On Duties, by Cicero

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BC–43 BC) was a Roman statesman, orator, and philosopher. Cicero is perhaps most famous for his extensive comments on Greek philosophy. His writings on stoicism, epicureanism, and skepticism, among other things, demonstrated that philosophy could be done in latin and preserved much ancient Greek thought for later generations.

Cicero lived in the final days of the Roman republic, which is why his books and letters are often treated as historical documents. However, Cicero can also be read as a philosopher in his own right. He is no Plato or Aristotle, but Cicero’s philosophy is insightful and should be considered as a timeless resource for moral and political theorists.

Cicero’s On Duties (De Officiis), written the year before he was beheaded by the Second Triumvirate, is one of the most important latin texts ever produced. It was the third book to be printed following the invention of the printing press (after the Gutenberg Bible and Donatus’s Ars grammatica). On Duties influenced Voltaire, John Locke, and the founding fathers of the United States, among others. It is well worth reading as an original philosophical treatise.

In the book, Cicero discusses how one should live. He explicates his theory of what is honorable and beneficial, and how apparent conflicts between the two notions should be understood. The theory is republican. Cicero is interested in life in society, and what honor entails given that human beings need to think of themselves as inherently tied to the social bonds of society.

Cicero argues that those who have the capacity should devote their lives to the public sphere to improve the interests of the republic. This may appear as a collectivist duty. However, Cicero argues that it cannot be fulfilled if one neglects one’s individual nature. We ought to deliberate about our nature as particular individual beings, in addition to deliberations of our nature as humans in general, and become ”good calculators of our duties” (1.59).

The interest in Roman philosophy has grown among scholars in recent years. While historians may be at the forefront of this development, philosophers are not far behind. For those who want to jump on the republican philosophy train, On Duties may be the right platform.

Cicero, M. T. (Griffin, M. T., & Atkins, E. M., Eds.) (1991). On Duties. Cambridge University Press.