On Duties: Review

Marcus Cicero is mostly known nowadays as the greatest orator in Rome, but in earlier times, when the classics were at the center of Western learning, he was equally well-known for his books of philosophy. These were written at a sad time in his life, when the Roman Republic was effectively ended, and where various strongmen competed for the legacy left in Caesar’s mighty wake. Out of power, Cicero lamented the fall of the republic, but he put his time to good use, producing works that survive to this day.

The most well-known of these is On Duties. Written shortly after Caesar’s assassination in 44 B.C., On Duties is heavily influenced by the Stoic school of philosophy and was no doubt colored by contemporary events. It is based in history more than theory, which makes it immediately practical to everyday experience in ways that most other works of philosophy aren’t. Yet, for a long time, On Duties had no immediately accessible modern translation.

Not anymore. Cicero is given a new breath of life by Quintus Curtius. With his new translation, colored by his sharing the same legal profession as the original author, Quintus makes On Duties brim with confidence, much like a trial lawyer is confident as he brings his case to judge and jury. So Cicero brings his case for moral rectitude with clarity and focus in this modern translation, and the onus is on you to answer his core question: in this age of decadence, are you a good man?

On Duties Quintus Curtius Cicero

Moral Rightness vs. Expediency

The core conflict Cicero explores in On Duties is when moral goodness butts up against those things which seem to be expedient. This is of course, the bedrock of the entire branch of ethics in philosophy, but Cicero does us the favor in On Duties of leaving out abstract, complicated concepts and leaves his work strictly in the realm of the historical and practical, a concept that seems lost on many other philosophers.

Put more simply, if you are a good man, you’ll see why, and if you aren’t, On Duties will turn you around, if you decide to apply it. It was written primarily as a guide to conduct by Cicero for the benefit of his son and it comes across as such. Thanks to the organizational structure provided by Quintus Curtius in his translation of On Duties, each topic is easy to find in the table of contents.

Think of this again – are you a good man? Cicero puts your characterization of yourself to the test:

When a fissure opened up in the earth after a series of rains, Gyges descended into it. There he found the body of a dead man of huge proportions, with a gold ring on his finger. He removed the ring and put it on his own finger. When he turned the ring towards the palm of his hand, he was seen by no one, while he himself was able to see everything. When he rotated the ring back to irs original position, he again was able to be seen by other people.

So, taking advantage of the opportunity created by this magic ring, he seduced the queen of Lydia and, with her as his accomplice, murdered the king of that country. He destroyed all whom he thought might oppose him, and neither was anyone able to see him as he went about these crimes. Thus, with the unexpected help of the ring he rose to become King of Lydia. But if a wise man had such a ring, he would no more think he could commit crimes than if he did not have it. For moral goodness and not secrecy for evil deeds is what good men seek.

Herein lies the power of the magic ring concept and of this little fable: if no one were able to know or suspect when you do something for the sake of riches, power, domination, or sensual pleasure, and if such an action could forever be hidden from gods and men, would you do it?

Introducing this little thought experiment is like torture to them [the doubters]. If they answer that they could indeed commit an evil act with impunity (i.e., to do what is most expedient for them), then they are basically admitting that they have bad characters. But if they deny that they could commit an undetected evil deed, then they are, in effect, conceding that all morally wrong things must without exception be avoided.

But what, you inevitably ask after reading this, does Cicero regard as a moral wrong in On Duties? Here the practicality of his work shines through. Cicero grounds his ethics primarily in something relatively simple – that those things which keep the community glued together are moral goods, and those things that would unstitch those bonds are morally wrong.

For instance, one remarkable set of passages concerned real estate transactions. On Duties could have been part of the education courses that New York makes any prospective real estate agent take prior to getting licensed. Cicero asks you, for instance, if you’re a seller of real estate, but there’s a material defect that you don’t disclose (in the hopes of making more money), have you committed a moral wrong? There is a debate about this between different philosophers, but Cicero roundly comes out on the side of the affirmative. And indeed, in modern real estate law, you have certainly committed fraud by failing to disclose such defects in any real property you’re selling.

But suppose, for a second, that this lack of disclosure wasn’t illegal. Would you keep silent anyway?

The example is very much like the ring fable, isn’t it? There is a clear case to be made that such behavior is a moral wrong (according to Cicero), because if everyone acted in such a way, the bonds of trust in the community would break, and thus it would cease to function. But this sort of thing would be relatively easy to get away with. Suppose, for instance, that the defect is well-concealed. Only you, the owner, would be intimate enough with your property to know it exists. Would you still sell without disclosing its existence?

Here’s where the butt of expediency comes up against moral goodness, or so it seems. In a direct contrast with Machiavelli, Cicero is adamant in On Duties that nothing that is not morally good can be expedient. Rather, there is only the illusion of expediency contrasting with moral goodness. Those who think this way, he says, only reveal defects in their character.

Turning back to our real estate example, suppose you actually did sell the property, and so it seems that expediency won over moral goodness. But wait! What happens when your buyer finds out about the defect? What happens if he pins it on you? Even if he doesn’t, making a habit of behaving in ways that undermine the community, Cicero warns, always catches up to you in the end, somehow.

And this is the overarching lesson that you take away from On Duties. Immoral behavior catches up to you in the end, like the strong force of fate, as Homer would say. Each time you act in a way that is unbecoming, you tempt fate that much more, like teetering on the edge of a flaming lava pit. The journey across the bridge is exciting and your adrenaline is pumping, but if you don’t get off, you’ll inevitably fall to a fiery end.

Gollum Mount Doom fall

Cicero (and Quintus, in the notes) makes it a point that even if you’re a dictator with absolute power and ruling by fear, you’re actually not living a very good life. You’re constantly watching your back, wary of betrayals from those closest to you, wary of your own people rising up against you, wary that some bit of news will bring you down.

Such kind of power doesn’t seem to translate into freedom, or good-living, then. You aren’t flourishing, that’s for sure.

So are you a good man? It’s a good question to ask at this point.

Duties vs. Glory

How does Cicero relate his On Duties to our own quest for True Glory? All too often, we focus on the practical, on the laws of power, on talents and systems that allow us to achieve a lasting memory. Too often the practical overshadows everything else, including on this blog.

Yet, even Machiavellian characters like Donald Trump understand on some level that glory isn’t an entirely different animal from Cicero’s moral rectitude. In The Art of the Deal, he says that no matter how good you are or how big and boldly you promote your project, you’ll have to deliver the cold, hard goods eventually. Otherwise, bad things will happen, certainly to your name and reputation. This is where the strong force of fate exerts itself the most to bad actors.

While warning in On Duties that the desire for glory can overwhelm the senses and cause wickedness and corruption, Cicero praises the quest, if it adheres to moral rectitude and the following:

True and wise greatness of spirit, however, judges goodness (as Nature also does) by what deeds are actually done, rather than in appearance. For he who depends on the fickleness of the ignorant multitude must not be considered a truly great man.

True glory has roots which are widely spread out; all fake things quickly fall away like little flowers, and nothing false can pass itself off as long-lasting.

Put another way, you have to be a wise, morally upstanding man, one who delivers the goods, for glory, in its truest and greatest form, to be yours. Even the best bullshit artists like Ramesses II, for all their persuasive power that we praise here, will be outed someday, by someone.

Ramesses II chariot Battle of Kadesh

Only by living a good life and delivering the goods can true glory be obtained, according to Cicero.

Though I find some of Cicero’s praises ridiculous (such as that of the Consul Regulus who willingly returned to captivity in Carthage from Rome), On Duties was a great read overall, because it brings an entirely new perspective to the quest for glory. We learn, thanks to Quintus Curtius, that the quest for glory is great, but the skills to get there, and the power you wish to acquire and use to get there, must be used carefully, not necessarily as ends in themselves. Only then can you flourish. Only then can you truly feel confident and secure. Only then will your glory be lasting.

Now, ask that question again: “am I a good man?” Have you worked hard for your successes and learned from your failures? Maybe. Maybe not. On Duties invites you to find out, for real.