La Mort de César (ca. 1859–1867) by Jean-Léon Gérôme, depicting the aftermath of the attack with Caesar's body abandoned in the foreground as the senators exult.
La Mort de César (ca. 1859–1867) by Jean-Léon Gérôme, depicting the aftermath of the attack with Caesar’s body abandoned in the foreground as the senators exult. Wiki.

Listers, “few of those who have sought to present a systematic account of the development of political philosophy have attached great importance to Cicero’s political thought.”1 Marcus Tullius Cicero, born January 3, 106 BC, was a Roman politician, lawyer, and an incredible rhetorician whose career marks the last days of the Roman Republic. Serving as consul for the Republic in 63 BC, Cicero brought down the Catiline conspiracy and was awarded the Pater Patriae honor, “Father of the Fatherland” for his effort to save the Republic. Afterward, his career would be tethered to rise and fall of Julius Caesar and its effect upon Rome. After refusing to partner with Julius Caesar, Circero fell into exile due to having executed some of the conspirators of the Catiline conspiracy, Roman citizens, without a trial. Eventually returning to politics, Cicero favored Pompey against Julius Caesar in the Roman Civil War. Caesar, however, was triumphant and exercised a increasingly regal (or imperial) power over Rome. Cicero’s opposition to Julius Caesar and to his unilateral authority was well known; however, Cicero was not among the conspirators who assassinated Caesar. Cicero, however, praised the act and went as far to say to one of the assassins, “How I could wish that you had invited me to that most glorious banquet on the Ides of March.” 2 The power vacuum was soon filled by Mark Antony and Octavian, the adopted son of Caesar. A long time enemy of Cicero, Mark Antony had Cicero assassinated on December 7, 43 BC.

While the gravity of Cicero the Statesman is without question, the seriousness of Cicero the Philosopher, as stated in the opening line, is generally overlooked. “A statesman and a serious student of philosophy, Cicero sought in his writings to place his considerable talent and experience as a rhetorician in the service of philosophy, in the service of what he suggested was ‘the richest, the most bounteous, and the most exalted gift of the immortal gods to humanity.’”3 To wit, “his task, as he conceived it, was to introduce philosophy to Rome.”4 As a statesmen, Cicero “was aware of the ultimate dependence of philosophy on the city, and thus of the necessity for philosophy, if it was to survive, to concern itself with the development of a healthy political order.”5 He understood, better than many, that the philosopher must “direct his efforts… to the improvement of the health of a given political order, rather than to its destruction.”6 Cicero’s understanding of the reality of politics permeates his philosophical understanding, as Cicero the Statesman allows Cicero the Philosopher to offer a unique insight within political philosophy.

Reading Questions

Book One

  1. What is the pupose of De Officiis? Who is Cicero’s intended audience?

  2. What are the primary schools of philosophy mentioned in De Officiis? How does each differ in respect to the final end, the ultimate good? To which school does Cicero primarily adhere? To which teacher? What unique contribution does Cicero bring to his preferred school?

  3. What does Officium mean? How did Cicero impact the understanding of officium in the Western tradition? What are the different types of duty? Are all duties available to all people? What are three deliberations in deciding how to be dutiful?

  4. Why does Cicero begin his discussion on the four virtues with the nature of man? What are the natural inclinations of men? What is virtue for Cicero and the Stoics? What are the four virtues?

  5. What is the virtue of wisdom according to Cicero? What faults should be avoided?

  6. What are the two parts of social virtue according to Cicero? What are the two parts of justice? What are the two corresponding parts of injustice? How does Cicero indirectly justify the assassination of Julius Caesar? What persons within society does Cicero use as examples for not contributing toward the common good? How could they contribute?

  7. What are the three ways beneficence or liberality is practiced according to Cicero? Can liberality be practiced without justice? What is Cicero’s rule on giving and receiving acts of kindness? What restriction does Cicero place upon liberality?

  8. What is greatness of spirit according to Cicero? What are two ways greatness of spirit can be shown? Does Cicero hold military greatness or civic (political) greatness to be superior?

  9. What is the virtue of seemliness according to Cicero? What are some practical considerations he offers to his son? How does Cicero summarize seemliness in three parts? What analogy does he use to discuss a self-examination of the soul?

Book Two

  1. What is the purpose of Book Two? How does Book Two relate to Books One and Three? What two primary inquiries does Cicero submit? What is the relationship between the beneficial and the honorable?

  2. How does Cicero compare natural disasters to war? What three practical points does he offer for attaining virtue? What is the role of fortune and how does the virtuous man prepare?

  3. Does Cicero believe it is better for a man to be feared or loved? How does he justify his position? How does Cicero believe a leadership of fear has affected Rome?

  4. How should one balance liberality and public service? What vice should be avoided? How do the populares, in the view of Cicero, demonstrate a disordered liberality?

Book Three

  1. What is the purpose of Book Three in light of Books One and Two?

  2. Does Cicero believe there is a conflict between the beneficial and the honorable in killing a tyrant? What is the law of nations? What is the rule of procedure? Could a good man, who is dying from the cold, rob a tyrant of his clothes in order to live? Could a good man, who benefits the fellowship of man, kill a tyrant?

Questions & Answers

Book One

1. What is the Purpose of De Officiis?

Cicero’s work De Officiis or On Duties was written in 44 BC placing it after the assassination of Julius Caesar and approximately a year before the assassination of Cicero. The text takes the form of three letters or “books” addressed by Cicero to his son, Cicero the Younger. It is generally agreed, however, that due to the style and scope of the work, Cicero intended the works to be shared with a larger audience. In On Duties, the seasoned veteran of Roman politics shares with his son the duties, benefits, and honors of a good Roman life. As stated above, the advice of Cicero is a unique blending of Roman pragmatism with Greek philosophy—especially Stoicism. The passing on of good philosophy to Cicero the Younger is a notable purpose in On Duties, and, as such, it is important that the reader understand the basic distinctions between the then popular schools of philosophy.

2. What Schools of Philosophy Influence Cicero?

The Hellenistic doctrines of the various schools may be best distinguished by one question - “What is the end of life?”7 In the school of the Stoics, it was “held that the end of life was virtue; virtue was the only thing that was good, and to live well was to live virtuously. Conversely, vice was the only evil. External advantages, health, wealth, and so on, were not good, but merely ‘preferable’; sickness, poverty, even death, not bad but ‘unpreferable.’”8 The Stoic distinction of whether a thing is virtuous or whether it is only preferable (advantageous, beneficial, etc.) is an important philosphic principle to understand while reading On Duties.9 The Epicurean camp “took pleasure to be the end of life, and argued that the virtues should be valued because, and in so far as, they provided one with pleasure.”10 It is also notable that in contrast to Cicero the Statesman, the Epicurean man “avoided public life except in an emergency.”11 Next, “the Academy that Plato founded in Athens continued in existence there at least until Philo of Larissa fled to Rome to escape the invasions of Mithridates of Plontus in 88 BC.”12 The Academy, however, had drifted into what could be called the New Academy, which was marked by a deep skepticism that “held no positive doctrines”—a contrast to the Old Academy founded on the perceived dogmas of Plato.13 In fact, “Cicero’s own teacher, Philo, held a modified skepticism: one could not seek certain knowledge, but should provisionally accept the view that, after examining the arguments, seems the most persuasive.”14 It is argued that “in Cicero’s eyes the ethics of the Old Academy and of the Peripatetics (Aristotelians) were practically the same: both held that virtue was the greatest good, but that external goods were also of real, though minor, value.”15

The question of “what is the end of life?” is a question of what is the good that is to be pursued. In turn, it is the good to be pursued, the end, that informs the method of pursuit—that is, how man should act or rather what is moral? Cicero, by his own admission, primarily adheres to Panaetius (185-110 BC), a Greek and Stoic philosopher. Cicero’s adherence to Panaetius, however, raises a fundamental question—why did Cicero not simply send his son Panaetius’ treatise on duties?16 The answer may lie in the Stoic distinction between what is virtuous and what is preferable (beneficial, noble, useful, expedient). In short, while Panaetius discussed the virtuous compared to the preferable, he “did not discuss the variety of noble things, for example, the question [of] which noble thing is preferable to another noble thing, and which useful thing is preferable to another useful thing.”17 The comparison of noble things is a question Cicero takes up in his On Duties, and it represents a notable “deviation” from the Stoic Panaetius.18

3. What is meant by Officium in De Officiis?

The Latin term used by Cicero—officium, offici—primarily means duty or obligation, but can also mean, in a second sense, kindness. It is posited that the “pre-philosophical usage” of officium was similar to a favor or to gratify someone.19 Moreover, it was probably Cicero, who, seeking to import Greek philosophy to the Rome, recontextualized or at least made popular the definition of officium as duty.20 Notably, “one can say that the term officium or its Greek equivalent does not play any role in Plato and Aristotle,” but, post-Cicero, the Western/Latin philosophic literature largely adopts the idea of officium as duty.21

In defining duties, Cicero posits a division between “middle” and “complete.”22 By complete or perfect duties, Cicero means simply that which is correct or right.23 The perfect duty is reserved to the “wise man, who fully possesses every virtue” and can thus “perform a right action.”24 The middle duties are those that can be performed by the wise and ordinary man alike; thus, the middle duties are also called the shared or common duties.25 The shared duties, on a preliminary level, seem to be an “appropriate act” according to the person’s station in life.26 The distinction between the perfect duty (right act) and the common duty (appropriate act) is rooted in the “Socratic teaching [that] virtue is knowledge. If virtue is knowledge, only the wise man can be virtuous. This is virtue strictly speaking.”27 What is needed, then, is a “lower conception of virtue, and this is in terms of people who are not wise.”28 Cicero, in writing to his young son, is primarily concerned with common duty. 29 With the common duty in mind, Cicero submits three deliberations “when deciding a plan of action.”30 First, consideration of what is honorable or dishonorable; second, reasoning whether a thing is beneficial; and third, the deliberation of “when something apparently beneficial appears to conflict with what is honorable.”31

4. What are the Four Virtues according to Cicero?

As an introduction to the four virtues, Cicero discusses nature and the nature of man. In short, the common or shared duty is appropriate action in accordance with one’s nature and station; thus, it is fitting that Cicero begins his discussion on shared duty by defining the nature of man. Man cannot act appropriately if he does not understand his nature. 32 Cicero holds that man by nature is inclined to self-preservation, to procreation, and to a “particular love for his offspring.”33 Though other animals share these inclinations, Cicero submits that the “great difference between man and beast” is man’s ability to reason; thus, man, as a rational animal, orders his inclinations according to reason.34 In fact, “man, being radically distinguished from the brutes, reaches his perfection by developing most fully that which is peculiar to him”—reason.35

What is a virtue for Cicero? Unlike virtue as a habituation to the good, as in Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, the Stoic concept of virtue was more akin to having a “healthy mind.”36 It was a mind that “could stand any crisis without losing its health.”37 A virtuous man would have the strength of mind, the health of mind, to face any crisis.38 The four virtues are wisdom, sociality, greatness of spirit, and moderation. On wisdom, Cicero states, “the search for truth and its investigation are, above all, peculiar to man,” and “therefore, whenever we are free from necessary business and other concerns we are eager to see or to hear or to learn, considering that the discovery of obscure or wonderful thigns is necessary for a blessed life.”39 On the social virtue or sociality, Cicero argues for a twofold understanding: justice and liberality.40 On greatness of spirit, Cicero presents a virtue akin to fortitude or courage but “in a wide way” to include “strength of mind.”41 In fact, it “implies in it what Aristotle understood by magnanimity.”42 On moderation, he submits a virtue akin to temperance, a “control of the desires.”43 Overall, “what Cicero says about the nature of man is really the common classical teaching.”44 Cicero’s exploration into these four virtues structures the remainder of Book One.

5. What is Wisdom according to Cicero?

Cicero states, the virtue of wisdom, “that consisting of the learning of truth, most closely relates to human nature. For all of us feel the pull that leads us to desire to learn and to know; we think it a fine thing to excel in this, while considering it bad and dishonorable to stumble, to wander, to be ignorant, to be decieved.”45 Cicero then warns his son of two faults one must avoid concerning wisdom. First, “we should not take things that have not been ascertained for things that have, and rashly assent to them.”46 Second, “some men bestow excessive devotion and effort upon matters that are both abstruse and difficult, and unnecessary.”47 With these faults avoided, Cicero tells his son that his “effort and care that is given to things honorable and worth learning will rightly be praised.”48

6. What is Justice, a part of the Social Virtue, according to Cicero?

Each virtue is by nature a source of duty, of understanding appropriate action. The social virtue is the “most wide-reaching one” and is the “reasoning by which the fellowship of men with one another, and the communal life, are held together.”49 Cicero holds that the social virtue is in two parts: first, there is justice “the most illustrious of the virtues, on account of which men are called ‘good’,” and second, “the beneficence connected with it, which may be called either kindness or liberality.”50 On justice, Cicero gives his son two broad duties: first, “no man should harm another unless he has been provoked by injustice,” and second, “one should treat common goods as common and private ones as one’s own.”51 The first duty is a negative, to refrain from injustice, while the second duty is a positive, as to treat common property as common is to help all those who hold it in common.52 On the latter, the positive duty to help persons, Cicero gives a beautiful passage on the natural need for persons to contribute toward the common good:

Moreover, as the Stoics believe, everything produced on the earth is created for the use of mankind, and men are born for the sake of men, so that they may be able to assist one another. Consequently, we ought in this to follow nature as our leader, to contribute to the common stock the things that benefit everyone together, and, by the exchange of dutiful services, by giving and receiving expertise and effort and means, to bind fast the fellowship of men with each other. On Duties, I.22.

In opposition to the two aspects of justice, Cicero posits a twofold injustice. He states, “Men may inflict injury; or else, when it is being inflicted upon others, they may fail to deflect it, even though they could.”53 Cicero goes on to lament the effect of avarice upon the soul, and observes that the result of avarice upon his fellow Romans “is that desire for money has become unlimited.”54 He also laments how men, “overwhelmed by forgetfulness of justice,” seek “positions of command or honor or glory.”55 Notably, he uses Julius Caesar as the example of this injustice par excellence, stating, “the rash behavior of Gaius [Julius] Caesar has recently made that clear: he overturned all the laws of gods and men for the sake of the pre-eminence that he had imagined for himself in his mistaken fancy.”56 It is hard not to read this passage as an indirect justification for the assassination of Caesar. Lastly, Cicero gives two other examples of injustice against the common good—the unjust philosopher and the unjust rich man. Cicero states that philosophers, the wise men, entrenched in their learning, “abandon those they ought to protect.”57 Similarly, those who have acquired great personal wealth and “abandon the fellowship of life, because they contribute to it nothing of their devotion, nothing of their effort, nothing of their means.”58 In sum, for Cicero, to be just, it is not enough to refrain from committing a injustice toward others; the just man must also proactively contribute toward the common good.59

7. What is Beneficence, the second part of sociality, according to Cicero?

On Beneficence and liberality, which “nothing is more suited to human nature than this,” Cicero gives a threefold explanation: “For first one must see that kindness harms neither the very people whom one seems to be treating kindly, nor others; next, that one’s kindness does not exceed one’s capabilities; and then, that kindness is bestowed upon each person according to his standing.”60 It is important to note that at all times Cicero holds justice and beneficence (liberality, kindness, etc.) together. He draws from the Stoic tradition, which the broader classical tradition agrees, that justice is giving each other his or her due.61 He also clearly states that “nothing is liberal if it is not also just.”62 On being kind to others, Cicero gives the following exhortation to his son:

There are two aspects of liberality: first, granting a kind service, and secondly, returning it. Whether we grant one or not is up to us. A good man, however, is not permitted to fail to return one (provided, of course, that he can do so without injustice).

Cicero turns his attention to liberality in the context of human fellowship. He speaks on how men are bound together by nature in reason and speech.63 To demonstrate the principle of liberality, he quotes Ennius:

A man who kindly shows the path to someone who is lost lights another’s light, so to speak, from his own. For his own shines no less because he has lit another’s.

Cicero takes Ennius’ statement quite literally as he exhorts his son to be generous as long as it is “without detriment to oneself.”64 He can share fresh water, fire, and counsel, things that if given, according to Cicero, do not cause a detriment to the giver.65 Kindness, however, should not harm one’s own resources. Overall the twofold duty of liberality may be summarized as “the restriction on our obligation to mankind in general, that we do not harm our own interests, is balanced by that on our pursuit of those interests, that we should not damage anyone’s else’s.”66

8. What is Greatness of Spirit according to Cicero?

Cicero states, “if the loftiness of spirit that reveals itself amid danger and toil is empty of justice, if it fights not for the common safety but for its own advantages, it is a vice.”67 He continues, “It is not merely unvirtuous; it is rather a savagery which repels all civilized feeling.”68 In this context, Cicero states “the Stoics define courage well when they call it the virtue which fights on behalf of fairness.”69 Cicero warns Cicero the Younger, “the more outstanding an individual is in greatness of spirit, the more he desires complete pre-eminence, or rather to be the sole ruler.”70 He continues, “but when you desire to surpass all others, it is difficult to respect the fairness that is a special mark of justice.”71 In these warnings “the allusion to Caesar’s autocracy is clear,” thus, Cicero, again, uses Julius Caesar as one who failed in duty.72 No matter the greatness or the splendor, Cicero states, “there is no occasion from which justice should be absent.”73

Cicero gives, in general, two ways in which loftiness of spirit is shown. First, “in disdain for things external, in the conviction that a man should admire, should choose, should pursue nothing except what is honorable and seemly,” and second, “should yield to no man, nor to agitation of the spirit, nor to fortune.”74 Cicero’s exhortation to disdain externalities is most certainly informed by the Stoic principle that only virtue is truly good. In short, “the Stoics thought happiness could be achieved by becoming independent of external circumstances through the realization that nothing is really good but virtue which is in our control.”75 It is worth noting that in his discussion on greatness of spirit, Cicero takes on the belief that “military affairs are of greater significance than civic.”76 Among his arguments, he quips, “Arms have little effect abroad if there is no counsel at home.”77 His entire argument appears to lead to him encouraging his son to follow in his footsteps: “For yours it is both to inherit my glory and to imitate my deeds.”78 In sum, he states, “it is the mark of a truly brave and constant spirit that one remain unperturbed in difficult times, and when agitated not be thrown, as the saying goes, off one’s feet, but rather hold fast to reason, with one’s spirit and counsel ready to hand.”79

9. What is the virtue of Seemliness according to Cicero?

The last “remaining element of honorableness,” Cicero takes up the virtue of seemliness or “what one might call the ordered beauty of a life, restraint and modesty, a calming of all the agitations of the spirit, and due measure in all things.”80 For Cicero, seemliness is the moderation, self-control, and temperance that bridles our passions, our impulses. He states succinctly, “reason therefore commands, and impulse obeys.”81 Moreover, “all impulses should be controlled and calmed, that our attention and forethought should be aroused in such a way that we do nothing rashly or at random, without consideration or care.”82 The idea of duty, the common duty, as “appropriate action,” surfaces considerably when discussing seemliness. Cicero tells his son how to tell jokes, to chose a career, to have an honorable appearance, to speak well, to converse well, and how to have an ordered home.83 After a series of practical advice, Cicero sums up the virtue of seemliness in three parts:

To sum up: when undertaking any action, we must hold fast to three things. First, impulse must obey reason; nothing is more suited to ensuring the observance of one’s duties than that. Secondly, we must keep in mind the importance of the thing we wish to achieve, so that we employ neither more nor less care and effort than the case requires. The third thing is that we should be careful to moderate all things that may affect our appearance and standing as a gentleman. On Duties, I.141.

Returning to an instruction on practical matters, Cicero offers a beautiful passage on detecting faults in the soul. He compares noticing the faults in the soul to how a well-trained musician can tell “if a lyre or a flute is only slightly out of tune.”84 He states, “We ought to see that nothing in our lives happens to be discordant, in just the same way - or, rather, as much more so as the harmony of actions is greater than that of sounds.”85 Cicero brings his first book to a close on account that he has discussed what is honorable and dishonorable, and what is more honorable amongst honorable choices, a question he believes Panaetius “passed over.”86

Book Two

10. What is the Purpose of Cicero’s Second Book?

In Book One, Cicero laid forth the four virtues that serve as a source of the common duty, the shared duty, or appropriate action given nature and one’s station in life. Cicero submitted three deliberations “when deciding a plan of action.”87 First, consideration of what is honorable or dishonorable; second, reasoning whether a thing is beneficial; and third, the deliberation of “when something apparently beneficial appears to conflict with what is honorable.”88 The second deliberation is the primary focus of Book Two. Cicero turns his attention to articulating duty via two primary inquiries: first, “we must ask both what is beneficial and what is the opposite;” and second, “what is more or most beneficial of several beneficial possibilities.”89 While the first inquiry is a standard discussion within Stoic philosophy, the second one—what is the most beneficial amongst beneficial choices—is a unique contribution from Cicero and one he explicitly states Panaetius never discussed.90 Cicero primarily focuses on the acquisition of beneficial things, such as friendship, glory, health, and wealth.91 Cicero also makes clear that whatever is honorable is also beneficial.92 The apparent conflict, at times, between what is beneficial and what is honorable, the third deliberation, is the subject of Book Three.

11. How does One Practically Attain Virtue?

On writing to his son on the relationship of virtue to that which is beneficial, Cicero uses the horrors of war to show the importance of working with other men. He sets forth the Peripatetic philosophy Dicaerchus who wrote a book “about the destruction of mankind.”93 The primary premise being that even if you tally all the deaths caused by “floods, epidemics, devastation, sudden stampedes of wild creatures,” etc., it pales in comparison to those who die in war.94 Cicero comments, “there can be no doubt on this question, that it is men who inflict on their fellow-men both the greatest benefit and the greatest harm.”95 He exhorts Cicero the Younger, “I count it as the special property of virtue to make its own the hearts of other men and to enlist them in its own service”—the service of virtue.96 He continues, “it is the wisdom and virtue of outstanding persons, however, that inspire other men to be prompt, ready and devoted in assisting our advancement.”97 Having given an example of the need for virtue and to call others to her service, Cicero gives three practical steps for attaining virtue:

One is perceiving what is true and clear in each case, what agrees with, or what follows from, what, what gives rise to each thing, what is the cause of each thing.

The second is restraining the disturbed movements of the spirit (which the Greeks call pathe) and making the impulses (which they call hormai) obedient to reason.

The third is treating those with whom we associate knowledgeably and with moderation in order that their support may secure for us the requirements of nature in full and ample measure; and that if any disadvantage threatens to afflict us, we may, through the same men, avert it, and avenge ourselves on those who have attempted to harm us, inflicting such punishment as fairness and humanity allow. On Duties, II.18.

Before venturing further into how to “acquire the ability to embrace and retain the support of other men,” Cicero briefly comments on fortune.98 He states, “Can anyone be unaware of the great power of fortune, which impels one in either direction, towards success or towards adversity?”99 Continuing, “Whenever we enjoy her prospering breezes we are carried to the haven for which we long; when she blows in our face we are wrecked.”100 Cicero’s quick point on this matter is as follows: regardless of whether fortune is generous or calamitous, the “resources and assiduous support of other men” is vital.101 The support can be what fortune uses to bring prosperity or what the virtuous man uses to weather the storm.

12. Is it Better to be Loved or Feared?

Cicero returns to “how we can entice and arouse other men to support what is beneficial to us.”102 He takes up the question of whether fear or love is best to draw men to our cause. Without question, Cicero believes love, not fear, is superior. He comments, “But there is nothing at all more suited to protecting and retaining influence than to be loved, and nothing less suited than to be feared.”103 He shares another quote from Ennius: “They hate the men they fear; and whom one hates one would have dead.”104 Cicero continues, “Indeed no amount of influence can withstand the hatred of a large number of men. That, if it was unrecognized before, is certainly recognized now”—another allusion to the assassination of Julius Caesar.105 “Fear is a poor guardian over any length of time,” he states, “but goodwill keeps faithful guard for ever.”106 Cicero also comments about what happens when people are ruled by fear and “swamped” by unjust laws.107 He succinctly observes, “Freedom will bite back more fiercely when suspended than when she remains undisturbed.”108 He goes on to tell his son that “those who wish to be feared cannot but themselves be afraid of the very men who fear them.”108 Cicero laments, “The republic we have utterly lost,” and it has been lost due to leaders who chose to be feared rather than be loved.109

13. How Should One Balance Liberality and Public Service?

On the balance of liberality and public service, Cicero gives his son several notable pieces of advice. First, Cicero declares, “The men who administer public affairs must first of all see that everyone holds on to what is his, and that private men are never deprived of their goods by public acts.”110 Second, “The chief thing when undertaking any public business or public duty is that even the smallest suspicion of avarice should be expelled.”111 After giving examples from the history of the Republic, he continues, “no vice… is more foul than avarice… particularly among leading men and those who control public affairs.”112 Cicero calls it “criminal and wicked.”113 Third, Cicero discusses the natural limits on liberality in public service. He uses the populares as an example. The populares were “individuals claiming to represent the interests of the people, as opposed to the Senate and the upper orders generally.”114 Cicero, however, “implies that their interest in the people’s welfare is only a pose to cover selfish ambition.”115 In short, they appear liberal, generous, and beneficent in (re)distributing wealth and property, but in actuality their disordered liberality is “undermining the very foundations of the political community.”116 On which is undermined, Cicero observes, “in the first place, concord, which cannot exist when money is taken from some and bestowed on others; and secondly, fairness, which utterly vanishes if everyone may not keep that which is his.”117

Book Three

14. What is the Purpose of Book Three?

Cicero reminds his son and the broader audience he no doubt has in mind of the three deliberations on duties as set forth by Panaetius: “the first, when they doubt whether the course in question is honourable or dishonourable: the second, whether it is beneficial or harmful; and the third, if that which has the appearance of honourableness conflicts with that which seems beneficial, how one should decide between them.”118 Panaetius wrote on the first two deliberations but never “fulfill[ed] his promise” to write on the third.119 In turn, Cicero, who took up the first two deliberations in his first two books, will now discuss in Book Three the apparent conflict of the beneficial and the honorable and on apparent benefit and the virtues.120

15. Is it Beneficial and Honorable to Kill a Tyrant?

Cicero puts foward the following conflict: “what greater crime can there be than to kill not merely another man, but even a close friend? Surely, then, anyone who kills a tyrant, although he is a close friend, has committed himself to crime? But it does not seem so to the Roman people, which deems that deed the fairest of all splendid deeds.”121 Alluding again to the assassination of Julius Caesar, Cicero uses the tyrannicide as an example of an event that can appear both beneficial and dishonorable. In order to judge these apparent conflicts rightly, Cicero turns to nature, the “law of nations,” or natural law to establish a “rule of procedure” available to all men.122 In short, Cicero teaches, “One is not allowed to harm another for the sake of one’s own advantage.”123 Those who break this law of the nations commit an act more contrary to nature than death itself.124 In fact, “if a man acts violently against someone else in order to secure some advantage himself,” and he does not see this as an act against nature, Cicero takes that he cannot be argued with as “he takes all the ‘human’ out of a human.”125 Cicero then applies his rule of procedure to the city. He applies the procedure not only to close friends and relatives, but to all citizens, even foreigners, who make up the “common fellowship of the human race.”126 When men strike out against this common fellowship, this natural fellowship, “kindness, liberality, goodness, and justice are utterly destroyed.”127 Having given his procedure and placed it within the fellowship of man, Cicero moves toward applying it to concrete issues. First, he asks whether a good man, who is “dying from the cold,” could rob a “cruel and monstrous tyrant” of his clothes in order to live?128 Cicero answers:

For if it is for your own benefit that you deprive even someone who is of no benefit whatsoever, you will have acted inhumanly and against the law of nature. If, however, you are the kind of person who, if you were to remain alive, could bring great benefit to the political community and to human fellowship, and if for that reason you deprive someone else of something, that is not a matter for rebuke. In situations that are not of that kind, however, each man should endure disadvantage to himself rather than diminish the advantages that someone else enjoys. On Duties, III.30.

For Cicero, the rule of procedure per natural law, is qualified by the good a person brings or does not bring to the fellowship of man. The “necessities of life,” which are beneficial, could be honorably taken from “an inactive and useless person” by a person “who is wise, good and brave, who, if he were to die, would greatly detract from the common benefit.”129 Consequently, for Cicero, it would be both beneficial and honorable for a good man who adds to the common benefit to steal from a tyrant in order that the good man shall live.130 On this premise, Cicero returns to his first question, whether it is both beneficial and honorable to kill a tyrant. He states:

For there can be no fellowship between us and tyrants - on the contrary there is complete estrangement - and it is not contrary to nature to rob a man, if you are able, to whom it is honorable to kill. Indeed, the whole pestilential and irreverent class ought to be expelled from the community of mankind. For just as some limbs were amputated, if they began to lose their blood and their life, as it were, and are harming the other parts of the body, similarly if the wildness and monstrousness of a beast appears in human form, it must be removed from the common humanity, so to speak, of the body. Of this sort are all those questions in which the issue is duty in particular circumstances. On Duties, III.32.

It can be, for Cicero, both beneficial and honorable to kill a tyrant, even if the tyrant is a close friend, in order to benefit the common fellowship or body of man. The passage is of particular importance not only because it gives justification for the assassination of Julius Caesar, but also because over a thousand years later a young Thomas Aquinas will use it to justify the killing of tyrants.131


  1. History, 155. ↩︎

  2. Cicero, Ad Familiares 10.28. ↩︎

  3. History, 156. ↩︎

  4. Id. ↩︎

  5. History, 157. ↩︎

  6. History, 157. ↩︎

  7. On Duties, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, eds., M.T. Griffin and E.M. Atkins, xxxv. ↩︎

  8. On Duties, xxxv. ↩︎

  9. See, On Duties, xxxvi. ↩︎

  10. On Duties, xxxvi. ↩︎

  11. Id. ↩︎

  12. Id. ↩︎

  13. Id. ↩︎

  14. Id. ↩︎

  15. On Duties, xxxvi-vii. ↩︎

  16. Leo Strauss, Seminar in Political Philosophy: Cicero, A course offered in the spring quarter, 1959 The Department of Political Science, The University of Chicago., pdf, 196. Leo Strauss Center, Cicero, Spring 1959, audio and pdf. ↩︎

  17. Id. ↩︎

  18. Strauss, 196; Other Comments on the Differences Between Philosophic Schools: In the belief that only virtue was good and all else only preferable at best, the Stoics had developed a reputation for a unique rigorism. In sum, a Stoic who was virtuous but was otherwise mired in misery, e.g., sickness, poverty, etc., would still consider himself to be truly happy. Strauss, 196. The philosophy lends itself to today’s usage of calling someone a “stoic” who seems not to react to externalities. In contrast, the schools of Plato and Aristotle did hold there were goods outside of virtue and these external goods contributed toward true happiness. Strauss, 196. The Epicurean view of happiness, pleasure as the highest good, is dismissed by Cicero. Strauss, 195-6. It is also worth noting that the Stoics and Aristotle held that many by nature had an inclination to virtue, while the Epicureans denied man had any natural inclination to virtue. Strauss, 197-8. Under St. Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic Church would posit that man has a natural inclination to virtue; however, this view would come under Enlightenment scrutiny, especially under John Locke, who held there was no natural inclination to virtue. To wit, under Locke, “we have a natural inclination toward the fulfillment of our wishes, but “not toward virtue. And in this respect Locke’s argument is identical with that of the Epicureans.” Strauss, 198-99. ↩︎

  19. Strauss, 204. ↩︎

  20. Id. ↩︎

  21. Id. ↩︎

  22. I.8. ↩︎

  23. Strauss, 207; On Duties, I.8, page 5, fn. 1. ↩︎

  24. On Duties, p. 5, fn. 1. ↩︎

  25. Id. ↩︎

  26. Strauss, 204; citing, as an example, Commentary on Aristotle’s Politics, trans. Richard J. Regan (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2007); “possible Strauss refers to Aquinas’ second comment in Book III, chap. 3. ↩︎

  27. Strauss, 209. ↩︎

  28. Id. ↩︎

  29. Strauss, 208-9; More on Perfect Duty and Common Duty in the Greek Schools: “The distinction reminds somehow (although it is not identical) of the Platonic distinction between true virtue and popular virtue. Well, a thing which I have said often enough: Aristotle is the discoverer of moral virtue, and Aristotle is the greatest influence in our tradition even up to today. There is no moral virtue in Plato; there is in Plato a distinction between genuine virtue and popular virtue. What Aristotle calls moral virtue is called by Plato popular or vulgar virtue. If you want to have the proof of that you only have to read the myth of Er at the end of the Republic, where he describes the man of moral virtue without using the term. What is a morally virtuous man, according to Aristotle? A man who is virtuous by virtue of habituation. Strauss, 210. ↩︎

  30. I.9. ↩︎

  31. Id. ↩︎

  32. See Strauss, 210; “These appropriate acts are presented as acts according to nature and, as Cicero also says, acts in compliance with the law of nature or acts which serve the purpose to preserve or bring about the state of nature. State of nature means of course here not what Hobbes meant by it, but it means the natural state of man, the orderly and proper state of man.” Strauss, 220. ↩︎

  33. I.11-12. ↩︎

  34. I.11. ↩︎

  35. Strauss, 212; Though not stated explictly, Cicero implies the natural inclination to virture, a Stoic principle, and the natural inclination to community or politics as well. See how reason “unites” man together in fellowship, implying by nature, man is a social and political animal. I.11-12. ↩︎

  36. Strauss, 214. ↩︎

  37. Id. ↩︎

  38. Strauss, 215; Passions: In contrast to virtue as health of mind, the Stoic, “who were extremists, called the passions forms of insanity, madness, diseases of the soul.” Strauss, 214. ↩︎

  39. I.13, see also 18-19. ↩︎

  40. I.12. ↩︎

  41. Strauss, 212. ↩︎

  42. Id. ↩︎

  43. Id. ↩︎

  44. Id. ↩︎

  45. I.18. ↩︎

  46. Id. ↩︎

  47. I.19. ↩︎

  48. Id. ↩︎

  49. I.20. ↩︎

  50. Id; “So a good man is a just man. When we speak of a good man we do not mean by this term a wise man,” Strauss, 238; see Strauss, 239, for Machiavelli and Cicero on virtue. ↩︎

  51. I.20; it is important to note that Cicero holds that private property is not natural; in short, everything was in common, and by occupation, law, settlement, and agreement, the common property became private. See On Duties, I.21. The teaching is in contrast to Aristotle, Aquinas, and the Catechism per the Seventh Commandment. CCC n. 2402. ↩︎

  52. On Duties, p. 9, fn. 2; see Strauss, 248, for Cicero and Locke on property. ↩︎

  53. I.23. ↩︎

  54. I.25. ↩︎

  55. I.26. ↩︎

  56. Id. ↩︎

  57. I.28. ↩︎

  58. I.29. ↩︎

  59. See also Cicero’s comments on warfare, On Duties, I.34; cf. 80. ↩︎

  60. I.42. ↩︎

  61. On Duties, p. 19, fn. 1. ↩︎

  62. On Duties, I.43; note also his caution about those who have the “mere images of virtue,” I.46.), which calls to mind Machiavelli’s teaching that it is only important to appear virtuous. ↩︎

  63. I.57. ↩︎

  64. I.51. ↩︎

  65. I.51-52. ↩︎

  66. On Duties, p. 22, fn. 2. ↩︎

  67. I.62. ↩︎

  68. Id. ↩︎

  69. Id. ↩︎

  70. I.64. ↩︎

  71. Id. ↩︎

  72. On Duties, p. 26, fn. 3. ↩︎

  73. I.64. ↩︎

  74. I.66. ↩︎

  75. On Duties, p. 27, fn. 2. ↩︎

  76. I.74. ↩︎

  77. I.76. ↩︎

  78. I.78. ↩︎

  79. On Duties, I.80; also, “When confronting danger, therefore, we should copy the doctor, whose custom it is to treat mild illnesses mildly, though he is forced to apply riskier, double-edged, remedies to more serious illnesses.” I.83. ↩︎

  80. I.93. ↩︎

  81. I.101, cf. 102. ↩︎

  82. I.103. ↩︎

  83. Humor, I.103-04; on choosing a career, 116-21, n.b., the “best inheritance” a father can leave his child is the “glory of virtue,” I.121; appearance, I.126-31; on speech, I.132-33; on coversation, 134-37; houses, 138-140; also, commenting on 148-9 (the rejection of Cynicism and respect for society), Strauss comments, as an example, “Nature cannot as such supply us with clothes, but in doing so we do not act against nature but we do something which nature itself requires and is unable to perform without human art.” Strauss, 236. ↩︎

  84. I.146. ↩︎

  85. I.145; Cicero also comments on the order of society, which includes insights into the role of a teacher (155-56) and man as a politcal animal (I.158). ↩︎

  86. I.161. ↩︎

  87. I.9. ↩︎

  88. Id. ↩︎

  89. II.1. ↩︎

  90. II.10. ↩︎

  91. See On Duties, p. l, for an outline. ↩︎

  92. II.10; “Cicero absolutely denies that in the Offices, that there can ever be any justification for any ignoble action, and that an ignoble action can6 [ever] become noble by virtue of its political benefit, however great it might seem to promise,” Strauss, 252; see also, Strauss commenting on the cooperation of man to achieve goals in Cicero and Locke, Strauss, 255. ↩︎

  93. II.16. ↩︎

  94. Id. ↩︎

  95. II.17. ↩︎

  96. Id. ↩︎

  97. Id. ↩︎

  98. II.19. ↩︎

  99. Id. ↩︎

  100. Id. ↩︎

  101. II.20. ↩︎

  102. Id. ↩︎

  103. II.23; see also, Strauss 257-8 on Machiavelli and Hobbes on fear; cf. Strauss, 261 on Machiavelli. ↩︎

  104. Id. ↩︎

  105. Id. ↩︎

  106. Id. ↩︎

  107. II.24. ↩︎

  108. II.24; see also, 25. ↩︎ ↩︎

  109. II.29; Cicero’s words call to mind the narrative of Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix (c. 138 BC – 78 BC). In short, Sulla marched on Rome, an unprecendented act, and revived the office of dictator. Sulla, however, sought to restore the Republic and strengthen the power of the Senate. Having enacted his reforms, Sulla actually stepped down from power and retired. Sulla’s actions would not save the Republic but would rather condemn it. Though he sought an honorable end, the strengthening of the Republic, the means by which achieved that end—taking power by military force—would show a whole younger generation that siezing power by force was possible. In fact, the example of Sulla would shape the intentions of a young Julius Caesar who in turn would usher in the death of the Republic. The example of Sulla both gives credence to Cicero’s observation that Rome has been ruined by those who led by fear and force. In many ways it is a lesson learned by the West until Machiavelli and Hobbes↩︎

  110. II.73. ↩︎

  111. II.75. ↩︎

  112. II.77. ↩︎

  113. Id. ↩︎

  114. On Duties, p. 34, fn. 2; they were opposed to the optimates “who favored the interests of the optimi or ‘best men’ […] and upheld the authority of the Senate, resisting distributions of wealth and property.” Id. ↩︎

  115. On Duties, p. 95, fn. 2. ↩︎

  116. II.78. ↩︎

  117. II.78; he also states in section 84, “for there is nothing that holds together a political community more powerfully than good faith; and that cannot exist unless the paying of debts is enforced;” also, in 85, he decries the redistribution of wealth. ↩︎

  118. III.7. ↩︎

  119. Id. ↩︎

  120. On Duties, p. li. ↩︎

  121. III.19. ↩︎

  122. III.23, cf. 21-2; “The ‘law of nations’ is natural law (also divine law) which applies to all men and is the standard set for human laws by the providential reason that rules the world.” On Duties, p. 108, fn. 3; Strauss, 264-65. ↩︎

  123. III.23. ↩︎

  124. III.21, 24. ↩︎

  125. III.26. ↩︎

  126. III.28. ↩︎

  127. III.28; in the same passage, Cicero on justice, “for that single virtue is the mistress and queen of the virtues.” ↩︎

  128. III.29. ↩︎

  129. III.31. ↩︎

  130. III.32. ↩︎

  131. See May Catholics Overthrow or Even Kill a Tyrant? - 9 Comments by Aquinas; other notable passages in Book III: commentary on Gyges’ ring, 38; working through concrete moral dilemmas, 50, 54, 57, 65; on civil law in relation to the law of the nations, 69; horse and slave dilemma, 89; on oaths and the men released by Hannibal, 113. ↩︎