paratextual: (books//dropsofsunshine)
A. ([personal profile] paratextual) wrote2012-10-12 10:46 pm

Cicero, De Officiis

Marcus Tullius Cicero. De Officiis. Translated by Walter Miller. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1913/2005.

It's difficult to figure out how to start writing these posts, because I'm not entirely sure what genre they are. On the one hand, I want to write things that I can share (at least in part) with my list advisors, so a certain level of formality may be required; on the other hand, I intentionally chose to keep this journal on dreamwidth, with an audience of people I mostly already know, in a format with which I am familiar -- but I'm not familiar with this format as an academic, exactly (not that I'm not always an academic, but the rules are different here), and so I have this continual not-exactly-stream-crossing-but impulse to mostly just write things like I HAVE A LOT OF FEELINGS ABOUT CICERO, which is 100% true, and not even exactly unhelpful, but also not quite the right language.

To take a little time for meta, however, here at the beginning of my first real post: one of the secret schemes inherent in this project is, actually, finding a way to work in academic frames and fannish frames at the same time, without feeling (constantly) like I am compromising one part of the way my brain works and filtering my own intellectual logic in ways that are ultimately unproductive and limiting. I must be fannish about the work that I do, because that's how I care about things; I don't think intellectual academic work and fannish work have to be mutually exclusive, even though working in both frames at once -- especially when I don't technically work on fandom or contemporary popular culture or media or digital media or science fiction or anything after 1700 -- may require a lot of code-switching and language navigation.

But maybe less than I think, because the things I want to work on are things that I often think about in fannish terms, and for which fannish terms may be exceedingly helpful: communities, and what I have taken to calling early modern social networking, and written communication, and intertextuality, and what and how we read, and how and in what ways we interact with what we read, and complicated interpersonal relationships with a) people and b) texts. Fandom is, after all, its own hermeneutic system.

(My friend K gave me the following catch phrase for my imaginary dissertation, when I was waxing poetic about Erasmus: "You may be dead, but I still kind of heart you.")

So before I actually start talking about De Officiis in a semi-professional manner, I want to own up with no shame whatsoever (why would there be shame, Cicero fandom is objectively the best) to the fact that the real way I dealt with all of the feelings De Officiis gave me was to reread my friend [personal profile] amo's Descent, which is a story about Cicero filius -- Cicero's son Marcus, to whom De Officiis is written -- and his daddy issues. It's really good, and I recommend it very highly, especially if, like me, you have just read De Officiis and it made you want to cry.


All these questions, therefore, we ought to bear thoughtfully in mind, when we inquire into the nature of [decorum]; but above all we must decide who and what manner of men we wish to be and what calling in life we would follow; and this is the most difficult problem in the world. (I.xxxii.117)

Starting my orals with De Officiis was, I think, actually brilliant. Back in May, my list advisor said, somewhat offhandedly, "you could do a lot worse than starting with De Officiis," and she was right, because -- to borrow a phrase from [personal profile] pedantic_wretch -- De Officiis makes the renaissance make sense. No fucking wonder that the rediscovery of these texts (if not actually De Officiis, which never disappeared) and the developing ability to make these texts more generally available launched an enormous social and cultural change across Europe. Of course there were other major determining factors, but reading De Officiis made me want to make everybody ever read De Officiis, because (despite the immense privilege inherent in such a statement) I feel like the world might actually be a better place if we did. This is not to say that I agree with Cicero on all particulars, or even that I think he necessarily agrees with himself on all particulars, but I did spend a lot of time reading, starry-eyed, and thinking, "Oh Cicero, tell me more about how I should live my life." (I can understand if he doesn't take everybody that way, though. I mean, sometimes I also want to punch him in the face. Probably if I was Marcus Tullius Cicero Jr., I actually would punch him in the face. After I stopped crying about the fact that he wrote me this whole book about how I should live my life and then died and before I started getting busy avenging his death, I suppose.)

Context matters, and I am a historicist at heart, which means that one of the things I care most about, when it comes to De Officiis, is its timing. I care equally about content and reception and form, about specifics, about the way this text appears again and again in the other texts I am going to be reading this year; but nevertheless, I keep coming back to the fact that this was one of the last things Cicero wrote, the last in a series of philosophical and oratorical treatises that he wrote as the republic he had invested so much in was falling to pieces around him. He wrote De Officiis at the same time as the Orator, and when I revisit the Orator (possibly next week), I will be thinking about the ways in which they are dealing with the same questions from slightly different angles; but De Officiis is full of direct and indirect references to what was ultimately the fall of the Roman Republic. It wasn't even a year after the assassination of Caesar, and that moment in particular is immediately present every time Cicero talks about whether or not it's just and morally right to kill a tyrant (he concludes fairly vehemently that it is, though is somewhat more oblique about whether Caesar counts as a tyrant). And at the beginning of Book II, he talks about his own turn to philosophy:

Now, as long as the state [res publica] was administered by the men to whose care she had voluntarily entrusted herself, I devoted all my effort and thought to her. But when everything passed under the absolute control of a despot and there was no longer any room for statesmanship or authority of mine; and finally when I had lost the friends who had been associated with me in the task of serving the interests of the state, and who were men of the highest standing, I did not resign myself to grief, by which I should have been overwhelmed, had I not struggled against it; neither, on the other hand, did I surrender myself to a life of sensual pleasure unbecoming to a philosopher.

I would that the government had stood fast in the position it had begun to assume and had not fallen into the hands of men who desired not so much to reform as to abolish the constitution. For then, in the first place, I should now be devoting my energies more to public speaking than to writing, as I used to do when the republic stood; and in the second place, I should be committing to written form not these present essays but my public speeches, as I often formerly did. But when the republic, to which all my care and thought and effort used to be devoted, was no more, then, of course, my voice was silenced in the forum and in the senate. And since my mind could not be wholly idle, I thought, as I had been well-read along these lines of thought from my early youth, that the most honorable way for me to forget my sorrows would be by turning to philosophy. […]

Therefore, amid all the present most awful calamities I yet flatter myself that I have won this good out of evil—that I may commit to written form matters not at all familiar to our countrymen but still very much worth their knowing. For what, in the name of heaven, is more to be desired than wisdom? (II.i-ii.2-5)

Cicero says similar things in his other late treatises -- that, for him, the turn to philosophy is making the best out of a bad situation; and he says the same thing again, maybe even more eloquently, at the beginning of Book III. The good of the state -- or more accurately, because he never uses the word state, the good of the res publica, the Republic, the communitas, the society -- is always and forever the first concern of his heart, and in De Officiis he makes it very clear that he thinks it should also be the first concern of the good man; but there is for Cicero and in Cicero's own character an uneasy conflict between the statesman and the philosopher (and the statesman in exile become the philosopher) that persists as a concern throughout a lot of the renaissance -- not least for Erasmus and More. At risk of drawing tenuous conclusions from something that may or may not really be a biographical pattern, writing about the way the world should change and the way people should behave (and read, and write, and constitute society) in the middle of a major social and political revolution in which you have had a major hand but over which you have no real ultimate control seems to be pretty miserable (and sometimes, ultimately, fatal), but the stakes are also really, really high, and that makes for texts that have very serious and occasionally world-changing things to say about how humanity should act, and what we should value. The stakes of the question are as the high as the stakes of the question can possibly be, and for Cicero that seems to be true on a personal level as well as a political one.

De Officiis is framed as a letter to Cicero's son Marcus, who is off at university in Athens, studying in the Peripatetic school with Cratippus. Petrarch, at least, reads De Officiis as a letter rather than a treatise, but -- like many letters of Cicero's and many letters of the renaissance -- it clearly presumes a much larger audience than Marcus. It's a public text, too forensic to really be a familiar letter (and Cicero of course, knows exactly what he is doing when it comes to style and form), but it's also framed very clearly as a letter, and its textual recipient and stated audience is Cicero's son Marcus; should we ever forget that the text is ostensibly a letter, Cicero regularly addresses Marcus directly. De Officiis is navigating a balance between the public and the private, between the personal and the political, in both its form and its content. In articulating the lessons with which De Officiis is concerned, Cicero is attempting to educate his son, not just anybody who might choose to read his book. Cicero's parenting may leave a lot to be desired, but De Officiis feels, in ways that may or may not be quantifiable, like a last work, like a letter to posterity, like a kind of will. He's not always very kind to Marcus, but it's difficult to lose sight of what he's trying to do when he says it so many times -- perhaps most effectively and forcefully at the beginning of Book III:

But, my dear Cicero, while the whole field of philosophy is fertile and productive and no portion of it barren and waste, still no part is richer or more fruitful than that which deals with moral duties; for from these are derived the rules for leading a consistent and moral life. And therefore, although you are, as I trust, diligently studying and profiting by these precepts under the direction of our friend Cratippus, the foremost philosopher of the present age, I still think it well that your ears should be dinned with such precepts from every side and that, if it could be, they should hear nothing else. These precepts must be laid to heart by all who look forward to a career of honor, and I am inclined to think that no one needs them more than you. For you will have to fulfill the eager anticipation that you will imitate my industry, the confident expectation that you will emulate my course of political honors, and the hope that you will, perhaps, rival my name and fame. You have, beside, incurred a heavy responsibility on account of Athens and Cratippus; for, since you have gone to them for the purchase, as it were, of a store of liberal culture, it would be a great discredit to you to return empty-handed, thereby disgracing the high reputation of the city and of your master. Therefore, put forth the best mental effort of which you are capable; work as hard as you can (if learning is work rather than pleasure); do your very best to succeed; and do not, when I have put all the necessary means at your disposal, allow it to be said that you have failed to do your part. (III.ii.5-6)

So on the one hand, it's rough being the kid of a celebrity. Cicero Jr. has big shoes to fill -- and, yes, probably also daddy issues, who wouldn't -- should he even want to fill them; Cicero is a tough act to follow, and he and Marcus are both aware of that, as much as Cicero also does seem to want Marcus to think of him as someone to emulate. But Cicero claims to be immediately concerned with giving his son all of the tools at his disposal, with teaching him all of the lessons he can possibly teach him about how to be a good man. The book is a gift, which is the note on which Cicero closes:

Herewith, my son Marcus, you have a present from your father—a generous one, in my humble opinion; but its value will depend upon the spirit in which you receive it. And yet you must welcome these three books as fellow-guests, so to speak, along with your notes on Cratippus's lectures. But as you would sometimes give ear to me also, if I had come to Athens (and I should be there now, if my country had not called me back with accents unmistakable when I was half-way there), so you will please devote as much time as you can to these volumes, for in them my voice will travel to you; and you can devote to them as much time as you will. And when I see that you take delight in this branch of philosophy, I shall then talk further with you—at an early date, I hope, face to face—but as long as you are abroad, I shall converse with you thus at a distance.

Farewell, my dear Cicero, and be assured that, while you are the object of my deepest affection, you will be dearer to me still, if you find pleasure in such counsel and instruction. (III.xxxiii.121)

If Cicero cannot teach Marcus in person -- and Cicero was dead within a year of writing this, and did not see his son again -- then he can teach him in writing. The frame -- and the stated claim, in many ways -- is that this text is personal, that it is a gift for his son, and that it should be read by Marcus as if it was a conversation with his father, as letters should be read in general, as conversation at a distance. There is a critical link, here, between political circumstances and private ones, between the occasional aspect of writing to a loved one for a particular set of reasons and writing to a broader audience about broader issues; the bridge from one's own circumstances to the larger circumstances of society is one frequently navigated in texts like this one, both for Cicero and for the renaissance -- and it's probably something I will be thinking about a great deal as I go on.

So some of the focus on Marcus may be a performance, and some of it may be conforming to the tropes and rules of the frame, but it's also true. De Officiis is a letter to Marcus, even as it is other things as well. And taking the formal structure together with the content (there is, for example, quite a lengthy passage on what one should do with one's money), I think that De Officiis falls into the category of letters of advice, and especially letters of advice to princes. While Marcus is not a prince, per se, Cicero's advice to him has (I think) a lot of the traits of letters of advice to princes, especially in that it is so specifically concerned with one's duty to the res publica. Marcus obviously isn't responsible for the res publica in the same way that Lorenzo d'Medici is when Machiavalli writes to him, or that Charles II is when William Cavendish writes to him, but Cicero is very concerned, even given the text's much broader audience, with teaching Marcus how to be a good man and a good citizen -- two things which Cicero would never separate, because they are inextricable to him. I'm not sure whether Cicero thinks his res publica can be saved, anymore -- in most ways it doesn't seem like it, but he does have moments of soaring optimism; but the only hope for the Republic (or any res publica) is probably to be found in educating future generations about their moral duties. The stakes of this question remain exceedingly high, and it is no wonder, I think, that a text like De Officiis would be so meaningful to people living in the middle of social and political revolutions. I don't know if this text was as influential in the 17th century as it was in the 16th (something to find out, later), but for the 16th century it was absolutely essential, and I think a lot of that actually may have to do with a certain kind of historical parallelism. The concerns -- and the stakes -- of De Officiis are relevant for More and Erasmus in the same way that they are relevant for Cicero, in a similar moment of immense cultural change, and not least because they make acute the conflict between the communal life and the private life.

In Book II, after he has "set forth the moral duties of a young man, in so far as they may be exerted for the attainment of glory," Cicero begins his discussion of "kindness and generosity" with a story about one of Philip of Macedon's letters to Alexander, in which (Cicero says) "Philip takes his son Alexander sharply to task for trying by gifts of money to secure the good-will of the Macedonians" (II.xv.52-53). At the end of the anecdote, Cicero concludes, "It was to his son that Philip gave this lesson; but let us all take it diligently to heart" (II.xv.54). In essence, this is the modus operandi of De Officiis as a whole: lessons for his son that we should all take diligently to heart. The family, as always, is a microcosm of the larger community.


There are a lot of different lessons in De Officiis, and then there is a lot of the same lesson constituted and illustrated from different angles and with different specifics. The things that matter most to me may not be the things that matter most to other people who read this text, but one of the central aims of this project is to pull out and articulate the things that do matter to me; so rather more than the question of honestum vs. utile (which my translator translates as what is morally right and what is expedient) and how to determine between them -- Cicero says, ultimately, that what is morally wrong can never be expedient, but that expediency can change the circumstances which can change what is morally right or wrong -- I am most interested in Cicero's focus on moral duty owed to the res publica and the community (communitatis, which my translator calls "social instinct"), and the relationship between honestum ("moral rectitude" or "morality") and decorum (which my translator translates as "propriety," which, while conventional, is both imprecise and incorrect).

As with oratory, as with style, judgment and personal choice are absolutely key in determining what is and is not honestum. The conclusions Marcus may ultimately draw must be left "to your own judgment" (I.i.2), and no man can be morally right, or do his moral duties, without good judgment. Good judgment probably can't be taught, but it's essential because choices have to be made, and because circumstances matter. There may be an absolute good, but there is also a mean, and any absolute law is probably inaccessible to most people; Cicero, like Aristotle, is constantly navigating between the absolute and the mean:

…but we every-day people must observe and live up to that moral right which comes within the range of our comprehension as jealously as the truly wise men have to observe and live up to that which is morally right in the technical and true sense of the word. For otherwise we cannot maintain such progress as we have made in the direction of virtue. (III.iv.17)

Choice is key, as is a proportional response, as are individual circumstances:

Such questions as these [that the claims of social relationship, in its various degrees, are not identical with the dictates of circumstances; that we must consider what is most needful in each individual case and each individual person] must, therefore, be taken into consideration in every act of moral duty [and we must acquire the habit and keep it up], in order to become good calculators of duty, able by adding and subtracting to strike a balance correctly and find out just how much is due to each individual. (I.xviii.59)

All of this set-up for personal judgment and determining circumstances and the need to achieve a balance between circumstances and individual relationships and obligations -- that, essentially, there is not so much always an absolute answer to what is morally right as a scale that one has to figure out how to balance based on wisdom and judgment and nature and available rules and the dictates of the four cardinal virtues from which morality comes ("prudence, social instinct, courage, and temperance" or more accurately cognitionis, communitatis, magnanimatis, and moderationis (I.xli.152)) -- is a set-up for the introduction of a definition of decorum. Decorum, Cicero says, comes from the virtue of temperance:

We have next to discuss the one remaining division of moral rectitude. That is the one in which we find considerateness and self-control, which give, as it were, a sort of polish to life; it embraces also temperance, complete subjection of all the passions, and moderation in all things. Under this head is further included what, in Latin, may be called decorum; for in Greek it is called [prepon]. Such is its essential nature, that it is inseparable from moral goodness; for what is [decorous] is morally right, and what is morally right is [decorous]. [nam et, quod decet, honestum est et, quod honestum est, decet] The nature of the difference between morality and [decorum] can be more easily felt than expressed. For whatever [decorum] may be, it is manifested only when there is pre-existing moral rectitude. And so, not only in this division of moral rectitude which we have now to discuss but also in the three preceding divisions, it is clearly brought out what [decorum] is. For to employ reason and speech rationally, to do with careful consideration whatever one does, and in everything to discern the truth and to uphold it—that is [decorous]. To be mistaken, on the other hand, to miss the truth, to fall into error, to be led astray—that is as [indecorous] as to be deranged and lose one's mind. And all things just are [decorous]; all things unjust, like all things immoral, are [indecorous]. […]

This [decorum], therefore, of which I am speaking belongs to each division of moral rectitude; and its relation to the cardinal virtues is so close, that it is perfectly self-evident and does not require any abstruse process of reasoning to see it. For there is a certain element of [decorum] perceptible in every act of moral rectitude; and this can be separated from virtue theoretically better than it can be practically. As comeliness and beauty of person are inseparable from the notion of health, so this [decorum] of which we are speaking, while in fact completely blended with virtue, is mentally and theoretically distinguishable from it.

The classification of [decorum], moreover, is twofold: (1) we assume a general sort of [decorum], which is found in moral goodness as a whole; then (2) there is another [decorum], subordinate to this, which belongs to the several divisions of moral goodness. The former is usually defined somewhat as follows: '[Decorum] is that which harmonizes with man's superiority in those respects in which his nature differs from that of the rest of the animal creation.' And they so define the special type of [decorum] which is subordinate to the general notion, that they represent it to be that [decorum] which harmonizes with Nature, in the sense that it manifestly embraces temperance and self-control, together with a certain deportment such as becomes a gentleman. (I.xxvii.93-96)

I certainly have some problems with this translation; and, more to the point, what is Cicero actually even saying about decorum? On the one hand, decorum equals honestum, and separating decorum from moral goodness is actually not very easy -- clearly it's not even easy for Cicero, who says that while the two are not exactly the same they are difficult to distinguish. He's theorizing this as he goes, certainly, and given that he is in so many ways the first to do so, I'm willing to cut him some slack for being really hard to disentangle. But I think I would say, with the renaissance's emphasis on decorum to (hopefully) back me up, that decorum and moral rectitude (honestum) are not exactly the same thing, but they function in the same way. In the same way that utile and honestum can never truly be in conflict, decorum and honestum can never be in conflict, because decorum, like honestum, requires making the right -- in Cicero's book, the just and virtuous -- choices. Both decorum and honestum are relative, because both depend on finding a mean, a balance between what is absolute and what is circumstantial. Decorum may or may not be what makes us human, and at the very least the order of cause and effect is pretty unclear, but rational speech, consideration (judgment) about what one does and says, and the upholding of truth are decorous, and those things are also honestum; they are also, Cicero says a little bit later, determined by nature, because nothing is decorous that goes against one's nature.

After what is not in any way a digression into decorum as determined by poets -- one of Cicero's few literary examples (possibly even the first one in the text, though I have to check if that is actually true), and absolutely fascinating to me because of Cicero's immediate connection between decorum and poetry and character and performance (I.xxviii.97-106), Cicero makes a critical connection between individual character and decorum:

We must realize also that we are invested by Nature with two characters, as it were: one of these is universal, arising from the fact of our being all alike endowed with reason and with that superiority which lifts us above the brute. From this all morality and [decorum] are derived, and upon it depends the rational method of ascertaining our duty. The other character is in the one that is assigned to individuals in particular. … Diversities of character are greater still. … Everybody, however, must resolutely hold fast to his own peculiar gifts, in so far as they are peculiar only and not vicious, in order that [decorum], which is the object of our inquiry, may the more be secured. For we must so act as not to oppose the universal laws of human nature, but, while safeguarding those, to follow the bent of our own particular nature; … From this fact the nature of that [decorum] defined above comes into still clearer light, inasmuch as nothing is [decorous] that 'goes against the grain,' as the saying is—that is, if it is in direct opposition to one's natural genius.

If there is any such thing as [decorum] at all, it can be nothing more than uniform consistency in the course of our life as a whole and all its individual actions. (

And in paragraph 115, Cicero clarifies (or perhaps complicates) the matter further by saying that in addition to universal character and individual character, there is the character determined by circumstance and the character determined by deliberate choice. So on the one hand, consistency is all we ask: as long as you are consistent to your own character, you will theoretically be both moral and decorous -- provided that your character is good to begin with, I suppose. (Cicero varies, I think, on that point.) On the other hand, individual consistency is subject -- because at least on some level it must be -- to circumstances. Cicero says at I.xl.144, "Such orderliness of conduct is, therefore, to be observed, that everything in the conduct of our life shall balance and harmonize, as in a finished speech." Of course this is a metaphor near and dear to both my heart and Cicero's, but I'm not sure it's that easy. (Not that achieving perfect balance and harmony in a finished speech is easy either, see the Orator.) Obviously it isn't that easy; but then in some ways that is probably the point of De Officiis: these questions are not actually easy. How do you balance all of these things -- circumstances and absolutes, the potentially dangerous kind of moral relativism (e.g, when Cicero says that the ultimate arbiter for whether you should be tried for a crime (and whether your crime is in fact a crime) is whether or not you will benefit the state in the future, and raises the whole problematic question of who gets to determine whether or not someone else is deserving), with the necessity of moral relativism in a world of circumstances that can determine the expediency of an action which can in turn determine whether or not that action is morally right?

Circumstances matter; not that the absolute isn't important, but the mean is probably more important in actual life. There's rectum, which is for Cicero the right thing to do for all people in all circumstances, and then there's decorum, which is definitely not that, but is maybe doing the right thing dependent on the circumstances. But decorum is a rhetorical and aesthetic principle -- as he theorizes it in the Orator -- here applied to an ethical principle; and the meeting of decorum (rhetorical) and honestum (ethical) is just not always going to be seamless. Nor is the relationship between decorum and temperance, which on the one hand Cicero says is cause and effect (decorum comes from temperance), but on the other hand is again a conflation of ethical and rhetorical principles.

Then there's the four-part theory of character, which is critical because Cicero is one of the few people (or so my advisor tells me) to theorize both the things we are in control of and the things we are not in control of -- because while deliberate choice and possibly individual preference are under our control, Nature and circumstances are not; how we navigate the things that are not under our control is, ultimately, the question, and probably why we need decorum and honestum and officium -- and why Cicero needs to theorize them -- in the first place.

But all of that said, Cicero's moral goodness is only relative to a certain point, because what Cicero cares the most about (as I see it) is not a kind of abstract goodness that might make us morally good independent of one another -- that's actually a fairly impossible concept for Cicero, it just doesn't compute -- but moral goodness as applied to community life. If there are key precepts to De Officiis, I think they are these: do no harm, and serve the republic. There is a lot of patriotism in De Officiis, but even more than patriotism for the Roman Republic in particular and one's own society in general, there is a serious force behind Cicero's theorizing of what makes community and what we owe to community life.

A lot of his discussion of community and what one owes to community deals with questions of private property; this makes sense to me, in a text that is so concerned in so many different ways with the conflicts between public and private life. The private property questions were a major concern for renaissance readers. It also makes sense in the context of the utile/honestum question, in that one of the things Cicero is trying to drive home is that something that benefits you as an individual but does not benefit the res publica may seem to be expedient (utile), but isn't really, because what benefits you but not the res publica does not in fact benefit you. Theoretically. Which is not to say that he thinks private property is bad -- (he is in fact so in favor of private property that when I was reading the other day I wandered into the kitchen and said, "Cicero would really hate Communism," and then had to read that passage aloud to [personal profile] readingredhead:

That speech [Philippus's agrarian bill, which Cicero describes as "a ruinous policy"] deserves unqualified condemnation, for it favored an equal distribution of property; and what more ruinous policy than that could be conceived? For the chief purpose in the establishment of constitutional state and municipal governments was that individual property rights might be secured. For, although it was by Nature's guidance that men were drawn together into communities, it was in the hope of safeguarding their possessions that they sought the protection of cities. (II.xxi.73)

-- but is to say that preserving private property at the expense of the res publica would be a problem, because none of this is about individual gain unless that individual gain is also the gain of the community. Cicero, anyway, is a lot more concerned about people trying to take private property away than he is about people having too much private property. More or less.

In any case, I am somewhat less interested in the property questions (supposing them to be extricable) than I am in the way he describes communitas and communitatis, or community and social obligation. Citing Plato early in Book I, he says:

But since, as Plato has admirably expressed it, we are not born for ourselves alone, but our country claims a share of our being, and our friends a share; and since, as the Stoics hold, everything that the earth produces is created for man's use; and as men, too, are born for the sake of men, that they may be able to mutually help one another; in this direction we ought to follow Nature as our guide, to contribute to the general good by an interchange of acts of kindness, by giving and receiving and thus by our skill, our industry, and our talents to cement human society more closely together, man to man. (I.vii.22)

Obviously people are going to disagree with this in a thousand different ways in political and ethical philosophy to come, but for Cicero it is, I think, a kind of manifesto statement of community life. Community life is built on mutual exchange; family, friendship, and patriotism are all social relationships; and ultimately, it is our primary duty to maintain and protect society. Or, as he puts it, "In a word, not to go into details, it is our duty to respect, defend, and maintain the common bonds of union and fellowship subsisting between all the members of the human race" (I.xli.149).

He also has a lot to say on natural instincts to form communities, which I especially appreciate because I have a minor renaissance-induced obsession with bees, and because of the concern throughout the text with the uneasy relationship(s) between solitary and public life. (For Cicero, the solitary contemplative life was imposed upon him, and the active public life always takes precedence even when he inhabits the solitary contemplative life; not all renaissance thinkers agree with him, but basically Cicero was highly opposed to the ivory tower.)

And service is better than mere theoretical knowledge, for the study and knowledge of the universe would somehow be lame and defective, were no practical results to follow. Such results, moreover, are best seen in the safeguarding of human interests. (I.xliii.153)

[…] And yet scholars, whose whole life and interests have been devoted to the pursuit of knowledge, have not, after all, failed to contribute to the advantages and blessings of mankind. For they have trained many to be better citizens and to render larger service to their country. … As for myself, whatever service I have rendered to my country—if, indeed, I have rendered any—I came to my task trained and equipped for it by my teachers and what they taught me. And not only while present in the flesh do they teach and train those who are desirous of learning, but by the written memorials of their learning they continue the same service after they are dead. [A's interjection: In other words, you may be dead, but I still heart you, cf. Petrarch to Cicero.]

[...] And again, as swarms of bees do not gather for the sake of making honeycomb but make the honeycomb because they are gregarious [congregabilia] by nature, so human beings—and to a much higher degree—exercise their skills together in action and thought because they are naturally gregarious. And so, if that virtue [Justice] which centers in the safeguarding of human interests, that is, in the maintenance of human society, were not to accompany the pursuit of knowledge, that knowledge would seem isolated and barren of results. In the same way, courage [Fortitude], if unrestrained by the uniting bonds of society, would be but a sort of brutality and savagery. Hence it follows that the claims of human society and the bonds that unite men together take precedence of the pursuit of speculative knowledge.

And it is not true, as certain people maintain, that the bonds of union in human society were instituted in order to provide for the needs of daily life; for, they say, without the aid of others we could not secure for ourselves or supply to others the things that Nature requires; but if all that is essential to our wants and comfort were supplied by some magic wand, as in the stories, then every man of first-rate ability could drop all responsibility and devote himself exclusively to learning and study. Not at all. For he would seek to escape from his loneliness and to find someone to share his studies; he would wish to teach, as well as to learn; to hear, as well as to speak. Every duty, therefore, that tends effectively to maintain and safeguard human society should be given the preference over that duty which arises from speculation and science alone. (I.xliv.154-158)

In other words, Cicero claims that we all need Science Bros. Or rather, that everything requires human cooperation and fellowship (II.ix.39), not least for the sake of conversation (II.xiv.48), and that while some people "contend in essence that they are bound to their fellow-citizens by no mutual obligations, social ties, or common interests," "This attitude demolishes the whole structure of civil society" (

Well. Agreed.

Especially when taken together with Cicero's theorizing of friendship in Book I, which is pretty essential to my interests (I.xv.47-I.xvii.58). Friendship is the most noble bond of fellowship, Cicero says; but all the social bonds are critical: family, fellow citizens, the "social relation … which links each one of us with our country" (I.xvii.57), friendship -- all of them contribute essentially to the social obligations that make up the commonwealth, the community, the res publica. The good and moral functioning of the family, home, household, and friendship ultimately equals the functioning of the civil government, and everything requires liberal doses of applied wisdom and justice.

In our meeting today, my advisor asked me if I could define officium. Cicero never defines it; the renaissance says "office" and my translator says "duty" and translates De Officiis as "On Duties," but neither quite cuts it. While officium has an uneasy relationship with pleasure -- and while Cicero, for better or for worse, is very anti-pleasure in De Officiis as he aligns this text primarily with the Stoics -- duty and pleasure are not actually clearly-cut opposites in this case. Where we arrived, eventually, was in linking officium and beneficium: a duty, an office, or an officium is a moral responsibility for which there is no legal obligation. Its opposite is a legal obligation, and legal obligations were thoroughly theorized by and for the Romans. Officium, on the other hand -- that duty (those duties, officii) for which there is a moral (absolute, mean, relative) sanction but not a legal sanction -- was not theorized, and Cicero's theorizing was especially important for everyone that came after because the question of officium actually never stopped being relevant. Unlike quite a bit (though certainly not all) of Roman legal theory, which stopped being relevant after the circumstances changed, the interdependence of officium, honestum, and decorum makes the theorizing of officium in De Officiis eternally relevant and adaptable to circumstance. An officium, then, is an extra-legal social obligation (charitas, beneficium); they are the bonds that make up society outside of and alongside the law; and community -- any community -- depends on them.

So, you know. No wonder I care so much. No wonder the renaissance cared so much.


See also:

+ Cicero: Orator, Brutus, De Amicitia
+ Erasmus: Education of a Christian Prince, Enchiridion, Colloquies, Adages (esp. advice adages)
+ Utopia, The Blazing World, and New Atlantis
+ Leviathan
+ The Prince
+ Sidney's letter to Elizabeth; Cavendish's letter to Charles II
+ Petrarch's letter to posterity; Petrarch's letters to Cicero; On His Own Ignorance

Post a comment in response:

Anonymous( )Anonymous This account has disabled anonymous posting.
OpenID( )OpenID You can comment on this post while signed in with an account from many other sites, once you have confirmed your email address. Sign in using OpenID.
Account name:
If you don't have an account you can create one now.
HTML doesn't work in the subject.


Notice: This account is set to log the IP addresses of everyone who comments.
Links will be displayed as unclickable URLs to help prevent spam.