Cicero’s On Duties

A series of short commentaries on Cicero’s On Duties, a book that Frederick the Great called “the best work on morals that has been or can be written.” It was Cicero’s last book, written before he was killed on the orders of Mark Anthony, and Cicero himself considered it his masterpiece. It is strongly influenced by the writings of the middle Stoic Panaetius, informed by Cicero’s own Skepticism and eclecticism. It’s not just one of the classics of western literature, but one of the most eminently useful books you will ever ponder.

I.4: On the discharge of our duties depends all that is morally right, and on their neglect all that is morally wrong in life.

I.5: Brave he surely cannot possibly be that counts pain the supreme evil, nor temperate he that holds pleasure to be the supreme good.

I.7: Every treatise on duty has two parts: one, dealing with the doctrine of the supreme good; the other with the practical rules by which daily life in all its bearings may be regulated.

I.9: Consider if what you are doing is: (i) morally right; (ii) conducive to your happiness; and (iii) whether you may be rationalizing doing something wrong simply because it brings you comfort.

I.12: Nature by the power of reason associates man with man in the common bonds of speech and life; she also prompts men to meet in companies, to form public assemblies, and to take part in them themselves.

I.15: Cicero argues that there are four fundamental concerns of morality: truth; the organization of society (including our duties toward others); the development of our character; and doing everything while exercising temperance.

I.18-19: If we truly want to become better human beings, Cicero counsels, we should avoid two common mistakes. Let’s take a look at what they are, and reflect on whether we ourselves have sometimes committed them.

I.22: We ought to follow Nature as our guide, to contribute to the general good by an interchange of acts of kindness, by giving and receiving, and thus by our skill, our industry, and our talents to cement human society more closely together.

I.25: I do not mean to find fault with the accumulation of property, provided it hurts nobody, but unjust acquisition of it is always to be avoided.

I.29: There are some also who claim that they are occupied solely with their own affairs. They are traitors to social life, for they contribute to it none of their interest, none of their effort, none of their means.

I.42: Cicero argues that we ought to consider what is the best way for us to engage in acts of kindness. And that the fundamental criterion by which to judge their soundness is justice.

I.49: Cicero reminds us that in virtue ethics intentions are fundamental. If you do an act of kindness in order to receive a favor, then you have done no kindness at all.