On Duties (Sort Of)

Lately I’ve been thinking about duty, so the other day I picked up Cicero’s On Duties to help my thought project.  Unfortunately, the second book – all I happen to have on my shelf – doesn’t have much to say about the kind of duty I’ve been pondering.  It does have a good many other things to say, however.

What’s interesting about On Duties is what Cicero actually discusses instead: how to gain a good reputation, so as to do the most good for yourself and your fellow citizens.  Written as a treatise/letter to his son Marcus, Cicero explores such nitty-gritty topics as proper generosity, speech-making for the greatest effect, and personal health and finances.  He also considers one’s public duty, particularly as it relates to government officials.  For Cicero, the government’s primary duty is to allow all citizens to enjoy their own private property; though some in his day were suggesting a vaguely Communistic equal distribution, “all politicians who harbour such intentions are aiming a fatal blow at the whole principle of justice; for once rights of property are infringed, this principle is totally undermined.”  Apart from this discussion, in which he assumes most of Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, he only has one thing to say about the proper running of the government:

Obviously, too, it is incumbent on all those who are in charge of a nation’s affairs to make certain that its people possess an abundant supply of the necessities of life.  How this is normally done, and how it ought to be done, I do not need to explain.  The duty is an obvious one; it just needed, for the sake of completeness, to be mentioned.

The duty is so apparent, Cicero only mentions it to be thorough.  And yet, of all the advice Cicero gives Marcus, it is this which still manages to trip us up.  “What are the necessities of life?” we ask. “Food?  Health care?  Leisure time and money?  And whose business is it to distribute them?  And how?”

All Cicero offers as a guideline, at least in the second book, is his definition of that most necessary virtue for private and public individuals, justice: “to behave considerately and understandingly in our associations with other people.”  For Cicero, our duty to ourselves is bound to a duty to others, particularly in our public lives.  Whether he is correct to place responsibility for citizens’ necessities on the government, the assertion that all must come primarily from a concern for others seems both timely and true.

All quotations are from Cicero, On Duties in On the Good Life, translated by Michael Grant, Penguin Books, 1971.

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