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Cicero on Obligations and The Soul

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7 months ago
Topics: Cicero, Obligations, Honor, God, Soul, ...

Cicero said:

 

 

“We should accordingly treat other people--not just the best of them, but also the rest--with a modicum of respect. Disregard for what others feel about you is a mark not merely of conceit but also of lack of integrity. Mind you, there is a difference between justice and deference when taking stock of other people. It is the role of justice not to wrong them, but of deference to avoid bruising them; the impact of the fitting is especially notable here.

 

It is relevant to every aspect of obligation always to focus on the degree to which the nature of man transcends that of cattle and of other beasts. Whereas animals have no feeling except pleasure, and their every inclination is directed towards it, human minds are nurtured by learning and reflection; and enticed by delight in seeing and hearing, they are constantly investigating something or performing some action. Indeed, if a person is a little too prone to seek sensual gratifications--always assuming that he is not an animal (for certain men are human only in name, and not in practice), and that he stands rather more upright than the beasts--even if he is in the grip of base pleasure, he seeks to cloak and disguise his appetite for such pleasure because he is ashamed of it. We infer from this that base pleasure of the body is insufficiently worthy of man’s superior status, and that it should be despised and rejected. But if an individual does lend countenance to such pleasure, he must be careful to observe a limit in its enjoyment. So the nurture and cultivation of our bodies should be directed towards health and strength rather than to pleasure. Moreover, if we are willing to reflect on the high worth and dignity of our nature, we shall realize how degrading it is to wallow in decadence and to live a soft and effeminate life, and how honourable is a life of thrift, self-control, austerity and sobriety.

 

According to Xenophon, Prodicus states that when Hercules was reaching maturity, the time designated by nature for choosing one’s future path in life, he retired into the wilderness, and sat there for a long time. He saw ahead two paths, one of Pleasure and one of Virtue, and he pondered long and hard which it was better to take. This could perhaps have been possible for Hercules, ‘sprung from the seed of Jupiter’ as he was, but it is not an option for us, for we each imitate those who take our fancy, and we are drawn towards their enthusiasms and practices. Very often we are steeped in the injunctions of our parents, and are propelled towards their routines and habits. Others are borne on the wind of popular opinion, and they aspire chiefly to what seems most attractive to the majority. But some by kind of blessed fortune or innate virtue follow the right path of life without constraint from their parents.

 

In undertaking any action three principles should be observed. First, impulse should obey reason; nothing is more relevant than this in maintaining obligations. Second, we should assess the importance of a project we seek to achieve, to ensure that neither more not less attention and labour is expended than the case justifies. Third, we must take pains to safeguard all that pertains to the image and standing of a gentleman. Of these three principles, the overriding one is that impulse should obey reason.

 

In my view, then obligations which arise from sense of community conform more with nature than do those which stem from knowledge. Indeed, knowledge and contemplation of the world of nature would be feeble and unfulfilled if no practical action were to flow from it. The action which does follow is seen to best advantage when it protects men’s interests and is therefore concerned with the fellowship of the human race. It must accordingly be ranked higher than that from knowledge.

 

Every man endowed with the noblest and most illustrious cast of mind accounts the life of toil to be far superior to the life of ease; and the logical outcome of this is that he who conforms with nature can inflict no harm on his fellow-man.

 

He should realize that nothing is advantageous or useful if it is unjust. The person who has not learnt this lesson cannot become a good man. For nothing is useful which is not also honourable; and it is not honourable because it is useful, but useful because it is honourable.

 

Yet our opponents here profess uncertainty whether the universe, from which all things take their rise, has come into existence by chance or some necessity, or by divine reason and intelligence. They believe that Archimedes was more successful in his working model of the heavenly revolutions than was nature who achieved them, even though nature’s role is considerably more ingenious than are such representations.

 

I cannot see the point of old men being miserly. Is it not the height of absurdity for a traveller to think he needs more funds for his journey when it is nearly over?

 

As long as we remain within these bodily frames of ours we are undergoing a heavy labour imposed on us by fate. For our human souls have come into our bodies from heaven: they have been sent down from their lofty abode and plunged, so to speak, into the earth, which is alien to their divine and eternal nature. As I believe, the reason why the immortal gods implanted souls in human beings was to provide the earth with guardians who should reflect their contemplation of the divine order in the orderly discipline of their own lives. My own powers of logic and reasoning have not brought me to this conviction unaided. I have also relied upon the weighty and authoritative guidance of outstanding thinkers. For Pythagoras and his disciples never doubted, I am told, that each of our souls is a fraction taken from the divine universal Mind. Besides, I have studied the arguments concerning the immortality of the soul which Socrates advanced on the last day of his life; and he was the man whom the oracle of Apollo had pronounced to be wiser that all others. Human souls function at lightning speed, equally remarkable for their memory of the past and knowledge of things to come. Their capabilities, funds of knowledge, and powers of discovery are endless. Their simultaneous possession of all these talents means, I am convinced, that they cannot be mortal. Seeing that their unceasing motion was self-created and had no other originator but themselves, they can likewise have no end, because their self-elimination is inconceivable. Being furthermore homogeneous, with the admixture of no different or discordant element whatever, they are indivisible--that is to say, indestructible. The hypothesis that a considerable part of human knowledge is of prenatal origin is supported by a strong argument: even a small child can tackle the most difficult subjects and rapidly master innumerable facts about them. This suggests that he is not learning for the first time but only recollecting what is already in his memory.”




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Source: On Obligations, On Old Age, On The Nature of the Gods by Cicero

Painting: Christ Driving the Money-changers from the Temple by Benvenuto Tisi

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