Why Read Cicero?

Besides being a famous Roman statesman during the times of Julius Ceasar (BCE), Cicero led an active life as a lawyer, orator, writer, & philosopher. He had a gruesome death in his 60s — his hands & head were cut-off for public display.

His ideas & arguments — on living the good life, politics, law etc. — have been repeatedly invoked & studied over the centuries. They tackle many practical dilemmas which often challenge us.

Who is a good friend, how to choose a career, what is the right thing to do, how to converse and give an eloquent speech, how to handle money, why reason is supreme, who is a good leader, what is death, who are the gods — Cicero addresses these and more. Questions which have stymied people for ages. Each generation faces the same questions, but often fails to look back to historic answers which may still be relevant. We can see farther and better by standing on the ready shoulders of such giants.

Cicero’s counsel ‘On Duties’ to his son and his essay ‘On Old Age’ are good starting points to get acquainted with his voluminous works.

Some pearls of wisdom…

— — — — — — — —

1. …those teachings which have been handed down on the subject of moral duties seem to have the widest practical application.

2. The considerations necessary to determine conduct…. : First, whether the contemplated act is morally right or wrong. Second, is it conducive to comfort, happiness, wealth…is the act advatageous? Third, how to act when a morally right act doesn’t seem advantageous, and vice versa. Further, how to act when a choice of two morally right or two advantageous courses are offered.

3. …that what is true, simple & genuine appeals most strongly to a man’s nature.

4. …two errors are to be avoided: first, we must not treat the unknown as known….the other error is that some people devote too much industry and too deep study to matters that are obscure and difficult and useless as well.

5. …to be drawn by study away from active life is contrary to moral duty. For the whole glory of virtue is activity.

6. …he who does not prevent or oppose wrong, if he can, is just as guilty of wrong…

7. ..when there is a doubt whether is it is right or wrong…doubt is a sign that we are thinking of a possible wrong.

8. It is no violation of moral duty to give the greater good precedence over the lesser good

9. Of all forms of injustice, none is more flagrant than that of the hypocrite who, at the very moment when he is most false, makes it his business to appear virtuous

10. …the more a man is endowed with these finer virtues — temperance, self-control, and justice — the more he deserves to be favoured. I do not mention fortitude, for a courageous spirit in a man who has not attained perfection and ideal wisdom is generally too impetuous: it is those other virtues that seem more particularly to mark the good man.

11. We should measure affection, not like youngsters, by the ardour of its passion, but rather by its strength & constancy.

12. Bestow even upon a stranger what it costs us nothing to give.

13. Now, if a contrast and comparison were to be made to find out where most of our moral obligation is due, country would come first, then parents, children & family, finally our kinsmen.

14. Courage is that virtue which champions the cause of right

15. The higher a man’s ambition, the more easily he is tempted to acts of injustice by his desire for fame.

16. Beware of ambition for wealth, for there is nothing so characteristic of narrowness and littleness of soul as the love of riches.

17. The body must be trained and so disciplined that it can obey the dictates of judgement and reason

18. It is as much a sign of weakness to give way to one’s feelings in success as it is in adversity. But it is a fine thing to keep an unruffled temper, an unchanging mien, and the same cast of countenance in every condition of life.

19. The higher we are placed, the more humbly should we walk.

20. What is proper is morally right, and what is morally right is proper. The nature of the difference between morality and propriety can be more easily felt than expressed.

21. To employ reason and speech rationally, to do with careful consideration whatever one does, and in everything to discern the truth and to uphold it — that is proper.

22. All things just are proper, and all things unjust, like all things immoral, are improper.

23. Reason commands, appetite (which impels a man this way and that) obeys.

24. There are, generally speaking, two sorts of jest: the one, coarse, rude, vicious, indecent; the other, refined, polite, clever, witty.

25. Sensual pleasure is quite unworthy of the dignity of man and that we ought to despise it and cast it from us; but if someone should be found who sets some value upon sensual gratification, he must keep strictly within the limits of moderate indulgence.

26. Even if other careers should be better and nobler, we may still regulate our own pursuits by the standard of our own nature.

27. Everyone should make a proper estimate of his own natural ability and show himself a critical judge of his own merits & defects.

28. Above all we must decide who and what manner of men we wish to be and what calling in life we would follow; and this is the most difficult problem in the world.

29. The inexperience of youth requires the practical wisdom of age to strenghten and direct it.

30. Let us follow Nature and shun everything that is offensive to our eyes or our ears. So, in standing, or walking, in sitting or reclining, in our expression, our eyes, or the movements of our hands, let us preserve what we have called ‘propriety’.

31. We must be careful to employ our thoughts on themes as elevating as possible and to keep our impluses under the control of reason.

32. Conversation….should be easy and not in the least dogmatic; it should have the spice of wit. And…one should not debar others from participating in it, as if he were entering upon a private monopoly.

33. …we are not all interested in the same things at all times or in the same degree.

34. Moderation is the science of doing the right thing at the right time.

35. Great is the significance of both place & circumstance.

36. It is not bad plan to judge the nature of our every action by studying others, that so we may ourselves avoid anything that is unbecoming in them.

37. Least respectable of all are those trades which cater for sensual pleasures (fishmongers, cooks, dancers…)

38. Of all the occupations by which gain is secured, none is better than agriculture, none more profitable, none more delightful, none more becoming to a freeman.

39. Service is better than mere theoretical knowledge, for the study and knowledge of the universe would somehow be lame and defective, were no practical results to follow. Such results, moreover, are best seen in the safeguarding of human interests.

40. What, in the name of heaven, is more to be desired than wisdom? What is more to be prized? What is better for a man, what more worthy of his nature?

41. For if we are looking for mental enjoyment and relaxation [or strength of character & virtue], what pleasure can be compared with the pursuits of those who are always studying out something that will tend toward and effectively promote a good and happy life?

42. It is only by moral character and righteousness, not by dishonesty and craftiness, that [one] may attain objects of [one’s] desires.

43. Virtue in general may be said to consist almost wholly in three properties — wisdom, temperance & justice.

44. …of all motives, none is better adapted to secure influence and hold it fast than love; nothing is more foreign to that end than fear. (Whom they fear they hate. And whom one hates, one hopes to see him dead)

45. No power is strong enough to be lasting if it labours under the weight of fear.

46. Justice combined with practical wisdom will command all the confidence we can desire.

47. People admire especially the man who is uninfluenced by money

48. Socrates — “The nearest way to glory — a short cut, as it were — is to strive to be what you wish to be thought to be.”

49. …brain-work is far more important than mere hand-work…

50. It is not only generous occassionally to abate a little of one’s rightful claims, but it is sometimes even advantageous.

51. As a rule, our will is more inclined to the one from whom we expect a prompter and speedier return.

52. Themistocles : “I prefer a man without money, than money without a man.”

53. The chief thing in all public administration and public service is to avoid even the slightest suspicion of self-seeking.

54. If we clearly understand these [moral obligations/philosophy], we have mastered the rules for leading a good & consistent life.

55. Nothing can be advantageous unless it is right and nothing right unless it is advantageous.

56. Advantage cannot possibly co-exist with wrong.

57. Right is either the only good or at least the highest of all goods.

58. A man who has in mind an apparent advantage and promptly proceeds to dissociate this from the question of what is right shows himself to be mistaken and immoral. Such a standpoint is the parent of assasinations, poisonings, forged wills, thefts, malversations of public money, and the ruinous exploitation of provincials and Roman citizens alike.

59. Some courses of action are wrong even to consider — merely to pause over them is evil.

60. All the secrets we may be able to keep from any and every god and human being do not in the least absolve us from the obligation to refrain from whatever actions are greedy, unjest, sensual, or otherwise immoderate.

61. In so far as we can serve our interests without harming anyone else, we should do so.

62. The function of intelligence is to distinguish between good and bad.

63. Trickery disguised as intelligence is life’s greatest scourge, being the cause of innumerable illusions of conflict between advantage and right.

64. You can never derive advantage from an improper gain, regardless of whether this has been detected or not.

65. The only yardstick of advantage, then, is moral right. Indeed the sole discoverable difference between the two terms, advantage and right, is a matter of sound. In meaning, they are one.

66. Things are advantageous because they are right.

67. A person who lacks the means within himself, to live a good and happy life will find any period of his existence wearisome. But rely for life’s blessings on your own resources, and you will not take a gloomy view of any of the inevitable consequences of nature’s laws.

68. If a man controls himself and avoids bad temper and churlishness, then he can endure being old.

69. Old age has its own appropriate weapons: namely the study, and the practice, of decent, enlightened living. Do all you can to develop these activities all your life, and as it draws to a close the harvest you reap will be amazing.

70. When I think about old age I can find four reasons why this is regarded as an unhappy time. First, becasue it takes us away from active work. Secondly, becasue it weakens the body. Thirdly, because it derives us of practically all physical pleasures. And fourthly, because it is not far from death.

71. Great deeds are not done by strength or speed or physicque: they are the products of thought, and character, and judgement. And far from diminishing, such qualities actually increase with age.

72. Provided the old retain their concentration & applciation, they stay sound of mind.

73. A mild, elegant speech from an old but skilful speaker very often secures a favourable hearing.

74. However infirm with age a man has become, if he is imparting to others a liberal education he cannot fail to be accounted happy.

75. A youth spent in immoderate debauchery transmits to later years a body that is already worn out.

76. Nature has one path only, and you cannot travel it more than once. Every stage of life has its own characteristics: boys are feeble, youths in their prime are aggressive, middle-aged men are dignified, old people are mature. Each one of these qualities is ordained by nature for harvesting in due season.

77. Exercise and self-control enable a man to preserve a good deal of his former strength even after he has become old.

78. Senile imbecility, what is called ‘dotage’, does not occur in all old men, but only in those of feeble mind.

79. The man whose whole life consists of study and activity…does not notice old age creeping up on him. Instead, he grows old by slow stages, imperceptibly; there is no sudden break up, only a gradual process of extinction.

80. Deficiency of sensual pleasures in old age…if age really frees us from youth’s most dangerous failing, then we are receiving a most blessed gift.

81. I actually feel grateful for old age, because this has increased my enthusiasm for conversation but eliminated the desire for food & drink.

82. No deprivation is any trouble if you do not miss what you have lost [sensual pleasures in old age]

83. Pleasures of sex…young people who look on them at close quarters, may well find them more exciting, but old people too obtain as much satisfaction as they need by viewing them from afar.

84. When its campaigns of sex, ambition, rivalry, quarrelling, and all the other passions are ended, the human spirit returns to live within itself and is well off. There is supreme satisfaction to be derived from an old age which has knowledge and learning to feed upon.

85. Pleasures of farming…old age does not impede them in the least, and in my view they come closest of all things to a life of true wisdom.

86. Cuttings of vines or trees, young twigs springing from a branch, plants formed by dividing roots and lodging an unsevered shoot — who could fail to be amazed and delighted by the products that emerge from these.

87. A well kept farm is the most useful thing in the world, and also the best to look upon. And age, far from impeding enjoyment of your farm, actually increases its pleasures and fascinations.

88. Out of all the sports that exist, just leave us old men our two kinds of dice, the oblong and the cube — if you choose to, that is, for even without them old age can still be happy.

89. To be respected is the crowning glory of old age.

90. The authority will belongs to old age, especially when enhanced by a distinguished record, is more precious than all the pleasures of youth.

91. Old age must have its foundations well laid in early life. …an old age in need of self-justification is unenviable. White hairs and wrinkles cannot suddenly usurp authority, since this only comes as a final result of well spent earlier years.

92. There are two alternatives: either death completely destroys human souls, in which case it is negligible; or it removes the soul to some place of eternal life — in which case its coming is greatly to be desired. There can be no third possibility. If, then, after death I shall either lack unhappiness or even be positively happy, I have nothing whatever to fear.

93. The particular harvest of old age, I repeat, is its abundant recollection of blessings acquired in earlier years.

94. The best end to life is with mind unclouded and faculties unimparied, when nature herself dissolves what she has put together.

95. Death is an imminent possibility from hour to hour [even in youth], you must not let the prospect fighten you, or you will be in a state of perpetual anxiety.

96. One has had enough of life, in my opinion, when one has had enough of all its occupations. Boys have their characteristic pursuits, but adolescents do not hanker after them, since they have their own activities. Then these too, in their turn, cease to attract the grown-up and middle-aged, seeing that they also have their own interests — for which, however, when their time comes, old people feel no desire, since they again, finally have interests peculiar to themselves. Then, like earlier occupations before them, these activities fall away; and when that happens a man has had enough of life and it is time for him to die.

97. Even if I am mistaken in my belief that the soul is immortal, I make the mistake gladly, for the belief makes me happy, and is one which as long as I live I want to retain.

98. And if we are not going to be immortal, well, even so it is still acceptable for a man to come to his end at his proper time. For nature, which has marked out the limts of all things, has marked out life’s limits among them. When life’s last act, old age, has become wearisome, when we have had enough, the time has come to go.


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