Philosophy Political Philosophy

Cicero’s On Obligations (Di Officiis)

Cicero, perhaps the most famous of the Roman philosophers, wrote an influential treatise on duties and obligations published after his death.  De Officiis, along with his Republic/Commonwealth and Laws, serve as Cicero’s longstanding political legacy to the West.  In fact, On Obligations was widely influential in that it influenced St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, becoming an integral part of the development of Catholic deontological ethics, and was widely praised by many figures during the “Enlightenment” era: Hugo Grotius, Voltaire, and Frederick the Great to name a few.  It was also mandated reading in England during the 17th century before the rise of Hobbes and Locke.  But what does the three-book treatise entail?

On Obligations, is many ways, is the conclusion of Cicero’s unofficial three-volume work in political philosophy if you tie his RepublicLaws, and On Obligations together as a complete treatise on Cicero’s political thoughts.  There are themes that connect all three works: Man’s essential political (social) nature, the importance of love of fatherland (patriotism), why man is fulfilled being in community (or, more properly, what man has to do to be fulfilled in a community), the role of reason in differentiating man from beast, and the moral (natural) law that brings men together in fellowship under the commonwealth.  Like his Republic before this work, Cicero also attacks the Epicureans, atheists, and others whom he deems a threat to commonwealth living, synthesizes Plato and Aristotle into the Romanized Stoic philosophy that Cicero is the father of (with very explicit political overtures and intents), and what is necessary to save the Roman Republic from impending collapse.


Cicero agrees with Aristotle that man is a political animal, and because man is political (e.g. social) he naturally forms community to find fellowship, belonging, and fulfillment.  While the hint at duty was highlighted in some sections of Republic Book I, this work more explicitly deals with the importance of duties which were implied in Republic.  It is important to remember that Cicero sees patriotism – love of one’s land, or country – as a natural and important extension of the political animus.  That patriotism is what binds a diverse multitude of people together, for Cicero also agrees with Aristotle that a political community is made of a multitude of differences that need to be united to have common good or cause.

This is an important feature of Cicero’s On Obligations.  Man needs to direct his faculties and energies to something.  Therefore, man has been endowed with reason which separates him from the animals.  Failure to utilize reason, or direct reason upward to something, makes man essentially like a beast.  As Cicero says, “between man and beast there is this crucial difference, the beast under sense-impulses applies itself only to what lies immediately before it, with quite minimal awareness of past and future, whereas man is endowed with reason, which enables him to visualize consequences, and detect the cause of things.”  It is important to remember that Cicero, like Aristotle before him, believes that men who reject their reasoning capacities will become like the “worst of all [animals].”  People who merely follow their sensual desires are like animalistic beasts.  And human society degrades and becomes a savage and animalistic like society as a result.

Cicero’s extolment of reason leads him to say that every aspect of our lives is touched and imbued with duties and obligations, and part of having that tranquil and satisfied life is discharging one’s duties which are a natural extension of one’s social animus bringing people together in fellowship, friendship, and community.  “there is no aspect of life public or private, civic or domestic, which can be without its obligations.”  One has obligations even to oneself.  One has obligations to family.  One has obligations to his community.  One has obligations to his religion.  One has obligations to his country.  This is what it means to be in a community and what the social animus drives us toward: For if we were all “out for ourselves” there would be no commonwealth, no city, no community, no organized religion, no country – whereby everything that was social would break down and we would return to what Aristotle called bare living.  We would descend into being animals, those beasts who are only ever under the control of immediate sense-impulses.

For example, in a commonwealth I may be a farmer.  There is also a chair-maker, or some sort of construction builder.  There is also the law-maker, or political overseers.  This harkens back to the farm manager analogy Cicero uses at the end of Republic.  We are all in community together because we all benefit one another and bring out the best in each other.  If I fail at my responsibilities, or obligations, as a farmer the rest of the community suffers.  If the construction builder reneges on his obligations, or cuts corners to save time and money, disaster could strike, and we all suffer.  If the political overseers do not discharge their responsibilities of maintaining law and order, we all suffer.  But if I do my duty as a farmer, not only am I fulfilled but others are fulfilled as well.  The same goes for all constitutive elements of a society.  Working together leads to harmony and a well-ordered city, which are necessary for the good life to flourish.

Cicero argues that there are two types of injustice.  And these two types of injustice are sure to wrinkle the feathers of moderns, or at least one of the them is.  The first injustice is one that everyone is rather familiar with: Bodily harm (inflicting harm) and failing to help others (especially the weak and vulnerable) who have the power to do so.  Continuing, the second form of injustice Cicero makes the startling claim that will undoubtedly strike at the heart of modern atomistic individualism, for he says that you who claim to be “minding their own business, seemingly not harming anyone.  Such people refrain from the first type of injustice, but they are guilty of the second by becoming deserters from the life of the community, for they contribute none of their pursuits, efforts, or skills to the commonweal.”  To highlight an extreme example, if I see someone attacking another person, and I do nothing about it because ‘I am minding my own business’ I am not guilty of the first type of injustice (for I am not the one inflicting harm), but I am guilty of not helping the poor soul who is being attacked by someone who is engaging in the first type of injustice.  Life in community, the social animus we have, propels me to help and lift others up by my own actions and contributions.  To a milder example is this: I am a farmer whom many people depend on for the harvest of food.  I decide to take a few days off of my work because I am not harming anyone, and no one will know I am taking time off – I am ‘minding my own business.’  But because I am not discharging my duty as a farmer, to whom many people depend on me for their lives as well, I am guilty of deserting public life.  That time off from my duties may have unintended consequences upon others.  Lastly, I am not contributing to the common good because of my actions.

This is part of Cicero’s deontological ethics and teleology.  Kant follows him in this regard – unsurprising since Cicero’s On Obligations was mandated teaching during the age of Frederick the Great, of which Kant was familiar with as he was about to become famous with his ethics and metaphysics in the 1790s soon after Frederick’s death.  Would we want to live in a commonwealth where everyone reneged on their obligations to each other?  What kind of commonwealth would that be?  It wouldn’t even be a commonwealth?  What if everyone ignored helping someone who was being attacked by another because “it’s none of my business”?  What would come of society if everyone cut corners in their jobs and produced poor products for each other?  What would come of society if people altogether reneged on their obligations to each other and said that everything he produced was just for himself?  Society, of course, would collapse.


Cicero argues that our obligations to friends and family are the first bloc of obligations we come into the world with, and they are ultimately the first bloc of patriotism.  Cicero argues that men are in fellowship with each other universally because of human nature.  But if we follow human nature to its building blocs, we will ultimately arrive at the love of friends and family above all other things.  This is the basis of the close community which makes patriotism possible and the city the great goal of all peoples, also, note how Cicero rejects the idea of “one level” of fellowship (e.g. “love of all”, which he doesn’t deny, but he says there is something far more concrete than this abstraction):

There is more than one level of human fellowship.  Setting aside that shared by the entire human race without limit, there is the closer link between those of the same race, nation and tongue, which unites men intimately.  Within this group lies the closer union of those from the city-state, for such citizens share many things in common—a city-centre, shrines, colonnades, streets; their laws, rights, courts, and voting privileges; and beyond these, the circles of acquaintances and close friends, and the many who have connections with each other in public affairs and in business.  Closer still is the social bond between kindred.  Thus we start from the unrestricted fellowship of the whole human race, and arrive at this small confined group…For since all living creatures share by nature the urge to procreate, the primary bond of union lies in marriage, and the second liaison lies in children.  Next comes the unity of the household, which shares all things in common.  This is the foundation of the city structure, the seedbed so to say of the state.

Without family there is no order.  Without family there are no deep bonds and intimate attachments within the person and to others.  Without this order and intimacy that begins in the family there can be no city, and without the city, no state.  This is because when one has order in family and the intimacy that one has to family, one recognizes and grows in intimacy to a person – a living being whom we have attachment to.  This allows us to bracket out to intimacy and love of others, namely friends and family.  This helps to build order out of the family to the community (the city), which permits the rise of trust which is essential to the orderly state.  Cicero later says that there is another penultimate bond: “enduring friendship.”  All of this reflects our social animus and want to honor others (especially family) and protect our family and our friends and our cities.

Cicero then continues to argue that once you realize the intimacy and obligations one has to family, friend, and community, you will realize that none of this is made possible without the land in which you were born in, raised in, and settled in:

But once you have surveyed this entire scene with reason and close attention, none of these affinities has more weight and induces more affection than the allegiance which we have to the state.  Our parents are dear to us, and so are our children and relatives and friends; but our native land alone subsumes all the affections which we entertain.  What good man would hesitate to face death on her behalf if it would be of service to her?  So the barbaric conduct of these contemporaries of ours, who have torn our land asunder with every criminal act, engaged as they and have been in its utter destruction, all the more heinous.

Here Cicero is arguing that if you love your family, friends, and neighbors, you will be forced to realize that common bond that allowed all of this to be made possible: your country (land).  Patriotism, after all, is “love of the fatherland.”  Love of the land that has allowed you to be born because it provided for your parents.  It is the land that is much your mother and father as your biological mother and father.  If your land is destroyed, then your family is destroyed.  If your land is destroyed you lose your family, neighbors, and friends.  Thus, the love and intimacy that is fostered in family, friendship, and city life necessarily leads to patriotism.  Furthermore, having been written at the height of the Roman Civil Wars, those ‘contemporaries’ Cicero speaks of are the various rebellious groups and generals whom Cicero believes are out for their own prestige and self-gain and bring ruin to Rome and her land and her people.

If you have duties to your family, your friends, and your community, you will realize you have a duty to your country too.  Winston Churchill, for instance, was a famous Ciceronian and you can hear overtures in his famous speech to the British people after the Battle of France in 1940: “What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire…Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties.”

Furthermore, what Cicero says will again wrinkle the modern.  Love of family and those who are “like us” (united in common heritage, land, values, and institutions) is very natural.  In fact, those who think that this is unnatural are guilty of the worst folly and ignorance!  Such people will bring about the dissolution of everything our ancestors had worked together to pass onto posterity.

What Cicero is saying is that fellowship and community is natural to all persons.  It is what it means to be human.  It is integral to human nature.  But those who might suggest some sort of universal fellowship err in grave ways.  Fellowship is concrete and not abstract.  Such universal fellowship is abstract rather than concrete.  Thus, for fellowship and community to be real, or concrete, it is limited.  It is manifested in family.  Friends.  One’s local community.  The city.  At the largest end, the nation.  Beyond that one loses those bonds of fellowship and attachment.  Language barriers.  Geographic barriers.  Cultural barriers.  All impede the fellowship.  So, if universal fellowship is what is desired one must transcend the family, your immediate friends, the city, the nation, the multiplicity of languages and cultures.  Cicero says this is foolish thinking.  If you understand fellowship properly, you realize it is not universal in the sense that you must be the univeralist, it is universal in that all people share want for community and fellowship, and this realizes itself in family, friendship, and closed communities.  (It is the universal law becoming particularized in particularity.)


Another aspect of Cicero’s On Obligations is that man’s social animus needs direction.  This returns us to what Cicero said at the beginning of his work about man being man (utilizing his reason) or becoming a beast (becoming dominated only by immediate sensation and sensual wants).  Man’s social animus, when directed to only himself, leads him to live a life like a beast.  Man’s social animus, when directed to the commonwealth, common good, and the city, leads to productivity and health to oneself and to one’s city.

Cicero says, perhaps counterintuitively at first, that demagogues and those “eager for power,” as well as those “eager for leisure” share something in common: They put their own interests above that of the commonwealth.  Cicero says this is not wholly contemptible.  We all want to enjoy leisure.  And we should enjoy leisure when we have the time.  But never should this become the focus of our lives and energies, for this would just turn us into decadent animals.  Leisure, or self-interest, must always be offset by public duty.

This is what the social animus aims for with the project of the city.  The city cannot come into being without a multitude of people working together for something: The construction, well-being, and preservation, of their city.  It is their construction.  It is theirs to take pride in.  It is theirs to preserve and pass on to their progeny.  In other words, the duties we have to each other are enduring in that these duties we have to each other in present living honor the duties of those who have come before us, and pass on the duties to those who are coming after us (e.g. the next generation).

This endeavor of construction gives greater meaning and purpose to our lives.  It is also an act of defiance, for as even the more modern philosopher Gilles Deleuze said, the act of procreation and creative construction is defiance of death.  Cicero is arguing much the same.  How we respond to our duties and obligations is reflective of our belief in destiny: Either that we control it, or we allow others to control it.  If we control it, we can be said to be free.  If we allow others to control it, we are slaves.  And if we are slaves, we have resigned ourselves to death.

Cicero suggests that our duties and obligations, beyond making meaning in our lives and leading to fulfillment, need directions.  For even what Augustine called the “inward curve to the self,” that becoming like a beast that Cicero talks about, is itself a reflection of duty (duty to the self, namely in the form of satisfying animalistic desires).  But this is not humane and human living.  And we will always be wanting more and more and more as we surrender ourselves over to our desires.  Thus, we see Cicero’s essential Stoicism.  The desires need to be tamed and directed elsewhere.  This is the orientation of man’s desires and energies to the commonwealth.  For it is in the commonwealth that our desires can be put to good use, controlled by our reason, thereby humanizing us, and we can discharge our primal desire of satisfaction through duties to others, leading to intimacy, love, and fellowship with our family, friends, neighbors, and countrymen.


Cicero is also writing throughout that the natural law is the social animus insofar that following the social animus makes men moral (less like beasts), leads them to intimacy with one another, allows them to grow in understanding of the way of the world (exemplified by Cicero’s commentary on how intimacy and order begins with the family and branches out from there), and how following the social animus as reflection of the natural law leads to the duties that one must engage in to live a fulfilled and happy life.  The good life is not possible without the social life.  For if man lived alone, he would be miserable, unhappy, and if able to survive only by living a bare life of foraging and struggling, but more likely would die very quickly because of his isolation.  Reason, patriotism, deontology, family, friendship, love, etc. are all wrapped up in the social animus and must be brought together in union through social duty and obligations whereby contentment is made possible in fulfilling one’s duty.  Failure makes us angst-ridden, feeling guilty, and ashamed; this is not because you are “not strong enough” to overcome these feelings, it is because you have failed to live up to the natural law.  And since the natural law is about happiness, failure to live up to the natural law will leave you unhappy. Cicero remains quintessential reading for today.

This was originally published on Hesiod’s Corner, March 17, 2018.


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