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Justice According to Marcus Tullius Cicero
In the process of writing the Lifely post E Pluribus Unum—Of Many One, I was led to an old book called De Officiis (Of Duties or On Obligations) which was written by Roman statesman, lawyer, scholar, and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero in the year 44 BC. It was Cicero’s gift to humanity, to define ideals of how men should behave in society in order to achieve lasting and happy relations.
I found a free copy online and started reading it.
It’s an amazing, amazing, amazing book that explains how humans can live together co-operatively and productively quite simply—within our lifely context, of course.
The Introduction first tells us that Cicero was a Roman who brought Greek philosophy to his countrymen. At the time Cicero wrote De Officiis, he was heartbroken over the fall of the Roman Republic. The Roman Republic? Yes, there was a Roman Republic. According to National Geographic, "The Roman Republic describes the period in which the city-state of Rome existed as a republican government (from 509 B.C. to 27 B.C.), one of the earliest examples of representative democracy in the world."
Cicero had been a Senator in the Roman Republic, but now the “the senate had been abolished, the courts had been closed…The liberators had been able to remove the tyrant but they could not restore the republic…He would not suffer himself to become a prey to his overwhelming sorrow at the death of the republic and the final crushing of the hopes that had risen with Caesar’s downfall.” Instead, he wrote a very brilliant treatise on how men should behave with one another to have a successful republic.
De Officiis was written forty-four years before the birth of Jesus. Although it was not a Christian book, in 390 it was declared acceptable for use by the Christian Church and it served as a moral guideline throughout the Middle Ages.
When I read a section in Cicero’s book about Justice, I had to share it with you, because “liberty and justice for all” is one of the primary guiding principles of the United States of America. I know I didn’t really know what justice meant or how to be just and I’m thinking many other Americans might be missing this information too.
I was so moved by Cicero’s concept and words.
...all that is morally right rises from some one of four sources: it is concerned either
(1) with the full perception and intelligent development of the true; or
(2) with the conservation of organized society, with rendering to every man his due, and with the faithful discharge of obligations assumed; or
(3) with the greatness and strength of a noble and invincible spirit; or
(4) with the orderliness and moderation of everything that is said and done, wherein consist temperance and self-control.
Now, of the four divisions which we have made of the essential idea of moral goodness, the first, consisting in the knowledge of truth, touches human nature most closely. For we are all attracted and drawn to a zeal for learning and knowing; and we think it glorious to excel therein, while we count it base and immoral to fall into error, to wander from the truth, to be ignorant, to be led astray.
…the principle by which society and what we may call its “common bonds” are maintained [is] justice, in which is the crowning glory of the virtues and on the basis of which mean are called “good men...”
Of this again there are two divisions—
- justice, in which is the crowning glory of the virtues and on the basis of which men are called "good men"; and, close akin to justice
- charity, which may also be called kindness or generosity.
The first office of justice is to keep one man from doing harm to another, unless provoked by wrong; and the next is to lead men to use common possessions for the common interests, private property for their own.
Imagine if this were applied across the boards in our lives in all relationships. It’s pretty much what Larry and I have been doing with each other for years, but we were not aware we were doing it. It was just natural. Now that we understand this, we can actually observe and analyze and apply principles to do it even better between ourselves and our relationships in the world.
This section goes on for some number of paragraphs speaking about the details of what constitutes doing harm and then how to do good.
What came to me upon reading this was that justice has two sides: refraining from harm, and the doing of good. To treat someone in a just way, then would to not do harm and focus on doing good.
Cicero goes on for many many paragraphs about what constitutes harm (which you can look up for yourself). Here is what he said about doing good:
42 let us speak of kindness and generosity. Nothing appeals more to the best in human nature than this, but it calls for the exercise of caution in many particulars:
* we must, in the first place, see to it that our act of kindness shall not prove an injury either to the object of our beneficence or to others;
* in the second place, that it shall not be beyond our means; and finally, that
* it shall be proportioned to the worthiness of the recipient; for this is the corner-stone of justice; and by the standard of justice all acts of kindness must be measured. For those who confer a harmful favour upon some one whom they seemingly wish to help are to be accounted not generous benefactors but dangerous sycophants; and likewise those who injure one man, in order to be generous to another, are guilty of the same injustice as if they diverted to their own accounts the property of their neighbours.
43 Now, there are many—and especially those who are ambitious for eminence and glory—who rob one to enrich another; and they expect to be thought generous towards their friends, if they put them in the way of getting rich, no matter by what means. Such conduct, however, is so remote from moral duty that nothing can be more completely opposed to duty. We must, therefore, take care to indulge only in such liberality as will help our friends and hurt no one. The conveyance of property by Lucius Sulla and Gaius Caesar from its rightful owners to the hands of strangers should, for that reason, not be regarded as generosity; for nothing is generous, if it is not at the same time just.
44 The second point for the exercise of caution was that our beneficence should not exceed our means; for those who wish to be more open-handed than their circumstances permit are guilty of two faults: first, they do wrong to their next of kin; for they transfer to strangers property which would more justly be placed at their service or bequeathed to them. And second, such generosity too often engenders a passion for plundering and misappropriating property, in order to supply the means for making large gifts. We may also observe that a great many people do many things that seem to be inspired more by a spirit of ostentation than by heart-felt kindness; for such people are not really generous but are rather influenced by a sort of ambition to make a show of being open-handed. Such a pose is nearer akin to hypocrisy than to generosity or moral goodness.
45 The third rule laid down was that in acts of kindness we should weigh with discrimination the worthiness of the object of our benevolence; we should take into consideration his moral character, his attitude toward us, the intimacy of his relations to us, and our common social ties, as well as the services he has hitherto rendered in our interest. It is to be desired that all these considerations should be combined in the same person; if they are not, then the more numerous and the more important considerations must have the greater weight.
Larry and I are spending some time discussing all this and coming up with ideas about how we can apply this in our lives.
Understanding what justice is would change the world greatly for the better.