestum and decorum are so pleasing to us in themselves that we are naturally inclined to love those in whom we see these virtues. (I, 32) Though Cicero is now discussing expediency, he has not lost sight of the fact that virtue is good in itself, and even invokes that fact here.
Confidence is inspired when people perceive that a man has practical wisdom (prudentia) combined with a sense of justice (iustitia). We have confidence in those who have more understanding and can make a decision suited to the occasion, but this is not enough. To feel safe enough to entrust a decision to another, we must also believe that person to be just and honest. (II, 33) Indeed, justice has more power to inspire confidence, since even on its own it has a positive contribution to our confidence in a person. Yet wisdom divorced from justice does not give us confidence but actually detracts from it, since we will have greater mistrust for a scoundrel the cleverer he is. (II, 34)
Cicero perceives an apparent problem in asserting that a person can have one virtue without another, and explains that he is speaking in a non-rigorous, popular sense, as even Panaetius did at times. (II, 35) This curious insistence that "he who has one virtue has them all" may be understood in terms of the interdependence of the virtues. One is not truly wise in a moral sense unless he is also just, and one can hardly be just without knowledge of justice. Still, this doctrine of the unity of virtue is only applicable to moral virtue. The practical wisdom or prudence currently under discussion is an expedient by which we associate means to ends, so it is accessible even to amoral men. Cicero finds it problematic to say someone, strictly speaking, can have prudence without justice, only because he does not allow that the expedient is attainable without the good, so that even practical wisdom necessarily falls under the domain of moral virtue.
People admire and esteem that which is great or better than they expect, such as good qualities unexpectedly found in an individual. Thus admiration is reserved for those perceived to have great or extraordinary talents. (II, 36) This notion of exceeding expectations seems to be essential to admiration, for we tend to take for granted the level of ability or virtue that we expect of most men. Conversely, those who especially lack ability or energy are regarded with contempt.
Cicero observes that esteem and contempt are often directed strictly to a person's ability and energy, regardless of his other vices. Thus we may esteem even those we consider unscrupulous and dangerous, as long as we respect their abilities. Yet we despise those who are lazy and indifferent, "of no use to themselves or their neighbors." (II, 36) Esteem and contempt, then, seem to reflect our assessment of a person's general utility, if not to ourselves, at least to others. Even if that utility is toward an evil end, we still find the ability itself to be admirable. Ability seems to reflect a kind of fortitude or spiritedness, which, as noted earlier, can be used for good or evil ends.
Yet Cicero holds that the greatest admiration of all is reserved for those who not only excel in ability but are also free from dishonor and vice. (II, 37) This is because it is difficult to resist vice and sensual pleasure, so that one who despises such outward circumstances must be esteemed as especially spirited and virtuous. Here we see fortitude in its more restrictive, moral sense. It is relatively easy to exert energy when one is motivated by some reward of wealth or pleasure, but far more difficult when the exertion is indifferent to these externals.
This greatness of soul is most admired in men who are just. The one who loves justice must be willing to face the fiercest trials, fearing neither death, nor pain, nor poverty in order that justice may be done. (II, 38) Here Cicero presents justice as motivated by non-utilitarian concerns, for doing what is right must be independent of what secures personal benefit to us. If we allowed such considerations to influence our judgment, we could not judge justly.
Yet justice does have utility in its effect, winning glory for the just man. It meets all three requisites of glory: (1) good-will and (2) confidence, for trying to help the greatest number; and (3) admiration, for scorning those external things to which most people succumb. Note that the first two criteria are met by pure social utilitarianism, such as that of Bentham and Mill. Admiration, however, is gained by the non-utilitarian aspect of justice. Justice is not reduced to a purely utilitarian virtue simply because it has the utility of winning glory for the just man.
Still, focusing on the utility of having a reputation for justice, Cicero notes that such a reputation is essential for enlisting the cooperation of other men. If one wants witnesses to testify in his defense, or buyers and sellers with whom to trade, a reputation for basic justice is practically necessary. Even thieves and pirates must honor some minimum of justice if they do not want to be cast out of the band. (II, 40)
A just man is eminently useful to the people, which is why the ancient kings of Rome and of the Medes (according to Herodotus) were chosen for their reputation for justice. The just ruler can shield the weaker classes from the strong, guaranteeing an equality of jus for all classes. When the people are fortunate enough to have a ruler who is just and wise, they are satisfied. When this is not the case, however, it is necessary for there to be just laws to bind all men equitably. (II, 42) Justice is not a utilitarian virtue, for it is desirable for its own sake. Nonetheless, it can earn the just man great personal glory.
The best way to attain glory, following the advice of Socrates, is "to strive to be what you wish to be thought to be." A reputation based on pretense will not last long, as history has frequently shown. (II, 43) Real virtue is of greater utility than feigned virtue, when it comes to winning lasting glory.
Young men with reputable fathers will have the advantage that all their deeds will be well known, but even those of obscure origins may seek glory by pursuing high ideals. Cicero recommends first that a man should try to win glory in a military career, though the occasions for this are fewer when wars are marred by crimes or defeats. It is better to gain glory through ingenuity and reason than through physical strength, so Cicero thinks it better to seek public esteem "from self-restraint, filial affection, and devotion to kinsfolk." (II, 46) They should also associate with wise men to enhance their reputations.
In all these counsels, Cicero is not recommending that men should pursue the mere appearance of virtue, but its reality, in order to reap the due reward of glory. This may seem to subordinate virtue to utility, but Cicero has elsewhere upheld virtue for its own sake. He speaks here only of utility because that is this book's theme. It might further be added that winning glory not only benefits the virtuous man, but also serves the good of holding up virtue as praiseworthy, thereby setting a good standard for others. Indeed, much of ancient literature tended to idealize the virtues of great men, since moral pedagogy was considered more important than historical accuracy.
Men may also win glory through discourse, which is divided into conversation and oratory. Personal conversation, when courteous and affable, may improve one's reputation, but glory is more effectively won through oratory. Eloquent and wise speeches before popular assemblies or the Senate will win great esteem, but most glorious of all, according to Cicero, is oration in law-court. (II, 49) While we may suspect a bit of professional bias here, it may be acknowledged that forensic oratory is most worthy of esteem, since it is not merely a means of persuading political action, but is actually the substance of the process whereby justice is administered.
Advocacy for the defense is considered more honorable than the prosecution. While there is no disgrace, and even some honor, in prosecuting enemies of the state, it seems heartless and even inhuman to be constantly arraigning people on capital charges. Cicero gives no reason for this preference of defense over prosecution other than sentiment. Perhaps it is an artifact of the severity of the law in his time. If the law were truly just, there would seem to be no reason why prosecution should not be as honorable as defense.
Cicero admonishes: "never arraign on capital charges any innocent person. For that cannot possibly be done without making oneself a criminal." (II, 51) While we should never prosecute the innocent, it is sometimes acceptable to defend the guilty, if he is "not infamously depraved and wicked." For it is expected for a man to have an advocate in his defense, and the judicial process requires it. It is the judge's job to find the truth; "it is sometimes the business of the advocate to maintain what is plausible (veri simile), even if it be not strictly true (minus sit verum)." (II, 51) Cicero dares say this only because it is "also the position of Panaetius, that strictest of Stoics." We know, of course, that Panaetius was far from the strictest of Stoics, and this allowance for lawyerly mendacity is a striking departure from Stoic rigor.
It is practically tautological that we should not prosecute the innocent, but the difficulty is knowing in advance who is innocent. Evidently, Cicero expects a high standard of certainty in capital cases, much like our "beyond reasonable doubt" standard. The execution of an innocent man would be a crime, and it would be a perverse to commit such a crime through a supposed justice system, and an abuse of oratory to bring such ruin upon the innocent. This is why such error must be avoided at all costs. On the other hand, no actual crime is committed by failing to convict the guilty, though this result is also unjust. Thus allowances are made for the defense, since it is better that the possibly guilty should go free than that the possibly innocent should be convicted. Cicero and Panaetius go so far as to allow that the advocate may fall short of what is true and instead say what seems to be true. Since everyone in court expects the lawyer to make the best case for his client, no one will fault him for this, being prescribed by court formality. As long as he is not categorically declaring true what he knows to be false, he is well within his rights to posit possibilities that may exonerate his client, even if they are not known to be true. After all, by the standard of evidence for the defense, he needs only show what we now call "reasonable doubt." Thus there is an asymmetry between what is allowable for the defense (who need only show the possibility of innocence) and for the prosecution (who must show the certainty of guilt).
Cicero next turns to the virtue of liberality now considered in its utilitarian aspect, that is, insofar as it helps other people. Liberality may be shown by good works or gifts of money given to other private individuals. (Giving to the common good is treated separately, as public service.) Generosity with money is easier, especially for a rich man, but it is limited by one's resources. Generosity through personal service is nobler, and has these advantages:
...first, the more people they assist, the more helpers they will have in works of kindness; and second, by acquiring the habit of kindness they are better prepared and in better training, as it were, for bestowing favours upon many. (II, 53)
If you aid many people with gifts of money, your wealth becomes depleted and you can help fewer in the future. Giving of yourself in service, by contrast, actually improves your ability to be generous to many in the future. Gifts of service have wider application and benefit more people, while gifts of money often fail to secure good will.
Nevertheless, we should sometimes make gifts of money; and this kind of liberality is not to be discouraged altogether. We must often distribute from our purse to the worthy poor, but we must do so with discretion and moderation. For many have squandered their patrimony by indiscriminate giving. But what is worse folly than to do the thing you like in such a way that you can no longer do it at all? (II, 54)
We must keep in mind that liberality means giving gifts beyond the means of subsistence, in proportion to the recipient's virtue. Thus when Cicero speaks of the "worthy poor," he is not denying that society should provide for the subsistence of all the poor. Rather, such provision is a public service, not an instance of liberality. The beneficent man should give additional gifts to those he favors, in order to reward and encourage special aptitude or virtue. Liberality is not egalitarian; it requires discretion, especially when we are speaking of generosity with money, which is limited.
Indiscriminate giving is irrational, since it destroys our ability to continue giving. Thus the beneficent must use judgment to decide when and to whom to give in what measure. We should not be so stingy that we suppress our generous impulse, but neither can we constantly give to all who ask. Some negative consequences of overgenerosity include: (1) depletion of one's wealth, tempting the giver to steal the property of others; (2) those repeatedly receiving gifts come to think of them as an entitlement or wages due; and (3) all others will expect to receive the same bounty.
There are numerous historical examples of kings and aristocrats, and even modern democrats, who have seized or stolen property in order to show generosity to those whom they favor. It is one thing to tax the public in order to benefit the common good, but quite another to take from some in order to benefit other private interests. We learn from experience that generosity is abused when gifts are expected as one's due. This makes it all the more important to make a distinction between public services for real needs and acts of liberality for gifts beyond what is necessary. The former is a public duty, while the latter belongs properly to private individuals. When the state feeds the poor, it is giving them what they are owed, not acting generously. Generosity belongs to the individual, who gives some men more than what they are owed (as is the nature of a gift), in order to reward them according to their perceived merit.
Cicero distinguishes between the lavish or prodigal (prodigi) and the generous or liberal (liberales). The former are wasteful spenders who make a show of their wealth, while the latter give freely in order to benefit their fellows truly. Examples of generous acts include assuming the debts of others, providing for dowries, ransoming captives, and helping others to acquire or increase their property. The lavish, by contrast, waste their money on public banquets, gladiatorial shows, and games. Although Theophrastus inexplicably praised the pomp and expense of popular games, Cicero prefers the opinion of his master Aristotle:
"If people in time of siege," he says, "are required to pay a mina for a pint of water, this seems to us at first beyond belief, and all are amazed; but, when they think about it, they make allowances for it on the plea of necessity. But in the matter of this enormous waste and unlimited expenditure we are not very greatly astonished, and that, too, though by it no extreme need is relieved, no dignity is enhanced, and the very gratification of the populace is but for a brief, passing moment; such pleasure as it is, too, is confined to the most frivolous, and even in these the very memory of their enjoyment dies as soon as the moment of gratification is past." His conclusion, too, is excellent: "This sort of amusement pleases children, silly women, slaves, and the servile free; but a serious-minded man who weighs such matters with sound judgment cannot possibly approve of them." (II, 56-57)
Spending on frivolity satisfies no real need, enhances no one's dignity, and does little even toward its ostensible purpose of winning the favor of the people. Only a fleeting appreciation is won, until the vulgar are distracted by the next amusement. Note also that such spending is indiscriminate of person. Banquets are offered to the public, regardless of merit. This is in contrast with the truly generous, who take care to give to the worthy, that it may be of real benefit to the recipient, who in turn may benefit others. The false generosity of the lavish, by contrast, benefits no one except for the pleasure of the moment, after which there is nothing to show for one's expense.
Popular games are disparaged not only as a waste of money, but for their lack of seriousness. Only children, women, and the servile can find amusement in them. They are unworthy of free men and thus illiberal. Those in bondage who are incapable of the liberal arts might see a need to seek such pleasures, but it would be shameful for the free man to do the same. Thus Aristotle and Cicero condemn those "free men who resemble slaves" (servorum simillimis liberis) for partaking in such vulgarities. In our own day, where rich and poor, educated and uneducated, are all alike exposed to the same mass culture, it should not be surprising that there are many "servile free" who delight in sports, melodrama, and other vulgarian fare. These activities deaden our higher sensibilities and distract us from loftier pursuits. In an age with constant means of distraction, popular entertainment is a continual threat to the ethical and intellectual life of the free man.
Nonetheless, Cicero allows that it may be necessary to provide such entertainment to the people in order to secure their allegiance. He cites examples where a public banquet serves as almsgiving, gifts of grain alleviate unrest over high prices, and gladiatorial games dissuade people from following a tyrant. Without endorsing popular entertainment as such, it may still have the benefit of enlisting people to a useful cause.
Gifts to the public should follow a golden mean between stinginess and excess. They should be devoted primarily to public works that will have lasting benefit to the public, as opposed to the consumption described above. Splendid buildings, such as theaters or temples, are not approved by Panaetius. Demetrius of Phalerum goes so far as to denounce Pericles for lavishing too much money on such construction.
Lavish gifts as discussed above, though not generally good in themselves, may nonetheless be made for some public necessity or expediency. A more positive view is reserved for gifts that are motivated by a true spirit of generosity.
Some discretion is needed to determine who should be the recipient of our generosity. We should seek first to help the least fortunate, unless they deserve their misfortune. Still, we should help even those who are not facing ruin, but seek a higher degree of fortune. Generosity given with discretion is more likely to win gratitude. Gratitude in turn encourages generosity in others. Lavish or indiscriminate gifts, by contrast, tend to be taken for granted, and this ingratitude discourages others from being generous to the poor. We witness this paradox all the time in modern welfare states that err on the side of excess.
Ransoming prisoners and relieving the poor serves not only individuals, but also the state (rei publicae). These sorts of gifts befit of dignified men, as opposed to the lavish giving that is done by flatterers of the masses.
Generosity with wealth is shown not only by giving, but by being fair in business and by not being too demanding in claiming debts and defending our property rights. While we should not let our fortune slip through our figures, neither should we exhibit meanness or avarice, and instead should recall that "the greatest privilege of wealth is, beyond all peradventure, the opportunity it affords for doing good." (II, 64)
Hospitality to distinguished guests is a form of generosity that wins popularity and even political influence. It was praised by the Greeks, and indeed by all ancient societies. In Greco-Roman culture, however, it is treated as a generous gift, whereas in the Orient and the Near East it was a sacred duty.
Beneficence through personal service may be bestowed on the community or on individuals. Cicero considers the highest service to be provide legal defense. Connected with this profession is the gift of eloquence, which may excite admiration or gratitude on the behalf of those we aid.
When choosing whom to aid with service, ideally we should consider only the recipient's character, yet in practice people are more inclined to aid those who are wealthy or influential, since such seem more likely to reward our generosity. Yet the poor are more likely to repay the favor with gratitude, if not with money or service, while the wealthy and honored are less likely to accept favors and thus be obliged to others. "Why, they actually think that they have conferred a favour by accepting one, however great; and they even suspect... that something is expected in return." (II, 69) Thus it is a better investment to help the good than to help the wealthy. While Cicero evaluates this preference in utilitarian terms, it is not for the utility of wealth but for the gain of honor and loyalty from those who express their gratitude. In fact, service to the poor man will be remembered not only by himself, but by his posterity and others in his station.
Cicero takes pains to show that it is of greater advantage to aid the virtuous than the wealthy. Here he is going against the grain of Roman culture. He instead follows Themistocles, who said one should give a daughter in marriage to one who is poor but honest rather than one is merely wealthy: "For my part, I prefer a man without money to money without a man." Cicero elaborates:
Of what concern to any one of us is the size of another man's fortune? It is, perhaps, an advantage to its possessor; but not always even that. But suppose it is; he may, to be sure, have more money to spend; but how is he any the better man for that? (II, 71)
Wealth has less utility than virtue because it does not make one a better man. It is not helpful to others intrinsically, but only insofar as it is given by a generous man. Thus virtue, rather than wealth, is the greatest help to self and others, and those who love wealth above all else are behaving foolishly even in strictly utilitarian terms, if we consider our true advantage.
While gifts to individuals are more likely to result in gratitude, we should also provide services to the public or the state. In fact, we must take care that our gifts to individuals do not obstruct the public welfare. (II, 72) Excessive largesse will exhaust public funds, while a more moderate dole serves the good of the state as well as the individual recipients.
The man in public office must never violate the property rights of private citizens. Cicero denounces the "ruinous policy" of Philippus, who played on class envy to promote a redistribution of property. Such land reform by confiscation is an early foreshadowing of the Communist regimes. Cicero condemns the equal distribution of property as contrary to the very purpose of establishing constitutional states, which is to protect each man's property. For although man forms societies out of his gregarious nature, it was in the hope of protecting his possessions (rerum suarum) that he turned to the cities. Living in a time when political society was still relatively young, Cicero was aware of the fragility of civilization, and how insecure one's household was outside of a polity.
Cicero's present claim that the main purpose (causam maxime) of the state is to protect what belongs to each man vaguely resembles the Lockean notion the state exists to protect individual private property. Indeed, his strong defense of private property may seem to be at odds with his otherwise communitarian ethics. Yet Cicero will not allow that the public good can be served by committing an injustice even to a single individual. He will attempt to show that such confiscatory measures do not truly serve the public good either.
A tax on property should be levied only in cases of extreme need, as in wartime, as a last resort. (II, 74) We must recall that in Cicero's time, and indeed all the way into the modern era, taxes on property and income were largely unnecessary, as states possessed their lands, agricultural capital, and other sources of income. From these resources they could meet the ordinary needs of the public.
The primary crime the public official should avoid is self-seeking, through bribery or extortion. Just as the state's power should not be used to unjustly steal from private citizens, neither should it be used for personal enrichment. Here Cicero follows the mainstream of Greco-Roman political philosophy, condemning the subordination of the state to private ends. This principle is in tension with the Lockean notion that the state exists primarily to defend private property claims.
Cicero resolves such tension by regarding populist confiscations of property as a sort of bribery or favoritism, stealing from some citizens in order to enrich others.
But they who pose as friends of the people, and who for that reason either attempt to have agrarian laws passed, in order that the occupants may be driven out of their homes, or propose that money loaned should be remitted to the borrowers, are undermining the foundations of the commonwealth: first of all, they are destroying harmony, which cannot exist when money is taken away from one party and bestowed upon another; and second, they do away with equity, which is utterly subverted, if the rights of property are not respected. (II, 78)
The nexus joining property rights and communitarianism is now shown. When the state is used to seize property from one and give to another, the whole basis of communal harmony is undermined, and citizens view each other, and the state, as predatory enemies. Yet protection from bandits was a primary purpose of establishing the state. Furthermore, how can there be equity if property is not respected? The whole substance of equity law entails restoring a man's property. If the right of property is denied, there is nothing upon which to apply the principle of equity. We are left only with enforced equality, on the dubious supposition that every man deserves the same lot in life.
Yet such a supposition is entirely contrary to Ciceronian ethics, or indeed any ethical system that makes distinctions of virtue and vice among men. It should be no surprise that liberal philosophers, notably John Rawls, have had to deny the reality of individual virtue or merit in order to save egalitarianism. Yet if all men are equally deserving, moral decision-making is reduced to mere arithmetic, as we need only divide by the number of heads rather than assess character or worth. This is a far cry from Cicero's liberality, which is to give to each man according to his due.
Worse, demagogic liberalism fails even to achieve its aim of winning the loyalty of the people. Those who receive of the state's largesse show only lukewarm gratitude, lest one should betray that he is receiving what he does not deserve. Those who have been despoiled, by contrast, become implacable foes of the state, so that on balance the state is worse off in terms of public opinion, even if those despoiled are fewer than those rewarded. (II, 79) We may find a modern example in Communist Cuba, which despoiled the propertied classes, earning the undying enmity of millions of exiles, while only modestly improving the lot of the poorer classes. Any gratitude that the regime may have won from the poor is nothing compared to the outrage of those who were defrauded, so on the whole the regime does not stand well with the Cuban people.
Still, those benefiting from the despoliation of others are not necessarily culpable. Such a situation arose when Aratus of Sicyon drove out the last tyrant Nicocles, ending fifty years of tyranny. While wishing to restore those who had been despoiled of their property fifty years earlier, Aratus also thought it unfair that those who had held the property for fifty years should have their claim disregarded. Thus he resolved the issue on a case by case basis, in some cases persuading the present incumbents to relinquish their property to the old owners and receive money from the state, while in others persuading the old owners to accept money rather than to reclaim their property. It is fitting that the state, which had created the injustice, should use its funds (in this case a gift from Ptolemy of Alexandria) to rectify the situation. At the same time, this solution recognizes that a legitimate property claim may be established by long duration, even if its origin was unjust. This is because people have a right to be secure in their possessions, and not to have them arbitrarily seized after many years. It is freedom from such worry that motivates the establishment of states.
Cicero opposes not only the confiscation of property, but also the abolition of debts. "And what is the meaning of an abolition of debts, except that you buy a farm with my money; that you have the farm, and I have not my money?" (II, 84) Debt abolition is just another form of theft. When the government fails to enforce the payment of debts, it loses credit, and an untrustworthy government will lose public support. Cicero criticizes Caesar for abolishing debts, though in fact he only remitted interest and applied it to principal.
Cicero's strong stance against debt abolition extends even to the forgiveness of interest. While his characterization of debt abolition as theft makes sense for principal, it is less obvious that interest should never be forgiven. Lending at interest can often be coercive and take advantage of those in a moment of need, while it is not always evident that the service of lending deserves such additional compensation. There might be cases where it is for the public good to partially or fully forgive interest, without despoiling lenders of their loaned principal. Some philosophers, most notably Aristotle, thought that lending at interest was unethical. Jewish law also forbade lending at interest (to fellow Jews), and this injunction against usury was later expounded by Christian and Muslim philosophers.
The ancient Hebrews also had the custom of a jubilee year, where every fifty years debts were forgiven and ancestral lands were restored. This was intended to solve the problem of inequity caused by accumulation of finite resources by a privileged few. Without the jubilee or some similar amnesty, land would eventually be consolidated into a few holdings, with the rest of the population pauperized and unable to provide for itself. The right to private property, in this view, is not absolute, but is limited when it impinges on the ability of others to secure basic necessities for themselves. After all, by nature all things are held in common (cf. I, 21), and the institution of private property exists by positive law to improve the lot of man. When property claims squeeze out others from having any spot to call their own, leaving them worse off than the state of nature, the purpose of private property has been defeated, and a correction must be made.
It should be noted that Cicero acknowledged earlier that there is a duty to provide necessities for the poor. He condemns redistributive measures insofar as they are an unjust use of public power to serve private interests. Often, these redistributions benefited men who were already well off, but were now favored by the current tyrant at the expense of other aristocrats. It would be rash, then, to portray Cicero as an early exponent of Lockean libertarianism.
Nonetheless, Cicero does not present a sufficiently developed system of economic thought to address the question of when private property claims might be subordinate to a greater economic good. Answering this question would require us to solve the difficult problem of the relationship between individual and collective economic activity.
The appeal to the example of Aratus proves that Cicero is not a private property absolutist. The good statesman, like Aratus:
...must look out for the welfare of all. And this is the highest statesmanship and the soundest wisdom on the part of a good citizen, not to divide the interests of the citizens but to unite all on the basis of impartial justice. (II, 83)
Here we find the general principles that might be applied to determine when government intervention is allowable and salutary. Such intervention must be concerned with the welfare of all; it must not pit the interests of one class against another; and it must treat all impartially and justly. Cicero considers the despoliation of the wealthy or the confiscation of their property to be a favoritism that is contrary to justice. Yet he also acknowledges the duty to provide for the welfare of all. The statesman and private citizen have a duty to aid all the poor in their needs, and the liberal citizen should help the worthy poor to a higher station. The state may provide for such needs out of its treasury, and it may tax property only in dire situations. This minimalist interventionism was feasible in Cicero's day, when the only aid the poor really needed was affordable grain, which was abundant in the empire.
The stoic Antipater of Tyre, who had known Cicero and Cato and had died recently (c. 45 BC) at Athens, said that Panaetius had overlooked the topics of health and property. Cicero thinks this omission was excusable on the grounds that their expedience or utility is self-evident. True enough, but the older Stoics had held that health and property were matters of indifference, so it would have been interesting to see how Panaetius might have harmonized his general approval of expediency with these injunctions of classic Stoicism. We are left only with Cicero's cursory observations on these topics.
Individual health is preserved by studying one's own constitution, by observing what is good or bad for one, by constant self-control in supplying physical wants and comforts (but only to the extent necessary to self-preservation), by forgoing sensual pleasures, and finally, by the professional skill of those to whose science these matters belong.
Cicero takes it for granted that health is good, in terms of utility, and reconciles this position with Stoic austerity by maintaining that "forgoing sensual pleasures" improves health. We saw a similar position held by Socrates and the Cynics, who boasted that their simple fare was healthier than luxurious foods. Preserving health certainly requires a fair degree of self-control, but not all Stoic aversion to sensualism can be justified on grounds of health. Cicero does not indicate the extent to which medical practitioners might intervene to preserve health. Plato, for example, disparaged treatments that merely kept the patient alive while leaving him useless to himself and others. In such a view, the utility of health is subordinate to man's moral and social utility.
"As for property, it is a duty to make money, but only by honourable means; it is a duty also to save it and increase it by care and thrift." (II, 87) Cicero refers the reader to Xenophon's Oeconomicus, which deals with household economy. We see some of the principles of good stewardship expressed in the parables of the Gospels, which drew upon the common understanding of people in Greco-Roman culture. The duty to make money is not motivated by avarice, but by the desire of every man to be fruitful and productive, generating more than what he has taken. Savings and thrift result in an increase of wealth, so we can produce even more, while those who squander their capital through consumption will be able to produce less. This theme of increase is an imitation of nature, which produces abundantly and gratuitously. There is no hint that the increase of a man's wealth can result in the poverty of another, which is why Cicero gives unqualified praise to the generation of wealth.
But this whole subject of acquiring money, investing money (I wish I could include also spending money), is more profitably discussed by certain worthy gentlemen sitting on the Exchange (ad Ianum medium sedentibus) than could be done by any philosophers of any school. (II, 87)
If we wish to learn how best to increase and invest our wealth, we are better off seeking the advice of businessmen rather than that of moral philosophers. After all, we are now firmly in the domain of seeking the most expedient course of action, so we should follow the wisdom of those most knowledgeable and experienced in business, as long as we limit ourselves to "honorable means." Specifically, Cicero alludes to the Ianus medius, that area near the middle Janus-arch of the Roman Forum where bankers, money-lenders and lawyers did business. The advice of such men is useful only if we can be assured that their methods are honorable. Yet many ethical thinkers, particularly in the Aristotelian, Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions, have taken a dim view of such professions, so Cicero's recommendation will not substitute for a careful analysis of the ethics of finance. This requires a theory of finance, which did not yet exist in Cicero's time, except as a practical science.
Another item overlooked by Panaetius is the fact that there can be conflicts between expediencies. There may be a conflict between physical and external advantages; e.g., between health and wealth. Alternatively, there may be conflict among physical advantages, so we might prefer health to sensual pleasure, or strength over agility (to use Cicero's examples). "Outward advantages also may be weighed against one another: glory, for example, may be preferred to riches, an income derived from city property to one derived from the farm." (II, 89)
Cicero does not offer us any principles by which we may choose among expediencies. He quotes Cato as considering cattle more profitable than crops, while money-lending is as dishonorable as murder. (II, 89) If we choose among expediencies solely by the principle of which is more profitable to us, we remain at a loss, since different types of advantages are incommensurate with each other. How much glory are we willing to sacrifice for how much wealth, or vice versa? Such questions are unanswerable without a common measure, and we are left only with our desire as a guide. Yet our desires of the moment do not always lead us to what is most truly advantageous, which is the whole point of having a science of ethics, even in matters of utility.
Although, at the end of Book II, Cicero points out items that Panaetius has overlooked, he has very little to say about these topics. This may suggest a lack of philosophical originality on his part, in which case we should attribute most of the philosophical content of De Officiis to Panaetius, while his Roman pupil contributed historical examples and digressions on politics and oratory. We perhaps should not fault Cicero for failing to offer much insight into the conflict among expediencies, since this topic requires, among other things, a developed theory of economics that includes an analyzable notion of utility.
The conflict between the good and the expedient, by contrast, was more readily addressed by the philosophers of antiquity. It holds special importance to the late Stoics, who sought to reconcile the supremacy of ethical virtue with their admission that the pursuit of the expedient is also good.
Continue to Part V
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