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Cicero, De Officiis > De Officiis Week 4 - Book 3 cantos 1-64

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message 1: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments We have looked at what is virtuous, or honorable (Book 1) and what is expedient, or useful (Book 2). Now we have to look at what to do when these two are, or at least seem to be, in conflict.

Before I got to that discussion, though, I was abruptly stopped by his comment that “the whole field of philosophy is fertile and productive and no portion of it barren and waste...” [para 5, Walsh translation]. Would that it were so, but I have come across a lot of modern philosophy that seems pretty barren and waste to me. Though maybe I just don’t understand it. Or maybe I do, too well.

He also seems to lay a pretty heavy burden on his son: “you will have to fulfil the eager anticipation that you will imitate my industry, the confident expectation that you will emulate my course of political honours, and the hope that you will, perhaps, rival my name and fame.” [6] Quite a lot to expect of one’s son.

Anyhow, moving on past those asides.

Although Cicero says [3] “moral goodness, in the true and proper sense of the term, is the exclusive possession of the wise and can never be separated from virtue; but those who have not perfect wisdom cannot possibly have perfect moral goodness, but only a semblance of it,” he nonetheless seems to assume throughout the letter that the non-wise can know when a proposed action is virtuous and when it is not. Otherwise, how can we properly compare the virtue against the utility of a proposed action? He does accept, in 18, that there can be doubts, but I don’t think that he really believes that people can really be in doubt about the just, but that their doubt is because doing the just thing will be harder and more costly than they desire, and they therefore create doubt as an excuse for doing the right thing. I’m not at all sure that he would put it that way, but I think that may be the necessary conclusion to draw from these sections.

There’s a lot more here, of course, but that will do to start the discussion.


message 2: by David (last edited Jun 01, 2017 12:18PM) (new)

David | 2489 comments Everyman wrote: “moral goodness, in the true and proper sense of the term, is the exclusive possession of the wise and can never be separated from virtue; but those who have not perfect wisdom cannot possibly have perfect moral goodness, but only a semblance of it,"

Isn't this just the assertion that without the knowledge that a deliberately executed action is beneficent it is void of propriety and only provides the appearance of propriety? Along the same lines, someone that does evil without realizing it isn't really doing evil, although we often choose to still blame them and hold them responsible anyway.

While we are used to the saying, ignorance is no protection from the law, Cicero seems to be saying ignorance provides no credit for propriety.


message 3: by David (new)

David | 2489 comments
[3.50] Nevertheless, as I said earlier, situations often happen when advantageousness seems to conflict with moral rectitude. When this happens, it must be decided whether the conflict is incurable, or whether expediency may be married, so to speak, with moral rectitude.
This seems to be a license to rationalize anything expedient as morally correct.


message 4: by Genni (new)

Genni | 837 comments Patrice wrote: "interesting interaction with his son. such a universal desire, to steer ones child in the right direction, i am curious now as to how it turned out."

I recently read Tom Holland's Rubicon and he makes a passing comment about C's son making a name for himself as the "university's foremost drunk". But that is popular history and I guess should be taken with a grain of salt. It doesn't really say anything about what he became as an adult...


Bryan--Pumpkin Connoisseur (theindefatigablebertmcguinn) | 304 comments Patrice wrote: "his argument that what is honorable is always useful does raise questions."

Here's another facet that I think has a lot to do with Cicero's mindset compared to ours. When I read anything to do with a Roman's honor, I assume (which probably gets me in trouble) that it's wedded to his dignity. Anything that's honorable is useful in the sense that anything not honorable destroys one's dignity, which makes him useless as a person, a patrician, a Roman, what-have-you.

In today's world, I think we have just as high an evaluation of our dignity, but perhaps a different set of criteria that we use to judge whether or not we've lost it. In fact, I suspect even in Cicero's time there were folks who had different criteria than Cicero. But considering it in an idealistic sense, I don't know if there is that much dissonance between honor and use, as Cicero saw it.

But what makes this more difficult is that, most of the time, I think Cicero has the recent history of Roman power politics on his mind, rather than more pedestrian affairs, when he's discussing these things. It makes it hard for me to think of examples in our day that would lend support for or against this argument, without delving into our own recent politics, which I'd just as well not revisit again.


Bryan--Pumpkin Connoisseur (theindefatigablebertmcguinn) | 304 comments Last thought: It's similar to the 'what profit to gain the world and lose your soul' argument.


message 7: by Genni (new)

Genni | 837 comments Bryan wrote: "Here's another facet that I think has a lot to do with Cicero's mindset compared to ours. When I read anything to do with a Roman's honor, I assume (which probably gets me in trouble) that it's wedded to his dignity. Anything that's honorable is useful in the sense that anything not honorable destroys one's dignity, which makes him useless as a person, a patrician, a Roman, what-have-you. ""

I don't know if this will help, but here is a footnote on the translation of the word from Collin's book on Cicero:

"The English "Honesty" and "Honour" alike fail to convey the full force of the Latin honestus. The word expresses a progress of thought from comeliness and grace of person to a noble and graceful character-all who works are done in honesty and honour."


message 8: by Genni (new)

Genni | 837 comments After reading Book III, I guess I have to withdraw my earlier reply that Cicero would consider the Trolley problem superfluous. It seems he would attempt to save whoever he deems most useful to society at large...


Bryan--Pumpkin Connoisseur (theindefatigablebertmcguinn) | 304 comments Genni wrote: "After reading Book III, I guess I have to withdraw my earlier reply that Cicero would consider the Trolley problem superfluous. It seems he would attempt to save whoever he deems most useful to soc..."

Good one--I think you've got a point


message 10: by Genni (new)

Genni | 837 comments It has been mentioned how Cicero seems to focus only on on his country. So p. 28 jumped out at me: Others again who say that regard should be had for the rights of fellow-citizens, but not of foreigners, would destroy the universal brotherhood of mankind; and, when this is annihilated, kindness, generosity, goodness, and justice must utterly perish; and those who work all this destruction must be considered as wickedly rebelling against the immortal gods.


message 11: by Ying Ying (new)

Ying Ying (yingyingshi) | 17 comments Bryan wrote: "Genni wrote: "After reading Book III, I guess I have to withdraw my earlier reply that Cicero would consider the Trolley problem superfluous. It seems he would attempt to save whoever he deems most..."

I agree with Bryan; Genni is right to the point!


message 12: by Ying Ying (new)

Ying Ying (yingyingshi) | 17 comments Paragraphs 57 and 61 are great foundations to question modern business practices:

Paragraph 57: Concealment is not just reticence, for by it you seek to further your own interests by ensuring that your knowledge remains hidden from those who would benefit from it.
Paragraph 61: Thus the good man will not indulge in pretence or dissimulation to gain a better bargain buying or selling.

Under these considerations, how would we view marketing? How would we view a job applicant who only showcases his/her strengths? Would the mere focus on the good imply concealment of the bad?


message 13: by Roger (new)

Roger Burk | 1716 comments Patrice wrote: "44

calling God to witness, and this means, i think, his own conscience.

the translator, Walsh, capitalizes God. what gives? Have the roman gods morphed into the judeo christian God? what is going..."


Latin has no definite article, or (in antiquity) capitalization. Cicero may be saying "the god" here--meaning the particular god he has in mind.


message 14: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments David wrote: "
[3.50] Nevertheless, as I said earlier, situations often happen when advantageousness seems to conflict with moral rectitude. ..
This seems to be a license to rationalize anything expedient as morally correct.."


I see the temptation there, but I think you go too far, at least assuming you are dealing with individuals who are genuinely interested in moral rectitude. After all, murdering a person solely for the benefit of stealing his purse is advantageous but clearly conflicts with moral rectitude. I don't think any reader genuinely interested in the issues Cicero is raising would try to reconcile those. Do you, truly?


message 15: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Genni wrote: "After reading Book III, I guess I have to withdraw my earlier reply that Cicero would consider the Trolley problem superfluous. It seems he would attempt to save whoever he deems most useful to soc..."

I think you're right, but of course as the problem is proposed one cannot possibly know who is most useful to society. One cannot go merely on numbers; it may be that the group of five is a group of criminals plotting how to murder and rob a wealthy family, while the one is a doctor on the cusp of discovering a cure for a particularly awful form of cancer.


message 16: by David (new)

David | 2489 comments Everyman wrote: " I don't think any reader genuinely interested in the issues Cicero is raising would try to reconcile those. Do you, truly?"

Do you mean to say that if one is truly interested in doing good, then one will always make the most morally correct choices? While I think the tendency to make better choices might be there, I am not sure I can wholly agree with it as a complete conclusion. It appears some choices are better than others, but there is often either too much or not enough information to go on that invites rationalization. There was a discussion earlier about good intentions gone astray. Also, people just make legitimate or justifiable mistakes and sometimes those mistakes are not realized until long after. Adding artificial intelligence into to equation might also make things interesting. I am thinking of HAL9000 deciding to kill the astronauts to protect the mission rather than keep information from them and all the fun situations Asimov created concerning his three laws of Robotics where, A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. It is suspiciously tempting to substitute "human" or "human society" in the case of the second law, for "robot", is it not? :)

There seems to be a large "fudge factor" to reason around, otherwise moral rectitude would be a lot more clear to everyone and there would be less of a need to present arguments for or against certain arrays of choices with so many variable tipping points or none. The response to Genni in message 23 on the Trolley problem is an example of many tipping points. Another is the question of abortion; just think of all the arguments that could be made for a young mother's life or her baby's life being more beneficial or damaging to society? Socrates it seems would have chosen the young mother's life. Sartre's student trying to decide whether to avenge his brother's death and fight against the enemy or stay at home to care for his mother is a famous example of there being no clear reason to choose one over the other, although I think Cicero might have told the student to go fight for his country. Maybe reading Hume next will provide additional considerations that will either ease or confuse our decisions on moral choices?


message 17: by Genni (new)

Genni | 837 comments Everyman wrote: "Genni wrote: "After reading Book III, I guess I have to withdraw my earlier reply that Cicero would consider the Trolley problem superfluous. It seems he would attempt to save whoever he deems most..."

There are so many variations on the Trolley problem, including ones where you know beforehand the character of the people involved (i.e. the fat person you push over the bridge is a villain, etc). I was thinking of one of these variations, but should have clarified that...


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