BMCR 2024.01.49

Cicero’s De Officiis: a critical guide

, Cicero's De Officiis: a critical guide. Cambridge critical guides. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2023. Pp. 272. ISBN 9781316518014.


[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]


Woolf describes this book as “a critical and philosophically oriented assessment of some of its [De officiis’] main themes” (p.1). His introduction also discusses the right translation for officium, whether “duty” or “appropriate action,” and how the project squares with Cicero’s basic skepticism. Because of space constraints I focus on contributions that seem most likely to stimulate further research.

Inwood analyzes the oikeiōsis theory at 1.11–12, which he sets into the broader context of Stoic ethics, showing that here the drives of self-preservation and socialization, kept distinct in the account at Fin. 3.16–22 and 65, are joined in an innovative way. He also connects this passage with the sequel, which derives the virtues from basic instincts (§§13–20). In the first two books Cicero is explicitly, with some caveats, “following” the Stoic philosopher Panaetius (1.7, 9; 3.7, etc.). Inwood argues that the move to connect self-preservation and socialization is plausibly attributed to Panaetius but adds that “Cicero had good philosophical reasons of his own” for adopting this theory (p.77), a point that might have been developed further. Inwood also notes that the division in this section between theoretical and practical virtues has a Peripatetic flavor, albeit Cicero gives it a Roman cast by marginalizing the former. Cicero elsewhere mixes Peripatetic arguments into ostensibly Stoic doctrines (cf. Schmitz 2014), so one wonders if here, too, he has added the Peripatetic coloring.

The apparent conflict of duties is taken up in Gill’s chapter on practical deliberation as conceived by the Stoics. Comparing the contemporary version of virtue ethics espoused by Hursthouse 1999, Gill argues that, in spite of their different conceptual frameworks, Cicero similarly “takes the ideas of acting as a virtuous person characteristically acts, and acting for reasons of the type that the wise person has, as providing a valid basis for guidance in practical deliberation” (p.105), as opposed to some recent opinion that sees Stoic deliberation as primarily a choice among preferred and dispreferred indifferents (though these are also involved, as Gill allows). This approach highlights the special qualities of Book 2, which Gill, in line with the emphasis of Veillard 2014, shows to be more focused than one might have expected, in view of the way the topic is introduced at 2.21, on the allocation of advantages to others and on instrumentalizing one’s own advantages for producing right actions (pp.111–12). As to Panaetius’ “omission” of a treatment of the conflict of honestum and utile (as alleged by Cicero at 3.7), Gill plausibly suggests that the convergence of the previous sets of precepts may have rendered the topic redundant, a point anticipated by Veillard 2014, 106n104.

On the fourth virtue, Bishop helpfully delineates the transformation of to prepon (= decorum) from a literary-critical and rhetorical to an ethical term (pp.171–76) and the influence of Cicero’s account on Horace’s Ars Poetica (pp.178–80). She also essays a historical contextualization for Cicero’s treatment of these matters in Off. This is laudable per se, but she mistakes the context. She is still thinking of Cicero’s situation in 46–45 when he was writing without necessarily having any expectation of future participation in government. But after the Ides of March, 44, the picture changed. In the proem to Div. 2, datable ca. late March/April 44, he already speaks of being consulted again de re publica and being able to allocate only leftover time to writing (§7). Beginning on September 2 he adopts an ever firmer oppositional stance. Cicero reports work on Off. on the third day after he dispatched the searing Second Philippic to Atticus (Att. 15.13.[416]1 and 13a[417].2). So the political context was rather different from 46–45, and some, if not all, of Bishop’s inferences about the relation of Cicero’s treatise to the current political and intellectual climate should be revised accordingly.

Gildenhard also focuses on the relation of Off. to the times, but more deftly. He explores the passages dealing with Caesar in all three books and especially the justification of his murder as tyrannicide featured in Book 3 (§§19–32). Gildenhard sees Cicero creating here “a vigilante ethics for the politics to which he had committed himself” (p.242). Certainly Caesar, his assassination, and preventing a recurrence of tyranny was a major concern of Cicero as he penned Off., but nonetheless “a vigilante ethics” seems reductive if meant as a description of Off. as a whole. Gildenhard also uses “extremist ethics” of the work, but this needs to be qualified: from the standpoint of traditional Roman politics tyrannicide is mainstream; indeed, it would be hard to put down tyranny in any state within a constitutional framework.

Now though the prepon or decorum is free of content per se, merely indicating a suitable or seemly relation between two entities, Cicero gives it color by insisting that verecundia (“regard for others”) be involved as a regulator; i.e., one’s actions should be such as to avoid giving offense to others. McConnell explores how at 1.126–28 Cicero handles this argument in opposition to the Cynics and similarly minded Stoics. Based on Cicero’s letter to Paetus (Fam. 9.22), McConnell reconstructs the Cynic argument for “calling a spade a spade”: obscenity must reside either in the matter or the word describing it; it does not exist in the matter; hence it does not exist in the word either, since “the word … appropriates the moral value of the thing it signifies” (p.187); therefore nothing is obscene, and social rules against obscenity should be ignored as having no valid claim on us. Cicero, however, maintains that nature has constructed the human body in such a way as to conceal unsightly features as much as possible (one might also compare N.D. 2.141) and that all human beings possessed of properly functioning reason likewise conceal such parts and their functions; hence verecundia mirrors nature’s own operation. However, different cultures have different rules, whereas the details that Cicero provides at 1.129 are Roman rules. McConnell queries whether “Cicero is overclaiming what he is entitled to given the nature of his argument against the Cynics” (p.196). He points, however, to the third persona, derived from the culture or society in which one lives (1.115), so Cicero’s theory does provide for adaptation to such factors.[1]

Traditional Roman ethical teaching was based upon exempla. But there is usually a degree of tension between an exemplum, as a preexisting bit of history, and the argument a moralist or philosopher wishes to illustrate. Langlands explores the way Cicero handles such tensions. She gives particular attention to the example of Regulus, the Roman commander captured by the Carthaginians in the First Punic War and sent back by them to Rome to negotiate an exchange of prisoners; he then counseled the senate against the exchange and returned to Carthage, where he allegedly died under torture (§§99–112). Here Cicero sets up a debate including imaginary critics and thus gives a voice to readers who might challenge the relevance of the exemplum in view of changed historical circumstances, whereas Cicero defends its continued relevance. Langlands is also interested in the curious examples Cicero cites at 1.108–109 to illustrate the variety of human characters (under the second of the four personae). These are ostensibly value-free, and yet, as Langlands notes, “the way the exempla are presented invites the reader’s moral evaluation” (p.131). She interprets these ambivalent exempla as a sign of “Cicero’s recurrent concern about personal attributes that attract admiration … yet are not in themselves always morally virtuous” (p.133). But if that is Cicero’s concern, he does not say so. The problematic examples should perhaps rather be seen as an instance of the “tension between individual and type” (cf. Müller 2022, 235). Finally, Langlands sees Cicero’s discussion of the fallibility of exemplary figures at 3.14-16 as adumbrating Seneca’s theory of a two-stage process of moral learning, whereby we initially as children admire examples uncritically but later discern their flaws (Ep. 120), and suggests that here Seneca “seems to engage directly with De Officiis” (p.138).

If the Stoic doctrine of oikeiōsis connects the individual to wider communities at various stages, the question arises of the duties owed to each community and how these can be reconciled in the event of a conflict. This problem, in particular the competing claims of patriotism and cosmopolitanism, is explored by Atkins. He shows with reference to 1.12, 54, 57, and 158 that the res publica is the crucial link between the narrow community of the family and the broad one that unites all human beings in that it reconciles the instinctive love of one’s own with the evolved love for others and also provides for life’s necessities. The civilizing influence of the city, sketched at 2.15, also enhances the importance of the commonwealth as a site of human thriving. Atkins meets the objection that loyalty to one’s res publica may lead to acts of violence against other peoples by invoking the “just war” doctrine propounded at Off. 1.34–40. It has also been objected to Cicero’s theory that the demands of justice and liberality beyond one’s national borders are rather thin. Here Atkins introduces, after Schofield (2021, 112), a distinction between “the duties that individuals owe to outsiders and those that republics owe to outsiders” (p.220): though individuals’ resources may be too limited to provide substantial help, the republic may be able to provide benefits to its weaker allies. One wonders, however, how effective this argument would be, given that, in practice, the benefits tended to flow from the allies to Rome, not vice-versa. The final objection to Cicero’s theory is that there is no attempt to address slavery as a systemic injustice, a blindspot common to Stoicism and other ancient philosophies.

This volume, though containing some stimulating contributions, can hardly qualify as a full guide to De officiis. It is not clear why two papers on exempla were needed but some other topics neglected. There is, for instance, no comprehensive treatment of Cicero’s relation to Panaetius in Books 1-2; Book 3 tends to get short shrift in these pages; and the rich “afterlife” of the treatise might have been explored.



Hursthouse, R. 1999. On Virtue Ethics. Oxford.

Müller, J. 2022. “Vorbilder—und wie man ihnen folgen soll.” In M. Summa, K. Martens, eds., Das Exemplarische, 217-39. Paderborn.

Schmitz, P. 2014. Cato Peripateticus—stoische und peripatetische Ethik im Dialog. Berlin-Boston.

Schofield, M. 2021. Cicero: Political Philosophy. Oxford.

Veillard, C. 2014. “Comment définir le devoir? Le per kathēkontos de Panétius.” Philosophie Antique 14: 71-109.


Authors and Titles

  1. Woolf, Introduction
  2. J. P. F. Wynne, The Family in De Officiis
  3. G. Tsouni, Conflict of Duties in Cicero’s De Officiis
  4. B. Inwood, Oikeiōsis and the Origin of Virtue
  5. M. Schofield, Cicero’s Project in Book 2 of De Officiis
  6. C. Gill, Cicero’s De Officiis on Practical Deliberation
  7. R. Langlands, De Officiis and Exemplary Ethics
  8. G. White, Emulation and Moral Development in De Officiis
  9. C. Bishop, Care of the (Written) Self: Literary and Ethical Decorum in De Officiis
  10. S. McConnell, Cicero and the Cynics
  11. J. W. Atkins, Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism in Cicero’s De Officiis
  12. I. Gildenhard, Cicero’s Extremist Ethics



[1] McConnell misrepresents my views at p.184n7, where I am lumped together with those who claim that in Books 1-2 Cicero is “just reproducing what he finds in Panaetius” as opposed to others who argue that “Cicero is not uncritical” and that “his own philosophical views shine through.” I am well aware of Cicero’s criticisms of Panaetius (1.7–10 etc.) and do not claim that Cicero is “just reproducing” a source but allow that Cicero’s own philosophical (and other) views exert influence on Books 1–2, though there is room for debate over degrees of influence.