by Daniel James
Of the various ways we think about and describe classical education, whether as the study of classical languages and writings or as an emphasis on the seven liberal arts, our telos is the cultivation of virtue and wisdom in our children through the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty. Marcus Jullius Cicero’s treatise On Obligations written as a letter to his son, Marcus, speaks to the importance of virtue in terms of obligations or duty. Given its form, there is no highly developed narrative, no twists and turns of plot, and no character development, save that of the reader as the ideas of the text are engaged with and mulled over.
Cicero lays no claim to being a great philosopher himself and avoids the usual philosophical investigations of epistemology and metaphysics, but his work is thoroughly grounded in Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics as well as a number ancient poets and playwrights. In this sense, he is a prime example of ad fontes, turning to the source. He takes the well-developed theory of the Greeks and adds a heavy dose of Roman pragmatism, working out the application of a philosophy lived in the realm of government. Where Plato, having endured the rule of the Thirty Tyrants over Athens, lost interest in engaging in politics and government, preferring instead a retired life of study, Cicero sees his own application as a higher calling—the greater good, so to speak.
On Obligations is written in three sections: The Honorable, The Useful, and Conflict Between the Honorable and the Apparently Useful. Honor is that which must be sought above all and is wholly contingent upon our own sense and development of duty or obligations. These obligations are unique to humans, and we are bound by the power of nature and reason to carry them out. Because of our nature, that is to say the way we are made, and our ability to reason, that is to say our ability to recognize antecedents and anticipate consequences, we are aware of beauty, charm, and harmonious structure in a way that no other creature could be, and we recognize that “such beauty, regularity, and order are to be maintained much more in our designs and actions.” This, he says, is the spark of honorable conduct that we seek. Included in his charge, however, is a burden not one of us desires to bear: a lack of recognition in keeping obligations. “Even if it were not accorded acclaim, it would still be honorable, for we rightly call it praiseworthy by nature even if no one praises it.” Seen or unseen, virtue and honor demand fulfillment of Cicero’s obligations. We create beauty, order, and harmony, not for recognition or praise, but because it is honorable and good. Because it is virtuous.
What is honorable? Sure, it must be sought above all else. Sure, we pursue the honorable through obligations or virtue. But, what is it? Better yet, where is honor found? Where are we to seek it? In what direction must we pursue? What sorts of obligations bring us to the honorable? All that is honorable emerges from one of four sources:
1) in the perception and intelligent awareness of what is true (Wisdom),
2) in safeguarding the community by assigning to each individual his due and by keeping faith with compacts made (Justice and Beneficence),
3) in the greatness and strength of a lofty and unconquered spirit (Magnanimity), or
4) in the order and due measure by which all words and deeds reflect an underlying moderation and self-control (Temperance and Moderation).
So obligations, which bring us to that which is honorable, are duties that are wise, outwardly just, beneficent, and magnanimous acts, and are inwardly acts of temperance and moderation. These are distinctly Christian-sounding virtues coming from a Roman politician in the middle of the first century BC. I found this fascinating on several levels. It does speak to our image-bearing and that residual memory and knowledge of God we try so hard to suppress, but the parallels between Cicero and Christian ethics were so striking, so eerily similar, that I could not help but look further into it.
As it turns out, this book, which was merely an impulse purchase to move Cicero from my would-like-to-read list onto the I-now-own-it-so-read-it list, is one of the most influential books in the development of Western society and the Church. It lost prominence during the Romantic Period in the early nineteenth century where emotion and sincerity replaced honor and an external Good as the primary measure of one’s actions. The short list of those influenced by On Obligations would have to include the Church Fathers Ambrose, Augustine, and Jerome, Charlemagne, Thomas Aquinas, and King James I as well as the Reformation Era humanists Erasmus and Melanchthon. Further, the two political philosophers who had the greatest influence on our country’s founding fathers, John Locke and Charles Montesquieu, also reveal Cicero’s influence on their thinking. The moral philosophies of David Hume and Immanuel Kant, whose lasting influence is felt yet today, are reasoned through in terms of On Obligations. Most of us know the first book printed on Gutenberg’s press was the Bible. Any guesses as to the second? Correct. Cicero’s On Obligations. This barely 120-page treatise which helped shape the ethics of the Church and Western society for 1500 years, of which many of us have never heard.
Generally speaking, I am not terribly interested in politics. But, I happen to have a son on the brink of thirteen, and we are well into one of those drawn out presidential election cycles. Election news will be all over print and broadcast media for the foreseeable future and I cannot help but think On Obligations will help us both to observe the candidates and their campaigns and think through their positions as well as the cacophony of commentary that is bound to follow. Not only in politics, but more broadly in our day to day interactions with other people, On Obligations will continue to cultivate in us that which is virtuous and wise; it will drive us to pursue truth, goodness, and beauty.
By Daniel E. James
Daniel E. James, AS, BS, MDiv Dan has been a part of the classical Christian education renewal for the past fifteen years and has taught dialectic and rhetoric students in a classical Christian school for five years. He is currently homeschooling two of his three children and serves as a live-online teacher at Scholé Academy by Classical Academic Press. This coming school year he will be teaching Systematic Theology and Apologetics/World Religions online (available to rhetoric homeschool students). Dan has a lifelong love of learning and fully embraces the liberal arts tradition, acknowledging that it is in this tradition that truth, goodness, and beauty unfold moment by moment.