The Dragonfly and Raven

The Dragonfly and Raven

Monday, May 9, 2016

What is the relationship between self-interest and the demands of society in Cicero's philosophy?

Of the utmost importance in government is the idea of public interest and the common good. This is especially true in the realm of republican and democratic forms of government, as opposed to aristocratic or monarchical forms. The fabled senator and consul of the late Roman Republic Cicero had much to say on this topic in particular, especially in regards to the relationship between self-interest of an individual and the demands that the society—in this case, the Roman Republic—places on the individual. This essay will examine this relationship in Cicero's political thought, looking at his On Duties and On the Republic.

It is the belief of Cicero that there is no part of life that is without duty. By duty, he means what we could call today responsibility. These duties are held to that which one is in fellowship with, with the different things in which a man can have fellowship being: those of race or tribe or tongue, those of city, and those of relations. The different fellowships of relations then are those stemming from the ties of marriage, of children, of the house, of brotherhood, of distant familial relations (in particular, cousinship), and then those between houses. Of these fellowships, the most important is of course to the Republic. So, duties are owed to those that one has a fellowship with. However, there is more to duties than to whom they are owed. In dealing with duties, one must do what is honourable. Honourable acts are described as actions being in line with the four parts or virtues, those being the perception of truth and integrity, the preservation of fellowship among men and to the agreements that one makes, the greatness and strength of a lofty and unconquered spirit, or the order and limit in everything that is said and done—which he notes includes modesty and restraint. These virtues are broad, and they are often intertwined with each other, though duties all come from at least one of these virtues.

Duty also deals with the concepts of justice and liberality. Justice, in the sense that Cicero discusses here, refers to not acting in an unprovoked manner. This means then that it is unjust to strike a man, however if he struck you first, then you are in your right to strike back. But, it is not just doing actions when unprovoked that is unjust. Failing to stop injustice from occurring when it is in ones power to stop it is also unjust. Justice also deals with respect for property, contributing to the common good, and keeping faith. So, it is up to a man who is just to uphold these ideals, and by doing so, uphold their duties. This is honourable. Cicero says that when men forget justice that they then strive for military command or honors or for glory. When they do this, they are acting dishonourably. Thus, justice is an integral part of honour and duties.

In regards to liberality, Cicero has a great deal to say. In his mind, liberality is one of the fundamental parts of being honourable, and of upholding one's duties. Liberality, or as he also liked to call it, kindness, could manifest itself principally in two ways: that being in granting of wealth to good causes, or the granting of kind services (and then also returning them).  To Cicero, being a liberal person with ones time and wealth was one of the most important things one could do, for several reasons. The first of these reasons is laid out in On the Republic, in which he points out that the state, in this case, the Roman Republic, did not raise and nurture its citizens without the expectation that they would not give back to it. This not only defends the idea of giving to the Republic so as to maintain it, but it also works as an argument for people to get involved in politics—which is in itself giving back the Republic, and thus fulfilling the fellowship that one has to it and one's fellow citizens. Though, as Cicero points out in On Duties, it is of the utmost importance that if one does get involved in public affairs that they remain as unbiased as possible, and that they work in the favor of the Republic as a whole, and no special interest group in particular. Corruption, according to him, is one of the gravest offenses. Though this is a bit off of the topic of liberality. The other reason that one should be liberal is because of the benefit that it provides for individuals that one's liberality is bestowed upon, and for the society as a whole. Being liberal promotes gratitude among those who receive the kindness that one bestows, and then further cultivates a culture of giving, one that cascades both temporally and spatially to create a better society in which citizens are conducting actions that provide benefits for others, and the society as a whole. Of course, this is assuming, as Cicero does, that the liberality that is being shown does not harm anyone in the giving, that it does not exceed the means of the one who is giving, and that the giving is in accordance with the standing of the person who is receiving the kindness. Thus, if one follows those simple rules, one is being both honourable and beneficial when they are being liberal.

It is here that the foundation of Cicero's argument lies, and how it relates to self-interest. For, it is the interest of everyone to be honourable, and Cicero argues that what is honourable is also beneficial. So, by fulfilling one's duties, one is being both honourable and beneficial. This therefore fulfills both the self-interest of individuals, and at the same time the demands of the society. While the end result of this logic does lead to that which is good a just—that being a society in which people care for each other and the Republic, participate actively in politics, and fulfill their various duties—it is based on fallacious logic, which causes a great deal of frustration for those with liberal inclination who agree with Cicero, and yet are unable to look past his illogical argument.

The argument that Cicero makes is thus. First, what is beneficial is just. Second, what is honourable is just. Ergo, what is honourable is beneficial. However, the conclusion that he reaches is false in nature. By his logic, the only guarantee is that what is just is either also beneficial or honourable. The correct way to link both the honourable and the beneficial would be as follows: what is just is beneficial, and what is just is honourable, ergo that which is just is both beneficial and honourable. A seemingly small distinction, but vital to the argument that he is trying to make. This is not saying that what is honourable is not also beneficial, but that by the argument that he makes, that one cannot assume that inherently what is honourable is also beneficial, and vice versa. This is of incredible import when one looks at the third book of On Duties, in which he devotes an incredible amount of his page to arguing against behaviors that he deems to be without benefit on the grounds that they are dishonourable. He argues this because he makes the inference that if an honourable action is beneficial, and any dishonourable action would be unbeneficial. This logic, does not hold though, as the basis of his initial argument also does not hold, as a beneficial thing does not have to be honourable—in fact, it can be dishonourable.

Take, for instance, the following scenario into consideration, which Cicero himself posed.  Say you have a merchant who is going to supply Rhodes with corn, as recent famine and blight has made the price of corn skyrocket. This merchant reaches the port, and is going to sell the corn to the people of Rhodes. However, he has information that would decrease the amount of money that he would make—that being that there is more ships with corn that will arrive in several days time. Is it beneficial for the merchant to not inform the people of Rhodes of this incoming shipment, thus lowering the price that he would be able to get for his corn? The answer, according to Cicero is no, as it would be dishonourable. However, that is untrue. The merchant would benefit, at least in the way of material wealth, even if he were to take a hit due to claims of dishonesty and/or dishonour resulting therein. That is, of course, assuming that the actions of the merchant are dishonourable at all. I would agree that it would be dishonourable to lie about the existence of the shipment of corn that was on its way to Rhodes, but if the people of Rhodes simply did not ask as to whether or not the merchant knew of any additional shipments that would be coming to the island, the merchant could simply remain silent. There is no action being taken here by the merchant, no deception being made on his part. Thus, there is no dishonour. The only real argument that Cicero makes in regards to dishonour being unbeneficial is that dishonourable actions are directly contrary to the law of nature, however, this too is bad logic. First, it assumes that natures is the source of laws, which it is not, as law comes from humanity and society. Second though, as he describes the law of nature, it simply says that nature desires that which is right, appropriate, and constant, and that it rejects the opposites of those. It says nothing about what is beneficial and what is not, and therefor, it cannot be used to justify that which is dishonourable being unbeneficial. The final issue with his logic is that he believes that all pleasures are dishonourable. This is perhaps one of the most wild of his claims. For, if this claim is true, then it is dishonourable to experience pleasure in partaking in, for instance, a glass of wine. This is a ridiculous notion, as is the idea that pleasure itself is a bad thing. Here Cicero joins in the delusion of the ascetic movements that have existed in our society for such a long time—or at least, it would seem he does.

Yet, despite all of this, Cicero's aims are good. He wants people to work for the benefit of the Republic as a whole, citing how it benefits them as well. And that logic is true, and Cicero should be applauded for such an excellent argument in favor of civic duty. However, his fallacious logic cannot be ignored, which is why it was discussed. So, through his linking of what is honourable and beneficial—which does often align, especially in regards to the duties in which he lists in On Duties—he links the interests of the individual with the demands that society as a whole has for the individual.