BMCR 2024.05.07

Cicero: De Officiis

, , Cicero: De Officiis. Klassiker Auslegen, 78. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2023. Pp. ix, 248. ISBN 9783110760149.



This is the second collection of essays on De officiis to appear within the past year (preceded by Woolf 2023, reviewed at BMCR 2024.01.49), suggesting a welcome resurgence of interest in this work. The volume includes chapters on most of the major divisions of the text as well as one discussing select examples of its reception (the contents are listed at the end of this review). In view of space constraints, I shall have to be selective.

An excellent general overview of the work by the editors is followed by Bleistein’s analysis of the prefaces to the three books. Though he acknowledges that Cicero had a liber prohoemiorum from which he could draw prefaces to his philosophical books (p. 20; Att. 16.6.4), he argues that the proems in Off. are related to the specific subject matter. Here he seems to overlook, however, that 2.2–6 sound themes typical of Cicero’s philosophical proems at this period and so could plausibly derive from the preexisting collection. Bleistein sees the proems of Off. as embodying a pattern he has identified in Cicero’s thinking generally: two antithetical concepts are established and then subsumed in a larger unity (cf. Bleistein 2022). In Off. he finds antitheses between eloquence and philosophy in Book 1, and otium and negotium in Books 2–3, whereby the synthesis is effected in each case by Cicero’s way of doing philosophy, because of its probabilism (Book 1) and its engagement with politics (Books 2–3). There is something to be said for the basic pattern Bleistein has discovered, but this application of it seems rather reductive; certainly other dichotomies might have been highlighted and other conclusions drawn.

After a solid grounding is provided in the basic terminology and viewpoint of Panaetius that control Cicero’s presentation (Wildberger), the second and third virtues are discussed respectively by Horn and Müller. The former raises the question whether, in dealing with justice, Cicero moves away from the normative Platonic-Aristotelian-Stoic conception toward a particularist or contextualist view, as is argued in different ways by Woolf 2007, Atkins 1990, and Reydams-Schils 2005. Horn sees the frequent references in Off. to politics and Roman history as a literary contextualization for the benefit of his addressee (Cicero jr.), not a change in basic standpoint (p.80). He also points to the theory of four personae, according to which the individual (second) persona is subordinate to the general (first) persona (1.110) and to the treatment of natural law (which he equates with ius gentium) at 3.69 as further indicators of Cicero’s continuing normative approach (83, 86). Though one would have welcomed further argument in support of the equation of ius gentium with ius naturae, anyone claiming a particularist or contextualist approach in Off. will need to counter Horn’s arguments. Müller argues similarly apropos of the third virtue (magnitudo animi): even though Cicero claims that the Roman people especially excel in this quality (1.61), Cicero is not merely picking up a traditional virtue and making chauvinistic claims but offers a deeper rethinking of the virtue (esp. pp.103–106), though Müller leaves open whether at least part of this rethinking was the work of Panaetius (98n22).

It is a weakness that there is no chapter on the fourth virtue (decorum), for which the Introduction refers to Machek’s paper on the four personae (p.6n13). Though the latter has some things to say about decorum (pp.108, 119–20), a more detailed treatment of it would have been welcome. The four personae are: (1) that imposed by the human being’s rational nature; (2) one’s own nature; (3) “chance or circumstance” (casus aut tempus); and (4) one’s choice of way of life or profession (1.107, 115). Machek aims to defend the personae theory against those who criticize it for parting company with Stoic positions (p.109), but the attempt yields mixed results. The second persona raises the question of how far the individualism it licenses can be pushed. The necessary limitation is exercised by the first persona, the normative role of nature being in line with Stoic theory generally (pp.116-19). Another problem is that the “chance or circumstance” of the third persona is apparently at odds with Stoic determinism. Here Machek’s solution, that “nature” can have the sense of “what one is born into” (p.115), is unconvincing, since natura is not used to describe the third persona. It is also a problem that apropos of choice of profession (under the fourth persona) Cicero shows a marked class bias (1.151–52). Here Machek is prepared to allow that Cicero’s own views, and those of his intended readers, may have undermined a less elitist approach by Panaetius (p.121).

Frede begins her discussion of Book 2 by pointing out that the topic of the “advantageous” (utile) was not treated in detail by earlier philosophers. The way it is treated here—as something that can be achieved by instrumentalizing the virtues—is, however, not a new idea in the history of philosophy, as she claims (p.129); this was essentially the Epicurean approach, as Cicero argues in Fin. 2. Though the advantageous includes various means, animate and inanimate, for achieving one’s ends (cf. 2.9), Cicero is interested only in the cooperation of one’s fellow human beings. What might seem at first glance a redundant discussion of the same virtues as in Book 1 proves to be sensible, since this time they are assessed from the point of view of their impact on one’s fellows—their ability to elicit gratitude, respect, etc. (p. 130). Cicero’s presentation culminates in a discussion of political activity. Here it emerges that the ultimate beneficiary is not merely the individual politician but the political community as a whole, in the interest of which the statesman acts (2.72–85; p.133). By focusing on virtuous action as a source of political capital, Cicero thus offers an alternative to the prevailing paradigm of winning votes by lavish financial outlays during canvassing that are then offset by rapacious policies either in office or as a provincial governor.

To clarify Cicero’s approach in Book 3 Søvsø draws a distinction between things that are “useful” (emolumenta) and “usable” (commoda: Fin. 3.69). Virtue alone can produce the useful, which is good and to be sought; the usable is produced by the correct use of the indifferents and constitutes the category of τὰ ληπτά (things that can be taken/accepted). The former must therefore win any contest between the two values. When Cicero/Panaetius shifts the focus from Stoic sages to ordinary people, however, decision making becomes a problem in that even one who wishes to be and to be considered good may be in doubt as to the category to which the contemplated action should be assigned. Cicero reports casuistic problems that were evidently posed by Carneades to force the Stoics to choose between a principled or a self-aggrandizing position (cf. Fin. 2.59). Cicero depicts the Stoics Diogenes of Babylon and Antipater of Tyre taking opposed stands (3.50–55, 89–92), the former in favor of protecting one’s own property interests, the latter in favor of disinterested truth-telling. Cicero, however, declines to side with either of the two but instead introduces a different criterion, that of not causing harm to another. Cicero justifies his position with a comparison of society to a living organism (3.21–22). This is a bit different from Chrysippus’s comparison of the moral agent to an athlete competing in a race and leading to the precept that one may try one’s hardest to win but may not shove an opponent (3.42; p.175); if Chrysippus offered a rationale, it is not preserved. In any case, Søvsø provides an example of Cicero’s shrewd way of resolving what he calls the controversa iura Stoicorum (3.91).

Langlands takes as her topic two central aspects of Book 3: the distinction between seeming and being and Cicero’s heavy reliance here on exempla to illustrate his arguments. The premise of the book is that something that appears to be honestum may in fact be otherwise. The sage will, of course, see through the faux honestum, but the Stoic progressor must learn to do so. There are, however, faux honesta that are helpful, namely the actions of heroes of old. Though they are not sages, they can nonethess serve as examples to be imitated (3.13–16). Thus virtue that is tainted by flaws is still a kind of virtue (Cicero speaks of secunda honesta at 3.15), whereas utility that is compromised by dishonor is no utility at all (p. 190). Langlands is also interesting on the changes in the perception of examples over time: she views the different attitudes to the destruction of Corinth at 1.35 and 3.45 as an example of the sharpening of Cicero’s own judgment as a progressor.

In considering the reception of Off., Brüllmann begins by emphasizing that the work deals with incomplete actions (kathēkonta) performed by imperfect agents, not perfect actions (katorthōmata) performed by Stoic sages, i.e., although the action is outwardly correct, it is not based on right reason. Hence both St. Ambrose and Immanuel Kant supplement, in their different ways, the “imperfect” ethics of Cicero. Ambrose takes Cicero’s treatise as a model for his own De officiis (the addition of ministrorum in the title is inauthentic) in that he follows the organization in three books devoted to the morally good, the useful, and their apparent conflict. He differs, however, in filling the form with a new, Christian content and replacing Cicero’s examples from mythology and Greco-Roman history with ones chosen from the Bible. Moreover, he reinterprets the distinction between middle and perfect duties so as to correspond to the difference between the Ten Commandments and the Christian ethics of loving one’s enemy, selling one’s property and giving to the poor, etc. Christ thus replaces the Stoic sage as the ideal, and the useful is redefined as what is useful for attaining eternal life (pp.223–24). Kant, too, took a more rigorous approach to ethics than Cicero. Commissioned by Frederick the Great to translate Off. into German, Christian Garve published not only a translation but also a set of related “notes and essays” (1783). A reading of these texts stimulated Kant, who was reported to be working on a critique of Garve. This finally took the form of the Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (1785). In this work Kant draws a distinction between what is done “pflichtgemäß” and “aus Pflicht,” with the latter alone possessing moral value; this seems to correspond to the distinction between kathēkon and katorthōma (p.227). Kant’s critique was that in view of its basis in eudaimonism and the human drives (Off. 1.7 and 11–13), Off. (in Garve’s presentation) could offer no theory of morality beyond the “pflichtgemäß” (p.228). Off., then, offered both Ambrose and Kant a starting point for thinking about practical ethics that they chose to pursue along very different lines.



Atkins, E. M. 1990. “‘Domina et Regina Virtutum’: Justice and Societas in De officiis.” Phronesis 35.3: 258-89.

Bleistein, M. 2022. Alia ex alia nexa. Untersuchungen zur Struktur von Ciceros Philosophieren. Heidelberg.

Reydams-Schils, G. 2005. The Roman Stoics: Self, Responsibility, and Affection. Chicago.

Woolf, R. 2007. “Particularism, Promises and Persons in Cicero’s De officiis.” OSAP 33: 317-46.

———, ed. 2023. Cicero’s De officiis: A Critical Guide. Cambridge.


Authors and Titles

  1. P. Brüllmann, J. Müller, Einleitung
  2. M. Bleistein, Die Proömien
  3. G. Tsouni, Cicero’s Academic Scepticism in De officiis
  4. J. Wildberger, Cicero, Panaetios und die Stoa
  5. C. Horn, Nicht-ideale Ethik für nicht-weise Menschen
  6. J. Müller, Die Konzeption der Tugend in Ciceros De officiis
  7. D. Machek, Die Vier-personae-Theorie in De officiis
  8. D. Frede, Der Nutzen der Tugend für die Politik
  9. S. Röttig, Über den Vorrang der Gemeinschaft in Ciceros Ethik der Wohltaten (Off. 2.52-85)
  10. T. E. Ö. Søvsø, Ist das Fressen nicht auch Teil von der Moral?
  11. R. Langlands, Seeming, Being and Exempla in Cicero’s De officiis 3
  12. J. W. Atkins, The Political Theory of Cicero’s De officiis
  13. P. Brüllmann, Eine unvollkommene Pflichtenlehre