Cicero: On Obligations

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BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
Cicero. On Obligations (De officiis). trans. P. G. Walsh. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Cicero functions as the same structure behind much classical ethical reasoning. He trains the reader to think in terms of a gradation of goods, higher and subordinate goods, something modern conservatives seem incapable of doing. The payoff in this line of reasoning is that it allows one to navigate the tricky waters of seeming ethical conflicts between two different goods.

Obligation precedes from what is honorable, and the honorable proceeds “from one or other of four virtues.” These virtues are ordered under truth.

Cicero gives a very shrewd defense of private property. He does not say that it is an absolute metaphysical right, and for a very good reason. We have a right to private property, and those who threaten it--like the US bureaucracy--commit a great evil. However, because it is established not by nature but by long standing custom, this means if we have property that was stolen from someone 10 generations ago, we don’t have to give it back. This protects the godly today from the evil wokist who tries to undo society. Later on he points out the evil of a property tax (2.74).

In 1.57 he talks of our duty to the state. What he means is our native land and commonwealth, not a bureaucracy. This, of course, would get him brought up on charges by Big Eva today.

Later on he moves to the category of the “fitting.” The fitting implies the honorable, and the honorable the fitting. What exactly is “the fitting?” That’s hard to define. The closest he comes to it is “keeping our life in balance” (1.111).

Cicero echoes Plato’s Phaedrus in that reason drives the chariot of the emotions.

Book 2 explains the life of virtue. Virtue detects the true, restrains the passions, and subjects impulses to reason (2.18). Virtues imply one another, so that a man who possesses one possesses all (2.35). This seems counterintuitive, as we know many people who don’t. There might be something to it, though. I think the point is that it is impossible to have just one virtue in isolation.

Book 3

Here is the problem: given that the Good exists, what do we do when what is good conflicts with what is advantageous? Cicero’s answer is that any disagreement is only apparent, since nature and goodness cannot be at variance.

As a Stoic, his argument is that there “can be no advantage in what is not right” (III.II.8). He then runs this template through several test cases. He defends property rights because violating these would cause the collapse of the human community, “the brotherhood of man.” This is the natural law, or nature’s rational principle.

Case study 1: Can a starving man take food from someone who was completely useless? Robbery is unnatural, but if the case were such that your robbery rendered a benefit to the community of men, then it isn’t wrong provided it is done for that reason. Nature’s law coincides with the common interest, and the common interest ordains that the means of subsistence be transferred to the starving.

Case study 2: Can you steal from a tyrant? Cicero’s answer is chillingly simple: there is nothing wrong in stealing from a man whom it is morally just to kill.

Another reason that the morally right cannot conflict with the advantageous is that doing wrong damages one’s soul. Wrongdoing leads to personal degradation.

There are other case studies dealing with insider trading, etc. Cicero’s conclusion is balanced: “Holding [knowledge] back doesn’t always amount to concealment; but it does when you want people, for your own profit, to be kept in the dark about something which you know and would be useful for them to know” (180).

Why? Nature is the source of law, and it is contrary to nature for one man to prey upon another’s ignorance.
 

arapahoepark

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
Thanks for this.
In what way can Cicero et al be used to cultivate ethics in conjunction with the Word, if at all?
 

A.Joseph

Puritan Board Junior
Food for thought.....

“That Cicero is an honorable man is not in doubt, but whether he was a wise man is another matter. In St. Augustine’s view Cicero misunderstood the nature of a republic to begin with.

...Jean Bethke Elshtain’s..book on sovereignty..cites Augustine’s critique of Cicero, who defined a republic as an assemblage of people of common interests.
Augustine [Book XIX, Chapter 23) makes the more unsettling claim that without faith in the true God, there can be neither republic nor people:

God rules the obedient city according to His grace, so that it sacrifices to none but Him, and whereby, in all the citizens of this obedient city, the soul consequently rules the body and reason the vices in the rightful order, so that, as the individual just man, so also the community and people of the just, live by faith, which works by love, that love whereby man loves God as He ought to be loved, and his neighbor as himself - there, I say, there is not an assemblage associated by a common acknowledgment of right, and by a community of interests. But if there is not this, there is not a people, if our definition be true, and therefore there is no republic; for where there is no people there can be no republic [emphasis added].No people, no republic: for Augustine the congregation comes first, then the people, and only afterwards its political life. But does Augustine intend to say that a people that does not recognize God is not a people to begin with? He means, I think, what Kevin Madigan and Jon Levenson wrote of the Biblical view of peoplehood in their book Resurrection, which I reviewed several weeks ago (Life and death in the Bible Asia Times Online, May 28, 2008). A people that foresees its own extinction experiences death in life, but God’s People, which believes it will endure forever, trusts in life beyond death.

It was the genius of the Church to create new peoples out of the chaos of Rome’s decline, and it was the tragedy of the Church to fail to meld them into a People. To Thomas Aquinas, as Elsthain notes, Christian universality was the overarching principal of political organization to which nations were subordinate. Aquinas, in fact, prescribes political organization only in one location, but his views are unambiguous.
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
Thanks for this.
In what way can Cicero et al be used to cultivate ethics in conjunction with the Word, if at all?

Basically see Book 19 of Augustine's City of God. Cicero provides you a grammar of reasoning. We see this when virtue cons would say, "You can't vote for the lesser of two evils." What they failed to understand is that "goods" are placed in a hierarchy
 

arapahoepark

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
Basically see Book 19 of Augustine's City of God. Cicero provides you a grammar of reasoning. We see this when virtue cons would say, "You can't vote for the lesser of two evils." What they failed to understand is that "goods" are placed in a hierarchy
I see. What about personal virtue? I initially meant that and the word 'ethics' escaped instead...Lol
 

bookslover

Puritan Board Doctor
Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC)

I have a four-volume collection of his letters, edited and annotated by Evelyn S. Shuckburgh and published in 1899 and 1900. There are more than 900 letters in these volumes, and they make for interesting reading. Mr. Shuckburgh did an excellent job.
 
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