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I.92‑151

This webpage reproduces part of the
De Officiis

by
Cicero

published in the Loeb Classical Library,
1913

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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II.1‑43

(Vol. XXI) Cicero
De Officiis

Book I
(end)

p155 43 152 Now, I think I have explained fully enough how moral duties are derived from the four divisions of moral rectitude. But between those very actions which are morally right, a conflict and comparison may frequently arise, as to which of two actions is morally better — a point overlooked by Panaetius. For, since all moral rectitude springs from four sources (one of which is prudence; the second, social instinct; the third, courage; the fourth, temperance), p157it is often necessary in deciding a question of duty that these virtues be weighed against one another.

153 My view, therefore, is that those duties are closer to Nature which depend upon the social instinct than those which depend upon knowledge; and this view can be confirmed by the following argument: (1) suppose that a wise man should be vouchsafed such a life that, with an abundance of everything pouring in upon him, he might in perfect peace study and ponder over everything that is worth knowing, still, if the solitude were so complete that he could never see a human being, he would die. And then, the foremost of all virtues is wisdom — what the Greeks call σοφία; for by prudence, which they call φρόνησις, we understand something else, namely, the practical knowledge of things to be sought for and of things to be avoided. (2) Again, that wisdom which I have given the foremost place is the knowledge of things human and divine, which is concerned also with the bonds of union between gods and men and the relations of man to man. If wisdom is the most important of the virtues, as it certainly is, it necessarily follows that that duty which is connected with the social obligation is the most important duty.1 And (3) service is better than mere theoretical knowledge, for the study and knowledge of the universe would somehow be lame and defective, were no practical results to follow. Such results, moreover, are best seen in the safeguarding of human interests. It is p159essential, then, to human society; and it should, therefore, be ranked above speculative knowledge.

154 Upon this all the best men agree, as they prove by their conduct. For who is so absorbed in the investigation and study of creation, but that, even though he were working and pondering over tasks never so much worth mastering and even though he thought he could number the stars and measure the length and breadth of the universe, he would drop all those problems and cast them aside, if word were suddenly brought to him of some critical peril to his country, which he could relieve or repel? And he would do the same to further the interests of parent or friend or to save him from danger.

155 From all this we conclude that the duties prescribed by justice must be given precedence over the pursuit of knowledge and the duties imposed by it; for the former concern the welfare of our fellow-men; and nothing ought to be more sacred in men's eyes than that.

44 And yet scholars, whose whole life and interests have been devoted to the pursuit of knowledge, have not, after all, failed to contribute to the advantages and blessings of mankind. For they have trained many to be better citizens and to render larger service to their country. So, for example, the Pythagorean Lysis taught Epaminondas of Thebes; Plato, Dion of Syracuse; and many, many others. As for me myself, whatever service I have rendered to my country — if, indeed, I have rendered any — I came to my task trained and equipped for it by my teachers and what they taught me. 156 And not only while present in the flesh p161memorials of their learning they continue the same service after they are dead. For they have overlooked no point that has a bearing upon laws, customs or political science; in fact, they seem to have devoted their retirement to the benefit of us who are engaged in public business. The principal thing done, therefore, by those very devotees of the pursuits of learning and science is to apply their own practical wisdom and insight to the service of humanity. And for that reason also much speaking (if only it contain wisdom) is better than speculation never so profound without speech; for mere speculation is self-centred, while speech extends its benefits to those with whom we are united by the bonds of society.

157 And again, as swarms of bees do not gather for the sake of making honeycomb but make the honeycomb because they are gregarious by nature, so human beings — and to a much higher degree — exercise their skill together in action and thought because they are naturally gregarious. And so, if that virtue [Justice] which centres in the safeguarding of human interests, that is, in the maintenance of human society, were not to accompany the pursuit of knowledge, that knowledge would seem isolated and barren of results. In the same way, courage [Fortitude], if unrestrained by the uniting bonds of society, would be but a sort of brutality and savagery. Hence it follows that the claims of human society and the bonds that unite men together take precedence of the pursuit of speculative knowledge.

158 And it is not true, as certain people maintain, that the bonds of union in human society were instituted in order to provide for the needs of daily life; for, they say, without the aid of others we could not p163secure for ourselves or supply to others the things that Nature requires; but if all that is essential to our wants and comfort were supplied by some magic wand, as in the stories, then every man of first-rate ability could drop all other responsibility and devote himself exclusively to learning and study. Not at all. For he would seek to escape from his loneliness and to find someone to share his studies; he would wish to teach, as well as to learn; to hear, as well as to speak. Every duty, therefore, that tends effectively to maintain and safeguard human society should be given the preference over that duty which arises from speculation and science alone.

45 159 The following question should, perhaps, be asked: whether this social instinct, which is the deepest feeling in our nature, is always to have precedence over temperance and moderation also. I think not. For there are some acts either so repulsive or so wicked, that a wise man would not commit them, even to save his country. Posidonius has made a large collection of them; but some of them are so shocking, so indecent, that it seems immoral even to mention them. The wise man, therefore, will not think of doing any such thing for the sake of his country; no more will his country consent to have it done for her. But the problem is the more easily disposed of because the occasion cannot arise when it could be to the state's interest to have the wise man do any of those things.

160 This, then, may be regarded as settled: in choosing between conflicting duties, that class takes precedence which is demanded by the interests of human society. [And this is the natural sequence; for discreet action will presuppose learning and practical p165wisdom; it follows, therefore, that discreet action is of more value than wise (but inactive) speculation.]

So much must suffice for this topic. For, in its essence, it has been made so clear, that in determining a question of duty it is not difficult to see which duty is to be preferred to any other. Moreover, even in the social relations themselves there are gradations of duty so well defined that it can easily be seen which duty takes precedence of any other: our first duty is to the immortal gods; our second, to country; our third, to parents; and so on, in a descending scale, to the rest.

161 From this brief discussion, then, it can be understood that people are often in doubt not only whether an action is morally right or wrong, but also, when a choice is offered between two moral actions, which one is morally better. This point, as I remarked above, has been overlooked by Panaetius. But let us now pass on to what remains.


The Loeb Editor's Note:

1 Cicero is guilty of a curious fallacy. If it follows from his premises, (1) some one virtue is the highest virtue, and (2) the duties derived from the highest virtue are the highest duties, and if (3) wisdom is the highest virtue, then it can only follow that the duties derived from wisdom are the highest duties. But Cicero throws in a fourth premise that the "bonds of union between gods and men and the relations of man to man" are derived from wisdom, and therewith sidetracks wisdom and gives the duties derived from the social instinct the place from which wisdom has been shunted.

Cicero could not refrain from introducing a bit of theoretical speculation that has no value for his practical position — it actually prejudices it and confuses the reader.


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