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This webpage reproduces part of the
De Officiis


published in the Loeb Classical Library,

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though, please let me know!

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(Vol. XXI) Cicero
De Officiis

Book I

p47 14 42 Next in order, as outlined above, let us speak of kindness and generosity. Nothing appeals more to the best in human nature than this, but it calls for the exercise of caution in many particulars; we must, in the first place, see to it that our act of kindness shall not prove an injury either to the object of our beneficence or to others; in the second place, that it shall not be beyond our means; and finally, that it shall be proportioned to the worthiness of the recipient; for this is the corner-stone of justice; and by the standard of justice all acts of kindness must be measured. For those who confer a harmful favour upon someone whom they seemingly wish to help are to be accounted not generous benefactors but dangerous sycophants; and likewise those who injure one man, in order to be generous to another, are guilty of the same injustice as if they diverted to their own accounts the property of their neighbours.

43 Now, there are many — and especially those who are ambitious for eminence and glory — who rob one to enrich another; and they expect to be thought generous towards their friends, if they put them in the way of getting rich, no matter by what means. Such conduct, however, is so remote from moral duty that nothing can be more completely opposed to duty. We must, therefore, take care to indulge only in such liberality as will help our friends and hurt no one. The conveyance of property by Lucius Sulla and Gaius Caesar from its rightful owners to p49the hands of strangers should, for that reason, not be regarded as generosity; for nothing is generous if it is not at the same time just.

44 The second point for the exercise of caution was that our beneficence should not exceed our means; for those who wish to be more open-handed than their circumstances permit are guilty of two faults: first they do wrong to their next of kin; for they transfer to strangers property which would more justly be placed at their service or bequeathed to them. And second, such generosity too often engenders a passion for plundering and misappropriating property, in order to supply the means for making large gifts. We may also observe that a great many people do many things that seem to be inspired more by a spirit of ostentation than by heart-felt kindness; for such people are not really generous but are rather influenced by a sort of ambition to make a show of being open-handed. Such a pose is nearer akin to hypocrisy than to generosity or moral goodness.

45 The third rule laid down was that in acts of kindness we should weigh with discrimination the worthiness of the object of our benevolence; we should take into consideration his moral character, his attitude toward us, the intimacy of his relation to us, and our common social ties, as well as the services he has hitherto rendered in our interest. It is to be desired that all these considerations should be combined in the same person; if they are not, then the more numerous and the more important considerations must have the greater weight.

15 46 Now, the men we live with are not perfect p51and ideally wise, but men who do very well, if there be found in them but the semblance of virtue. I therefore think that this is to be taken for granted, that no one should be entirely neglected who shows any trace of virtue; but the more a man is endowed with these finer virtues — temperance, self-control, and that very justice about which so much has already been said — the more he deserves to be favoured. I do not mention fortitude, for a courageous spirit in a man who has not attained perfection and ideal wisdom is generally too impetuous; it is those other virtues that seem more particularly to mark the good man.

So much in regard to the character of the object of our beneficence.

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 p53a 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.

16 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; p55and 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."1

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;"

p57 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.

17 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 p59homes, 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 close, none more dear than that which links each one of us with our country. Parents p61are 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 are2 and have been3 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.

18 59 But in the performance of all these duties we shall have to consider what is most needful in each individual case and what each individual person can or cannot procure without our help. In this way we shall find that the claims of social relationship, in its various degrees, are not identical with the dictates of circumstances; for there are obligations that are due to one individual rather than to another: for example, one would sooner assist a neighbour in gathering his harvest than either p63a brother or a friend; but should it be a case in court, one would defend a kinsman and a friend rather than a neighbour. Such questions as these must, therefore, be taken into consideration in every act of moral duty [and we must acquire the habit and keep it up], in order to become good calculators of duty, able by adding and subtracting to strike a balance correctly and find out just how much is due to each individual.

60 But as neither physicians nor generals nor orators can achieve any signal success without experience and practice, no matter how well they may understand the theory of their profession, so the rules for the discharge of duty are formulated, it is true, as I am doing now, but a matter of such importance requires experience also and practice.

This must close our discussion of the ways in which moral goodness, on which duty depends, is developed from those principles which hold good in human society.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 κοινὰ τὰ (τῶν) φίλων (Plato, Phaedr. 279C; Aristotle, Eth. VIII.11).

2 Antony and his associates.

3 Caesar, Clodius, Catiline.

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Page updated: 10 Jun 10