Cicero’s Political Imperative



“Ad honestatem nati sumus.”[1]


On Duties, III. 35



Who is Cicero?  What is On Duties


Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) was one of antiquity’s truly great minds, one of human history’s truly extraordinary men.  Prosecutor, defense attorney, politician, philosopher, historian, poet, father and friend; in his political prime (63 BC) Cicero was the chief-executive of the Roman state, while in his final years (45-44 BC) he was witness to the most tumultuous period in Republican history: Julius Caesar’s defeat of the Republican armies in the civil war of 49-46 BC.  Caesar’s victory marked the end of senatorial governance—the end of the Roman Republic, and the beginnings of the Julian-Claudian dynasty of Roman emperors. 

The change was not without blood.  Wartime casualties had decimated the leadership of the senatorial party.  Most spectacular among the casualties was that of Cato the Younger.  Cato had been both the moral center of the senatorial party and the leader of its forces in Africa.  Preceded by defeats in Italy, Spain, and Greece; Africa was the Republic’s first last stand.  When victory was no longer to be hoped for, unable to face Caesar’s clementia[2], Cato chose to take his own life.  His was the first in a series of stoic inspired suicides devastating to both the moral and military leadership of the Republican cause.  In On Duties Cicero defends and even lauds the suicide. 

Did Marcus Cato find himself in one predicament, and were the others who surrendered to Caesar in Africa, in another?  And yet perhaps, they would have been condemned, if they had taken their lives; for their mode of life had been less austere and their characters more pliable.  But Cato had been endowed by nature with an austerity beyond belief . . . it was for him to die rather than to look upon the face of a tyrant. [1.122]


Little did Cicero know what losses that act, and perhaps his own praise of it, would entail for the Republic.  Cato’s suicide may well have relieved his own great soul of an impossible future, but for the future leaders of the Republican resistance it set an evil precedent.  Brutus, the moral leader of the assassins of Caesar, and Cassius, their military genius, would follow Cato’s example.  At the battle of Phillipi in October of 42 BC, despairing of a victory not yet lost, they would both committed suicide. So went the Republic’s last last stand. With the deaths Brutus and Cassius, the pretenses—if not the hopes—of the Republic would fall first on Pompey’s son Sextus.  He would be dispatched in 35 BC.  For an uneasy decade Octavian and Antonius would rule the empire jointly—Octavian supreme in the West, Antony lord of the East.  To seal their pact Octavian offered his sister in marriage to Antony.  But political convenience was no match for Cleopatra.  Antonius divorced Octavia; war soon followed.  Antonius and Cleopatra would be defeated at the sea-battle of Actium in 31 BC.  Soon thereafter and finally, the Roman Republic of Cicero and Cato would give way to the res publica restituta of Augustus, and ultimately to the Roman Empire of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero.

But in the autumn of 44 BC all that lay far in the unforeseeable future. Caesar’s murder had not brought the return of the Republic.  It merely transformed the struggle for monarchic dominance into a long and protracted contest between the de facto leader of the Caesarian party, Marc Antony, and Caesar’s heir and adopted son, Octavian. Antony had thought he himself would be Caesar’s heir.  But blood proved thicker than water.  Octavian was the son of Caesar’s niece.  Accepting the inheritance, he entered the fray, a surprise newcomer to the political struggle.  The transformation from presumptuous unknown to co-leader of the Caesarian party was a long and treacherous road.  Octavian’s adoptive name—C. Julius Caesar—would take him the first part of the way[3], his own political skills and several doses of Caesarian Fortuna would carry him to the goal.  As ‘Augustus’ he would reign over a peaceful and united empire till his death in 14 AD.

Cicero’s luck would not run so far.  Six months after the assassination of Julius Caesar, Cicero stood practically alone in defense of the Republican cause.   While the dictator still lived, friendship (and indebtedness) had muted his opposition to Caesar.  No such constraints would limit his hostility to Caesar’s immediate successor, Marc Antony.  After some vacillation, Cicero finally resolved to take up the task—to become the new Cato and give his all against odds seemingly insurmountable.[4]  With no army at his command, no clientela of stalwart supporters at his back, no party following his lead, with nothing but his eloquence and the memory of Cato’s example and resolve, Cicero faced Antony alone.  When Caesar’s heir appeared on the scene, Cicero took a gamble.  Reasoning that he could ‘lift up and discard’ the newcomer, in the autumn and winter of 44-43 BC he recruited Octavian to the Republican cause.  Both Cicero and Octavian shared a goal:  to split the loyalty of Caesar’s troops, depriving Antony of the base of his power—a well-trained and devoted army.   Octavian would play Cicero’s game, but only so long as it suited him.  In the end treachery served him better.  Or as the publicity machine of ‘Augustus’ would have it: Pietas proved stronger than Republican nostalgia.[5]  In the end Octavian had his own singular goal: to avenge the murder of his great uncle, to have the heads of Brutus and Cassius, and perhaps even to have the throne of Rome for himself.  At a crucial point of the struggle Octavian broke with Cicero, made peace with Antony, and regretfully (they say[6]) allowed Antony to have Cicero’s head— Cicero, who had swore to the Senate “that Gaius Caesar will always be such a citizen as he is today, such as we must most wish and pray for him to be.”[7]

In this political maelstrom came the last great products of Cicero’s political and philosophical career—the philosophical treatise On Duties and the speeches against Antonius, known collectively as the Philippics.  Both the speeches and the treatise were begun in the autumn of 44 BC, one half year after Caesar’s assassination.  Together they hold our single most valuable clues to reconstructing Cicero’s mature and final political and moral stance. Together they contain the logic and tactics, the rhetorical product and theoretical basis of his last great political effort.  But this is only their historical value.

The crisis and fall of the Republic left Cicero in no mood for purely speculative concerns, in no mood for splitting philosophical hairs.  The darkness of the times required clear moral imperatives.  In contrast to Socrates, who had maintained ad nauseam that he “only knew that he did not know,” Cicero declares: “Our point is not simply to raise difficulties, but to settle them!”[8]   In contrast to the works of Plato and Aristotle so rife with interpretive puzzles, On Duties is adamantly pragmatic.  Plato had asked what was the transcendent form of Goodness?  For Cicero the idea is attractive but the question meaningless.  Aristotle had asked whether the virtue of the man qua citizen was identical with that of the man qua man.  Cicero wrote neither for the man qua citizen nor for the man qua man.  Cicero wrote for the citizen qua leader.

Thoroughly aristocratic, On Duties is not directed to the common man.  Thoroughly pre-Christian, it is not a manual for the individual obsessed with his own perfection or individual salvation.  On the contrary, Cicero’s work is directed to the man whose circle of care extends well beyond himself, to the man of many dependents, to the man of great responsibilities.  Written and read as the text-book of noblisse oblige, a rock of ethical instruction for men of influence and power, it was and remains a pointed guide to the ethical management of power.  As such, it is unrivaled.  But On Duties is more than just a ‘how to’ book for the nobility; for as a repository of the ‘traditional values’ of the secular West it has no competitors.  By reason of the trans-historical quality not only of Cicero’s political historical struggle but also that of his political-moral ideas, On Duties became Cicero’s most influential work.  In fact it became the most influential moral text of pre-Christian secular tradition.

History confirms this.  In late antiquity On Duties would serve as the blueprint of St. Ambrose’s On the Duties of the Clergy. While numerous manuscripts survive from the medieval period attesting to its importance, in the Renaissance, On Duties would be the source and departure point for that period’s most influential figures.  For when John of Viterbo debates whether a ruler should aim to be ‘feared rather than loved or loved rather than feared’, and when Bruno Latini counsels that rulers who want to maintain their status ‘must actually be what they wish to seem’, their common source is Cicero’s text.[9]  But even more significantly, at what is universally recognized as the great turning point of Western political morality, the turn from ancient idealism to modern cynicism/realism in Machiavelli’s Prince, Cicero’s text is the departure point.  On Duties is the Florentine’s counter-point.  Cicero had insisted that only an honorable and morally correct act could ever be truly expedient.  In starkest contrast Machiavelli insisted that for ‘reasons of state’ a morally base act—an act of deception, betrayal, or oath breaking—really could be the proper and expedient choice.  It is Cicero’s high standard that the Florentine aims to subvert.

But the impact of Cicero’s text did not stop there.  Despite Machiavelli’s challenge, the moral authority of On Duties extended well into in the early modern period.  Well known to Locke and Hume (As ‘Tully’s Offices’), when translated into German, Cicero’s text proved deeply influential to Kant’s Groundwork to a Metaphysic of Morals.[10]  From the early patristic era to the heart of the enlightenment the examples and issues of Cicero’s text will be the guideposts of Western secular moral reflection: the son who will or will not turn his father in for treason against the state; the worthless and worthy man tossed at sea after shipwreck and struggling for a single plank; the question whether happiness is to be preferred to virtue or virtue to happiness—these staples of moral reflection will win reconsideration again and again. Though Cicero himself is not the originator of all of these varied formulae, they are all gathered in his text and it is by virtue of his text that they will arrive whole into the modern era, a treasury of moral reflection.

Indeed, though I myself will not pursue this point in the present study, it could be argued that On Duties influence in the early modern period is so persistent as to allay completely the anxieties of scholars hesitant to acknowledge a genuine continuity in the flow of Western moral reflection.  That is to say, against the neo-Foucaultian prophets of discontinuity, it can be argued that Cicero’s text constitutes the single most important thread uniting Western moral reflection from Plato to Marx.[11]  For On Duties is the only text required, and really the only obvious candidate, to unite not only the early moderns with one another but also to bind that whole later tradition with the ideas and reflections of the Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Cynics, the Stoics, and the Epicureans.  Stated baldly, even more so than the works of Plato or Aristotle, Cicero’s text has been the axis around which Western ethical-political reflection has turned.

And that is for good reason.  Deeply historical, the work offers a three-pronged attack upon a single trans-historical question.  Autopsy of a free state, apologia pro sua vita politica,[12] and letter of fatherly instruction—Cicero’s work runs on three separate tracks.[13]  What political moral standards can the dual crisis of the collapse of senatorial leadership and the rise of Caesar’s dictatorship provide? How did Cicero’s own political behavior surpass this standard and therefore establish his leadership as indispensable to the Republic’s future? How might Cicero’s son, and by extension, how might any future civic leader best benefit society as a whole; how might such a person win true and lasting gloria.  These are the questions Cicero faces.   Formally three, in substance they are one.  For they are all reducible, and On Duties ultimately boils them all down, to one perennial question—‘Who is a good man?’


∞ ∞ ∞ ∞



[1]  We are born for virtue.

[2]  Mercy and pardon.

[3] For the political significance and varied permutations of Octavian’s nomenclature, cf. Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 1960), p. 17-21.

[4]  For Cicero as the new Cato, cf. Ibid., p. 146.

[5]  Res Gestae, 2.

[6]  Plutarch, Cicero 46.

[7]  Philippics V, 0-0-0.

[8]  On Duties, III. 56.

[9]  On Duties, II. 23-26, 44.

[10]  Carlos Melches Gibert, Der Einfluss Von Christian Garves Übersetzung Ciceros "De Officiis" Auf Kants "Grundlegung Zur Metaphysik Der Sitten" (Regensburg: S. Roderer, 1994).

[11] Cf. Conal Condren, The Study and Appraisal of Classical Texts, pg. 59 and following: “Now despite the antiquity . . . “. Also especially page 68-71:  “There is no firm evidence that Machiavelli either saw himself as continuing or departing from the ‘medieval’ tradition of political theory . . . of the tradition in which major names of political theory are now habitually placed, there has been until recently only a shadowy or nonexistent awareness.” Obviously Mr. Condren is not conversant enough with the pre-Christian tradition— and is reception history—to detect that it is here that they must look for the threads of unity.

[12]  A defense of his own political life

[13] Cf. Andrew R. Dyck, A Commentary on Cicero, De Officiis (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996), p. 21.: “The essay operates simultaneously on several levels: as a response to earlier thinking on sociopolitical problems, as a means of addressing the mores and political problems of the day, and as a response to the need of Cicero jr. and other young Roman nobles like him for guidance in a world of shifting values.”