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Bill Thayer

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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

 p63  [18] 61 We must realize, however, that while we have set down four cardinal virtues from which as sources moral rectitude and moral duty emanate, that achievement is most glorious in the eyes of the world which is won with a spirit great, exalted, and superior to the vicissitudes of earthly life. And so, when we wish to hurl a taunt, the very first to rise to our lips is, if possible, something like this:

"For ye, young men, show a womanish soul, yon maiden1 a man's;"

and this:

"Thou son of Salmacis, win spoils that cost nor sweat nor blood."

 p65  When, on the other hand, we wish to pay a compliment, we somehow or other praise in more eloquent strain the brave and noble work of some great soul. Hence there is an open field for orators on the subjects of Marathon, Salamis, Plataea, Thermopylae, and Leuctra, and hence our own Cocles, the Decii, Gnaeus and Publius Scipio, Marcus Marcellus, and countless others, and, above all, the Roman People as a nation are celebrated for greatness of spirit. Their passion for military glory, moreover, is shown in the fact that we see their statues usually in soldier's garb.

19 62 But if the exaltation of spirit seen in times of danger and toil is devoid of justice and fights for selfish ends instead of for the common good, it is a vice; for not only has it no element of virtue, but its nature is barbarous and revolting to all our finer feelings. The Stoics, therefore, correctly define courage as "that virtue which champions the cause of right." Accordingly, no one has attained to true glory who has gained a reputation for courage by treachery and cunning; for nothing that lacks justice can be morally right.

63 This, then, is a fine saying of Plato's: "Not only must all knowledge that is divorced from justice be called cunning rather than wisdom," he says, "but even the courage that is prompt to face danger, if it is inspired not by public spirit, but by its own selfish purposes, should have the name of effrontery rather than of courage." And so we demand that men who are courageous and high-souled shall at the same time be good and straightforward, lovers of truth, and foes to deception; for these qualities are the centre and soul of justice.

 p67  64 But the mischief is that from this exaltation and greatness of spirit spring all too readily self-will and excessive lust for power. For just as Plato tells us that the whole national character of the Spartans was on fire with passion for victory, so, in the same way, the more notable a man is for his greatness of spirit, the more ambitious he is to be the foremost citizen, or, I should say rather, to be sole ruler. But when one begins to aspire to pre-eminence, it is difficult to preserve that spirit of fairness which is absolutely essential to justice. The result is that such men do not allow themselves to be constrained either by argument or by any public and lawful authority; but they only too often prove to be bribers and agitators in public life, seeking to obtain supreme power and to be superiors through force rather than equals through justice. But the greater the difficulty, the greater the glory; for no occasion arises that can excuse a man for being guilty of injustice.

65 So then, not those who do injury but those who prevent it are to be considered brave and courageous. Moreover, true and philosophic greatness of spirit regards the moral goodness to which Nature most aspires as consisting in deeds, not in fame, and prefers to be first in reality rather than in name. And we must approve this view; for he who depends upon the caprice of the ignorant rabble cannot be numbered among the great. Then, too, the higher a man's ambition, the more easily he is tempted to acts of injustice by his desire for fame. We are now, to be sure, on very slippery ground; for scarcely can the man be found who has passed through trials and encountered dangers and does not then wish for glory as a reward for his achievements.

 p69  20 66 The soul that is altogether courageous and great is marked above all by two characteristics: one of these is indifference to outward circumstances; for such a person cherishes the conviction that nothing but moral goodness and propriety deserves to be either admired or wished for or striven after, and that he ought not to be subject to any man or any passion or any accident of fortune. The second characteristic is that, when the soul is disciplined in the way above mentioned, one should do deeds not only great and in the highest degree useful, but extremely arduous and laborious and fraught with danger both to life and to many things that make life worth living.

67 All the glory and greatness and, I may add, all the usefulness of these two characteristics of courage are centred in the latter; the rational cause that makes men great, in the former. For it is the former that contains the element that makes souls pre-eminent and indifferent to worldly fortune. And this quality is distinguished by two criteria: (1) if one account moral rectitude as the only good; and (2) if one be free from all passion. For we must agree that it takes a brave and heroic soul to hold as slight what most people think grand and glorious, and to disregard it from fixed and settled principles. And it requires strength of character and great singleness of purpose to bear what seems painful, as it comes to pass in many and various forms in human life, and to bear it so unflinchingly as not to be shaken in the least from one's natural state of the dignity of a philosopher. 68 Moreover, it would be inconsistent for the man who is not overcome by fear to be overcome by desire, or for the man who has shown himself invincible to toil to be conquered by pleasure. We  p71 must, therefore, not only avoid the latter, but also beware of ambition for wealth; for there is nothing so characteristic of narrowness and littleness of soul as the love of riches; and there is nothing more honourable and noble than to be indifferent to money, if one does not possess it, and to devote it to beneficence and liberality, if one does possess it.

As I said before, we must also beware of ambition for glory; for it robs us of liberty, and in defence of liberty a high-souled man should stake everything. And one ought not to seek military authority; nay, rather it ought sometimes to be declined,2 sometimes to be resigned.3

69 Again, we must keep ourselves free from every disturbing emotion, not only from desire and fear, but also from excessive pain and pleasure, and from anger, so that we may enjoy that calm of soul and freedom from care which bring both moral stability and dignity of character. But there have been many and still are many who, while pursuing that calm of soul of which I speak, have withdrawn from civic duty and taken refuge in retirement. Among such have been found the most famous and by far the foremost philosophers4 and certain other5 earnest, thoughtful men who could not endure the conduct of either the people or their leaders; some of them, too, lived in the country and found their pleasure in the management of their private estates. 70 Such men have had the same aims as kings — to suffer no want, to be subject to no authority, to enjoy their liberty, that is, in its essence, to live just as they please.

21 So, while this desire is common to men of political ambitions and men of retirement, of whom I have just spoken, the one class think they can  p73 attain their end if they secure large means; the other, if they are content with the little they have. And, in this matter, neither way of thinking is altogether to be condemned; but the life of retirement is easier and safer and at the same time less burdensome or troublesome to others, while the career of those who apply themselves to statecraft and to conducting great enterprises is more profitable to mankind and contributes more to their own greatness and renown.

71 So perhaps those men of extraordinary genius who have devoted themselves to learning must be excused for not taking part in public affairs; likewise, those who from ill-health or for some still more valid reason have retired from the service of the state and left to others the opportunity and the glory of its administration. But if those who have no such excuse profess a scorn for civil and military offices, which most people admire, I think that this should be set down not to their credit but to their discredit; for in so far as they care little, as they say, for glory and count it as naught, it is difficult not to sympathize with their attitude; in reality however, they seem to dread the toil and trouble and also, perhaps, the discredit and humiliation of political failure and defeat. For there are people who in opposite circumstances do not act consistently: they have the utmost contempt for pleasure but in pain they are too sensitive; they are indifferent to glory, but they are crushed by disgrace and even in their inconsistency they show no great consistency.

72 But those whom Nature has endowed with the capacity for administering public affairs should put  p75 aside all hesitation, enter the race for public office and take a hand in directing the government; for in no other way can a government be administered or greatness of spirit be made manifest. Statesmen too, no less than philosophers — perhaps even more so — should carry with them that greatness of spirit and indifference to outward circumstances to which I so often refer, together with calm of soul and freedom from care, if they are to be free from worries and lead a dignified and self-consistent life. 73 This is easier for the philosophers; as their life is less exposed to the assaults of fortune, their wants are fewer; and, if any misfortune overtakes them, their fall is not so disastrous. Not without reason, therefore, are stronger emotions aroused in those who engage in public life than in those who live in retirement, and greater is their ambition for success; the more, therefore, do they need to enjoy greatness of spirit and freedom from annoying cares.

If anyone is entering public life, let him beware of thinking only of the honour that it brings; but let him be sure also that he has the ability to succeed. At the same time, let him take care not to lose heart too readily through discouragement nor yet to be over-confident through ambition. In a word, before undertaking any enterprise, careful preparation must be made.

22 74 Most people think that the achievements of war are more important than those of peace; but this opinion needs to be corrected. For many men have sought occasions for war from the mere ambition for fame. This is notably the case with men of great spirit and natural ability, and it is the more likely to happen, if they are adapted to a soldier's  p77 life and fond of warfare. But if we will face the facts, we shall find that there have been many instances of achievement in peace more important and no less renowned than in war.

75 However highly Themistocles, for example, may be extolled — and deservedly — and however much more illustrious his name may be than Solon's, and however much Salamis may be cited as witness of his most glorious victory — a victory glorified above Solon's statesmanship in instituting the Areopagus — yet Solon's achievement is not to be accounted less illustrious than his. For Themistocles's victory served the state once and only once; while Solon's work will be of service for ever. For through his legislation the laws of the Athenians and the institutions of their fathers are maintained. And while Themistocles could not readily point to any instance in which he himself had rendered assistance to the Areopagus, the Areopagus might with justice assert that Themistocles had received assistance from it; for the war was directed by the counsels of that senate which Solon had created.

76 The same may be said of Pausanias and Lysander. Although it is thought that it was by their achievements that Sparta gained her supremacy, yet these are not even remotely to be compared with the legislation and discipline of Lycurgus. Nay, rather, it was due to these that Pausanias and Lysander had armies so brave and so well disciplined. For my own part, I do not consider that Marcus Scaurus was inferior to Gaius Marius, when I was a lad, or Quintus Catulus to Gnaeus Pompey, when I was engaged in public life. For arms are of little value in the field unless there is wise counsel at home. So, too,  p79 Africanus, though a great man and a soldier of extraordinary ability, did no greater service to the state by destroying Numantia than was done at the same time by Publius Nasica, though not then clothed with official authority, by removing Tiberius Gracchus. This deed does not, to be sure, belong wholly to the domain of civil affairs; it partakes of the nature of war also, since it was effected by violence; but it was, for all that, executed as a political measure without the help of an army.

77 The whole truth, however, is in this verse, against which, I am told, the malicious and envious are wont to rail:

"Yield, ye arms, to the toga; to civic praises,6 ye laurels."7

Not to mention other instances, did not arms yield to the toga, when I was at the helm of state? For never was the republic in more serious peril, never was peace more profound. Thus, as the result of my counsels and my vigilance, their weapons slipped suddenly from the hands of the most desperate traitors — dropped to the ground of their own accord! What achievement in war, then, was ever so great? 78 What triumph can be compared with that? For I may boast to you, my son Marcus; for to you belong the inheritance of that glory of mine and the duty of imitating my deeds. And it was to me, too, that Gnaeus Pompey, a hero crowned with the honour of war, paid this tribute in the hearing of many, when he said that his third triumph would have been gained in vain, if he were not to have through my services to the state a place in which to celebrate it.

There are, therefore, instances of civic courage  p81 that are not inferior to the courage of the soldier. Nay, the former calls for even greater energy and greater devotion than the latter.

23 79 That moral goodness which we look for in a lofty, high-minded spirit is secured, of course, by moral, not by physical, strength. And yet the body must be trained and so disciplined that it can obey the dictates of judgment and reason in attending to business and in enduring toil. But that moral goodness which is our theme depends wholly upon the thought and attention given to it by the mind. And, in this way, the men who in a civil capacity direct the affairs of the nation render no less important service than they who conduct its wars: by their statesmanship oftentimes wars are either averted or terminated; sometimes also they are declared. Upon Marcus Cato's counsel, for example, the Third Punic War was undertaken, and in its conduct his influence was dominant, even after he was dead. 80 And so diplomacy in the friendly settlement of controversies is more desirable than courage in settling them on the battlefield; but we must be careful not to take that course merely for the sake of avoiding war rather than for the sake of public expediency. War, however, should be undertaken in such a way as to make it evident that it has no other object than to secure peace.

But it takes a brave and resolute spirit not to be disconcerted in times of difficulty or ruffled and thrown off one's feet, as the saying is, but to keep one's presence of mind and one's self-possession and not to swerve from the path of reason.

81 Now all this requires great personal courage; but it calls also for great intellectual ability by reflection  p83 to anticipate the future, to discover some time in advance what may happen whether for good or for ill, and what must be done in any possible event, and never to be reduced to having to say, "I had not thought of that."

These are the activities that mark a spirit strong, high, and self-reliant in its prudence and wisdom. But to mix rashly in the fray and to fight hand to hand with the enemy is but a barbarous and brutish kind of business. Yet when the stress of circumstances demands it, we must gird on the sword and prefer death to slavery and disgrace.

24 82 As to destroying and plundering cities, let me say that great care should be taken that nothing be done in reckless cruelty or wantonness. And it is great man's duty in troublous times to single out the guilty for punishment, to spare the many, and in every turn of fortune to hold to a true and honourable course. For whereas there are many, as I have said before, who place the achievements of war above those of peace, so one may find many to whom adventurous, hot-headed counsels seem more brilliant and more impressive than calm and well-considered measures.

83 We must, of course, never be guilty of seeming cowardly and craven in our avoidance of danger; but we must also beware of exposing ourselves to danger needlessly. Nothing can be more foolhardy than that. Accordingly, in encountering danger we should do as doctors do in their practice: in light cases of illness they give mild treatment; in cases of dangerous sickness they are compelled to apply hazardous and even desperate remedies. It is, therefore, only a madman who, in a calm, would pray  p85 for a storm; a wise man's way is, when the storm does come, to withstand it with all the means at his command, and especially, when the advantages to be expected in case of a successful issue are greater than the hazards of the struggle.

The dangers attending great affairs of state fall sometimes upon those who undertake them, sometimes upon the state. In carrying out such enterprises, some run the risk of losing their lives, others their reputation and the good-will of their fellow-citizens. It is our duty, then, to be more ready to endanger our own than the public welfare and to hazard honour and glory more readily than other advantages.8

84 Many, on the other hand, have been found who were ready to pour out not only their money but their lives for their country and yet would not consent to make even the slightest sacrifice of personal glory — even though the interests of their country demanded it. For example, when Callicratidas, as Spartan admiral in the Peloponnesian War, had won many signal successes, he spoiled everything at the end by refusing to listen to the proposal of those who thought he ought to withdraw his fleet from the Arginusae and not to risk an engagement with the Athenians. His answer to them was that "the Spartans could build another fleet, if they lost that one, but he could not retreat without dishonour to himself." And yet what he did dealt only a slight blow to Sparta; there was another which proved disastrous, when Cleombrotus in fear of criticism recklessly went into battle against Epaminondas. In consequence of that, the Spartan power fell.

 p87  How much better was the conduct of Quintus Maximus! Of him Ennius says:

"One man — and he alone — restored our state by delaying.

Not in the least did fame with him take precedence of safety;

Therefore now does his glory shine bright, and it grows ever brighter."

This sort of offence9 must be avoided no less in political life. For there are men who for fear of giving offence do not dare to express their honest opinion, no matter how excellent.

25 85 Those who propose to take charge of the affairs of government should not fail to remember two of Plato's rules: first, to keep the good of the people so clearly in view that regardless of their own interests they will make their every action conform to that; second, to care for the welfare of the whole body politic and not in serving the interests of some one party to betray the rest. For the administration of the government, like the office of a trustee, must be conducted for the benefit of those entrusted to one's care, not of those to whom it is entrusted. Now, those who care for the interests of a part of the citizens and neglect another part, introduce into the civil service a dangerous element — dissension and party strife. The result is that some are found to be loyal supporters of the democratic, others of the aristocratic party, and few of the nation as a whole.

86 As a result of this party spirit bitter strife arose at Athens,10 and in our own country not only dissensions11 but also disastrous civil wars12 broke out.  p89 All this the citizen who is patriotic, brave, and worthy of a leading place in the state will shun with abhorrence; he will dedicate himself unreservedly to his country, without aiming at influence or power for himself; and he will devote himself to the state in its entirety in such a way as to further the interests of all. Besides, he will not expose anyone to hatred or disrepute by groundless charges, but he will surely cleave to justice and honour so closely that he will submit to any loss, however heavy, rather than be untrue to them, and will face death itself rather than renounce them.

87 A most wretched custom, assuredly, is our electioneering and scrambling for office. Concerning this also we find a fine thought in Plato: "Those who compete against one another," he says, "to see which of two candidates shall administer the government, are like sailors quarrelling as to which one of them shall do the steering." And he likewise lays down the rule that we should regard only those as adversaries who take up arms against the state, not those who strive to have the government administered according to their convictions. This was the spirit of the disagreement between Publius Africanus and Quintus Metellus: there was in it no trace of rancour.

88 Neither must we listen to those who think that one should indulge in violent anger against one's political enemies and imagine that such is the attitude of a great-spirited, brave man. For nothing is more commendable, nothing more becoming in a pre-eminently great man than courtesy and forbearance. Indeed, in a free people, where all enjoy equal rights before the law, we  p91 must school ourselves to affability and what is called "mental poise";13 for if we are irritated when people intrude upon us at unseasonable hours or make unreasonable requests, we shall develop a sour, churlish temper, prejudicial to ourselves and offensive to others. And yet gentleness of spirit and forbearance are to be commended only with the understanding that strictness may be exercised for the good of the state; for without that, the government cannot be well administered. On the other hand, if punishment or correction must be administered, it need not be insulting; it ought to have regard to the welfare of the state, not to the personal satisfaction of the man who administers the punishment or reproof.

89 We should take care also that the punishment shall not be out of proportion to the offence, and that some shall not be chastised for the same fault for which others are not even called to account. In administering punishment it is above all necessary to allow no trace of anger. For if any one proceeds in a passion to inflict punishment, he will never observe that happy mean which lies between excess and defect. This doctrine of the mean is approved by the Peripatetics and wisely approved, if only they did not speak in praise of anger and tell us that it is a gift bestowed on us by Nature for a good purpose. But, in reality, anger is in every circumstance to be eradicated; and it is to be desired that they who administer the government should be like the laws, which are led to inflict punishment not by wrath but by justice.

26 90 Again, when fortune smiles and the stream of life flows according to our wishes, let us diligently  p93 avoid all arrogance, haughtiness, and pride. For it is as much a sign of weakness to give way to one's feelings in success as it is in adversity. But it is a fine thing to keep an unruffled temper, an unchanging mien, and the same cast of countenance in every condition of life; this, history tells us, was characteristic of Socrates and no less of Gaius Laelius. Philip, king of Macedon, I observe, however surpassed by his son in achievements and fame, was superior to him in affability and refinement. Philip, accordingly, was always great; Alexander, often infamously bad. There seems to be sound advice, therefore, in this word of warning: "The higher we are placed, the more humbly should we walk." Panaetius tells us that Africanus, his pupil and friend, used to say: "As, when horses have become mettlesome and unmanageable on account of their frequent participation in battles, their owners put them in the hands of trainers to make them more tractable; so men, who through prosperity have become restive and over self-confident, ought to be put into the training-ring, so to speak, of reason and learning, that they may be brought to comprehend the frailty of human affairs and the fickleness of fortune."

91 The greater our prosperity, moreover, the more should we seek the counsel of friends, and the greater the heed that should be given to their advice. Under such circumstances also we must beware of lending an ear to sycophants or allowing them to impose upon us with their flattery. For it is easy in this way to deceive ourselves, since we thus come to think ourselves duly entitled to praise; and to this frame of mind a thousand delusions  p95 may be traced, when men are puffed up with conceit and expose themselves to ignominy and ridicule by committing the most egregious blunders.

So much for this subject.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 Cloelia (see Index).

Thayer's Note: I haven't reproduced the index — and Plutarch (Bravery of Women, XIV, 250A‑F) tells the story better.

2 As Cicero did at the expiration of his consulship.

3 As Sulla did in his dictatorship. The contrast to Caesar is tmor striking for Cicero's not mentioning it.

4 e.g. Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Pythagoras, Anaxagoras.

5 Such as Cicero's friend, Atticus, and Marcus Piso.

6 The praises of Cicero for his overthrow of the conspiracy of Catiline.

7 The laurels of the triumphant general.

8 Such as the esteem and good-will of fellow-citizens; life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; the existence of the state and all the advantages it brings.

9 Sacrificing public interests to personal glory.

10 From the death of Pericles on.

11 Such as the conspiracy of Catiline.

12 The civil wars of Marius and Sulla, Caesar and Pompey.

13 The quality elsewhere expressed by Cicero with βαθύτης — 'depth,' 'reserve,' the art of concealing and controlling one's feelings under an outward serenity of manner.

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