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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,
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(Vol. XXI) Cicero
De Officiis

Book III

 p373  [25] 96 Since, however, in Book One we derived moral duties from the four sources of moral rectitude, let us continue the same fourfold division here in pointing out how hostile to virtue are those courses of conduct which seem to be, but really are not, expedient. We have discussed wisdom, which cunning seeks to counterfeit, and likewise justice, which is always expedient. There remain for our discussion two divisions of moral rectitude, the one of which is discernible in the greatness and pre-eminence of a superior soul, the other, in the shaping and regulation of it by temperance and self-control.

26 97 Ulysses thought his ruse expedient, as the tragic poets, at least, have represented him. In Homer, our most reliable authority, no such suspicion is cast upon him; but the tragedies charge him with trying to escape a soldier's service by feigning madness. The trick was not morally right, but, someone may perhaps say, "It was expedient for him to keep his throne and live at ease in Ithaca with parents, wife, and son. Do you think that there is any glory in facing daily toil and danger that can be compared with a life of such tranquillity?"

 p375  Nay; I think that tranquillity at such a price is to be despised and rejected; for if it is not morally right, neither is it expedient. 98 For what do you think would have been said of Ulysses, if he had persisted in that pretended madness, seeing that, notwithstanding his deeds of heroism in the war, he was nevertheless upbraided by Ajax thus:

" 'Twas he himself who first proposed the oath; ye all

Do know; yet he alone of all his vow did break;

He feigned persistently that he was mad, that thus

He might not have to join the host. And had not then

Palamedes, shrewd and wise, his tricky impudence

Unmasked, he had evaded e'en for aye his vow."

99 Nay, for him it had been better to battle not only with the enemy but also with the waves, as he did, than to desert Greece when she was united for waging the war against the barbarians.

But let us leave illustrations both from story and from foreign lands and turn to real events in our own history. Marcus Atilius Regulus in his second consulship was taken prisoner in Africa by the stratagem of Xanthippus, a Spartan general serving under the command of Hannibal's father Hamilcar.1 He was sent to the senate on parole, sworn to return to Carthage himself, if certain noble prisoners of war2 were not restored to the Carthaginians. When he came to Rome, he could not fail to see the  p377 specious appearance of expediency, but he decided that it was unreal, as the outcome proves. His apparent interest was to remain in his own country, to stay at home with his wife and children, and to retain his rank and dignity as an ex‑consul, regarding the defeat which he had suffered as a misfortune that might come to anyone in the game of war. Who says that this was not expedient? Who, think you? Greatness of soul and courage say that it was not. 27 100 Can you ask for more competent authorities? The denial comes from those virtues, for it is characteristic of them to await nothing with fear, to rise superior to all the vicissitudes of earthly life, and to count nothing intolerable that can befall a human being. What, then, did he do? He came into the senate and stated his mission; but he refused to give his own vote on the question; for, he held, he was not a member of the senate so long as he was bound by the oath sworn to his enemies. And more than that, he said — "What a foolish fellow," someone will say, "to oppose his own best interests" — he said that it was not expedient that the prisoners should be returned; for they were young men and gallant officers, while he was already bowed with age. And when his counsel prevailed, the prisoners were retained and he himself returned to Carthage; affection for his country and his family failed to hold him back. And even then he was not ignorant of the fact that he was going to a most cruel enemy and to exquisite torture; still, he thought his oath must be sacredly kept. And so even then, when he was being slowly put to death by enforced wakefulness, he enjoyed a happier lot than if he had remained at home an  p379 aged prisoner of war, a man of consular rank forsworn.

101 "But," you will say, "it was foolish of him not only not to advocate the exchange of prisoners but even to plead against such action!"

How was it foolish? Was it so, even if his policy was for the good of the state? Nay; can what is inexpedient for the state be expedient for any individual citizen?

28 People overturn the fundamental principles established by Nature, when they divorce expediency from moral rectitude. For we all seek to obtain what is to us expedient; we are irresistibly drawn toward it, and we cannot possibly be otherwise. For who is there that would turn his back upon what is to him expedient? Or rather, who is there that does not exert himself to the utmost to secure it? But because we cannot discover it anywhere except in good report, propriety, and moral rectitude, we look upon these three for that reason as the first and the highest objects of endeavour, while what we term expediency we account not so much an ornament to our dignity as a necessary incident to living.

102 "What significance, then," someone will say, "do we attach to an oath? It is not that we fear the wrath of Jove, is it? Not at all; it is the universally accepted view of all philosophers that God is never angry, never hurtful. This is the doctrine not only of those3 who teach that God is Himself free from troubling cares and that He imposes no trouble upon others, but also of those4 who believe that God is ever working and ever directing His world. Furthermore, suppose Jupiter had been  p381 wroth, what greater injury could He have inflicted upon Regulus than Regulus brought upon himself? Religious scruple, therefore, had no such preponderance as to outweigh so great expediency."

"Or was he afraid that his act would be morally wrong? As to that, first of all, the proverb says, 'Of evils choose the least.' Did that moral wrong, then, really involve as great an evil as did that awful torture? And secondly, there are the lines of Accius:


Hast thou broke thy faith?


None have I given; none give I ever to the faithless.

Although this sentiment is put into the mouth of a wicked king, still it is illuminating in its correctness."

103 Their third argument is this: just as we maintain that some things seem expedient but are not, so they maintain, some things seem morally right but are not. "For example," they contend, "in this very case it seems morally right for Regulus to have returned to torture for the sake of being true to his oath. But it proves not to be morally right, because what an enemy extorted by force ought not to have been binding."

As their concluding argument, they add: whatever is highly expedient may prove to be morally right, even if it did not seem so in advance.

These are in substance the arguments raised against the conduct of Regulus. Let us consider them each in turn.

29 104 "He need not have been afraid that Jupiter in anger would inflict injury upon him; he is not wont to be angry or hurtful."

 p383  This argument, at all events, has no more weight against Regulus's conduct than it has against the keeping of any other oath. But in taking an oath it is our duty to consider not what one may have to fear in case of violation but wherein its obligation lies: an oath is an assurance backed by religious sanctity; and a solemn promise given, as before God as one's witness, is to be sacredly kept. For the question no longer concerns the wrath of the gods (for there is no such thing) but the obligations of justice and good faith. For, as Ennius says so admirably:

"Gracious Good Faith, on wings upborne;

thou oath in Jupiter's great name!"

Whoever, therefore, violates his oath violates Good Faith; and, as we find it stated in Cato's speech, our forefathers chose that she should dwell upon the Capitol "neighbour to Jupiter Supreme and Best."

105 "But," objection was further made, "even if Jupiter had been angry, he could not have inflicted greater injury upon Regulus than Regulus brought upon himself." Quite true, if there is no evil except pain. But philosophers5 of the highest authority assure us that pain is not only not the supreme evil but no evil at all. And pray do not disparage Regulus, as no unimportant witness — nay, I am rather inclined to think he was the very best witness — to the truth of their doctrine. For what more competent witness do we ask for than one of the foremost citizens of Rome, who voluntarily faced torture for the sake of being true to his moral duty?

Again, they say, "Of evils choose the least" —  p385 that is, shall one "choose moral wrong rather than misfortune," or is there any evil greater than moral wrong? For if physical deformity excites a certain amount of aversion, how offensive ought the deformity and hideousness of a demoralized soul to seem! 106 Therefore, those6 who discuss these problems with more rigour make bold to say that moral wrong is the only evil, while those7 who treat them with more laxity do not hesitate to call it the supreme evil.

Once more, they quote the sentiment:

"None have I given, none give I ever to the faithless."

It was proper for the poet to say that, because, when he was working out his Atreus, he had to make the words fit the character. But if they mean to adopt it as a principle, that a pledge given to the faithless is no pledge, let them look to it that it be not a mere loophole for perjury that they seek.

107 Furthermore, we have laws regulating warfare, and fidelity to an oath must often be observed in dealings with an enemy: for an oath sworn with the clear understanding in one's own mind that it should be performed must be kept; but if there is no such understanding, it does not count as perjury if one does not perform the vow. For example, suppose that one does not deliver the amount agreed upon with pirates as the price of one's life, that would be accounted no deception — not even if one should fail to deliver the ransom after having sworn to do so; for a pirate is not included in the number of lawful enemies, but is not included in the number of lawful enemies, but is the common foe of all the world; and with him there ought not to be any pledged  p387 word nor any oath mutually binding. 108 For swearing to what is false is not necessarily perjury, but to take an oath "upon your conscience," as it is expressed in our legal formulas, and then fail to perform it, that is perjury. For Euripides aptly says:

"My tongue has sworn; the mind I have has sworn no oath."

But Regulus had no right to confound by perjury the terms and covenants of war made with an enemy. For the war was being carried on with a legitimate, declared enemy; and to regulate our dealings with such an enemy, we have our whole fetial8 code as well as many other laws that are binding in common between nations. Were this not the case, the senate would never have delivered up illustrious men of ours in chains to the enemy.

30 109 And yet that very thing happened. Titus Veturius and Spurius Postumius in their second consulship lost the battle at the Caudine Forks, and our legions were sent under the yoke. And because they made peace with the Samnites, those generals were delivered up to them, for they had made the peace without the approval of the people and senate. And Tiberius Numicius and Quintus Maelius, tribunes of the people, were delivered up at the same time, because it was with their sanction that the peace had been concluded. This was done in order that the peace with the Samnites might be annulled. And Postumius, the very man whose delivery was in question, was the proposer and advocate of the said delivery.

Many years later,9 Gaius Mancinus had a similar experience: he advocated the bill, introduced in  p389 accordance with a decree of the senate by Lucius Furius and Sextus Atilius, that he should be delivered up to the Numantines, with whom he had made a treaty without authorization from the senate; and when the bill was passed, he was delivered up to the enemy. His action was more honourable than Quintus Pompey's. Pompey's situation was identical with his, and yet at his own entreaty the bill was rejected. In this latter case, apparent expediency prevailed over moral rectitude; in the former cases, the false semblance of expediency was overbalanced by the weight of moral rectitude.

110 "But," they argued against Regulus, "an oath extorted by force ought not to have been binding." As if force could be brought to bear upon a brave man!

"Why, then, did he make the journey to the senate, especially when he intended to plead against the surrender of the prisoners of war?"

Therein you are criticizing what is the noblest feature of his conduct. For he was not content to stand upon his own judgment but took up the case, in order that the judgment might be that of the senate; and had it not been for the weight of his pleading, the prisoners would certainly have been restored to the Carthaginians; and in that case, Regulus would have remained safe at home in his country. But because he thought this not expedient for his country, he believed that it was therefore morally right for him to declare his conviction and to suffer for it.

When they argued also that what is highly expedient may prove to be morally right, they ought rather to say not that it "may prove to be" but that  p391 it actually is morally right. For nothing can be expedient which is not at the same time morally right; neither can a thing be morally right just because it is expedient, but it is expedient because it is morally right.

From the many splendid examples in history therefore, we could not easily point to one either more praiseworthy or more heroic than the conduct of Regulus.

31 111 But of all that is thus praiseworthy in the conduct of Regulus, this one feature above all others calls for our admiration: it was he who offered the motion that the prisoners of war be retained. For the fact of his returning may seem admirable to us, nowadays, but in those times he could not have done otherwise. That merit, therefore, belongs to the age, not to the man. For our ancestors were of the opinion that no bond was more effective in guaranteeing good faith than an oath. That is, clearly proved by the laws of the Twelve Tables, by the "sacred" laws,10 by the treaties in which good faith is pledged even to the enemy, by the investigations made by the censors and the penalties, imposed by them; for there were no cases in which they used to render more rigorous decisions than in cases of violation of an oath.

112 Marcus Pomponius, a tribune of the people, brought an indictment against Lucius Manlius, Aulus's son, for having extended the term of his dictatorship a few days beyond its expiration. He further charged him with having banished his own son Titus (afterward surnamed Torquatus) from all companionship with his fellow-men, and with requiring him to live in the country. When the son, who  p393 was then a young man, heard that his father was in trouble on his account, he hastened to Rome — so the story goes — and at daybreak presented himself at the house of Pomponius. The visitor was announced to Pomponius. Inasmuch as he thought that the son in his anger meant to bring him some new evidence to use against the father, he arose from his bed, asked all who were present to leave the room, and sent word to the young man to come in. Upon entering, he at once drew a sword and swore that he would kill the tribune on the spot, if he did not swear an oath to withdraw the suit against his father. Constrained by the terror of the situation, Pomponius gave his oath. He reported the matter to the people, explaining why he was obliged to drop the prosecution, and withdrew his suit against Manlius. Such was the regard for the sanctity of an oath in those days.

And that lad was the Titus Manlius who in the battle on the Anio killed the Gaul by whom he had been challenged to single combat, pulled off his torque and thus won his surname. And in his third consulship he routed the Latins and put them to flight in the battle on the Veseris. He was one of the greatest of the great, and one who, while more than generous toward his father, could yet be bitterly severe toward his son.

32 113 Now, as Regulus deserves praise for being true to his oath, so those ten whom Hannibal sent to the senate on parole after the battle of Cannae deserve censure, if it is true that they did not return; for they were sworn to return to the camp which had fallen into the hands of the Carthaginians, if they did not succeed in negotiating an exchange  p395 of prisoners. Historians are not in agreement in regard to the facts. Polybius, one of the very best authorities, states that of the ten eminent nobles who were sent at that time, nine returned when their mission failed at the hands of the senate. But one of the ten, who, a little while after leaving the camp, had gone back on the pretext that he had forgotten something or other, remained behind at Rome; he explained that by his return to the camp he was released from the obligation of his oath. He was wrong; for deceit does not remove the guilt of perjury — it merely aggravates it. His cunning that impudently tried to masquerade as prudence was, therefore, only folly. And so the senate ordered that the cunning scoundrel should be taken back to Hannibal in chains.

114 But the most significant part of the story is this: the eight thousand prisoners in Hannibal's hands were not men that he had taken in the battle or that had escaped in the peril of their lives, but men that the consuls Paulus and Varro had left behind in camp. Though these might have been ransomed by a small sum of money, the senate voted not to redeem them, in order that our soldiers might have the lesson planted in their hearts that they must either conquer or die. When Hannibal heard this news, according to that same writer, he lost heart completely, because the senate and the people of Rome displayed courage so lofty in a time of disaster. Thus apparent expediency is outweighed when placed in the balance against moral rectitude.

115 Gaius Acilius, on the other hand, the author of a history of Rome in Greek, says that there were several who played the same trick returning to  p397 the camp to release themselves thus from the obligation of their oath, and that they were branded by the censors with every mark of disgrace.

Let this be the conclusion of this topic. For it must be perfectly apparent that acts that are done with a cowardly, craven, abject, broken spirit, as the act of Regulus would have been if he had supported in regard to the prisoners a measure that seemed to be advantageous for him personally, but disadvantageous for the state, or if he had consented to remain at home — that such acts are not expedient, because they are shameful, dishonourable, and immoral.

33 116 We have still left our fourth division comprising propriety, moderation, temperance, self-restraint, self-control.

Can anything be expedient, then, which is contrary to such a chorus of virtues? And yet the Cyrenaics, adherents of the school of Aristippus, and the philosophers who bear the name of Anniceriansº find all good to consist in pleasure and consider virtue praiseworthy only because it is productive of pleasure. Now that these schools are out of date, Epicurus has come into vogue — an advocate and supporter of practically the same doctrine. Against such a philosophy we must fight it out "with horse and foot," as the saying is, if our purpose is to defend and maintain our standard of moral rectitude.

117 For if, as we find it in the writings of Metrodorus, not only expediency but happiness in life depends wholly upon a sound physical constitution and the reasonable expectation that it will always remain sound, then that expediency — and, what is more, the highest expediency, as they estimate it — will  p399 assuredly clash with moral rectitude. For first of all, what position will wisdom occupy in that system? The position of collector of pleasures from every possible source? What a sorry state of servitude for a virtue — to be pandering to sensual pleasure! And what will be the function of wisdom? To make skilful choice between sensual pleasures? Granted that there may be nothing more pleasant, what can be conceived more degrading for wisdom than such a rôle?

Then again, if anyone hold that pain is the supreme evil, what place in his philosophy has fortitude, which is but indifference to toil and pain? For, however many passages there are in which Epicurus speaks right manfully of pain, we must nevertheless consider not what he says, but what it is consistent for a man to say who has defined the good in terms of pleasure and evil in terms of pain.

And further, if I should listen to him, I should find that in many passages he has a great deal to say about temperance and self-control; but "the water will not run," as they say. For how can he commend self-control and yet posit pleasure as the supreme good? For self-control is the foe of the passions, and the passions are the handmaids of pleasure.

118 And yet when it comes to these three cardinal virtues, those philosophers shift and turn as best they can, and not without cleverness. They admit wisdom into their system as the knowledge that provides pleasures and banishes pain; they clear the way for fortitude also in some way to fit in with their doctrines, when they teach that it is a rational means for looking with indifference upon death and  p401 for enduring pain. They bring even temperance in — not very easily, to be sure, but still as best they can; for they hold that the height of pleasure is found in the absence of pain. Justice totters or rather, I should say, lies already prostrate; so also with all those virtues which are discernible in social life and the fellowship of human society. For neither goodness nor generosity nor courtesy can exist, any more than friendship can, if they are not sought of and for themselves, but are cultivated only for the sake of sensual pleasure or personal advantage.

Let us now recapitulate briefly.

119 As I have shown that such expediency as is opposed to moral rectitude is no expediency, so I maintain that any and all sensual pleasure is opposed to moral rectitude. And therefore Calliphon and Dinomachus, in my judgment, deserve the greater condemnation; they imagined that they should settle the controversy by coupling pleasure with moral rectitude; as well yoke a man with a beast! But moral rectitude does not accept such a union; she abhors it, spurns it. Why, the supreme good, which ought to be simple, cannot be a compound and mixture of absolutely contradictory qualities. But this theory I have discussed more fully in another connection; for the subject is a large one. Now for the matter before us.

120 We have, then, fully discussed the problem how a question is to be decided, if ever that which seems to be expediency clashes with moral rectitude. But if, on the other hand, the assertion is made that pleasure admits of a show of expediency also, there can still be no possible union between it and moral rectitude. For, to make the most generous admission  p403 we can in favour of pleasure, we will grant that it may contribute something that possibly gives some spice to life, but certainly nothing that is really expedient.

121 Herewith, my son Marcus, you have a present from your father — a generous one, in my humble opinion; but its value will depend upon the spirit in which you receive it. And yet you must welcome these three books as fellow-guests so to speak, along with your notes on Cratippus's lectures. But as you would sometimes give ear to me also, if I had come to Athens (and I should be there now, if my country had not called me back with accents unmistakable, when I was half-way there), so you will please devote as much time as you can to these volumes, for in them my voice will travel to you; and you can devote to them as much time as you will. And when I see that you take delight in this branch of philosophy, I shall then talk further with you — at an early date,11 I hope, face to face — but as long as you are abroad, I shall converse with you thus at a distance. Farewell, my dear Cicero, and be assured that, while you are the object of my deepest affection, you will be dearer to me still, if you find pleasure in such counsel and instruction.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 Cicero is careless in his dates. Regulus was consul in 267 and 256. He was defeated and taken prisoner in his second proconsulship at the battle of Tunes in 255. And the Hamilcar of 255 was not Hannibal's father, for his career does not begin until 257, when he was a mere youth, and he was still in his prime when he fell in battle in Spain, in 229.

2 At the battle of Panormus in 250 Lucius Caecilius Metellus took among the prisoners no less than thirteen Carthaginian generals — all men of noble birth.

3 The Epicureans.

4 The Stoics.

5 The Stoics.

6 The Stoics.

7 The Peripatetics.

8 See Index, s. v.

Thayer's Note: I haven't reproduced the index — and the article Fetiales in Smith's Dictionary goes into the matter much more thoroughly.

9 184 years, i.e., in B.C. 137.

10 "Sacred" laws, according to Festus (p318), were laws that placed their transgressor, together with his household and his property, under the ban of some divinity; other authorities limit the term to the laws enacted upon the Sacred Mount (B.C. 394).

11 But Cicero never saw his son Marcus again.

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