Author(s)Husband, Terence John
Contributor(s)O'Malley, John W.
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Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.), one of the most influential figures of the tempestuous late Roman Republic, has been interpreted across eras, cultures and disciplines to a voluminous degree. Most Ciceronian scholarship pertains to his role in public life, his great gift of rhetoric or his philosophical writings. These important pursuits may overlook another aspect of Cicero's legacy, his great concern for the ethical and moral development of young people. This awareness reached full expression in the autumn of 44 B.C., in Cicero's last major work, the De Officiis. The three-book essay was written to his son, Marcus Minor, at a time when the young man was in Greece under the pretense of studying philosophy. He was not his father's equal as a thinker, lacked his father's discipline and drifted between career ambitions. Cicero wished to be in Athens to oversee his son's development but political events at Rome precluded that possibility.
The De Officiis is important to study as an example of an honorable classical tradition, a written communication between father and son. It has all the markings of a father's emotional hopes for his son and for the next generation. In it, as well, are Cicero's laments for what was happening at Rome and for his fading political vision. Cicero outlines the moral duties of a young man; understands that career choices can be among the most difficult deliberations in life; states his preference for character development over proficiencies in any particular field; and maintains that ethical behavior is the only noble thing, the only thing worth striving for in this life. The essay circulated widely at Rome and became a handbook for civic responsibility and leadership.
Cicero's De Officiis would have been enormously effective if its reach had been confined to Rome in the final four decades before the Christian era. Instead, it was accepted, cited, taught, discussed and used as a model for ethical and moral writings across Europe from Roman antiquity until the eighteenth century. Some valued Cicero for his torrents of eloquence, others for his ethical and moral framework. He was highly regarded among the Early Church Fathers, many Renaissance humanists and leading Jesuit educators of the second and third generation. Philosophers, literary artists and political theorists looked to Cicero's De Officiis as a source for their views, sometimes in small segments, sometimes in large portions. Apart from the Bible, it became the authoritative moral text in the West.
Cicero and the De Officiis began to fade as a major intellectual, cultural and educational force at the time of the Enlightenment. His lack of original thinking, flowing prose style and commitment to community did not endear him to Enlightenment adherents who sought new insights and discoveries, language that concretely explained rather than poetically embellished, and personal autonomy over responsibilities toward others. The decline of the importance of rhetoric as a formal and necessary skill, most notably in France in the nineteenth century, further contributed to Cicero's evanescence. The scathing attack on Cicero's character by the German historian Theodor Mommsen in the mid-nineteenth century proved devastating.
My thesis argues for a revival of the De Officiis for the ethical and moral instruction of young people, within the age grouping of seventeen to twenty-two. It was not intended as a school text, but served that purpose in some settings. The treatise offers many pertinent insights for young people at a crossroads in their lives. It speaks directly to them in many instances, such as with the recognition that, "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. For it is in the early years of youth, when our judgement is most immature, that each of us decides." (De Officiis, I.XXXII)
The pages that follow call together an extraordinary text, an extraordinary culture and its traditions, and the extraordinary human experiences of an individual. Tradition and experience are essential components of this thesis but the extraordinary text is its most vital element. The De Officiis combines sublime ideas and sound moral and ethical reasoning. It should not be undervalued, or, worse yet, obsolete. Regarding the translation of this once-revered document, I use the version produced by Walter Miller (1913) as it appears in the Loeb Classical Library. I call attention to specific excerpts by referencing the book and then the appropriate chapter. Referenced and cited parenthetically are key excerpts from Cicero's most detailed work on rhetoric, De Oratore (55 B.C.), as well as important passages from the four Catilinarians (63 B.C.) and the fourteen Philippics (44-43 B.C.), those collections of speeches of greatest consequence to his life and career.
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