De Officiis: Cicero on Political Obligations


Cicero: On Obligations

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.

Cicero wrote that in 44 BCE in his last work in his last year of life: De Officiis, or in English: On Obligations. The translation from Book 1.4 above comes from the Perseus Project (the 1913 Miller/Loeb translation). In the 2000 edition (Oxford University Press, reprinted 2008, and recently added to my library), translator P.G. Walsh renders that piece thus:

There is no aspect of life public or private, civic or domestic, which can be without its obligation, whether in our individual concerns or in our relations with our neighbour. Honourable behaviour lies entirely in the performance of such obligations, and likewise base conduct lies in neglecting them.

The main theme of Marcus Tullius Cicero’s book is stated here, at the beginning: we are all bound by obligations to one another, and if we are honourable people, then we must act on, and never forget, those obligations. Of course, he has a lot more to say, but that’s the gist of it.

The 62-year-old Cicero watched as Rome was taken over by the followers of the recently assassinated Julius Caesar (whom he criticized). He watched how the republic was subverted to the rule of the autocrats and tyrants (whom he also openly criticized). The result of his speaking out was his being named an enemy of the state. Marc Anthony ordered Cicero’s execution and had his severed head and hands displayed in the forum. Such is the way tyrants deal with dissent.

Cicero’s world and life have parallels in today’s politics: his words still have meaning and relevamce today. One need only look at today’s Republican candidates’ struggle for supremacy, or locally to see what has happened to our own council, to understand those parallels.*

Quite unlike most other Roman and Greek works, De Officiis was embraced by the church and became a central part of the moral development of Western philosophy during the Middle Ages. It remained so important that it was the second book printed by Gutenberg, in 1465, right after his famous bible. It was standard reading material in English schools through the 19th century. You can read a copy, translated in 1913, here. Sadly, it has been a back-burner text pretty much since.

We are not born, we do not live for ourselves alone; our country, our friends, have a share in us. (Latin: non nobis solum nati sumus ortusque nostri partem patria vindicat, partem amici) (I, 22)

Cicero warned that (Book 1.5), when people measure or manage results by their own interests rather than a broader moral standard, they value “neither friendship nor justice nor generosity.” He believed in two guiding principles (1.31): “first, that no harm be done to anyone; second, that the common interests be conserved.”

In Book 1.15, Cicero suggests that “all that is honourable” stems from four sources (similar to Plato’s four virtues):

  • the full perception and intelligent awareness of what is true;
  • safeguarding the community, and assigning to each individual his due, and by keeping faith with compacts made;
  • the greatness and strength of a noble and invincible spirit;
  • the order and measure by which all words and deeds reflect an underlying moderation and self-control.

Clearly this latter also reflects Cicero’s Stoic roots. For public officials, it means looking beyond the personal, beyond the agendas and ideologies towards what is best for the greater good:

  • making sure what you hear, see, or are presented with is true, not just the result of ideologies, personal agendas or opinions;
  • treating all members you represent fairly, equitably and honestly without bias or prejudice;
  • having and sticking to principles not just ideologies;
  • being moderate, focused, and leaving emotions out of the discussions.

Or as he writes in Book 1.17, “…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.”

The greater good appears in several forms in this book, including his admonition in 1.41 that, “…we must have regard for justice even towards the humblest.”

Truth mattered greatly to Cicero, and in 1.18 he advised those in public office to search diligently and carefully for it:

…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.**

And in 1.23, he adds that justice is bound up with truth and keeping one’s word:

The foundation of justice, moreover, is good faith—that is, truth and fidelity to promises and agreements.

The oath of office is a promise to all citizens for elected representatives to discharge their office with due diligence, effort, justice and fairness. Anything less is unjust. In footnote 3 to 1.32, Miller explains that such oaths were in use in Cicero’s time, in which officials stated publicly the principles and policies they planned to pursue in office.

Cicero also commented sarcastically in 1.41 on those who break their promises or who use their office for personal gain (which includes vendettas):

…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.

Cicero also noted that it is not just enough to do good, it is equally important for public officials to both do no harm and to prevent harm from happening to others. In 1.28, he wrote that laziness, incompetence and self-interest are not excuses for inaction:

The motives for failure to prevent injury and so for slighting duty are likely to be various: people either are reluctant to incur enmity or trouble or expense; or through indifference, indolence, or incompetence, or through some preoccupation or self interest they are so absorbed that they suffer those to be neglected whom it is their duty to protect.

Further, in 1.29, he emphasizes that politicians cannot weasel out of their obligations to the greater good by pretending that they didn’t get elected to get involved in such matters or who simply vote for what staff tell them to vote for (think of the recent debacle around the Collingwood airport for examples). Such people Cicero calls “traitors”:

There are some also who, either from zeal in attending to their own business or through some sort of aversion to their fellow-men, claim that they are occupied solely with their own affairs, without seeming to themselves to be doing anyone any injury. But while they steer clear of the one kind of injustice, they fall into the other: they are traitors to social life, for they contribute to it none of their interest, none of their effort, none of their means.

Law and justice are not the same thing, as Cicero explains in 1.33, and laws can often be interpreted in ways that lead to injustice, another weasel way to gain personal goals:

Injustice often arises also through chicanery, that is, through an over-subtle and even fraudulent construction of the law.

One cannot help but wonder if Cicero presaged the local administration’s use of so-called legal advice to rationalize its numerous in-camera meetings that are manifestly unjust to the notion of open and transparent democracy.

There’s more to De Officiis than I can write here, a lot more. And in future posts I’ll look at some of Cicero’s other concepts and ideals in the subsequent chapters and books here. Suffice to say this is a book that still has deep resonance today and should be read by all of our elected officials.

If only they were that smart and dedicated.

* To simplify, here’s what it appears the Republican presidential candidates see as their moral obligations, in order of importance:

  1. Themselves;
  2. Their corporate sponsors and financial backers;
  3. The NRA;
  4. Their particular evangelical Christian belief or cult;
  5. Their campaign supporters.

This isn’t true of Donald Trump, who is not dependent on outside financial support, and who is not particularly religious. His sense of obligations is somewhat smaller:

  1. Himself;
  2. The NRA;
  3. His campaign supporters.

Locally, the current council has a similar list of collectively-felt obligations:

  1. Themselves;
  2. Their political masters;
  3. The town’s administration;
  4. Their campaign supporters.

Unlike what Cicero wrote was the duty of public officials, none of these groups feel any obligation to the needs or interests of the greater populace. There is no greater good concept present in their pronouncements or speeches. And while I have not conducted a proper survey, I have good reason to believe that not only has not one of them ever read De Officiis, but also none of them have any concept of what a moral obligation to the greater good is. And they certainly would not know that Cicero wrote, in 1.33, “…there are certain duties that we owe even to those who have wronged us.” Perhaps they don’t even know who Cicero was.

** In this, Cicero’s words run parallel to the Kalama sutra, with its statements of free inquiry, in which the Buddha advised listeners to question information and test it to be sure it was truth, not just ideology.

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  1. Pingback: On growing old | Scripturient

  2. 5 Reasons We Should Still Read Cicero

    Later, in the final book of On Duties, Cicero states his own version of the famous harm principle of John Stuart Mill (that the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others). Cicero says, “Each should attend to what benefits himself, so far as may be done without injustice to another.”

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