The third part looks at what happens when moral goodness comes into conflict with expediency, its argument being: actually, honestum and utile can't really come into conflict, they can only appear to do so. In fact the most expedient thing to do in any given situation is always the morally good thing to do.
And what is the morally good thing to do? It is, says Cicero, to follow Nature. He repeatedly stresses this point, actually, and I'll come back to it. To be more specific: it is to act in the proper and fitting way with regard to yourself and your fellow men and women. You're entitled to your private property (Cicero is clear on that) but you also have a duty to help your fellow citizens, for example by assisting them when they are materially disadvantaged, or by contributing to the defence of the realm, or the maintenance of the rule of law. When it comes to the best way to act in yourself, you should at all times be guided by certain virtues. And here's where things get interesting, actually, because the one thing I thought I knew about the De Officiis before I read it turns out not to be quite right. I thought it was a book in which Cicero insisted upon those four virtues later medieval thinkers dubbed Cardinal: wisdom (sapientia), justice (iustitia), courage (fortitudo) and temperance (moderatio). And he kind of does. But then again, he kind of doesn't. It's complicated, in quite an interesting way.
So in 1:15 he specifically says that what is morally good derives from four sources: wisdom (which Cicero here calls ‘the perceptive and expert attention to the truth’: ‘in perspicientia veri sollertiaque versatur’); ‘the conservation of ordered society’, which is a way of saying justice I suppose; ‘greatness and strength’ which is at least a part of courage; and modesty and self-control (‘modestia et temperantia’).
Ah, but later in the De Officiis he proposes a slightly different set of four cardinal virtues: cognitionis, communitatis, magnanimitas and moderationis [1:152], where terms 1, 2 and 4 map fairly well on their respective terms in the classic ethical quadrivium, but where strength, or courage, has been replaced by magnanimity. Not the same thing at all! And then later on again [2:18] he says that ‘in general virtue can indeed be said to consist of three things’ (‘etenim virtus omnis tribus in rebus fere vertitur’): perspicacity (the ability to act ‘in perspiciendo’), the ability to restrain the passions, or feelings (‘quos Graeci πάθη nominant’, ‘what the Greeks call pathē’) and the ability to ‘treat with consideration and wisdom those with whom we are associated’, ‘quibuscum congregemur, uti moderate et scienter’. That's kind of wisdom, temperance and justice I suppose, although not precisely so.
And reading through the whole thing, I began to wonder if it isn't haunted by four entirely other virtues: irony, decorum, individuality and verecundia—this last a Latin word without an exact English equivalent (it's sometimes rendered as ‘modesty’, but that doesn't quite capture it. I wrote quite a long post about this very term over on my Coleridge blog, if you're interested). To take these, quickly, in reverse order: verecundia is praised at 1:127, where it is said to take its cue from Natura, or Nature. Individuality comes up several times (1:112, 1:121 and elsewhere) since one of Cicero's central arguments is that different people have different strengths, and proper honestum involves being true to those specificities. Decorum [eg at 1:17, 1:93] means something a little more refined and Henry-James-like than temperance:—really, it is tact. Blatant breaches of propriety are obvious, Cicero says, and so hardly worth noticing in a work such as this (aimed, we presume, at the more discerning reader who already knows better). His example of such blatant impropriety, hilariously enough, is singing in the street.
But flagrant breaches of good breeding, like singing in the streets or any other gross misconduct, are easily apparent and do not call especially for admonition and instruction. Nonetheless we must even more carefully avoid those seemingly trivial faults which pass unnoticed by the many. However slightly out of tune a harp or flute may be, the fault is still detected by a connoisseur; so we must be on the watch lest haply something in our life be out of tune—nay, rather, far greater is the need for painstaking, inasmuch as harmony of actions is far better and far more important than harmony of sounds.Which brings me to: irony—not quite the right word, I concede: but Cicero does several times stress the need to be eloquent as well as receptive in our conversation with others. Conversation is an art, he says [1:134] and one we must cultivate if we wish to live a virtuous life. Indeed, he goes into quite a lot of detail as to what are proper topics for conversation (home, politics and the professions, apparently), how to make it orderly and seasonable, and always to keep our interlocutors in mind. His model he says several times are the dialogues of the Socratic school, and of Socrates he says: ‘Socrates was fascinating and witty, a genial conversationalist; he was what the Greeks call εἴρων’ [1:108] an ironist, somebody who says less than they mean, or whose meaning is at odds with their words. From the context this looks like it means: he did not dominate the conversation, even though he could have done (being, naturally, the cleverest person present) but pretended ignorance, or otherwise left gaps for other people to fill. And that's clearly polite social practice. But I wonder if being an εἴρων, an ironist, might not have a more central role in Cicero's ethical schema than people have hitherto noticed.
Sed ea, quae multum ab humanitate discrepant, ut si qui in foro cantet, aut si qua est alia magna perversitas, facile apparet nec magnopere admonitionem et praecepta desiderat; quae autem parva videntur esse delicta neque a multis intellegi possunt, ab iis est diligentius declinandum. Ut in fidibus aut tibiis, quamvis paulum discrepent, tamen id a sciente animadverti solet, sic videndum est in vita ne forte quid diserepet, vel multo etiam magis, quo maior et melior actionum quam sonorum concentus est. [1:145]
The point of all this, I think, is that Cicero's ethics is not the schematic application of four (or three, or whatever) principles to everyday living. It is a matter of what the experts nowadays call ‘situational ethics’ (Rebecca Langlands's ‘Roman Exempla and Situation Ethics: Valerius Maximus and Cicero de Officiis’ [The Journal of Roman Studies, 101 (2011) 100-122] is good on this, although the article's focus is more on Valerius Maximus). It means that the experience of reading De Officiis is less about a kind of larger consistency than you might think. It's a bit repetitious; its examples don't necessarily illustrate its theses with perfect appositeness; in places it seems to contradict itself.
It's this, I think, that has led to the assumption among scholars that the three books of De Officiis ‘were dashed off at a remarkably quick rate’ [Andrew R. Dyck, A Commentary on Cicero, De Officiis (University of Michigan Press, 1996), 39], or even that the work is characterised by ‘a certain carelessness in structure and argument ... [and] a tendency to repetition’ [M. T. Griffin and E. M. Atkins, Cicero On Duties (Cambridge University Press, 1991) xix]. That may be true, but then again, it might be that Cicero specifically doesn't want a bugbear consistency of architectonic design to overwhelm his thesis. He is preaching to those, such as his son, who basically know how to act properly already. He is not establishing ethics by first principles; he is embroidering a set of already-accepted facets of interpersonal interactive praxis. I mean, we all already know not to do anything so vulgar as to sing in the street, surely. Don't we?
If what I've said makes it looks like De Officiis is in some sense a shonky or underbaked work, then its reception, especially viewed long-term, suggests anything but. Very few books in the entire history of western civilisation have had anything like the impact and influence this one has had. ‘The evidence to this effect,’ says Marcia Colish, ‘from the manuscript tradition, from the direct and indirect testimonia, and from the flood of both handwritten texts and printed editions in the fifteenth century is, in a word, overwhelming’ Over 600 manuscripts of the De Officiis survive, more than any other prose work. ‘Vernacular translations, no less than Latin texts, abounded in the Middle Ages, including Italian, German, and Icelandic versions and thirty-eight in Old French alone ... no less than thirty-four printed editions were published in the fifteenth century ... During the Middle Ages, it was the most authoritative, most frequently cited, and most commonly imitated treatise on classical ethics, considered both in itself and in conjunction with Christian ethics. Cicero's influence outstripped that of all other classical authors.’ [Marcia L. Colish, ‘Cicero's De Officiis and Machiavelli's Prince’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, 9:4 (1978), 81-82]
This influence, though, has not lasted.
That Cicero's stature among political thinkers has diminished in contemporary times is hardly news, but it is still astonishing to consider how far De Officiis in particular has fallen in the standard curriculum for students of politics in the West. Without going into the details of the story, one notes that Cicero's last philosophical project soon established itself as a standard pedagogical tool in late antiquity, that it became a common book in the medieval schools, that it was a key text in the curriculum of the Renaissance humanists, and that it held a preeminent position in both the grammar schools and the universities of the Enlightenment. Ambrose imitated the book, even borrowing its title; Thomas Aquinas cites it frequently in treating moral and political matters in the Summa Theologiae; Erasmus and Melanchthon each published editions of the text; Montesquieu was inspired by it and Kant against it. Indeed, if one compares lists of books commonly read by students of politics today with such lists from the past, the most striking difference would have to be the virtual omission of De Officiis from contemporary lists. [Douglas Kries, ‘On the Intention of Cicero's De Officiis’, The Review of Politics, 65:4 (2003), 375]I'm trying to think of another book whose influence has fallen off a cliff in quite the way this one's has. I'm really not sure I can.
I wonder if one reason for that is that the whole climate of ethical thought has shifted. Kant wanted to ground ethics in a comprehensive, internally coherent and viable logic. As Charles Taylor argues in his A Secular Age (2007) one consequence of the shift from a fundamentally religious-animist world to our present-day secular-materialist one is the rise of what Taylor calls the ‘Modern Moral Order’, which reconfigures morality in terms of following certain codes or norms within a ‘disciplinary society’ that rewards orderly practices throughout the entire population. Cicero's, by contrast, is an elitist ethical doctrine. At one point he discusses which professions and modes of life are compatible with honestum.
Now in regard to trades and other means of livelihood, which ones are to be considered becoming to a gentleman and which ones are vulgar: first, those means of livelihood are rejected as undesirable which incur people's ill-will, as those of tax-gatherers and usurers. Unbecoming to a gentleman, too, and vulgar are the means of livelihood of all hired workmen whom we pay for mere manual labour, not for artistic skill; for in their case the very wage they receive is a pledge of their slavery. Vulgar we must consider those also who buy from wholesale merchants to retail immediately; for they would get no profits without a great deal of downright lying; and verily, there is no action that is meaner than misrepresentation. And all mechanics are engaged in vulgar trades; for no workshop can have anything liberal about it. Least respectable of all are those trades which cater for sensual pleasures:He goes on to list, as examples of professions fitting for a moral person: medicine, architecture and teaching. But what's fascinating about this, I think, is that he is of course not suggesting that society as a whole could get along without cooks and fishermen, workmen and merchants, because (of course) it couldn't. He is tacitly saying: good morals are not for all. Honestum is for the elite, for people like Cicero and his son and not, if we're honest, for commoners like thee or me. That was how ethics, in the broadest sense, operated in Roman society, and also in medieval and Renaissance society. Ethics are universally assumed to be more inclusive now. And rightly so.
“Fishmongers, butchers, cooks, and poulterers,as Terence says. [Cicero, De Officiis, 1:150]
One thing that reading De Officiis made me wonder is: how far does this pre-‘Modern Moral Order’ book of ethics develops a farmer's rather than a hunter's ethics? I wouldn't want this to become my King Charles' Head where matters of physics, philosophy or morals are concerned, but it is surely a meaningful distinction. So: a hunter's ethics cannot put too high a priority on empathy—identify too closely with your prey and your ability to kill will become impaired, and you'll starve. But the farmer needs to husband his or her empathy: to understand what their crops and livestock need in order to flourish. The hunter needs to track and then overmaster; the farmer needs to slot themselves into the rhythms of the seasons, to attend to the order of nature. The hunter cuts across the natural cycle, sometimes literally so, to wrench life out of nature; the farmer aligns him/herself with the natural cycle to coax nature into doing its thing more fruitfully.
At any rate, I wonder if this may be a way of reading the De Officiis (particularly its Book 1), and its repeated emphasis on Natura.
Further, as to the duty which has its source in propriety, the first road on which it conducts us leads to harmony with Nature and the faithful observance of her laws. If we follow Nature as our guide, we shall never go astray ... for the very essence of propriety is found in the division of virtue which is now under discussion [temperance]. For it is only when they agree with Nature's laws that we should give our approval to the movements not only of the body, but still more of the spirit.This might present a more problematic theory of ethics if it aimed at absolute coherence (after all, what if ‘following your nature’ means being true to your essential Hannibal-Lecterishness?), but it presents, I think, less of a difficulty if we take Nature as the framing context for an agricultural being-in-the-world. When Cicero urges on us the need to treat others with respect and generosity, he uses this analogy:
Officium autem, quod ab eo ducitur, hanc primum habet viam, quae deducit ad convenientiam conservationemque naturae; quam si sequemur ducem, numquam aberrabimus sequemurque ... sed maxima vis decori in hac inest parte, de qua disputamus; neque enim solum corporis, qui ad naturam apti sunt, sed multo etiam magis animi motus probandi, qui item ad naturam accommodati sunt. [1:100]
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? [1:43]These agri fertiles, these fertile fields, imply ... what, ethically speaking? Moral organicism? Slowness? A seasonal component? Cicero closes book two with this anecdote about the Elder Cato.
To this class of comparisons belongs that famous saying of old Cato's: when he was asked what was the most profitable feature of an estate, he replied: “Raising cattle successfully.” What next to that? “Raising cattle with fair success.” And next? “Raising cattle with but slight success.” And fourth? “Raising crops.” And when his questioner said, “How about money-lending?” Cato replied: “How about murder?”For Cicero, the gentleman is really the gentleman farmer; and he remains the gentleman farmer even when he goes to war (at one point we're told, if you have to destroy and plunder a city, then at least do it carefully: ‘as to destroying and plundering cities, let me say that great care should be taken that nothing be done in reckless cruelty or wantonness’ [1:82]).
Ex quo genere comparationis illud est Catonis senis: a quo cum quaereretur, quid maxime in re familiari expediret, respondit: “Bene pascere”; quid secundum: “Satis bene pascere”; quid tertium: “Male pascere”; quid quartum: “Arare”; et cum ille, qui quaesierat, dixisset: “Quid faenerari?”, tum Cato: “Quid hominem,” inquit, “occidere?” [2:89]
Things are different now. The cash-nexus has become the idiom of the ‘Modern Moral Order’ because it reduces everything to an interchangeability; because it makes moral transgression itself fungible—if we have been morally outraged nowadays we expect financial compensation, the precisely amount to be calculated according to the gravity and extent of the outrage. Cicero would not have been impressed. De Officiis is a book that is simply out of time where such an arrangement holds.