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On the Republic (De Republica), Books 1 and 3

By Cicero

[Marcus Tullius Cicero. On the Republic. Translated by David Fott. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. 2014. Books 1 and 3. Copyright David Fott. Used with permission.]

Bold numbers in brackets indicate the standard divisions in Cicero’s texts in which are found in whole or part the sections reproduced here. Bracketed words or phrases usually represent Professor Fott’s efforts to supply a missing or unclear part of the text. Sometimes bracketed material represents my effort to clarify a term or reference, and I do so at times with the benefit of material Professor Fott presents in the notes accompanying his translation. –Walter Nicgorski


Book 1

[In the early pages of this dialogue, there is a discussion of the relative importance of different kinds of inquiry including that of speculation on the nature of the heavens and the universe as a whole. Scipio, a statesman on holiday, is found in the passage below (just after a missing portion of the dialogue) reflecting on a kind of high utility or perspective that might result from such inquiry.]

[26] Furthermore, what should someone who has examined these kingdoms of the gods consider splendid in human affairs? Or what is long lasting to someone who knows what is eternal? Or what is glorious to someone who has seen how small the earth is—first the whole of it, then the part of it that human beings inhabit—and how tiny is the part of it in which we, completely unknown to many nations, are fixed? Nevertheless we hope that our name will fly around and roam very far. [27] The man who is not inclined to consider or call “goods” our fields, buildings, cattle, and enormous amounts of silver and gold, because the enjoyment of those things seems trifling to him, their use short, their mastery uncertain, and often even the worst men seem to possess an enormous amount of them—how fortunate he must be considered. He alone may truly claim all things as his own by right not of the Quirites [of his citizenship status] but of the wise, not by a civil obligation but by the common law of nature, which forbids that anything belong to anyone except to him who knows how to handle and use it. Such a man thinks that our positions of command and consulships are necessary things, not things to be desired—that they should be endured for the sake of performing a service, not desired for the sake of rewards or glory. Such a man, finally, can declare about himself, as Cato writes that my grandfather Africanus used to say, that he was never doing more than when he was doing nothing, that he was never less alone than when he was alone.


Book III

[Philus is speaking as he makes a classic challenge to the notion that justice is something eternal and universal, rooted in the nature of things.]

[18] . . . [if nature] had consecrated rights for us, all men [would use] the same, and the same men would not use [now] some rights, [then] other rights. But I ask, if it is for a just man and a good man to obey laws, which ones? Whichever ones may exist? But virtue does not accept inconsistency, nor does nature allow variation. The laws are assented to because of penalty, not because of our justice. Therefore, nothing involves natural justice [ius]. From this it certainly follows that no men are just by nature. Or do they say truthfully that there is variation in the laws, but that by nature good men follow the justice that exists, not what is thought to exist? It is for a good and just man to grant to each man what is worthy of him. [19] Then what will we first grant to the dumb beasts? It is no ordinary men, but the greatest and educated, Pythagoras and Empedocles, who proclaim that there is one condition of justice [ius] for all animate beings and who shout that inexpiable penalties threaten those who have defiled an animal. Therefore, it is a crime to harm a beast.

[Laelius appears to be the chief respondent to Philus, and his classic defense of natural law, preserved as a direct quotation from Cicero in a text of Lactantius, an early Christian and Ciceronian, is usually placed at this point of On the Republic.]

[33] True law is correct reason congruent with nature, spread among all persons, constant, everlasting. It calls to duty by ordering; it deters from mischief by forbidding. Nevertheless it does not order or forbid upright persons in vain, nor does it move the wicked by ordering or forbidding. It is not holy to circumvent this law, nor is it permitted to modify any part of it, nor can it be entirely repealed. In fact we cannot be released from this law by either the senate or the people. No Sextus Aelius [a noted and distinguished jurist of an earlier time] should be sought as expositor or interpreter. There will not be one law at Rome, another at Athens, one now, another later, but one law both everlasting and unchangeable will encompass all nations and for all time. And one god will be the common teacher and general, so to speak, of all persons. He will be the author, umpire, and provider of this law. The person who will not obey it will flee from himself and, defying human nature, he will suffer the greatest penalties by this very fact, even if he escapes other things that are thought to be punishments.

On the Laws (De Legibus), Books 1–3 (Excerpts)

By Cicero

[Marcus Tullius Cicero. On the Laws. Translated by David Fott. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. 2014. Books 1 and 3. Copyright David Fott. Used with permission.]

Bold numbers in brackets indicate the standard divisions in Cicero’s texts in which are found in whole or part the sections reproduced here. Bracketed words or phrases usually represent Professor Fott’s efforts to supply a missing or unclear part of the text. Sometimes bracketed material represents my effort to clarify a term or reference, and I do so at times with the benefit of material Professor Fott presents in the notes accompanying his translation. –Walter Nicgorski


Book 1

[In the section that follows the discussion among Cicero (M for Marcus), Atticus Pomponius (A) and Quintus (Q) is turning to the topic of the law and, as the reader will see, with a zealous interest in the true foundations or bases for any good legal order.]

[13] A: Then in this spare time, as you say, why don’t you explain to us these very things and write about civil law more precisely than the others? I remember that you have studied law from the earliest time of your life, when I myself also used to come to Scaevola [famed jurist and teacher]. You have never seemed to me to devote yourself so much to speaking that you scorned civil law.

M: You call me to a long conversation, Atticus. Nevertheless, unless Quintus prefers that we discuss something else, I will undertake it; and since we are unoccupied, I will speak.

Q: Of course I would gladly listen. For what would I rather discuss, or how would I better spend this day?

[14] M: Then why don’t we proceed to our paths and seats? When we have had enough walking, we will rest. Surely we will have no lack of delight as we inquire into one topic after another.

A: That is fine with us, and, if it pleases you, this way to the Liris along its bank and through the shade. But now I beseech [you] to begin to explain what you feel about civil law.

M: Shall I? I think that the highest men in our city are those who have regularly interpreted it to the people and given legal advice. But although they have made great claims, they have dealt with small things. What is so great as the law of the city? But what is so tiny as this service of those who are asked for advice, even though it is necessary to the people? In fact I do not think that those who were in charge of this service have been ignorant of universal law, but they have trained in what they call civil law only as far as they wanted to furnish this service to the people. Yet it is thin material for study although necessary for experience. So to what do you call me, or what are you urging on me? That I produce pamphlets on the law  about rainwater falling from the eaves of houses and [the law] about walls of houses? Or that I compose formulas for covenants and judicial decisions? Those things have been attentively written by many men, and they are lower than what I think is expected of me.

[15] A: But if you ask what I expect, since you have written on the best form of republic, the sequel seems to be that you also write on laws. For I see that your dear, famous Plato did so, at whom you marvel, whom you rank ahead of all [others], whom you greatly cherish.

M: Then do you want this: As with Clinias the Cretan and Megillus the Spartan [fictional characters in Plato’s Laws], as he describes it, during a summer day in the cypress groves and woodland paths of Cnossos, often stopping, occasionally resting, he argues about the institutions of republics and about the best laws, so let us, walking and then lingering among these very tall poplar trees on the green and shady bank, seek something fuller concerning these same matters than the practice of the courts requires?

[16] A: Yes, I desire to hear these things.

M: What does Quintus say?

Q: [There is] no subject [I want to hear about] more.

M: And indeed correctly. For recognize that in no subject of argument are more honorable things brought into the open: what nature has granted to a human being, how many of the best things the human mind encompasses, what service we have been born for and brought into light to perform and accomplish, what is the connection among human beings, and what natural fellowship there is among them. When these things have been explained, the source of laws and right can be discovered.

[17] A: So you don’t think that the discipline of law should be drawn from the praetor’s edict, as many do now, or from the Twelve Tables [archaic set of basic Roman laws], as earlier men did, but from within the profoundest philosophy?

M: In fact, Pomponius, in this conversation we are not seeking how to safeguard interests in law [ius], or how to respond to each consultation. That thing may be a great matter, and it is, which formerly was undertaken by many famous men and is now undertaken by one man of the highest authority and knowledge [Servius Sulpicius]. But in this debate we must embrace the entire cause of universal right and laws, so that what we call civil law [ius] may be confined to a certain small, narrow place.  We must explain the nature of law [ius], and this must be traced from human nature. We must consider laws by which cities ought to be ruled. Then we must treat the laws [ius] and orders of peoples that have been composed and written, in which what are called the civil laws [ius] of our people will not be hidden.

[18] Q: Truly, brother, you trace deeply and, as is proper, from the fountain head of what we are asking about. Those who hand down the civil law [ius] differently are handing down not so much ways of justice as ways of litigating.

M: That is not so, Quintus: ignorance of the law [ius] is conducive to more lawsuits than knowledge of it. But this later; now let us see the beginnings of law [ius].

Therefore, it has pleased highly educated men to commence with law—probably correctly, provided that, as the same men define it, law is highest reason, implanted in nature, which orders those things that ought to be done and prohibits the opposite. The same reason is law when it has been strengthened and fully developed in the human mind. [19] And so they think that law is prudence, the effect of which is to order persons to act correctly and to forbid them to transgress. They also think that this thing has been called [from] the Greek name for “granting to each his own,” whereas I think it comes from our word for “choosing.” As they put the effect of fairness into law, we put the effect of choice into it. Nevertheless, each one is appropriate to law. But if it is thus correctly said, as indeed it mostly and usually seems to me, the beginning of right should be drawn from law. For this is a force of nature; this is the mind and reason of the prudent man; this is the rule of right and wrong. But since our entire speech is for the people’s business, sometimes it will be necessary to speak popularly and to call that a law which, when written, consecrates what it wants by either ordering [or forbidding], as the crowd calls it. In fact let us take the beginning of establishing right from the highest law, which was born before any law was written for generations in common [corrupt text here] or before a city was established at all.

[20] Q: That is truly more convenient and suitable for the method of conversation we have begun.

M: Then do you want us to trace the birth of right itself from its source? When we have discovered it, there will be no doubt how to judge what we are seeking.

Q: Truly I think it must so be done.

A: Add me as well to your brother’s opinion.

M: Then since we should maintain and preserve the form of republic that Scipio taught to be the best in that book, and since all laws should be tailored to that type of city, and since customs should be planted and not everything should be consecrated in writing, I will trace the root of right from nature, with which as our leader we should pursue the entire debate.

A: Most correctly, and indeed with it as leader there will be no way to err.

[21] M: Then, Pomponius, do you grant me this (for I know Quintus’s opinion), that all nature is ruled by the force, nature, reason, power, mind, majesty—or whatever other word there is by which I may signify more plainly what I want—of the immortal gods? Now if you do not approve this, I must begin my case from there before anything else.

A: Of course I grant it, if you expect it. And because of the harmony of the birds and the rumbling of the rivers I do not fear that any of my fellow students [fellow Epicureans] will clearly hear.

M: Yet beware: They often become quite angry, as good men do. They will not tolerate it if they hear that you have betrayed the excellent man’s first sentence, in which he wrote that god cares for nothing, either his own or another’s.

[22] A: Continue, I beseech [you]. For I expect [to hear] how what I have admitted to you is relevant.

M: I will not make you wait longer. It is relevant at this point: This animal—foreseeing, sagacious, versatile, sharp, mindful, filled with reason and judgment—that we call a human being has been begotten by the supreme god in a certain splendid condition. It alone, of all kinds and natures of animate beings, has a share in reason and reflection, in which all the others have no part. Moreover, what is more divine than reason—I will not say in a human being but in the entire heaven and earth? When it has grown up and been fully developed, it is rightly named wisdom. [23] Therefore, since nothing is better than reason, and since it [is] in both human being and god, the primary fellowship of human being with god involves reason; and among those who have reason in common, correct reason is also in common. Since that is law, we should also consider human beings to be united with gods by law. Furthermore, among those who have a sharing in law, there is a sharing in right. And for them these things are [missing text here] and they must be recognized as being of the same city—if they obey the same commanders and men in power, even much more so. Moreover, they obey this celestial system, the divine mind and very powerful god, so that now this whole universe should [be] thought to be one city in common between gods and human beings. And the fact that in cities positions are distinguished by blood relations of families—according to a method that will be spoken of in a suitable place—is all the more magnificent and splendid in the nature of things, so that human beings are held to be in the “blood relation” and “race” of the gods.

[24] Now when all nature is inquired about, it is usual to argue the following (and without doubt it is so): In the perpetual celestial courses [and] revolutions there emerged a sort of ripeness for planting the human race. When it was scattered and planted over the earth, it was increased by the divine gift of souls. And although human beings have taken the other things of which they are composed from mortal stock, and those things are fragile and frail, the soul has been implanted by god. From this, in truth, there is what can be recognized as a blood relation, or a family or a lineage, between us and the heavenly beings. Thus out of so many species there is no animal besides the human being that has any notion of god. And among human beings themselves there is no nation either so tame or so wild that it does not know that it should have a god, although it may be ignorant of what sort it ought to have. [25] From this it follows that he recognizes god because he, so to speak, recollects whence he arose. Moreover, the same virtue is in human being and god, and it is not in any other species besides; and virtue is nothing other than [nature] fully developed and taken all the way to its highest point. Therefore, the similarity between human being and god is natural. Since this is so, what in the world can be a nearer, more certain kinship?

And so nature has generously given such a richness of things for human convenience and use that things that are given birth seem to have been donated to us by design, not originated by chance—not only those things that are poured out as the produce of the earth [laden] with crops and fruits, but also animals, which it is clear have been procreated partly for human use, partly for enjoyment, partly for feeding on. [26] In fact countless arts have been discovered through the teaching of nature, which reason imitated in order to attain skillfully the things necessary for life.

The same nature not only adorned the human being himself with swiftness of mind, but also allotted [to him] the senses as escorts and messengers, as well as the obscure, insufficiently elucidated conceptions of many things as, so to speak, a sort of foundation of knowledge. It also gave to the body a shape manageable and suitable to the human intellect. For although it made the other animate beings prostrate for grazing, it raised up the human being alone and aroused him to a view of the heaven as if it were a view of his kin and original domicile. Then it shaped the appearance of his face so as to portray in it the character hidden within. [27] For the expressive eyes say beyond measure how we have been affected in the mind; and what is called the countenance, which can exist in no animate being besides the human being, indicates character. The Greeks know the significance of this, but they do not have a name for it at all. I omit the fitness and abilities of the rest of the body, the control of the voice, the force of speech, which is the greatest matchmaker of human fellowship (not all things are for this debate and time, and, as it seems to me, Scipio expressed this point sufficiently in the book [On the Republic] you have read). Now since god [thus] begot and adorned the human being—that is, he wanted him to have precedence over other things—it is clear (so that not everything must be discussed) that nature itself proceeds further by itself: even with no one teaching it, it has taken its start from those things the characteristics of which it recognized from its first, rudimentary intelligence; it alone strengthens and fully develops reason.

[28] A: Immortal gods, how far back you trace the beginnings of right! And you do it in such a way that, not only am I not in a hurry to get to those matters I was expecting from you regarding civil law, but I readily allow you to spend this day, even all of it, in this conversation. These things, which you include perhaps for the sake of other things, are more important than the things for the sake of which they are a preface.

M: Indeed these are important things that are now briefly taken up. But of all the things involved in the debate of educated men, surely nothing is preferable to the plain understanding that we have been born for justice and that right has been established not by opinion but by nature. This will already be evident if you have examined the fellowship and connection of human beings among themselves.

[29] For there is nothing so similar one-to-one, so equal, as all persons are among ourselves. But if the perverting of habits and the vanity of opinions did not twist weak minds and bend them in whatever direction they had begun, no one would be so similar to himself as all persons would be to all persons. And so whatever the definition of human being is, one definition applies to all persons. [30] That is enough of an argument that there is no dissimilarity within the species; if there were, no one definition would encompass all. And of course reason, by which alone we excel the beasts, through which we are effective in [drawing] inferences, through which we prove, disprove, discuss, demonstrate something, make conclusions—it certainly is in common, differing in education, while decidedly equal in the capacity to learn. For the same things are grasped by the senses of all persons; and the things that move the senses move them in the same way in all persons; and the things that are imprinted upon minds, about which I spoke before, the rudimentary conceptions, are imprinted similarly upon all persons; and speech, the interpreter of the mind, differs in words but is congruent in thoughts. There is no one of any nation who cannot arrive at virtue when he has found a leader.

[31] Not only in correct actions but also in depravities there is a remarkable similarity of the human race. All persons are captivated by pleasure, which, although it is an enticement to disgrace, has a sort of similarity to a natural good; for it delights through its frivolity and sweetness. So, as a result of an error of the mind, it is received as if it were something salutary, and by a similar ignorance death is fled as if it were a dissolution of nature, life is desired because it holds us in the condition in which we were born, pain is regarded as among the greatest evils both because of its own roughness and because the violent death of our nature seems to follow. [32] And because of the similarity between honorableness and glory, those who have been honored seem happy while those who are without glory seem wretched. Troubles, joys, desires, fears wander through the minds of all similarly. And if persons have different opinions, it does not follow that those who worship dog and cat as gods are not tormented by the same superstition as other races. Moreover, what nation does not cherish kindness, benevolence, or a soul that is grateful for and mindful of a benefit? What nation does not despise, does not hate the haughty, the nefarious, the cruel, the ungrateful? Since from these things it may be understood that the whole race of human beings has been united among themselves, the final result is that knowledge of living correctly makes persons better. If you approve these things, I will continue to the remaining matters. But if something is lacking, let us explain that first.

A: Certainly nothing for us, if I may respond for both of us.

[33] M: What comes next, then, is that we have been made by nature to participate in right, one with another, and to share it among all persons. And I want that to be understood in this entire debate when I say that [right] is by nature. But there is such corruption from bad habit that it is as if the sparks given by nature are extinguished by the corruption, and the opposite faults arise and are strengthened. But if whatever is according to nature were also according to judgment, and if human beings “thought that nothing human is alien to themselves” (as the poet [Terence] states), right would be cultivated equally by all. Those who have been given reason by nature have also been given correct reason, and thus law, which is correct reason in ordering and forbidding. If law has been given, so has right. And reason has been given to all persons. Therefore, right has been given to all persons. [text is missing] And Socrates correctly used to curse the person who first separated advantage from right, for he used to complain that this was the source of all disasters. [text is missing] For whence comes that Pythagorean saying?

[A gap of uncertain length occurs in the manuscript.]

[34] From this it is clearly seen that when a wise man offers this goodwill, spread so wide and far, to someone endowed with equal virtue, what follows is something that seems incredible to certain persons but is necessary: he cherishes himself no more than he does the other person. What is there that differs when things are entirely equal? But if anything could differ only a little, the name of friendship would already have passed away. Its significance is that as soon as someone wants something for himself more than for another person, it does not exist.

All these things are provided as a fortification prior to the rest of our conversation and debate, so that it can be more easily understood that right is based in nature. When I have said a very little bit about this, I will come to civil law, from which this entire speech originated.

Q: Of course you need to say very little. For from what you have said, it certainly seems to me, at any rate—[even if otherwise] to Atticus—that right has arisen from nature.

[35] A: Could it seem otherwise to me?—since these things have already been fully developed: first, that we have been furnished and adorned as if by gifts of the gods; second, that there is one equal, common manner of living for human beings among themselves; then that all human beings are held together by a certain natural indulgence and goodwill among themselves, as well as by a fellowship of right. Since we have admitted—correctly so, I think—that these things are true, how could we separate laws and rights from nature?

[36] M: You speak correctly, and that is how it is.

[In the following segment, also from Book 1 of On the Laws, Cicero or “M” is speaking quite continuously until the very end of the selection.  He brings into focus the tension between a true and natural justice and ordinary notions of utility and pleasure.]

[40] But if the penalty, not nature, ought to keep human beings from wrong, tell me what torment would harass the impious when the fear of punishments has been eliminated? Nevertheless, none of them was ever so daring that he did not either deny that he was guilty of a crime or fabricate some reason for his own just indignation and seek a defense of the crime in some right of nature. If the impious dare to call it this, with what enthusiasm will good men worship such a thing, I ask!

But if a penalty, if fear of punishment and not the disgrace itself, deters from a wrongful, criminal life, then no one is unjust, and instead the wicked should be held to be incautious. [41] Then, moreover, those of us who are moved to be good men not by what is honorable itself but by some advantage and enjoyment are cunning, not good. Now what will a man do in the darkness who fears nothing except a witness and a judge? What will he do in a deserted place if he has found someone whom he can deprive of much gold, someone weak and alone? Our man who is just and good by nature will even speak with him, help him, lead him on his way. But he who will do nothing for another person’s sake and will measure everything by his own convenience—you see, I suppose, what he is going to do. But if he denies that he is going to snatch his life and take away his gold, he will never deny it on the ground that he judges it disgraceful by nature, but that he fears that it might become known and the result might be bad. O worthy deed, for which not only educated but also boorish men may blush!

[42] But truly the most foolish thing is to think that everything is just that has been approved in the institutions or laws of peoples. And if those laws are from tyrants? If the Thirty at Athens had wanted to impose laws, or if all the Athenians delighted in tyrannous laws, surely those laws should not be held to be just for that reason? No more, I suppose, than the one that our interim ruler provided, that the dictator could kill whatever citizens he wanted with impunity, even without a hearing. Right is uniform; human fellowship has been bound by it, and one law has established it; that law is correct reason in commanding and prohibiting. He who is ignorant of it is unjust, whether it has been written somewhere or nowhere. Now if justice is compliance with the written laws and institutions of peoples, and if (as the same men say) everything ought to be measured by advantage, he who thinks that it will be enjoyable for himself will neglect and break through those laws if he can. So it happens that there is no justice at all if not by nature, and what is established for the sake of advantage is undermined by that advantage.

[43] And if right has not been confirmed by nature, they may be eliminated [missing portion of the text] In fact where will liberality be able to exist, where affection for the fatherland, where piety, where the will either to deserve well of another or to return a service? These things originate in this, that we are inclined by nature to cherish human beings; that is the foundation of right. And not only allegiances toward human beings but also ceremonies and religious observances for the gods are eliminated, which I think ought to be preserved not by fear but by the connection that exists between human being and god. But if rights were established by peoples’ orders, if by leading men’s decrees, if by judges’ verdicts, there would be a right to rob, a right to commit adultery, a right to substitute false wills, if those things were approved by the votes or resolutions of a multitude. [44] But if there is such power in the opinions and orders of the foolish that the nature of things is changed by their votes, why don’t they establish that bad and ruinous things should be held to be good and salutary things? Or if law can make right out of wrong, can’t the same law make good out of bad? But we can divide good law from bad by no other standard than that of nature.

Not only right and wrong are distinguished by nature, but also in general all honorable and disgraceful things. Nature makes common conceptions for us and starts forming them in our minds so that honorable things are based on virtue, disgraceful things on vices. [45] To think that these things have been based on opinion, not on nature, is for a madman. What is called the virtue of a tree or a horse (in which cases we misuse the name) is founded not on opinion but on nature. And if that is so, honorable and disgraceful things should also be distinguished by nature. Now if the whole of virtue were determined by opinion, its parts would also be determined by the same thing. Therefore, who would judge a man to be prudent and, may I say, clever not from his own deportment but from some external circumstance? Virtue is fully developed reason, and this is certainly in nature—therefore, in the same way all honorableness. Now as true and false things are judged on their own terms, not by other terms, and the same with logical and illogical things, so also a constant and continual manner of life, which is virtue, and also inconstancy, which is vice, will be tested according to their nature.[missing portion of text] Don’t we do the same with young persons’ character? [46] Or will character be judged by nature, and the virtues and vices that come from character otherwise? Or if not otherwise, won’t it [still] be necessary for honorable and disgraceful things to be measured according to nature? [missing text] Whatever good thing that is praiseworthy necessarily has in itself that for which it is praised; for good itself is not by opinions but by nature. If it were not so, men would also be happy by opinion. What more foolish thing can be said than that? Therefore, since good and bad are judged by nature, and these things are elements of nature, certainly also honorable and disgraceful things must be distinguished in a similar manner and measured according to nature.

[47] But the variety of opinions and the disagreement among human beings disturb us. And because the same thing does not hold for the senses, we think they are certain by nature; and those things that appear one way to some persons and another way to others, and not always one way to the same persons, we say are false. That is far off the mark. No parent, nurse, teacher, poet, or stage perverts our senses; nor does the agreement of the multitude distract them from the truth. All [sorts of] plots are directed against our minds, either by those I just listed, who have taken them when they were delicate and unrefined and who stain and bend them as they want, or by that which occupies a place entangled within our every sensation, pleasure, that imitator of the good and that mother of all bad things. Those who are corrupted by her flatteries do not sufficiently notice what things are good by nature, because they lack this sweetness and itch.

[48] What follows—to conclude my whole speech—is before our eyes from what has been said, that both right and everything honorable should be desired for their own sakes. And indeed all good men love fairness itself and right itself, and it is not for a good man to err and to cherish what should not be cherished for itself; therefore, right should be sought and cultivated for itself. Now if that is true for right, so also for justice; and if for that, then the remaining virtues should also be cultivated for themselves. What about liberality? Is it disinterested or mercenary? If a good man is benevolent without a reward, it is disinterested; if for payment, it is hired. There is no doubt that he who is called liberal or benevolent is following duty, not profit. Therefore, justice also elicits no reward, no repayment; therefore, it is desired for itself, and the same motive and sense exist for all virtues.

[49] And even if virtue is weighed according to its gains, not according to its own nature, there will be one virtue, which will most correctly be called badness. Insofar as each man judges what to do according to his own convenience, so little is he a good man, so that those who measure virtue by reward consider nothing to be a virtue except badness. Where is the benefactor if no one acts benevolently for another’s sake? Where is the grateful man if even those who are grateful do not respect the person to whom they return a service? Where is sacred friendship if not even the friend himself is loved for himself, with whole heart, as it is said? Even he should be deserted and cast aside when hope of gains and profits has been lost. What more monstrous thing can be said than that? But if friendship should be cultivated for itself, human fellowship, equality, and justice should also be desired for themselves. But if that is not so, there is no justice at all. For the most unjust thing of all is to seek payment for justice.

[50] What shall we say about modesty, what about temperance, what about self-control, what about a sense of shame, decency, and chastity? Are we not to be impudent for fear of infamy, or of laws and courts of law? Are persons innocent and shameful in order to hear good things [about themselves], and do they blush in order to collect good hearsay? I am ashamed to speak of chastity at this point, and I am ashamed of those philosophers who think it is [a word cannot be translated] to avoid any judgment without avoiding the vice itself.  [51] What then? Can we say that those persons are chaste who are kept from defilement by fear of infamy, although infamy itself follows from the disgrace of the matter? What can be rightly praised or disparaged if you separate from its nature what you think should be praised or disparaged? Will irregularities of the body, if they are very remarkable, give some offense, and deformity of the mind give none? The disgrace of the latter can be very easily perceived from its vices? What can be called fouler than avarice, what more monstrous than lust, what more scorned than cowardice, what more despicable than dullness and foolishness? What then? Do we say about those who are conspicuous for their individual vices, or even many vices, that they are wretched because of losses or damages or tortures, or because of the significance and the disgrace of their vices? That can be said again in the opposite [direction] as praise of virtue.

[52] Finally, if virtue is desired because of other things, necessarily there is something better than virtue. Is it then property or honors or beauty or strength? When these are present, they are very small, and it is in no way possible to know for certain how long they are going to be present. Or is it—what is most disgraceful to say—pleasure? But indeed virtue is most noticed in spurning and rejecting that.

But do you see what a series of matters and thoughts this is, how some things are woven out of another? I would slide further if I did not hold myself back.

Q: In what direction? I would gladly slide forward with you, brother, where you are leading with that speech.

M: Toward the end of good things, by which all things are judged and for the sake of obtaining which all things should be done—a disputed matter and one full of disagreement among highly educated men, but it must nevertheless be judged at some time.

[Cicero (M) is speaking in this brief segment drawing special attention to the importance of knowledge of self in the context of the whole of the universe and nature’s way and then of being able to defend the understanding gained with rhetorical abilities.]

[58] But surely the matter is such that since it is proper for the law to be the corrector of vices and the recommender of virtues, education about living is drawn from it. It so happens that [text missing] the mother of all good things, wisdom (from the love of which philosophy found its name in a Greek word).  Nothing given to human life by the immortal gods is richer, nothing is more illustrious, nothing is preferable. This alone has taught us, along with all the other things it has taught us, what is most difficult: we should know ourselves. There are such force and thought behind this precept that it was credited not to a human being but to the Delphic god.

[59] He who knows himself will think first that he has something divine, and that his own intellect within himself is like a sort of consecrated image. And he will always do and feel something worthy of such a great gift of the gods. And when he has examined and completely tested himself, he will understand how he has come into life equipped by nature and how great are the furnishings he has for obtaining and securing wisdom, since in the beginning he conceived the first, so to speak, sketchy conceptions of all things in his soul and mind. When they have been made lucid, with wisdom as leader, he discerns that he is a good man and that for this very reason he is going to be happy.

[60] When the virtues have been recognized and perceived, and when the soul has departed from the allegiance to and indulgence of the body, and has crushed pleasure like some stain of dishonor, and has escaped all fear of death and pain, and has entered the fellowship of affection with his own, and has regarded as his own all those who are joined with him by nature, and has undertaken the worship of the gods and pure religion, and has sharpened the sight of his intellect, like that of his eyes, for culling good things and rejecting the opposite (a virtue that has been called prudence from foreseeing)—what can be said or thought that is happier than that?

[61] And when the same man has examined the heaven, lands, seas, and the nature of all things, and he has seen whence they have been begotten, whither they will return, how they will perish, what in them is mortal and frail, what is divine and eternal, and he has almost grasped [the god] himself who directs and rules these things, and he has recognized that he is not surrounded by the walls of some place but is a citizen of the whole universe as if it were one city—in this magnificence of things, and with this view and knowledge of nature, O immortal gods, how he will know himself (as Pythian Apollo has instructed), how he will scorn, how he will look down upon, how he will consider as worth nothing those things that the crowd says are the most distinguished!

[62] And he will fortify all these things as if by a sort of barrier through the method of discussing, the knowledge of judging true and false, and a certain art of understanding what follows each thing and what is opposite to it. And when he senses that he has been born for political fellowship, he will think that he must use not only precise argument but also speech that is continuous and extended more broadly, through which he may rule peoples, stabilize laws, chastise the wicked, protect the good, praise famous men, issue precepts for health and fame suitable for persuading his fellow citizens, be able to urge to honor, be able to turn back others from shame, be able to console the stricken, and be able to hand down in everlasting memorials the deeds and resolutions of the courageous and the wise with the ignominy of the wicked. So many and so great are the things that are clearly seen to be present in a human being by those who want to know themselves. Their parent and educator is wisdom.


Book 2

[Book 2 opens with another approach to the foundation and true nature of law, this one starting from the divine force and mind behind all things.  Quintus is speaking initially in this excerpt.]

[7] But if it seems good, let us settle here in the shade and return to the part of the conversation where we digressed.

M: You exact [payment for a debt] splendidly, Quintus (but I thought I had escaped!), and no [debt] can be left unpaid to you.

Q: Then begin, for we are granting you the entire day.

M:  “From Jupiter the beginnings of the Muses,” as I began in my Aratean poem.

Q: What is the point of that?

M: We also must now take the beginnings of our discussion from the same [Jupiter] and from the other immortal gods.

Q: Truly well done, brother, and so it ought to happen.

[8] M: Then before we approach individual laws, let us see again the force and nature of law so that, since we must judge everything according to it, we do not occasionally slide into error in the conversation and ignore the force of its reason, by which we must mark out laws.

Q: Certainly, by Hercules, and that is the correct way of teaching.

M: Therefore, I see that this has been the opinion of very wise men: Law was not thought out by human intellects; it is not some resolution of peoples, but something eternal that rules the whole universe through the wisdom of commanding and prohibiting. So, they said, the chief and ultimate law is the mind of god compelling or forbidding all things by reason. As a result of that, the law that the gods gave to the human race has been correctly praised: it is the reason and mind of a wise being, suitable for ordering and deterring.

[9] Q: Several times already you have touched on that point. But before you come to laws concerning the organization of the people, please explain the significance of that law of heaven, so that the tide of habit may not swallow us and drag us according to the usual manner of conversation.

M: Well, Quintus, from childhood we have learned to name “If he calls into court” and other things of that sort laws.  But in fact it may be properly understood that this order, and other orders and prohibitions of peoples, have the force of calling them to deeds correctly done and calling them away from faults, a force that is not only older than the age of peoples and cities, but also coeval with that of a god protecting and ruling the heaven and the earth. [10] Well, the divine mind cannot exist without reason, nor can divine reason not have this force in prescribing by law things that are correct and depraved. The fact that it had been nowhere written that one man should stand on the bridge against all the enemy’s troops and order the bridge to be cut off from behind him does not mean that we will think any less that the famous Cocles performed such a deed in accordance with the law and command of courage. The absence of a written law at Rome concerning defilement during the reign of Lucius Tarquinius does not mean that Sextus Tarquinius did not bring force to bear upon Lucretia, daughter of Tricipitinus, contrary to that everlasting law. For reason existed, having originated from the nature of things, both impelling toward doing correctly and calling away from transgression. It did not begin to be a law precisely when it was written, but when it arose. And it arose together with the divine mind. Therefore, the true and chief law, suitable for ordering and forbidding, is the correct reason of Jupiter the Highest.

[11] Q: I agree, brother, that what is correct and true is [also eternal] and that it neither rises nor falls with the documents in which resolutions are written.

M: Therefore, as that divine mind is the highest law, so too when it is in man, it has been fully developed in the mind of the wise man. Moreover, when things have been written for peoples variously and to suit the occasion, they hold the name of laws by favor more than by substance. [Those who more precisely inquire about these things] teach that all law that can correctly be called law is praiseworthy, by arguments such as these: It is surely settled that laws have been invented for the health of citizens, the safety of cities, and the quiet and happy life of human beings, and that those who first sanctioned resolutions of this sort showed to their peoples that they would write and provide those things by which, when they were received and adopted, they would live honorably and happily, and that they would of course name “laws” those things that were thus composed and sanctioned. From this it is properly understood that those who have written down orders that were ruinous and unjust to their peoples, since they did the opposite of what they promised and claimed, provided something other than laws, so it can be clear that interpreting the name of law involves the significance and sense of choosing what is just and true.

[12] I ask you, then, Quintus, just as they [probably the Stoics] often do: If the city lacks something on account of the lack of which it should be recognized to be worth nothing, should that thing be counted among the good things?

Q: And indeed among the greatest things.

M: Moreover, shouldn’t a city lacking law be recognized to exist in no place for that very [reason]?

Q: It cannot be said [to be] otherwise.

M: Then it is necessary that law be recognized to be among the best things.

Q: I agree precisely.

[13] M: What about the fact that peoples approve many things ruinously, many things disastrously, which no more approach the name of law than if robbers consecrated certain laws in their own meeting? The instructions of physicians cannot be truly so called if in ignorance and inexperience they prescribe deadly things in place of salutary ones. Nor, even if a people accepts something ruinous, will that be a law of any kind among a people. Therefore, law is a distinction between just and unjust things, modeled on nature, the most ancient and chief of all things, to which human laws are directed that visit the wicked with punishment and defend and protect the good.

Q: I understand very clearly, and I now think that any other law must be neither recognized as nor even called a law.

[14] M: Then you think that the Titian and the Appuleian laws are not laws?

Q: Indeed, and not even the Livian.

M: And correctly, especially since they were repealed in one moment by one little line of the senate. But that law, the significance of which I have explained, can be neither eliminated nor repealed.

Q: Then of course you will propose laws that may never be repealed?


Book 3

[Cicero is speaking as M., and there is an approach being made to specific and particular applications of the true law; in this instance, the text is running up to specific legal regulations about the magistrates in the republic Cicero is structuring.]

[2] You see, then, that this is the significance of the magistrate, that he should rule over and prescribe things that are correct, advantageous, and linked to the laws. For as the laws rule over the magistrates, so the magistrates rule over the people. And it can truly be said that a magistrate is a speaking law, and a law is a silent magistrate. [3] Furthermore, nothing is so suitable to right and the condition of nature (when I say that, I want it understood that I am speaking of the law) as command, without which no home or city or nation or the whole human race can exist, nor can the entire nature of things nor the universe itself. Now the universe obeys the god, and the seas and lands obey the universe, and human life complies with the orders of the supreme law. [4] And so that I may come to things “nearer home” and more known to us: All ancient nations formerly obeyed kings. This type of command was first entrusted to the most just and wisest men, and that was extremely effective in our own republic as long as regal power ruled over it. From that time forward it was handed down in turn to their descendants, and it remains among those who reign even now. But for those whom royal power did not please, they wanted not to obey no one, but not always to obey one man. But since we are giving laws for free peoples, and since I have previously spoken in a book what I feel about the best republic, at this time I will tailor the laws to the form of city that I approve. [5] So then, there is need of magistrates, without whose prudence and diligence the city cannot exist. The entire direction of the republic is encompassed in the system involving them. Not only a mode of commanding for them must be prescribed, but also a mode of complying for the citizens. For it is necessary that he who commands well should obey at some time, and he who temperately obeys seems to be worthy of commanding at some time. And so it is proper both for him who obeys to hope that he will command at some time, and for him who commands to think that in a brief time he will have to obey. In fact we prescribe not only that they should comply with and obey the magistrates, but also that they should respectfully remember and cherish them, as Charondas establishes in his laws. Our dear Plato concluded that those who oppose magistrates belong to the race of Titans, just as the Titans oppose the heavenly beings. Since this is so, please let us now come to the laws themselves.

A: Both that, and that order of things, seem good to me.

On Duties (De Officiis), Books 1 and 3 (Excerpts)

By Cicero

[Marcus Tullius Cicero. De Officiis. Translated by Walter Miller. Loeb Edition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 1913. Books 1 and 3. (Accessed 24 May 2008). Used with permission.]

Bold numbers in brackets indicate the standard divisions in Cicero’s texts in which are found in whole or part the sections reproduced here. Bracketed words or phrases usually represent my effort to clarify a term or reference. –Walter Nicgorski


On Duties is in the form of an extended letter from Cicero to his twenty-one-year-old son, Marcus, who is, at the time, studying in Athens.  This is Cicero’s major ethical writing and his final philosophical work, done in the last year and a half of his life.  He explicitly follows, to the degree that makes sense to him, a text by the modified Stoic philosopher, Panaetius, who had direct impact in the previous century on the statesmen Scipio and Laelius.  Book 1, understandably emphasizing the importance of philosophy bearing fruit in form of moral guidance, explains the discerning of the way or law of nature in the inclinations to the virtues in human beings.

Book 1 

[4] But since I have decided to write you a little now (and a great deal by and by), I wish, if possible, to begin with a matter most suited at once to your years and to my position. Although philosophy offers many problems, both important and useful, that have been fully and carefully discussed by philosophers, those teachings which have been handed down on the subject of moral duties seem to have the widest practical application. For no phase of life, whether public or private, whether in business or in the home, whether one is working on what concerns oneself alone or dealing with another, can be without its moral duty; on the discharge of such duties depends all that is morally right, and on their neglect all that is morally wrong in life.

[5] Moreover, the subject of this inquiry is the common property of all philosophers; for who would presume to call himself a philosopher, if he did not inculcate any lessons of duty? But there are some schools that distort all notions of duty by the theories they propose touching the supreme good and the supreme evil. For he who posits the supreme good as having no connection with virtue and measures it not by a moral standard but by his own interests—if he should be consistent and not rather at times over-ruled by his better nature, he could value neither friendship nor justice nor generosity; and brave he surely cannot possibly be that counts pain the supreme evil, nor temperate he that holds pleasure to be the supreme good.

[6] Although these truths are so self-evident that the subject does not call for discussion, still I have discussed it in another connection. If, therefore these schools should claim to be consistent, they could not say anything about duty; and no fixed, invariable, natural rules of duty can be posited except by those who say that moral goodness is worth seeking solely or chiefly for its own sake. Accordingly, the teaching of ethics is the peculiar right of the Stoics, the Academicians, and the Peripatetics; for the theories of Aristo, Pyrrho, and Erillus have been long since rejected; and yet they would have the right to discuss duty if they had left us any power of choosing between things, so that there might be a way of finding out what duty is. I shall, therefore, at this time and in this investigation follow chiefly the Stoics, not as a translator, but, as is my custom, I shall at my own option and discretion draw from those sources in such measure and in such manner as shall suit my purpose.

[7] Since, therefore, the whole discussion is to be on the subject of duty, I should like at the outset to define what duty is, as, to my surprise, Panaetius has failed to do. For every systematic development of any subject ought to begin with a definition, so that everyone may understand what the discussion is about.

Every treatise on duty has two parts: one, dealing with the doctrine of the supreme good; the other with the practical rules by which daily life in all its bearings may be regulated. The following questions are illustrative of the first part: whether all duties are absolute; whether one duty is more important than another; and so on. But as regards special duties for which positive rules are laid down, though they are affected by the doctrine of the supreme good, still the fact is not so obvious, because they seem rather to look to the regulation of everyday life; and it is these special duties that I propose to treat at length in the following books.

[section 8 is extant but is omitted here]

[9] The consideration necessary to determine conduct is, therefore, as

Panaetius thinks, a threefold one: first, people question whether the contemplated act is morally right or morally wrong; and in such deliberation their minds are often led to widely divergent conclusions. And then they examine and consider the question whether the action contemplated is or is not conducive to comfort and happiness in life, to the command of means and wealth, to influence, and to power, by which they may be able to help themselves and their friends; this whole matter turns upon a question of expediency. The third type of question arises when that which seems to be expedient seems to conflict with that which is morally right; for when expediency seems to be pulling one way, while moral right seems to be calling back in the opposite direction, the result is that the mind is distracted in its inquiry and brings to it the irresolution that is born of deliberation.

[10] Although omission is a most serious defect in classification, two points have been overlooked in the foregoing: for we usually consider not only whether an action is morally right or morally wrong, but also, when a choice of two morally right courses is offered, which one is morally better; and likewise, when a choice of two expedients is offered, which one is more expedient. Thus the question which Panaetius thought threefold ought, we find, to be divided into five parts. First, therefore, we must discuss the moral—and that, under two sub-heads; secondly, in the same manner, the expedient; and finally, the cases where they must be weighed against each other.

[11] First of all, Nature has endowed every species of living creature with the instinct of self-preservation, of avoiding what seems likely to cause injury to life or limb, and of procuring and providing everything needful for life—food, shelter, and the like. A common property of all creatures is also the reproductive instinct (the purpose of which is the propagation of the species) and also a certain amount of concern for their offspring. But the most marked difference between man and beast is this: the beast, just as far as it is moved by the senses and with very little perception of past or future, adapts itself to that alone which is present at the moment; while man—because he is endowed with reason, by which he comprehends the chain of consequences, perceives the causes of things, understands the relation of cause to effect and of effect to cause, draws analogies, and connects and associates the present and the future—easily surveys the course of his whole life and makes the necessary preparations for its conduct.

[12] Nature likewise by the power of reason associates man with man in the common bonds of speech and life; she implants in him alone above all, I may say, a strangely tender love for his offspring. She also prompts men to meet in companies, to form public assemblies and to take part in them themselves; and she further dictates, as a consequence of this, the effort on man’s part to provide a store of things that minister to his comforts and wants—and not for himself alone, but for his wife and children and the others whom he holds dear and for whom he ought to provide; and this responsibility also stimulates his courage and makes it stronger for the active duties of life.

[13] Above all, the search after truth and its eager pursuit are peculiar to man. And so, when we have leisure from the demands of business cares, we are eager to see, to hear, to learn something new, and we esteem a desire to know the secrets or wonders of creation as indispensable to a happy life. Thus we come to understand that what is true, simple, and genuine appeals most strongly to a man’s nature. To this passion for discovering truth there is added a hungering, as it were, for independence, so that a mind well-moulded by Nature is unwilling to be subject to anybody save one who gives rules of conduct or is a teacher of truth or who, for the general good, rules according to justice and law. From this attitude come greatness of soul and a sense of superiority to worldly conditions.

[14] And it is no mean manifestation of Nature and Reason that man is the only animal that has a feeling for order, for propriety, for moderation in word and deed. And so no other animal has a sense of beauty, loveliness, harmony in the visible world; and Nature and Reason, extending the analogy of this from the world of sense to the world of spirit, find that beauty, consistency, order are far more to be maintained in thought and deed, and the same Nature and Reason are careful to do nothing in an improper or unmanly fashion, and in every thought and deed to do or think nothing capriciously.     

It is from these elements that is forged and fashioned that moral goodness which is the subject of this inquiry—something that, even though it be not generally ennobled, is still worthy of all honour and by its own nature, we correctly maintain, it merits praise even though it be praised by none.

[15] You see here, Marcus, my son, the very form and as it were the face of Moral Goodness; “and if,” as Plato says, “it could be seen with the physical eye, it would awaken a marvellous love of wisdom.” But all that is morally right rises from some one of four sources: it is concerned either (1) with the full perception and intelligent development of the true; or (2) with the conservation of organized society, with rendering to every man his due, and with the faithful discharge of obligations assumed; or (3) with the greatness and strength of a noble and invincible spirit; or (4) with the orderliness and moderation of everything that is said and done, wherein consist temperance and self-control.

Although these four are connected and interwoven, still it is in each one considered singly that certain definite kinds of moral duties have their origin: in that category, for instance, which was designated first in our division and in which we place wisdom and prudence, belong the search after truth and its discovery; and this is the peculiar province of that virtue. [16] For the more clearly anyone observes the most essential truth in any given case and the more quickly and accurately he can see and explain the reasons for it, the more understanding and wise he is generally esteemed, and justly so. So, then, it is truth that is, as it were, the stuff with which this virtue has to deal and on which it employs itself.

[17] Before the three remaining virtues, on the other hand, is set the task of providing and maintaining those things on which the practical business of life depends so that the relations of man to man in human society may be conserved, and that largeness and nobility of soul may be revealed not only in increasing one’s resources and acquiring advantages for one’s self and one’s family but far more in rising superior to these very things. But orderly behaviour and consistency of demeanor and self-control and the like have their sphere in that department of things in which a certain amount of physical exertion, and not mental activity merely, is required. For if we bring a certain amount of propriety and order into the transactions of daily life, we shall be conserving moral rectitude and moral dignity.

[18] Now, of the four divisions which we have made of the essential idea of moral goodness, the first, consisting in the knowledge of truth, touches human nature most closely. For we are all attracted and drawn to a zeal for learning and knowing; and we think it glorious to excel therein, while we count it base and immoral to fall into error, to wander from the truth, to be ignorant, to be led astray. In this pursuit, which is both natural and morally right, two errors are to be avoided: first, we must not treat the unknown as known and too readily accept it; and he who wishes to avoid this error (as all should do) will devote both time and attention to the weighing of evidence.  [19] The other error is that some people devote too much industry and too deep study to matters that are obscure and difficult and useless as well.

If these errors are successfully avoided, all the labour and pains expended upon problems that are morally right and worth the solving will be fully rewarded. Such a worker in the field of astronomy, for example, was Gaius Sulpicius, of whom we have heard; in mathematics, Sextus Pompey, whom I have known personally; in dialectics, many; in civil law, still more. All these professions are occupied with the search after truth; but to be drawn by study away from active life is contrary to moral duty. For the whole glory of virtue is in activity; activity, however, may often be interrupted, and many opportunities for returning to study are opened. Besides, the working of the mind, which is never at rest, can keep us busy in the pursuit of knowledge even without conscious effort on our part. Moreover, all our thought and mental activity will be devoted either to planning for things that are morally right and that conduce to a good and happy life, or to the pursuits of science and learning.

With this we close the discussion of the first source of duty.

[20] Of the three remaining divisions, the most extensive in its application is the principle by which society and what we may call its “common bonds” are maintained. Of this again there are two divisions—justice, in which is the crowning glory of the virtues and on the basis of which men are called “good men”; and, close akin to justice, charity, which may also be called kindness or generosity. The first office of justice is to keep one man from doing harm to another, unless provoked by wrong; and the next is to lead men to use common possessions for the common interests, private property for their own.

[21] There is, however, no such thing as private ownership established by nature, but property becomes private either through long occupancy (as in the case of those who long ago settled in unoccupied territory) or through conquest (is in the case of those who took it in war) or by due process of law, bargain, or purchase, or by allotment. On this principle the lands of Arpinum are said to belong to the Arpinates, the Tusculan lands to the Tusculans; and similar is the assignment of private property. Therefore, inasmuch as in each case some of those things which by nature had been common property became the property of individuals, each one should retain possession of that which has fallen to his lot; and if anyone appropriates to himself anything beyond that, he will be violating the laws of human society.

[22] 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 mutually to 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.

[23] The foundation of justice, moreover, is good faith;—that is, truth and fidelity to promises and agreements. And therefore we may follow the Stoics, who diligently investigate the etymology of words; and we may accept their statement that “good faith” is so called because what is promised is “made good,” although some may find this derivation rather farfetched.

There are, on the other hand, two kinds of injustice—the one, on the part of those who inflict wrong, the other on the part of those who, when they can, do not shield from wrong those upon whom it is being inflicted. For he who, under the influence of anger or some other passion, wrongfully assaults another seems, as it were, to be laying violent hands upon a comrade; but he who does not prevent or oppose wrong, if he can, is just as guilty of wrong as if he deserted his parents or his friends or his country. [24] Then, too, those very wrongs which people try to inflict on purpose to injure are often the result of fear: that is, he who premeditates injuring another is afraid that, if he does not do so, he may himself be made to suffer some hurt. But, for the most part, people are led to wrong-doing in order to secure some personal end; in this vice, avarice is generally the controlling motive.

[This selection from Book I picks up at a later point where Cicero is found emphasizing again the need for overcoming excessive attachment to one’s self in order to understand well what is right, and here he presents the basic rule of not doing harm and serving always the common good.]

[29] Now since we have set forth the two kinds of injustice and assigned the motives that lead to each, and since we have previously established the principles by which justice is constituted, we shall be in a position easily to decide what our duty on each occasion is, unless we are extremely self-centred; [30] for indeed it is not an easy matter to be really concerned with other people’s affairs; and yet in Terence’s play, we know, Chremes “thinks that nothing that concerns man is foreign to him.” Nevertheless, when things turn out for our own good or ill, we realize it more fully and feel it more deeply than when the same things happen to others and we see them only, as it were, in the far distance; and for this reason we judge their case differently from our own. It is, therefore, an excellent rule that they give who bid us not to do a thing, when there is a doubt whether it be right or wrong; for righteousness shines with a brilliance of its own, but doubt is a sign that we are thinking of a possible wrong.

[31] But occasions often arise, when those duties which seem most becoming to the just man and to the “good man,” as we call him, undergo a change and take on a contrary aspect. It may, for example, not be a duty to restore a trust or to fulfil a promise, and it may become right and proper sometimes to evade and not to observe what truth and honour would usually demand. For we may well be guided by those fundamental principles of justice which I laid down at the outset: first, that no harm be done to anyone; second, that the common interests be conserved. When these are modified under changed circumstances, moral duty also undergoes a change and it does not always remain the same. [32] For a given promise or agreement may turn out in such a way that its performance will prove detrimental either to the one to whom the promise has been made or to the one who has made it. If, for example, Neptune, in the drama, had not carried out his promise to Theseus, Theseus would not have lost his son Hippolytus; for, as the story runs, of the three wishes that Neptune had promised to grant him the third was this: in a fit of anger he prayed for the death of Hippolytus, and the granting of this prayer plunged him into unspeakable grief. Promises are, therefore, not to be kept, if the keeping of them is to prove harmful to those to whom you have made them; and, if the fulfilment of a promise should do more harm to you than good to him to whom you have made it, it is no violation of moral duty to give the greater good precedence over the lesser good. For example, if you have made an appointment with anyone to appear as his advocate in court, and if in the meantime your son should fall dangerously ill, it would be no breach of your moral duty to fail in what you agreed to do; nay, rather, he to whom your promise was given would have a false conception of duty if he should complain that he had been deserted in time of need. Further than this, who fails to see that those promises are not binding which are extorted by intimidation or which we make when misled by false pretences? Such obligations are annulled in most cases by the praetor’s edict in equity, in some cases by the laws.

[Shortly after in the complete text, the selection below follows, and here Cicero is found discussing the application of the standard of right to retribution, punishment and warfare.]

[33] Again, there are certain duties that we owe even to those who have wronged us. For there is a limit to retribution and to punishment; or rather, I am inclined to think, it is sufficient that the aggressor should be brought to repent of his wrong-doing, in order that he may not repeat the offence and that others may be deterred from doing wrong.

[34] Then, too, in the case of a state in its external relations, the rights of war must be strictly observed. For since there are two ways of settling a dispute: first, by discussion; second; by physical force; and since the former is characteristic of man, the latter of the brute, we must resort to force only in case we may not avail ourselves of discussion. [35] The only excuse, therefore, for going to war is that we may live in peace unharmed; and when the victory is won, we should spare those who have not been blood-thirsty and barbarous in their warfare. For instance, our forefathers actually admitted to full rights of citizenship the Tusculans, Acquians, Volscians, Sabines, and Hernicians, but they razed Carthage and Numantia to the ground. I wish they had not destroyed Corinth; but I believe they had some special reason for what they did—its convenient situation, probably—and feared that its very location might some day furnish a temptation to renew the war. In my opinion, at least, we should always strive to secure a peace that shall not admit of guile. And if my advice had been heeded on this point, we should still have at least some sort of constitutional government, if not the best in the world, whereas, as it is, we have none at all.

Not only must we show consideration for those whom we have conquered by force of arms but we must also ensure protection to those who lay down their arms and throw themselves upon the mercy of our generals, even though the battering-ram has hammered at their walls. And among our countrymen justice has been observed so conscientiously in this direction, that those who have given promise of protection to states or nations subdued in war become, after the custom of our forefathers, the patrons of those states.

[36] As for war, humane laws touching it are drawn up in the fetial code of the Roman People under all the guarantees of religion; and from this it may be gathered that no war is just, unless it is entered upon after an official demand for satisfaction has been submitted or warning has been given and a formal declaration made. Popilius was general in command of a province. In his army Cato’s son was serving on his first campaign. When Popilius decided to disband one of his legions, he discharged also young Cato, who was serving in that same legion. But when the young man out of love for the service stayed on in the field, his father wrote to Popilius to say that if he let him stay in the army, he should swear him into service with a new oath of allegiance, for in view of the voidance of his former oath he could not legally fight the foe. So extremely scrupulous was the observance of the laws in regard to the conduct of war. [37] There is extant, too, a letter of the elder Marcus Cato to his son Marcus, in which he writes that he has heard that the youth has been discharged by the consul, when he was serving in Macedonia in the war with Perseus. He warns him, therefore, to be careful not to go into battle; for, he says, the man who is not legally a soldier has no right to be fighting the foe.

[Shortly after this point in the complete text some important passages on the requisites of justice and the often later utilized images of the lion and fox appear.]

[41] But let us remember that we must have regard for justice even towards the humblest. Now the humblest station and the poorest fortune are those of slaves; and they give us no bad rule who bid us treat our slaves as we should our employees: they must be required to work; they must be given their dues.

While wrong may be done, then, in either of two ways, that is, by force or by fraud, both are bestial: fraud seems to belong to the cunning fox, force to the lion; both are wholly unworthy of man, but fraud is the more contemptible. But of all forms of injustice, none is more flagrant than that of the hypocrite who, at the very moment when he is most false, makes it his business to appear virtuous.

[The next selection from the full text finds Cicero treating the fellowship of the entire human community, the various levels or kinds of community and the special nature of friendship.  Among all men, he emphasizes the special claim of attending to real need when deciding how to bestow favors and seeks to distinguish and even rank the obligations humans have to the various communities to which they belong.]

[47] But as to the affection which anyone may have for us, it is the first demand of duty that we do most for him who loves us most; but we should measure affection, not like youngsters, by the ardour of its passion, but rather by its strength and constancy. But if there shall be obligations already incurred, so that kindness is not to begin with us, but to be requited, still greater diligence, it seems, is called for; for no duty is more imperative that that of proving one’s gratitude.

[48] But if, as Hesiod bids, one is to repay with interest, if possible, what one has borrowed in time of need, what, pray, ought we to do when challenged by an unsought kindness? Shall we not imitate the fruitful fields, which return more than they receive? For if we do not hesitate to confer favours upon those who we hope will be of help to us, how ought we to deal with those who have already helped us? For generosity is of two kinds: doing a kindness and requiting one. Whether we do the kindness or not is optional; but to fail to requite one is not allowable to a good man, provided he can make the requital without violating the rights of others.

[49] Furthermore, we must make some discrimination between favours received; for, as a matter of course the greater the favour, the greater is the obligation. But in deciding this we must above all give due weight to the spirit, the devotion, the affection that prompted the favour. For many people often do favours impulsively for everybody without discrimination, prompted by a morbid sort of benevolence or by a sudden impulse of the heart, shifting the wind. Such acts of generosity are not to be so highly esteemed as those which are performed with judgment deliberation, and mature consideration.

But in bestowing a kindness, as well as in making a requital, the first rule of duty requires us—other things being equal—to lend assistance preferably to people in proportion to their individual need. Most people adopt the contrary course: they put themselves most eagerly at the service of the one from whom they hope to receive the greatest favours even though he has no need of their help.

[50] The interests of society, however, and its common bonds will be best conserved, if kindness be shown to each individual in proportion to the closeness of his relationship.

But it seems we must trace back to their ultimate sources the principles of fellowship and society that Nature has established among men. The first principle is that which is found in the connection subsisting between all the members of the human race; and that bond of connection is reason and speech, which by the processes of teaching and learning, of communicating, discussing, and reasoning associate men together and unite them in a sort of natural fraternity. In no other particular are we farther removed from the nature of beasts; for we admit that they may have courage (horses and lions, for example); but we do not admit that they have justice, equity, and goodness; for they are not endowed with reason or speech.

[51] This, then, is the most comprehensive bond that unites together men as men and all to all; and under it the common right to all things that Nature has produced for the common use of man is to be maintained, with the understanding that, while everything assigned as private property by the statutes and by civil law shall be so held as prescribed by those same laws, everything else shall be regarded in the light indicated by the Greek proverb: “Amongst friends all things in common.” Furthermore, we find the common property of all men in things of the sort defined by Ennius; and, though restricted by him to one instance, the principle may be applied very generally:

Who kindly sets a wand’rer on his way
Does e’en as if he lit another’s lamp by his:
No less shines his, when he his friend’s hath lit.

In this example he effectively teaches us all to bestow even upon a stranger what it costs us nothing to give.  [52] On this principle we have the following maxims: “Deny no one the water that flows by;” “Let anyone who will take fire from our fire;” “Honest counsel give to one who is in doubt;” for such acts are useful to the recipient and cause the giver no loss. We should, therefore, adopt these principles and always be contributing something to the common weal. But since the resources of individuals are limited and the number of the needy is infinite, this spirit of universal liberality must be regulated according to that test of Ennius—“No less shines his”—in order that we may continue to have the means for being generous to our friends.

[53] Then, too, there are a great many degrees of closeness or remoteness in human society. To proceed beyond the universal bond of our common humanity, there is the closer one of belonging to the same people, tribe, and tongue, by which men are very closely bound together; it is a still closer relation to be citizens of the same city-state; for fellow-citizens have much in common—forum, temples colonnades, streets, statutes, laws, courts, rights of suffrage, to say nothing of social and friendly circles and diverse business relations with many.

But a still closer social union exists between kindred. Starting with that infinite bond of union of the human race in general, the conception is now confined to a small and narrow circle. [54] For since the reproductive instinct is by Nature’s gift the common possession of all living creatures, the first bond of union is that between husband and wife; the next, that between parents and children; then we find one home, with everything in common. And this is the foundation of civil government, the nursery, as it were, of the state. Then follow the bonds between brothers and sisters, and next those of first and then of second cousins; and when they can no longer be sheltered under one roof, they go out into other homes, as into colonies. Then follow between these in turn, marriages and connections by marriage, and from these again a new stock of relations; and from this propagation and after-growth states have their beginnings. The bonds of common blood hold men fast through good-will and affection; [55] for it means much to share in common the same family traditions the same forms of domestic worship, and the same ancestral tombs. But of all the bonds of fellowship, there is none more noble, none more powerful than when good men of congenial character are joined in intimate friendship; for really, if we discover in another that moral goodness on which I dwell so much, it attracts us and makes us friends to the one in whose character it seems to dwell. [56] And while every virtue attracts us and makes us love those who seem to possess it, still justice and generosity do so most of all. Nothing, moreover, is more conducive to love and intimacy than compatibility of character in good men; for when two people have the same ideals and the same tastes, it is a natural consequence that each loves the other as himself; and the result is, as Pythagoras requires of ideal friendship, that several are united in one.

Another strong bond of fellowship is effected by mutual interchange of kind services; and as long as these kindnesses are mutual and acceptable, those between whom they are interchanged are united by the ties of an enduring intimacy.

[57] But when with a rational spirit you have surveyed the whole field, there is no social relation among them all more close, none more dear than that which links each one of us with our country.  Parents are dear; dear are children, relatives, friends; one native land embraces all our loves; and who that is true would hesitate to give his life for her, if by his death he could render her a service? So much the more execrable are those monsters who have torn their fatherland to pieces with every form of outrage and who are and have been engaged in compassing her utter destruction.

[58] Now, if a contrast and comparison were to be made to find out where most of our moral obligation is due, country would come first, and parents; for their services have laid us under the heaviest obligation; next come children and the whole family, who look to us alone for support and can have no other protection; finally, our kinsmen, with whom we live on good terms and with whom, for the most part, our lot is one.

All needful material assistance is, therefore, due first of all to those whom I have named; but intimate relationship of life and living, counsel, conversation, encouragement, comfort, and sometimes even reproof flourish best in friendships. And that friendship is sweetest which is cemented by congeniality of character.

[In a series of passages below from the remainder of Book I Cicero eloquently restates some his basic principles and perspectives on a dutiful life.  New here is his exploration in §107 of the difference between the universal nature and particular nature with which each person is endowed.]

[98] The poets will observe, therefore, amid a great variety of characters, what is suitable and proper for all—even for the bad. But to us Nature has assigned the roles of steadfastness, temperance, self-control, and considerateness of others; Nature also teaches us not to be careless in our behaviour towards our fellow-men. Hence we may clearly see how wide is the application not only of that propriety which is essential to moral rectitude in general, but also of the special propriety which is displayed in each particular subdivision of virtue. For, as physical beauty with harmonious symmetry of the limbs engages the attention and delights the eye, for the very reason that all the parts combine in harmony and grace, so this propriety, which shines out in our conduct, engages the approbation of our fellow-men by the order, consistency, and self-control it imposes upon every word and deed.

[99] We should, therefore, in our dealings with people show what I may almost call reverence toward all men—not only toward the men who are the best, but toward others as well. For indifference to public opinion implies not merely self-sufficiency, but even total lack of principle. There is, too, a difference between justice and considerateness in one’s relations to one’s fellow-men. It is the function of justice not to do wrong to one’s fellow-men; of considerateness, not to wound their feelings; and in this the essence of propriety is best seen.

With the foregoing exposition, I think it is clear what the nature is of what we term propriety.

[100] Further, as to the duty which has its source in propriety, the first road on which it conducts us leads to harmony with Nature and the faithful observance of her laws. If we follow Nature as our guide, we shall never go astray, but we shall be pursuing that which is in its nature clear-sighted and penetrating (Wisdom), that which is adapted to promote and strengthen society (Justice), and that which is strong and courageous (Fortitude). But the very essence of propriety is found in the division of virtue which is now under discussion (Temperance). For it is only when they agree with Nature’s laws that we should give our approval to the movements not only of the body, but still more of the spirit.

[101] Now we find that the essential activity of the spirit is twofold: one force is appetite (that is,  hormé, in Greek), which impels a man this way and that; the other is reason, which teaches and explains what should be done and what should be left undone. The result is that reason commands, appetite obeys.

Again, every action ought to be free from undue haste or carelessness; neither ought we to do anything for which we cannot assign a reasonable motive; for in these words we have practically a definition of duty.

[102] The appetites, moreover, must be made to obey the reins of reason and neither allowed to run ahead of it nor from listlessness or indolence to lag behind; but people should enjoy calm of soul and be free from every sort of passion. As a result strength of character and self-control will shine forth in all their lustre. For when appetites overstep their bounds and, galloping away, so to speak, whether in desire or aversion, are not well held in hand by reason, they clearly overleap all bound and measure; for they throw obedience off and leave it behind and refuse to obey the reins of reason, to which they are subject by Nature’s laws. And not only minds but bodies as well are disordered by such appetites. We need only to look at the faces of men in a rage or under the influence of some passion or fear or beside themselves with extravagant joy: in every instance their features, voices, motions, attitudes undergo a change.

[107] 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 propriety are derived, and upon it depends the rational method of ascertaining our duty. The other character is the one that is assigned to individuals in particular. In the matter of physical endowment there are great differences: some, we see, excel in speed for the race, others in strength for wrestling; so in point of personal appearance, some have stateliness, others comeliness. Diversities of character are greater still.

[158] 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 other 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.


Book 3  

[In Book 2 Cicero has explored the appeal, from the justifiable to the excessive, of the useful or expedient.  In the third and final book of On Duties Cicero argues that following nature is to embrace the path of virtue and right as the truly expedient.  He insists that the human being can and ought progress in his ability to recognize, even in perplexing cases, the identity of the right and the expedient.  The few passages below from Book 3 are statements found in this book especially relevant to the law of nature and its realization as a guide in human life.]

[13] Furthermore, when the Stoics speak of the supreme good as “living conformably to Nature,” they mean, as I take it, something like this: that we are always to be in accord with virtue, and from all other things that may be in harmony with Nature to choose only such as are not incompatible with virtue. This being so, some people are of the opinion that it was not right to introduce this counterbalancing of right and expediency and that no practical instruction should have been given on this question at all. And yet moral goodness, in the true and proper sense of the term, is the exclusive possession of the wise and can never be separated from virtue; but those who have not perfect wisdom cannot possibly have perfect moral goodness, but only a semblance of it. [14] And indeed these duties under discussion in these books the Stoics call “mean duties”; they are a common possession and have wide application; and many people attain to the knowledge of them through natural goodness of heart and through advancement in learning.

[17] For these reasons it is unlawful either to weigh true morality against conflicting expediency, or common morality, which is cultivated by those who wish to be considered good men, against what is profitable; 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.

[30] For, if merely, for one’s own benefit one were to take something away from a man, though he were a perfectly worthless fellow, it would be an act of meanness and contrary to Nature’s law. But suppose one would be able, by remaining alive, to render signal service to the state and to human society—if from that motive one should take something from another, it would not be a matter for censure. But, if such is not the case, each one must bear his own burden of distress rather than rob a neighbour of his rights. We are not to say, therefore, that sickness or want or any evil of that sort is more repugnant to Nature than to covet and to appropriate what is one’s neighbour’s; but we do maintain that disregard of the common interests is repugnant to Nature; for it is unjust. [31] And therefore Nature’s law itself, which protects and conserves human interests, will surely determine that a man who is wise, good, and brave, should in emergency have the necessaries of life transferred to him from a person who is idle and worthless; for the good man’s death would be a heavy loss to the common weal; only let him beware that self-esteem and self-love do not find in such a transfer of possessions a pretext for wrong-doing. But, thus guided in his decision, the good man will always perform his duty, promoting the general interests of human society on which I am so fond of dwelling.

[68] Now the law disposes of sharp practices in one way, philosophers in another: the law deals with them as far as it can lay its strong arm upon them; philosophers, as far as they can be apprehended by reason and conscience. Now reason demands that nothing be done with unfairness, with false pretence, or with misrepresentation. Is it not deception, then, to set snares, even if one does not mean to start the game or to drive it into them? Why, wild creatures often fall into snares undriven and unpursued. Could one in the same way advertise a house for sale, post up a notice “To be-sold,” like a snare, and have somebody run into it unsuspecting?

[69] Owing to the low ebb of public sentiment, such a method of procedure, I find, is neither by custom accounted morally wrong nor forbidden either by statute or by civil law; nevertheless it is forbidden by the moral law [law of nature (naturae lege)]. For there is a bond of fellowship—although I have often made this statement, I must still repeat it again and again—which has the very widest application, uniting all men together and each to each. This bond of union is closer between those who belong to the same nation, and more intimate still between those who are citizens of the same city-state. It is for this reason that our forefathers chose to understand one thing by the universal law and another by the civil law. The civil law is not necessarily also the universal law; but the universal law ought to be also the civil law. But we possess no substantial, life-like image of true Law and genuine Justice; a mere outline sketch is all that we enjoy. I only wish that we were true even to this; for, even as it is, it is drawn from the excellent models which Nature and Truth afford.