Fathers and sons. Cicero’s ‘De Officiis.’

1. 15th c. manuscript containing Cicero’s De Officiis. Vaticanus Palatinus lat. 1534, fol. 1r. Image: wikimedia.

2. Cicero, De Officiis 1.1. Translated by Thomas Habinek 2012:

To my dear son Marcus: Now that you’ve spent a year listening to Cratippus (in Athens at that!), you must be well stocked with philosophical precepts and guidelines, thanks to the great authority of a teacher and a city that can supply you with theoretical knowledge and practical examples respectively. Still, I’ve always found it helpful to use both Latin and Greek, in philosophy as well as rhetorical exercise, and I’d advise you to do the same to develop equal competence in both languages. To that end, I believe I’ve done our countrymen a real service: those who read Greek in the original — as well as those who don’t — believe that they’ve gained something useful for both public speaking and personal moral deliberation.

3. Cicero, De Officiis 1.3. Translated by Thomas Habinek 2012:

And so, Marcus, I strongly encourage you to study both my speeches and my philosophical treatises, which are almost as numerous. The speeches are more forceful, but a mild and restrained style is worth developing as well.

4. Cicero, De Officiis 1.14. Translated by Thomas Habinek 2012:

It’s no small expression of the power of nature and reason that we alone among animate beings sense order, grace and measure in words and deeds. In the case of visual perception, no other animal recognizes beauty, charm and the interrelationship of parts. Carrying the analogy from eyes to soul, nature and reason consider it all the more important to preserve beauty, consistency and order in thought and deed. They are on their guard against ugly and effeminate behaviour, and against any and every lustful thought or action. From these qualities, honourable conduct, which is our goal, is forged and fashioned. Even if it doesn’t characterize the aristocracy, it’s still honourable, just as our truthful discussion, even if no one praises it, earns the praise of nature.

5. Cicero, De Officiis 1.56-57. Translated by Thomas Habinek 2012:

But of all human associations none is more remarkable or more secure than the friendship formed by good men who have similar modes of life. The goodness or integrity I often describe, if we actually observe it in others, inspires us and makes us friendly towards those who seem to possess it. And although every virtue is attractive and leads us to cherish its possessors, justice and generosity especially prompt this reaction Moreover, nothing is more lovable, more binding, than shared good morals. People who have the same pursuits and preferences come to derive as much joy from each other as from themselves. As Pythagoras says of friendship, one person is formed from several. The sense of community generated by free exchange of kindnesses is indeed great. As long as they are welcome and mutual, such benefits create a steadfast bond between those who share them.

When you make a complete mental inventory of all associations, none is more important or more precious than the bond joining each of us to the state. Parents are dear, children are dear, so are relatives and friends; but all affectionate relationships are encompassed by our country, and no good man would hesitate to face death for its benefit. Is there anything more outrageous than the monstrous behaviour of those who have ravaged their ancestral homeland with every kind of crime, and are and have been obsessed with its utter destruction?

6. Cicero, De Officiis 1.68. Translated by Thomas Habinek 2012:

For it isn’t consistent for a soul unbroken by fear to be broken by desire, or for a person who survives an ordeal undefeated by pleasure. So desire and pleasure should be avoided, and longing for money should be rejected. Nothing so marks a mean and narrow soul as love of riches; and nothing is more honourable and grand than to despise money, if you don’t have it — and if you do have it, to use it for acts of kindness and generosity. We should be wary even of desire for glory, as I have indicated. It destroys liberty, which ought to be the goal of any struggle on the part of great-souled men. There must be no pursuing military commands; on occasion they should even be turned down or laid aside.

7. Cicero, De Officiis 1.77. Translated by Thomas Habinek 2012. See Cicero’s poetry.

And so I affirm the saying, ‘Let weapons yield to the toga, let the military laurel give way to panegyric (cedant arma togae concedat laurea laudi),’ even though jealous scoundrels attack me for doing so.

8. Cicero, De Officiis 1.113-114. Translated by Thomas Habinek 2012:

Consider how much Ulysses endured in his years of wandering: his enslavement to women-if you can call Circe and Calypso women! -his eagerness to please in every conversation. Even at home he put up with abuse from slaves and serving-girls, in order to get, someday, what he was after. But the temperament of Ajax, was such, we are told, that he would have preferred to face death a thousand times rather than suffer as Odysseus did. Each of us who looks to their example will feel obliged to take account of our own sense of self, refusing to alter it or to test whether others’ practices suit us. What best suits each person is whatever is most his own.

As a result, everyone should get to know his own disposition and become a stern judge of his own good and bad behavior. Otherwise theatre people will seem to have more insight than we do. They select not the best dramas but those best suited to their talents… Will a wise man fail to recognize in life what an actor can see onstage (ergo histrio hoc uidebit in scena, non uidebit sapiens uir in uita)?

9. Henriette van der Blom, “A family exemplum.” Cicero’s Role Models (2010), p319:

‘Even so, it is striking that Cicero recommends a path other than that taken by himself. Might it be a recognition of Marcus’ talents as being weightier in military than in oratorical fields? Or is this recommendation a surrender to the general notion of military gloria as worth more than oratorical brilliance, in spite of Cicero’s own defence of oratory as equally important? Or is it simply a reflection of the context of civil war and political unrest in which Cicero wrote.’

10. Henriette van der Blom, Henriette van der Blom, “A family exemplum.” Cicero’s Role Models (2010), p319:

‘This is another hint to Marcus’ inherited paternal glory and to the fact that Marcus will always be known as the son of his father, whether taken positively or negatively. Cicero continues his discussion not by encouraging Marcus to pursue a civil career, but instead suggesting the military way. This suggestion comes in connection with Cicero’s discussion of the way in which homines novi usually climbed up in society, namely through military service. Cicero’s mention of Pompey’s praise of Marcus indicates, however, that Marcus wanted to follow the military way, even if civil war was making such a step problematic. This passage touches on the problems faced by homines novi, and young ambitious men in general, in their attempts to reach political offices and military glory during the civil war. Despite these difficult circumstances, Cicero manages to present Marcus as exemplary, which was a good way of gaining his son’s attention, but perhaps also an attempt to accord praise to the Tullii Cicerones among the broader audience of this work. Even so, it is striking that Cicero recommends a path other than that taken by himself. Might it be a recognition of Marcus’ talents as being weightier in military than in oratorical fields? Or is this recommendation a surrender to the general notion of military gloria as worth more than oratorical brilliance, in spite of Cicero’s own defence of oratory as equally important? Or is it simply a reflection of the context of civil war and political unrest in which Cicero wrote?’

11. Michele Kennerly, “Sermo and Stoic Sociality in Cicero’s De Officiis,” Rhetorica (2010), pp128-129:

As Catulus senior and junior both recognized, there were some Roman rhetorical situations in which it was unquestionably to the orator’s advantage to assume a conversational tone and regular Gaius stance. When an orator approached his audience in such a way and succeeded in identifying with them, he had aptly demonstrated an element of Stoic social oikeiosis. Social oikeiosis extends from a more basic sort of oikeiosis through which creatures adjust themselves to conditions and contingencies in ways optimal to (that is, in accordance with) their respective natures. Animals (human included) perceive themselves and “are conscious of their own constitution” from womb exit to tomb entrance. In his Letters, Seneca explains oikeiosis with reference to toddlers and tortoises. A tot, teetering in her first efforts to walk, might tumble repeatedly, but she will fight through tears and imbalance to stand on her two legs as nature intends. A tortoise rolled over onto its shell does not suffer in that position (though the tortoise might say otherwise, if it could), but nevertheless it strains itself to flip back onto its tummy, its natural stance. Each creature, by instinct or imitation, knows which positions or actions are appropriate to itself and which are alien. Social oikeiosis pertains to the nature of a creature’s interactions with others to whom it is related (by species, language, government, city, family, etc.). The Stoic Hierocles describes our other-orientation as resulting from our needs and nature as social animals. “For this reason,” he explains, “we inhabit cities; for there is no human being who is not part of a city. Secondly, we make friendships easily.By eating together or sitting together in the theatre . . .”;’


Cicero’s ‘De Natura Deorum.’

1. Harley 4662. 15th c. manuscript containing Cicero’s De Natura Deorum. White vine initial ‘C’. Image: British Library.

2. P. A. Brunt, ‘Philosophy and Religion in the Late Republic.’ Philosophia Togata I (1989), pp175:

‘Romans were certainly conscious that philosophic teaching was at variance with inherited religious practices and beliefs. For example, Varro (as we know through St. Augustine) followed an unidentified Greek thinker in distinguishing three types of theology, three ways of giving an account of the divine: mythical, natural, and political. Mythical theology was purveyed by the poets, natural by the philosophers, and political in the laws an civil customs of the state. Of course the poets told and interpreted the myths in various ways, the theories of the philosophers were diverse, and each people had its own gods and cults, though often ready enough, and none readier than the Romans to equate their own with foreign deities or to borrow from other peoples; still in Cicero’s epigram ‘sua cuique religio, nostra nobis’ (Flac. 69).’

3a. Cicero, De Natura Deorum (1.1). Translated by P. G. Walsh (1998):

There are many issues in philosophy which to this day have by no means been adequately resolved. But there is one enquiry, Brutus, which is particularly difficult and obscure, as you are well aware. This concerns the nature of the gods, the noblest of studies for the human mind to grasp, and one vital for the regulation of religious observance. On this question, the pronouncements of highly learned men are so varied and so much at odds with each other that inevitably they strongly suggest that the explanation is human ignorance, and that the Academics have been wise to withhold assent on matters of such uncertainty; for what can be more degrading than rash judgement, and what can be so rash and unworthy of the serious and sustained attention of a philosopher, as either to hold a false opinion or to defend without hesitation propositions inadequately examined or grasped?

3b. Cicero, De Natura Deorum (1.9). Translated by P. G. Walsh (1998):

A further incentive to embark on these studies was provided by the mental depression induced by the savage and crippling blow inflicted by fortune. Had I been able to devise some more effective alleviation, I should not have taken refuge in this. But I could find no better means of exploiting this plan of action than by devoting myself not merely to a course of reading, but also to grappling with the whole philosophy. The easiest way to gain acquaintance with all its constituent parts and branches is to deal with the topics fully in writing, for the arguments follow an ordered sequence in a remarkable way, each being clearly linked to its predecessor and all of them fitting closely in association with each other.

4. Cicero, De Natura Deorum (2.93). Translated by  P. G. Walsh (1998):

I cannot but express astonishment at this, that anyone could convince himself that certain solid, indivisible bodies are borne along by their thrust and weight, and that from the chance collision of these bodies is created a universe supremely embellished and beautiful. In my view, anyone who imagines that this could have happened, must logically have believe that if countless numbers of the twenty-one letters of the alphabet, fashioned in gold or in some other substance, were thrown into the same receptacle and then shaken out upon the ground, they could form the Annals of Ennius made immediately readable before our eyes. Yet I doubt if as much as a single line could be so assembled by chance.

5a. Cicero, De Natura Deorum (2.12). Translated by  P. G. Walsh (1998):

Augurs wield great authority, and we must surely grant that the soothsayers’ skill is divinely inspired. Any person observing these examples, and countless others of the same kind, would surely be compelled to admit that gods exist. People who employ spokesmen must themselves assuredly exist, and since the gods have spokesmen, we must conceded that gods exist. Perhaps it may be objected that all does not turn out as predicted. But we do not argue that there is no art of medicine, simply because all sick persons do not get better! The gods reveal signs of future events, and if individuals go astray in interpreting these, the fault lies not with the nature of the gods, but with the inferences made by humans. So there is a general agreement amongst all persons of every nation. All have an innate conviction that gods exist, for it is, so to say, engraved on their hearts.

5b. Cicero, De Divinatione (1.15). Translated by W. A. Falconer (1923):

Who could suppose that frogs had this foresight? And yet they do have by nature some faculty of premonition, clear enough of itself, but too dark for human comprehension [Cic., Prognostica]:

Slow, clumsy oxen, their glances upturned to the light of the heavens,
Sniff at the air with their nostrils and know it is freighted with moisture.

I do not ask why, since I know what happens.

Now ’tis a fact that the evergreen mastic, e’er burdened with leafage,
Thrice is expanding and budding and thrice producing its berries;
Triple its signs for the purpose of showing three seasons for ploughing.

Now do I ever enquire why this tree alone blooms three times, or why it makes the appearance of its blossoms accord with my knowledge that it does, although I may not know why.

6. Cicero, De Natura Deorum (2.70). Translated by  P. G. Walsh (1998):

So do you now realize how the admirable and useful discoveries about the natural world have resulted in the creation of false and fictitious deities? This process has given rise to false beliefs, confused misapprehension, and superstitions which are virtually old wives’ tales. We are informed what the gods look like, how old they are, what clothes they wear and what arms they bear, as well as about their family backgrounds, marriages, and kinships; all these details about them are reduced to the level of human frailties. They are even presented as being emotionally disturbed, for we are told of their lusts, anxieties, and outbursts of anger; those tales have it that they also participate in wars and battles, not merely as in the Homeric accounts where they separate and take sides on behalf of opposing armies, but also waging their private wars, for example with the Titans, and with the Giants. These idiotic narratives induce idiotic beliefs; they are utterly unprofitable and frivolous.

7. Cicero, De Natura Deorum (2.60-62). Translated by P. G. Walsh (1998):

With some justification, however, both the wisest men of Greece and our own ancestors have set up and lent names to many other divine natures because of the great benefits which they have conferred. They did this because they believed that anything which bestows some great service on the human race did not originate without divine beneficence. So they then applied the name of the deity itself to what that deity had brought forth. This is why we call corn Ceres, and wine Liber, as in that tag of Terence [Eunuchus 732]:

Ceres and Liber, if not there,
The heat of Venus do impair.

A further instance is when some concepts embodies a greater significance; its title then acknowledges that significance as divine. Examples are Faith and Mind, both of which we observe have been recently enshrined on the capitol by M. Aemilius Scaurus, Faith having earlier been lent divine status by Aulus Atilius Caiatinus. Before your eyes stands a temple of Virtue and Honor, which was restored by Marcus Marcellus, and which was dedicated many years earlier by Quintus Maximus during the war with Liguria. Need I mention the temples of Wealth, Safety, Concord, Freedom, Victory? In each case the impact of these concepts was so great that it could be controlled only by a god, and thus the concepts themselves gained the titles of gods. Desire, Pleasure, and Sexual Joy have similarly been deified; these are vicious and unnatural forces, even if Velleius thinks otherwise, for these very vices rage too fiercely, and banish our natural instincts. So these gods which spawned these several blessings have owed their divine status to the great benefits which they bestowed, and the power residing in each deity is indicated by the names which I cited a moment ago.”

8. Cicero, De Natura Deorum (2.167). Translated by P. G. Walsh (1998):

Our conclusion is that no great man ever existed without a measure of divine inspiration. We are not to reject this thesis just because a storm has damaged someone’s cornfields or vineyards, or because misfortune has deprived a person of one of life’s benefits, inducing us to consider the recipient of such misfortune as the victim of divine hatred or neglect. The gods attend to important issues, and disregard minor things.