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On Duties [in translation]

by Marcus Tullius Cicero

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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494536,060 (3.39)7
On Obligations (De officiis) was written by Cicero in late 44 BC after the assassination of Julius Caesar to provide principles of behaviour for aspiring politicians. It explores the apparent tensions between honourable conduct and expediency in public life, and the right and wrong ways ofattaining political leadership. The principles of honourable behaviour are based on the Stoic virtues of wisdom, justice, magnanimity, and propriety; in Cicero's view the intrinsically useful is always identical with the honourable.Cicero's famous treatise has played a seminal role in the formation of ethical values in western Christendom. Adopted by the fourth-century Christian humanists, it beame transmuted into the moral code of the high Middle Ages. Thereafter, in the Renaissance from the time of Petrarch, and in theAge of Enlightenment that followed, it was given central prominence in discussion of the government of states. Today, when corruption and conflict in political life are the focus of so much public attention, On Obligations is still the foremost guide to good conduct.… (more)

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Showing 4 of 4
Cicero's book is intelligent and charming, though his usual--how can I put this?--hatred of poor people does dull through the brilliance. But you shouldn't really need a goodreads review to convince you to read this book, which is tremendously important for the history of ideas Europe.

You might need a review to suggest a particular edition, and I heartily recommend this one. It's an ideal of its kind. Walsh's notes are full, relevant, and broad (they cover biography, history, and philosophy); his introduction is, too (they cover those three, as well as the book's later influence). The text reads well. Highly recommended. ( )
  stillatim | Oct 23, 2020 |
An interesting read, with Cicero's anger at Caesar, his love for the virtue of fellowship and much readable thought, if set in not very rigorous arguments. ( )
  Wattsian | Feb 26, 2020 |
It's interesting that I followed up the previous collection of Cicero's orations with this book. This work of Cicero's (originally titled De Officiis), really makes plain a lot of the sensibilities which I simply intuited from his orations. I mentioned in my last review that Cicero was very suspicious of people who sought to manipulate a populace in order to create a factious mob. This work illustrates his ideals with a lot of poignant quotes. I would like to share some of those because they are quite astute. First, a quote regarding the ambitions of tyrannical leaders:

“Now it is hard, when you covet pre-eminence, to maintain the equity which is the most essential property of justice. Hence it is that such men suffer themselves to be overcome neither in debate nor by any legal or constitutional hindrance, and in the state they, for the most part, employ bribery and intrigue that they may acquire the greatest influence possible, and may rise by force, rather than maintain equality with their fellow-citizens by justice.”

Later on the same page, he follows the previous idea up with this:

“A soul truly and wisely great regards the right to which the nature of man aspires as consisting in deeds, not in fame; it chooses to be chief rather than seem so. On the other hand, he who depends on the waywardness of the undiscerning multitude does not deserve to be reckoned among great men.”

It seems likely that Cicero saw these kinds of leaders as especially pernicious because of their ability to sway a population, and, seemingly, to weaponize them as a mob.

We have a tendency to think that Socialism/Communism is a relatively new philosophical/political movement that went as far back as the 19th century and no further, but, as Cicero proves, it is not a new idea at all. Even in his day, devious politicians gained power by promising people the property of those who were more well-to-do. Once again, this makes plain how suspicious Cicero was of leaders that sought to manipulate a gullible population. There are some really great quotes regarding this. Keep in mind that agrarianism was the ancient version of Socialism:

“He who administers the affairs of the state must take special care that every man be defended in the possession of what rightfully belongs to him, and that there be no encroachment on private property by public authority. Philippus, during his tribunate, when he proposed the agrarian law (which he readily suffered to be rejected, behaving in the matter with great moderation), while in defending the measure he said many things adapted to cajole the people, did mischief by the ill-meant statement that there were not in the city two thousand men that had any property. It was a criminal utterance, tending to an equal division of property, than which what more ruinous policy can there be?”

Following this up on another page, he says this:

“Those, therefore, who desire to be popular, and with that view either attempt agrarian measures, that the occupants of the public domains may be driven from their homes, or advocate the remission of debts, are undermining the foundations of the state, - in the first place, harmony, which cannot exist when money is taken from some and debts are canceled for others; in the next place, equity, which is utterly destroyed, if hindrances are laid in the way of men's keeping their property. For, as I said above, this belongs to the very idea of state and a city, that the protection of every man's property should be certain and not a subject of solicitude. Moreover, by measures thus ruinous to the state men do not gain the favor they anticipate. He from whom property is taken becomes their enemy.”

A good summation of Cicero's position is shown with this quote:

“From this kind of generosity, then, - the giving to some what is taken from others, - those who mean to be guardians of the state will refrain, and will especially bestow their efforts, that through the equity of the laws and of their administration every man may have his own property made secure, and that neither the poorer may be defrauded on account of their lowly condition, nor any odium may stand in the way of the rich in holding or recovering what belongs to them...”

Cicero also deals with what we today would often call pluralism (i.e. where everyone looks out for their own interests and those of their group):

“...this is the consummate reason and wisdom of a good citizen, not to create separate interests among those of the same state, but to hold all together by the same principles of equity.”

Clearly, Cicero understood that a society cannot function with divisive special interest groups. There must be cohesiveness in any functioning society. Equity is the cohesiveness that he specifically names. No such cohesiveness can be had when people are given special rights at the cost of others and when people look to gain the property belonging to others.

Nearer the end of the book, Cicero tackles the subject of expediency and whether it is different than what is right. There were philosophers prior to Cicero that had sought to make a distinction between the two, but Cicero was adamant that what is right is also expedient and what is expedient must be right. One can modernize the subject a little by noting that it is basically the same as the subject regarding the relationship between means and ends. There have been utilitarians that argued that the end justifies the means, but others have forcefully argued the reverse, that the means cannot be divorced from the ends - both must be equally blameless. Certainly, Cicero would be on the side of the latter position (so would I, btw).

I would say this is definitely an essential work of Cicero's. Along with the Republic, De Finibus, De Legibus and the Tusculan Disputations, this work provides the most detail regarding Cicero's ethical and political philosophy. Highly recommended. ( )
1 vote Erick_M | Aug 27, 2018 |
Having read other translations of Cicero, I have to say this one is incredibly wooden, too literal. Cicero is anything but boring, but an unimaginative translation has rendered him a corpse. ( )
  chriszodrow | Nov 9, 2015 |
Showing 4 of 4
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» Add other authors (44 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Marcus Tullius Ciceroprimary authorall editionscalculated
Büchner, KarlTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Miller, WalterTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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This contains Cicero's On the Offices/On Duty/On Obligations (De officiis libri tres) in translation. Do not combine with editions that contain a Latin text.
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On Obligations (De officiis) was written by Cicero in late 44 BC after the assassination of Julius Caesar to provide principles of behaviour for aspiring politicians. It explores the apparent tensions between honourable conduct and expediency in public life, and the right and wrong ways ofattaining political leadership. The principles of honourable behaviour are based on the Stoic virtues of wisdom, justice, magnanimity, and propriety; in Cicero's view the intrinsically useful is always identical with the honourable.Cicero's famous treatise has played a seminal role in the formation of ethical values in western Christendom. Adopted by the fourth-century Christian humanists, it beame transmuted into the moral code of the high Middle Ages. Thereafter, in the Renaissance from the time of Petrarch, and in theAge of Enlightenment that followed, it was given central prominence in discussion of the government of states. Today, when corruption and conflict in political life are the focus of so much public attention, On Obligations is still the foremost guide to good conduct.

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